[Starting next week, the Rule Maker column will run weekly in this space, on Wednesdays. Stop by for more thoughts and further debate from the Maker gang!]
Boy, that TMF Bogey (David Forrest) really knows how to get us stirred up around here. Last week he laid down another challenge to the Rule Maker, asking if it is still a valid investment strategy. Yesterday, Fool among Fools Rick Munarriz (TMF Edible) came to the Maker's defense. Today, you'll have to endure me blathering on about the "validity of the Rule Maker."
Well, let me start off by saying that I agree with both Bogey and Edible (I'm one of the editors around here, so I need to at least seem impartial). This kind of questioning is exactly what The Motley Fool is all about: civil and open debate, and a desire to improve and continue learning -- from our successes and our failures -- with the aggregate help of Fools everywhere.
If you're a longtime reader of Fool.com, you should have noticed by now that we don't exactly agree on everything around here, and we're not always right. One of our core values as a company is to search relentlessly for better solutions, and I think that's been evident in the writings of Mike Trigg (TMF Tonto) and Rich McCaffery (TMF Gibson) in this space over the past several months. In a market that stopped going up and up a long time ago, they championed the need for stricter valuation criteria and paid more attention to it as they managed the Rule Maker Portfolio.
Too little, too late? Absolutely not. This is an educational portfolio, and I for one have learned a lot. After all, back in the day, I bought into the specious precept that the quality of the company was 100 times more important than its valuation. Heck, I bought Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO) when it was a $400 billion company. Its P/E at the time, whatever it was, didn't faze me -- I'm not even sure I looked at it.
As Rick pointed out yesterday, when you're talking about valuation, the "only constant is change," and current presumptions cannot necessarily predict the future. Still, I was off by $300 billion when I bought Cisco. We've got to be able to get closer than that.
I'm still holding my minimal shares of Cisco to remind me of the mistake I made by buying a quality company at a very bad price -- and to see where they'll be on my deathbed. In 50 years, when I'm in my mid-80s, Cisco could be worth nearly half a trillion again, right? Right?!
It sounds bad, but you know what? I could have done a lot worse. I could have been in penny stocks rather than looking for companies with a market cap of at least $5 billion and annual sales of at least $1 billion, as the Rule Maker guidelines prescribe. I might never have looked at a balance sheet to see if a company is actually carrying more cash than debt. I might have never paid attention to margins. And maybe the Rule Maker's margin requirements (gross 50%, net 10%) are too stringent -- yes, you miss the Dells (Nasdaq: DELL) and Wal-Marts (NYSE: WMT) of the world -- but is it a bad strategy to seek out companies that can sell their products for a lot more than it costs to make them? I don't think so.
The bottom line is this: The Rule Maker has helped me think about businesses as a potential investor rather than as a consumer. It took me from wearing khakis to thinking about how Gap (NYSE: GPS) made money selling them.
My problem -- and maybe this is a flaw in the strategy -- is that I am enamored with the prospect of buying a company that hopefully I can hold for 10 years or longer. The quintessential Rule Maker in my eyes is Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO). Its longevity and superior returns over the better part of a century are impressive. As the Rule Maker guys wrote in their original buy report, a single share of Coke stock worth $40 at the initial public offering in 1919 grew to be worth more than $5 million by the end of 1996.
Through a depression, world wars, crises near and far, and even the New Coke debacle, Coca-Cola has made the rules in the soft drink industry for more than 80 years, rewarding shareholders who held on through the company's and the stock market's ups and downs. That's the kind of company that -- at the right price -- I'm looking to lay as part of the foundation of my portfolio.
And that's the kind of company the Rule Maker strategy seeks to find. Of course, it's gotten off track by buying companies like Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) and JDS Uniphase (Nasdaq: JDSU) -- clear-cut mistakes. Put simply, they were too young and too risky to be Rule Makers. Were they bought out of the euphoria of a rising market? Or to compete with the Maker's sister portfolio, the Rule Breaker, which had stocks like America Online -- now AOL Time Warner (NYSE: AOL) -- and Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) rising what seemed like a couple of points an hour during the go-go days?
I'm not going to guess at the answers or throw stones -- I bought Cisco at $400 billion, remember? But the Maker strategy, with some refinement of its criteria, is still a valid way to look at businesses, particularly for those who are just starting to invest in individual stocks.
Remember, the whole reasoning behind the port to begin with was to find a basket of stocks that people could buy to hold for the long term while sleeping well and beating underperforming mutual funds -- both in investment returns and costs.
When employed the way it was meant to be, the Rule Maker strategy still lays the groundwork for buying solid companies, and avoiding market timing (which doesn't work) and the portfolio churn (and its tax consequences) of which so much of Wall Street is guilty. The strategy can help people learn about investing and do better for themselves -- regardless of what the portfolio's current returns are today. In fact, one could argue that we should do away with the portfolio altogether and just refine the strategy.
After all, here at Fool.com we offer various strategies for investing: Maker searches for large-cap growth stocks, Rule Breaker looks for usually smaller, definitely riskier stocks in search of a bigger payoff, and Drip Port buys consistent growers at reasonable values via free dividend reinvestment plans. But the portfolios we've set up to carry out these strategies, perhaps other than Drip, are pretty unrealistic. Few people, for example, would build an entire portfolio of Rule Breaker stocks. It's too risky. Better to start with an index fund base and some cash-heavy, market-dominating Rule Maker giants. Add in a couple of Rule Breaker or Foolish 8 stocks later when you're more adept at evaluating businesses.
There is no Motley Fool way to invest. We believe in a few common things, but nobody here invests in exactly the same way, and the portfolios we run, even if there's real money behind them, aren't meant to be stock picks. They are experiments. They are learning tools. Hopefully they're helpful. Hopefully each time you read one of our portfolio reports you take a little something away from it -- even it's that these Fools are crazy and you would never do that with your money.
If that's the case, mission accomplished.
Bob Bobala still owns Cisco Systems. He also still wants to meet Ozzy Osbourne and see the Red Sox win the World Series in his lifetime, which just goes to show that The Motley Fool has a full disclosure policy.