Interview With Value Investor Mohnish Pabrai

It is my privilege to bring you the following interview I recently conducted with value investing superstar Mohnish Pabrai. His stock selection style is similar to mine, except that he's more successful at it. Much, much more successful. I'll let the numbers speak for themselves: A $100,000 investment in Pabrai Funds at inception (on July 1, 1999) was worth $722,200 on March 31, 2007. That works out to an annualized return of 29.1%, and that's after all fees and expenses. Assets under management are over $500 million, up from $1 million at inception.
Although a person probably can't get into the investing hall of fame with eight years of outperformance (even if they crush the indices), Pabrai is already mentioned in most articles about the search for the next Warren Buffett, and justifiably so.

Equally importantly, he genuinely wants to help others become better investors, and in that spirit has just published his second book, The Dhandho Investor. The book is both illuminating and easy to read, and it deserves to be on every investor's bookshelf next to Benjamin Graham's The Intelligent Investor. This is why I felt extremely fortunate when he recently agreed to answer some questions about his investment strategy in this exclusive interview. I hope you find it useful, and I hope it inspires you to pick up a copy of his book if you haven't already.

Happy Investing,

Tom Murcko

InvestorGuide: You have compared Pabrai Funds to the original Buffett partnerships, and there are obvious similarities: investing only in companies within your circle of competence that have solid management and a competitive moat; knowing the intrinsic value now and having a confident estimate of it over the next few years, and being confident that both of these numbers are at least double the current price; and placing a very small number of very large bets where there is minimal downside risk. Are there any ways in which your approach differs from that of the early Buffett partnerships (or Benjamin Graham's approach), either because you have found ways to improve upon that strategy or because the investing world has changed since then?

Mohnish Pabrai: The similarity between Pabrai Funds and the Buffett Partnerships that I refer to is related to the structure of the partnerships. I copied Mr. Buffett's structure as much as I could since it made so much sense. The fact that it created a very enduring and deep moat wasn't bad either. These structural similarities are the fees (no management fees and 1/4 of the returns over 6% annually with high water marks), the investor base (initially mostly close friends and virtually no institutional participation), minimal discussion of portfolio holdings, annual redemptions and the promotion of looking at long term results etc. Of course, there is similarity in investment style, but as Charlie Munger says, "All intelligent investing is value investing."

My thoughts on this front are covered in more detail in Chapter 14 of The Dhandho Investor.

Regarding the investment style, Mr. Buffett is forced today to mostly be a buy and hold forever investor today due to size and corporate structure. Buying at 50 cents and selling at a dollar is likely to generate better returns than buy and hold forever. I believe both Mr. Munger and he would follow this modus operandi if they were working with a much smaller pool of capital. In his personal portfolio, even today, Mr. Buffett is not a buy and hold forever investor.

In the early days Mr. Buffett (and Benjamin Graham) focused on buying a fair business at a cheap price. Later, with Mr. Munger's influence, he changed to buying good businesses at a fair price. At Pabrai Funds, the ideal scenario is to buy a good business at a cheap price. That's very hard to always do. If we can't find enough of those, we go to buying fair businesses at cheap prices. So it has more similarity to the Buffett of the 1960s than the Buffett of 1990s. BTW, even the present day Buffett buys fair businesses at cheap prices for his personal portfolio.

Value investing is pretty straight-forward - you try to get $1 worth of assets for much less than $1. There is no way to improve on that basic truth. It's timeless.

InvestorGuide: Another possible difference between your style and Buffett's relates to the importance of moats. Your book does emphasize investing in companies that have strategic advantages which will enable them to achieve long-term profitability in the face of competition. But are moats less important if you're only expecting to hold a position for a couple years? Can you see the future clearly enough that you can identify a company whose moat may be under attack in 5 or 10 years, but be confident that that "Mr. Market" will not perceive that threat within the next few years? And how much do moats matter when you're investing in special situations? Would you pass on a special situation if it met all the other criteria on your checklist but didn't have a moat?

Pabrai: Moats are critically important. They are usually critical to the ability to generate future cash flows. Even if one invests with a time horizon of 2-3 years, the moat is quite important. The value of the business after 2-3 years is a function of the future cash it is expected to generate beyond that point. All I'm trying to do is buy a business for 1/2 (or less) than its intrinsic value 2-3 years out. In some cases intrinsic value grows dramatically over time. That's ideal. But even if intrinsic value does not change much over time, if you buy at 50 cents and sell at 90 cents in 2-3 years, the return on invested capital is very acceptable.

If you're buying and holding forever, you need very durable moats (American Express, Coca Cola, Washington Post etc.). In that case you must have increasing intrinsic values over time. Regardless of your initial intrinsic value discount, eventually your return will mirror the annualized increase/decrease in intrinsic value.

At Pabrai Funds, I've focused on 50+% discounts to intrinsic value. If I can get this in an American Express type business, that is ideal and amazing. But even if I invest in businesses where the moat is not as durable (Tesoro Petroleum, Level 3, Universal Stainless), the results are very acceptable. The key in these cases is large discounts to intrinsic value and not to think of them as buy and hold forever investments.

InvestorGuide: For that part of our readership which isn't able to invest in Pabrai Funds due to the net worth and minimum investment requirements, to what extent could they utilize your investing strategy themselves? Your approach seems feasible for retail investors, which is why I have been recommending your book to friends, colleagues, and random people I pass on the street. For example, your research primarily relies on freely available information, you aren't meeting with the company's management, and you don't have a team of analysts crunching numbers. To what extent do you think that a person with above-average intelligence who is willing to devote the necessary time would be able to use your approach to outperform the market long-term?
Pabrai: Investing is a peculiar business. The larger one gets, the worse one is likely to do. So this is a field where the individual investor has a huge leg up on the professionals and large investors. So, not only can The Dhandho Investor approach be applied by small investors, they are likely to get much better results from its application than I can get or multi-billion dollar funds can get. Temperament and passion are the key.
InvestorGuide: You founded, ran, and sold a very successful business prior to starting Pabrai Funds. Has that experience contributed to your investment success? Since that company was in the tech sector but you rarely buy tech stocks (apparently due to the rarity of moats in that sector), the benefits you may have derived seemingly aren't related to an expansion of your circle of competence. But has learning what it takes to run one specific business helped you become a better investor in all kinds of businesses, and if so, how? And have you learned anything as an investor that would make you a better CEO if you ever decide to start another company?

Pabrai: Buffett has a quote that goes something like: "Can you really explain to a fish what it's like to walk on land? One day on land is worth a thousand years of talking about it, and one day running a business has exactly the same kind of value." And of course he's said many times that he's a better investor because he's a businessman and he's a better businessman because he is an investor. My experience as an entrepreneur has been very fundamental to being any good at investing.

My dad was a quintessential entrepreneur. Over a 40-year period, he had started, grown, sold and liquidated a number of diverse businesses - everything from making a motion picture, setting up a radio station, manufacturing high end speakers, jewelry manufacturing, interior design, handyman services, real estate brokerage, insurance agency, selling magic kits by mail - the list is endless. The common theme across all his ventures was that they were all started with virtually no capital. Some got up to over 100 employees. His downfall was that he was very aggressive with growth plans and the businesses were severely undercapitalized and over-leveraged.

After my brother and I became teenagers, we served as his de facto board of directors. I remember many a meeting with him where we'd try to figure out how to juggle the very tight cash to keep the business going. And once I was 16, I'd go on sales calls with him or we'd run the business while he was traveling. I feel like I got my Harvard MBA even before I finished high school. I did not realize it then, but the experience of watching these businesses with a front-row seat during my teen years was extremely educational. It gave me the confidence to start my first business. And if I have an ability to get to the essence of a subset of businesses today, it is because of that experience.

TransTech was an IT Services/System Integration business. We provided consulting services, but did not develop any products etc. So it wasn't a tech-heavy business. While having a Computer Engineering degree and experience was useful, it wasn't critical. TransTech taught me a lot about business and that experience is invaluable in running Pabrai Funds. Investing in technology is easy to pass on because it is a Buffett edict not to invest in rapidly changing industries. Change is the enemy of the investor.

Being an investor is vastly easier than being a CEO. I've made the no-brainer decision to take the easy road! I do run a business even today. There are operating business elements of running a fund that resemble running a small business. But if I were to go back to running a business with dozens of employees, I think I'd be better at it than I was before the investing experience. Both investing and running a business are two sides of the same coin. They are joined at the hip and having experience doing both is fundamental to being a good investor. There are many successful investors who have never run a business before. My hat's off to them. - For me, without the business experiences as a teenager and the experience running TransTech, I think I'd have been a below average investor. I don't fully understand how they do it.

InvestorGuide: Is your investment strategy the best one for you, or the best one for many/most/all investors? Who should or shouldn't consider using your approach, and what does that decision depend on (time commitment, natural talent, analytical ability, business savvy, personality, etc)?
Pabrai: As I mentioned earlier, Charlie Munger says all intelligent investing is value investing. The term value investing is redundant. There is just one way to invest - buy assets for less than they are worth and sell them at full price. It is not "my approach." I lifted it from Graham, Munger and Buffett. Beyond that, one should stick to one's circle competence, read a lot and be very patient.
InvestorGuide: Some investment strategies stop working as soon as they become sufficiently popular. Do you think this would happen if everyone who reads The Dhandho Investor starts following your strategy? As I've monitored successful value investors I have noticed the same stocks appearing in their various portfolios surprisingly often. (As just one example, you beat Buffett to the convertible bonds of Level 3 Communications back in 2002, which I don't think was merely a coincidence.) If thousands of people start following your approach (using the same types of screens to identify promising candidates and then using the same types of filters to whittle down the list), might they end up with just slightly different subsets of the same couple dozen stocks? If so, that could quickly drive up the prices of those companies (especially on small caps, which seem to be your sweet spot) and eliminate the opportunities almost as soon as they arise. Looked at another way, your portfolio typically has about ten companies, which presumably you consider the ten best investments; if you weren't able to invest in those companies, are there another 10 (or 20, or 50) that you like almost as much?

Pabrai: As long as humans vacillate between fear and greed, there will be mispriced assets. Some will be priced too low and some will be priced too high. Mr. Buffett has been talking up the virtues of value investing for 50+ years and it has made very few folks adopt that approach. So if the #2 guy on the Forbes 400 has openly shared his secret sauce of how he got there for all these decades and his approach is still the exception in the industry, I don't believe I'll have any effect whatsoever.

Take the example of Petrochina. The stock went up some 8% after Buffett's stake was disclosed. One could have easily bought boat loads of Petrochina stock at that 8% premium to Buffett's last known buys. Well, since then Petrochina is up some eight-fold - excluding some very significant dividends. The entire planet could have done that trade. Yet very very few did. I read a study a few years back where some university professor had documented returns one would have made owning what Buffett did - buying and selling right after his trades were public knowledge. One would have trounced the S&P 500 just doing that. I don't know of any investors who religiously follow that compelling approach.

So, I'm not too concerned about value investing suddenly becoming hard to practice because there is one more book on a subject where scores of excellent books have already been written.

InvestorGuide: You have said that investors in Pabrai Funds shouldn't expect that your future performance will approach your past performance, and that it's more likely that you'll outperform the indices by a much smaller margin. Do you say this out of humility and a desire to underpromise and overdeliver, or is it based on market conditions (e.g. thinking that stocks in general are expensive now or that the market is more efficient now and there are fewer screaming bargains)? To argue the other side, I can think of at least two factors that might give your investors reason for optimism rather than pessimism: first, your growing circle of competence, which presumably is making you a better investor with each passing year; and second, your growing network of CEOs and entrepreneurs who can quickly give you firsthand information about the real state of a specific industry.

Pabrai: Future performance of Pabrai Funds is a function of future investments. I have no idea what these future investment ideas would be and thus one has to be cognizant of this reality. It would be foolhardy to set expectations based on the past. We do need to set some benchmarks and goals to be measured against. If a fund beats the Dow, S&P and Nasdaq by a small percentage over the long-haul they are likely to be in the very top echelons of money managers. So, while they may appear modest relative to the past, they are not easy goals for active managers to achieve.

The goals are independent of market conditions today versus the past. While circle of competence and knowledge does (hopefully) grow over time, it is hard to quantify that benefit in the context of our performance goals.

InvestorGuide: Finally, what advice do you have for anyone just getting started in investing, who dreams of replicating your performance? What should be on their "to do" list?

Pabrai: I started with studying Buffett. Then I added Munger, Templeton, Ruane, Whitman, Cates/Hawkins, Berkowitz etc. Best to study the philosophy of the various master value investors and their various specific investments. Then apply that approach with your own money and investment ideas and go from there.

About Mohnish Pabrai
Mr. Pabrai has been a managing partner at Pabrai Investment Funds since its inception in 1999. Prior to the fund, Mohnish worked for Tellabs, a telecom company, and later founded TransTech, Inc., an IT consulting company.
Related Links:
By Thomas Murcko
Thomas Murcko
Tom Murcko is an entrepreneur, connoisseur and raconteur. His company WebFinance Inc. websites focus on education and empowerment and collectively reach about four million people per month. He graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College and lives in Washington, D.C. His goal is to fill his life with happiness, pleasure and meaning, while helping others to do the same. Follow Tom on Google+.

Copyrighted 2020. Content published with author's permission.

Posted in ...