How to Buy an Individual Stock (If You Must)

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Good fortune has struck the Accountant household again. Cash has piled up while the retirement accounts are maxed out. Significant funds were added to the non-qualified index funds and there is still cash waiting for investment.

I’m generally uncomfortable with too much uninvested cash. Never one to time the market (not that I haven’t tried, but my results were as expected) I like to get my army, called capital, into battle as quickly as possible.

In the last few weeks I added selectively to my portfolio, even adding a new name to the mix. Since I preach index fund investing so heavily it requires some explaining why I did what I did.

First let me introduce you to my new soldiers. I added to the ranks of Altria (MO) and Philip Morris International (PM). The name of the new platoon — wait for it — is Apple. Yeah, I know. Back in September I warned of the risks of owning index funds and individual stocks. My argument was simple. Buying certain big name stocks (companies actually; remember you are buying a fractional share of ownership in an ongoing enterprise) can overweight your portfolio. Since Apple comprises a whopping 3%+ of the S&P 500 weighting, buying more Apple stock on the side starts to make the ship feel a bit top-heavy.

Sometimes it’s best if you do as I say and not as I do. I have the luxury of a larger net worth so I can have a larger mad money account to play with. The only thing is these new purchases are in what I call a serious money account. The purchases are planned as very long-term holdings.

I have some explaining to do, kind readers. I’ll outline why I like Apple enough to buy even after a massive run-up this year and a market looking frothy. My reasoning for adding to my large amount of MO and PM follows the Apple discussion with my thoughts on two stocks I own but have concerns with: Netflix and Tesla.

The Case for Apple

Some people recommend diversification as a way to mitigate risk. I recommend diversification (index funds) because most people don’t know how to value a potential investment or don’t have time to do the evaluation.

My investing history has included a small number of companies with most of my money in mutual funds (index funds the last decade or so). Instead of diversifying to mitigate risk I research to mitigate risk. As long as I’m going to research I may as well do an in-depth analysis. If I do a good job and the investment is solid with an adequate margin of safety it makes sense to buy a lot of that investment.

Apple is a company I’ve watched for a long time. I made excuses as to why I shouldn’t buy it, but the story is too compelling to pass anymore.

Apple is a massive company. Normally companies so dominant tend to stagnate as competitors eventually pass them buy. The biggest market capitalization stock changes each decade. Today’s big names eventually wither and die. Anyone remember Eastman Kodak or Xerox? They’re both still around and publically traded. They were also darlings of another age. In 1973-4 they were part of the Nifty Fifty. Time has not been kind.

So why Apple? It’s a huge company; the biggest on the planet by many measures.  Only a few enterprises have ever been bigger when adjusting for inflation. The Dutch East India Company was worth north of $7 trillion in today’s dollars so Apple has a ways to go to reach the milestone. The real reasons to consider Apple are margin of safety (they have a lot of cash), growing profits and a cult-like following.

A cult following is not a reason to own a company, but if the fundamentals are there with an adequate margin of safety a cult following becomes icing on the cake. As long as the veneer shines you can enjoy profits.

Apple’s long term investments September 30, 2017.

The main reason I bough Apple is the margin of safety. Take a glance at the chart of Apple’s cash position. The cash position is over $250 billion. After total debt is subtracted you still have over $150 billion as of September 30, 2017. This, by the way is the wrong way to look at Apple’s cash situation. When other liquid and short-term assets are included, Apple could retire 100% of its debt.

Therefore, a better way to view Apple’s cash position is to subtract the short-term investments to cover long-term debt and other liabilities. Inventory and receivables are enough to retire all liabilities, including long-term debt.

This leaves us with long-term investments and cash in the checkbook, revealing the true cash holdings of Apple: $201.3 billion. That is a massive pile of money!

Apple’s cash position.

The next step in valuing Apple is to check the price of the stock (what I can buy it for) against reported earnings per share of $9.21, the so-called P/E ratio. Apple’s P/E ratio as I write is 18.58. This means if earnings remained unchanged it would take a bit longer than 18 ½ years for Apple to earn enough profit to buy 100% of its outstanding stock as long as the stock price didn’t change.

An 18 P/E ratio for such a dominant and growing company is rather reasonable. Apple spends a pile of money buying back its own stock and in dividends to shareholders. But the pile keeps growing. These are good times in the world of Apple.

The dividend yield is 1.47%. This is slightly lower than the S&P 500 as a whole where the dividend yield is currently 1.86%. The earnings yield is 5.4% as I write. This means if Apple distributed all its profits as a dividend the yield to shareholders at the current stock price would be 5.4%. Also a good indicator.

So far we have an interesting scenario, but not enough to buy the stock! Before I open my checkbook I want a margin of safety. And that is where the cash hoard comes in.

The market cap of Apple is $878.5 billion with 5.1 billion outstanding shares.

The $201.3 billion in cash represents $39.47 of cash per share! At today’s closing price on November 16, 2017 of $171.10, cash represents 23% of the stock price!

Look at it another way. Suppose you buy a wallet or purse for $171.10 and when you get home you find $39.47 tucked inside the wallet. If the original price was good, it just got better!

Apple key stats November 16, 2017.

Two hundred billion is a lot of safety margin and makes an Apple investment worth considering. However, I’m digging deeper. If 23% of the stock price represents cash in the bank, then the P/E ratio is less than indicated. If the cash portion of the stock price is removed from the listed price (remember you buy the stock and find a bonus $39.47 per share in cash) the stock price is really $39.47 lower. (If you think Apple is worth $171.10 per share as an ongoing enterprise and get $39.47 in cash along with the stock purchase, you really only paid $131.63 per share for Apple the company.)

This drives the P/E ratio lower by 23% to 14.29. Now the P/E is below the market average for a company with tremendous market power, growing earnings, a dominant market position and a cult following. With the safety of margin firmly in place I am ready to buy. So I did.

Of course my valuation research went much deeper than what I outlined here. To keep this post sane I abridged the content.

The Case for Altria and Philip Morris International

Tobacco seems a bad investment idea as more people quit smoking each year. However, investors forget the real fact the percentage of people who smoke is declining, but the increasing population keeps sales declines more muted.

MO and PM are dominant in their markets. PM was spun off from MO many years ago. MO has the U.S cigarette market and PM has the non U.S. markets.

I will skip the heavy analysis of these two companies. It takes a lot to get me to buy a new investment, but I’ll add to existing stock holdings when opportunity is ripe and as long as the story still resonates.

The margin of safety is smaller for MO and PM than Apple. However, virtually every company has a smaller margin of safety compared to Apple!

Alyria key stats November 16, 2017.

Let me sum up my reasoning for owning these two companies in the words of Warren Buffett. Buffett once said about MO, the product costs a penny to make and is addicting, what’s not to like? I think the reason Buffett doesn’t own MO is because he wants to protect his reputation. Your favorite accountant has no reputation to protect so I loaded the boat with MO and later PM.

Tobacco use as a percentage of the population has been declining since around 1964! MO and PM know how to navigate in this environment and have done so successfully for 50 years. Profits keep growing and the board of directors keeps paying out the majority of profits in dividends. Life is good for the owners of these two companies; not so much for the users of their products.

My buying trigger for adding to my large pile of MO and PM is the dividend yield on periodic market scares about the world ending for tobacco companies. When the dividend yield is over 4% I review the company prospects. If nothing has changes I add more shares. (In reality all I’m doing is reinvesting a portion of the accumulated dividends.)

There is also another interesting development at MO and PM. PM developed a smokeless tobacco product called iQOS. PM developed the product and recently licensed it to MO for sale in the U.S. Demand has been so high there are shortages of the product. And the profits are a lot higher than traditional cigarettes!

Revenues and profits look ready to accelerate over the next years and decade. Decades of stock accumulation in these two companies has been good for my wealth. And when their stocks go on sale I have a tendency to buy more.

The Problems with Netflix

As a disclaimer, I own Netflix and have made a lot of money on the stock. However, I am uncomfortable with my position.

I love the company and their product. Who doesn’t like commercial-free programming?

Netflix has a leadership position in their space, but lacks a margin of safety. When I bought Netflix years ago it was under the assumption they would turn a profit on their business model. I am beginning to doubt that is possible. And don’t believe their reported earning!

This year Netflix added a large number of new subscribers as in past years. However, their increased spending on new programming will increase so much as to consume the entire revenue from over a half million new subscribers! Yikes!

Netflix Stats

The increasing programming costs never seem to end and competition keeps popping up. Disney is pulling their titles from Netflix in 2019 to start their own streaming service at a “significantly lower price” than Netflix.

The worst problem for me is their accounting! Netflix amortizes their content programming costs over four years. This is insane! This one simple accounting gimmick allows Netflix to report a profit while cash-flow negative. Like I said, insane!

Here is how egregious their accounting method is. Take House of Cards as an example. They amortize the production costs from the first season over four years. Does this make sense? Not a chance! Most of the value from Season One of House of Cards ends shortly after the season went live. Considering the problems surrounding the main actor, Kevin Spacey, the value of those titles is impaired even further and faster.

A damning statistic reveals amortization of content expense is increasing faster than revenues. Past sins are catching up and it’s only going to get worse.

I’m not selling yet, but Netflix is on the watch list. I watch Netflix close for signs subscriber growth is slowing. If they can’t reach a cash flow positive situation before subscriber growth slows Netflix is in big trouble.

The Story of Tesla

Tesla is different from Netflix. Netflix is a one-horse show while Tesla makes cars, batteries, solar panels and solar storage. The finances for Tesla are stretched, as with Netflix, but with many more options for success.

I own Tesla and if the wheels don’t fall off — pun intended — the company will be wildly profitable. There are a lot of ifs right now. The Model 3 has production issues and the main man, Elon Musk, spreads himself thin at times running so many disparate companies.

Tesla key stats November 16, 2017.

I consider Tesla a mad money holding right now. Tesla is burning through cash and looks to do so for several more years. Musk doesn’t have much in the way of accounting gimmicks I disagree with, but he does use plenty of financing gimmicks to fund the company’s burn rate.

My Tesla investment is small. If the stock came down in price $100 or more I might add to my position. Might.

A lot of issues need resolution before I jump into Tesla deeper. Tesla is one of those companies which will either crash and burn leaving investors licking their wounds or they’ll end up bigger than Amazon. Musk is the right man with the right dream coupled with the right work ethic to get the job done.

Tesla is not for the faint of heart or to be purchased with the rent money. Just warning you.

One More Thing

Most people buy stock by placing a purchase order. So do I, most of the time.

However, there is a trick you can use to buy listed stock at a price less than the price quoted. But that is a story for our next post.

I had to do something to get you to come back. Besides, I talked enough for one post.

Personal Capital: You can't manage what you don't know.

Keith Taxguy


  1. Turning Point Money on November 17, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    Tesla is very speculative for me and difficult to value due to so many uncertainties. I’d rather put my money in Fiat Chrysler or GM where I know there is a margin of safety and hold for the next five years or so.

    I do like both Apple and big tobacco. Altria has done fantastic for investors if you can get past what you are investing in.

    Agree about Netflix. The cost of creating content is very high and short lived. I dumped my shares because of this a couple years ago. Disney is far better at creating multigenerational content that they can milk for decades.

  2. Dividend Growth Investor on November 17, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    Hi Keith,

    It is rare that FI bloggers buy individual stocks these days. This post reads like a breath of fresh air ( or perhaps the breath of my confirmation bias) It was interesting to read your article on the topic. I own two of the companies you mentioned directly, and own the rest indirectly through the S&P 500.

    The more concerning fact about NFLX is that they do not own most of the content. For example, they can license House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, but they don’t own these shows. If they want to stream them in perpetuity, they would have to pay… in perpetuity. They do have the scale however, but given the steep valuation I cannot touch it with a ten foot pole.

    As far as TSLA – I think that Elon Musk has found a way to calculate the madness of men, because the numbers just don’t make sense to me from a valuation perspective. Though my formulas are short in trying to place a value on genius 😉

    Best Regards,


    • Keith Schroeder on November 17, 2017 at 6:25 pm

      DGI, there are many issues I didn’t mention and you state one major issue: ownership of content. In my defense, I bought NFLX at a fraction of where it is today. I wouldn’t buy it here.

      My TSLA position is small for obvious reasons. There is no way to value TSLA at the current stock price. Once again, I bought at a fraction of the current price.

      Sometimes I buy a few shares of a stock as motivation to research the company deeper. TSLA is one of those purchases. I mentioned I might buy more TSLA if the price dropped $100 per share. Under current conditions the additional purchase would be small.

      • Jeff on November 18, 2017 at 9:26 am

        If it’s not too personal of a question, what range do you regard as “small”? Is small to you 10K or 100K?

        I understand ultimately it’s all relative to net worth. A small position for Warren Buffet could be 50-100M.

        • Keith Schroeder on November 18, 2017 at 10:13 am

          Jeff, I consider under $100k small (less than 1%) since it comprises a small percent of my total net worth. My mad money account has grown and I’ve neglected to prune profits for some time, investing them in “appropriate” investments like index funds. Everything I say should be taken in context. If you have debt you have no business playing with a mad money account, my recommendations aside. Once your have ample net worth it is okay to try your hand at investing in individual companies, especially if you are versed in valuing an investment.

  3. Dave on November 17, 2017 at 2:28 pm

    Love your writing and thought process. Thank you , you help me be a better investor , today I plowed money into my low cost cheap cheap index find

  4. Not a Fire Blogger on November 17, 2017 at 8:16 pm

    Great article, as always (and that is coming from an index fund investor).

    That being said, “Sing me a song, I’m that tax man.”

    Okay, maybe those weren’t Billy Joel’s exact lyrics, but…

    Once (if ever) all of the tax law changes come to fruition, I am hoping you will write some more posts similar to your May 19th post titled, “The Sweet Spot of Non-Cash Deductions.” It is very challenging trying to complete any tax planning for TY 2018 without knowing the rules of game. I am counting on my favorite accountant FI blogger to help with the numerous interpretations that will be needed. Keep fighting the good fight!

  5. Mike @ Balanced Dividends on November 18, 2017 at 7:35 am

    “However, there is a trick you can use to buy listed stock at a price less than the price quoted. But that is a story for our next post.”

    I’m assuming call options, but it might be something else.

    Nice post – good points on the individual securities you covered. I’ve dabbled in individual securities recently (I used to not be eligible based on my position / industry – only funds or indices). At the moment, less than 1% of our net worth is in a few securities. We recently sold of a few speculative names (got burned on 1 or 2 and did great on the other 1 or 2). Overall, I still prefer broad-based exposure via index funds. Or, if we are to stay with any individual holdings, it would likely just be a blue chip. The small caps (both value and growth) were a bit too wild for me.

  6. Benjamin Dau on November 18, 2017 at 8:57 am


    Thanks for the articles and blog. I’ve been following you for some time since MMM suggested you. This particular post hit upon something I’ve been wrestling with for a long time and would love your opinion on.

    I’ve never felt comfortable owning stocks of any kind (index or individual) because of my overinflated sense of responsibility. If I am an owner of a company, and the company does something I’m ethically opposed to (harming the environment, violating worker’s rights/safety), I feel responsible. I don’t like the feeling of profiting at someone else’s expense. The comment you made about MO “Good for the owners. Not so good for their users,” basically summed up my reservations.

    How do you think about this issue? You obviously own tobacco stock and are aware of that tension and I consider you someone of high moral fiber so I’d love to listen in on your thoughts.


    • Keith Schroeder on November 18, 2017 at 10:08 am

      Ben, I’ve struggled with the issue over the years and came to the conclusion if the product is legal people will use it (even if illegal, too). It isn’t my lot to pass ethical judgment on other people. I have employees who smoke and encourage them to quit, even with financial incentives. The original premise to buy a cigarette company was less financial than I frequently claim. I hate smoking and don’t like it when people around me smoke. My attitude with cigarette company ownership was I either get a smoke free environment or I get lots of money. There was a trade off in my mind.

      On the ethical front we can use an all-encompassing example. How do you feel about living in a country that does unethical things at times? I know every society has its issues, but how do you square the fact you live in a society which calls smoking tobacco legal? We know people die from various diseases related to smoking and your tax dollars in part support that. Tobacco taxes reduce your tax liability. Would you support higher taxes to replace those of cigarettes?

      How I handle ethical issues is by using the Stoic approach. I can control my actions, but not that of others. I encourage people to stop smoking even though I own cigarette companies. I also own Apple now and the process of manufacturing their products causes environmental degradation. Apple may work hard to reduce the damage, but it is still there. Everything you do has the possibility of negative consequences. It’s not my job to police the minds of my fellow man. They must choose their own path.

      At least that is how I view the world around me. Hope it helps, Ben.

    • Josh on November 20, 2017 at 11:28 pm


      Do you have all of your assets in cash/home? You mentioned not owning any company stock at all, so I am wondering how you invest. If you own treasury bonds, consider that the USA uses those funds raised through bond offerings to finance all sorts of nefarious doings that the Feds are involved with (defense contracts, spy agencies, “research,” etc).

      My point is that the world is imperfect, and we cannot control the decisions or activities of others. Everything economically is connected, but hopefully those connections are mutually beneficial, meaning they produce more and more goods that folks want (and for better and better prices). Owning individual company’s stock does allow you the option to choose what you invest in, and there are many valuable companies to choose from. There are some 6,000+ companies in the total US market, so find 20 that you can get behind, and go for it. If you buy 20 companies, and hold them in generally equal amounts, you only have 5% in each, which is enough diversification. You can start by searching the FTSE ESG indexes for stocks that those funds own:

  7. Mattej on November 19, 2017 at 5:13 am

    Great blog.
    I just sold AAPL last week at 169. I will buy again when it dips below 150. A lot of this was based on pre-orders of X and I wanted to make a little money.
    NASDAQ will list their first marijuana stock next month? I will buy that over tobacco. With weed being legal in many more states, countries (finally), I will put my money there.
    TSLA – not now. Elon has spread to thin and maybe buy when below 250.
    I only buy individual stocks and stay away from fund managers. I read a very good report today by Max Keiser re the falls in 2018 based on looking at the bond market.
    Something has to give and I am really going to stay on the sidelines and take profits when I can.
    I will still invest more this week in CPU and GPU and I’m not greedy. If I can make 10-20% on a stock, I cash out.
    With wages stagnant in Japan and work not that plenty or interesting, this is my new income for retirement. Some I hold long term but for now I see way too much volatility and it reminds me so much of 9 years ago before the tumble.

  8. jbr on November 20, 2017 at 7:02 pm

    Madre de dios, that 4 year depreciation timescale is aggressive for content. Good catch on nflx. Whatever happened to expense as incurred?

    Is DIS playing any similar games? However for DIS a longer timescale makes more sense as they have a pipeline of 1/theaters 2/DVD sales and Redbox 3/Streaming services 4/cable… Because of who they are NFLX don’t have those options because if it’s going to come open on cable that decreases my incentive to subscribe.

    Nice info on iqos also…. Maybe a new reason to increase my MO or get back into PM…

    • Josh on November 20, 2017 at 11:15 pm

      Disney has huge depreciation expenses, but they are primarily in the parks/resorts division where they have large physical structures. Those depreciate over very long time periods (in the decades). These of course, are meant to reflect maintenance costs or replacement costs over the life of those assets. Disney, to its credit, reveals their capex in a separate tables, so you can match up the depreciation “costs” to the actual money spent each year in maintaining or replacing those assets. I have added the tables below for comparison (the copy/paste distorts the tables, so just know that the number on the left is current year 2017, and the number on the right is 2016):

      Capital Expenditures and Depreciation Expense

      Investments in parks, resorts and other property were as follows (in millions):

      Year Ended
      Sept. 30,
      Oct. 1,
      Media Networks
      Cable Networks $ 75 $ 86
      Broadcasting 64 80
      Total Media Networks 139 166
      Parks and Resorts
      Domestic 2,375 2,180
      International 816 2,035
      Total Parks and Resorts 3,191 4,215
      Studio Entertainment 85 86
      Consumer Products & Interactive Media 30 53
      Corporate 178 253
      Total investments in parks, resorts and other property $ 3,623 $ 4,773
      Capital expenditures decreased from $4.8 billion to $3.6 billion driven by lower spending at Shanghai Disney Resort and Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, partially offset by higher spending at our domestic parks.

      Depreciation expense was as follows (in millions):

      Year Ended
      Sept. 30,
      Oct. 1,
      Media Networks
      Cable Networks $ 137 $ 147
      Broadcasting 88 90
      Total Media Networks 225 237
      Parks and Resorts
      Domestic 1,336 1,273
      International 660 445
      Total Parks and Resorts 1,996 1,718
      Studio Entertainment 50 51
      Consumer Products & Interactive Media 63 63
      Corporate 252 251
      Total depreciation expense $ 2,586 $ 2,320

  9. Josh on November 21, 2017 at 12:01 am


    I see we are on the same page with Altria and PMI (and perhaps Apple).

    I started buying Altria again after the FDA announcement came out, and the whole sector dropped 15% over a couple of days. Finally, we got back into the 4% cash yield range. I would like to buy PMI, but for the added risk of their currency issues, as well as the broad amount of regulation they must endure by being in so many countries. They also have had a spotty earnings/dividend history. They should sell at a discount to Altria, and I would like to buy at a 5% yield with them.

    The math with Altria is thus:
    4% cash yield (computed by taking 80% of adjusted EPS and paying out – company policy)
    7-9% growth of adjusted EPS annually
    = Internal cash return of 11-13% annually
    + Share buybacks that historically have been around 17% of adjusted EPS)
    = 4.9% shareholder yield

    As far as Apple goes, it is hard to argue with the cash, but they need to start returning more of it to shareholders in the form of cash (rather than buybacks). Although it may be less tax-efficient, it is better for shareholders to be able to pay their bills with cash than to have to sell off appreciated shares (especially if the tax code does away with SPEC ID, and moves to FIFO-only). I say that, but I still invest with them regularly, and am a very happy owner of Apple. They run the business with integrity, purpose, and a respect for their owners. They have similar margins as the tobacco companies, but much higher expenses (all that innovation). They are also in a growing sector of the economy, with very little regulation (so far – but this is changing in Europe), and they make amazing stuff that everyone wants (in the world). I last bought shares in the low $150’s, and will consider more at some point.

    Most of my other investments recently have been in the landlording business of REIT’s. Many of those companies are selling for historically low valuations, but have very low risk profiles and amazing balance sheets. I like the more conservative businesses doing net lease retail, outlet/high end malls, infrastructure, and such.

  10. Charles on November 22, 2017 at 10:57 am

    On top of aapl’s cash hoard you have its float. It’s cash conversion cycle is expressed in negative days a massive operational advantage. It’s debt cost is stupid low which allows it to drive down its cost of capital via retirement of equity (increasing my share tax free btw – I’ve been long since 2013, and continue to be) with the optionality to buy back its own debt at a lower rate in the future if rates ever climb . Lastly, it’s more than a company, it’s also a market. And hell, a huge bond fund with equity conversion capabilities. It’s been the one “trembling with greed” position I’ve been able to take.

  11. Charles on November 22, 2017 at 12:31 pm

    Ugh on the it’s…cell phones!

  12. Margin of Saving on November 26, 2017 at 3:17 pm

    I hear you on AAPL’s cheap valuation, but that cash is only valuable if, a) they return it to shareholders, or b) they deploy it. Also remember, 90% of that cash is held overseas. You may want to haircut it with some tax rate, unless you think they can effectively deploy it overseas.

    Of course, I’m a little bitter I didn’t buy AAPL when it was under $100!

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