We all know that life is full of risks. Some are more serious than others. I hold the view that I’d rather “manage” risk than “take” risk. I’ve said before that taking a risk seems a bit arbitrary. “Gee, I think I’ll try to run across this eight lane expressway right now!” Sounds silly, right? But in a way, that’s what taking a risk seems like to me. While it may not be as spontaneous as this overdramatized example, taking a risk feels like gambling. Meanwhile, managing a risk is calculated. It is studied and planned. Risk mitigation strategies are developed. If I’m to run across the eight lane expressway, I’m going to figure out every possible way to do so as safely as possible. That’s risk management.
One very important element of risk management is a concept that was espoused by one of the most revered investors of all time, Benjamin Graham (1894 – 1976). And this concept is practiced today by his acolyte, Warren Buffet. The concept is that of margin of safety. Entrepreneurs absolutely must understand margin of safety – but every member of society would benefit from practicing it as well. Graham and Buffet narrowly defined margin of safety as the difference between the intrinsic value of a stock and its market price. I look at margin of safety on a broader basis and define it as the difference between success and failure. In some cases this difference can be razor thin, and in others, it can be as wide as the Pacific Ocean. The key is to take the steps necessary to push the margin as wide as possible.
In our businesses, organizations and lives in general, we have an opportunity to become expert at creating margins of safety. One of our companies purchases apartment properties. Because we tend to hold these assets for five to seven years or longer, there can be a great deal of uncertainty about the future. What can we do to stack the deck in our favor and create a healthy margin of safety when we’re looking so far down the road? Obviously we make year-by-year financial projections that are based upon a set of assumptions. Those assumptions include rent levels, rent increases, operating expense levels, expense increases, occupancy percentages, rates of return on which a sale price can be calculated and various aspects surrounding debt financing. The Excel spreadsheet is quite comprehensive with all of these assumptions and projections – but how do we overlay a margin of safety on the process?
With one of our properties, we obtained a certified appraisal as a part of the due diligence process that indicated a value $3 million higher than we paid for the property. That’s a margin of safety right there. Perhaps we budgeted an initial increase in rents of $110 after making a number of physical improvements, but were actually able to achieve $200. Our assumptions might have anticipated a stabilized economic occupancy of 91%; but in actuality we were able to operate at 93%. Operating expenses may have been right on the money, but rent increases averaged 3.25% each year rather than the 3% that we had forecasted. And remember our baseline started $90 higher than the $110 initial increase that was projected. In summary, we pushed a number of levers to create several different margins of safety that when combined, produced a much better bottom line throughout the holding period than expected. In so doing, we are better protected from market factors that could degrade the future value of our asset.
The principal takeaway here is to find as many margins of safety as possible. If we make decisions based upon 100% optimal results, there’s no room for error. Then a blip in the market or a miss with operations could mean failure. I have learned the hard way that if there’s no way to create sufficient margins of safety, the risk I am contemplating may be too difficult to manage. So I move on to something else.
Developing the concept of margin of safety is an exercise in positive thinking. We are looking for ways to increase the probability for success – and that’s always a good thing.
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This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.