07 November 2022

On today’s episode, Clay Finck reads through Nick Sleep’s letters and distills the biggest lessons he learned from studying his writings and investment career. Through Sleep’s fund, the Nomad Investment Partnership, he achieved a stellar total return of 921% versus 117% for the world index during the 13-year period of the fund’s tenure from 2001 to 2014. Sleep is known for betting a good majority of his personal fortune on just three stocks – Amazon, Costco, and Berkshire Hathaway.

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  • Nick Sleep’s investment philosophy and how he was able to outperform the market from over his fund’s tenure.
  • Why Sleep bet big on Amazon and Costco in the early years of his fund.
  • What fundamentally set Amazon and Costco apart from all other companies.
  • Sleep’s ideas related to portfolio management and portfolio diversification.
  • How Sleep uses Destination Analysis in selecting investment opportunities.
  • How Sleep capitalized on purchasing cheap stocks during the great financial crisis. 
  • Some thoughts on one of Sleep’s recent purchases in ASOS.


Disclaimer: The transcript that follows has been generated using artificial intelligence. We strive to be as accurate as possible, but minor errors and slightly off timestamps may be present due to platform differences.

[00:00:00] Clay Finck: You’re listening to TIP. Hey everyone. Welcome to The Investor’s Podcast. I’m your host, Clay Finck, and I am just so excited to bring you today’s episode covering one of my very favorite investors out there, Nick Sleep. During last week’s episode, I did an intrinsic value analysis on Dollar General and Apple using Warren Buffett’s approach to analyzing and valuing a business.

[00:00:25] Then at the end of the episode, I talked a bit about the lessons we can learn from Nick Sleep in identifying a great business, buying it at a reasonable price, and holding it for a very long time. From there, I started reading into Nick Sleep’s letters and I wanted to put together an episode talking about his overall investment approach, how Buffett and Munger influenced him and his incredible investment track record through his fund, the Nomad Investment partner.

[00:00:50] He achieved a stellar total return of 921% versus 117% for the world Index during the fund’s tenure of 13 years from 2001 to 2014. I also touch on his home run investments in Berkshire Hathaway, Costco, in Amazon. His Amazon investment in his personal portfolio got so large in his portfolio that he actually decided to sell half of it and allocate it to a fourth company, a sauce, which I’ll be diving into at the end of this episode.

[00:01:24] So be sure to stick around until the end. Also, as I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, we are running a stock pitch competition for the listeners to compete. If you’d like to submit a stock pitch and earn a chance to win $1,000, please visit theinvestorspodcast.com/stock-competition. That’s theinvestorspodcast.com/stock-competition.With that, let’s get right to it.

[00:01:55] You are listening to The Investor’s Podcast, where we study the financial markets and read the books that influence self-made billionaires the most. We keep you informed and prepared for the unexpected.

[00:02:14] Now, like I mentioned in the intro, Nick Fund, the Nomad Investment Partnership achieved a total return of 921% versus 117% for his benchmark before fees. The fund achieved an average annual rate of return of 20.8% versus 6.5% for the world index. Just an incredible difference in how much he outperformed the world Index.

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[00:02:39] Now, Sleep would write two letters per year to his partner. Where he would outline the performance of his fund, share his investment approach, and he’d usually outline two companies in each letter that he sent out, discussing what the business did and why he thought the company was undervalued.

[00:02:55] Originally, these letters were private, but apparently people were sharing them online, so Nick was upset and went ahead and shared all of them so anyone can view his letters. He’s a pretty private person and you know, if you search for his name on YouTube or Google, you won’t find a single interview out there.

[00:03:11] He was just very private and wasn’t very promotional in himself at all. Now during this episode, I’m going to be focusing on Nick. But he actually had a partner in his fund too, Qais Zakaria. You know these two were both very unconventional investors. I’m going to focus on Sleep because he had written all these letters, but I think a lot of this really applies to Zakaria as well.

[00:03:35] William Green covered both of them in his brilliant book. Richer, Wiser, Happier. And again, I’m just going to focus on Nick Sleep during this episode. And at the very beginning of the letters he posted, he also included a letter that he wrote to Warren Buffett when he closed his fund, letting him know that Buffett just had an enormous impact on their investment approach over the years.

[00:03:56] And since that fund was closing, they would be selling the funds holdings in Berkshire Hathaway. He also wrote that the Nomad Partnership made their investors $2 billion for their clients, and that Berkshire was a big part of that. Now, Nick Sleep was based out of London in the UK, so it’s interesting to see how well versed he was in some of these companies in the us but he did invest in a lot of companies internationally as well.

[00:04:18] He wasn’t afraid to look in other countries to try and find these deep value type picks, such as a country like Zimbabwe. Interestingly, Sleep went through a similar journey as Buffett transitioning from the focus on cheap businesses or the deep value cigar type plays to the focus on quality businesses.

[00:04:38] In his very first letter in 2001, he stated quote, When we evaluate potential investments, we are looking for businesses trading at around half of their real business value companies run by owner oriented management and employing capital allocation strategies consistent with long term shareholder wealth creation.

[00:04:57] Finding all three is rare, and that is why we think Nomad has a material advantage in being a global fund. This falls very well in line with Buffett’s new line of think. However, in his 2002 letter he outlined to shareholders the types of businesses the partnership was to invest in, quote, a few final statistics on the fund’s characteristics.

[00:05:19] Approximately 37% of the fund is invested in quality, difficult to copy franchises such as newspapers, TV stations, consumer brand names, and casino. 27% is invested in what could be described as discounted asset based businesses such as property, hotels, or conglomerates where fixed assets are cash made up a large portion of the appraised value.

[00:05:42] And finally 17% is invested in deep value workouts such as Xerox, where prices are depressed by temporary factors such as short term profits, debt, or the legacy of previous management. It is the first category that contains our current winners in the latter that contains our losers in time. Both will contain winners.

[00:06:02] In aggregate. We estimate our investments are currently priced by the market at 51% of their real. That is to say, in our opinion, we bought dollar bills for 51 cents. End quote. Now, Sleep is widely known for making much of his fortune on just three high quality businesses, Amazon, Costco, and Berkshire Hathaway.

[00:06:24] Interestingly, when looking at his early letters, he was diversified across a number of different countries and industries. I think this goes to show that just one or two or even three stocks in a particular portfolio really drive the majority of the returns for an investor like Sleep. Assuming that he ends up picking a big winner like he did in his 2002 annual letter.

[00:06:46] He talked about the crowd and the influence they have on the markets. He shared a quote from Fred Shwe in his book, A little wonderful advice quote, When there is a stock market boom and everyone is scrambling for common stocks. Take all your common stocks and sell. Take the proceeds and buy conservative bonds.

[00:07:06] No doubt the stocks you sold will go higher. Pay attention to this. Just wait for the depression, which will come sooner or later when this depression or panic becomes a national catastrophe. Sell out all the bonds, perhaps at a loss and buy back the stocks. No doubt that the stocks will go lower still.

[00:07:24] Again, pay no attention. Wait for the next boom. Continue to repeat this operation as long as you live and you’ll have the pleasure of dying Rich. End quote. Now, I thought this was interesting considering the current environment of rising rates. This is currently crushing bond prices, so bonds are personally something I totally avoid and that isn’t really the point I wanted to get across with this quote.

[00:07:48] Sleep making that point that investment timeframes are very compressed for the crowd. Few investors even bother to assess the real value of a business, but instead respond to the latest data point that’s in the headlines to determine where the price is going to go in the short term. So for example, when a high flying growth stock triples in a matter of months and Wall Street puts a price target on it much higher than where it’s at, retail investors will flood in because they believe the share price appreciation will just simply continue just because it’s gone up recently.

[00:08:23] Wall Street stated that they predicted to just keep going up. You know, you saw that with gross stocks in 2021, a company would triple in price and Wall Street would just put a price target that’s higher than what the stock was currently at. They’re just really looking at short term trends, and they’re incentivized to get people to continue to buy and sell because they make profits on the spreads and on the fees that they are charging.

[00:08:46] Now conversely, Sleep is focusing on determining the true underlying value of the business, just like Buffett. And he only makes a purchase when the stock is trading below that value with a large margin of safety. So he is taking Benjamin Graham’s idea of Mr. Market in recognizing when the market is irrationally pricing great businesses.

[00:09:07] He said that quote, Those that chase high prices today leave less gunpowder for the future. In effect, they value future opportunities close to N. So opportunity cost is partly behind our decisions as well end. Sleep acknowledged that Nomads key advantage over other investors was patients. He believed that they were one of few investors in the market who were truly long-term investors, as he stated, quote, Only by looking out farther than the short-term crowd can we expect to beat them.

[00:09:37] End quote. And I think there are a number of really good benefits to taking this long term approach that Sleep and Zakaria implemented. First off, a lot of the work around researching a business is done. Way up front so you can understand the business, the industry it operates in, how exactly they make money, et cetera.

[00:09:56] So once you identify that great business you want to purchase outside of reviewing the reports every quarter or every year, you don’t need to do much work after your original purchase. It reminds me of Buffett talking about Apple and that he treats Apple like his purchase of a farm. You know, he checks on the yield maybe once or twice a year and see how the farm’s performing, but other than that, he knows he bought a great company that’s likely to just, you know, continue to produce those profits into the future.

[00:10:24] And he knows. That there’s quality management in place to take care of what needs to be done. So he’s really not worrying about the day-to-day operations, the day-to-day stock movements, you know, he just has that long term mindset and approach. So again, a lot of the work around this is done up front. So I think that’s a huge advantage because you can just go out and do other things in your life after you’ve found those great companies you want to own.

[00:10:48] The second advantage is that you’re deferring your capital gains taxes for each year. You let the business continue to compound. Warren Buffett referred to this as an interest free loan from the government where you’re continuing to defer that tax bill, which is just tremendous because your investments can compound more forcefully.

[00:11:08] In the end, you really make more money assuming the company continues to grow in compound capital. You know, it’s really comparing this long term, buy a great business and let it compound versus continually trade in and out of stuff every two or three years when stuff gets ridiculously cheap and then goes back to fair value.

[00:11:25] So I just think that’s an interesting comparison, and I love those reasons for preferring the long term approach that Buffett and now Sleep implement into their style. You know, in a world where we are just bombarded with these short term incentives and tendencies from, you look at fast food industry people taking on a ton of debt, you look at social media, it just seems like everyone everywhere is just simply incentivized to think and act on their impulses.

[00:11:54] And it was almost a breath of fresh air to read. Nick Sleep’s work. He is the pinnacle of what it means to be a long term investor. Next, I wanted to talk a little bit more about his overall investment approach. In his 2003 shareholder letter, Sleep outlined the partnerships overall approach. He stated that their aim is to make investments at prices.

[00:12:17] They consider to be 50 cents on the dollar of what a typical firm is worth. Plus, he would expect the business itself to grow its intrinsic value by around 10% per. The effect over five years will be to compound $1 of value into a dollar and 62 cents. And companies that can build value like this are normally rewarded in the market with a fair valuation.

[00:12:38] This outcome would imply a return from purchase price of 50 cents of around 26% per aum. So from that 50 cent mark to the dollar 62 at the end of five years after buying at a 50%. So quite strict standards that Sleep is looking for here. You’re likely listening to this and thinking, Wow, this is amazing.

[00:12:58] Nick was able to get a 26% return with each of his investments. Well, about half of his picks would not go quite as well as he originally assessed, so oftentimes these picks would just simply remain flat, which would bring his average expected return to around 13%, give or take. He believed that their most common mistake is to misjudge capital allocation decisions.

[00:13:22] By the companies they selected. Nick mentions that most of his Zak’s time was spent, one, ensuring that the purchase price was at least half of what the intrinsic value of the company was. And two, ensuring proper capital allocation of the management team, as well as the sustainability of the business returns in the long run, the longer investors own shares, the more their outcomes is linked to these two metrics.

[00:13:47] Some of the listeners might be wondering why investors like Nick Sleep, Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, and many of these other greats aren’t interested in companies that are growing much faster than say, 10 or 20% per year. I was actually in that camp last year. You know, why would I own a company growing at 10% when I could own a company that’s growing at 50%?

[00:14:08] While Sleep talks about this? It all comes down to the underlying value. Nick mentions that companies like EMC, Dell, PMC, Sierra, and Microsoft were big winners through the nineties. Yet practically no one was holding shares during that period, at least since, you know, the early nineties in holding all the way through.

[00:14:28] Nick admits that he missed out on these companies. He said in regards to Dell, he said he likely would have concluded that it was likely that the business would not succeed, so he’d just look somewhere else to invest. He then referenced a study by Michael Goldstein at Empirical Research that said that 80% of high growth companies would have their growth slow within five years in 90% of companies would have their growth slow within 10 years.

[00:14:54] This is why so many value investors avoid the likes. Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet in their early years. Very few foresaw the growth runway that these companies had in them. Bill Miller and Nick Sleep ended up seeing through the negativity that spooked investors around Amazon, and they just profited tremendously as you’ll come to find out.

[00:15:17] The big reason why so many growth stocks don’t continue their extraordinary growth is because fast profits and fast growth encourage competition and capital flows into an industry and they really just eat away at those profits. I think Peloton is a great example here. You know, they got a lot of attention.

[00:15:33] They were growing really fast, and then you see all these other bike companies that have very similar products just flood in. You know, slightly different variations of the product or maybe offer it at an even cheaper price and, you know, the growth really gets attacked in that manner. I wanted to shed some light on Nick thoughts on portfolio diversification as well.

[00:15:54] In a perfect world, he said he would own 50 stocks trading at a similar discount to intrinsic value and had similar levels of conviction built in each of them. However, the world is anything but perfect and ideas that are strong enough for him to invest in are. Other than Buffett and Munger. Nick also looked up to Bill Miller who ran the leg Mason Value Trust.

[00:16:16] Bill has actually been on William Green’s podcast. Richard Wiser, happier. If you’re interested in checking that out, I’ll be sure to link that in the show notes. Bill Miller followed the idea that the more sure that the investment thesis would work out, the more of your assets you should invest in that idea.

[00:16:33] Funnily enough, Bill publicly stated on William’s podcast that he has over 40% plus of his net worth in Amazon stock and 40% plus in Bitcoin as well, meaning that over 80% of his net worth at the time of the podcast recording was writing on just two assets. Bill and William discussed both of these during their conversation.

[00:16:54] If you’re interested in learning more, Not only did Sleep and Zakaria look up to Bill Miller as an investor, but Bill Miller also admired them as he personally invested in the Nomad Fund. The problem with this approach to having a concentrated portfolio is that you don’t know the true probability that an investment actually works out.

[00:17:13] You might have, you know, super high conviction, but you might be missing something or you know, the market may not see what you’re seeing. You can only make an educated guess based on the facts is the truth of the situation. The average fund manager likely has no clue how an investment will work out, so next day set.

[00:17:31] They over diversify for marketing purpose. And make their clients more comfortable investing with them as returns are more stable and in line with the benchmarks. A highly concentrated portfolio with only the best ideas will lead to more volatile results year over year, but a much higher, longer term return.

[00:17:51] Assuming that the right mix of investments are selected in 2006, one sixth of assets were invested in Amazon from the Nomad Fund as they had high conviction that it would be a strong out. They knew all too well that it would lead to the fund being much more volatile than your typical fund, but it did not bother them one bit because they fully understood what they owned.

[00:18:14] But Nick knew that only a few big things in life were knowable and within those big things, only a few select investments are available. Since only a few things can be known for sure, this means that adding more companies to his portfolio, just for the sake of what the finance industry would call diversifying in Nick’s view, would not decrease his risk, but increase it.

[00:18:37] Just like how many of the world’s wealthiest people got rich off one company. Think of Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates Sleep was taking a similar approach by riding the wave of these spectacular investments as well. I also found Sleep’s commentary around performance and benchmarking his performance to be quite interesting.

[00:18:57] He believes that the way in which he invests will lead him to underperform the overall market during bull markets and outperform the market during bear markets. Now this makes sense with many of his traditional value type picks. But I think with a company like Amazon, I think actually the opposite is true.

[00:19:14] Despite this thinking around how they might perform relative to the index or their benchmark, they really don’t pay much attention to it at all because of the somewhat randomness of the market. What they are really focused on is the long term and what they call destination analysis. They see the market index or what other funds uses their benchmark as something that is simply offered by the.

[00:19:37] And it’s just one of many potential investment opportunities. They can place their money. Nick and Zak are targeting a certain long term return and they can invest in a number of stocks available on the market. They think of each opportunity very probabilistically. They don’t invest in the index simply because they can find better opportunities that offer them a higher probability of reaching their desired destination over the long run.

[00:20:02] In the end, reaching the desire destination is what is actually important, not whether they beat the index in any given year. Related to this idea of destination analysis, Sleep stated. You want to be able to look back at 80 years old and think that you treated your clients equitably, did your job properly, gave money away properly, and not that you had four houses in a jet end quote.

[00:20:28] In this 2006 year-end letter, Nick stated, “Our goal is a track record to be proud of. We wish to accomplish something meaningful, and to do that we aim to earn returns over time on par with those investors we greatly admire. In no way do we guarantee returns, but if we can approach their results, then over time we will beat the index too.”

[00:20:49] I find this perspective fascinating. I know so many smart investors that simply refuse to buy anything button index fund for their portfolio or for the majority of their portfolio. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that approach, but I think if you’re so dead set on only purchasing the index, then I think when those rare, fantastic opportunities do come along, you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to capitalize on.

[00:21:17] Or even consider the opportunity to achieve significantly higher expected returns. But if you do purchase something outside of the index, you have to be somewhat agnostic about whether it outperforms or underperforms relative to the index in one or two years. You have to have that long term approach, just like Sleep, in my opinion, and you probably need to have a good idea as to why it does or does not outperform over a number of.

[00:21:43] One of my favorite parts about reading Sleep’s letters was what he was writing during the great financial crisis. What were his thoughts when his fund was down substantially, and did his approach change at all? To give the audience a frame of reference, the overall market peaked around October of 2007 before it proceeded into a bear market.

[00:22:04] In later 2008 is when the waterfall of selling really occurred, and investors were really tested with their conviction and their holding. At the end of 2008, the Nomad Fund was down 45%. While the World Index, he references in his letters was down 40%. Despite the atrocious performance in 2008, Sleep stated that these times are the best of times for an investor, which is pretty timely to mention.

[00:22:32] Given that today we’ve seen lower stock prices in 2022. In his 2008 letter to shareholders, he discussed the total optimization of everything in our day to day. From investors wanting to invest every dollar possible to businesses that want to take on debt if they have the capacity to, to our workday filled with work, to every single minute.

[00:22:55] When we are in the office. Everything in our capitalistic world seems to be maximized by so many. As to lead, put it. Capitalism does not teach Slack. It teaches optimization in quote, and I can’t help but think of what we saw in 2021. You’d see these headlines from Ray Dalio that Cassius Trash and every dollar you don’t have invested in some way is essentially a melting ice cube that will eventually become worthless.

[00:23:24] Now we see the ARC funds and cryptocurrencies crashing down 70% plus and interest rates are on the rise, pushing the prices of all assets down substantially as the federal reserves slammed the brakes on the economy. Now in the short term, the output maximization does look like a great idea. The flaw, however, to putting money to work immediately and being fully invested is to assume that all relevant opportunity sets are available immediately.

[00:23:55] Say one invests in a company with an expected return of say 8%. You know, not too bad. However, by making that investment, you’re giving up the opportunity to invest in a much better opportunity, should it come along in the future. This isn’t to say that when you believe that the market is overvalued, you should go a hundred percent cash or anything until a ripe opportunity comes.

[00:24:16] I think Sleep does make a strong case to use. You know, kind of this Buffett like approach of having extra cash on the sidelines in case incredible opportunities do happen to come along. He calls this having a little bit of slack in your processes and to not always be focused on optimization. Sleep. Also recognized that the businesses he really knew well and really loved were businesses with scale economies.

[00:24:43] These companies like Costco and Amazon that he owned, they were doing just as well in the bad economic times as they were in the good While overall. I’ll be diving into the scaled economics model here in a little bit, but I want to focus on the financial crisis now. While overall retail sales were down 10%, Amazon’s biggest day leading up to Christmas was 16% higher in 2008 than in 2007.

[00:25:09] Even though many of the companies they owned were down 50% in 2008, the businesses themselves still continued to surge ahead. He said that Amazon was priced as if it wouldn’t grow in the future, despite them seeing some of the best growth prospects they could ever imagine for a company. By mid 2009, Amazon’s revenues were up over 60% over the past couple of years.

[00:25:33] Yet the stock was all doom and gloom. The business did so well. It was almost as if a credit crisis made Amazon’s business even stronger than it would’ve been otherwise. Here’s how Sleep rounded out his 2008 letter quote. The commentary in the press is uniformly gloomy, and this is serving to depress share price.

[00:25:54] What we know is that prices are lower than a few years ago in corporate behavior is improv. We mean no disrespect to those unfortunate enough to lose their jobs or caught up in other people’s. Too busy to think mistakes and scandals. But from the perspective of an investor, there is less to worry about today than there was a few years ago.

[00:26:15] Indeed, I doubt that worrying is the solution to anything. Particularly we are reminded of Winston Churchill’s story of a man on his death bed. I have had a lot of trouble in my life saying the dying. Most of which never happened. It may not feel like it, but for a long term investor, this is the best of times, not the worst.

[00:26:36] It is in this environment that people sell their GTOs for 750 pounds. Take heart and look to the horizon. End quote. Now this reference to the GTO is referring to a story he told about a motor car that sold for just ridiculously cheap. The story itself isn’t all that important for the intentions of this episode, but how he relates the story to himself I found interesting.

[00:27:02] He said that the collector thought outside of the box, rolled up his sleeves, did some analytical work, and found a contrarian investment opportunity with great growth potential that few of his peers recognized at the time. He luck in at a low price, owned it forever, and in the end it did not matter what price he paid, particularly as the growth and the underlying value made his purchase one of the best investments of all.

[00:27:27] He says that Zak and him aspire to such a roadmap. I just loved the way he communicated and how he was thinking during the total market turmoil. He was clear that his investment approach wasn’t going to change, and despite the total calamity in the markets, he was straight up telling shareholders that the underlying value of many of the businesses they owned were improving, thus giving investors the opportunity to buy great companies for cheap prices as a reference to just how right Sleep was.

[00:27:58] At this time of utter chaos, since the end of 2008, Berkshire today is up 344%. Costco is up 825% and Amazon is up 4008%. I repeat 4008%. Now, I expected the recovery of the Nomad Fund to be pretty good relative to the index in the year to come in 2009, but I did not expect it to be this good. To round out 2009, the Nomad Fund was up 71% while the World Index was up 30% from 2009 through 2013, Nomad returned investors 404%.

[00:28:41] Now at the very end of the letters that Sleep published for the world to see. I was somewhat surprised to see that he mentioned that for his readers who wanted to learn more about him and his overall investment approach to go and read William Green’s book, Richer, Wiser, Happier, you know, just coming from someone that’s so private and won’t do any interviews and is not promotional at all.

[00:29:02] I just love how he mentioned William’s book at the end of his letters at the very end, because he released them in 2021 actually. He stated, quote, William has written the kind of book that we would love to have written, but know that we lack the requisite skills. We are sure you will enjoy the read end quote.

[00:29:22] This is quite a statement from someone who has extraordinarily high standards for quality, and I agree that you’ll definitely enjoy reading that book from William if you for some reason haven’t yet. In William’s book, he highlighted Sleep’s intense focus on quality as Sleep. You really want to do everything with quality, as that is where the satisfaction and peace is.

[00:29:44] Sleep took this quality approach to investing quite literally as he saw the investment partnership as a laboratory test of sorts on how to invest, think, and behave in the most high quality manner possible. I pulled that brilliant idea from William Green’s book. He really wasn’t interested in making a fortune in the investment business.

[00:30:05] It’s almost as if he set out to prove to Wall Street that there is an ethical way to doing business in the investment world. There were many times that they would actually turn away investors if they didn’t feel that there were enough ripe opportunities at the time. To have somebody who has as good of an investor as him and Zak to turn away investors knocking at the door, I’m sure was just totally unheard of in the investment industry.

[00:30:32] And on top of that, they charged a tiny, minuscule management fee, you know, at least compared to traditional standards. They got 20% of the profits above a 6% hurdle rate, and instead of the usual one to 2% fee charged by investment managers, as the fund actually fell short of its hurdle, they would refund a portion of those previously earned fees to shareholders.

[00:30:57] To Nick and Zak, it was really, truly all about quality and the money was totally secondary for what they wanted to achieve. Sleep went on to say that the fund closed in early 2014 for a number of reasons, including the headaches that regulators were providing ’em, as well as the desire for independence and a new adventure for them to explore.

[00:31:18] And I believe that Sleep went down the route of philanthropy and charitable causes after closing his fund, the fund at the end of its tenure had grown to around $3 billion in assets. Now if you’re interested in why Sleep was just so obsessed with quality, I found it interesting that he had this one book that had just been an enormous impact on him. It’s called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I have not read this book. I plan on definitely taking a look at it. And this is a book that Nick actually recommended that Zak read when they originally started the Fund. So for those interested in learning more about his quality approach, that might be an interesting story that you’d like to check out.

[00:32:00] Now one quote that stuck out to me at the very end of his letters, he said, quote, Investors can think their way to success without seeming to work in the traditional sense in the payoff in capitalism from stock picking can be extraordinary. End quote. I just really liked that quote, and I thought it was one of his many profound statements.

[00:32:21] Sleep and Zakaria ended up retiring as fund managers at 45 years old, and since then, they’ve actually managed money quite well for their personal portfolios as Sleep. Tripled his wealth in the first five years of retirement, according to William Green’s book. Next, I wanted to walk through his overall thoughts on Costco and Amazon and why he loved these investments so much.

[00:32:45] Then I wanted to go through a business called ASOS, which is a company he stated to have recently purchased for his own portfolio. All right, so let’s get started with Costco. It was at the end of 2002 when he first started discussing his position in Costco and his letters. This was a 3.1% position in the fund at the time.

[00:33:05] He recognized early on that Costco was a great business and he still owns it today. Since the beginning of 2002, Costco shares are up tenfold. To give a quick recap of their business model, Costco is a warehouse retailer that charged a $45 membership fee at the time to allow members to shop in their store.

[00:33:26] A key differentiator for Costco relative to other retailers was that they implemented an everyday low pricing strategy and they never marked up their products more than 15% from what they bought them. While Walmart at the time had markups of around 20%, and the industry standard was really around 30%.

[00:33:45] So Costco customers know that Costco is giving them a great price on their products, and there isn’t really any marketing schemes to offer temporary discounts on their products. You know, every time you go into Costco and make a purchase, You’re getting a great price, at least relative to what they pay to their suppliers.

[00:34:04] Now, what I like to look for and find in a business is what Jim Collins popularize, which is called the flywheel effect. The Costco model definitely had a flywheel effect as well. The low prices would lure customers in, which means that Costco receives more profits as a result of the greater number of customer.

[00:34:23] Costco would then use those profits to go out and open more stores wherever they found the best opportunities to do so. Since Costco then had more stores, they had more bargaining power over their suppliers, which in turn would incentivize even more customers to join and purchase that membership, and so on and so forth.

[00:34:42] This was the Costco business model, The standard markup strategy they used continued to push the cost savings onto the customer. Build that trust with them to keep coming back year after year, after year to do more and more shopping. Now, Sleep refers to the Costco and the Amazon business model actually as the shared economics model.

[00:35:03] Both of these companies are super cost efficient, so they can offer super low prices. So as the business grows, their prices are able to go lower and lower, which begets more growth. So as the business grows, their moat grows and the quality of the company and the amount of time the company is able to withstand extends as they grow, as they build more customers and build more stores.

[00:35:27] So customers actually benefit from the growth of the company. For a company like say Nike, that has a high margin business, the same really can’t be said as each year they are paying a high margin for Nike’s products, and Nike’s really relying on that brand with loyalty. But for Costco, you’re getting better prices each year.

[00:35:48] As the company grows in, the economies of scale are shared with the customers. At the time, Sleep estimated that Costco could fund itself to grow at around 14% per year. From that point, he said that this level of growth was much more sustainable than the companies that the retailed crowd was chasing at the time.

[00:36:07] With growth of 30% or more for many of the companies, he estimated that Costco could reach a thousand stores in the. And 200 stores in the uk. While at the time they had 284 in the US and 14 in the uk. So a ton of room for long term growth. According to his assessment of the market, Costco’s stock peaked in 2000 at around $55 per share.

[00:36:31] And Nomad purchased at $30 per share according to his 2002 shareholder letter, and they ended up purchasing more over the years. Of course, he stated that he believed a reasonable valuation for Costco was north of $50 per share at the end of 2002. And in his letter he stated, Costco is as perfect a growth stock as we have analyzed and is available in the stock market at close to half price.

[00:36:57] In 2004, Costco was trading at a earnings multiple of 24, while the PE ratio today is around 35, 36, so we have a 50% higher. Today, if I had to guess why? Part of it is likely due to the market’s appreciation of the quality of the business Costco has, and the other part is probably because the overall market is just priced higher today than in 2004.

[00:37:23] A lot more people know about Costco now than they did then too. So he also explained how Costco is so difficult to compete with because they’re just so giving to the customer. Wall Street, you know, oftentimes urges companies to give back to the shareholders rather than the customers through things like share repurchases through dividends.

[00:37:44] This is exactly what most shareholders want, including Wall Street. But Costco gives a lot of their earnings potential actually, to their customers, and this in turn leads to a stronger business that is more likely to sustain far, far into the future. It’s truly a business that focuses on the long-term.

[00:38:03] Which aligns right with Sleep’s investment philosophy. When purchasing a great business, Sleep oftentimes would interview management of a company, and he just saw that the management team was so serious about never marking up their products more than 15%. You know, there might be a time where they can make a killing on some specific product, they get at a huge discount.

[00:38:22] But management was like, “No, we’re going to pass on these savings to the customer.” So they just did it over and over and over. And the model has definitely. One idea that Sleep wrote about was related to business quality and moats. If you’re holding a business for the long term, it is extremely important that the company has a strong moat.

[00:38:40] The difficulty really lies in assessing the strength of a company’s m.o. because it’s not necessarily a number you can just point to on a balance sheet or on an income statement. It’s more of a qualitative metric that’s up to the eye of the beholder. Sleep talked about the idea of the robustness ratio, which analyzes how much a company saves their customers relative to how much money the company actually makes.

[00:39:05] In theory, a business that saves customers a ton of money and makes very little money relative to how much they save their customers, you know, that’ll be very hard to disrupt, at least relative to a business that has high profits relative to what they save their customer. This concept definitely applies to Costco because with the way their business is set up, it actually discourages competition because of how much investment it would take to make the same amount of money that Costco does.

[00:39:33] On top of that, you’re already competing with a really strong brand that Costco is built for their customers. Sleep estimated that for every $1 in profit Costco, Customers were saving $5. Now, he actually came up with this idea of the robustness ratio from Warren Buffett when he described Geico. Buffett stated in his 2005 annual letter that Geico was saving their customers roughly $1 billion in earning $1 billion in pretax profits as well.

[00:40:02] So in Buffett’s eyes, it was clear that Geico had a moat. Because of the enormous cost savings they passed down to their customers relative to the profit they receiv. Sleep took that idea and applied it to Costco, claiming they had a moat as well, in that the quality of the moat could actually be quantified through the robustness ratio.

[00:40:21] You know, just using one metric to get an idea of how strong it was. He makes it clear that the robustness ratio isn’t the end all, be all of a mote. It’s just one indicator to get a rough idea. And even if the ratio is shrinking over time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the moat is weaken. In Costco’s case, you want to offer customers.

[00:40:41] As much value as possible early on in the business cycles, so then you can continue to get those early referrals from customers. And then maybe later on you can increase the price of the memberships or gradually increase the prices in the stores. At the end of the day, Costco’s only real competitor was Sam’s Club.

[00:40:59] Both of these businesses were growing and Costco still offered really competitive prices relative to Sam’s Club because of the flywheel effect. Costco’s competitive position was only going to strengthen, and the business was destined to grow. Over time, as profits were reinvested back into the business, many stores were opened and more customers were acquired under the membership model.

[00:41:22] Another item I think that is at the root of all great businesses is incentives. You can think about what have been the incentives and what has led to the growth of Costco’s business and in turn the growth of their stock price. Let’s look at me personally on an individual level because we know that individuals are the customers of Costco.

[00:41:43] If I know that Costco provides relatively high quality products at very competitive prices, then I am incentivized to shop at Costco versus, you know, the many other places and options I have because I know that Costco will actually save me money on the bulk items I want to buy or the bulk items I need.

[00:42:03] You can then look at Costco’s suppliers. The biggest and the best businesses are incentivized to offer their products in Costco stores because Costco has millions of people walking through their doors every single day. You can look at the executive team. If the executive team holds a lot of Costco stock and have done so for many years, then we know that they are actually incentivized to drive long-term shareholder growth in the value of those shares.

[00:42:28] You know, once you start to see those incentive. Possibly get thrown off. That’s when you start to see undesirable results. In my opinion, if management starts to give on their commitment to low prices, then that could cause, you know, customers to lose trust in Costco. Am I lead customers to want to shop around and try and find the best deal.

[00:42:49] You know, if the management team has stock options that incentivize results for this quarter rather than the quarter, five or 10 years from now, then that really changes their incentive structure. So, you know, Charlie Munger’s huge on incentives and I think it’s something definitely worth mentioning. Now, I wanted to turn my attention to Amazon.

[00:43:07] You know, many people are familiar with Amazon’s business model, so I’m not going to get too much into. And despite Sleep’s criticism of many growth companies, this did not stop him from recognizing the tremendous potential in Amazon. And I find it interesting how Bill Miller and Nickle both owned Amazon.

[00:43:25] You know, they seem to be. Acquaintances are friends and you know, really admired each other. So I’m really curious how much discussions they had in discussing Amazon because they’re both, you know, two of the greats. What Sleep was seeing in Costco was very similar to what he was seeing in Amazon as well.

[00:43:44] Many other investors were caught up in Amazon’s reinvestment back into the business, which at the time seemed to hurt shareholders as they didn’t report any bottom line earnings, but Sleep saw that Amazon wasn’t optimizing for the current quarter. They were really optimizing for the long term shareholder value and the sustainability of the business.

[00:44:04] Amazon actually also had a membership fee similar to Costco with Amazon Prime, and that captured customers into their network and further incentivized customers to shop with them. So Wall Street again wanted to see the company produce profits today, but Bezos was patiently reinvesting back into the company and laying the groundwork for growth.

[00:44:25] No one on Wall Street could comprehend just mind blowing growth. Once Amazon released Amazon Prime. In Nick and Zak’s mind, it was game over. They charged an annual fee of $79 for two day shipping, as well as some other free perks such as free movies and TV shows in the short run. This definitely did not help Amazon’s bottom line.

[00:44:47] However, in the long run it was setting the stage for something extraordinary Sleep. Said that he knew exactly what game that Amazon was playing because he had seen it in Costco and Amazon was just a supercharged version of. They first started purchasing Amazon shares around $30 per share, and they actually put 20% of the fund’s assets into Amazon’s stock.

[00:45:11] This move was quite controversial as one fourth of the partners took their money out of Nomad as they feared that the fund was too concentrated into one company, one of Bezos’s early shareholder letters stated. Our judgment is that relentlessly returning efficiency improvements and scale economies to customers in the form of lower prices creates a virtuous cycle that over the long term, leads to a much larger dollar amount of free cash flow and thereby a much more valuable amazon.com.

[00:45:42] Out of all the business models out there that they had studied the scale, economy’s shared model was in Sleep’s mind, the best that they could find. They studied this business model from Walmart’s reports back in the 1970s, and now they applied it to Costco, Amazon, Dell, Southwest Airlines and Tesco. I just loved one of the statements that Sleep made when discussing Amazon.

[00:46:05] In his 2006 shareholder letter, he said that traders have many small ideas and we have one big. Good luck to them. Picking up pennies in front of a juggernaut is just not how we behave. He also thinks that he thinks Bezos would actually run a good investment fund as good. Investing in good business decisions are synonymous.

[00:46:28] Bezos does not control the timing of the payback of the reinvestment back into the business. Just as Sleep doesn’t control the timing of nomads performance. But the ever widening of the moat surrounding Amazon largely determines whether his investment will be a success. He just had to have the patience to wait.

[00:46:47] One big mistake that some investors make is finding a winning company, but end up selling that company too early. Nick and Zak did not make this mistake with. At the time, they knew full well of this mistake as they knew of others who had sold out of Walmart or Microsoft. Early on in the company’s growth timeline, as he said, quote mathematically, this error is far greater than the equivalent sum invested in a firm that goes bankrupt and quote, However, there is good reason that many investors eventually do sell their winners because research shows that most growth companies eventually stop growing.

[00:47:26] So Amazon, Microsoft, Walmart, these are almost the outliers in the data. And you know, when a growth company does stop growing, the stock price eventually does take a hit because of that. So the market takes into account the fact that most companies do end up eventually failing by discounting. All stocks.

[00:47:45] What this actually does is discount the companies that don’t fail as well or just continue to grow. This gives investors like Nick Sleep a huge advantage because he’s able to see what 99% of other investors aren’t seeing. He’s seeing that 1% type company that sees where the company’s heading very early on, and he’s one of the few that’s able to get ahold of shares early at an extreme discount, and he is one of the few that’s willing to hold on from the very beginning into the practically indefinite future in Sleep’s mind.

[00:48:19] And since Sleep is an investor that is pretty concentrated, he’s willing to do that extra additional work required to ensure when he finds those quality companies, he’s able to take that extra step and dig deeper into the financials and the management and interviewing the management to ensure he is correct in what he’s seeing in the business.

[00:48:39] Whereas most managers are really spread out and diversified and they’re not able to do the same level of research. Related to selling your winners. Active managers like to make it look like they’re simply being active or they’re just doing their job. When an active manager sells a company, people will just assume that they’re making a wise decision because they’re taking some action and to take that action.

[00:49:03] They must have put a lot of thought into it. While most people don’t realize that not doing anything is also a decision, it doesn’t necessarily require any action at all. Charlie Munger has been quoted saying that he sees inactivity as a form of intelligence and that the real money is made by sitting on your investments.

[00:49:22] Another interesting connection that Sleep recognized in his holdings is that they were very unconventional and they did not do much advertising at all. He stated that Amazon and Costco did zero advertis. Nomads investments may have been in publicly listed firms, but these firms are also overwhelmingly run by managers who think and behave as if they were private firms, which really is quite unconventional in today’s modern world.

[00:49:50] Back in 2009, Jeff Bezos went on to even say that advertising is the price you pay for having an unremarkable product or service. Quite an interesting quote. In a Wired magazine interview, Bezos also stated that there are two ways to build a successful company. One is to work very, very hard to convince customers to pay high margins.

[00:50:12] You know, a company like Nike or Coca-Cola. The other way to build a successful business is to work very, very hard to be able to offer customers low margins. You know, companies like Walmart, Costco, Amazon, aso, they both work. Bezo said that Amazon is firmly in the second camp. As we all know, it’s difficult.

[00:50:32] You have to eliminate defects and be very efficient, but it’s also a point of view. We’d rather have a large customer base and low margins than a small customer base and higher margins. This isn’t to say that all successful businesses shouldn’t advertise. I just think it’s a statement to try and communicate who Nick Sleep really is.

[00:50:53] Again, if you look him up on Google or YouTube, you aren’t going to find a single time he has appeared in the media, been in an interview. It’s just so uncommon today where many people will take advantage. The opportunity to get behind a mic, get in front of a screen, and be in the limelight. But all there really is to him is what comes from his letters.

[00:51:12] So we’re going to work off of that as well as what’s in William Green’s book as well, of course. Although we don’t know exactly what Sleep owns in his personal portfolio today. Luckily we can actually see the holdings in one of his charities called I G Y Limited Investments. This charity files A 13 F and shows their holdings, and not surprisingly, at the end of Q2 2022.

[00:51:37] The charity only held three stocks, a 37% position in Costco, a 37% position in Amazon, and a 25% position in Berkshire Hathaway. So those are the three holdings In his charity in William Green’s book, he stated that he also purchased a fourth company, which is aso, probably a company many of the listeners haven’t heard of, unless they’ve studied Nick Sleep before.

[00:52:03] So let’s turn our attention to as os it’s just a company spelled a s o S. Now, the reason that as OS sort of came about for Sleep is because of his investment in Amazon. It had done so incredibly well that Amazon became up to 70% of his net worth. And he felt like he wanted to spread some of that out into other holdings.

[00:52:25] So in 2018, Sleep sold half of his Amazon position after it had a sizable run up in price. And he told William Green that he had invested that money into AAU a year or two later. Sleep does mention AAU and his letters a few times, mentioning that they are a business with the shared economics model similar to Amazon and Costco.

[00:52:45] That their ceo, despite becoming wealthy, is as excited as ever to work in the business. Now, let’s talk about what ASOS does. I’m going to do some analysis of the business and give my general thoughts on it as Sleep hasn’t talked all that much about it, really in his letters. According to ASO’s annual report, they are an online fashion retailer for fashion loving 20 somethings around the world.

[00:53:11] Through their marketing app and web experience, Assos customers can shop a curated of 90,000 products sourced from 850 plus of the best global and local third party brands. Alongside our mix of fashion led in-house labels, I tried to look up this stock in our t I P finance tool and it actually doesn’t show up as they are headquartered in the UK in London.

[00:53:34] And they aren’t a huge company. So if I just go search a sauce on Morningstar, the company shows up under ticker A S O M F. I see that they have a market cap of around 650 million US dollars as of today, October 6th. And the stock has just had a roller coaster ride. As far as performance in 2018, it was just over a hundred dollars per share, dropped all the way down to $30 in early 20.

[00:54:01] 20, rose back to $77 and early 2021, and now it’s all the way down to $6 and 50 cents. So quite a rollercoaster ride and quite low today compared to where it’s been in the past. Very volatile stock. It’s honestly pretty crazy to me to see how far it’s dropped to today, and the covid low in March, 2020 was roughly $13 per share, and now the stock is even 50% below the Covid low in March, 2020, so quite interesting.

[00:54:34] Although the stock is very volatile, the growth in their revenues and gross profit have been great. Now these numbers are in British pounds rather than US dollars. From 2017 through 2021, revenue grew from 1.9 billion to 3.9 billion British pounds. A 19% annual growth rate and gross profit grew from 958 million to 1.77 billion British pounds, a 17% growth rate in their gross profits.

[00:55:04] This looks and sounds great, but their net income is where the company isn’t nearly as consistent as they are a very low margin business. Their net income available to common shareholders was 64 million in 20 17, 80 2 million in 20 18, 20 5 million in 2019, 113 million 2020, and 128 million in 2021. The net income for the trailing 12 months is down to 33 million, which is probably why this stock has taken the beating as of late, and I’m actually quite surprised that the market has punished the stock.

[00:55:37] This. The volatility in the net income does make a lot of sense for a low margin business like asos, just because a small change in their net income margin leads to drastic changes in the net income on a percentage basis, at least. For example, if their margin increases from 2% to 4%, well that doubles the company’s net income.

[00:55:58] All else equal. When I was trying to figure out why the stock was down so much, I did come across a Bloomberg article that August sales came in lower than expected, and sales growth was only 2%. The article also noted quote, Shoppers are navigating the highest inflation in four decades in the uk, and there are signs that they’re cutting back on purchases of clothing and other non-essential items in quote.

[00:56:25] The company also had a boost from Covid as more people were shopping online. But I don’t see that secular trend to online shopping stopping anytime soon. So it’s good to see the company is positioned in a way to work with those secular trends. Although the recent growth hasn’t been great because of inflation, the year over year performance I’m seeing in their annual report actually looks pretty good.

[00:56:50] From a high level. If the business is able to continue to grow and fend off competitors, it appears to me that it’s actually trading at a pretty cheap price. Now that is a huge if because ASOS is in the clothing and retail business, which is very competitive. If you just normalize their net income to something like a hundred million British pounds, convert that to usd, which is $113 million.

[00:57:14] And then if we just simply apply a conservative 15 times earnings multiple, that gives us a valuation of nearly 1.7 billion, which is much higher than the market price today of 650 million US dollars. Again, a number of unknowns with this company, but it seems like a company that’s worth looking into. If you’d like to clone Nick Sleep with his recent investment in aau.

[00:57:38] Definitely non-investment advice, just giving my general thoughts. I did also see that the company recently hired a new ceo, so the market is sort of internalizing that as well and determining if the old CEO’s resignation and in with the new one will be good for the company long term or not. So that is something else that is potentially worth looking into.

[00:58:00] All right. That concludes my episode on the brilliance of Nick Sleep. Since I find how investors like Nick Sleep invests so fascinating, having this approach of owning the highest quality businesses for decades, I’d love to hear from the audience about companies they believe fit into this category.

[00:58:19] 2022 has been a year where just about any company that isn’t producing much cash flows today are getting absolutely crushed, meaning that investors who dig underneath the surface may be able to find the next great compounding machine trading at a price well below its intrinsic value. If you have any companies that come to mind, I would truly love to hear from you.

[00:58:43] Shoot me an email at clay@theinvestorspodcast.com, and maybe I can do an episode in the future if I find a company that is worth covering on the show. Again, that’s clay@theinvestorspodcast.com, or feel free to reach out to me on Twitter at clay_finck. 

[00:59:04] All right. That is all I have for today’s episode. I hope you guys enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed putting it together and sharing it. If you did enjoy it, feel free to share it with just one friend if you’d be so kind. It will really help us continue to spread the word of the show and grow it so we can continue to deliver this great content to you all for free.

[00:59:24] With that, thank you so much for tuning in, and we’ll see you again next Monday. Thank you for listening to TIP. Make sure to subscribe to Millennial Investing by The Investor’s Podcast Network and learn how to achieve financial independence. To access our show notes, transcripts or courses, go to theinvestorspodcast.com.

[00:59:45] This show is for entertainment purposes only. Before making any decision, consult a professional. This show is copyrighted by The Investor’s Podcast Network. Written permission must be granted before syndication or rebroadcasting.


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