A Capacity to Suffer and Setting the Right Expectations

by Scuttlebutt Investor

If you owned a business all by yourself, you wouldn’t care at all about maximizing reported numbers.
— Tom Russo

Who the heck would want to watch movies on the Internet?

The year is 2012 and Netflix (NFLX) is coming off a banner year where it reported record operating income and EPS ($376mm and $4.28 respectively) on the back of a declining yet still healthy DVD by mail business.  The previous few years had seen Netflix deal a death blow to its primary competitor -Blockbuster Video. With healthy profits and competition out of the picture, what better than milk the business for its cash flow and ride out the wave of juicy profits for several years to come.      

This is a move that shareholders might have applauded at the time but it is precisely what Reed Hastings (CEO of Netflix) didn't do.  Just one year later (2012), operating income declined to ~$50mm and EPS took a nosedive to $0.31.  The driver?  A significant, several hundred-million-dollar investment in content to support the newer streaming business.  Rather than milk the profits of the DVD business, Hastings decided to pour everything and then some into the future- the streaming video business.  Yes, sure - the success of Netflix is very obvious with the benefit of hindsight some 7 years later but at the time it wasn't so obvious to the Street and investors.  As a result, the stock got punished.  It went from a high of $40 in July 2011 to languish in the $10 to $15 range from late 2011 through the end of 2012. 

I tell this tale about Netflix not because I am practicing my Harvard Business School case writing skills but because this decision by Hastings to reinvest for the future gets at the crux of the "capacity to suffer". Let’s delve a bit deeper.

Source: Data sourced from Netflix public filings

Consistency is wonderful unless it masks an intolerance for "pain" or complacency

A straight line that is "up and to the right" is a beautiful sight when it comes to a graph of a company's revenue, earnings, free cash flow or any other financial metric that matters.  I get excited when I see that a company has performed so well that everything looks so perfect.  More often than not, that excitement is quickly tempered by a dose of skepticism.  How is it that Company X has managed to grow its earnings and cash flow so consistently over that many years?  What has the management team forsaken in the pursuit of that perfectly consistent growth and line graph?  

As an investor - yes - I generally like consistency and predictability in the businesses that I buy an ownership stake in, but I don't like when that consistency and predictability is artificially manufactured.  I don't like when management teams dial back marketing investment or any other important investment because they want to hit an arbitrary 10% earnings growth target that they committed to a year prior.  In other words, I don't want earnings consistency at the expense of activities that widen the moat.  I'm ok if earnings take a hit because the company wants to make an investment that has the potential to bear fruit later.  This is more or less the core idea behind the "capacity to suffer" or the "capacity to reinvest" -  It's an idea that's been popularized by value investor Tom Russo over the years and one that I’ve become quite enamored with after hearing him speak about it on a few occasions like below.

As exemplified by the Netflix example, the crux of the "capacity to suffer" is that great companies and their managers need an ability to suffer through years of "pain" where they under-report their earnings so that they can invest and build for the future. Why "suffering" though- well Wall Street participants (analysts, media, etc.) and more recently, certain activist investors will vocally and publicly lambaste management teams that aren’t growing their earnings or cash flow fast enough or that take short term hits to their earnings in pursuit of longer term goals or a vision. These managers sometimes have to put their jobs on the line to do what is right for the long-term health of the business at the expense of a glowing earnings report that shows healthy increases in profits. Usually, the stock price also suffers as a result as sell side analysts write up SELL recommendations admonishing companies that don’t deliver expected increases in profits or metrics quickly enough.  We saw this play out with Netflix in 2012.  

As a long term investor playing the “long game”, managers that have an ability to turn their backs to the conventional Wall Street “wisdom” and grow long-term earnings power is precisely what I want. In reality- this is what all rational investors should want but objectives and incentives aren’t always perfectly aligned. I don’t want a manager that’s manipulating the numbers by pulling up expenses, pushing out contracts or buying back shares when the price is too high just to hit a arbitrary EPS number.  But in reality- this happens all the time. I’ve witnessed this absurd, self-inflicted pressure to smooth out earnings first hand over many years in main street corporate America. I’d rather companies put that effort into improving the fundamentals of the business and widening the moat. This means that earnings won’t always be smooth and sometimes they will be lumpy and that’s ok.  

Great companies and their leaders do this from time to time- they don't hesitate to report a down quarter or year because they increased marketing investments or product investments for the long term health and viability of the business. And many a time, the stock price takes a beating as they report an earnings miss or signal a desire to invest. These leaders are willing to turn their back to Wall Street and do what is right for the longevity of the company.  I like this type of leader that has the backbone to suffer through everything that’s thrown upon them including a stock price that gets hammered.  I respect a leader like this that is willing to forsake the short term in the interest of the long term and it's the type of leader that I want running a company that I own.  

Sufferers versus the Expectation Managers

There is another class of leaders that are yet one notch above those with a capacity to suffer - and these are the leaders that set the right expectations. And by expectations, I'm not talking about setting quarterly earnings guidance. On the contrary, I’m referring to setting expectations for the long term.

A leader that sets the right expectations for the long term clearly lets shareholders and other partners know their goals and objectives upfront. They often clearly let shareholders know that they aren’t singularly focused on hitting an EPS number in the quarter. They often let shareholders know that they are long term oriented and their actions and investments will reflect this orientation.  By setting the right expectations upfront, they are trying to avoid future suffering.  By setting these expectations upfront, they are warning future speculators that are willing to sell at even a whiff of supposed underperformance to stay away.  Unfortunately even these managers and leaders that set the right expectations upfront still need a capacity to suffer.  Sometimes their share prices still take a pounding and they are criticized by the Wall Street elites.  Over time, however, the hope is that they are able to establish a reputation that enables them to ignore the short termism pervasive on Wall Street. 

In our experience, quarterly earnings guidance often leads to an unhealthy focus on short-term profits at the expense of long-term strategy, growth and sustainability.

-Short-Termism is Harming the Economy by Warren Buffett and Jamie Dimon


I’ll touch on what I believe is a crucial point here. And that is a key competitive advantage that setting the right long term expectations provides to companies. Companies that set appropriate long term expectations (not quarterly earnings guidance) are provided with a certain freedom to operate that they can invest in the initiatives that make the most sense for the long term health of the business even if they might not pay out immediately and even if this puts a dent in earnings. This freedom gives them a leg up on competition that has promised to deliver a certain EPS number or profit to the street. That competitor doesn’t often have that same freedom to forsake their quarterly earnings and make investments in the business. 

Here's the thing though- setting expectations of a long term outlook and predisposition the first time inherently requires suffering.  The stock takes a beating as a long term outlook is perceived as synonymous with earnings declines.  And often this suffering continues for some time as that freedom to operate is not easily doled out by Wall Street.  Sometimes it takes years upon years until Wall Street backs off as the management shows signs of progress.  Sometimes Wall Street doesn't back off or progress is too slow for them and management is shown the door as the pressure for a spineless Board becomes too much.  In addition to Netflix - a few other examples that come to mind:

Amazon (AMZN)
It feels a bit like cheating to use the example of Amazon as it used too often either because it is a good example of long-term thinking or because there are too few good examples. From Day 1, Bezos has made it very clear that he is going to be focused on the long term and not be handcuffed by a quarterly earnings numbers. Read his 1997 annual letter here that clearly lays out this long term ambition and it reads like it was written yesterday. This ability to set clear expectations to investors upfront has enabled Amazon to invest massive sums over the years into building out its online retail business and also adjacent businesses even though these initiatives didn’t have an immediate pay off. Now imagine one of Amazon’s primary competitors like Walmart. When Walmart's earnings miss by a few cents or it's e-commerce growth doesn't live up to expectations, the stock price gets punished as happened several months ago. Why- Walmart provided earnings estimates to the street and the street is holding Walmart to these.  They are handcuffed to a certain target that they have inflicted upon themselves, limiting their freedom to act in the interest of the long term.  The reality is that Bezos, despite establishing this very clear vision, philosophy and expectations upfront, has had to maintain the temperament and capacity to suffer as his stock price has taken a roller coaster ride over the past ~20 years.  In the early years, criticism of Bezos and his approach was quite common and it is only in the recent 5-7 years that his business genius has been recognized and praised.  

Target (TGT)
Keeping on the example of retail, Target is an interesting case.  In 2014, Brian Cornell took over as CEO of Target and announced that he would make changes to the business to pivot it back towards growth - including making new investments to cater to consumer needs and wants.  This included new format, smaller stores and also bringing back the fashionable yet affordable clothing and housewares that made Target, Target.  And the stock price rallied a bit over the coming two years.  But in early 2017, when Cornell announced that they would invest significantly to modernize stores and build out their merchandise assortment the stock took a nosedive falling from the $70's to the $50's over a few months as the Company suffered through lower revenue and margins.

We will accelerate our investments in a smart network of physical and digital assets as well as our exclusive and differentiated assortment, including the launch of more than 12 new brands, representing more than $10 billion of our sales, over the next two years. In addition, we will invest in lower gross margins to ensure we are clearly and competitively priced every day. While the transition to this new model will present headwinds to our sales and profit performance in the short term, we are confident that these changes will best-position Target for continued success over the long term.
— Target Fourth Quarter 2016 Earnings Release (2/28/17)

Since then, Target has renovated hundreds of stores and built billion dollar revenue brands like Cat and Jack from scratch and the results have been quite strong with strong comp sales and traffic trends as of late.  And it totally makes sense - in world where retail competition is fierce and you're competing against the 800 pound gorilla that is Amazon, you have to adapt, lean into how you can differentiate yourself and this requires investment, investment that impacts earnings.  Have you been in a remodeled Target lately?  It's a wonderful shopping experience.  They also invested to create some smaller format stores and also improve the e-commerce experience.  All of these moves make complete sense especially to anyone that recognizes the threat that Amazon poses to Target.  Yet the stock got punished because Cornell wanted to do the right thing and invest for the long term.  Short-termism at its best.  I think investor sentiment has since turned the corner as the stock price has began an uptrend.  No doubt that Amazon still poses a major threat to Target but they continue to be better positioned to compete.  

Alphabet (GOOG)
Alphabet/Google and suffering probably haven't been mentioned in the same sentence very often.  After all, Google's online search business is the goose that lays golden eggs and funds everything from free lunch to self-driving cars.  But as of late, Google management has adopted a capacity to suffer and has had to set the right expectations.  In a world where search funds everything, you'll defend it tooth and nail against any existential threats like changes in consumer behavior with search.  This includes consumer transition towards searching on mobile devices and also increasing usage of home assistants like Amazon Echo.  As a result, Google has suffered through many recent quarters where it has intentionally contracted its margins to pay high traffic acquisition costs to ensure that for example, Google is the preferred and default search engine on Apple iPhone devices or subsidize its new hardware devices like Google Home to ensure that its strong position in search isn't diminished as consumers adopt new modalities.  In the case, of Google though, the suffering has been modest and contained as aggregate profits continue to grow at a healthy clip even as they invest.  In fact, management has been very clear to set expectations recently that they aren't focused on margin expansion, but rather absolute profit growth.  This has probably tempered stock gains over the last year as Google has underperformed many of its tech peers over the last year but this "suffering" and investment clearly make sense from a long term perspective.  

The Philadelphia 76ers
Not exactly a public company example but an example that is near and dear to my heart as a Philadelphian born and raised.  For several years, Sam Hinkie ran the Sixers as General Manager and followed what has been termed "The Process".  The premise goes like this - the Sixers needed to be really bad for several years in the short term so they could get better/higher picks in the NBA draft and eventually land a few great players that would enable them to win a championship in the long term.  So Hinkie traded away any good players for draft picks and let the Sixers basically tank -play with a bare bones team that went on to lose 72 out of 82 games in the 2015-2016 season. Hinkie was forced out/resigned late in that season.  That summer, Philly got the first overall pick in the draft and selected Ben Simmons, who has worked out really well so far.  Two years have passed since then and Philly recorded 50+ wins and got to the second round of the playoffs in the 2017-2018 NBA season. 

Was Hinkie's "process" the right one?  Hard to say for sure- a lot of teams that were mediocre to pretty bad back in 2013 are a lot better now - the Raptors and Blazers come to mind.  It's possible that another strategy could have been just as successful or more successful but there's no doubt that the moves that Hinkie made have worked out well for the Sixers and put them in a position to go deep into the playoffs into the coming year.  Hinkie set clear expectations of his long term strategy very early on in his tenure and demonstrated a definite capacity to suffer - in the case of sports, a willingness to be really bad for a period of time to enable the team to be great in the long term.  Unfortunately- like Wall Street, many fans and the NBA lacked this temperament, which ultimately led to Hinkie's ouster.  The pressure was too great from the NBA as Hinkie's process shed light on a glaring flaw in the NBA draft system.  The last thing they wanted other teams to do was tank.  The other issue was that fans didn't have a capacity to suffer - despite the years of suffering that they had inevitably experienced as a Philly sports fan.  Sports fans want their teams to be good and when they aren't good, they want to know that they've tried (Side note: Hinkie wrote this interesting letter when he "resigned” from the Sixers).


Suffer On

I evaluate many things when I assess a potential investment and the quality of management is high up on that list.  An ability to think long term, set long term goals/expectations and a capacity and a willingness to suffer (or reinvest) to meet those long term goals are an important assessment of management quality.  In some cases, an ability to set and manage long term expectations alleviates a need to suffer, although more often than not, suffering is inevitable until a company can establish a certain reputation with Wall Street or management is vindicated for its suffering.  Some of the same people who are now lauded as the business geniuses of our time (Bezos, Hastings) have had to suffer through long periods where their actions were held up as bad judgment or poor allocation of capital only to be vindicated later on.  So I say to the managers of companies where I have some ownership- Suffer on!