Feb 24, 2017

A Wild Ride

I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on the Marquette Iron Range, the smaller of two active iron ranges in the Lake Superior basin. My grandparents immigrated here from Finland over a hundred years ago, seeking a better life in one of the most formidable climates in the world. The mines have run continuously since 1847, owned by Cliffs Natural Resources since 1890. My grandfather, father, several uncles and many neighbors worked in the mines. Then it was called Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company, abbreviated CCI. The workers said they "live and die for CCI."

Two years ago, Cliffs caught my eye. It seemed to be doing well crawling out of the Great Recession. As I always do when considering a stock to buy, I went through their financials, which looked good: Low PE and price/book, strong cash flow and a solid dividend. I've maintained that the world, especially developing countries, is growing fast and will continue to use more iron, copper and other commodities as they join modern life.

So I purchased Cliffs and watched as it lost 92% of its value over a year, bottoming out at $1.32 on January 12, 2015. I then watched again as it went up 12 times. And today, as I did years ago, I went through their financials and decided that it does not meet my requirements for a healthy company. So I sold it, just barely recovering nearly all of money. Meanwhile, Seeking Alpha says Cliffs is "ready to rumble." We'll see.

What did I learn from this whirlwind ride? Reviewing their SEC filings from when I purchased them, I can see now that some of their financials looked too good to be true. So a lesson might be to be careful adding up the numbers. It is helpful to also have a sense of where the company and industry are headed. Of course, a Monday morning quarterback is always right.
Otherwise, I didn't learn a lot. Mining is a capital intensive industry but like every sector, it has its strengths and challenges, which I would assume are accounted for in its price. Should I have sold after it lost half of its value? Well, that would have been costly. I'm especially glad I didn't sell it at its bottom, but I wonder if I would have considered buying Cliffs at less than $2/share when I wouldn't consider selling it.

Buying individuals stocks is a risky business. My theory is that stocks don't force me into overbuying into overpriced equities, as indexes do. But the downside is losing - and possibly gaining - a lot of money. Which is why most of my equity purchases are in indexes.

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