Here are my notes from a recent interview on ET NOW with Mohnish Pabrai and Guy Spier. Link here for people who are looking to watch the full interview.
Discussion in the interview begins with the hosts concerns on how far the market has moved and if that is a concern for either of the guests. Pabrai doesn’t think those are really important data points to follow and that they can be more distracting rather than helpful. He recommends focusing on business fundamentals and limiting your opportunity set to companies you are able to understand well. If the market moves substantially higher or lower it isn’t really going to impact a valuation of individual business. Often the incentives of people discussing broader market movements are not aligned for the reader or viewer. They are often looking to get your attention for advertisement revenue, page views or likes. What people think will happen next quarter or next year on a macro basis just isn’t all that useful in my view.
The host then dug into the duo’s views on Trump. Spier started discussion with highlighting how it’s both difficult interpret political information and to also understand how markets will react. In the United States if you knew what trumps policies were going to be it would still have been difficult to understand all the second and third order impacts it would have on markets. One change to policy has implications in many places where people don’t initially think of but can still be important. Trump had recently tore up the Trans-Pacific Partnership and many people who are pro-trade were very outraged and really concerned about the direction the government was going. It turned out there was a very valuable silver lining because as a result of the USA removing itself as a trade leader of the world it opened an opportunity for others like China and India to lead. So to re-hash, optics were quite bad but resulted in a valuable rebalancing of power among the economic powerhouses of the world.
This followed with the ongoing passive vs active management discussion which appears to re-surface daily. Pabrai highlighted that for most people index funds are a great way to go. He agreed with Buffett’s recent writing on the topic as well. When you pay more in fees either to people who help you allocate the capital or from additional middlemen you will simply earn less of the underlying asset returns. The basic formula to be very wealthy is to save early in your life time, continue saving over a lifetime and continue to dollar cost average. It’s a shame that some active managers make money off their investors rather than with them. I’m all for high fees where performance justifies it. Perhaps that means only using active managers where the competition is weak or non-existent. You need to play in games where it’s easy to win. Where are the forced sellers in investing?
The host then asks Pabrai and Spier if they focus on looking for 3-4 baggers in today’s environment or do they focus on a margin of safety for each investment. Pabrai says that if Spier tells him an idea that isn’t at least a 5x it would be waste of time. Pabrai uses an analogy from a Miller Beer commercial where the taste is great but the beer is less filling. Ie) good benefits but less cost. In investing you try to find similar situations where the potential is high and that you also have a built in margin of safety. For an investor to be successful at this they should look to limit risks of capital loss and retain high optionality. What this typically looks like for an investor is long period of inaction and studying followed by brief periods of activity when a mispricing occurs.
Next up was the automotive sector in India given Pabrai & Spier has made similar investments outside of the country. Pabrai said he had only purchased Fiat-Chrysler because of its very undemanding valuation at a P/E 1x in 2019 and that he hasn’t been able to find similar opportunities elsewhere. If Pabrai was an investor today in India he would spend all of his time on small publicly listed businesses and keep tearing them apart and trying to understand it all. What about airlines in India? There are some notable similarities and differences about the sector in India. The major difference was that fuel costs represent a higher proportion of total costs compared to the USA. Since oil isn’t very likely to move higher above $50-60/bbl a major component of costs for the sector are going to be relatively capped. Frackers have become the new swing producer in the world. Overall, the airlines in India aren’t as cheap and don’t have a similar opportunity in his view. That said they both discussed how the opportunity set is much larger in India than in developed markets. There are ~4,000 publicly traded businesses and over 90% of them aren’t covered well by sell-side analysts. This results in a wider dispersion of returns. That is what you want if you believe you have good judgement and an edge over your competitors. There is more of a chance for your head to get cut off but also to outperform meaningfully.
How do you evaluate commodity companies? Spier says to always focus on companies with the lowest cost of production as this increases odds that they will survive through the cycle. If this relative advantage is in place then you have an implied margin of safety. P/E’s of 1x are possible to find but only if you believe you can find them. Below a $100 million in market capitalization is a great place to start looking for these opportunities.
Pabrai then begins to talk about how patient Munger really is. He read Barron’s magazine for ~50 years and in most cases each issue had at least about 10 investment recommendations which means he read over ~26,000 recommendations without acting once. Then an opportunity presented itself with an obscure auto parts company which he made a $10 million investment. Based on Pabrai’s twitter account the company is Tenneco. The investment turns into $80-$90 million and Li-Lu turns it into even more. What Pabrai thinks you can learn from this is that you need extreme patience, like really just be able to watch the paint dry and keep looking for anomalies. If you study ~4,000 businesses in India for the next few years and eventually make 3-4 bets you are likely to end up with way more money than you can consume. Spier says there are two types of bears some that chase all the salmon in the stream while others just wait on shore ready to strike at what falls into their lap.
Then discussion about the insurance sector comes up, was there a similar opportunity in India? Spier talked about how he would really want to be comfortable understanding the management teams and their actions for a long period of time before he would invest money in the sector. It would only be clear over a long cycle which teams are taking appropriate risks and are well managed. Pabrai thinks the better question is “Where are the no brainer investments in India?” The insurance sector has grown at a very high rate over the past few years in India and as a result investor focus seems to already be on the sector. Pabrai thinks there could be opportunities looking back over time but they just aren’t that clear to him today. Up next was the technology sector which includes companies like Infosys. Pabrai thinks they could be reasonable investments but they don’t fall into the category of no brainers. He thinks changes to regulations make it too hard to tell where the company will be in 5 or 10 years’ time. There are also some headwinds as Trump is exploring changing the H1 Visa program and in some ways these technology companies are abusing the regulations. He thinks optimal policy in the United States would be to retain the best talent in the country. If the United States wants to be very competitive long term one lever they can pull is to dramatically increase the amount of immigrants they allow into the country from today’s 65-80 thousand cap today and make it up to half a million. If these individuals are well educated, and able to contribute it could do wonders for the economy there. Pabrai thinks the American government should tighten regulations and limit what could be done elsewhere. Other places in the world such as Canada are working on building similar hubs to service US businesses, the example he used was Vancouver, Canada.
The conversation closed with the two guests highlighting again of the world of opportunity in India for investing and that competition in Western Europe and USA is just disproportionately higher.
If you are looking to learn more about Mohnish Pabrai or Guy Spier i’d recommend both of their books. Click here to purchase The Dhandho Investor and The Education of a Value Investor: My Transformative Quest for Wealth, Wisdom, and Enlightenment
Hope this helps, let me know if you have any feedback or commentary