In this episode of The Acquirers Podcast, Tobias chats with William L Silber, author of The Power of Nothing To Lose: The Hail Mary Effect in Politics, War, and Business. During the interview William provided some great insights into:
- The Hail Mary Effect In Investing
- Call Options – Big Upside, Limited Downside
- Never Sell Options
- Eunuch Spiders Have Nothing To Lose
- George Washington’s Hail Mary Battle
- Woodrow Wilson: Second Term Presidents Are More Reckless
- Rosa Parks: The Montgomery Bus Boycott
- WWII Blunder: Battle Of The Bulge
- FDR’s Court-Packing Plan Backfired
- Donald Trump: Protect The Downside
- Prisoners Serving LWOP Are Less Violent
- Evonne Goolagong Cawley: Beating Billie Jean King And Margaret Court
- Venus Williams: I Have Nothing To Prove
- How Does Age Affect Investing?
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Tobias: Hi, I’m Tobias Carlisle. This is The Acquirers Podcast. My special guest today is William L Silber. He’s written a fascinating book called The Power of Nothing to Lose: The Hail Mary Effect in Politics, War, and Business. We’re going to be discussing some fascinating examples from politics, war, and business right after this.
The Hail Mary Effect
Tobias: What is the Hail Mary effect, Bill?
William: The Hail Mary effect has to do with a circumstance where there is big upside and very little downside. Like Aaron Rodgers in the last 10 seconds of the game trailing by four points, he’s on the 40-yard line. He can throw a bomb into the endzone, the Hail Mary pass, he wins the game. If he misses, it’s a meaningless interception. So, that turns Aaron Rodgers into a risktaker. He wouldn’t throw a Hail Mary pass in the middle of the game. But at the end, suddenly, instead of disciplined, he becomes a risk taker. Well, that same incentive occurs with anyone. A president, a general, or ordinary people in a circumstance where there is big upside and limited downside, protection on the downside makes you reckless makes daring-do. Do something that you wouldn’t ordinarily do.
Tobias: It’s in a scenario where he’s– Let’s use Aaron Rodgers as the example. He’s essentially lost the game in the dying seconds of the game. So, he now has nothing to lose, and he’s got this potential for an upside if he can connect with the Hail Mary pass. So, is that the defining characteristic? Is it that you have essentially already lost or that you have nothing to lose? How would that otherwise manifest?
William: Yeah, I wouldn’t say that he’s already lost. He would lose if he does nothing. So, he might as well take a big risk. But it doesn’t have to be at the end of the game. There are other circumstances where, and I can give you an example, and I will give you an example, of athletes who have downside protection not at the end of the game, but in the middle of the game. Imagine baseball where a hitter gets up, and the count is three balls and no strikes. Most of the time, they wait and say, “Let me see if I can get ball four and I get on first base.” On the other hand, the manager may say, “You have the greenlight.” What’s the green light? The green light is if you’d like to swing, you can. You have ready the option to swing, and really great players like Mike Trout who was a three-time most valuable player. He says, “Ah, when I get the greenlight, I try to swing as hard as I can, because I want to belt the ball out of the park.” The worst that can happen is I swing and miss. I have downside protection, a skewed outcome. Big upside, limited downside encourages Mike Trout to take a risk by swinging hard.
The Hail Mary In Investing
Tobias: You’re a lecturer, a professor at NYU Stern School of Business and you apply these principles in your class in an intriguing way. How does that happen?
William: Well, yeah, look, this class was an investment class and I’m teaching students how to decide their portfolio stocks, bonds, real estate, and the course can get pretty mathematical. So, after a while, I figured they need a little bit of fun. So, the little last month of class, I wanted to teach them the power of downside protection. I have a little contest. I give them a list of 10 assets. It could be the S&P 500. It could be today, bitcoin. It could be and was crude oil, and so on, and so forth. What I say to them is, “If you pick the winner, what’s the winner?” The one that has the biggest profit over the next month of class, “You will get one and a half points added to your final grade which is a big deal. If you lose nothing, except you get our sympathy. ”
The question is, how should they choose? What should they do? Well, people can guess prices could go up, but guessing, that’s not a strategy. Is there a strategy that will help them win? The answer turned out to be, pick the riskiest of all those assets, which is not the ordinary way you pick an investment necessarily. In fact, you usually don’t. So, here, pick the riskiest investment. Why? The riskiest investment, back then it was crude oil. Today, it would be bitcoin. Well, it could go up the most in which case, you’d win. It could also go down the most, that’s the definition of risky. Up the most, down the most. Who cares if it goes down? You don’t lose points on your grade when it goes down. Therefore, all you care about is the potential upside, and you want the one that has the biggest potential upside, because otherwise you won’t win. Therefore, you choose, back then, it was crude oil, which is very risky, very volatile. Today, you would choose bitcoin.
I drove home that point a little more with a subsequent little push. What I said to them was, “Hold it. I’m going to let you enter a different contest. The different contest is, you’ll get five points added to your grade if you pick the winner. You will lose five points if you pick the worst.” And guess what? Nobody wants to play. Nobody chooses to play that risky, because they are risk averse. But when I put the downside protection, all of a sudden, they become reckless.
Call Options – Big Upside, Limited Downside
Tobias: You see this manifest in the real world as well. You give the example of investors who ordinarily would hold some cash, hold some stocks. We’ve seen this behavior more recently with the expansion of Robinhood and a lot of new entrants into the market perhaps because people are bored and locked at home with COVID last year, but there’s been this explosion in the use of options in investing, and you say that the option, the call option payoff in particular has that characteristic that you’re discussing. Perhaps, you could just elaborate on that a little?
William: Sure. That’s my favorite example and you certainly did your homework, Toby. All right. What I say is that a call option is precisely a security which gives you big upside. The higher the stock price goes up, the more you make continuously, continues to go up. If the stock price goes down, well, you do nothing and you lose what we call the option premium. It’s called an option premium, it’s really the price of the option. So, the payoff to every call option is skewed. Big upside, limited downside. In fact, that’s when you buy a call when you are, ready, worried about downside protection. That’s what a call gives you. That’s why calls on the riskiest stocks cost the most. Why is that?
If they were free– I give you a choice between 10 different call options and they’re all free. Which do you choose? Well, the one that has the biggest upside. I want the option on bitcoin. I don’t want the option on the S&P 500. It’s too boring. So, call options gives you big upside and limited downside. That’s precisely why meme stock players in recent months have bought out of the money call options, because they have skewed upside potential and very limited downside, and it could be a game changer, a life changer like winning the lottery.
How Does Age Affect Investing?
Tobias: As a younger person, you have that ability to keep on earning through your life. So, you have some incentive to take these more lottery ticket type bets when you’re young, and as you get older everybody will understand this, you reduce your risk until you’re not trading options anymore, and maybe not even holding stocks you might be holding them majority of might be holding mostly cash or bonds. Is that a sensible strategy, if you’re young enough, and you can recover to take these lottery ticket type bets?
William: Yeah, we’ve been agreeing on almost everything, but not on this one. I just don’t think it’s a strategy. You could have asked me, “Well, I’m young enough. I might as well play the lottery with everything that I have,” and I would say that’s probably not a good strategy no matter how old you are. If you want to accumulate wealth over your life, the first thing you’ve got to do is work hard. Get up early in the morning and work hard. Then, put away your money in a diversified portfolio, and we can talk about what that is and so on if you want. You hold it and after 30 years, it will accumulate. Well, that’s no fun. It really isn’t. It’s no fun.
So, if you want, you can buy some options. The question is, how much money should you spend? My answer is, what’s your entertainment budget for the next month? Do you put away $100 to go out to a fancy dinner? Do you put away $500? Do you put away $1,000? However much money you have in your entertainment budget, that’s how much you should spend on option premiums.
Tobias: There’s a reasonably well-known phenomenon in finance, why do people keep on buying growth stocks even though for the most part they tend to underperform, value stocks tend to do better. The reason seems to be that all of the really big winners come from that growth stock cohort, they’re already expensive. Is that another example of this phenomenon, people investing in the call option or the very expensive stocks for this reason? You find that people who’ve been in the market for a little while, they recognize that the smarter place to be is perhaps selling option, volatility, so they tend to be selling calls to these people who are buying a lottery ticket, and that seems to be a more sure way of making money, although you do have that potentiality for Nassim Taleb, Black Swan type event.
Never Sell Options
William: Yeah, so that you had a bunch of questions in there and I don’t know which one I’m going to tackle first. Let me tackle the one about selling options. I traded options on the futures exchanges. I was on the New York Mercantile Exchange. I traded crude oil options. I also traded futures contracts. I was actually on the floor of the exchanges when it was fun to be on the floor and you could make money. I don’t know whether you ever saw Trading Places with Eddie Murphy?
Tobias: I’ve seen the movie.
William: It’s the best movie there. It’s the best movie and that’s what I did. It was a lot of fun. The last thing you wanted to do was sell naked calls. Naked meaning not protected or sell out of the money calls. You keep on making money 90% of the time. Why? Options expire. Most of the time options expire worthless. But the 10% of the time that they pay off, they will carry you out bankrupt. So, I used to tell my class, if there’s one thing you learn– actually, two things you learn. First, downside protection. The second thing is never ever sell an option. You will make money most of the time, but you will not live to tell that story, because you won’t–
Now, do we hear stories about people making money selling options? Of course, we do. That’s because of a phenomenon known as selection bias. We only hear the stories of the people who make money. We don’t hear the stories of the people who went bankrupt slowly. People who went bankrupt a lot like Hwang and Archegos, the big losers we hear. But the slow losers, which is most people who do this kind of thing and they just fall by the wayside. So, to come back around, I don’t think selling options is a good strategy unless you are well hedged, because for every buyer of an option, there’s a seller. Somebody’s selling, but they are not selling naked options if they live to tell it.
Tobias: I guess just to bring this back to your book, that suggests that the key is the downside protection.
William: Well, let me come back and say downside protection encourages people. It could be a president, it could be a general, it could be an ordinary person in life. If you have downside protection, you can take risk, and it may pay off. Joe Namath led the Jets to their only Super Bowl in the January 1969 Super Bowl. He had nothing to lose. Why is that? He was 18-point underdogs. So, he had nothing to lose, and he could take some risk. And that was okay. That’s okay, because he and the Jets and unfortunate Jet fans suffered. But we have to be careful, because sometimes, often, when there are big risks that people take because they have downside protection, the costs are borne by others, and that leads to reckless behavior causing collateral damage. That’s something we really have to worry about. When people who have downside protection and are encouraged by the circumstance to take big risks, worry that others may bear the costs.
Tobias: Let’s talk about one group that definitely do have some downside and that’s Asian eunuch spiders. What is strategy for an Asian eunuch spider?
Eunuch Spiders Have Nothing To Lose
William: Yeah, I got it. Yes, sir. You read the book, and you took the most important example. It was the example that finally convinced me to write the book and also to name it, the power of downside protection. And this example stunned me. I was well aware that normal people, you and I, and everybody else take risks when they are confronted with downside protection.
But this in fact, also occurs in the animal kingdom more generally. There’s a male spider of the orb web species, an Asian spider. I don’t know the technical name. I’d have to look it up. It’s not important. You can read it on page three of the book, whatever. The male orb web spider when he has sex with the female, his genital appendages break off and stay in the female and then he guards the female to ensure his paternity. Of course, a team of scientists having nothing to do, say, “We’re going to see how strong this guy is.” So, they conducted experiments with hundreds of these, what they call eunuch spiders, and they, believe it or not, staged battles. They put the eunuch spider in there, they put a regular spider in there, and the eunuch unit spider never loses. He always beats up the fully endowed spider, and their explanation is, he has no reproductive future. Therefore, he can be aggressive because he has nothing to lose. So, that’s why the book is called the Power of Downside Protection in honor of the Asian orb web spider.
George Washington’s Hail Mary Pass
Tobias: There are some interesting examples you’ve alluded to, but George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. How is that an example of this behavior?
William: Yeah, that was another stunner. I was really surprised. The question is, how did I find this example? The answer is I say, follow your notes. You read something, and there’s something in there that says, “Oh, you go there, you go there, and you keep on going,” and I followed until I discovered that George Washington crossing the Delaware was exactly the same as Aaron Rodgers throwing a Hail Mary. They certainly don’t look the same, but they are. Because at that point in the winter of 1776, Washington was on the verge of collapse. He had lost. The British had been winning battles at New York, in White Plains, and Harlem Heights, and Washington’s army slowly and slowly– They went back to their farms, they went back home. He was about to attack in the Battle of Trenton, and he writes to his cousin in Mount Vernon, “If we do not win this battle, the game will be pretty well up.”
Well, I could imagine Aaron Rodgers saying the same thing in the huddle. “If we don’t connect on this pass, the game is over.” That’s what Washington said. He crossed the Delaware, rolled the dice. He rolled the dice, because if he didn’t win the Battle of Trenton, the Revolutionary War as far as he was concerned, would have been over. It’s a classic Hail Mary that turned out to have a very favorable consequence for the American Revolution.
Woodrow Wilson: Second Term Presidents Are More Reckless
Tobias: That is true for George Washington as a general but you have this Woodrow Wilson example where he was elected in 1912, and again in 1916, and he ran the second time on this platform of remaining isolationist from World War I. But then when he was elected, he led America into the war, so that was a political estimation on his behalf. What was the thing that gave him the ability to do that?
William: Well, let me just take a little step back because the Woodrow Wilson example, there are a number of political scientists who have written anecdotally about second-term presidents, which in the United States means they were lame ducks because the only exception is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. You don’t have more than two terms, you are a lame duck. Out of political times, this suggested there are stories about second-term presidents being more reckless. Well, I’m an economist where we like to do controlled experiments. Usually, we can’t, because the world only runs once. Woodrow Wilson provided almost a controlled experiment. He was elected in 1912 by less than a plurality. He didn’t have a majority. He was elected in 1912, was reelected in 1916. During both terms, the European war, World War, I which is sometimes referred to as the Great War. Today, we think the Great War was World War II. But back then, the Great War was World War I.
He ran on a pacifist platform because most of the country wanted to have nothing to do with the European war. He stayed out of World War I, the Great War, the entire time despite great provocation. There was the sinking of the Lusitania, which was a British ship, with more than hundred American passengers were killed. He stayed out. In 1916, he ran on the platform, the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” It was emblazoned throughout the country and he won. Within three months, a month after his inauguration, the inauguration back then was in March. On April 6th or 7th, he signed the declaration of war against Germany.
Well, there are a whole bunch of reasons. But the obvious answer is, he had downside protection. He would no longer face voters. He no longer had to worry about the electorate, and he followed perhaps his principles, but what he wanted to accomplish for what he considered world peace. Remember, he had the League of Nations. So, my conclusion from this is second-term American presidents should come with a warning label, easy to provoke, because they have much less to lose. I wouldn’t say they have nothing to lose, but much less to lose than someone who’s going to be reelected or going to try to be reelected.
Rosa Parks: The Montgomery Bus Boycott
Tobias: You also say Rosa Parks’ refusal to get off the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 is another example of this behavior.
William: Yes, Rosa Parks is my hero. She stood up knowing that it would– This was quite dangerous. I read her autobiography which is a very small, thin volume, but just something that you must read if you want to see a genuine hero. She says very clearly that one of the reasons that she did not get up when asked to get out of the seat in the white section was she said, “We had been treated miserably. If we did nothing, it would never change. Therefore, I had nothing to lose by staying seated,” which in fact was the single most important event in triggering the civil rights movement. In fact, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was when Martin Luther King finally emerged on the American scene, and it was because of Rosa Parks’ courage. She said, “I had nothing to lose,” because she felt a great obligation to her people, and her grandfather taught her, “Don’t let them take advantage of you. You must fight for what is right,” and the way she fought was remaining seated.
WWII Blunder: Battle Of The Bulge
Tobias: These are all examples where the gamble has paid off. But you give some examples to where the gamble doesn’t pay off, and one of them is the Nazi Germany in World War II in the dying stages of it, the Battle of the Bulge. Can you discuss that in this context?
William: This is probably the best example although there are others, the best example of someone thinking they had nothing to lose and causing collateral damage. In December or the fall of 1944, after the Allied invasion of Normandy, the Americans and the British went into Normandy and they were moving across France, and they were on the border of Germany by October of 1944, and almost all of Hitler’s generals said, “Now’s the time to sue for peace, because we might as well pick– We have no chance of winning.” Unfortunately, Joseph Goebbels, who was Hitler’s propagandist used words that– Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the president at the time, used his words against him. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “We want unconditional surrender.” Goebbels said, “Unconditional surrender means the end of Germany as you know it. We have nothing to lose by continuing to fight to the last child.” That encouraged Hitler to plan a counter offensive.
I use an analogy, which I think is true. It’s like a style of boxer who is just about to fall down, and he has a desperate counterpunch, which is not going to do anything. Usually, it’s just a flailing. Well, in this case, Hitler planned the Battle of the Bulge, which was an attack to try to break through the American and the British lines. Almost everyone who had advised him said this was foolhardy, he would not listen. It turned out that the Battle of the Bulge, which we now know is very famous. There was a great movie made about it. There were two great consequences. It didn’t change the war’s outcome.
Germany lost huge amounts of men, children, because they were young people at that time, and in that battle, because the Germans believed that they had nothing to lose, there was a huge massacre of American POWs, prisoners of war, outside the Belgian town of Malmedy. This massacre where they were just machine gunned, Prisoners of War who have rights, we know this. There were machine gunned, and there was a trial at the end of World War II, and the people who testified said, “Well, we were told, take no prisoners, because you have nothing to lose.” So, the collateral damage of the Battle of the Bulge, this reckless attack was Germany’s manpower and a huge atrocity visited on American troops.
FDR’s Court-Packing Plan Backfired
Tobias: You say Franklin, FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had a similar gamble with his attempt to pack the court. Could you discuss that one in this context?
William: Yeah, that’s another great example of reckless decisions that come back to bite you. The New Deal was really a big deal, and it was a New Deal because it was unprecedented during the Great Depression and much of it skirted on whether it violated the Constitution, and the Supreme Court in 1933 and 1934 struck down a whole bunch of FDR’s New Deal components as being unconstitutional. He had a meeting with his cabinet early in 1935 and in early 1935, while Roosevelt was still in his first term, and he’d, by the way been re-elected in 1932 with a huge victory in the electoral college. He was advised by a number of cabinet members, “Let’s pack the Supreme Court,” and all of his political advisor, “No, no, no. You can’t do that. We have an election at the end of the year, and we are in a very close fight. If you pack the Supreme Court, they are going to make that a big deal in the campaign, and you may lose.” So, he shelved that.
Then, in 1936, there was another election and he was reelected with the bigger electoral college majority, and a month after he’s reelected, what does he do? Proposes to pack the Supreme Court so that he can get his legislation which is not quite perfect, clear that it’s going to win, get it through…
Why is that? He had a big plurality. Congress was overwhelmingly Democratic. Instead of the Democrats in Congress supporting that they viewed it as a major attempt by the executive branch of the government to push aside the legislative branch, and Roosevelt’s vice president, John Nance Garner, when the bill was introduced, gave it the thumb down sign, and Roosevelt was forced to backtrack, and packing the court was one of the big drawbacks of Roosevelt’s tenure. It is one which we’ve heard of most recently with Biden considering packing the court. My advice is, don’t do it in your first term for sure, and in your second term, be careful because they’re going to throw you out. You may think you have nothing to lose then, when your second term, be very careful. It may hurt your legacy.
Donald Trump: Protect The Downside
Tobias: Speaking of another of president, Donald Trump’s first campaign also has these same qualities.
William: Well, again, Trump really believes very much so that you’ve got to protect the downside. In fact, in his book, he’s written a book, he says, “Protect the downside. The upside will take care of itself.” During the 2016 campaign, nobody expected Trump to win. We forget now because he has such great hold on the Republican Party, but nobody really expected him to win. So, he could take really outrageous positions. Lock up Hillary Clinton. Who would say that? Nobody would say that, may think that. Lock her up, make the Mexicans pay for the wall. These are what?
Outrageous comments that happened to hit home. He would not have done that had he been a politician all his life and was expected to win. He would have to be much more careful. In fact, in 2020, when he was in fact given very little chance of being reelected, one of his Republican advisors describes what happened during the 2020 campaign as, the knives come out, and this and that, and the President throws incendiary Hail Marys. The downside protection, when you have little to lose, you become reckless.
Prisoners Serving LWOP Are Less Violent
Tobias: Given that’s the case, do you have any recommendations for– we have prisoners who have life without parole, they’re in that scenario where they have nothing left to lose. What would you advise authorities in that instance?
William: Well, yeah, that’s a great question, and I’m not an authority on this. So, I consulted the authorities and life without parole prisoners, normally, the anecdotal evidence, the anecdotes tell you stories of prisoners, who are life without parole prisoners, who are extremely violent. The most famous one is Thomas Silverstein, who spent his entire career in prison in solitary confinement. He killed three prisoners, he killed the guard by slashing him 45 times, and there are all sorts of stories about life without parole prisoners misbehaving.
But there are a number of very objective studies of the myth of the behavioral characteristics of prisoners comparing life without parole prisoners, with shorter term prisoners, about how many infractions they have, as well as the seriousness of the infractions. It turns out the life without parole prisoners are less or certainly, no more violent than their shorter-term counterparts.
The question, of course is, why is that? Why are life without parole prisoners so much less violent? Don’t they have nothing to lose? The answer is, when you think about it, they are responding to incentives because they really have the most to lose by misbehaving. They will be incarcerated for the rest of their life and any infraction will be punished. They want privileges. They want air-conditioned cells, they want to be able to visit with their families whenever they like to want to become trustees. And in one prison, Louisiana, the warden says, “If you behave, you can in fact join in a town fair, and show off your rodeo skills.” Believe it or not, prisoners want to do that and keep themselves in line in order to not lose the privileges. If you give someone enough to lose that dominates the nothing to lose, they will in fact behave more honorably than most people think. A surprising outcome that I never would have said before I read the material to write this book.
Evonne Goolagong Cawley: Beating Billie Jean King And Margaret Court
Tobias: I’ll leave this as the last question, because it’s Evonne Goolagong. I’m Australian. She’s a national hero. She’s now Evonne Goolagong Cawley. But she faced off against Billie Jean King, who was extremely dominant at the time. Do you want to tell that story?
William: Sure. At the end of this book, is there anything that you as an individual, I as an individual, can take away? Most of the stories involve collateral damage, and you got to be careful, blah, blah, blah. Well, what about the individual? There are times when individuals can in fact use the idea of nothing to lose to become successes. There’s a famous song written by Kris Kristofferson called Me And Bobby McGee. I think that’s Me And Bobby McGee. One of the lines is, Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. That’s a great line. It gives you what? Nothing left to lose gives you the freedom to take a chance.
Evonne Goolagong is a perfect example of that. She was born to a poor aborigine family and began to hit tennis balls against the garage in her house. Someone took her under his wing, and turned her into one of, well, Australia’s pride when she beat Margaret Court Smith, her hero, and Margaret Court Smith said when she beat her, “Well, she performs better, because she had nothing to lose.” Well, that’s really damning with faint praise, if I ever heard it. Goolagong then went on to beat Billie Jean King in the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1971, when Evonne Goolagong wasn’t even 20 years old. When she came off, they asked her, “How did that happen?” She says, “Well, things went for me out there, everything came off as I had nothing to lose.” After that, she beat Margaret Court Smith again in the Wimbledon finals.
Venus Williams: I Have Nothing To Prove
Now, it doesn’t always happen that way, and I’m going to end to show that I’m not playing favorites with Australians because I know who I’m dealing with here. Venus Williams was a five-time Wimbledon winner between– She won Wimbledon five times. But then, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, she was forced to retire, and she came back in 2014, entered Wimbledon and made it to the third round. What did she say? They asked her, “How did you win?” She says, “Trying to conserve is not the right mentality. You’ve got to go out there and give it your all. That is a key. If you want to succeed. You’ve got to play smart,” she said. But then she added, “I have nothing to prove, nothing to hide, and nothing to lose.” If you work hard and play the game as though you have nothing to lose, you too may turn out to be a winner.
Tobias: The book is called The Power of Nothing to Lose: The Hail Mary Effect in Politics, War, and Business by William L. Silber, I’m just holding up the case there. Bill, thank you very much for your time, today. It was a fascinating discussion.
William: I appreciate your very careful preparation. Thank you.
Tobias: [chuckles] Thank you, sir.
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