Portfolio Placeholders: A Young Gun Trademark

This article is part of our Rising Star Portfolios series.

Life is nonlinear. During most weeks, months, and even years, extraordinary events do not transpire, major milestones are not passed, and inflection points are not reached. Think about the typical college cycle: You work (among other things) for four years, and each individual day -- savored as it may be -- is not tremendously unlike those before it. Then in a flurry of activity, you graduate, move, perhaps start a job, and drastically change your lifestyle. The same pattern holds for fitness, relationships, careers -- and, yes, investing.

Investing, especially the way the Young Gun Portfolio sets about it, is about being opportunistic. Being opportunistic involves hunting for fat pitches. Fat pitches are not only rare; they are nonlinear. They come along infrequently, and when they do, they often come in bunches. Think about March 2009. There were plenty of ways to be opportunistic then.

What to do in the dry spells
So what is a Young Gunner to do during the dry patches? One thing I do, as I mentioned here, is build up my arsenal of potential ideas -- investments I'd love to make if something changes, usually price. But that still doesn't tell you what to do if you are sitting on loads of cash. Just because you aren't receiving a series of fat pitches at the moment doesn't mean you want your hard-earned cash sitting on the sidelines.

The Young Gun strategy is simple: Use placeholders. A placeholder is a company you'd be happy to own at almost any reasonable price. For me, there are three main types.

No. 1: Other jockeys
We can put unallocated cash in the hands of great investors. Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  ) is often a first choice; I'm happy to entrust my spare cash to the world's greatest investor while I seek fertile soil. Likewise for specialty insurer Markel (NYSE: MKL  ) , where I know longtime value investor Tom Gayner is placing his bets carefully; and Leucadia National (NYSE: LUK  ) , a mini-Berkshire of sorts that boasts a 22-year track record of outperformance as a public company under investors Joseph Steinberg and Ian Cumming. Short of these companies selling for cyclical highs, I am generally willing to place extra cash in one of these stocks.

No. 2: Great companies you know and love
There are companies that I simply consider great: Their competitive strengths are undeniable, their capital allocation is spectacular, and management is top-notch. These companies are in my arsenal, and at the right price they'd quickly command large chunks of my portfolio. In the meantime, I consider putting extra cash to work in one of these reasonably valued companies. These return-on-invested-capital machines will create shareholder value over the long run; they can also make a great short-term parking space.

Companies in this category differ among investors. Costco (Nasdaq: COST  ) , Diageo (NYSE: DEO  ) , and McCormick (NYSE: MKC  ) are some of my favorites. I wouldn't want to compete with any of those companies. Going up against Costco's years of cost-cutting experience and CEO Jim Sinegal's industry smarts would make a battle impossible for a newcomer to win. Smaller players trying to complete with premium alcohol company Diageo -- think Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, and Jose Cuervo -- and its distribution network have roughly the chances of an independent soda firm going up against Coca-Cola. And after years of refining its process, McCormick's "flavorologists" have flavor creation and distribution down to a science. The next time you walk down the spice aisle, note the shelf space given to products under the McCormick umbrella.

No. 3: Potential No. 2's
My investing style has me spending the bulk of my time researching small, often obscure companies. That's where I like to play, but spending all of my time hunting those grounds might preclude me from unearthing the next "great company I know and love." Therefore, I consider it important to devote time to learning about new great businesses -- regardless of size or obscurity. I look at popular hedge funds holdings, run simple screens for cheap large caps, and, most importantly, ask around.

With that, I turn to you, fellow Fools: What do you consider "great companies you know and love"? I've shared three of mine with you -- return the favor with your favorites on the Young Gun discussion boards. You can also follow the Young Gun Portfolio on Twitter.

This article is part of our Rising Star Portfolios series, where we give some of our most promising stock analysts cold, hard cash to manage on the Fool's behalf. We'd like you to track our performance and benefit from these real-money, real-time free stock picks. See all of our Rising Star analysts (and their portfolios ).

Berkshire Hathaway, Costco, and Markel are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Berkshire Hathaway, Costco, and Leucadia are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. Diageo and McCormick are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, Costco, Diageo, and Markel. Alex does not own shares of any company mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2011, at 6:53 PM, DDHv wrote:

    A few times a year, a preferred stock shows up that is: five year, newly issued, cumulative, and with a defined final value. Consideration of these shows that they make a great placeholder - about as safe as CDs, but with a bigger return. The primary disadvantage is: like cash, susceptible to inflation losses.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2011, at 10:02 PM, TMFPapester wrote:

    DDHv,

    Good point. For preferreds, also need to watch out for liquidity (can you sell it quickly at a market price when the time comes to buy something else) and any call options (the company often has the right to forcibly buy the preferred stock back from you at a specified price and time). But the right issue could make a good placeholder--and, in some cases, an opportunistic buy itself.

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