Tags: kavanaugh | hearings | teach | investing

What the Kavanaugh Hearings Can Teach Us About Investing

Judge Brett Kavanaugh with angry sneering face
Judge Brett Kavanaugh (Alex Brandon/AP)

By    |   Friday, 28 September 2018 04:02 PM EDT

“A lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

This quote, and variations of it, have been attributed to a variety of people from Mark Twain to Winston Churchill.

And it’s one that’s been in my mind watching the Kavanaugh news unfold in the past two weeks, including yesterday’s blockbuster testimony, which had the earmarks of a criminal prosecution straight out of To Kill a Mockingbird. Or maybe it was closer to The Crucible.

After all, there’s something quite odd about timing a 35-year old accusation that has no quantitative proof to right before voting on a Supreme Court justice. One is readily reminded of Anita Hill’s claims against Clarence Thomas—except without key facts like dates, times or locations. At least Hill had that. How far standards of evidence to support a claim have fallen in political discourse in such a short amount of time.

I’ve had a number of female friends over the years who have disclosed the kind of awkward moments with men where a he-said/she-said situation could develop. A few sounded innocuous; many didn’t. We shouldn’t immediately dismiss a claim just because there’s no evidence at the moment. But at some point, we do need evidence.

But I also see the other side of things thanks to events in my life. Claims need proof.

I had a stalker in middle school who did the same thing. For all three years, she’d make all sorts of accusations, even bringing in friends to support her claims. But her stories would also likewise fall apart. My time was wasted having to meet with the (female) principal and (female) vice principal of discipline a few times a year, but in today’s environment, I realize it could have been far worse. After all, there was no circus, no public spectacle.

So no matter where you stand on believing all assault accusers versus having facts and evidence, both dance around the broader issue: The truth.

At the end of the day, the truth matters.

That comes in many forms. In politics, there are facts, and then there are opinions about what should be the correct policy or law. There’s room for debate. And, apparently, room to show the public that our Congresscritters act largely like petulant children.

Elsewhere, however, the truth can be more absolute. Don’t try breaking the laws of physics.

In investing, where we thankfully can be outside the current political strain of the Kavanaugh hearings, the truth is almost always about what a company is worth. For most companies most of the time, a company is likely worth somewhere in the ballpark of what it’s valued on the market.

Sometimes, however, the truth is radically different. A car company with poor quality control, sky-high promises, C-suite executives quitting en masse, a Twitter-obsessed CEO, and a mountain of debt due soon to contend with, like Tesla Motors (TSLA) might still be overvalued. We’ll see what happens when the SEC has their say.

Likewise, a company in a boring industry that’s fallen on some tough times but has tremendous cash flow to buy back large chunks of shares, like Newell Brands (NWL) might be undervalued. The truth of what the company is worth is well out of line with what shares are trading for now. The question, however, is how much cheaper shares get—and how long it can take for that value to be recognized.

But investing is as much an art as a science. Unlike Wall Street analysts, putting an exact price on a company’s worth would just be silly. It’s about finding the overvalued and undervalued opportunities, and investing in them until they’re arguably well-valued. Then rinse and repeat. There’s always such an opportunity out there, although they’re not always obvious.

But the truth will always come out.

I just started investing in individual stocks while all the accounting scandals were coming out. Enron, Adelphia, MCI, Tyco, and so on. There had been a culture of being aggressive with accounting rules before, but many companies simply crossed the line into illegality. It took a recession and some major collapses to show what the truth really was.

Until men become angels, this will unfortunately always be true. Bad companies will always be out there. And during boom times like now, it’s easy to hide a fraud.

Imagine you had the opportunity to invest in a company that presented shareholders with a large, thriving staff. But in reality, it was really two thirds-empty, with employees and temps shipped in from elsewhere to create a thriving work environment. Unless you were that close to a company, to really see how it operated versus the façade it put on to the public, it’d be hard to tell what was going on.

I’ve seen things like that during my time working in private equity and elsewhere. It’s even harder to spot these attempts to hide the truth in publicly-traded companies.

But the warning signs were there.

Companies that engage in incredibly complex operations, far more than others in the industry are a sign. Ditto corporate communications. The more complex anything from a 10k filing with the SEC to a CEO letter to shareholder letter is to subscribers, the more investors should be wary. Complexity is a refuge for hiding the truth. Not always or at all times, but particularly during a long-running bull market like we have now.

Investors should also be wary of companies that tend to perform consistently well in terms of earnings estimates. That’s bizarre. While a good or great company should be able to consistently grow its earnings over time, there will be blips along the way. That’s life.

For example, during the 1990’s bull run, General Electric (GE) was able to nail its earnings estimates to the penny, thanks to lax accounting practices and a buddy-buddy relationship with Wall Street bankers. That messy cleanup is still going on—and while I think shares are a value now, they’re still getting cheaper. But that’s a consequence of the company moving towards a leaner, and more truthful business model.

As investors, we want the facts. And we can handle the truth. By finding out what the truth is, we find where the market is making mistakes. And that’s where we profit.

Andrew Packer is a Senior Financial Editor with Newsmax Media. He currently writes the Insider Hotline investment advisory, serves as investment director for the Financial Braintrust, and writes the monthly newsletter Crisis Point Investor.

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In investing, where we thankfully can be outside the current political strain of the Kavanaugh hearings, the truth is almost always about what a company is worth. For most companies most of the time, a company is likely worth somewhere in the ballpark of what it’s valued on the market.
kavanaugh, hearings, teach, investing
Friday, 28 September 2018 04:02 PM
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