Context matters

I was watching one of Joel Greenblatt’s MBA classes at Columbia the other day where they analyzed some investment writeups of Charlie479 on VIC. When Greenblatt asked the class for their thoughts on the write-up, many classmembers pointed out the more obvious points to the investment thesis (buying back shares, cheap on some metric, etc), however one thing that he brought up that his students were missing was the psychology of each investment – what was the difference between market perception and reality?

NVR was misunderstood – everyone thought it was a homebuilder, in a capital-intensive, cyclical business, and therefore deserved the same multiples as the other homebuilders. However, they missed its capital-light model, negative working capital, and its business practice of pre-selling.

NII Holdings was disregarded as a post-bankruptcy stock, and its earnings were difficult to compute, because the filings were so complicated. The fact that it took Charlie479 significant effort to come up with the 2.8 EV/EBITDA figure was something that stood out to Greenblatt that the students brushed over. Greenblatt realized that if it was that difficult to discern its earnings, NII Holdings must be misunderstood. (As an aside, this stock eventually went bankrupt again – a so-called “chapter 22” filing – and has again emerged from bankruptcy. It ought to be worth a look again this time.)

Finally, Sportsman’s Guide was regarded as a catalog business, however, what the market didn’t see was the potential to cut costs dramatically from internet sales. The students did concentrate on this as a salient point, but what differentiates Greenblatt’s approach is a concentration on what the market doesn’t see.

There is a plethora of new value investors on the scene (myself included) who probably spend too much time on simple metrics – EV/EBIT, ROIC, P/E, P/FCF, etc. However, what Greenblatt emphasized continually in his MBA classes is that context matters.

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