Successful investing is often called a mix between science and art. There have been many attempts to quantify the measurable factors that can be used to predict stock market winners, but investment decisions often boil down to judgment calls that take qualitative factors into consideration.
According to Philip Fisher, author of Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits (1958), one of the best ways to discover a company's strengths and weaknesses would be through the use of "scuttlebutt"—a process in which the investor would gather firsthand knowledge. In other words, interrogating sales clerks in search of the next great retail stock is scuttlebutt.
The scuttlebutt method can be time-consuming and may not be readily accessible for the average investor; however, in today's technology-driven society, it's easier to utilize this approach than you think. Check out these free web resources as a starting point:
- SEC Filling – 10K: Knowing how to read a 10K is an important part of investing and that's the secret Warren Buffett tells anybody willing to listen and take up the challenge. But do you really know what to look for and how to read it efficiently? Here are 3 tips to get you started: 1) Beware of fancy charts in annual reports, 2) Use the letter to shareholders as a screen for CEO trustability, and 3) Check footnote consistency.
- Google Trends indicates the volume and frequency of search terms relative to total search volume across region and time. This is a great site to use if you want to get a general sense of consumer demand.
- The Pew Research Center is another good source to learn about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. I am particularly interested in the social media research they conducted through the PewResearch Internet Project. There are also many datasets that are free to view and download.
- Visit Alexa.com especially if you are researching a website or any company with an online presence. The free portion of the site provides you with useful information such as daily page views and daily time on site, as well as user demographics.
- Fisher believed labor turnover rate and employment desirability are two very important factors to consider. LinkedIn is a great source of information in this realm. These days, most companies are careful to maintain a respectable online presence and spend time to populate their company profile page with relevant information. A company that is either unintelligible with its company benefits or inattentive in its presentation of itself is probably not going to be a company that is cognizant of its shareholders.
- Glassdoor is a site to visit if you want to get a behind-the-scenes view. Here, the investor can get a glimpse of employee/company culture and leadership, through its anonymous company reviews and CEO approval rates. As this article notes, Glassdoor offers investors the opportunity to separate truly innovative companies with wannabes.
- The website of Forbes magazine has a feature called People Tracker that allows you to search for an individual's corporate affiliations (as well as listings on the Forbes lists of rich people).
- Fisher supports the idea that salaries should be in-line with industry standards, without being excessive. Executive Paywatch is a great site to add to your bookmark. You can search for a company either by ticker symbol or full name and see how one executive's total pay compares with that of the average worker (according to Bureau of Labor Statistics).
When Fisher talks about the "scuttlebutt" method, he is referring to the times when he tried to talk to everyone related to the company he is researching—from current to former employees, competitors, customers, etc. In that regard, the list I provided here is less scuttlebutt than providing alternative sources of information. The essence of stock research, after all, is to ask many questions and attempt to form a comprehensive picture about the company and the future.
If you haven't read Fisher's book, Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, I highly recommend it. If you have read it already, read it again. The philosophies that Fisher advocates within are applicable even in this day and age. It is one of the more famous investment books that has inspired legions over the years, including Warren Buffett and our very own, David Gardner.
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