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Exclusive Interview: Zeke Ashton on Value Investing and Risk Management

Zeke Ashton of Centaur Capital Partners spoke eloquently on the topic of value investing and risk management at the Value Investing Congress in Pasadena earlier this month. We found Zeke’s presentation enlightening and asked him to elaborate on some of his key points. Last week, we conducted an exclusive interview with Zeke, and it’s our pleasure to bring you an excerpt here.

Before we proceed to the interview, we should point out that Zeke’s approach to risk management has worked. In 2008, the Centaur Value Fund was down 6.9%, trouncing the 37.1% and 40.0% declines of the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite indexes. From inception in August 2002 through the end of 1Q09, the Centaur Value Fund gained 134.6%, net of fees and expenses, versus returns of 15.1% for the Nasdaq Composite and -0.3% for the S&P 500 Index.

MOI: You spoke recently on the topic of value investing and risk management. The “backdrop” was the somewhat surprising fact that a number of prominent value investors suffered debilitating losses in the market collapse of 2008 and early 2009. Adherence to “margin of safety” principles apparently didn’t help. Why?

Zeke Ashton: I think that is a very good question, and I don’t think there is any one easy answer. Part of it was simply because very few investors were prepared for such an extreme negative scenario as the one that ultimately played out. I know we didn’t foresee things deteriorating as much as they did. What transpired in late 2008 and early 2009 was so far outside of the range of experience for most people that it didn’t seem like a plausible scenario twelve months before. With perfect 20/20 hindsight, of course, it is easy to see the warning signs that were present, but most investors simply continued to do the things which had rewarded them in the past, not knowing that this time might be different.

We and many other value investors have historically been rewarded for buying in times of fear and uncertainty, as well as for purchasing stocks that were cheap relative to asset values or normalized earnings power. However, in 2008 it wasn’t enough to buy stocks that looked cheap based on low multiples to book value or normalized earnings. Many companies, particularly in the financial sector, won’t get the chance to recover to normalized earnings because they got wiped out or were forced to dilute their shareholders to the extent that the losses are effectively permanent. In the end, it appears to me that when faced with an extreme environment like 2008 and early 2009, there are really only two things that can save you: the luck or skill to see it coming and get out of the way, or a portfolio structure and risk management approach that is specifically designed to promote survival in a catastrophic scenario that you didn’t see coming. I feel very fortunate that we had a portfolio that was able to take some hits and survive to play another day.

MOI: How do you generate investment ideas?

Zeke Ashton: We get ideas from all sorts of places. We used to get a sizable number of leads from statistical screening, and we still use screens, but we have found them in recent years to be more productive in sourcing short ideas rather than long ideas. Nevertheless, we still scan through lists of stocks that appear to be cheap from a statistical basis and occasionally we find a good one.

One of our major idea sources these days is from the inventory of the many ideas we’ve owned or researched at some point in the past – many times, after we’ve sold those stocks, the price will come back down to a level that makes them very interesting again. Since we generally already know the company, it is just a matter of getting quickly up to speed with the latest developments to determine if it is actionable.

We also find occasional ideas by doing industry overviews to get to know a number of players in a specific sector or niche that we think may be out of favor or neglected for some reason. Often we will find a gem or two.

Finally, we get some ideas through our network of value investing contacts, and through a number of specialized research publications that we have found are compatible with our approach, of which your own publication would be one example.

But no matter the source, the ideas are merely candidates until we’ve actually produced a piece of internal research that covers the bases and gives us confidence that we understand the business, can reasonably value it and also gauge the risks factors involved.  And of course, the stock has to be cheap.

MOI: What books have you read in recent years that have stood out as valuable additions to your investment library?

Zeke Ashton: In my opinion, the most important investing book to come along in many years has been Fooling Some of the People All of the Time by David Einhorn. In writing a story about a “garden variety fraud” at a company called Allied Capital and his efforts to expose it, this book sheds a lot of light on the ugly realities of our financial regulatory system and how that system has become so terribly dysfunctional. The system is particularly unjust to short sellers who do the difficult and thankless work of uncovering fraud or excess risk at publicly traded companies. To those who wonder how a fraud on the scale of that perpetuated by Bernie Madoff could have gone undetected for so long, this book provides some answers. As an aside, it took a lot of courage for Mr. Einhorn to continue his struggle against Allied Capital and to publish this book, as the personal risks to his business and reputation were very real. For that, he has my respect and admiration.

The investing book I read most recently was More Mortgage Meltdown by Whitney Tilson and Glenn Tongue of T2 Partners. The book is a very readable and accessible discussion of how the mortgage crisis happened, and more importantly, offers some very good perspective on how the credit crisis may develop from here. In addition, there are a number of timely investment ideas presented in the form of detailed case studies that will be valuable for both beginner and advanced investors. I should disclose that Whitney and Glenn are friends of mine and that my firm manages the Tilson Dividend Fund through a joint venture with T2 Partners. So while I am no doubt a bit biased, I enjoyed the book and found it very stimulating food for thought.

Disclosure: No positions.