Details matter. A lesson from reading financial statements & earning calls

Since I started to invest in my free time, I have spent a great deal of time on reading materials related to the companies I am interested in. Much of such time is on the official financial statements from the companies. For me, it has been a rewarding exercise in and of itself as I have learned a lot about the businesses. One of the lessons is to pay attention to details which, despite in only footnotes, can carry significant information and insights. An example is this footnote from Facebook’s quarterly earning report today:

Source: Facebook

If you read the table from top to bottom, you’ll likely be surprised at the stark difference in SG&A between this and last year. The footnote below explains why it is the case. Without paying attention to the footnote, in many cases, you’ll miss out important information.

Here is how the same footnote is presented in a presentation. This time, the difference in Operating Income is more “obvious” due to the visual effect.

Source: Facebook

Another source of valuable information is the earning calls. Quite often will you find information from the calls that is not in the official report. For instance, in the last earning call, Apple revealed this on their subscriptions:

Thirdly, as you mentioned, our subscriptions are becoming a very large portion of our business and they’re growing very well above services average. And the fact that we are saying that we will surpass 0.5 billion during 2020, we’re not putting a specific date during 2020, but I think you’ve seen over recent quarters that we’ve been adding about 120 million on a year-over-year basis for a number of quarters now. And this is an incredible staggering number, right, when you think about it.

Source: SeekingAlpha

Such information, I believe, is not available in the SEC filing. Yet, it is very informative to investors.

Obviously, when you invest your own money, you’d better know as much about the companies you invest in as possible. Thus, it requires as much research as possible and I find reading materials, including but not limited to the call transcripts and financial statements, highly informative and helpful.

Lyft stock down by 12% and some thoughts on investing

After popping up 8% on the first day of its IPO last Friday, Lyft’s stock dropped by almost 12% today. That’s what I find baffling about the stock market. How much of the business could change in the span of 4 days? I haven’t encountered news that could justify the drop of that size. What changed? Will it go further down tomorrow? Or will it shoot back up again? And by how much? I literally have zero idea.

Charlie Munger once said that if you want to make money by buying low, you have to know when to sell high and it’s hard. Given what I have seen so hard, he is right. You don’t know when it is “high” enough to satisfy your own greed. Some may say that determining an intrinsic value of business by discounted cash flow (DCF) will be helpful in knowing when to buy and when to sell. That’s true, but DCF itself isn’t an easy and straightforward practice. It’s really hard. Here in this clip (around 6:50), Charle (not sure if he was 100% serious) mentioned that he never once saw Warren Buffett do a DCF. Plus, a renowned expert in valuation, Aswath Damodaran, admitted that he missed the mark way off when he tried to value Uber in 2014. I once participated in an M&A competition with three of my close friends. In the course leading up to the contest and the contest itself, we had to do quite a few valuation with DCFs. The method involves a lot of assumptions and it’s more art than science. Each company requires a different approach and almost no valuation is the same. If an expert such as Professor Damodaran struggled to get it right, what are the odds of ordinary folks nailing it? My money is on the “not very high” bet.

I don’t know a perfect method in investing, but I agree with Warren Buffett that buying or selling on prices is not investing. I’d recommend these two books if you are interested in life advice and investing. Poor Charlie’s Almanack and The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for The Thoughtful Investor. If you have time, read more from Charlie Munger. He is really a wealth of wisdom. Plus, you can read financial reports (SEC filings of the companies) or S-1 if companies are filing to go public and subscribe to Seekingalpha.com or Yahoo.com to read the transcript of their earning calls. Plenty of useful information can be had from such sources.

I have my own reasons to invest in the companies in my small portfolio and if I go bust, at least I will learn a ton about business and go out on my own terms.

Video: Howard Marks interview with Tim Ferriss

The stock markets are crashing now. For quite obvious reasons. Tariffs, trade wars, the government shutdown that has no signs of being abated soon. Markets don’t like uncertainty, chaos or unpredictability.

The S&P500 has gone down by 15% since October. Apple has lost 38% of its market capitalization in the same time frame. My phone has repeatedly received notifications on the 52-week lows of the stocks in my portfolio for the past few weeks.

The knives have started falling. Should you stand still and try to catch the falling knives?

I listened to the interview between Tim Ferriss and Howard Marks, the author of the book: The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for The Thoughtful Investor; which I highly recommend.

Howard argued that it is only when the knives are falling are people terrified and do the bargains show up. If we wait till the dust settles, the bargain will be gone. But when should one start buying to take advantage of the downturn? It’s up to one’s skills. Howard also cautioned that buying during the downturn isn’t enough to guarantee returns. Investors have to be right first and if investors want to outperform the markets and everyone else, they must have insights that no one has or the 2nd layer of thoughts.

If you are interested in investing and business, it is a great interview with a lot of insights. Have a listen while driving or working out or cleaning your place. It’s worth your time.

Book: The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for The Thoughtful Investor

I am in the middle of the book: The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for The Thoughtful Investor by Howard Marks. It looks to be a short book, but 40% in the book, I have been delighted by the concise and thoughtful insights the author shares in his words. If you are a fan of value investing or the investing philosophy made famous by Ben Graham, Warren Buffett or Charlie Munger, this book should not surprise you as many topics touched upon by Howard Marks follow the same philosophy.

One of the best lessons I have learned so far from the book is the difference between first-level thinking and second-level thinking. The goal of investing is to outperform the market and other investors. It’s not easy as information is widely accessible now, making it highly challenging to gain some insights that few others know. Nonetheless, if gained, the contrarian thinking or unpopular but correct insights will enable superior returns compared to the returns of market or other investors.

First-level thinking can be done by almost everyone. It’s “simplistic and superficial”. First-level thinkers have an opinion about the future as in “the outlook for the company is favorable, meaning the stock will go up”. Second-level thinking is deep, convoluted and complex. Second-level thinkers arrive at conclusions and forecasts that are both correct and not thought of by the consensus. But it’s hard to do so.

There are many other lessons offered in the book. I highly recommend it if you are interested in investing. After all, we can’t get rich without making money while we are sleeping, can we?