Alpine Capital Research - Narrative

Intrinsic value and risk is our focus when evaluating investments

Intrinsic, or fundamental, value is the cash generated by an enterprise or asset over its useful life. Intrinsic value is earned in the future as dividends, interest and principal are paid, or when retained earnings are successfully reinvested.

Risk is the likelihood and potential magnitude of a permanent decline in the earning power or asset value of an enterprise, or the payment of a market price at purchase that is higher than intrinsic value. Our objective is to mitigate risk through integrity with our investment principles and investment process excellence.

When buying, we never confuse intrinsic value with market price. Market price is what we pay. Intrinsic value is what we get. Market price may be found quoted daily from news services or ascertained from past transaction records. Intrinsic value is determined by enterprise cash flows.

Market price, therefore, is not a barometer we use to evaluate corporate performance. Our evaluation of corporate performance is based on items such as income, assets, and return on capital. We view the price of a security simply as a record of what others – well informed or not – were willing to pay for it at various times in the past.

Intrinsic value is a critical concept because it is the only reference point for what an investment is actually worth and, therefore, whether or not the market price is fair, high, or low. Two facts support this view. First, the theoretical point that an investment is worth the present value of its future cash flows is self-evident and undisputed. Second, new-era theories that have driven market prices to speculative levels in the short run have always succumbed to intrinsic value in the long run.

We insist on quality with a margin of safety

The quality of a security is defined by the reliability of the cash flows or assets that comprise its intrinsic value. The quality of an investment is defined by the price paid for the intrinsic value received.

A quantifiable margin of safety is the hallmark of a quality investment. For higher-rated, fixed-income investments, an issuer’s available resources must be significantly greater than the interest and principal due the investor. For lower-rated, fixed-income investments selling below principal value, the assets backing an issue must be significantly greater than its price. For equity investments, the intrinsic value of a company must be significantly greater than its price. For other types of investments and as a general rule, the probability of achieving a return commensurate with the risk taken must be very high.

We only invest in what we understand

True understanding is built upon high probability statements about security values. It requires a dogged determination to get to the bottom of crucial considerations and an equally dogged honesty about whether or not we did.

Understanding is also relative. Achieving better-than-average returns requires an above-average understanding of security values. The problem is most investment managers believe they are better than average.

Competence and honesty are the keys to assuring that we are not fooling ourselves. Competence means that we are capable of estimating security values and returns for both our portfolios and the markets where we participate. Honesty signifies that we are candid about our relative return advantage, or lack thereof, and only commit capital when we have a demonstrated advantage.

Diversification and concentration are balanced with knowledge

Proper diversification is paramount to quality at the portfolio level. Proper diversification is achieved when the overall portfolio return is protected from unexpected adverse results in individual holdings, industries, countries, or other risk factors.

Proper concentration can reduce risk as well as enhance value. Concentration refers to making greater commitments to more attractive investments. The greater the difference between intrinsic value and market price, the more robust our knowledge of an investment’s value, and the lower the risk of the investment, the more capital we are willing to concentrate in that investment.

Successfully executed, concentration has three benefits: (a) returns are enhanced by selecting investments with the highest probability of success, (b) risk is reduced by avoiding mediocre and poor commitments, and (c) knowledge is enhanced by concentrating the analytical effort.

A concentrated portfolio with fewer holdings is desirable when value-to-price, understanding, and quality are high. A low-cost, more widely diversified approach to a market is appropriate when there are no clear advantages in understanding and, therefore, in our ability to evaluate quality or estimate value-to-price.

Communication is essential for intelligent investor decision-making

One of the greatest risks investors face is selling low in a panic. Education and communication can greatly reduce this risk. We explain to investors the difference between intrinsic and market value and openly share the rationale behind our investment decision-making. We believe this significantly reduces the risk of investors selling at market bottoms or buying at market tops.

Communication is also important for evaluating an investment manager’s abilities. Luck, risk, and a bull market can make an incompetent manager look brilliant. Conversely, every brilliant manager will under-perform at some time, and usually this is the best time to invest with them. Investors must look beyond performance to evaluate manager competence. To aid current and prospective investors in this endeavor, we regularly discuss the strategy and holdings behind our performance, and candidly address both our successes and mistakes.

 


 

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