on December 26, 2010
Vitaliy Katsenelson's new book can, in my mind, be broken up into three parts. He begins with his argument that we are in a sideways market. He follows that up with a bit of a tutorial on value investing, and finishes with a few miscellaneous observations.
His sideways market thesis is that following a secular bull market, such as we had in the 90s, we are doomed to spend a number of years in a sideways market. It wiggles around, but ends up roughly where it started. He does some calculating, not to predict the precise length of the sideways market, but to give the reader an idea of the factors involved. (If his assumptions are correct, the current sideways market has another 11, or maybe14 years to go. I don't have a lot of faith in the precise numbers he uses, but neither does he, so that's no criticism.) The central reason for making the sideways market argument isn't to pinpoint the length of the market move, but to convince the reader that, in such a market, it's tough to make money just by being in the broad market, or by being a buy-and-hold investor. We can however, make money by opportunistically buying individual stocks when they are cheap, and selling them when they are fully valued. Don't time the market, but do time individual stocks.
The middle of the book (chapters 4-12) is a tutorial on value investing. I don't think it contains anything that well-read investors won't have come across elsewhere, but it is put together nicely, and pays attention to a few ideas that are often ignored or underplayed in the value investing literature. Specifically, there is a nice piece on the importance of focusing on process, rather than outcome (an idea popularized, though by no means discovered, by Nassim Taleb) and a chapter on ways that poor management can destroy free cash flow. Value investors sometimes treat free cash flow as the holy grail of investing and valuation, ignoring the ways management has historically handled the cash, either creating or destroying value.
The book concludes with a group of largely unrelated chapters ranging from a mildly behavioral-finance influenced pep-talk to a critique of the Chinese economic model. A few of these are interesting, a few are a waste of paper and ink (chapter 13, I'm looking at you).
My biggest criticism of the book is that I'm not quite sure what the target audience is. The first few chapters are a bit on the technical / numerical side for a rank beginner, and don't contain enough data or a strong enough argument to really convince a more experienced investor who doesn't already agree with the thesis. Yes, the pattern of bull market followed by a range-bound market has occurred a few times over the last 100 years, but the ranges and lengths have varied a lot, and I saw no compelling reason to think that a bull market couldn't start from a higher level than Katsenelson thinks it could, that we couldn't have another bear market (such as the one post-1929), or any of a number of other possible scenarios. Investors often make the mistake of thinking that this time is different, but they also make the mistake of thinking that the future will be just like the past. In the end though, I don't think that the sideways market thesis is important, beyond the idea that we can make money when the overall market isn't moving strongly up or down. I've been following a method similar to the one he advocates here since the late 90s, and have experienced success with it personally, so I didn't need much convincing.
The value investing tutorial portion of the book appears to be written for the true beginner, using very simple and non-technical examples, but I don't believe it goes quite far enough to be the sole resource of a new investor. Where should an investor go to get the sort of information on a company that Katsenelson recommends using? How do you read a cash flow statement, or a balance sheet? How do you read a 10-q, or a 10-k, or a proxy statement? Should you be reading these at all? I think it's a rare investor who knows these things, but still needs Katsenelson's farmer-buying-cows example to figure out why free cash flow is important.
My primary question before buying the book (which I could not, at the time, answer) was what this book would offer to someone like myself, who had already read Katsenelson's previous book, Active Value Investing. The answer is "very little." I loved Active Value Investing. I wasn't entirely convinced by his range-bound-markets hypothesis, which has been re-named "sideways markets" in the current book, but thought that the meat of the book, on value investing techniques, was great. Most of the current book is an abbreviated version of Active Value Investing, with liberal use of the cut and paste function. Large chunks of the books are identical. Many chapter headings are the same. The last few chapters are new, but not particularly useful, and most of their content will be familiar to anyone who reads Katsenelson's blog. If this Little Book were his first effort, I would certainly recommend it to the intermediate investor. Too much knowledge is presumed for this to be useful to the novice, and an experienced investor is unlikely to find anything both new and useful. It is not his first book though, and it is, in almost every way, inferior to his first book, Active Value Investing. Read that instead.