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Archive for April, 2012

Which price ratio best identifies undervalued stocks? It’s a fraught question, dependent on various factors including the time period tested, and the market capitalization and industries under consideration, but I believe a consensus is emerging.

The academic favorite remains book value-to-market capitalization (the inverse of price-to-book value). Fama and French maintain that it makes no difference which “price-to-a-fundamental” is employed, but if forced to choose favor book-to-market. In the Fama/French Forum on Dimensional Fund Advisor’s website they give it a tepid thumbs up despite the evidence that it’s not so great:

Data from Ken French’s website shows that sorting stocks on E/P or CF/P data produces a bigger spread than BtM over the last 55 years. Wouldn’t it make sense to use these other factors in addition to BtM to distinguish value from growth stocks? EFF/KRF: A stock’s price is just the present value of its expected future dividends, with the expected dividends discounted with the expected stock return (roughly speaking). A higher expected return implies a lower price. We always emphasize that different price ratios are just different ways to scale a stock’s price with a fundamental, to extract the information in the cross-section of stock prices about expected returns. One fundamental (book value, earnings, or cashflow) is pretty much as good as another for this job, and the average return spreads produced by different ratios are similar to and, in statistical terms, indistinguishable from one another. We like BtM because the book value in the numerator is more stable over time than earnings or cashflow, which is important for keeping turnover down in a value portfolio. Nevertheless, there are problems in all accounting variables and book value is no exception, so supplementing BtM with other ratios can in principal improve the information about expected returns. We periodically test this proposition, so far without much success.

There are a variety of papers on the utility of book value that I’ve beaten to death on Greenbackd. I used to think it was the duck’s knees because that was what all the early research seemed to say (See, for example, Roger Ibbotson’s “Decile Portfolios of the New York Stock Exchange, 1967 – 1984,” Werner F.M. DeBondt and Richard H. Thaler’s “Further Evidence on Investor Overreaction and Stock Market Seasonality”). Josef Lakonishok, Andrei Shleifer, and Robert Vishny’s Contrarian Investment, Extrapolation and Risk, which was updated by The Brandes Institute as Value vs Glamour: A Global Phenomenon reopened the debate, suggesting that price-to-earnings and price-to-cash flow might add something to price-to-book.

A number of more recent papers have moved away from book-to-market, and towards the enterprise multiple ((equity value + debt + preferred stock – cash)/ (EBITDA)). As far as I am aware, Tim Loughran and Jay W. Wellman got in first with their 2009 paper “The Enterprise Multiple Factor and the Value Premium,” which was a great unpublished paper, but became in 2010 a slightly less great published paper, “New Evidence on the Relation Between the Enterprise Multiple and Average Stock Returns,” suitable only for academics and masochists (but I repeat myself). The abstract to the 2009 paper (missing from the 2010 paper) cuts right to the chase:

Following the work of Fama and French (1992, 1993), there has been wide-spread usage of book-to-market as a factor to explain stock return patterns. In this paper, we highlight serious flaws with the use of book-to-market and offer a replacement factor for it. The Enterprise Multiple, calculated as (equity value + debt value + preferred stock – cash)/ EBITDA, is better than book-to-market in cross-sectional monthly regressions over 1963-2008. In the top three size quintiles (accounting for about 94% of total market value), EM is a highly significant measure of relative value, whereas book-to-market is insignificant.

The abstract says everything you need to know: Book-to-market is widely used (by academics), but it has serious flaws. The enterprise multiple is more predictive over a long period (1963 to 2008), and it’s much more predictive in big market capitalization stocks where book-to-market is essentially useless.

What serious flaws?

The big problem with book-to-market is that so much of the return is attributable to nano-cap stocks and “the January effect”:

Loughran (1997) examines the data used by Fama and French (1992) and finds that the results are driven by a January seasonal and the returns on microcap growth stocks. For the largest size quintile, accounting for about three-quarters of total market cap, Loughran finds that BE/ME has no significant explanatory power over 1963-1995. Furthermore, for the top three size quintiles, accounting for about 94% of total market cap, size and BE/ME are insignificant once January returns are removed. Fama and French (2006) confirm Loughran’s result over the post- 1963 period. Thus, for nearly the entire market value of largest stock market (the US) over the most important time period (post-1963), the value premium does not exist.

That last sentence bears repeating: For nearly the entire market value of largest stock market (the US) over the most important time period (post-1963), the value premium does not exist, which means that book-to-market is not predictive in stocks other than the smallest 6 percent by market cap. What about book-to-market in the stocks in that smallest 6 percent? It might not work there either:

Keim (1983) shows that the January effect is primarily limited to the first trading days in January. These returns are heavily influenced by December tax-loss selling and bid-ask bounce in low-priced stocks. Since many fund managers are restricted in their ability to buy small stocks due to ownership concentration restrictions and are prohibited from buying low-prices stocks due to their speculative nature, it is unlikely that the value premium can be exploited.

More scalable

The enterprise multiple succeeds where book-to-market fails.

In the top three size quintiles, accounting for about 94% of total market value, EM is a highly significant measure of relative value, whereas BE/ME is insignificant and size is only weakly significant. EM is also highly significant after controlling for the January seasonal and removing low-priced (<$5) stocks. Robustness checks indicate that EM is also better to Tobin’s Q as a determinant of stock returns.

And maybe the best line in the  paper:

Our results are an improvement over the existing literature because, rather than being driven by obscure artifacts of the data, namely the stocks in the bottom 6% of market cap and the January effect, our results apply to virtually the entire universe of US stocks. In other words, our results may actually be relevant to both Wall Street and academics.

Why does the enterprise multiple work?

The enterprise multiple is a popular measure, and for other good reasons besides its performance. First, the enterprise multiple uses enterprise value. A stock’s enterprise value provides more information about its true cost than its market capitalization because it includes information about the stock’s balance sheet, including its debt, cash and preferred stock (and in some variations minorities and net payables-to-receivables). Such things are significant to acquirers of the business in its entirety, which, after all, is the way that value investors should think about each stock. Market capitalization can be misleading. Just because a stock is cheap on a book value basis does not mean that it’s cheap 0nce its debt load is factored into the valuation. Loughran and Wellman, quoting Damodaran (whose recent paper I covered here last week), write:

Damodaran shows in an unpublished study of 550 equity research reports that EM, along with Price/Earnings and Price/Sales, were the most common relative valuation multiples used. He states, “In the past two decades, this multiple (EM) has acquired a number of adherents among analysts for a number of reasons.” The reasons Damodaran cites for EM’s increasing popularity also point to the potential superiority of EM over book-to-market. One reason is that EM can be compared more easily across firms with differing leverage. We can see this when comparing the corresponding inputs of EM and BE/ME. The numerator of EM, Enterprise Value, can be compared to the market value of equity. EV can be viewed as a theoretical takeover price of a firm. After a takeover, the acquirer assumes the debt of the firm, but gains use of the firm’s cash and cash equivalents. Including debt is important here. To take an example, in 2005, General Motors had a market cap of $17 billion, but debt of $287 billion. Using market value of equity as a measure of size, General Motors is a mid-sized firm. Yet on the basis of Enterprise Value, GM is a huge company. Market value of equity by itself is unlikely to fully capture the effect GM’s debt has on its returns. More generally, it is reasonable to think that changing firm debt levels may affect returns in a way not fully captured by market value of equity. Bhojraj and Lee (2002) confirm this, finding that EV is superior to market value of common equity, particularly when firms are differentially levered.

The enterprise multiple’s ardor for cash and abhorrence for debt matches my own, hence why I like it so much. In practice, that tendency can be a double-edged sword. It digs up lots of little cash boxes with a legacy business attached like an appendix (think Daily Journal Corporation (NASDAQ:DJCO) or Rimage Corporation (NASDAQ:RIMG)). Such stocks tend to have limited upside. On the flip side, they also have happily virtually no downside. In this way they are vastly superior to the highly leveraged pigs favored by book-to-market, which tends to serve up heavily leveraged slivers of somewhat discounted equity, and leaves you to figure out whether it can bear the debt load. Get it wrong and you’ll be learning the intricacies of the bankruptcy process with nothing to show for it at the end. When it comes time to pull the trigger, I generally find it easier to do it with a cheap enterprise multiple than a cheap price-to-book value ratio.

The earnings variable: EBITDA

There’s a second good reason to like the enterprise multiple: the earnings variable. EBITDA contains more information than straight earnings, and so should give a more full view of where the accounting profits flow:

The denominator of EM is operating income before depreciation while net income (less dividends) flows into BE. The use of EBITDA provides several advantages that BE lacks. Damodaran notes that differences in depreciation methods across companies will affect net income and hence BE, but not EBITDA. Also, the McKinsey valuation text notes that operating income is not affected by nonoperating gains or losses. As a result, operating income before depreciation can be viewed as a more accurate and less manipulable measure of profitability, allowing it to be used to compare firms within as well as across industries. Critics of EBITDA point out that it is not a substitute for cash flow; however, EV in the numerator does account for cash.

The enterprise multiple includes debt as well as equity, contains a clearer measure of operating profit and captures changes in cash from period to period. The enterprise multiple is a more complete measure of relative value than book-to-market. It also performs better:

Performance of the enterprise multiple versus book-to-market

From CXOAdvisory:

  • EM generates an annual value premium of 5.8% per year over the entire sample period (compared to 4.8% for B/M during 1926-2004).
  • EM captures more premium than B/M for all five quintiles of firm size and is much less dependent on small stocks for its overall premium (see chart below).
  • In the top three quintiles of firm size (accounting for about 94% of total market capitalization), EM is a highly significant measure of relative value, while B/M is not.
  • EM remains highly significant after controlling for the January effect and after removing low-priced (<$5) stocks.
  • EM outperforms Tobin’s q as a predictor of stock returns.
  • Evidence from the UK and Japan confirms that EM is a highly significant measure of relative value.

The “value premium” is the difference in returns to a portfolio of glamour stocks (i.e., the most expensive decile) when compared to a portfolio of value stocks (i.e., the cheapest decile) ranked on a given price ratio (in this case, the enterprise multiple and book-to-market). The bigger the value premium, the better a given price ratio sorts stocks into winners and losers. It’s a more robust test than simply measuring the performance of the cheapest stocks. Not only do we want to limit our sins of commission (i.e., buying losers), we want to limit our sins of omission (i.e., not buying winners). 

Here are the value premia by market capitalization (from CXOAdvisory again): Ring the bell. The enterprise multiple kicks book-to-market’s ass up and down in every weight class, but most convincingly in the biggest stocks.

Strategies using the enterprise multiple

The enterprise multiple forms the basis for several strategies. It is the price ratio limb of Joel Greenblatt’s Magic Formula (the other limb is of course return on invested capital, which I like about as much as Hunter S. Thompson liked Richard Nixon, about whom he said in his obituary:

[The] record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.

But I digress.) It also forms the basis for the Darwin’s Darlings strategy that I love (see Hunting Endangered Species). The Darwin’s Darlings strategy sought to front-run the LBO firms in the early 2000s, hence the enterprise multiple was the logical tool, and highly effective.

Conclusion

This post was motivated by the series last week on Aswath Damodaran’s paper ”Value Investing: Investing for Grown Ups?” in which he asks, “If value investing works, why do value investors underperform?Loughran and Wellman also asked why, if Fama and French (2006) find a value premium (measured by book-to-market) of 4.8% per year over 1926-2004, mutual fund managers couldn’t capture it:

Fund managers perennially underperform growth indices like the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index and value fund managers do not outperform growth fund managers. Either the value premium does not actually exist, or it does not exist in a way that can be exploited by fund managers and other investors.

Loughran and Wellman find that for nearly the entire market value of largest stock market (the US) over the most important time period (post-1963), the value premium does not exist, which means that book-to-market is not predictive in stocks other than the smallest 6 percent by market cap (and even there the returns are suspect). The enterprise multiple succeeds where book-to-market fails. In the top three size quintiles, accounting for about 94% of total market value, the enterprise multiple is a highly predictive measure, while book-to-market is insignificant. The enterprise multiple also works after controlling for the January seasonal effect and after removing low priced (<$5) stocks. The enterprise multiple is king. Long live the enterprise multiple.

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Aswath Damodaran, in his excellent paper “Value Investing: Investing for Grown Ups?”, asks whether spending time researching a company’s fundamentals (“active” investing) generates a higher return for investors than a comparable value-based index (“passive” investing)?

Says Damodaran:

Of all of the investment philosophies, value investing comes with the most impressive research backing from both academica and practitioners. The excess returns earned by stocks that fit value criteria (low multiples of earnings and book value, high dividends) and the success of some high-profile value investors (such as Warren Buffett) draws investors into the active value investing fold.

But does spending time researching a company’s fundamentals generate higher returns for investors than a passive index?  Does active value investing pay off?

A simple test of the returns to the active component of value investing is to look at the returns earned by active value investors, relative to a passive value investment option, and compare these excess returns with those generated by active growth investors, relative to a passive growth investment alternative. In figure 17, we compute the excess returns generated for all US mutual funds, classifed into value, blend and growth categories, relative to index funds for each category. Thus, the value mutual funds are compared to index fund of just value stocks (low price to book and low price to earnings stocks) and the growth mutual funds to a growth index fund (high price to book and high price earnings stocks).

Shocker! Active value investing mutual fund managers would be better off buying the index.

The results are not good for value investing. The only funds that beat their index counterparts are growth funds, and they do so in all three market cap classes. Active value investing funds generally do the worst of any group of funds and particularly so with large market cap companies.

Damodaran has a great conclusion:

If you are an individual value investors, you can attribute this poor performance to the pressures that mutual funds managers operate under, to deliver results quickly, an expectation that may be at odds with classic value investing. That may be the case, but it points to the need for discipline and consistency in value investing and to the very real fact that beating the market is always difficult to do, even for a good value investor.

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This week I’ve been taking a look at Aswath Damodaran’s paper “Value Investing: Investing for Grown Ups?” in which he asks, “If value investing works, why do value investors underperform?”

Damodaran divides the value world into three groups:

  1. The Passive Screeners,” – “The Graham approach to value investing is a screening approach, where investors adhere to strict screens… and pick stocks that pass those screens.”
  2. The Contrarian Value Investors,” – “In this manifestation of value investing, you begin with the belief that stocks that are beaten down because of the perception that they are poor investments (because of poor investments, default risk or bad management) tend to get punished too much by markets just as stocks that are viewed as good investments get pushed up too much.”
  3. Activist value investors,” – “The strategies used by …[activist value investors] are diverse, and will reflect why the firm is undervalued in the first place. If a business has investments in poor performing assets or businesses, shutting down, divesting or spinning off these assets will create value for its investors. When a firm is being far too conservative in its use of debt, you may push for a recapitalization (where the firm borrows money and buys back stock). Investing in a firm that could be worth more to someone else because of synergy, you may push for it to become the target of an acquisition. When a company’s value is weighed down because it is perceived as having too much cash, you may demand higher dividends or stock buybacks. In each of these scenarios, you may have to confront incumbent managers who are reluctant to make these changes. In fact, if your concerns are broadly about management competence, you may even push for a change in the top management of the firm.”

We looked at Damodaran’s passive screeners Tuesday, the contrarian value investors Wednesday, and today we’ll take a look at the activists.

The Activist Value Investors

Damodaran cites the well-known Brav, Jiang and Kim article that I have discussed here before:

If activist investors hope to generate their returns from changing the way companies are run, they should target poorly managed companies for their campaigns. Institutional and individual activists do seem to focus on poorly managed companies, targeting companies that are less profitable and have delivered lower returns than their peer group. Hedge fund activists seem to focus their attention on a different group. A study of 888 campaigns mounted by activist hedge funds between 2001 and 2005 finds that the typical target companies are small to mid cap companies, have above average market liquidity, trade at low price to book value ratios, are profitable with solid cash flows and pay their CEOs more than other companies in their peer group. Thus, they are more likely to be under valued companies than poorly managed. A paper that examines hedge fund motives behind the targeting provides more backing for this general proposition in figure 15.

As we have seen both undervalued or poorly managed stocks can generate good returns.

Damodaran says that the “market reaction to activist investors, whether they are hedge funds or individuals, is positive.” A study that looked at stock returns in targeted companies in the days around the announcement of activism showed the following results:

Damodaran points out that “the bulk of the excess return (about 5% of the total of 7%) is earned in the twenty days before the announcement and that the post-announcement drift is small.”

There is also a jump in trading volume prior to the announcement, which does interesting (and troubling) questions about trading being done before the announcements. The study also documents that the average returns around activism announcement has been drifting down over time, from 14% in 2001 to less than 4% in 2007.

Can you make money following activist investors?

Damodaran says “sort of,” if you follow:

The right activists: If the median activist hedge fund investor essentially breaks even, as the evidence suggests, a blunderbuss approach of investing in a company targeted by any activist investor is unlikely to generate value. However, if you are selective about the activist investors you follow, targeting only the most effective, and investing only in companies that they target, your odds improve.

Performance cues: To the extent that the excess returns from this strategy come from changes made at the firm to operations, capital structure, dividend policy and/or corporate governance, you should keep an eye on whether and how much change you see on each of these dimesions at the targeted firms. If the managers at these firms are able to stonewall activist investors successfully , the returns are likely to be unimpressive as well.

A hostile acquisition windfall? A study by Greenwood and Schor notes that while a strategy of buying stocks that have been targeted by activist investors generates  excess returns, almost all of those returns can be attributed to the subset of these firms that get taken over in hostile acquisitons.

Follow the right activists, and do ok, or front run them, and potentially do very well:

There is an alternate strategy worth considering, that may offer higher returns, that also draws on activist investing. You can try to identify companies that are poorly managed and run, and thus most likely to be targeted by activist investors. In effect, you are screening firms for low returns on capital, low debt ratios and large cash balances, representing screens for potential value enhancement, and ageing CEOs, corporate scandals and/or shifts in voting rights operating as screens for the management change. If you succeed, you should be able to generate higher returns when some of these firms change, either because of pressure from within (from an insider or an assertive board of directors) or from without (activist investors or a hostile acquisition).

So how do we mess it up?

• This power of activist value investing usually comes from having the capital to buy significant stakes in poorly managed firms and using these large stockholder positions to induce management to change their behavior. Managers are unlikely to listen to small stockholders, no matter how persuasive their case may be.

• In addition to capital, though, activist value investors need to be willing to spend substantial time fighting to make themselves heard and in pushing for change. This investment in time and resources implies that an activist value investor has to pick relatively few fights and be willing to invest substantially in each fight.

• Activist value investing, by its very nature, requires a thorough understanding of target firms, since you have to know where each of these firms is failing and how you would fix these problems. Not surprisingly, activist value investors tend to choose a sector that they know really well and take positions in firms within that sector. It is clearly not a strategy that will lead to a well diversified portfolio.

• Finally, activist value investing is not for the faint hearted. Incumbent managers are unlikely to roll over and give in to your demands, no matter how reasonable you may thing them to be. They will fight, and sometimes fight dirty, to win. You have to be prepared to counter and be the target for abuse. At the same time, you have to be adept at forming coalitions with other investors in the firm since you will need their help to get managers to do your bidding. 

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Yesterday, I examined Aswath Damodaran’s paper “Value Investing: Investing for Grown Ups?” in which Damodaran asked, “If value investing works, why do value investors underperform?”

Damodaran divides the value world into three groups:

  1. The Passive Screeners,” – “The Graham approach to value investing is a screening approach, where investors adhere to strict screens… and pick stocks that pass those screens.”
  2. The Contrarian Value Investors,” – “In this manifestation of value investing, you begin with the belief that stocks that are beaten down because of the perception that they are poor investments (because of poor investments, default risk or bad management) tend to get punished too much by markets just as stocks that are viewed as good investments get pushed up too much.”
  3. Activist value investors,” – “The strategies used by …[activist value investors] are diverse, and will reflect why the firm is undervalued in the first place. If a business has investments in poor performing assets or businesses, shutting down, divesting or spinning off these assets will create value for its investors. When a firm is being far too conservative in its use of debt, you may push for a recapitalization (where the firm borrows money and buys back stock). Investing in a firm that could be worth more to someone else because of synergy, you may push for it to become the target of an acquisition. When a company’s value is weighed down because it is perceived as having too much cash, you may demand higher dividends or stock buybacks. In each of these scenarios, you may have to confront incumbent managers who are reluctant to make these changes. In fact, if your concerns are broadly about management competence, you may even push for a change in the top management of the firm.”

We looked at Damodaran’s passive screeners yesterday, the contrarian value investors are up today, and tomorrow we’ll take a look at the activists.

The Contrarian Value Investors

Buying losers seems to work over a long time scale.

Damodaran:

This analysis suggests that an investor who bought the 35 biggest losers over the previous year and held for five years would have generated a cumulative abnormal return of approximately 30% over the market and about 40% relative to an investor who bought the winner portfolio.

This evidence is consistent with market overreaction and suggests that a simple strategy of buying stocks that have gone down the most over the last year or years may yield excess returns over the long term. Since the strategy relies entirely on past prices, you could argue that this strategy shares more with charting – consider it a long term contrarian indicator – than it does with value investing.

Several select caveats:

• Studies also seem to find loser portfolios created every December earn significantly higher returns than portfolios created every June. This suggests an interaction between this strategy and tax loss selling by investors. Since stocks that have gone down the most are likely to be sold towards the end of each tax year (which ends in December for most individuals) by investors, their prices may be pushed down by the tax loss selling.

• There seems to be a size effect when it comes to the differential returns. When you do not control for firm size, the loser stocks outperform the winner stocks, but when you match losers and winners of comparable market value, the only month in which the loser stocks outperform the winner stocks is January.21

• The final point to be made relates to time horizon. There may be evidence of price reversals in long periods (3 to 5 years) and there is the contradictory evidence of price momentum– losing stocks are more likely to keep losing and winning stocks to keep winning – if you consider shorter periods (six months to a year). An earlier study that we referenced, by Jegadeesh and Titman tracked the difference between winner and loser portfolios by the number of months that you held the portfolios.22

Damodaran’s final point above – that price momentum works over short periods – is interesting:

Weird. The winner portfolio actually outperforms the loser portfolio in the first 12 months. Says Damodaran:

[L]oser stocks start gaining ground on winning stocks after 12 months, [but] it took them 28 months in the 1941-64 time period to get ahead of them and the loser portfolio does not start outperforming the winner portfolio even with a 36-month time horizon in the 1965-89 time period. The payoff to buying losing companies may depend heavily on whether you have to capacity to hold these stocks for long time periods.

Bad companies can be good investments

A more sophisticated version of contrarian value investing  is buying “unexcellent” companies and selling “excellent” companies. Damodaran’s rationale is as follows:

If you are right about markets overreacting to recent events, expectations will be set too high for stocks that have been performing well and too low for stocks that have been doing badly. If you can isolate these companies, you can buy the latter and sell the former.

Take note, franchise investors:

Any investment strategy that is based upon buying well-run, good companies and expecting the growth in earnings in these companies to carry prices higher is dangerous, since it ignores the possibility that the current price of the company already reflects the quality of the management and the firm. If the current price is right (and the market is paying a premium for quality), the biggest danger is that the firm loses its luster over time, and that the premium paid will dissipate. If the market is exaggerating the value of the firm, this strategy can lead to poor returns even if the firm delivers its expected growth. It is only when markets under estimate the value of firm quality that this strategy stands a chance of making excess returns.

The tale of Tom Peters’s In Search of Excellence:

There is some evidence that well managed companies do not always make good investments. Tom Peters, in his widely read book on excellent companies a few years ago, outlined some of the qualities that he felt separated excellent companies from the rest of the market.23 Without contesting his standards, a study went through the perverse exercise of finding companies that failed on each of the criteria for excellence – a group of unexcellent companies and contrasting them with a group of excellent companies.

Here’s a statistical comparison of the two groups:

Clearly, “Excellent companies” are excellent, and “Unexcellent companies” suck (negative return on equity!). Confronted with the choice to invest in one group of the other, it’s a no-brainer. Or is it? Here are the returns:

Ruh roh. Says Damodaran:

The excellent companies may be in better shape financially but the unexcellent companies would have been much better investments at least over the time period considered (1981-1985). An investment of $ 100 in unexcellent companies in 1981 would have grown to $ 298 by 1986, whereas $ 100 invested in excellent companies would have grown to only $ 182. While this study did not control for risk, it does present some evidence that good companies are not necessarily good investments, whereas bad companies can sometimes be excellent investments.

A legitimate criticism of this study is that the time period is very short (5 years) and may be an aberration – it began, after all, right at the end of a tough bear market, where any stock with the fundamentals of the unexcellent companies would have looked like poison. How about a second study?

The second study used a more conventional measure of company quality. Standard and Poor’s, the ratings agency, assigns quality ratings to stocks that resemble its bond ratings. Thus, an A rated stock, according to S&P, is a higher quality investment than a B+ rated stock, and the ratings are based upon financial measures (such as profitability ratios and financial leverage). Figure 9 summarizes the returns earned by stocks in different ratings classes, and as with the previous study, the lowest rated stocks had the highest returns and the highest rated stocks had the lowest returns.

And here are the returns:

Looks like a pretty clear inverse relationship between rating and return. Sure, whereof rating, thereof “risk,” but I’m prepared to wear that “risk” for the return.

So contrarian value investing works. How do we mess this up?

a. Long Time Horizon: To succeed by buying these companies, you need to have the capacity to hold the stocks for several years. This is necessary not only because these stocks require long time periods to recover, but also to allow you to spread the high transactions costs associated with these strategies over more time. Note that having a long time horizon as a portfolio manager may not suffice if your clients can put pressure on you to liquidate holdings at earlier points. Consequently, you either need clients who think like you do and agree with you, or clients that have made enough money with you in the past that their greed overwhelms any trepidation they might have in your portfolio choices.

b. Diversify: Since poor stock price performance is often precipitated or accompanied by operating and financial problems, it is very likely that quite a few of the companies in the loser portfolio will cease to exist. If you are not diversified, your overall returns will be extremely volatile as a result of a few stocks that lose all of their value. Consequently, you will need to spread your bets across a large number of stocks in a large number of sectors. One variation that may accomplish this is to buy the worst performing stock in each sector, rather than the worst performing stocks in the entire market.

c. Personal qualities: This strategy is not for investors who are easily swayed or stressed by bad news about their investments or by the views of others (analysts, market watchers and friends). Almost by definition, you will read little that is good about the firms in your portfolio. Instead, there will be bad news about potential default, management turmoil and failed strategies at the companies you own. In fact, there might be long periods after you buy the stock, where the price continues to go down further, as other investors give up. Many investors who embark on this strategy find themselves bailing out of their investments early, unable to hold on to these stocks in the face of the drumbeat of negative information. In other words, you need both the self-confidence to stand your ground as others bail out and a stomach for short-term volatility (especially the downside variety) to succeed with this strategy.

Tomorrow, the activists.

DEEP VALUE 4 LIFE

(Hat tip Abnormal Returns)

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Abnormal Returns asks “If value investors are the “grown ups” of the investment world, why aren’t their returns better?” and links to a great Aswath Damodaran paper “Value Investing: Investing for Grown Ups?” in which Damodaran examines the reasons why over an epic 77 pages.

Damodaran begins by asking, “Who is a value investor?” He divides the value world into three groups:

  1. The Passive Screeners,” – “The Graham approach to value investing is a screening approach, where investors adhere to strict screens… and pick stocks that pass those screens.”
  2. The Contrarian Value Investors,” – “In this manifestation of value investing, you begin with the belief that stocks that are beaten down because of the perception that they are poor investments (because of poor investments, default risk or bad management) tend to get punished too much by markets just as stocks that are viewed as good investments get pushed up too much.”
  3. Activist value investors,” – “The strategies used by …[activist value investors] are diverse, and will reflect why the firm is undervalued in the first place. If a business has investments in poor performing assets or businesses, shutting down, divesting or spinning off these assets will create value for its investors. When a firm is being far too conservative in its use of debt, you may push for a recapitalization (where the firm borrows money and buys back stock). Investing in a firm that could be worth more to someone else because of synergy, you may push for it to become the target of an acquisition. When a company’s value is weighed down because it is perceived as having too much cash, you may demand higher dividends or stock buybacks. In each of these scenarios, you may have to confront incumbent managers who are reluctant to make these changes. In fact, if your concerns are broadly about management competence, you may even push for a change in the top management of the firm.”

I’ll deal with Damodaran’s passive screeners today, the contrarian value investors tomorrow and the activists later this week.

The Passive Screeners

Value, if you define it with price ratios, works however you slice it. For example, the cheap price-to-book value (PBV) decile outperforms the next and so on:

Damodaran says:

The lowest price to book value stocks earned 6.24% more, on an annualized basis, than the high price to book stocks across the entire time period (1927-2010); they continued to earn higher annual returns (5.44%) than the high price to book value stocks between 1991-2010.

The cheap price-to-earnings (PE) ratio decile also outperforms the next and so on:

And value works all over the globe.

Damodaran asks if all we have to do to earn excess returns is invest in stocks that trade at low multiples of earnings, book value or revenues, why do value investors underperform?

He offers several reasons:

Time Horizon: All the studies quoted above look at returns over time horizons of five years or greater. In fact, low price-book value stocks have underperformed high price-book value stocks over shorter time periods. The same can be said about PE ratios and price to sales ratios.

Dueling Screens: If one screen earns you excess returns, three should do even better seems to be the attitude of some investors who proceed to multiply the screens they use. They are assisted in this process by the easy access to both data and screening technology. There are web sites (many of which are free) that allow you to screen stocks (at least in the United States) using multiple criteria.19 The problem, though, is that the use of one screen may undercut the effectiveness of others, leading to worse rather than better portfolios.

Absence of Diversification: In their enthusiasm for screens, investors sometimes forget the first principles of diversification. For instance, it is not uncommon to see stocks from one sector disproportionately represented in portfolios created using screens. A screen from low PE stocks may deliver a portfolio of banks and utilities, whereas a screen of low price to book ratios and high returns on equity may deliver stocks from a sector with high infrastructure investments that has had bad sector-specific news come out about it. In 2001, for instance, many telecom stocks traded at a discount on their book value.

Taxes and Transactions costs: As in any investment strategy, taxes and transactions costs can take a bite out of returns, although the effect should become smaller as your time horizon lengthens. Some screens, though, can increase the effect of taxes and transactions costs. For instance, screening for stocks with high dividends and low PE ratios will yield a portfolio that may have much higher tax liabilities (because of the dividends).

Success and Imitation: In some ways, the worst thing that can occur to a screen (at least from the viewpoint of investors using the screen) is that its success is publicized and that a large number of investors begin using that same screen at the same time. In the process of creating portfolios of the stocks they perceive to be undervalued, they may very well eliminate the excess returns that drew them to the screen in the first place.

Tomorrow, the contrarian value investors.

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Kinnaras Capital Management demonstrates characteristic tenacity in a new letter to Media General Inc (NYSE:MEG) sent after Kinnaras’s exclusion from the most recent earnings call:

I intended to voice those concerns on the Q1 2012 conference call but despite following directions to join the queue, it appears that I was not allowed to participate in this call. This is a poor response to an engaged shareholder. I have likely purchased more shares of MEG than you ever have, yet as an owner of the Company I was not allowed to ask pertinent questions regarding MEG’s operational and financing strategies simply because I have accurately pointed out the various failures you have helmed while at Media General.

In its two earlier lettera Kinnaras expressed frustration with the performance of MEG, and urged the Board to “take advantage of the robust M&A market for both newspaper and broadcast television and to sell all operating units of MEG in order to retire existing corporate and pension debt and achieve a share price shareholders have rarely seen in recent years.”

MEG is a provider of local news in small and mid-size communities throughout the Southeastern United States. It owns three metropolitan and 20 community newspapers and 18 network-affiliated broadcast television stations Virginia/Tennessee, Florida, Mid-South, North Carolina, and Ohio/Rhode Island.

The initial letter included Kinnaras’s sum-of-the-parts valuation, which Kinnaras Managing Member Amit Chokshi sees at $9.75 per share against a prevailing price of around $4.60.

Here’s the new letter:

Kinnaras also has on its website its recommendations to MEG shareholders ahead of the proxy vote.

No position.

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Robert Robotti, founder of Robotti & Company, and noted Grahamite small-to-mid cap value investor, started out as an accountant working for the auditor of Tweedy, Browne Company. After leaving the accounting firm Robotti worked for “Super” Mario Gabelli as his CFO for three years when Gabelli was only a twelve‐person firm. Applying the lessons from Tweedy, Browne and Gabelli in his own firm has led to returns of 14.1 percent compound since inception in 1993 (versus 8.7 percent for the Russell 2000). Robotti, who is speaking at the upcoming Value Investing Congress in Omaha in May, has given an interview to Value Investor Insight describing his process,  the beaten-up industries he’s presently following, and why he thought that Builders FirstSource, Inc. (BLDR) – which has more than doubled since the interview – was a good investment.

Robotti’s offsider Isaac Schwartz says of the quirky types of investments Robotti & Company makes:

We see considerable potential in Mongolia, whose economy is being fundamentally transformed by demand for its natural resources. Roads, railways and processing facilities are being built in the country to facilitate the shipping of coal, copper and iron ore to China and elsewhere. One way we’ve found to play that is through a Japanese company called Sawada Holdings [8699:JP], which owns a majority stake in Khan Bank, the dominant bank in Mongolia. Khan’s asset base has grown a hundred-fold in the last decade and it now controls roughly 30% of the country’s total banking assets. Khan in the first half of 2011 had net earnings of $24 million, a 49% return on equity. Put a 15-20x multiple on that on an annualized basis and the bank overall would be worth $700 to $950 million, making Sawada’s stake worth maybe $400-500 million. But if we value the rest of Sawada’s holdings, primarily a Japanese broker-dealer, at book value, its current market value [at a share price of around ¥740] implies a value for Khan of only $130 million at current exchange rates. That’s a pretty nice discount for a company with dominant market share, great returns on capital and extraordinary growth upside. Another bank bet we’re making is through Indonesia’s Panin Insurance [PNIN:IJ], the control shareholder of Bank Panin, a leading commercial bank serving the country’s affluent ethnic Chinese minority. There’s actually a bank museum in Jakarta that focuses on the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, which is indicative of the influence that crisis had, resulting in a conservatively capitalized and risk-averse banking industry in Indonesia. Bank Panin trades independently at a much higher valuation, but on our look-through numbers we’re able to buy it through the insurance holding company at an implied P/E closer to 5x and at only 50% of book value. That for a bank in a growing economy that has increased its book value per share by 16% annually over the last five years.

Robotti is scheduled to speak at the Spring congress in Omaha.  There is a PDF of the Value Investor Insight interview available to readers for free on the Value Investing Congress website. The interview and special promotion will only be available until Monday, April 16th so check it out before Monday’s deadline.

To download the interview head to ValueInvestingCongress.com/Download.

To take advantage of the special offer see ValueInvestingCongress.com/GREENBACKD. Use discount code S12GB4 to save $500 before April 16.

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