“Sun Tzu’s Five Factors” Business Analysis Framework

[I recently finished my first quarterly letter to my investors, who are some close family members and friends. Below is an excerpt from the investment process section, where I spent most of the time explaining my unique (at least I think) business analysis framework, which is a combination of Sun Tzu‘s Five Factors (based on the Art of War) & checklist method.]


Investment Approach – The Process

I will start with where I spend my resources and our capital to. It’s mainly 3 investment themes: special situations, distressed assets and great operations at reasonable price. The core idea of all three is “buy low sell high”, however the way of analysis for each is somewhat different.

  • In special situations category, I look for entities undergoing some type of corporate event that might lead to a mismatch of value and price (e.g. depressed prices due to forced sells, or under-appreciated prospect that could increase the value). Examples of special situation investments include, but are not limited to, spinoffs, corporate restructurings, mergers, liquidations, and rights
  • In distressed assets category, I look for asset that is priced well below its value due to unfavorable developments. a.k.a. “There is always a price to make a crappy business an attractive investment.” Since the risky nature of distressed assets, heavy analysis is performed on balance sheet and solvency side. It also is the most time consuming from tracking perspective as any new development and disclosure could significantly change the value evaluation outcome. I typically size ideas in this category conservatively. Examples of distressed assets investment include, but are not limited to, cigar butts, scandals and high yield corporate debts.
  • In great operations at reasonable price category, I look for, as the name itself says, great operating businesses at reasonable price. This is what Buffett does for the late part of his career, and examples include well known Berkshire Hathaway’s holdings of Coca Cola, American Express and Wells Fargo, etc. The return of this category comes not from the price/value mismatch in current day per se, rather from the compounding growth of the value in future. Thus, my research spent on this category is mainly on the industry, business model and moat of the business, which drive the value compounding ability of an entity.

Next, I will talk about the process of how I approach analyzing an opportunity. I usually start with the business itself, trying to understand the business model, industry landscape & whether there is moat around the business. Then I will move on to balance sheet, to get an idea of what assets it has, last to its profitability (i.e. income statement). There are well documented metrics and valuation methods for analyzing the latter two, but the first (also the most important, in my opinion) item – business analysis – may worth more elaboration.

I use a self-developed “Sun Tzu’s 5 factors” method to analyze businesses. Sun Tzu’s classical military treatise, The Art of War, starts with the 5 most important factors affecting wars: Tao/Dao (道), Meteorology (天), Topography (地), Commander (将), System (法).

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A Part Time Investor’s Investment Process

For the past few years, I have been doing value investing practice on an ad hoc basis. I read news & investment message board, follow the ones I deem interesting, do some my own researches & make decisions on building positions. So far, overall I have more hits than misses and my personal investment fund’s performance has been in line with S&P 500, even though I usually keep 30-50% cash at hand due to lack of opportunities (except for 2013 during which year the index ran up 30% and the cash drag bit me badly). Clearly, the cash drag was my problem. I also know that it is mainly because of the ineffectiveness of sourcing potential opportunities, given that my spare time resources are limited. To solve this issue, I have to have a formal investment process.

Based on my current knowledge, a typical value investing process would look like this:

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