Listen to this article
I live and breathe stocks. I’ve run funds, funds of funds and I’ve been a trader for hedge funds, as well as a daytrader for myself. But it hasn’t always been about stocks for me.
Eleven years ago, I approached HBO with an idea: they were the best in the cable TV world for original programming. How about you do the same for the internet? Do an original web show.
This was pre-YouTube, pre-blog and so forth. The idea I pitched was called “III:am”. Get it? 3am. The basic concept was that if you were outside at three in the morning on a Tuesday night (Wednesday morning) something was up. I mean, why aren’t you sleeping? Don’t you work the next day? Or don’t you have school? Why are you out and about in New York City at that hour? So every week I would go out with a camera crew. I’d stop everyone I could find in the East Village, the meat packing district, every place in the city from Wall Street to Rikers Island (the local jail). For two years, I turned over every rock in the city, interviewing drug dealers, prostitutes, their customers, and everyone in between. I saw the craziest things I’ll ever see and I did it 104 straight weeks until I finally realised I needed to sleep more. We’d get transcripts of all the interviews and put them on the internet, along with pictures and video. Designers would compete to see who would do the design for that week’s “webisode”. Not only was it a hugely popular site during our two-year run but it was also a lot of fun. And it changed my life.
Each week, I would put on the front page of the site four pictures of what I considered that episode’s best interviews. Very early on I realised the trick of pageviews on the internet. People only clicked on pictures of blonde women. Or blonde transvestites (sometimes people clicked more on the transvestites). Prostitutes that were blonde? Those would be the biggest pageviews of the month. If I put my own picture on there? Forget it. Negative pageviews.
When people fire up their web browsers they want flash, scandal, excitement. I think for seven days in a row now either Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan has been on the front page of the New York Post.
The same thing goes for stocks. Everyone wants to talk about Google or Dendreon. I know this because I see what people click on on stockpickr.com, a “MySpace for finance” I set up that’s now owned by thestreet.com. For a while, Sirius and XM Satellite Radio Holdings were the big winners. But now Dendreon is gold, with Google a close runner-up and, believe it or not, NYSE Euronext.
But let’s look beyond that to find some value. Let’s look at the most boring stocks imaginable. These are stocks that are so boring they can’t even get three or four characters in their ticker symbol. Heck, they can’t even get two characters. I’m talking about stocks such as “A” (Agilent Technologies) or “B” (Barnes Group). “M” was just given to Macy’s. Microsoft didn’t want it. Too boring, Steve Ballmer supposedly said.
I like Barnes Group. You can’t find a more boring company. I can’t even describe what they do here or I’ll lose you. Suffice to say it supplies very specific parts for aircraft engines and replacement parts for railroads. The company started in 1857, during the “dotcom” boom of the 1850s: railroads. It was literally the picks and shovels of the railroad boom. B is a great backdoor way to play the current railroad boom that guys such as Warren Buffett have been predicting with his purchase of companies such as Union Pacific and Burlington Northern. The company trades at a forward price/earnings ratio of just 13 and has done a good job surviving no matter what market conditions are.
I also like A. Hewlett- Packard analysts were falling asleep during conference calls until the company decided to spin off A, a maker of measurement tools. This was the original Hewlett-Packard, started in the clichéd Silicon Valley garage, but in 1938, not 1998. The company trades at 7.5 times cash flows and I think it will end its story as a public company through a leveraged buy-out sometime in the near future.
Rather than list all the single letter stocks, let’s just look at the ones that haven’t yet been taken (just in case you want one): G (was Gillette until recently), I, J, L, N, P U, V, W and Z.
As an aside, I pitched my idea to HBO. They gave me a budget to make it and got a great documentary producer to help me: Jon Alpert. I learned a huge amount from him during the year we shot our pilot. But this is a long way of saying I owe someone an apology. Jon Alpert’s brother, Bill, writes for Barron’s. A year ago in these pages I accused Bill of doing “a hatchet job” on a stock, Sulphco. The jury is still out but it looks like he was right after all. Bill, I’m sorry. I’m the hatchet man.