It seems there's nothing like a 900-mile-wide superstorm to put things in perspective.
From an investing perspective, the big news of the week so far has been the nearly unheard of two-day closure of the NYSE's (NYSE: NYX) marquee stock exchange in New York City. While the U.S. capital markets are important for not only us but also the rest of the world, the closure was a big win for common sense -- that is, putting the safety of NYSE employees above proving that the exchange could stay open.
The closure of the major U.S. stock exchanges also gave us a real-life opportunity to ponder one of Warren Buffett's most famous quotes: "I never attempt to make money on the stock market. I buy on the assumption that they could close the market the next day and not reopen it for five years."
Two days is hardly the same thing as five years, but nevertheless, the short, unexpected closure pushes us to consider a very key question: What makes a stock worthy of holding through Buffett's hypothetical five-year market closure?
There are multiple answers to this question, but one that's way up at the top is management.
As a numbers guy, I've always found that the idea of focusing on management as a key piece of the investment puzzle makes me a bit uncomfortable. You can of course look at insider ownership, which is often a telling number. The way members of management compensate themselves is also a worthwhile number to consider. Or perhaps you could try something a little wilder, like regressing multiple companies' results based on the number of years of industry experience the CEO has.
But the bottom line is that evaluating management often can't be boiled down to a few easy-to-pin-down numbers.
No denying the importance
For those of us who focus on the banking and financial sector, we were treated to a perfect example of just how important management is as financial companies crashed and burned during the financial crisis. Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) was a quality bank heading into the crisis, but it was led by a CEO with an insatiable hunger for growth by acquisition. The "opportunities" to buy beaten-down Countrywide Financial and Merrill Lynch were practically the undoing of B of A.
Citigroup (NYSE:C), meanwhile, had a fellow at the helm who boldly pshawed the risks of a crash and kept the pedal to the metal at the bank. "As long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance," Chuck Prince said in mid-2007. "We're still dancing." You don't need to consult Citi's stock chart to know how well that worked out.
And don't even get me started on Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns.
On the flip side, there are leaders in the banking world such as Wells Fargo's (NYSE:WFC) John Stumpf and Dick Kovacevich. Stumpf succeeded Kovacevich in 2007 after Kovacevich led the bank for decades. Thanks to the two of them, and other key leaders at Wells, the bank stuck to steady-as-she-goes banking before, during, and after the crisis and managed to avoid the costly errors that competitors experienced. We could say the same of Richard Davis of US Bancorp (NYSE:USB), who recently reminded investors just how boring the bank is.
And if we come back to the topic of the day -- Frankenstorm Sandy -- we can certainly see the importance of top-notch management. Staying within the financial sector, insurers will obviously have a lot on their hands in the wake of the hurricane's path of destruction.
But which insurers will be in serious trouble? That's easy: the insurers that were so intent on producing good-looking short-term results that they sold coverage where they shouldn't have, sold at prices they shouldn't have, or covered risks they didn't have a good handle on. That kind of "short-termism" may look good for Wall Street's quarterly beauty pageant, but it tends to catch those companies with their pants down at some point.
Leaders in the industry such as Jay Fishman at Travelers (NYSE: TRV) and the folks at Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE: BRK-A)(NYSE:BRK-B) -- including Buffett's insurance guru, Ajit Jain -- who are squarely focused on long-term results over short-term ones are exactly who you want to be betting on in times like these.
Are your stocks ready for the next five years?
Changes can happen within a company, an industry, or the economy as a whole that provide good reason to sell a stock. That's why it's great that we have such a broad, deep, liquid stock market.
But of all the terrible things Hurricane Sandy has brought with it, perhaps there's some good to be had as well: perspective. Consider how you felt over the past two days as the market was closed. Were you worried about the stocks you own? If the answer is "yes," it may be high time to sit down and make some changes.
Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of Bank of America and Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Berkshire Hathaway, NYSE Euronext, and Wells Fargo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.