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How to Analyze a Business, the Sherlock Holmes Way

Peter Bevelin has written a few amazing books, like Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, A Few Lessons for Investors and Managers, and the latest All I Want To Know Is Where I’m Going To Die So I’ll Never Go There.

But one of his lesser-known books that I have on my all time favourites lists is A Few Lessons from Sherlock Holmes. Through this book, Bevelin has distilled Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes into bite-sized principles and key quotes. In fact, this book is much more than a collection of quotes. It is a way to learn the powers of observation, understand the limits of our mind, and counter the narrative fallacy.

Bevelin writes in the book…

What distinguishes Holmes from most mortals is that he knows where to look and what questions to ask. He pays attention to the important things and he knows where to find them.

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Oh, My Impatient Generation!

I met a guy yesterday who spent the past ten years of his life – and he’s just 32 years of age – destroying his body with alcohol, excessive food, and a sedentary lifestyle.

“I have resolved to be fit, lean and healthy in the next six months,” he told me with great confidence.

Well, not surprisingly, he got irritated when I told him that it might take a little longer than six months to achieve what he wanted.

His reaction wasn’t much different from a cousin of mine, who recently told me how she wanted to become a life coach and was ready to do whatever it took to get there in one year.

When I asked her, “What if it takes you ten years to get there, instead of one?” she had no answer.

Clearly, she hadn’t considered the possibility that years of learning, experience and skill development could be one of the necessary success ingredients in becoming a good life guru. But she wanted the results without all this work…or by investing the necessary time.

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Why I Don’t Invest in Banking Stocks

In October 2016, I had written a post about how I let an opportunity to buy HDFC Bank in the middle of 2006 pass by, and why I have never come to regret that decision (the stock has turned into a 10-bagger since then!).

My reasons to miss that stock was my inability to understand the complexities of the banking and finance business, and more importantly that I have never trusted banks to uphold high levels of honesty and integrity in their business operations.

I received a lot of brickbats for that post for castigating an entire sector (and the bank) that has created so much wealth for shareholders in the past, and that constitutes such a big part of India’s stock market capitalization.

Well, I stand by my thoughts which, by the way, are my personal thoughts and are not binding on you to also avoid stocks from the banking and financial services space.

Investing is a personal affair, and what makes me uncomfortable can be comfortable for you, and vice versa.

Anyways, now the question is – Why am I writing a second post on my unwillingness to invest in banking stocks?

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Bull Market and Bad Habit of Being Right

Picture this: It is 2019, and you are watching the cricket World Cup finals. India is playing Pakistan. It’s the start of the 42nd over of India’s run chase. Yuvraj Singh has just hit Pakistan’s lead spinner for five sixes in the first five balls of the over.

Yuvraj is on a hot streak. He had hit the same spinner for six sixes in a row in a match on the same ground last year. So, he is going to hit the next one out of the park as well, right?

Keeping aside the patriotism that is much seen in an India-Pakistan match, you, like most Indian cricket fans would unhesitatingly reply, “Yes!”

Well, that assumption doesn’t say as much about Yuvraj’s skills as it does about how our brains work. In fact, it tells a lot about how we humans have evolved.

Anyways, coming back to your assumption (conclusion) that Yuvraj will deliver even the last ball for a six is, well, way off the mark. Statistically, Yuvraj isn’t significantly more likely to hit a six on this last ball than he is to get caught at the boundary, whatever hot streak he may be going through.

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Analyze a Stock in 60 Minutes (Free Stock Analysis Excel Version 2.0)

A few readers have accused me in the past of being a sadist who wants them to do the dirty work of analyzing companies on their own, instead of simply recommending stocks like so many other blogs do.

But I’d rather give you a compass instead of a map, for you can confuse map with territory and lose your life’s savings walking that path!

In this pursuit of handing you another compass, here is Version 2.0 of my Stock Analysis Excel Sheet that you can download on to your computer, and analyze not just the past performance of a company but also arrive at its approximate intrinsic value.

If you have been into financial modelling in the past, this excel file may seem like a child’s play. But, if my fourteen years of experience as an analyst is anything to go by, this is most of all you require to “quantitatively” analyse stocks…not models running into hundreds of rows and tens of sheets.

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Two Wise Men: Stories for Children Inspired from the Wit and Wisdom of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger

In July 2016, Bill Gates wrote a memoir on his 25 years of friendship with Warren Buffett. Here is how Gates started his memoir –

I don’t remember the exact day I first met most of my friends, but with Warren Buffett I do. It was 25 years ago today: July 5, 1991.

I think the date stands out in my mind so clearly because it marked the beginning of a new and unexpected friendship for Melinda and me—one that has changed our lives for the better in every imaginable way.

Warren has helped us do two things that are impossible to overdo in one lifetime: learn more and laugh more.

That last note caught my attention. Including the two lessons that Gates learned from Warren, there are four most important lessons I have learned from studying the latter and his partner Charlie Munger over the past 15+ years.

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Beware the Boredom of Bull Market

At my Hyderabad Value Investing workshop that I conducted last Sunday, I had a participant who asked – “What you’ve said about long term investing in the stock market is all good. But doesn’t it get boring after a time? I mean, first the process of reading annual reports to find good businesses, and then if you find some, holding on to them for the long run doing nothing. How does one maintain interest in this thing? How does one make this process and journey exciting?”

I thought these were good questions. In fact, questions like these used to bother me when I started out on my journey of reading annual reports, analyzing financial statements, and practicing long term investing more than a decade back.

In fact, I met an accomplished investor friend at a conference recently, who confessed of boredom because he was not able to find stocks worth buying in this rising market. “Even if you are a long-term investor, what do you do but feel bored when you don’t find anything worth buying because everything seems to be so inflated?” he questioned.

“I agree,” I said.

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Notes from Howard Marks’ Lecture: 48 Most Important Things I Learned on Investing

“If you were to read just five books in your life to become a sensible investor,” I often suggest people seeking my view, “…they have to be Warren Buffett’s letters, Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Peter Lynch’s One Up on Wall Street, Ben Graham’s The Intelligent Investor, and Howard Marks’ memos.”

Well, if you don’t know who Howard Marks is, let me tell you he is the CEO of Oaktree Capital and is one of the most famous investors who manages to keep a low profile, despite managing almost US$ 100 billion. Marks is also the author of an amazing book – The Most Important Thing: Uncommon Sense for the Thoughtful Investor. In its ultimate praise, Warren Buffett writes, “This is that rarity, a useful book”.

Howard Marks - Oaktree Capital

I have been reading and re-reading Marks’ memos for a few years now, so was very fortunate to attend a lecture he gave in Mumbai yesterday titled – The Truth About Investing.

It was an enlightening session, just to be in the presence of this legend and hear him out live.

I made some notes from Marks’ lecture, which I present below (most of these are direct quotes from Marks). He calls these lessons as the “brutal truths” of investing. As you would realize while reading the notes, these indeed are brutal truths – stuff that is easier said than done.

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