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|Articles - Jan/Feb 2012|
|Thursday, January 19, 2012|
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By Oakley Brooks
Patrick Becker Sr. is 70 years old now and slowed significantly by a stroke he suffered five years ago. But all one has to do is mention “The Letter” and his eyes light up and a wave of energy pulses across his elfin face. He is back in the fourth quarter of 1999.
“That was a tough time,” he says, softly. “The growth guys were shooting the lights out.” Everybody was winning big except Becker’s investment clients. That’s because Becker smelled a rat in most tech stocks, and he wouldn't have any part of them. He’s a value investor, sticking to companies with strong balance sheets, long-term fundamentals and cheap share prices: paper companies, gas conglomerates and machine-works outfits that were, in the late 1990s, so 1980s.
But meanwhile, his clients were going crazy on the sidelines of the boom, calling him old-fashioned on the phone and leaving Portland-based Becker Capital for the first time in the firm’s 24 years. The staff gave a unanimous vote of confidence to Becker’s approach during a soul-searching meeting that year, but Becker was losing sleep as he sat at his keyboard to tap out his final quarterly letter of 1999 to clients. What was keeping him up at night, he wrote, was the “fear that our clientele, one by one, will be drawn into the ever-growing feeding frenzy of market hype and speculation. In my judgment, a growing portion of the current market action is nothing more than a giant casino.” Whatever the pressure to roll the dice, Becker would not break. “In a period of euphoric speculation, we must stay true to our disciplines and use plain common sense,” he wrote.
Over the next 12 months, the Internet balloon hemorrhaged air and smashed to Earth, ruining legions of dotcoms and erasing an estimated $800 billion in value in the tech space. But Becker’s portfolio chugged along in the black in 2000 and 2001.
“We’re more proud of that moment than any other,” says 46-year-old Patrick Becker Jr., the company’s president.
Through the lost decade that followed, Becker has remained strong and steady, like the marathoner Pat Sr. once was. And its portfolio — now at $2.1 billion — has paid dividends for the individuals and institutional investors who stood by the company: Its investments earned 6.1% annually over the last 10 years, compared to 2.8% for the S&P 500.
The company’s approach plays out in deep and relentless research by Becker staff, which includes Ph.D.s and some of the more seasoned analysts picked up as banks and investment houses in Portland have downsized, merged and consolidated in recent years. Becker hosts each year 400 to 500 company managers and outside analysts at the firm’s Key Bank tower offices for briefings. Staff members pore over quantitative data looking for bargains in stock price multiples.
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