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Dead Companies Walking: How A Hedge Fund Manager Finds Opportunity in Unexpected Places Hardcover – January 6, 2015
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“If you want to read a sharp, insightful, bitingly funny, crystal-clear, quick-read book that could help you avoid making fatal mistakes with your business, pick up Dead Companies Walking.” ―CFO Magazine
“An excellent investing book” ―Barbarian Capital
“Sharp insights into human fallibility as a potential source of moneymaking opportunity.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“[A] surprisingly entertaining mix of business guide and memoir. The final takeaway of this spirited book is that “learning to love failure all over again” can help America recover the adventurous spirit that Fearon believes our economy needs.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Scott Fearon’s Dead Companies Walking is chock full of wisdom―not just about investing but about the way to read between the lines about just about anything in life. Fearon’s book reads like a rollicking adventure―it’s vivid, entertaining and informative―and it offers enduring lessons about Wall Street and beyond.” ―Professor Alec Klein, bestselling author of Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner
“Beginning with his drive from Illinois to Texas, Mr. Fearon weaves a fascinating odyssey captaining his hedge fund. Funny. True. Plain English. Anyone who has ever bought a stock or managed a business, big or small, will devour this book.” ―J. Carlo Cannell, managing partner, Cannell Capital LLC
“[Scott Fearon's] insights on the common ways that mature companies often doom themselves apply equally well to startups. Every business, young or old, needs to avoid the ... mistakes that he outlines.” ―Martin Zwilling, Forbes
“If you run a business, read this book. It contains great management lessons and why we should all embrace failure. If you manage your own money, read this book. Picking winners is a loser’s game and Scott spells out why short selling―and understanding why most companies fail―can help protect your portfolio.” ―Lee Munson, President and CIO, Portfolio Wealth Advisors and author of Rigged Money: Beating Wall Street at Its Own Game
About the Author
Scott Fearon worked as a stock analyst and mutual fund manager before launching his own hedge fund, Crown Capital Management, in 1991. Since its inception, the fund has averaged an 11.4 percent annual return-significantly higher than the benchmark S&P 500 index over the same time period. He is a contributor to Yahoo! Finance, CNBC.com, and Seeking Alpha and blogs at scottfearon.com. He lives in Marin County, California.
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“Failure is one business trend that never goes out of style.” — Scott Fearon
Scott Fearon is an investor who built the foundation of his success on the bedrock of failure. “Things go wrong more often than they go right,” he writes. He calls this insight “the single most important lesson about business and life.”
On the plane rides to and from Switzerland, I read his book Dead Companies Walking: How a Hedge Fund Manager Finds Opportunity in Unexpected Places. It is a fun read as he takes you through how he figured out what companies would fail well before the market did.
“My specialty,” Fearon writes, “is identifying what I call ‘dead companies walking’ — businesses on their way to bankruptcy and a zeroed-out share price.”
He’s good at it, too. His fund has delivered 11.4% annual returns since inception in 1991 — way ahead of the market overall. As a hedge fund manager, he shorted over 200 companies that eventually went bankrupt. (A short seller makes money when stocks go down.) Even if you never short a stock in your life, you’ll still enjoy this book — if only to help you avoid such disasters.
An important point in this book is that failure due to fraud or the passing of some fad is relatively rare. Far more common are just plain-old failures,
a naturally occurring phenomenon, born of mistakes people make.
Failure, Fearon writes, “happens every day to some of the smartest people in the world.” Fearon has also had his share of failure, as he cheerfully admits, and not just in his fund. He’s opened two restaurants, one that failed.
He shares six common mistakes he finds these failures make:
They learned from only the recent past.
They relied too heavily on a formula for success.
They misread or alienated their customers.
They fell victim to a mania.
They failed to adapt to tectonic shifts in their industries.
They were physically or emotionally removed from their companies’ operations.
Fearon takes us through a number of fascinating examples of each of these.
As to No. 1, people do learn from the past, he says — but only the recent past. He tells a story about meeting with the CFO of Global Marine, an owner of offshore drilling rigs. This CFO is unworried by the drop in rig utilization rates. He shows Fearon a chart that shows how every time the rig utilization rate hits 70%, it rallies and recovers.
This chart covered just over two decades. In the grand scheme of things, that’s really not a lot of time. And Fearon points out that just because a trend has continued for a really long time doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Needless to say, Global Marine’s rates went well below 70%, and the stock went bust.
It seems simple, but it’s amazing how many times smart people suffer from historical myopia. “Failure terrifies people,” Fearon writes. He goes on to note:
They’ll do whatever they have to do to downplay it, wish it away and just plain pretend it doesn’t exist. Most of the time, they’ll go on living in denial long after the truth of their predicament becomes obvious.
I think this is certainly true. I think it is especially true of corporate executives. Fearon writes that he’s had over 1,400 meetings with executives and declares they almost always err on the side of optimism.
As for No. 2, he has a great personal example of how he didn’t invest in Starbucks in the early 1990s. If he had invested, he’d have a 100-plus-bagger just 22 years later. But he missed it because he was too much a slave to his own formula.
He used a growth-at-a-reasonable price formula to picking stocks. Starbucks didn’t meet his formula and he passed on it even knowing it was a special company. So he missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that was sitting right in front him.
He also talks about businesses commit No. 2 by thinking they have a winning formula and then being unable to see its faults. They roll it out too quickly and the whole enterprise goes belly up. Restaurants and retail chains that seek to double their number of stores in a year is an example.
In the course of these case studies, Fearon works in a number of other tidbits of investor wisdom. Take the example Value Merchants. It is a discount retailer that seeks to double the number of stores it has in a year. The CEO is a super-
competitive guy. Wakes up at 4 a.m. Runs marathons. Impresses everybody he meets.
Fearon hears from other investors about how you don’t want to bet against a guy like that. But in Fearon’s view, being extremely competitive is one of the worst traits you can have in markets.
“Competitive types think they can will their way to success,” he writes, “no matter what. But no amount of will can counter a doomed formula — like doubling your number of stores every year.”
It can take time for these dead companies to play out. And the enthusiasm of know-nothing investors can carry a weak stock for years. “Time after time,” Fear writes, “I would study a company’s financial statements and be mystified that its share price was anywhere over a penny. And yet people would still be buying the stock.”
Turning to No. 3, look no further than Ron Johnson and his debacle at J.C. Penney. He tried to change the store into a hip place that wealthier, upper-class people would shop at. He cut out coupons, got rid of plus sizes and Spanish advertisements. He alienated much of the customer base. We know how this ended — with JCP almost brought to its knees and Johnson’s firing. But this is not an isolated example, and Fearon gives us some entertaining case studies on the theme.
On No. 4, there are several funny stories on companies caught up in different manias. One of my favorites is his meeting with the CEO of Women.com, named Marleen:
“If I buy 100,000 shares of your stock tomorrow morning, and a year from now it’s lost half of its value, why would that have happened?”
“You mean what could go wrong?” Marleen asked.
“Quite frankly, Mr. Fearon,” she said, “nothing. We’ve looked at all the data, and we’ve discussed this very issue at the board level, and we all agree: There’s just no way we can lose.”
My goodness. At the time of the meeting, Women.com was $15. Ten months later, it was 70 cents, and within a year,
it ceased to exist. No way to lose, indeed. But this is what happens in manias. Stubborn optimism rubs out facts. People forget to do simple things like arithmetic. And downside risk becomes inconceivable.
“At their cores,” Fearon writes, “manias are about storytelling. People become enchanted with a story, and they convince themselves — and each other — that it just has to be true no matter what.”
We saw it in the tech boom. We saw it in the housing boom. We saw it in the commodity boom that drove oil and other commodities. People begin to craft a narrative that defies common sense and history. There was a “New Economy.” Housing prices never go down. And “Peak Oil” meant the end of cheap oil. People who believe these kinds of things get clobbered. “Manias happen all the time,” Fearon writes.
I’m not going to recount all six mistakes. I’ll just recommend that you read the book. It’s an easy read and entertaining as well. It peters out with a preachy last chapter, but otherwise, I enjoyed it.
A running theme in the book is what makes a good investor. One of these traits is being a good quitter. The best investors are the best quitters, Fearon maintains. They don’t get sucked up in their own ideas. When things go badly or differently than they expected, they bail. The investors who get tangled up in their own harpoon lines as they obsessively chase their own white whale are the ones who eventually drown.
Fearon cites Peter Lynch’s line about how the best you can hope for is to get six out of 10 ideas right when it comes to picking winning stocks. “Think about that for a second,” Fearon writes. “The man most people credit as being one of the greatest, if not the greatest, investor we’ve ever seen readily admitted that he was wrong almost as much as he was right!”
Therefore, quit early and quit often, Fearon says. No matter what, you are going to get to know failure really well if you invest in stocks. It’s inevitable. It’s natural. And so you better get comfortable with failure, and plenty of it.
Success, as Fearon shows, depends on it!
His investing style focuses on not only avoiding pitfalls such as groupthink, formulaic business models, and manias that run wildly out-of-control, but also 'shorting' the stocks of companies that exhibit such symptoms. Fearon tackles the stigma associated with short-selling head on in his book. He understands the implementation of capitalism in our modern economy in ways that many overlook. Failure is indeed a key part of what has made our economy so successful historically.
His anecdotes and stories of corporate failure are just long enough to sustain the reader while at the same time laying out the fundamentals to search for when perusing for failing companies. As you get deeper into the book his examples of failing companies begin to manifest several of the 6 'deadly sins' that Fearon identifies.
While the examples of failure are truly enjoyable to read, I believe the most engaging tidbits of Mr. Fearon's book lay towards the end. His well-formed criticism of the financial industry is insightful and invaluable for both the common man and the sophisticated investor. If we are supposed to be able to accept and utilize failures of both individuals and companies, why is it that the financial services industry can't come close to this realization.
If you've ever wondered about why the financial industry - ripe with the 'best and brightest' from our top schools - continues to be mired in scandals and morally questionable actions Fearon provides one of the most brutally honest and insightful explanations we've seen to date. The only I found lacking were proposals as to how we move forward or correct that behavior. Perhaps one day we will see from Mr. Fearon a more serious critical analysis of this industry alongside his suggestions for improvement.
Until then I highly recommend this to any aspiring investor, no matter the age.
The basic idea in the book is to find companies likely to go bankrupt because of fashion , fraud or business failure. While the concept is well known to short sellers, this book adds no substance to it in terms of actual process or steps used to identify those opportunities.