Marty Whitman´s four sources of wealth for the value investor

The following conjecture is an excerpt from a Barron´s interview with Martin Whitman of Third Avenue Funds. Mr. Whitman is a legendary value investor who has a very interseting approach to value investing.  Whitman is very critical on GAAP and which he thinks is exessively geared towards flows as opposed to net asset values.

Anyway, here´s his conjecture on sources of wealth:

You have to be gestaltist. Every accounting number is important, and is derived from other accounting numbers. So you have to understand the whole accounting cycle. If I want to estimate earnings, and I only have one tool, I would pick the current balance sheet. As a value investor, what you are interested in is whether the company is creating wealth. There are four ways to create wealth; it is not just cash flow.

They are, one, having cash flow from operations available to security holders. A company can use that cash to expand its asset base, reduce liabilities or distribute the money to shareholders, either by paying dividends or buying back stock. Two, and probably much more important, is having earnings, which we define as creating wealth while consuming cash. Remember, though, that earnings for most companies do not have a long-term value unless the company also has access to capital markets because if it doesn’t, sooner or later, it will to run out of cash. The third—and very, very important—value-creation method is resource conversion.

[Interviewer: Such as?]

Mergers and acquisitions, changes in control, massive recapitalizations, spinoffs, etc. The fourth wealth-creation method, which I touched on previously, is having extremely attractive access to capital markets.


Whitman explains this more thoroughly in his 2001 letter to shareholders in the Third Avenue Funds annual report:

The four elements of corporate value:

1. Free cash flow from operations available for the security holder: Very few companies ever actually achieve such free cash flows on a reasonably regular basis. While for any individual project to make sense it has to return a cash positive net profit over its life, this is not true for most companies (as distinct from stand-alone projects), especially expanding companies. Most businesses consume cash. TAVF likes to invest in the common stocks of those few companies in a position to create cash flows on a regular basis. The principal area where this takes place in the Fund’s portfolio is in money management companies: — BKF, John Nuveen, Liberty Financial and Legg Mason.

2. Earnings: Most prosperous going concerns create earnings, not free cash flows. Earnings exist where a company creates intrinsic wealth from operations while consuming cash. Since most going concerns consume cash, their earnings streams may be of limited value unless such flows are also combined with access to capital markets, either credit markets or equity markets or both. TAVF, in acquiring the common stocks of earnings companies, limits its acquisitions to businesses with exceptionally strong financial positions. This means, most of time, that the companies have far less need to have access to capital markets during any given period than run-of-the mill, less well capitalized, going concerns. More importantly, though, the companies whose issues the Fund acquires have rather complete control over the timing as to when they want to access debt markets or equity markets. Capital markets are notoriously capricious in terms of both pricing and availability. TAVF tries to avoid investing in the common stocks of less well capitalized companies, in part because such issuers frequently are forced to raise outside capital at the most disadvantageous times. Well-capitalized earnings companies whose common stocks were acquired by TAVF during the quarter include Energizer, Trammell Crow, American Power, Applied Materials, AVX, Credence, Electro Scientific, KEMET, MBIA, Nabors, and Vishay.
Most Wall Streeters and most academics, including Greenwald, et al, subscribe to a primacy of the income account point of view and believe that the dominant, and sometimes even the sole, sources of corporate value are flows from operations: — both cash flows and earnings flows. At TAVF, we have a balanced approach. Indeed, we think more corporate wealth is created in the U.S. by the two factors discussed below than by flows, even though frequently there tends to be a close, symbiotic relationship between flows, whether cash or earnings, on the one hand; and asset values and access to capital markets on the other.

3. Resource conversion activities encompass repositioning assets to higher uses, other ownership or control, or all three; the financing of asset acquisitions, the refinancing of liabilities or both; and the creation of tax advantages. These activities take the form of mergers and acquisitions, contests for control, leveraged buyouts, restructuring troubled companies, spin-offs, liquidations, massive securities repurchases, and acquiring securities in bulk through cash tender offers or exchange offers. Within the Third Avenue portfolio, it appears as if some 3% to 5% of the common stocks held are subject to takeover bids of some sort by control investors every quarter. Common stock issues acquired during the quarter which may very well be involved in getting taken over in the years ahead include Energizer, Phoenix, Alexander & Baldwin, BKF, Catellus and MONY, albeit Fund management has never been really good at identifying which companies will be “in play” at any given time in the future.

4. Access to capital markets at super-attractive prices: There seems little question that far more corporate wealth has been created in this country by taking advantage of attractive access to outside capital than by any other single source. The Greenwald book, and indeed virtually all economic literature, ignores this factor as a source of wealth, or a source of franchise. Unfortunately, as a passive value investor, the Fund does not often get to benefit from super-crazy prices that exist in equity markets from time to time. To benefit from these super-crazy prices as a price-conscious value investor, TAVF would have to become a venture capital investor seeking IPO bailouts; something that seems to be outside Fund management’s sphere of competence. Fortunately though, many of the companies in whose common stocks Third Avenue has invested have super attractive access to credit markets where they are able to obtain low interest, long term,non-recourse financing for major portions of the projects which they build,or in which they invest. Companies whose common stocks the Fund invested in during the quarter, with such attractive access to capital markets, include Alexander & Baldwin, Brascan, Catellus and Forest City.

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