When I was 8 years old my family moved to a fancy part of a mid-sized Swedish city, Västerås, not very far from the capital, Stockholm. There I became bullied for my northern accent, cheap clothes and mental state (my big brother drowned before my eyes the same summer we moved, my parents got divorced [toxically], and I had a slight autism spectrum issue).
It took some time, but being bullied was the best thing that ever happened to me. It didn’t kill me, it made me stronger. With time I became impervious to just about everything, extremely resilient and calm, which helped forge a successful career in finance.
As the 40 ensuing years passed by, I often reflected over my luck in life. Everything seemed to go my way. Sure, I had a few minor setbacks, but I always quickly bounced back up a lot higher than before. Every single year was better than the year before – and they were pretty good from the start.
For example, when I was 18, I dated an incredibly pretty girl, and I received something akin to a small Nobel Prize in mathematics and physics for being the best performing student in middle Sweden over three years, and I was admitted to Sweden’s most prestigious University. From there, everything improved each year in an accelerated fashion: materially, relationship-wise, my subjective experience and so on.
I have very good reasons to assume my particular life configuration, including physical health, brain chemistry, cultural and socio-economic starting point etc., makes me perceive every year as better than the preceding years.
So, whenever I encounter a setback of any kind, I kind of expect a reward in due time. Everything that happens to me is simply regarded as a harbinger of bliss. Which brings us up to date.
Retiring in 2014 definitely was a genius move, the best thing that ever happened to me up till then. Now that retirement is drawing to a close. As fed up as I was with finance in 2014, just as excited I am today about both sharing my knowledge (through the Swedish course in fundamental equity valuation: Finanskursen) and practicing it again as a professional hedge fund manager. You’ll get the details about my getting back to work during the first quarter of 2020.
Per Ardua Ad Astra
However, that wasn’t what I set out to share today, but the following. By midsummer of 2019 by life kept setting new all time highs at a frantic pace. I almost expected to be diagnosed with a brain tumour, like John Travolta in “Phenomenon” (1996). In June I went as far as to say, the last five years, and in particular the last 5 months, have been so good to me, life could throw anything my way, including death, and I still would consider the total package a great deal.
And, boy, did I get what I asked for! Considering my gruelling experiences the last 5 months after that, i.e., since the day after midsummer, which started with my dog passing away, I’m expecting some major breakthroughs coming my way in due course.
Everything I’ve gone through in my life has ultimately proven to be the best thing that’s ever happened to me – perhaps not causally, but with uncanny synchronicity. So, why should my experiences with pain, loneliness and hearthache this fall be any different? Given what I know to be true about my history and my constitution, these experiences are bound to morph from hellish torture into the best things that’s ever happened to me.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and I’m still kicking.
Here’s to looking forward immensely to getting to know in which way the twists and turns of summer and fall of 2019 were the best things that ever happened to me, objectively, materially, relationship-wise, perceptionally etc.
Remember, we’re always travelling (Vi Reser Alltid — my motto in Swedish), and that’s a good thing. Being static is being dead.
My book is almost finished. Actually it is finished, and I’m just touching it up, pruning and clarifying certain ideas. Here’s a short excerpt, just one single sentence from the book, to get a taste:
Small, consistent steps, taken with awareness, celebration, feedback, analysis and course correcting, will always get you further than occasional and mindless spurts, not to mention being more enjoyable than a single marathon for some pie in the sky moonshot you might never complete, and might not even want if you ever get there.
That’s the excerpt. Here’s the interpretation:
Today I was interviewed on the topic of saving for retirement: when to start, how much to put away, when to start reducing risk, what to forego in terms of consumption, what to plan for etc. Saving and investing money is much like investing in your own life. It comes down to getting the small things right – and the earlier the better.
But small and early, the wu wei concept, isn’t enough. What you do small and early is utterly crucial. Hence you need to pay close attention to who you are, what you truly like, and what effect your chosen small steps actually have, as opposed to what you meant them to cause. That’s what I mean by taking your steps with awareness.
Celebrate your successes. Better yet, celebrate your learning experiences, good or bad. Then reinforce your habits or course correct. Every completed small step is reason to reflect about what you did, why you did it, what effect it had. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the fact that you did something, that you had an experience, that you learned something, and that you’re still around to improve on your decision making process. Analyze what happened, and feed your conclusions back into your habits, targets and life direction.
Do it continuously. Acknowledge that the process is a success in and of itself. Sticking to a good habit is more of a success than actually reaching a long term goal. Sure, keep tweaking and updating your desired direction, and possibly ultimate endgame, with the outcome of your taken small steps. But avoid staking years of toil and effort on long term goals and potentially empty hopes of grand celebrations at the finish line. You’re most likely somebody else when you get there. In addition, with the goal behind you, you have nothing, not even a process. In effect when you reach your long term goal you have nothing to celebrate. The risk is you establish another, equally arbitrary and long term goal just to fill the void.
Striving for a million dollars or a 200 lbs bench press are such useless goals, with nothing but emptiness waiting for you. Using your body every day, or managing your savings a little better every day, are processes you can be happy about every day.
Life and finances work much the same way, and should be considered in context of each other. You can’t predict, but you can prepare. Establish good habits that resonance with your personality and every day will be reason to celebrate sticking to and improving on your habits and best practices. The inevitable setbacks will be nothing more than temporary and largely inconsequential stumbles.
You don’t need to finish the marathon under 3 hours, there’s no defeat in falling and missing the magic number. The joy lies in every step along the way. If marathon runners were only in it for winning or beating a certain time, there would be very few marathon runners around. No, it’s the small steps, the habits, the joy of the process that drive them. The same idea applies to your life and your finances.
Trying to spurt will only make you miserable. Aiming for the moon might or might not get you there; and maybe, just maybe you’ll get to celebrate once. And then what?
Becoming strong, fast, rich, accomplished or successful isn’t about reaching a final goal, it’s about the becoming in itself, i.e., enjoying and celebrating the process. If you save, invest, socialize and exercise in a way that’s sound, ever improving, and not least enjoyable – taking small steps in full awareness and with an effective feedback process – chances are you’ll appreciate your life so much more, than even if you did succeed in a one in a billion moonshot effort to become rich, famous or achieve some other form of externally validated status.
Robert Sapolsky says that your subjective status is at least as important as your objective status, and after a certain threshold level of living standards, what group you choose to compare yourself to is the main deciding factor of how good you feel about yourself. I choose to rank myself in the serenity and happiness group, and there I come out on top, which also means I actually come out on top in therms of how I feel. Win-win-win.
More excerpts are coming up. The question, however, is whether I should include these long winded clarifications in the book or not. What do you think?
As if a hundred short sellers screamed in agony* and suddenly fell silent
(*actually not, rather they celebrated, knowing the endgame had finally arrived; since knowing the facts rather than a wishful narrative, they understood the action was the last desperate act of a fraudster at the end of his rope)
Topic: why all the negativity?
Discussion: investors are on balance long biased and thus need an opposing view for balance
Conclusion: more pessimism (almost) always leads to a more balanced view
Bonus: a little tip regarding perspective, productivity and happiness (asking past friends for advice)
With a little help from my (previous) friends
You know the 150 people you actually know? They aren’t the same as they were 10 years ago. If you’re serious in your quest for a fresh perspective on things, write an e-mail and ask for your advice from your old network (I got the idea from the book about networking effectively, that Anna Svahn is writing as we speak).
Tip: start by expressing some appreciation and if possible provide something of value. Givers are more successful than matchers and takers. And appreciative people are happier.
The curious case of the lone genius giga fraudster
Let’s forget for a while that Tesla is burning a billion dollars every three months (e.g., cash flow was -1.3 to -1.4bn in Q2), and that it’s effectively running out of money by the turn of the year, unless it manages to raise new capital by then. Nota Bene, this isn’t controversial; it’s a financial fact.
Tesla has over 10 billion dollars in debt. Tesla holds a billion dollars in client deposits. Tesla has a negative net working capital of 3 billion dollars, giver or take. Tesla has 1 billion in convertible debt maturity effectively coming up by the turn of the year. Tesla has at least half a billion of its cash reserves where it can’t be accessed. Anyway, let’s forget about money running out in just a few months, since that’s not really an issue of cash flow turns positive.
Let’s forget that even though sales have increased at an impressive rate, so have losses and executive compensation. These are indisputable financial facts. If anything, the numbers are artificially positive due to creative accounting, not least by under reserving for service costs.
Let’s also forget about the quality issues with hastily manufactured tent “lemons”. Let’s also forget about Tesla’s failed attempt at disrupting the “stealership” model, consequently leaving clients to deal with maintenance, repair and spare parts themselves.
Let’s also forget about all the weird and lofty claims Elon Musk spouts every opportunity he gets. I’m thinking about new car models, trucks, pick-ups, solar house roofs, solar car roofs, bricks, 1 USD/trip super-mach intercity hyperloops etc., without the necessary factory investments.
Let’s also forget about the hundreds of former Tesla fans, witnessing about poor to non-existent service, about cars being paid for but not delivered, about deposits not being returned on demand, about suppliers not getting paid or are asked to pay money back (!)
Before: several years of a monopoly-like situation + subsidies = increasingly unprofitable
At this point let’s just think about one single thing, since profits and cash flows are what ultimately decide the fate of a company:
Some of the bullish analysts and bag holders of Tesla stock are counting on Tesla and Musk finally turning profitable now that its subsidies are ending and a tsunami of competition (with subsidies) is entering their market.
Wait, what? Wut? Hqr sez wut?
Yup, that’s right, that’s what’s coming now according to bulls. Elon Musk has never turned a profit in any of his companies. The last fifteen years, Tesla has only increasing losses to show for its efforts to exploit its supposed first mover advantage and massive subsidies. But, now, finally, with a deluge of formidable competitors, with as deep pockets as experience in building and testing cars, Tesla is supposed to somehow reap the benefits of… scale, competitive position, increased margins?
Not only that, just as the available market is about to fall by 90% in the coming years, Tesla’s subsidies are going away. Tell me again how that is supposed to finally push margins into positive territory.
The bigger the lie, the easier to get away with it, and Tesla is about as big as they get, just like Theranos, Enron and Madoff before that. Or Nick Leeson and Jérôme Kerviel.
Many fraudsters start out with good intentions, probably Elon Musk too. However, as reality catches up with dreams, losses and mistakes have to be swept under the rug. “It’s just temporarily“, they think, “for the greater good in the long term“, they reason, and go on to make bigger and bolder bets to cover up their little mishaps.
An idea about luxury roadsters and other premium cars making profits, that finance investments in mass-market car manufacturing that’s supposed to make even greater profits, instead turn into ever increasing losses and thus the necessity for side-shows of acquisitions and unrealistic innovations.
At some point the well-intentioned and benevolent disruptor realizes his predicament and steps over the fraud line. The genius has now become a fraudster; and with increasing vitriol and intensity he attacks everyone who expresses the least bit of skepticism, while coming up with ever more fantastic claims about breakthroughs that are on an “order of magnitude” above and beyond anything previously seen. At this point the smart money knows the game is up and starts pointing it out, but it takes years (Enron, CDOs, Allied Capital), sometimes decades (Madoff), for the Ponzi scheme to collapse into the surprised and devastated hands of the bag holders.
This is not about Tesla, but about balance and perspective
Why all the negativity? Because almost everybody else has a positive bias. It takes effort and guts to find and relay negative information to a herd of stampeding bulls. Very few bother, since everybody seems to hold nothing but contempt for short sellers, including SEC officials (who famously like to interrogate whistle-blowers and short sellers rather than investigate the actual perpetrators).
It’s simply humans being humans when bullish investors turn a blind eye to all the obvious negative facts, and instead pat each others’ backs, repeating their faith based narrative, “obviously corroborated by the stock price (bro)”. It’s not really their fault. The problem actually lies with bears being too silent, passively allowing gullible bulls to be had for a ride. Humans are gullible by nature; we like a good story and we tend to positivity. We want to believe in stories bout heroes. We want to believe in seeing ourselves becoming rich, in particular if it’s by supporting a good cause at the same time. Fraudsters (whether by design or mistake) take advantage if that trait.
That’s why bears armed with facts are so important. They perform an almost invaluable service in their quest of fact finding and creating balance in the otherwise one-sided bullish narrative. Humans are lazy and blind to other stories than their own. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just our nature. But that’s exactly why the bears are needed: to create perspective, to catalyze questioning and to provide facts and arguments that can be directly measured against whatever the bull story is.
It’s currently the most important story there is
But why Tesla all the time? You keep ranting about Tesla; why the negativity?
It’s because it’s the biggest and simultaneously most obvious house of cards out there. It’s the most unbalanced narrative there is in public markets right now, in terms of the bull story being the least factful and the bear story being the most tangible. There’s almost a hundred billion dollars at stake, not to mention bag holders car owners that have or have not received their cars but stand to lose any kind of warranty, pre-payments or access to spare parts or super-chargers.
Quite often, bear stories are more qualitative than financial in nature, i.e., less numbers based and more speculative regarding troubles ahead. Not too rarely, very high valuations feature in bears’ short stories, although most smart bears know that’s nowhere near what’s needed for a successful short.
Not this time though. This time the bulls are the dreamers, and the bears don’t even need to start talking about the valuation, since Tesla’s money is actually running out (and with no plan for raising new).
No matter how much bloggers, podcasters and successful investors try to dig out the true foundations of the bull story in Tesla, they come up empty handed. It’s all narrative and hope that the lone genius, who so far has accomplished nothing, will soon magically wave his cave dildo, display his magic beans, and create actual profits.
Occam’s razor would long ago just have labelled Musk a fraudster rather than a genius, and all his actions would be all that much easier to explain.
A genius wouldn’t manufacture lemons and losses. A fraudster could. A genius wouldn’t fantasize about products he could never afford to build. A fraudster might as a cover-up. A genius wouldn’t put himself at the mercy of markets (no cash, negative flow). A fraudster would claim funding is secured (even if the claim might prove to be securities fraud). Would an environmentalist genius have five large Bel Air mansions and the biggest private jet there is (G650)? He could, but a fraudster fits the bill better. A genius maybe should have produced profits some time in his history. A fraudster wouldn’t see why. Finally, a genius wouldn’t pump up numbers in collaboration with his brother in an unrelated company and push his board into accepting a takeover at the very peak of that company’s business. A fraudster? Hell yeah!
This last bit is admittedly speculative, but the perspective is still important. No matter, the bull-genius narrative has only dreams, hopes and fantasies in its corner; while the bear-fraudster story is based on facts about sales, costs, profits, production numbers, quality reports, traffic statistics and not least a much more likely and coherent overall picture.
By the way, how’s this for perspective: imagine a private investor, an amateur with less than a decade under his market belt, doing all his research after his ordinary job hours, without any real insight in the inner workings of either the financial industry or that of the stocks he invest in. Imagine that same person thinking he understands more than, oh I don’t know, e.g., Mark Spiegel, David Einhorn, Jim Chanos…, and me.
I know, I know, I know… why would decades of profitably navigating several bull and bear markets, including investing on both the long and short side in hundreds if not thousands of individual companies, no less with the help of a solid financial education, actually having investing as full-time profession, supported by many, many competent co-workers and with access to dozens of the top financial research firms, ever stand a chance against a lone amateur? Or, er, wait a minute…
That’s not how herds operate
Maybe, just maybe, the unquestioning bulls need to be shaken out of their confirmation bias bubble and start listening to the fact-finding minority. Sure, we are guilty of CB too, but I’m sure all experienced bears make a true effort of mapping out the bull case in as much detail as humanly possible. The bulls? I’m not so sure, that’s not how herds typically behave.
How about you? Are you long or short Tesla, and have you queried the other side for their best arguments and pitched your own against them yet?