Thanks to Tariq for putting these notes together. And another thanks to Kjetil for initially passing the video link along.
Link to: Li Lu’s 2010 Lecture Notes
Excerpts from Tariq’s Notes:
Columbia is where my whole life in America started. I could barely speak the language. In Columbia it was where I had a new life. It was really in the Value Investing class where I got my career start. I was really worried about my student loan debt at the time and a friend told me about this class and said I need to see a lecture from Warren Buffett.
What I heard that night changed my life. He said three things:
1. A stock is not a piece of paper, it is a piece of ownership in a company.
2. You need a margin of safety so if you are wrong you don’t lose much.
3. In the market, most people are in it for the short term. It allows you a framework for dealing with the day to day volatility.
Those were three powerful concepts. I had never viewed the stock market like that. I viewed it negatively as a place made up of manipulators who were lining their own pockets. I embarked on an intensive two year study learning everything about Buffett.
The game of investment is really continuous learning. Everything affects an investment, it constantly changes. You are not investing in the past but the accumulative cash flow of the future. You have to want to find a certain set up where you can know something that most people don’t know. There are plenty of things I don’t know but they don’t factor into the purchase because I am using a huge margin of safety. Buying a dollar at 50 cents. So if things turn against you, you will be okay. That is not easy. This business is brutally competitive. It is so impossible to know everything and know exactly what is going to happen to a business from now till the end that you really have to accept that what you don’t know.
Finding an edge really only comes from a right frame of mind and years of continuous study. But when you find those insights along the road of study, you need to have the guts and courage to back up the truck and ignore the opinions of everyone else. To be a better investor, you have to stand on your own. You just can’t copy other people’s insights. Sooner or later, the position turns against you. If you don’t have any insights into the business, when it goes from $100 to $50 you aren’t going to know if it will back to $100 or $200.
So this is really difficult, but on the other hand, the rewards are huge. Warren says that if you only come up with 10 good investments in your 40 year career, you will be extraordinarily rich. That’s really what it is. This shows how different value investing is than any other subject.
So how do you really understand and gain that great insight? Pick one business. Any business. And truly understand it. I tell my interns to work through this exercise – imagine a distant relative passes away and you find out that you have inherited 100% of a business they owned. What are you going to do about it? That is the mentality to take when looking at any business. I strongly encourage you to start and understand 1 business, inside out. That is better than any training possible. It does not have to be a great business, it could be any business. You need to be able to get a feel for how you would do as a 100% owner. If you can do that, you will have a tremendous leg up against the competition. Most people don’t take that first concept correctly and it is quite sad. People view it as a piece of paper and just trade because it is easy to trade. But if it was a business you inherited, you would not be trading. You would really seek out knowledge on how it should be run, how it works. If you start with that, you will eventually know how much that business is worth.
Q: I read that when you look at an industry, you look at the most miserable failures of that industry to see whether you will invest in it. Can you talk a bit about that?
Li Lu: It goes back to understanding the business. Once you have that understanding you can extend it to understanding an industry. A certain industry might have characteristics that make it different than others. In certain industries you might have better prospects than others. Find the best of the players in the industry and the worst players. And see how they perform over time. And if the worst players perform reasonably well relative to the great players — that tells you something about the characteristics about the industry. That is not always the case but it is often the case. Certain industries are better than others.
So if you can understand a business inside out you can then eventually extend that to understanding an industry. If you can get that insight, it is enormously beneficial. If you can then concentrate that on a business with superior economics in an industry with superior economics with good management and you get them at the right price — the chances are that you can stay for a very long time.
Q: Did you have any specific example?
Li Lu: I have studied many over the years. As I have said, don’t copy other people’s insights because it doesn’t work. Automobiles are amazing. If you look at the early days it started with several players and concentrated with just a few players that became enormously profitable. Then they became miserable. You then see how the life cycle turns with new automakers in China and India. Everything has a reason. If you want a good idea — look at General Motors from the early days, look every 5 years and see how the performance metrics change. The Graham and Dodd Center should collect all the data and perform some kind of commentary on it.
Bruce Greenwald: Do you want me to give you the answer to that? In the 1960s, their return on capital was 46%. In the 1970s their return on capital was 28%. In the 1980s it was 9% in the 1990s it was 6%. You want to guess how negative it is now?
Li Lu: So that is really fascinating. If you have that data, the amount of insight that would yield would be astonishing. So instead of just accepting the conventional wisdom that the auto business is bad — that is just not true. Or if you say well those guys just unbelievable money machines — that is not true either. So if you can really examine those statistics and understand it that will give you an advantage for analyzing new situations like in China and India. That is really what turns me on. Understanding this gives you a tremendous leg up.
Q: One investor came in and said talking to management is a waste of time. They will say what you want them to say. Obviously it sounds like you don’t agree with that. What do you think? Will you pay a premium for a business with a moat?
Li Lu: There is no general rule. The key in investing is to know what you know and know what you don’t know. You can know about management teams without meeting with them. Every situation is slightly different. So I come back to the point that if you know enough on other things that there is enough margin of safety. Even if you meet with management, you may not learn something. Obviously, actions speak louder. You want to see what they have done. Everything being equal, the more you know about management, the more honest and upfront they are, the more motive they have, the better the situation is and the deeper the discount. You have to analyze it all. The key to analyzing it is you have to ask: Do I really know what I think I know? Do I really know what I don’t know? If you can’t answer that question, chances are you are gambling.
Q: What kind of preparation do you do before meeting a management team?
Li Lu: I don’t really have a set method. Because I usually am just curious about the business and don’t know a lot. So you are prepared and not prepared. If you are really curious, you want to learn more and study it more. When working at a hedge fund or mutual fund, you are expected to learn a business in 1 week. You can’t truly understand everything about a business in 1 week. It took me 10 years and I am still learning new things about BYD. It is a continuous learning process. You could spend a lifetime studying a business or industry, but in a few seconds I can tell you whether or not I like it. You want to build a knowledgeable of continually learning. There is not set preparation.