I came across this book in a podcast that I regularly follow. And if I remember correctly, I had also come across this book mentioned multiple times on twitter. And I picked it hoping that it would give some new insight on the art of stock-picking.
The book is meant for beginners to the world of stock investing. The author makes this quite clear at the beginning of the book itself that it is going to be a non-technical book, unlike his earlier work Deep Value that is much more detailed work for the seasoned investor. I believe all books should have this kind of clarification – the kind of audience that they are catering to. It would make selecting the right book a whole lot easier for the reader. Moving on.
Zig to the zag – Not a new dance move
Zig. This is the first piece of advice that the author gives. What does this mean? In simple terms what the author is saying that in order to become a successful investor who can beat market returns is to zig when the rest of the world is zagging. Effectively, this is what being a contrarian means. Having ideas that are contrary to the popular opinion. This is one of the ways how good stock pickers get better returns than the rest of the investors.
The author makes a good point that you need to be right while having a contrarian view. If you’re right along with the market, you will only make market returns, not beat it. And if you’re wrong, then obviously you will lose money. But I wonder whether beating the market returns is really a priority for the investor who is just starting out. Wouldn’t he be satisfied making market returns? Of course, a simpler way would be to invest in an ETF that tracks the market.
Thy shalt revert to the mean
The author also introduces the concept of mean reversion. Again to put it simply this means that stocks do not stay away from their true value for long. Things go back to normal. Think of it as a pendulum. Every time it moves in one direction, there is a greater force pulling it in the opposite direction. The momentum of the pendulum fights with this opposite force until both are equal. That is when the pendulum stops moving further and starts reversing. According to this concept, stocks that are undervalued are likely to rise in price whereas overvalued stocks are likely to fall down sooner or later.
The mean reversion principle is a popular and tested concept. But there is a big caveat that the author has chosen to ignore here. The famous economist John Maynard Keynes once said about the market, “The market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.” This means that chances are that if you have bought into a battered stock in the hopes of having it rise according to the mean reversion principle, you could be waiting years (or decades) before it inches up. So while this principle may stand true theoretically, one needs to be aware of the time horizon of investing and the level of risk one is comfortable with.
In Buffett we trust
Carlisle’s theory, the Acquirer’s Multiple, is a new and improved way of looking at the attractiveness of a stock compared to market capitalizaion. He even claims that the Acquirer’s Multiple is better than the other famous and proven stock picking methodology – The Magic Formula by Joel Greenblatt. Apparently Carlisle claims that his way of picking stocks i.e. buying fair companies at wonderful prices is even better than Warren Buffett’s preferred method – buying wonderful companies at fair prices.
But for all the claims that the author makes on the superiority of his approach, he surely spends a lot of time explaining Buffett’s methods. There are a couple of chapters wasted on giving a history lesson on how Buffett started off with his famous cigarette butt approach of investing until his partner Charlie Munger knocked some sense into his head. Since then Buffett has practiced the wide-moat based investing philosophy.
Finally after a few chapters of talking about other contrarian investors, notably Warren Buffett and Carl Icahn, the author sets out to put forth his theory of the Acquirer’s Multiple. Even by definition this is not something new. The Acquirer’s Multiple simply uses part of the strategy that the Magic Formula uses. The author claims that in his testing, his approach beat the returns of the Magic Formula.
Again many of the points that he makes mirrors Buffets approach anyway. Carlisle liberally quotes Buffett from the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters. Take for example his focus on operating earnings. Buffett has always stressed the importance of operating earnings over other popular but artificially skewed measures such as EBITDA. Buffett and Munger have left no stone unturned in ridiculing the EBITDA.
What I disliked was that the author spends an inordinately long time detailing stories of other investors who have used different methods to get rich. In fact the theory of the Acquirer’s Multiple is not discussed until Chapter 5. After having explained his theory across a couple of chapters, again the author goes off in another tangent describing the exploits of Loeb and Icahn. Strangely, the chapter about Loeb has some inconsistent usage of tense, something that a sharp editor would have most likely spotted and corrected.
Is this really for the beginning investor?
The Acquirer’s Multiple, as a theory, may be an effective way to beat market returns. But the Acquirer’s Multiple, as a book, simply begs to be avoided. Firstly, the entire content of the book can be condensed into a small but crisply written whitepaper. I continued reading the book while waiting for a connecting flight. In any other situation, I would have simply closed the book and moved on.
Secondly, there are no new ideas presented here that are revolutionary. Although the author claims that the Acquirer’s Multiple gives better results than Greenblatt’s Magic Formula, I am still skeptical. Moreover the latter was groundbreaking when it was introduced. It simplified and distilled for the average investor the advice of Graham and Buffett. It proved to be an easy and reliable framework to pick good stocks that were likely to give a good return, maybe even beat the market. The Magic Formula combined quality companies with companies that were cheap. The Acquirer’s Multiple does away with checking the quality aspect. Doing so can be disastrous for stock market returns. High risk does not necessarily equate to high returns.
The Acquirer’s Multiple, on the other hand, does include a collection of amusing stories sandwiched between a few pages of theory. Thankfully, the book is really a short read, especially if you are aware of value investing even at a basic level. I finished it within a few hours, as the author claimed at the beginning. In closing, if you are a new investor simply starting out in the world of stock market investing, I would recommend a safer approach to buying stocks. If you are an advanced investor, then surely there are more substantial books than this? Why zag when you can zig, eh?