Tuesday, 19 January 2016

When to Buy? When to Sell? Learning from Philip Fisher describing a fund's investment into American Cyanamid share.

When to Buy?

Philip Fisher wrote:

"Immediately prior to the 1954 congressional elections, certain investment funds took advantage of this type of situation.  For several years before this time, American Cyanamid shares had sold in the market at a considerably lower price-earnings ratio than most of the other major chemical companies.  I believe this was because the general feeling in the financial community was that, while the Lederle division represented one of the world's most outstanding pharmaceutical organizations, the relatively larger industrial and agricultural chemical activities constituted a hodge-podge of expensive and inefficient plants flung together in the typical "stock market" merger period of the  booming 1920's.  These properties were generally considered anything but a desirable investment."

"Largely unnoticed was the fact that a new management was steadily but without fanfare cutting production costs, eliminating dead wood, and streamlining the organization.  What was noticed was that this company was'making a huge bet' - making a major capital expenditure, for a company its size, in a giant new organic chemical plant at Fortier, Louisiana.  So much complex engineering was designed into this plant that it should have surprised no one when the plant lagged many months behind schedule in reaching the break-even point.  As the problems at Fortier continued, however, the situation added to the generally unfavourable light in which American Cyanamid shares were then being regarded.  At this stage, in the believe a buying point was at hand, the funds to which I have already referred acquired their holdings at an average price of 45 3/4.  This would be 22 7/8 on the present shares as a result of a 2 for 1 stock split which occurred in 1957."

"What has happened since?  Sufficient time has elapsed for the company to begin getting the benefits of some of the management activities that were creating abnormal costs in 1954.  Fortier is now profitable.  Earnings have increased from $1.48 per (present) common share in 1954 to $2.10 per share in 1956 and promise to be slightly higher in 1957, a year in which most chemical (though not pharmaceutical) profits have run behind those of the year before.  At least as important, 'Wall Street; has come to realize that American Cyanamid's industrial and agricultural chemical activities are worthy of institutional investment.  As a result, the price-earnings ratio of these shares has changed noticeably.  A 37 percent increase in earnings that has taken place in somewhat under 3 years has produced a gain in market value of approximately 85 percent."

Since writing these words, the financial community's steady upgrading of the status of American Cyanamid appears to have continued.  With earnings for 1959 promising to top the previous all-time peak of $2.42 in 1957, the market price of these shares has steadily advance.  It now is about 60, representing a gain of about 70 percent in earning power and 163 percent in market value in the five years since the shares referred to were acquired.

In 1954 Cyanamid stock was purchased by "certain funds" referred to by Philip Fisher in his original edition.  These funds are no longer retaining the shares, which were sold in the spring of 1959 at an average price of about 49.  This was of course significantly below the current market (60) but still represented a profit of about 110 percent.

When to Sell?

The size of the profit had nothing whatsoever to do with the decision to sell.

There were two motives behind the decision.

1.  One was that the long-range outlook for another company appeared even better.  While not enough time has yet passed to give conclusive proof one way or the other, so far comparative market quotations for both stocks appear to have warranted this move.

2.  There was a second motive behind this switch of investments which hindsight may prove to be less credible.  This was concern that in relation to the most outstanding of competitive companies, American Cyanamid's chemical (in contrast to its pharmaceutical) business was not making as much progress in broadening profit margins and establishing profitable new lines as had been hoped.  Concern over these factors was accentuated by uncertainty over the possible costs of the company's attempt to establish itself in the acrylic fiber business in the highly competitive textile industry.  This reasoning may prove to be correct and still could turn out to have been the wrong investment decision, because of bright prospects in the Lederle, or pharmaceutical division.  These prospects have become more apparent since the shares were sold.  The possibilities for a further sharp jump in Lederle earning power in the medium-term future center around (1) a new and quite promising antibiotic, and (2) in time a sizable market for an oral "live" polio vaccine, a field in which this company has been a leader.  These developments make it problematic and a matter that only the future will decide as to whether this decision to dispose of Cyanamid shares may not have been an investment mistake.  


Additional Notes:



Contrary to Buffett, Fisher is looking for companies that "will have spectacular growth in their per-share earnings." (Buffett is primarily concerned with consistent and handsome returns on equity.) Buffett and Fisher do agree on the worthlessness of macroeconomic forecasting. Fisher writes, "The conventional method of timing when to buy stocks is, I believe, just as silly as it appears on the surface to be sensible. This method is to marshal a vast mass of economic data…I believe that the economics which deal with the forecasting business trends may be considered to be about as far along as was the science of chemistry during the days of alchemy in the Middle Ages." Fisher prefers to buy into outstanding companies when their earnings are temporarily depressed, and so consequently is the share price, because of a new product or process launch. "In contrast to guessing which way general business or the stock market may go, he should be able to judge with only a small probability of error what the company into which he wants to buy is going to do in relation to business in general."

Stock monitoring and when to sell
• Use a three-year rule for judging results if a stock is
underperforming but no fundamental changes have
• Hold stock until there is a fundamental change in its
nature or it has grown to a point where it will no longer
be growing faster than the overall economy.
• Don’t sell for short-term reasons.
• Sell mistakes quickly, once they are recognized.
• Don’t overdiversify—10 or 12 larger companies is
sufficient, investing in a variety of industries with different

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