Thoughts on selling stocks, margin of safety and Mr. Market.
Recently two stocks I sold have had been on a tear. I sold Value Vision (VVTV) and IGO (IGOI) for some pretty substantial gains. I sold IGOI for a %120 gain after holding it for 5 months in a tax deferred account. I unwound VVTV in lots ranging from %870 to %300 gains in taxable and tax deferred accounts. The proceeds were re-invested in other positions which have performed well but in the short term I left some money on the table by not keeping the positions I had. Keyword here being short term.
I spend a lot of time thinking about my actions trying to determine if I made the right or wrong decision and if I made wrong decision, what lesson I need to take from the experience to apply to future endeavors. So of course one of the questions I asked myself is did I sell too early?
One thing I try to remind myself of in situations like this is “What the market does after you open or close a position really has no bearing on the quality of your decision.” While I would like to take credit for that thought, I imagine it was probably inspired by something I read from someone much wiser and with more experience under their belt. In essence what I am trying to say is that especially in the short term you should not use the market to judge your decisions. Even though the market values VVTV at over $7 and IGOI at over $4, that is not an indication on the quality of my decision to sell at cheaper prices.
Why? The answer really boils down to my investment philosophy. I started investing because I felt I strongly identified with the value investing framework. It makes sense to me and I feel confident that if applied with discipline it can lead to superior performance. While there are many interpretations of the value investing framework, one of the core tenets of value investing is the “Margin of Safety”. Buffett’s early investment style was influenced by his mentor Ben Graham. His style today is probably influenced by many people, two of which are Phil Fisher and his long time partner at Berkshire Charlie Munger. As his style has evolved the margin of safety is still a key component.
I entered both of these positions because I felt they provided adequate margins of safety trading at good discounts to their liquidation value and in both cases the companies had the chance turn around their business as an ongoing concern. So far they have both been making good progress and the market is treating them nicely for that progress. However lets not forget that these are not fantastic businesses with strong moats. So in my case, I bought them at discount to their value dead and got a premium because things worked out well. If only all situations could work out that way!
Both of these companies have a chance of success however once the margin of safety is gone there is nothing to backstop the value. Both of these companies have to execute with little or no error to continue on the upward path they are on. In this case the value the market puts on their progress is of no concern to me, what is of concern is the companies strength and the margin of safety I have if I hold.
Buffett has said that the best businesses are ones that can be run by a ham sandwich, because someday a ham sandwich will run them. I did not enter these positions because of their great business, I entered them because the market was selling them a large discount. They were Graham style cigar butts.
In the event that they enjoy great success long term the shares will appreciate accordingly, however in the event that they fail there is a higher risk of capital loss than I am comfortable with. Unlike companies with strong moats they can’t afford to make mistakes for a year or two. They must do a lot of things right.
So in conclusion when thinking about selling stocks do not think about the market. Think about the business and the margin of safety it offers at its current price. If you do that you will probably be right more often than you are wrong.
Disclosure: No positions in the stocks mentioned in this article.