What was your largest investment loss ever? I am sure you can remember it exactly. The company, what year, the amount and percentage lost.

Now try this?

What was your most successful investment ever. In terms of amount and percentage gain.

I am sure it’s a lot harder to come up with the exact details.

For the life of me I could not, I had to look it up.

This and a few other topics is what I discuss in this interview I did with a friend and fellow investment writer Jacob Wolinsky. You can read more about Jacob in his very informative value investing blog called ValueWalk.com

Jacob also writes for the value investing website called GuruFocus.com. You can find his articles here: GuruFocus articles by Jacob Wolinsky Now on to the interview.

How did you get started in investing?

From a young age I had an interest in business I was always trading and selling things at school. In high school I took accounting and that really fascinated me. In 1986, shortly after finishing school, I enrolled in a stock market correspondent course that really got me started thinking about investing. A year or so later I pooled my limited funds with an investment from my father and started to apply my investment knowledge in the real world.

Can you talk about your investment approach and how it has developed over time?

I made all the classical mistakes a beginning investor could make.

I lost a substantial part of the money my dad invested with me using technical analysis to purchase gold shares.

This taught me two important lessons.

One, be very careful of companies that have no control over the price of their products and secondly, technical analysis was not the Holy Grail I though it was.

I then lost even more money investing in ideas from ?helpful? brokers who of course wanted me to trade as much as possible.

With none of my ideas working I continued to read as much about investing as possible.

I somehow stumbled onto a book called ?Winning on the JSE? by Karl Posel an engineer and former Professor of Applied Mathematics.

This book was my introduction to value investing. It broke investing down into a logical process with the following steps:

  • If an investor does not know what he is doing then the stock exchange is no place to be doing it
  • Purchase only after the announcement of interim or final results
  • Buy only where interim or final results indicate increased earnings per share and/or dividend per share
  • Only purchase shares where the calculated value is more than the market price using sector price earnings ratios and earnings per share
  • Realize that the price of a share can behave illogically and have the courage of your convictions to realise that logic will once again return to the market.
  • Do not purchase a company’s shares if its long term loans are more than 20% of its share capital and reserves
  • Do not purchase shares of a company where its pre-tax return on capital employed is less than 15%
  • Do not purchase shares that have a weekly trading volume of less than 20,000
  • Have some knowledge of the company concerned. Satisfy yourself about its history, track record and modus operandi. Read Managing Director’s and Chairman’s reports
  • Sell when the price earnings ratio or net asset value exceeds the sector price earnings ratio or share price is higher than its net asset value

The book made immediate sense to me, giving me a framework that can be applied to investing.

For the next 20 plus years I studied the results of every possible book, research paper and investment study I could lay my hands on that showed superior long term performance ? and I still do.

This of course led me to Graham, Buffett, Dreman, O’Shaughnessy, Greenblatt, Piotroski etc. All this research led me to develop my own unique investment approach that is completely value investing based.

How did you weather 2008 and the first part of 2009?

I did quite well.

I had a bad 2007 because my largest investment went bankrupt.

I made the mistake of making my investment in a small UK company called Lambert Howarth a far too large part of my portfolio. The company lost a customer that made up 50% of its sales and soon thereafter announced it was entering administration.

It was a very painful lesson.

The reason for this digression is that this loss made me very careful as 2008 came by. I was also not finding a lot of really attractively valued companies.

This led to my portfolio being about 80% in cash when things started falling apart. It was still painful as I ended the year with a loss of 12.8%. This was not nearly as bad as the 33% loss the FTSE All Share had or the 46% loss of the Europe STOXX 600 index.

In 2009 I waited on the sidelines far too long. I thought there was going to be another leg down later in the year. This kept me out of the market to a large extent.

I ended 2009 with a gain of 6.5% while being 70% in cash, substantially less than the 25% and more world markets returned.

I wrote a lot of put options that made me a lot of money. So overall I did a lot better than the markets. Not losing nearly as much in 2008 but not gaining as much in 2009.

More information on my track record can be found at Eurosharelab – Track Record

How do you typically find ideas and what is your selection process before an idea gets added to your portfolio?

I use screeners a lot.

Over time I have put together a lot of criteria I screen for.

The screens come up with a list of companies that I analyse using a 50 point check list. The check list is not rocket science but it forces me to think systematically and not to overlook anything.

You can read more about the check list in the article What does your investment check-list look like?

Companies that make it through the checklist get analysed further. I read the annual reports, look at presentations and listen to conference calls when available.

Once I am comfortable that it’s a good business and there is a margin of safety I invest. I also read letters by investors I admire for investment ideas.

But I always do my own research.

Here is an article that can help you get investment ideas from other great investors. Get investment ideas from the best fund managers delivered

How many positions do you typically have in your portfolio and what are your ideas concerning portfolio composition?

As a general rule I try not to have more than 30 positions.

This is the number of companies I have found I can easily keep track of. More investments ties up too much time and I then am not able to look at enough new ideas.

Within the 30 companies position sizes vary. I used to have all my positions more or less equally sized but that changed when I did a lot of research on the subject and saw a great presentation by Zeke Ashton on the subject. I wrote about it in an article titled How concentrated should you be?

At the moment I have 29 positions in my portfolio with sizes ranging from 2% to 6.5%.


Describe some of your most notable investment mistakes and what did you learn from them?

This is an easy question to answer. Isn?t it funny how we remember losers but forget winners?

For the life of me cannot say what my best investment was. I can however easily say what my biggest mistakes were.

The largest one was Lambert Howarth, the huge loss I had in 2007 (mentioned above) when the company went into administration. I am still in the process of writing something about the whole process but the basic story is this.

In July 2006 I identified Lambert Howarth on one of my screens. It had no debt and cash equal to 7% of book value. It was trading at 0.44 times book value. Looking at the average of the last seven years the company was trading on a price to earnings ratio of 2.5 and 3.1 times free cash flow per share.

It had a market value of ?15.2 million and in 2005 bought back shares with a value of ?10.2 million. And based on the 2005 dividend it was trading on a 14.7% dividend yield.

You must admit the company was cheap.

I invested in August 2006 and after I invested the share price kept on going down. I re-did my analysis and bought more. As the share price declined I kept on buying more until the company made up 15% of my portfolio.

Shortly after I bought the last time the company announced that it had lost the Marks & Spencer shoe account, this was 50% of their business.

Not much later the company announced it was going into administration.

Looking back at my notes and analysis my decision to invest was correct. What was wrong was me continuing to buy as the share price went down.

Since then I am a lot more conservative with positions in small companies.

And I consider stop loss levels a lot more, especially if an investment continues to decline after I have decreased my average price by buying more as it drops.

My other large mistake is the sofa retailer SCS Upholstery that also went into administration after credit insurers cancelled its cover. You can read more about my experience with SCS in a comprehensive post mortem. It’s never too late to sell

Do you follow any key risk-management guidelines in managing your portfolio?

I do follow a relatively strict stop loss and trailing stop loss strategy.

I decided on following a stop loss strategy because of my experience with Lambert Howarth but also due to the following.

My investment process is focused on buying undervalued good businesses that have a high probability of increasing in price. But as investing is not an exact science I may also be wrong. I thus want the investments I have correctly identified to run but minimise losses from wrong decisions as quickly as possible.

I also follow a trailing stop loss strategy mainly on investments that have substantially increased in price. I started doing this after looking over the performance of investments after selling (I keep a separate portfolio) and realised that a lot of the investments went on to increase a lot further in price after selling at what I thought was fair value. In order to participate in this momentum I follow a trailing stop loss strategy on companies I have classified as fairly valued.

I also move these fairly companies to a separate part of my portfolio.

What is the current geographic mix of your portfolio?

I would have to calculate it as it’s not something I purposefully look at.

I have no limits on country concentration; I look for undervalued companies irrespective of where in the world they may be.

How do you manage currency exposures?

I have done a lot of research on the subject but in the end it all pointed in the direction that it’s not worth it. I thus do not.

My own portfolio is also a too small.

You can only really hedge currencies economically once you have a portfolio of ?5 million or more. A good research paper on the topic can be found at the Brandes Institute (http://www.brandes.com/Institute) called ?Currency Hedging Programs: A Long-Term Perspective (April 2007)?

How did you get involved in writing an investment blog and publish a newsletter?

I wanted to write something like a blog for the German private bank I was working at. They however declined the idea due to regulatory concerns.

The idea did not want to go away and I asked management if I can do it in my private capacity. Because of my investment approach being so different to that of the bank they agreed.

So in June 2009 Eurosharelab was born.

What has been your most notable success while blogging and why?

When I set up my website I also wanted to write something to educate investors. Especially someone that was new to investing.

I started a free newsletter where I write about things I would have liked to know when I started investing. I try to only include the most valuable things I have learned over more than 20 years of experience.

I am pleased a lot of visitors have found it helpful. At the end of February 2011 I had more than 1200 subscribers.

What has been your most read blog posts and why?

The most popular page on my site is a resource page I put together on James Montier. It is basically just a long list, sorted by year, of all the articles I could find on him in the internet.

I met James at a seminar in Italy and really liked the way he explained complex investing principles in an easy to understand way. Also he backs up everything he says with data or research. You can find the page here: James Montier Resource Page

Other popular articles in declining order of popularity are:

Europe’s highest dividend yields

What does your investment check-list look like?

Investing simplified: 6 steps to overcome information overload

I mainly write about things I have found helpful. From the comments I have receive its unbelievable how we all struggle with the same problems and we think we are all alone.

Where do you mostly look for investment ideas?

I mainly look at small and mid-cap companies in Europe the UK and Scandinavia as I have found them to be the most undervalued.

There are such a lot of outstanding value investors that look at the US market that the under-valuation is not nearly as large as in Europe.

Tim, thanks for your time

Jacob it’s been a pleasure.

Your interviewing analyst