Adapting the Search for Hidden Champions in Asia

In the Asian capital jungles, outbreaks of accounting frauds, corporate governance lapses, and asset expropriation are erupting on a systematic basis at the firm level. These render elaborate quant screens and valuation metrics increasingly less relevant, and value investors need to go the extra mile beyond the accounting numbers and factors.

Good is not the absence of evil. Even if the investor somehow manages to eliminate the “evil” ones with potential misgovernance and accounting tunnelling fraud to limit the downside risks, we might still neglect and overlook the good resilient compounders. Each time there is a credit crisis punctuating the markets, there is an increasing premium on valuation for wide-moat business models in Asia as the Innovators stand apart from the Imitators and the swarming Incompetents.

Value investors in Asia need to take the leap to become more Munger-like in selecting companies with wide-moats that can generate compounding returns rather than dwell with a false sense of security in the realm of statistically cheap stocks that can turn out to be either fraudulent or value traps as time progresses. Value investors also cannot scale up their position size in these stocks with conviction, especially in the Asian capital jungles. The fund manager that takes on new money “diversifies” into more stocks in hundreds of small bets that melt down with a destructive destabilising price impact in systematic risk and market deleveraging situations. This results in the all-too-common phenomenon in which managing a bigger asset size perils performance to achieve superior long-run investment returns.

Thus, we have focused on a two-step process to identify wide- moat compounders in the Asian capital jungles:

Step 1:

Eliminating firms with potential accounting fraud and misgovernance risks, taking away the fear factor of investing in fraudulent stocks with deceptive visual signals that include low price-to-book, low PE ratios,  high  profit  margins and ROE, decent accounts receivables and  inventory  turnover period, and high net cash or high net current asset value as percentage  of  market  cap.  Accounting information can be used to inform or to deceive. In other words, Step 1 eliminates Asian companies which escape the western-based financial tools by intricate “tunnelling” acts via unusual related-party transactions, money-go-round off balance sheet activities, consolidation craftiness fraud, and so on, leaving defiled returns for the minority shareholders;

Step 2:

Analysing and assessing the business model for its resiliency, innovations, and wide-moat characteristics to  eliminate the risk of investing in value traps whereby companies appear cheap based on conventional valuation  metrics such as Price- Earnings Ratio but their business models have hit a stall point in scaling up further, and cheap gets cheaper. To assess whether companies can overcome a crisis, we systematically evaluate the underlying source of the wide-moat: (1) the “indestructible intangible asset” that stems from having proprietary know-how in product, process, and first-hand knowledge of the ground situation  of  their  focused  targeted  underserved  customer group, and/or the trust and support from its community of suppliers and partners; (2) the “core-periphery network”  which is about decentralisation and empowerment of the frontliners, scaling the business with technology as an enabler embedded into the business model design; and (3) the “open innovation model”  in working  with internal  and  external partners to  co- develop new products.

We believe we are fairly adept in Step 1; we are honoured and grateful to have had the opportunity to share our thoughts and to have a sincere and productive conversation on 23 September 2015 with the top management team of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) – Mr Paul Yuen, Head  of Market Conduct; Ms  Gillian Tan,  Head  of Enforcement Division; Ms  Lee  King See,  Director   (Enforcement  &  Investigations);  Mr  Ang  Eng Seng, Deputy  Director;  Mr Eric Chia, Deputy  Director;  and  the team  at the Secondary Markets & Enforcement Division – about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore as well as the public and investment community.

When it comes to Step 2, it is easy to commit the mistake of fitting what we see and learn about the competitiveness of  the   firm  into  the   “model”   of  wide-moat characteristics such as  “high switching cost”, “network  effect”,  “low cost advantage”, “efficient  scale”, or “intangible assets”.  This descriptive approach into fitting observations into the model is categorisation through analogy, and its #1 flaw is stocks are categorised into moats AFTER they become obvious.

We realise that for the wide-moat companies in which we have thought deeper about a Step 3:

The story and validated committed actions of how when they Love, Serve, and Care with a Purpose larger than themselves, they tend to outperform. In essence, the story of Lee Kuan Yew and the founding pioneers and entrepreneurs of Singapore Inc, visionaries, business model architects, and capital allocators- administrators par excellence bringing important experiences and making critical choices that leave a lasting organisational imprint. The “real precious gems” Lee Kuan Yew describes in the opening quote that clearly distinguish themselves from the “many beautifully colored” pebbles on the beach “but they are all stones”.

Consider this: Would you use cheap wood for the back of a cabinet, since nobody is going to see it?

A great carpenter wouldn’t. Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett wouldn’t.

Steve Jobs shared the story of how he was inspired by his dad who taught the young Jobs that it was important to craft the back of cabinets and fences properly, even though they were hidden. “He loved doing things right. He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn’t see,”  Jobs explained, a motto that guided him to build Apple with a craftsmanship drive and “process” to make  “insanely  great”  creations that  customers love to use  and  that  will “put a dent  in the universe”.

In his inspiring book The Carpenter: A Story About the Greatest Success Strategies of All, Jon Gordon explained that while a carpenter builds things, a great carpenter creates a work of art like a craftsman. While most people approach their work with the mindset that they just want to get it done, craftsmen are more concerned with who they are becoming and what they are creating rather than how fast they will finish it. After all, it’s no use finishing something if it’s not a work of art. Craftsmen would pour their hearts and souls and love into everything they build, knowing that everything they create is a reflection of themselves. When they create art, they feel energised and they energise all those who experience their work. And with each creation, they become more of the person they were meant to be.

Warren Buffett’s greatest investing strategy of all is having an eye  for these “great  carpenters”. These great  carpenters take the form of outstanding entrepreneurs who put their love into the  work they do. Love isn’t just a feeling. It is a commitment and ongoing action. Choosing to love meant you were choosing to make a commitment to love regardless of how you feel and you will put love into action regardless of your circumstances.

Like Nebraska Furniture Mart’s Mrs B, whose work ethics were phenomenal: “I come home to eat and sleep, and that’s about it. I can’t wait until it gets daylight so I can get back to the business.” She  was  on the  floor until retiring at 103,  and died the following year in 1998. She was committed to serving her customers with dedication. Because we Love, we Serve. And when we serve others, we fill up their cup and our own with love as well.

As Buffett explained, “One question I always  ask myself in appraising  a  business  is…  [to  identify  the] business built upon delivering exceptional value to the customer that in turn translates into exceptional economies for its owners”. Buffett elaborated further that everyone should study Mrs B: “They would learn the essence of business. They would learn that taking care of customers is what it is all about. Taking care of them… She did and working like crazy she was there day after  day.  She  had  a  passion for it.” Buffett  summed up  his value investing philosophy: “When we buy businesses, we are looking for people that will not lose an ounce of passion for the business even  after their business is sold.”

In essence, Buffett goes beyond the numbers to identify wide- moat innovators by also sensing that an entrepreneur takes care of his or her customers in a deep way and keeps delivering exceptional value to them.  Even if it means pain and  sacrifice. Even  if it takes a  long  time,  working  day-in-day-out. Even  if they grow rich. All possible only because they are committed to an idea larger than themselves to serve others.

When you love and serve, you care about the work you do and show people you care about them; you stand out in a world where most don’t  care. The world will flock to people who care and buy products that were made with care, and support businesses that care. We can tell whether the person making the products or services cared enough to make it great. When we care, we build things that others care about. When we care, we are craftsmen and craftswomen who are always looking to get better, work harder, and care more.

Until we go  the  distance and  extra  mile in Step 3 – the  story and  validated committed actions of  how  they  Love,  Serve, and  Care  with a Purpose Larger  than  Themselves – we could fall into the dangerous trap of overpaying for the moat even if the valuation metrics appear cheaper with seemingly lower downside risks. We dig deep into the underlying source of the wide-moat before we commit your funds.