F. Peter Cundill (1938–2011) was a Canadian value investor of the Benjamin Graham investment school. He was most well known for his flagship investment fund, Cundill Value Fund. His The Mac Cundill Value Fund Series A has returned 10.1% per annum during 1993 until 2003, compared with 8.1% for the benchmark Citigroup World Equity index, according to Morningstar.
- On Forecasting: “I think that intelligent forecasting (company revenues, earnings, etc.) should not seek to predict what will in fact happen in the future. Its purpose ought to be to illuminate the road, to point out obstacles and potential pitfalls and so assist management to tailor events and to bend them in a desired direction. Forecasting should be used as a device to put both problems and opportunities into perspective. It is a management tool, but it can never be a substitute for strategy, nor should it ever be used as the primary basis for portfolio investment decisions.”
- On Skepticism: “Scepticism is good, but be a sceptic, not an iconoclast. Have rigour and flexibility, which might be considered an oxymoron but is exactly what I meant when I quoted Peter Robertson’s dictum ‘always change a winning game.’ An investment framework ought to include a liberal dose of scepticism both in terms of markets and of company accounts. Taking this a step further, a lot of MBA programs, particularly these days, teach you about market efficiency and accounting rules, but this is not a perfect world and there will always be anomalies and there is always “wriggle room” within company accounts so you have to stick to your guns and forget the hype.”
- On Patience for Investors and Selling Too Early: “This is a recurring problem for most value investors—that tendency to buy and to sell too early. The virtues of patience are severely tested and you get to thinking it’s never going to work and then finally your ship comes home and you’re so relieved that you sell before it’s time. What we ought to do is go off to Bali or some such place and sit in the sun to avoid the temptation to sell too early.”
- On Statistical Overvaluation: “I almost stopped selling Japan short in the last quarter of 1989 because I couldn’t stand it anymore. But intellectually I was convinced that I was right and so I carried on and then in the first quarter of 1990 the Japanese market fell by 25% in eight weeks and I made back everything I’d given away since 1987 plus a good deal more. But I tell you statistical overvaluation is a funny thing—it can go on for a very long time, far beyond the limits of rationality, and it is a problem for the value investor in two ways: it can tempt one to compromise standards on the buy side and it may lure one into selling things far too early. I have less of a problem with the selling temptation because I have always loved cash—if you’ve got lots of it you will never have to pass up a great opportunity.”
- On Curiosity: “Curiosity is the engine of civilization. If I were to elaborate it would be to say read, read, read, and don’t forget to talk to people, really talk, listening with attention and having conversations, on whatever topic, that are an exchange of thoughts. Keep the reading broad, beyond just the professional. This helps to develop one’s sense of perspective in all matters.”
- On Patience: “For all my emphasis on the virtues of patience in value investment it has to go hand in hand with minute attention to the detail, with conviction and determination, otherwise patience is just futile endurance.”
- On Intellectual Distractions for Investors: “Just as many smart people fail in the investment business as stupid ones. Intellectually active people are particularly attracted to elegant concepts, which can have the effect of distracting them from the simpler, more fundamental, truths.”
On the Worst Investment He Ever Made
The worst investment we have ever had was Cable & Wireless, which had built up a large cash pile through the sale of telephone companies in Hong Kong and Australia and their mobile telephone business in the UK. They were well negotiated, judicious sales. What they had left was a stand-alone operation in the Caribbean, which still exists, and they were in the fibre optic business that was blowing cash. So we said, look they’ve got cash, they’ve got a valuable, viable business and let’s assume the fibre optic business is worth zero—it wasn’t, it was worth less than zero, much, much less! Their accounting was flawed to say the least and they became obsessed by a technological dream. In this respect it was reminiscent of Nortel and that should have caused me to think twice.
I talked to John Templeton about it afterwards and he took a worse hit than us. He said “this is why we diversify, if you are right 60% of the time and wrong 40% you’re always going to be a hero, if you are right 40% of the time and wrong 60% you will be a bum.” I think he probably put it more elegantly than that! But there’s one more thing. We had put a huge amount of time and energy into that one and we were willing it to save itself and, on the face of it, it could have. What we needed was a dissenter in the team—a contrarian among contrarians, a lateral thinker watching out for the left field. On that occasion there wasn’t one. So my thought is, if there’s no natural sceptic on an investment maybe it would be wise to appoint one of the team to play Devil’s Advocate anyway.
Peter Cundill was the founder of Cundill Investment Research and was named Canada’s fund manager of the year at the Canadian Investment Awards gala held in early December 2004. Born in Montreal and based in London, Cundill spent much of the year scouring the globe in search of value opportunities for Mackenzie Financial‘s Cundill fund family.
On Investors’ Biggest Challenges
The ultimate skill in this business is in knowing when to make the judgement call to let profits run. While it is true that 99% of investment effort is routine, unspectacular enquiry, checking and double checking, laboriously building up a web of information with single threads until it constitutes a complete tableau, just occasionally a flash of inspiration may be necessary. Once we have begun to build a position it has to be recognized that our intentions may change in the course of its construction. An influential, or even controlling, position quite often results from a situation where a cheap security does little or nothing price-wise for such a long time that we are able to buy a significant percentage of the equity. Whether our intentions remain passive under these circumstances depends on an assessment of the outlook for the company and the capability of its management, but I don’t think that we ought to be pro-active merely for the sake of it. My task is principally the identification of opportunity and the decision to press the buy button. This may sometimes turn out to be a catalyst in itself, but normally we should rely on others to do the promotional work or to put the company directly into play. Otherwise it will turn into a constant and time-consuming distraction from our prime objective of finding cheap securities to buy.