Coffee Can Investing - Does This Approach Works Anymore?

Coffee Can Investing: Does This Approach Work?

An overview of Coffee Can Investing Approach: A middle class Indian would spend most of his youth being forced into education, his early adulthood building a career, and taking care of his parents. He would be hit by a midlife crisis before 50. His late adulthood would be spent preparing for retirement i.e. if he hasn’t started already and ultimately banks on his kids to take care of him. As young adults, the kids now take up the responsibility with pride as is demanded by the Indian tradition and culture.

A squirrel life, on the other hand, lives chiefly on trees as they forage for food and escape predators. One thing that is interesting about squirrels is that they too try and stock up on nuts for the future. Unfortunately for the squirrels and fortunately for us, millions of trees are accidentally planted by squirrels who bury nuts and then forget where they hid them. Because of a squirrels life spanning only 11-12 months, they do not generally get to reap the benefits of an oak they planted, as oaks take up to 30 years to grow. But they still live in forests that may well have been accidentally planted by squirrel fathers decades ago.

sqrriel coffee can investing

What does it take to retire?

Humans, unlike the squirrel, have an average lifespan of 79 years. Yet we see the middle-class Indian category struggling and not reaping any benefits. According to Saurabh Mukerjea, for a couple to retire and survive for another 25 years with a reasonably good lifestyle post-retirement, they’ll need a crore a year pre-tax which is 60-70 lakhs post-tax.

This does sound reasonable considering the expenses of their adolescent children, the fragility of their health, and most importantly inflation a few years hence. This will mean that for a family to retire in a good shape they’ll need to have financial assets of at least 15 crores. Need a minute? Today we discuss an investment strategy called Coffee Can Investing that shines some light on what seeds to plant for our 15 crore oaks in the long term.

What is coffee can investing?

Coffee Can Investing was first coined by Robert G. Kirby in a paper written by him in 1984. The strategy gets its name because in the old west people who invest in the stock market would receive physical certificates of proof which they would put away in coffee cans. They would hide these cans in their mattresses later forgetting about them.

These stocks would eventually grow enormously making its holder rich when he found it again. The success of Coffee Can Investing depends entirely on the wisdom and foresight used to select stocks in the portfolio.

The Story behind Coffee Can Investing

Robert Kirby first observed the pattern dramatically in the 1950s when working in a large investment counsel organization. One of their woman clients who had just been widowed approached him. She wanted the securities inherited from her husband to be added to her portfolio under the organization. Her husband, who was a lawyer, would look after her financials.

Robert Kirby noticed that the husband had been piggybacking on the advice she would get from the advisors within the company. He would apply the advice as directed by the advisors to his wife’s portfolio. But when it came to his portfolio he would only follow those that were related to buying shares. He paid no attention whatsoever to the sell recommendations. He would simply put $5,000 in all purchases.

When Robert Kirby reviewed the portfolio created, the husband had many stocks that were worth only $1000. However, there were quite a few considerable investments that were now worth $100,000. One jumbo holding worth $800,000 exceeded his wife’s whole portfolio. These were shares of a company called Haloid. This investment later turned out to be a zillion shares of Xerox. 

This surprised Kirby as the wifes’ portfolio was no match to that of her deceased husband. This happened despite the wifes’ portfolio being managed by an Investment organization. And all he did was buy the shares as suggested by the investment counsel organization but ignore the sell orders even if the stocks were moving negatively. 

Coffee Can Investing and Index Funds

When Kirby first wrote the paper in 1984, he noticed that there was an increase in the index funds following. This has continued to this day. An Index in a market creates a portfolio of the top securities held in that market. The Index, however, does not hold the securities. The US has the S&P 500 Index. What Index Funds do is create an actual portfolio by investing in the securities.

In the paper, Kirby criticizes these funds as they are required to trade securities on a regular basis to keep up with the portfolio the index would have. Kirby also explains how the S&P 500 Index made several hundred stock additions and eliminations. An Index fund would actively be required to trade on these stocks. The transaction costs on these alone would have a huge impact on the portfolio and the index funds growth. Hence Kirby introduced Coffee Can Investing. He identified that leaving the stocks alone was one of the reasons why the widows’ husband had grown his portfolio enormously in the 1950s. And he also considered transaction costs from trading as the greatest detriment to superior investment returns.

What is required for a Coffee Can Strategy?

To tap into these superior investment returns of Coffee Can Investing one would have to 

  1. Carefully assess and select stocks based on the company’s performance.
  2. Invest and forget about them for a long period of time. In Coffee Can Investing to reap the maximum benefits, one would have to let the investments be for at least a period of 10 years.

coffee can investing quote

How to pick stocks for this approach?

In their book, ‘Coffee Can Investing: The low-risk road to stupendous wealth’ Saurabh Mukherjea, Rakshit Ranjan, and Pranab Uniyal discuss how to pick stocks to create a Coffee Can portfolio. According to them, the stocks considered must be filtered in the following manner.

1. The company selected must have a market cap of at least 500 crores.

This is because we will need a company that has established itself. Also because we will need the past records of the company for at least 10 years. 

2. Revenue growth of the company must be at least 10% each year for the last 10 years.

3. The ROCE of the companies must be more than 15%

The ROCE will show if the management is capable of allocating that the money put by you into the company correctly. ( ROCE = Net Income/ Shareholders Equity)

The stocks selected in the portfolio still have to be diversified. The investment must be done across industries and also across different capital classes. This would, however, depend on the investor and vary accordingly. The investor would have to keep in mind that the scope for growth is limited when the companies are too big. The potential for smaller companies to grow is much higher. This, however, does not stand true for longer periods. In long term say 20 years this benefit no longer would exist with the companies in the small-cap in comparison to large-caps.

Results of Coffee Can Investing Approach

After studying trends and putting together a portfolio, The book ‘Coffee Can Investing: The low-risk road to stupendous wealth’ brings forward the concept of Patience Premium. As per Patience Premium, a period greater than one year would give you a higher probability of higher returns. Investors are not really rewarded much for periods like 1 year or even up to 7 years. The chances of returns as per the book even reduce during the 3 to 5 year period. After the 7-year and 10-year mark, the patience premium is much higher.

The best-case scenario occurs when patience premium combines with quality premium. Quality premium is the premium associated with the quality companies selected in the portfolio. A dream mix would be of good quality companies selected as per the Coffee Can portfolio filter and an investor letting the investment be for a long period. With both the premiums combined the probability of losing money is -3% yearly. After a period of 10 years, the returns would stand at 20%. They would, however, remain stagnated after this period. Hence 10 years onward the returns expected will be more or less 20%.

Why do the returns stagnate after 10 years? 

Pranab Uniyal explains this citing reference to the book ‘Mathematics of everyday life’. According to the book, large numbers behave differently from small numbers. They use a dice analogy to explain this. Say 3 people were each to roll a dice 5 times. The average obtained from rolling the dice 5 times will vary or have an extremely high probability to vary from each other. On the other hand, if all of them roll the dice say 1000 times, the average will cumulate to 3.5 for all of them.

Similarly in investing. Short periods will subject us to market volatility, which would be the easiest way to lose our investment and the results would vary too much to different investors. However, when we look at longer periods say 10 years if different investors create a Coffee Can portfolio the returns would converge at 20% yearly.

Greater the Risk, Greater the reward?

The book also challenges the quote on every investor’s tongue which says more the risk, higher the reward. Coffee Can Investing provides a way for investors to earn huge returns on their investments instead of gambling in the short term. These returns can only be achieved however only if the portfolio is held for a long period of time. One of the major reasons the investor earns here is by saving up on all the transaction costs.

Why not select assets outside the stock market? 

warren buffett quote on gold

Only 2% of the Indian population indulges in the Indian stock markets. Over 95% prefer to invest their savings in Land and Gold. This could be because we as people tend to put our trust in assets that we can see and touch. Also, a great deal of cultural influence is at play when it comes to gold.

The land came to be considered as one of the best investments due to the boom in the period between 2003 to 2013. Due to this India has currently become one of the priciest markets in the world. But the prices are not followed by an apt demand. This has left a lot of unsold properties in the market. This has made land and gold one of the worst investments in recent times especially if one wants to stay ahead of inflation. And an even worse investment if they want to compete with the stock market. 

warren buffett quote investing

Benefits of Coffee Can Investing

1. Minimum Expenses

Coffee Can Investing can be said to have been built on this factor. Apart from the cost that occurs during the one-time investment, there will be no more transaction cost for the remaining 10 year period. Tracking an index involves multiple additions and eliminations to a fund portfolio. Due to this, the investments are affected regularly from brokerage and other expenses transaction costs.

coffee can investing quote

In addition to this investment management firms have their own set of charges charged to the investors. Expenses to the investment manager are spread to all the funds and not just Index funds. Also, the quest for alpha in the market has investment managers charging investors for their apparent skills. However, for the period the investors remain the market we rarely see them beat the markets.

A Coffee Can Portfolio created by the individual would not have an Expense Ratio. Also, investors rarely consider how taxes affect their investments. Regular purchases and sales would result in added taxes on any profit earned. 

2. No need for tracking the portfolio.

This is also one of the necessities of Coffee Can Investing. Once we have filtered and achieved a portfolio of quality stock the only thing that is required is for them to be put aside and left alone for a decade.

When we invest we unfortunately always try and keep track of what is going on with the company. CEO changes, political and other economic changes would all stimulate us to act on our holdings. In fact, a Coffee Can Portfolio would even require us to not even look at our stocks during the pandemic.

3. Not Affected by volatility

The filters to create a suitable coffee can portfolio ensures that only the best stocks as per the present scenario make it to your portfolio. However, in the short term, these stocks will face very high volatility in reaction to the market, political, and other changes. In the long term, the stocks will only be judged by their intrinsic quality. However, even if a few stocks turn out to be bad investments it is best to cite what Kirby saw in the deceased husbands’ portfolio. There were stocks that did not perform as well as the others but they were more than made up for by the stocks that performed better. In the long term, the portfolio will face reduced impact from market volatility.

4. Outperformance by 8-10%

According to ‘Coffee Can Investing’ a portfolio that has followed all the steps will be performing better than the market and beating it by 8-10%

Why don’t funds just follow Coffee Can Investing?

If this investment strategy enables you to outperform the market by such a large margin then the question arises as to why shouldn’t mutual funds just follow this investing strategy.

— One of the major reasons is the wait for 10 years. In Coffee Can to judge how you have performed, you will have to wait for over a decade. Very few investors would be willing to commit to such a fund.

– Imagine a scenario where a fund does start coffee can investing. It would have to set up a team that would prepare a portfolio for the fund. What next? Coffee can would require you to simply ignore the investment for the next decade. Setting up a fund only as Coffee Can will have a huge setup cost at the beginning with returns only after a decade. In regular investment firms, the employees are rewarded for the right decisions, investments, and performance. These benefits would only be available to the employees of such firms only after a decade. This would be highly unfair to them.

Despite Coffee Can Investing not being popular in the Indian markets there still are a few Asset management companies still offering the coffee can route.

Closing Thoughts

Coffee Can Investing makes us question if we really are investors. Or due to our reaction to every market change has resulted in us inadvertently become traders. Traders holding the facade of an investor. 

At the end of his paper where Robert Kirby introduced Coffee Can Investing, he makes it clear that his argument wasn’t against index funds. They were directed towards the transaction costs, brokerage fees, taxes that are associated with every trade. Instead, if the stocks are just left alone they would perform much better

What should an Investor with limited liquidity do?

If we take a regular Indian Investor, for him to be expected to contribute a huge amount for the one-time investment would be unrealistic. Instead if one would want to follow coffee can investing but is not able to set aside a huge amount at once it would be better if he does the following.

Create a coffee can portfolio where the investor invests what he can and set it aside for a decade. When he has saved enough again say in a year, create a coffee can portfolio which is completely independent of the one he created earlier with no references to it. It should be solely based on the market conditions prevalent filtering companies based on the present scenario and set it aside for a decade.

Coffee Can Investing: The Book

For a thorough study, I would recommend giving ‘Coffee Can Investing: The low-risk road to stupendous wealth’ by Saurabh Mukherjea, Rakshit Ranjan, and Pranab Uniyal a read. Although there might be quite a few books out there on investing there are very few books written keeping the Indian Markets particularly in mind.

It would be highly rewarding to break the loop mentioned in the introduction. Happy Investing. 

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