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Somewhat ironically, the Value Investing Congress -- a semiannual gathering where suited white dudes gather to hear the cult of value's heavyweights share their best investment ideas -- isn't a place where everyone marches to the beat of the same drummer.
Chief among the rabblerousers are David Einhorn and Bill Ackman. Intellectual stalwarts and institutions in the value-investing community, they've gained a certain notoriety for their willingness to defy convention, muckraking and meticulous analyses, and stellar long-term track records. Their presentations at the VIC are widely anticipated, and celebrated, among the conference attendees.
As consummate contrarians, we happily trod the path less followed ourselves. But we make it no secret that we're big fans of Einhorn and Ackman. In that spirit, what follows is a collection of a few nuggets that caught our attention.
Michael Olsen, CFA, Special Ops and Million Dollar Portfolio: For all the hullabaloo surrounding ObamaCare, it's not altogether unreasonable that investors emotionally deserted the shares of managed-care organizations. But I've maintained for some time that, as WellPoint, Cigna (NYSE: CI ) , UnitedHealth Group (NYSE: UNH ) , and Aetna shares trade at earnings multiples between 8 and 11 times earnings, their valuations more than reflect the likely margin compression from the legislation's profitability caps, increased competition from exchanges, and regulatory review of proposed price increases.
Einhorn, for his part, echoed that sentiment, as he pegged Cigna as one of his favorite long ideas. He cited Cigna's exposure to large-group commercial insurance, relatively limited earnings exposure to fluctuating medical costs and usage, and margins already well below mandated caps, Cigna looks pretty cheap at 11 times trailing earnings. I'd posit there's a valuation kicker in a lesser-known asset, Cigna's pharmacy benefit manager, which might not be getting its fair due as a part of the larger enterprise. That could make for a very healthy investment.
Bryan Hinmon, CFA, Pro and Options: It's remarkable to see adults donning $5,000 suits salivating openly. Such is the case as Einhorn takes the stage to divulge his latest short thesis. At this fall's Value Investing Congress, he took a bite out of the spicy burrito known as Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE: CMG ) . Chipotle has long been a market darling, and for good reason; the restaurant chain has grown to 1,316 units, managed its growth impressively, and amassed an army of guacamole-addicted advocates. The stock has risen 75% over the past two years. If the company continues to execute and grow as it has in the past, its lofty valuation seems warranted. But Einhorn sees the burrito coming unwrapped.
Chipotle has had success in the past raising prices to deal with rising protein prices. But Einhorn suspects the company's ability to do so is coming to an end now that Yum! Brands' (NYSE: YUM ) Taco Bell has made such vast improvements to its menu. Einhorn's firm conducted a survey that suggests a nontrivial portion of Chipotle's customers are price-sensitive, have tried the new offerings from Taco Bell, and plan to eat at Chipotle less as a result. Even if Taco Bell siphons off only a small number of customers, when combined with rising food costs and a stock that is priced for perfection, Chipotle is likely to fall short of earnings expectations. To be clear, Einhorn noted that Chipotle was a great company. But companies that are priced for perfection need to be perfect -- and Chipotle's guac might be browning.
Joe Magyer, Inside Value: I loved Einhorn's cry for investors to, in the immortal words of Bud Fox, do their own homework, Marv. There is no substitute for performing your own analysis and forming your own opinions on a stock and how it might plug into your own portfolio. I bat around ideas with some very smart Fools and study superinvestors' moves on a daily basis, but it's always through a lens of skepticism and never done blindly. You should better inform your opinions by seeking out smart perspectives but come to your own conclusions.
Remember, even the best investors struggle to be right 60% of the time. Superinvestors like Ackman and Einhorn are great sources of ideas and thinking, but mindless hero-worship will leave you rudderless, without exit strategies, and desperately casting about in a never-ending quest for others to make the tough decisions for you. You are capable and know your own portfolio better than anyone else. Just buckle down and do the homework yourself. Unlike your high school geometry class, I promise you'll find studying the business of making money interesting -- and rewarding.
Joel South, Fool.com: I highly recommend hearing Ackman and Einhorn present their research, not only for the exhausting amount of investigation and detail applied, but also for their polished demeanor and classy showmanship. Both presenters created a vibe throughout the conference, but one lesser-known fund manager who I thought provided a refreshing and disciplined approach was Jeffrey Ubben from ValueAct Capital.
Maybe it was the West Coast affluence, but I think it's important for all investors to take a step back and grasp the bigger picture to simplify things and not get caught up in intricate details that can foil your investing thesis. ValueAct places its money behind companies with high switching costs that are easy to digest, like Halliburton (NYSE: HAL ) , and refuses to invest in leveraged firms with shallow moats -- think financials. In addition, the company operates around a circle-of-life model, which suggests value will be created when you have a quality business with strong management that effectively creates a sticky customer base. Once this foundation is set and customers are locked in, value will follow through pricing power and high switching costs.