Harsh Economics: Invest in Growth at a Reasonable Price (GARP)

This post of mine was published recently on American Express’s OPEN Forum.  I’ve reproduced it here for my readers.

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Tough Times

Harsh times provide opportunities. Our current economic distress has dislodged entire industries. The legal profession in is the midst of a soul-search that will end up with a lot fewer partners and associates to support them. Investment banking is a shell of its former self. My field, financial advisory, is seeing a sea-change in both how the industry is structured and how services are delivered. New firms are being built on the ashes of former historically relevant businesses.

In any period like this, many people will find themselves pushed out the door or sitting on their hands waiting for things to recover. Other businesses will realize that opportunities are to be had while everyone is scrambling for cover.

Taking Risks are Risky, Right?

Those more aggressive businesses must be able to quanitify the risk inherent in pushing ahead in treacherous times. Those investing in their businesses must content with the following hampering — nagging — questions:

  • What if the markets don’t bounce back?
  • What happens if I go after growth only to realize there isn’t any?
  • What if my business has evolved away from those spots I’m investing in?
  • What if more economic shoes drop and things grind to a near-standstill?
  • What is my backstop?

I’d like to provide a framework for quantifying the risk in expanding during times of crisis and apply some homespun rules to help guide small businesses through these times.

Fidelity Investment’s Peter Lynch: GARP Guru
Peter Lynch was a men amongst boys in his career as a mutual fund manager. Handily beating most benchmarks for years, Lynch devised a strategy of investing in GARP, or Growth At a Reasonable Price.

From Investopedia.com

Lynch attributed his success to being able to invest in winning, growing businesses at fair prices. He didn’t mind paying up for a winning business, but he did mind overpaying for a winning business.

What was Lynch’s success?

GARP, or Growth At a Reasonable Price, allowed Lynch to swing for the fences but made sure to cast a skeptical eye on outlandish growth. Lynch would pass on potential investments if growth prospects were too high. For Lynch, taking on risk was OK but companies growing by leaps and bounds were just too risky for his portfolio.

How to Lower Risk When Shooting for the Stars

For Lynch, much of his analysis boiled down to using a metric called the PEG ratio. This metric throws past earnings, current prices, and expectations for future growth into a blender and spits out a number that shows whether or not a company is currently undervalued or overvalued. Most insightfully, it compares how a company’s current valuation stacks up against the market’s expectations for its growth. According to Lynch’s methodology, the lower the PEG ratio, the more cheaply investors can invest in future growth.

So What Does GARP Have to Do with Small Business?

Lynch believed the major step to achievement is investing in growth. In taking chances. In swinging for fences. But he also believed that investors needed to hedge their bets. Go for middle of the pack growth. In Lynch’s terms, invest in those projects that offer pretty sure return on investment and don’t carry the risk of firehose growth.

In other words, incrementalize your growth by launching smaller projects requiring minimal investments.

8 Examples of How Small Businesses Can Find GARP

  1. Hire or tap a team member to start a blog. Blogging is not about merely having a foothold in the blogosphere. It’s about carving out a space for you to show the world that you and your team/business are experts in whatever you do.
  2. Create a low budget, high impact social media strategy. It costs nothing and both surgically targets your market participants and along with your blog, can further brand you an expert in your vertical. Twitter and Facebook are like a powerful marketing drug.
  3. Explore ancillary revenue sources: Ghostwriting, keynote speaking, outsourced projects. Vertical integration, consulting, advisory work. Your position in the industry opens you up to many different potential, revenue-producing activities. Getting involved with new revenue-producing projects may enable you to stumble on the future growth vehicle for your business.
  4. Focus on referrals: Financial advisory work thrives on the word-of-mouth, old-school referral. “You should meet with X; he’s a really sharp guy…” Think of referrals as a marketing channel within your business and get serious about strategizing how to get more. Target happy customers and overlapping business partners.
  5. Write a book: It just takes time and you probably have an entire tome of material floating around in your head. The content of the book should represent that you’re an expert and focus on a theme that you think target clients/customers would like to read about. Find a publisher or just self-publish on Lulu.com.
  6. Start a radio program: Little cost, high impact. Find new prospects and let existing customers know about your content. Use BlogTalkRadio to broadcast and promote yourself and your program.
  7. Partner for profits: Reach out to a valued partner and develop a new product or service lacking in your industry. You’ll find new revenue opportunities, create a new source of sales prospects, and grease the referral channel.
  8. Educate others and yourself along the way: Education sells. Bad job markets provide an opportunity for adults to retrain and invest in themselves and get new skills. Can you expand your business by teaching others? Chinese medicine practitioners who teach Chinese medicine in local schools will find that students are also potential clients.

Upheaval is unsettling. Many of us will fret ourselves into lethargy. Others will take the opportunities given by the market to invest in growth. Some will whiff big while the smart, well-thought-out business leaders of today and the future will make hedged bets during this period of uncertainty to grow their way to future profits.

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Future of online trading: App stores for investing

It’s been a truism that the secret to runaway success in technology has PlatformLeadershipBookalways been in platform building.

I learned about the intricacies of building platform leadership from a book by the same name, “Platform Leadership” which I read during my MBA. The book by Gawer and Cusumano detailed how Cisco, Intel and Microsoft drove industry innovation by building a robust, standardized technology platform other leading-edge products could plug into.

The premise of the book was powerful: companies that could create products/services that served the center of a powerful ecosystem of ancillary items built on top of these products become extremely valuable.  Think Intel Inside and Microsoft’s dominance of the OS.  Presently, think of what Salesforce.com is doing with its platform as well as Apple’s iPhone App Store.  By creating a platform around which 3rd party developers are incentivized to design and build products, these companies have created something much more valuable and harder to displace than a mere product.  They’ve created a platform.

Investment field riddled with platforms

The investment field is riddled with platforms, too.  Bloomberg runs an empire based on an install-base of thousands of terminals in most of the leading investment institutions around the world.  You want to reach institutional investors with financial content? Gotta work through Bloomberg.  Yahoo Finance is the granddaddy of financial websites, far and away seeing more pageviews than any of its competitors.  You want to reach the retail investor, gotta get on Yahoo Finance.

Platforms provide necessary structure to certain markets.  In the investment field, platforms like Bloomberg and Yahoo Finance serve to

  • Aggregate content: investors don’t have to hunt down information by doing hundreds of Boolean searches on the Internet.  By serving as content aggregators, the platforms serve as a clearing house and central node to consumer info.
  • Establish an orderly market: Platforms create order by creating certain standards for their products and partners.  Bloomberg and Yahoo Finance established syndication guidelines via which partners must comply to be on the platform.
  • Create viable business models: It’s not clear to me that many investment research products could survive on a standalone basis.  Investors don’t like to pay for content and by aggregating pageviews on a single site, Yahoo Finance actually creates a viable business model for their partners and shares it out with them.
  • Consolidates usage to make single a jumpoff point to reach users: By consolidating the market, making it orderly and putting viable financial metrics behind it, finance platforms are the gateway to the users.  It’s too hard, complicated and expensive to reach investors directly.  These platforms act as market makers for the investment content bringing suppliers and customers together.

Online Brokerages as Investment Platform

While reviewing a recent product/service that E*Trade launched last week, I stumbled upon the realization that online brokerages are doing the exact same thing that Apple is doing around the iPhone.

In fact, it’s a HUGE misnomer to call these firms “online brokers”.  What were once merely online trading systems, companies like Ameritrade and E*Trade are actually now in the platform business.  As this evolution develops away from just trading toward the development of a true investment platform, these firms are creating something so much larger than just online trading or banking services.  I like the term “investment platform”.

Ameritrade’s Premier Partners

platformpartners

Check out what Ameritrade is doing with its partner platform.  This page lists a handful of 3rd party applications that run on top of Ameritrade for clients to receive trading alerts, Jim Cramer’s wisdom, ongoing advice about when to sell and some nifty charting.

None of these services are completely groundbreaking in and of themselves, but Ameritrade is establishing itself as the nucleus of the investment ecosystem.  By allowing developers to build tools and hook them up to Ameritrade’s API, the firm is concretizing its position as the investment platform of choice.

You want to reach investors?  Gotta get on the platform.

While the platform provider has an unbelievable amount of power, on the other hand, having a platform enables software/services developers to effectively reach the investor smack dab in the middle of the investment process — something heretofore impossible to do.  Look to see a lot of services develop around this ecosystem.

It’s like milk — for everyone

It’s a boon for Ameritrade — they can provide more services for their client base without developing them in-house.  It’s a boon for consumers because they no longer have to wait on their broker to provide new services.  It’s a boon for software developers because a move toward a platform puts them in business.

Maybe this was self-evident.  Maybe others understood that this evolution was unfolding right in front of us. In fact, both Ameritrade and E*Trade have allowed 3rd party financial advisors access to their platform, technology, services and clients for years.  Yet, I think this is a huge breakthrough in the understanding of what the future holds for these particular firms, their clients and technology development. It’s the financial industry’s equivalent of a mash-up.

Exciting.

Additional Resources

SkyGrid: Case study on ad-supported investment media

Is the elusive “Bloomberg for the masses” attainable?  Of course, most do-it-yourself investors cannot afford the cost of thousands of dollars per month for these expensive terminals.  But, what about making a platform free for subscribers and monetizing the platform via advertising?

That’s exactly what SkyGrid is attempting.  Until recently, SkyGrid charged $6000 per seat/year for a flash interface that allows users to track financial news on stocks and sectors they’re interested in.  In April, the company, which raised $11M in April from top venture firms, transitioned away from a premium model to a completely free model.  SkyGrid has made free accounts available to New Rules of Investing readers.  If you’re interested, go here to sign up for a free account: http://www.skygrid.com/reg/?id=8x89a9e3

The Service

skygrid_home

SkyGrid users log in to their accounts over the web via their browsers.  Once in, users are greeted with the only human-arranged editorial component on the platform: the day’s top or breaking financial stories.

SkyGrid produces a user-defined customizable news-stream.  Users of the system can customize SkyGrid to continuously stream stories about stocks in their portfolios.  SkyGrid compiles this content based on what the company described as a complex, multi-step process that includes:

  • crawling/scraping data/headlines from feeds in real time
  • validating reputation (link structure, click volumes) to weed out only content appropriate for a high-end user, like a hedge fund manager
  • testing if the content is important/impactful  for investors (Steve Jobs = important for Apple),
  • applying sentiment indicators (green if the content is positive, red if it’s not) via semantic analysis developed by computational linguists (something the firm says is very different from keyword analysis)
  • real time clustering (grouping various articles around similar themes)

The upshot is that users get a vertical stream of  headlines which they can click through to read the entire article.

Pros:

  • The system works really quickly and it appears to be eerily on target with its content.
  • I found very few articles streaming by that weren’t interesting or important for shareholders.
  • I believe this comes from good science, programming, user interface and tying it all together, a focus on investors.  SkyGrid has developed this for investor use and investor use only and it shows.
  • It even follows Twitter streams where more and more investment content is being shared

Cons:

  • This may be another case of coming to a knife fight with a gun or a solution looking for a problem.  I found the amount of information hard to digest.  As an hedge fund analyst, I was paid to discover profitable investments.  Does actually having this amount of information make me better at that?  I’m not convinced.

Building News Streamsskygrid_portfolio

Because SkyGrid is a smart, content aggregator built with investors in mind (as opposed to some of their competitors that are merely trying to sell to investors), SkyGrid has some interesting functionality when it comes to customization of news streams.

  • Uploading tickers of portfolio: for institutional investors monitoring lots of stocks, the ability to upload a list of tickers makes it really easy to set up
  • Sector analysis: I like what SkyGrid has done here.  Instead of using old-hack sectoror industry number/jargon, SkyGrid allows investors to monitor sectors the way they think about investing in them.  So, no “information retrieval” for “web portals” or “hardware components” for “consumer electronics”.  This isn’t trivial and is quite useful.

Pros:

  • customizing a news stream is really easy on SkyGrid.
  • upload function is really helpful for professionals or retail investors monitoring a lot of positions
  • sector tools approach industry analysis the way investors do, not like the Dewey Decimal system does
  • Good filter system gives users ability to tune out blogs, mainstream media, news wires, etc.

Cons:

  • I’d like more help here with idea generation.  For many investors, they know exactly what they want to monitor.  Others need help.  Maybe pre-seeded news streams with commonly held stocks could help.  Or maybe seeing celebrity investors’ news streams could help prod users for ideas.  I think more work here will help many retail investors as well as professionals who are less web-savvy.
  • While the filtering provided allows investors to tune out certain types of sources, it would be more interesting to filter out specific sources.  Maybe I’m interested in TechCrunch.  Or maybe I’m not.  I’d like to be able to decide as I go to amplify or drown out certain sources.

Social components

There are a few important components built-in on SkyGrid that connects the platform to the greater whitespace of social networks:

  1. Each of the streaming headlines can be easily posted to social networks like Twitter, adding to the virality of the platform, though it’s unclear to me if there are any beneficial network effects for users by having additional users on the platform (it’s clearly good for SkyGrid’s marketing and distrubition).
  2. The customizable news-stream can be shared out with others, much in the way content aggregator, Alltop allows users to create my.alltop.com (see my.alltop.com/zackmiller, as an example)
  3. Users can rate that they like certain articles.  These articles are then tagged so users can revisit them.  At the aggregate level, there is even some rudimentary ranking of top favorited items.

Pros:

  • Basic sharing functionality outside of the SkyGrid platform onto social networks.

Cons:

  • There don’t seem to be any (easy to find, at least) internal social components.  I’d like more insight into others’ news streams.  That voyeurism works well for me and on the web in general.  We’re seeing portfolio peeking in expert investing communities, like Covestor.
  • analytics: I can’t put my finger on it exactly but there is probably some interesting stuff to be done here with meta information that would be useful for investors.  I’d like to see some data (ie., 76% of articles on Apple are normally positive, today shows only 25% — maybe the beginning of a turn in sentiment)

New Rules of Investing Overall Ratingraiders-sword_l

UsabilityPass +

SkyGrid does everything it purports to do.  It’s a great user experience to have an ongoing conversation stream of all the stocks and sectors in one’s portfolio. The filters are great — read only that content that’s pertinent to a shareholder.  The rest is just noise and SkyGrid tunes it out.

New Rules Meter:    Pass-

This is a level of how Web 2.0 the site actually is.  The site scrapes and analyzes content really well but doesn’t do a great job of sharing/producing content withing its own 4 walls.  Unlike Twitter, which combines both external content and commentary on top of it, SkyGrid seems a pretty static environment at this point.  Because we’re dealing with financial information, this could certainly be by design but it would be interesting to create some type of network effect, where users can also create content and share.

Needs Fulfillment: Questionable

It’s here that I struggle.  SkyGrid does what it does quite well.  I’m just not convinced anyone really NEEDS it.  Combine a chintzy Yahoo Finance with StockTwits and a good blog aggregator like Google Reader and how much do you really miss?  SkyGrid is another program that demands attention.  I like to keep a separate window open on a separate screen from where I’m looking just to let it scroll — much in the same way I use the Twitter client, TweetDeck.  I like it but just not sure how ultimately valuable this is.  It’s like half-listening into a conference call or letting CNBC play in the background.

That’s just me — what do you think?  What are your perspectives on SkyGrid?

I’m going to use a future post to delve into the business model — turning an institutional-grade investment platform into an ad-supported thin client.  Stay tuned.

SkyGrid has made free accounts available to New Rules of Investing readers.  If you’re interested, go here to sign up for a free account: http://www.skygrid.com/reg/?id=8x89a9e3

Like what you’ve read?  Don’t forget to subscribe to receive free daily updates from New Rules o fInvesting.  You can also follow us on Twitter.

WSJ is wrong about the future of investment research

Very interesting article yesterday at the Wall Street Journal.  Entitled, “Stock-Research Reform to Die“, the article describes what’s happened in the wake of Eliot Spitzer’s landmark settlement against Wall Street brokers in 2003.

StockResearchUnderusedByRetailBrokerageAccording to the WSJ, this settlement was part of a wider Wall Street wrist-slap against ingrained culture that issued “overly optimistic stock research in order to win investment banking business.”

One of the results of the settlement required major brokerage houses to spend $460+ million on independent stock research for their clients.

The WSJ’s conclusion: six years later and almost no clients are using independent research.

At Credit Suisse, which has mostly institutional clients, the number of times retail clients accessed independent research from the firm’s Web site ranged from 16 during the third year of the settlement to 110 the first year.

At the old Salomon Smith Barney — now part of Morgan Stanley’s Morgan Stanley Smith Barney — its roughly 4 million retail households accessed about 12,000 reports each month. Less than 2% of Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s Private Wealth Management clients likely downloaded a report each month, according to data from the public reports.

The WSJ mentions 3 reasons why investors haven’t taken up independent research at their broker:

  1. investors rely upon their brokers to act as a screen:  While 11% of brokers consumed independent research at least occasionally, they typically don’t send independent research out to clients.
  2. investors don’t rely as heavily on stock research today as they used to: “In the late 1990s, a positive report from a hot analyst could send a stock soaring. That effect is more muted today.”
  3. structural changes away from brokers to advisors: Commission-based business is old-school.  It’s been replaced by fee-based professionals acting as advisors.  There is less emphasis on trading at the retail level and less need for this type of research.  Combined with chinese walls going up between brokerage and investment banking, banks are cutting back on research teams as research becomes harder to monetize without the tie-in with banking.

Just wanted to chime in with a couple of comments:

  • I agree that full-service brokerage clients rely upon their brokers to act as screens.  That’s why they pay them and why they work with an advisor.  The vast majority of clients do not know how to read research or want to be bothered.  They want a quick synopsis why they should own a particular stock and for that, the broker acts as a type of well-heeled Cliffs Notes.
  • Maybe investors weren’t even aware that independent research was an option?  Do they know why it’s important?  Are investors aware of the biases which still exist in sell-side research?
  • Why depend on the guilt party to distribute the cure to the sickness?  That’s nuts.
  • Totally disagree with the fact that investors don’t rely on research. I would say that it’s more accurate to say that given historical conflicts of interests, investors no longer trust institutional research.  Given the gaping void left by Wall Street and the rise of financial bloggers and aggregation sites like SeekingAlpha,  many investors are actually consuming more research on more companies than ever.  We’re in a Renaissance/Gold Run/Bull Market for investment content — it’s institutional research that’s not finding its footing.
  • It’s hard for brokers today. Without an edge in research or asymmetrical information, it’s hard to push stocks and get paid for it.  That’s why many brokers have become mere wolves-in-sheeps-clothing: they’re still brokers but get paid as advisors.  We’re also seeing the emergence of true financial fiduciaries who work extremely hard for their fees and performance for clients, in up and down markets.   These advisors are doing real research or hiring people who do and they’re the ones consuming the research, not clients.
  • I think we’re seeing the investment field changing so quickly before our eyes.  On one hand, we’re seeing investors go boutique and sign up with independent financial advisors.  This is like more full-service than full-service.  On the other hand, we’re seeing investors retake the reins of their portfolios and managing things on their own — classic DIY investing online.  There is also a middle ground of investors who want more control but also want professional advice to support them along the way.  Regardless of the model, someone is consuming research, whether it’s the client or the advisor.
  • We need new business models to foster more independent research to fill the gap left by Wall St.’s void.  Tools to rate accuracy and trust-worthiness.  Performance.  From individual positions in a portfolio to the dynamics of portfolio management in general.

Interesting to see that most of the firms polled in the WSJ article were not planning on continuing distributing independent research.  Some have jettisoned research while others are bolstering their efforts.  That still leaves a tremendous opportunity out there for anyone who can provide actionable advice to the majority of investors out there.

Additional Resources

E*Trade further blurs lines between full-service and DIY investing

Full(er) Service and DIY Investing: Investor Fork in the Road

There is no doubt we are witnessing a wholesale exodus of assets out of full-service brokers like Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney. These assets seem to be finding two very different types of homes:

  1. boutique investment advisory houses: Built by brokers/advisors who themselves have defected from the large wirehouses, these firms take service and advice very seriously. In some sense, they’re a further move into full-service. They are competing head-on with traditional brokerages by upping the ante on technology, service and investment advice.  Investors who feel slighted by their advisor and want the extra hand-holding find this model really attractive.  It’s interesting to note that many of these firms are being founded/built by traditional brokers evolving to this model.
  2. online brokerages: Firms like E*Trade and Ameritrade are taking the bulk of this business.  In the wake of the financial tsunami, some investors are looking to take back investment decisions and don’t want to pay someone else for underperformance.  Proof of this is in capital flowing to online brokerages.  E*Trade reported that it had net new accounts of almost 30,000 in the first quarter of 2009 with $3.5 billion in net new customer assets.

I’ve written about the emergent trend towards high end investment advisors and how traditional stock brokers are resurrecting themselves and building smaller, nimbler firms with their billion-dollar books of business.  I’ve spent less time discussing how online brokers are luring assets.

Online Advisoretrade_onlineadvisor

I had the opportunity last night to have a guided demo of a recently-launched E*Trade product, Online Advisor, with E*Trade’s Liat Rorer, VP of Investment Products.  Online Advisor, developed as part of E*Trade’s newly-minted Investor Resource Center, is a nifty little financial planner-in-a-box.

In a quick and easy 4-step process, Online Advisor: Continue reading

WSJ: Navigating online personal finance sites

I’m not particularly a fan of these Mainstream Media (MSM) overviews of Internet tools.  I find, more often than not, that they’re typically short on analysis and don’t help investors really navigate what’s really out there, why these tools are important, and how investors are successfully using them.

This short video piece (2:45) ran late last week on the Wall Street Journal’s website (sorry, couldn’t get the video to embed for some reason).  It’s a cursory overview of some sites focused on personal finance (Mint, Wesabe) with the perspective of more people wanting/needing to take control over their finances and investments in light of the recent financial tsunami.  The interviewee is Shelly Banjo, Dow Jones Newswire’s reporter on wealth management.

A couple of sites are mentioned explicitly.  Simplifi, a site that helps investors build their own financial plans, is mentioned as a good resource for do-it-yourself investors.   Covestor, a tool that allows investors to see what others are actually doing with their investment money, is cited as an important site “so you don’t have to take advice from some financial advisor trying to sell you something”.

Frustrating to see MSM’s  quick gloss-over of security and privacy issues.  When asked about security with some of these sites, Banjo responds, “It’s OK.  These sites have to be secure so people will use them.  So, they’re OK.”  In a way, she’s right.  No one would use these systems if there was a likelihood that his entire financial history and net worth made its way online.  Security is an important issue — I don’t think it’s enough to reason-away security issues.  Be sure to check security/privacy policies of any site you may consider using for online investing/personal finance.

Anyway, also check out Banjo’s “The Best Online Tools for Personal Finance” that ran in today’s WSJ.

Piggybacking investing gurus just got easier

AlphaClone is probably the best research platform out there for investors looking to recreate, or “clone”, portfolios developed by leading hedge fund and mutual fund managers.

money-laundry-with-water-reflection-effectAlphaClone is Mebane Faber’s online foray that implements much of the research he recently published in The Ivy Portfolio: How to Invest Like the Top Endowments and Avoid Bear Markets. It’s a good read and AlphaClone has Faber’s extremely-well researched homework embedded in its pixels.

AlphaClone has now taken its platform one-step further and partnered with Folio Investing to make it even easier for investors to implement the piggyback approach by allowing:

investors to buy an entire portfolio of securities at once with one transaction, and have any dollar amount automatically distributed at the proper percentage weights across all of the stocks in the portfolio.

You can see the Folios for portfolios like the Tiger Cubs and Berkshire Hathaway here.

AlphaClone also launched a clone for a portfolio designed by the popular investment blog, MarketFolly as well.

According to AlphaClone:

Marketfolly’s prefered clone from its new group is the Top 3 Holdings clone which is up 15% year-to-date and has returned 20% annualized since 2000 (yes 20%).(5/29/09).

Not too shabby.  AlphaClone is moving further into this space and will be launching more clone groups developed by stock bloggers.  This is another important way to bring transparency to the financial blogosphere and bring quantification to some of the leading voices out there.

More Resources: