One Big Lesson from the Big Un Debacle

Some of the red flags at Big Un were obvious. Perhaps the biggest was the change in auditor, from PKF to the highly illustrious accounting firm Rothsay Resources. And the business model was sketchy. There were “characters” involved. The stock failed the sniff test.

But much of what has been uncovered by the Australian Financial Review’s excellent expose seems to be intentional misrepresentation. That’s not easy to find as an external investor with limited resources.

Still, there is one lesson we can all take out of the saga: when it comes to investing, there are no fixed rules.

I know, I know. Warren Buffett’s number one rule is never lose money. His number two rule is never forget rule number one. My only rule is that, when logic demands it, you should be prepared to break every single other rule. Even Buffett’s number one*.

The one thing about Big Un that tripped many was the copious growth the company was reporting in its quarterly cashflow statement. The old saying goes “earnings can be faked, but cash flow never lies”. Except that it does. And apparently, in this case, intentionally so. And that’s the problem with all investing rules. While they work in general, it is the exception that brings you unstuck.

Learn the rules. Sometimes apply them. But there is no substitute for independent thought and rigorously applied logic.

*Firstly, I think this is age dependent. If you are in your early twenties and don’t have a lot to lose, be prepared to lose it. The investment will be worthwhile. Secondly, as long as portfolio allocations are managed sensibly, being prepared to lose a little money for the chance to make a lot has been a very successful investment strategy.

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Steve Johnson
Founder & Chief Investment Officer
Forager

Steve began Forager Funds in 2009, and now manages approximately $470m across two funds. Offering a listed Australian Shares Fund (FOR) and an unlisted International Shares Fund, Steve focuses on long-term investing in undervalued companies.

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