What a First Year

Color Commentary

1. Non-Normal Exor

One of the great benefits of reading a lot of annual reports is that, simply by seeing the same general categories and types of language over and over again, you start to develop a sense of what is “normal”. Having that sixth sense of what is “normal” is vital for developing my investor spidey sense that something is different – could be for better, could be for worse. When an annual report deviates from what I see regularly, that deviation stands out and tells me to look more closely.

I’ve been reading Exor’s annual reports and materials to understand them better after I attended their Investor Day in Turin, Italy, when I knew next to nothing about the company. For that experience and the background, the Archive has Issue #23: Exor, Suddenly. My interest was piqued by being there in the investor meeting, and in reading the annual reports, I’ve found quite an interesting deviation from what I’d consider normal. My spidey sense is going crazy – in a good way.

Exor is now a Dutch company (though still resolutely Italian in its blood) and it files its annual reports according to the Dutch regulatory requirements. The Dutch seem to require in their filings a report on the company’s sustainability and ESG efforts. In Exor’s report, they call it the “Non-Financial Statement”. Here is the most recent Exor report for 2018, and the Non Financial Statement section begins on p.97 of the PDF (p.81 by the numbered pages of the report).

Well, the Non-Financial Statement reports on all sorts of governmental, sustainable, and environmental matters; information of the type not usually reported by US companies. For those of us trying to decipher whether a company is living out its Mission or is greenwashing for marketing’s sake, the information is fascinating.

Part of this report is the makeup of its employees in gender and age. Now, that’s not exactly groundbreaking information, and I was reading along with the stats about percentages of men and women thinking “yeah, but how many of those women are support staff, and how many are running the company?” But then I got to the part that divided up the stats into three categories of employees, which, yes, did indicate how many women were in senior management. It went on to report on how many people left the company in a given year and how many they hired. It breaks it down by holding company. And it goes into initiatives Exor is taking to promote better governance and sustainability.

This is information in great detail which we don’t get from US annual reports, and it’s often information that companies do not particularly want us to know, because it doesn’t always make them look great. This information is solidly not normal for American-listed companies. But it seems to be quite normal for Dutch-listed companies. Another one of my favorite Dutch-domiciled companies, Unilever, included this sort of information in their 2018 annual report. It’s fantastic to have. I applaud the Dutch for requiring it.

I started The Invested Practice with the theme for the year of getting into the Missions of companies: how do we find the Mission of a company, how do we determine if the company is actually committed to the Mission or if it’s just marketing and greenwashing, how do we decide if the Mission matches our own values well enough to support with our money? Here are just a few of the issues about Mission: #3: Tricky Mission, #7: Understanding Amazon, #19: Wisdom, Please, and of course the mission statements of companies all put together on one page. In the annual reports of these Dutch-listed companies is information direct from the company that helps answer some of those questions.

My plan for the holidays? Sit in a cozy house by a cozy fire, cuddle up to my laptop, and read the Exor annual reports for as long as my family will let me. I’m far too excited about it.

2. 2019: What a Year

It’s been a difficult year in some ways. It’s also been a great year.

In January, I launched The Invested Practice after months of work to get it started, and let me tell you, I was NERVOUS. I had put my book Invested out the year before and it became a New York Times bestseller, which was massively exciting. I had worked so hard on writing the book and publicizing the book that I had no clue what I was going to do with myself after the book came out and all the publicity was over. I had no space in my brain to think ahead. Furthermore, I did not even know if I would continue to like investing enough to continue to focus on it. I had only been doing this stuff for about two years. It was a whirlwind.

To my surprise, and joy, I started to love investing even more as 2018 went on. The book came out, I did what felt like endless interviews and trips and social media posts, and because I’m an introvert and was rather overwhelmed by it all, investing practice became my safe space. When I got a moment to breathe and reflect in the fall of 2018, I wanted only to develop my investing practice, and decided to start The Invested Practice to grow the community of people who are in this process of practicing investing together.

My dad and I worked on our book for over a year, it was edited by a professional editor at my publishing house, and had many people read it over and give comments. No book is ever written solely by one author.

This little collection of issues of The Invested Practice, though, is written only by me.

When I emailed out the first issue, I was TERRIFIED and I think I literally pulled a blanket over my head like a three-year-old and hoped no one would read it. It’s a little embarrassing to tell you about that, I suppose, but I was so afraid to put my own thoughts about my practice out there because you might not like it. And it takes a lot of work and time to write. I get the feeling there are a lot of people out there online who love being out there and sharing their ideas and opinions, and that’s great. It doesn’t come easily to me. Which almost makes me want to do it more, to represent those of us who are being somewhat shouted down by the loud ones. (Again, nothing wrong with being loud, but I do think us quiet ones are equally worth listening to. I’ve mentioned this book a few times already this year: Quiet, by Susan Cain, about all the benefits of being an introvert, changed my life because it made me feel comfortable being who I am, instead of apologizing for not being energized by being around people. My husband and I had dinner with friends the other night and we mentioned that we’re both extreme introverts, and these friends were SHOCKED and protested that there was no way we were introverts because we were fun to be around and outgoing. Yeah. We educated them that introverts are quite often fun and outgoing, don’t worry!)

The Invested Practice launched in January and your response was so wonderful I came out from under my blanket and got excited to keep goin. Many of you have been with me the whole time. Our Archive’s value has only grown with each additional issue, which is really cool to see. We’ve had meetups and mini-podcasts with some really special guests. I dealt with completely feeling braindead from the eye surgeries this year and found out how to keep my investing practice strong through not being able to see (or think all that well). I no longer pull the covers over my head when I send out the issue, and now I get excited for your excellent emails and responses.

3. New Feature: Community

Your comments are so good, in fact, we have been working hard to add a feature to The Invested Practice so you can talk directly to each other. I’ve hesitated putting comments on The Invested Practice because I’ve found people tend to comment about stock valuations or options, which can be construed as advice and we do not give financial or any other kind of advice here. As the disclaimer at the bottom of each issue says, “You should form your own opinion and consult your own advisors before taking any financial action – which is the whole point of your Investing Practice anyway!” and I think now we’ve established that groundwork ethos. I trust our community of members.

Therefore, I’m thrilled to announce that comments are here. I hope you will use to talk about your practice, your obstacles, your real-life issues just like I do in the issues, and we will become supports for each other. So, please refrain from specific opinions about stock prices and be respectful of each other, and let’s make this community antifragile, supportive, and useful.

4. 2020: Mission

As I said, I’m keeping our Mission theme going. I’m going to take it into next year. We haven’t remotely gotten into it enough. Other people probably would stick didactically to their stated theme and refuse to deviate; however, to me, the deviation IS the fun. That’s the joy of the twists and turns of learning new pieces of knowledge that come only from following my nose, sniffing out discovery. I go for the journey, not the destination.

I am reminded of the famous Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken”, so often referenced solely as being about taking “the road less traveled by.” The poem is so much more than that.

For me, “The Road Not Taken” is about the thought process when one is standing at a crossroads, with almost no information about what to do. Frost’s traveler looks at two roads, both fair and nice-looking, and knows that whichever he chooses, he may never get to try the other.

5. The Road Not Taken

Here is the poem. It’s now out of copyright protection, so I can reprint it here in full. Click here for a nice audio reading of the poem (click the “play” symbol next to the title).

The Road Not Taken
By Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

How, with almost no differentiating information, does the traveler choose?

Now, we do have differentiating information. However, none of us know what will happen. We all, investors and non-investors, live without knowing what will happen, and live a parade of choice after choice after choice of one road over the other. In that way, we investors are no different than anyone else.

No, our lot is that we try, more than non-investors do, to predict what will happen with great certainty, based only on the small portion of the path that we can see. There we are, standing at the diverging roads, to make the best educated guess we can every single time we show up for investing practice. What to read? What to watch, who to listen to, what sources to believe? And the obvious crossroad: do I put money in to this venture right now, or do I keep it for something else later on?

I stand at a mental crossroads every day, and honing my skills to make a better choice each subsequent time is always about noticing better and better information. How wet are the leaves? When were they last stepped upon? What animals might be down each road? The more observant and attuned to nature I am, the better my educated guess will be. And still, in truth, it will remain a guess. And that’s why Frost delighted in choosing the road less traveled by: he chose the experience, rather than the goal.

Every time we show up for investing practice, we choose our experience, rather than the goal. And that has made all the difference.

LET’S GET PRACTICAL

Last issue was about how beneficial good sleep is, and how detrimental not getting good sleep is, and it turns out that Bill Gates is on board the sleep train with us! He chose the book Why We Sleep as one of his top five books of 2019. The other ones sound intriguing and he’s known for being as much of a bibliophile as Warren Buffett, so I trust him.

A few more favorite issues this year, in case you missed them:

Audio Interview with Cheryl Einhorn: #7: Understanding Amazon

Berkshire issue is full of Buffett and Munger wisdom: #10: Berkshire, Baby!

All about how companies go public: #11: IPOs: Let’s Break It Down

Ownership Disclosure: Danielle Town does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned herein.

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