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One of my favorite Benjamin Graham quotes:

Chairman: … One other question and I will desist. When you find a special situation and you decide, just for illustration, that you can buy for 10 and it is worth 30, and you take a position, and then you cannot realise it until a lot of other people  decide it is worth 30, how is that process brought about – by advertising, or what happens? (Rephrasing) What causes a cheap stock to find its value?

Graham: That is one of the mysteries of our business, and it is a mystery to me as well as to everybody else. [But] we know from experience that eventually the market catches up with value.

Benjamin Graham
Testimony to the Committee on Banking and Commerce
Sen. William Fulbright, Chairman
(11 March 1955)
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In March 1976 a Mr. Hartman L. Butler, Jr., C.F.A. sat down for an hour long interview with Benjamin Graham in his home in La Jolla, California. Hartman recorded the discussion on his cassette tape recorder, and transcribed it into the following document. There are many great insights from Graham. Here are several of the best parts:

On the GEICO disaster unfolding at the time: 

It makes me shudder to think of the amounts of money they were able to lose in one year. Incredible! It is surprising how many of the large companies have managed to turn in losses of $50 million or $100 million in one year, in these last few years. Something unheard of in the old days. You have to be a genius to lose that much money.

On changes in his investment methodology, a subject we cover in detail in Quantitative Value:

I have lost most of the interest I had in the details of security analysis which I devoted myself to so strenuously for many years. I feel that they are relatively unimportant, which, in a sense, has put me opposed to developments in the whole profession. I think we can do it successfully with a few techniques and simple principles. The main point is to have the right general principles and the character to stick to them.

I have a considerable amount of doubt on the question of how successful analysts can be overall when applying these selectivity approaches. The thing that I have been emphasizing in my own work for the last few years has been the group approach. To try to buy groups of stocks that meet some simple criterion for being undervalued-regardless of the industry and with very little attention to the individual company. My recent article on three simple methods applied to common stocks was published in one of your Seminar Proceedings.

I am just finishing a 50-year study-the application of these simple methods to groups of stocks, actually, to all the stocks in the Moody’s Industrial Stock Group. I found the results were very good for 50 years. They certainly did twice as well as the Dow Jones. And so my enthusiasm has been transferred from the selective to the group approach. What I want is an earnings ratio twice as good as the bond interest ratio typically for most years. One can also apply a dividend criterion or an asset value criterion and get good results. My  research indicates the best results come from simple earnings criterions.

We looked at the performance of Graham’s simple strategy in Quantitative Value. For more see my overview piece, Examining Benjamin Graham’s Record: Skill Or Luck?

In Quantitative Value we identify several problems with Graham’s simple strategy and examine several other strategies that outperform Graham’s simple strategy.

Hat tip to Tim Melvin @timmelvin

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Last week I wrote about the performance of one of Benjamin Graham’s simple quantitative strategies over the 37 years he since he described it (Examining Benjamin Graham’s Record: Skill Or Luck?). In the original article Graham proposed two broad approaches, the second of which we examine in Quantitative Value: A Practitioner’s Guide to Automating Intelligent Investment and Eliminating Behavioral Errors. The first approach Graham detailed in the original 1934 edition of Security Analysis (my favorite edition)—“net current asset value”:

My first, more limited, technique confines itself to the purchase of common stocks at less than their working-capital value, or net-current asset value, giving no weight to the plant and other fixed assets, and deducting all liabilities in full from the current assets. We used this approach extensively in managing investment funds, and over a 30-odd year period we must have earned an average of some 20 per cent per year from this source. For a while, however, after the mid-1950’s, this brand of buying opportunity became very scarce because of the pervasive bull market. But it has returned in quantity since the 1973–74 decline. In January 1976 we counted over 300 such issues in the Standard & Poor’s Stock Guide—about 10 per cent of the total. I consider it a foolproof method of systematic investment—once again, not on the basis of individual results but in terms of the expectable group outcome.

In 2010 I examined the performance of Graham’s net current asset value strategy with Sunil Mohanty and Jeffrey Oxman of the University of St. Thomas. The resulting paper is embedded below:

While Graham found this strategy was “almost unfailingly dependable and satisfactory,” it was “severely limited in its application” because the stocks were too small and infrequently available. This is still the case today. There are several other problems with both of Graham’s strategies. In Quantitative Value: A Practitioner’s Guide to Automating Intelligent Investment and Eliminating Behavioral Errors Wes and I discuss in detail industry and academic research into a variety of improved fundamental value investing methods, and simple quantitative value investment strategies. We independently backtest each method, and strategy, and combine the best into a sample quantitative value investment model.

The book can be ordered from Wiley FinanceAmazon, or Barnes and Noble.

[I am an Amazon Affiliate and receive a small commission for the sale of any book purchased through this site.]

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Two recent articles, Was Benjamin Graham Skillful or Lucky? (WSJ), and Ben Graham’s 60-Year-Old Strategy Still Winning Big (Forbes), have thrown the spotlight back on Benjamin Graham’s investment strategy and his record. In the context of Michael Mauboussin’s new book The Success Equation, Jason Zweig asks in his WSJ Total Return column whether Graham was lucky or skillful, noting that Graham admitted he had his fair share of luck:

We tend to think of the greatest investors – say, Peter Lynch, George Soros, John Templeton, Warren Buffett, Benjamin Graham – as being mostly or entirely skillful.

Graham, of course, was the founder of security analysis as a profession, Buffett’s professor and first boss, and the author of the classic book The Intelligent Investor. He is universally regarded as one of the best investors of the 20th century.

But Graham, who outperformed the stock market by an annual average of at least 2.5 percentage points for more than two decades, coyly admitted that much of his remarkable track record may have been due to luck.

John Reese, in his Forbes’ Intelligent Investing column, notes that Graham’s Defensive Investor strategy has continued to outpace the market over the last decade:

Known as the “Father of Value Investing”—and the mentor of Warren Buffett—Graham’s investment firm posted annualized returns of about 20% from 1936 to 1956, far outpacing the 12.2% average return for the broader market over that time.

But the success of Graham’s approach goes far beyond even that lengthy period. For nearly a decade, I have been tracking a portfolio of stocks picked using my Graham-inspired Guru Strategy, which is based on the “Defensive Investor” criteria that Graham laid out in his 1949 classic, The Intelligent Investor. And, since its inception, the portfolio has returned 224.3% (13.3% annualized) vs. 43.0% (3.9% annualized) for the S&P 500.

Even with all of the fiscal cliff and European debt drama in 2012, the Graham-based portfolio has had a particularly good year. While the S&P 500 has notched a solid 13.7% gain (all performance figures through Dec. 17), the Graham portfolio is up more than twice that, gaining 28.5%.

Reese’s experiment might suggest that Graham is more skillful than lucky.

In our recently released book, Quantitative Value: A Practitioner’s Guide to Automating Intelligent Investment and Eliminating Behavioral Errors, Wes and I examine one of Graham’s simple strategies in the period after he described it to the present day. Graham gave an interview to the Financial Analysts Journal in 1976, some 40 year after the publication of Security Analysis. He was asked whether he still selected stocks by carefully studying individual issues, and responded:

I am no longer an advocate of elaborate techniques of security analysis in order to find superior value opportunities. This was a rewarding activity, say, 40 years ago, when our textbook “Graham and Dodd” was first published; but the situation has changed a great deal since then. In the old days any well-trained security analyst could do a good professional job of selecting undervalued issues through detailed studies; but in the light of the enormous amount of research now being carried on, I doubt whether in most cases such extensive efforts will generate sufficiently superior selections to justify their cost. To that very limited extent I’m on the side of the “efficient market” school of thought now generally accepted by the professors.

Instead, Graham proposed a highly simplified approach that relied for its results on the performance of the portfolio as a whole rather than on the selection of individual issues. Graham believed that such an approach “[combined] the three virtues of sound logic, simplicity of application, and an extraordinarily good performance record.”

Graham said of his simplified value investment strategy:

What’s needed is, first, a definite rule for purchasing which indicates a priori that you’re acquiring stocks for less than they’re worth. Second, you have to operate with a large enough number of stocks to make the approach effective. And finally you need a very definite guideline for selling.

What did Graham believe was the simplest way to select value stocks? He recommended that an investor create a portfolio of a minimum of 30 stocks meeting specific price-to-earnings criteria (below 10) and specific debt-to-equity criteria (below 50 percent) to give the “best odds statistically,” and then hold those stocks until they had returned 50 percent, or, if a stock hadn’t met that return objective by the “end of the second calendar year from the time of purchase, sell it regardless of price.”

Graham said that his research suggested that this formula returned approximately 15 percent per year over the preceding 50 years. He cautioned, however, that an investor should not expect 15 percent every year. The minimum period of time to determine the likely performance of the strategy was five years.

Graham’s simple strategy sounds almost too good to be true. Sure, this approach worked in the 50 years prior to 1976, but how has it performed in the age of the personal computer and the Internet, where computing power is a commodity, and access to comprehensive financial information is as close as the browser? We decided to find out. Like Graham, Wes and I used a price-to-earnings ratio cutoff of 10, and we included only stocks with a debt-to-equity ratio of less than 50 percent. We also apply his trading rules, selling a stock if it returned 50 percent or had been held in the portfolio for two years.

Figure 1.2 below taken from our book shows the cumulative performance of Graham’s simple value strategy plotted against the performance of the S&P 500 for the period 1976 to 2011:

Graham Strategy

Amazingly, Graham’s simple value strategy has continued to outperform.

Table 1.2 presents the results from our study of the simple Graham value strategy:

Graham Chart

Graham’s strategy turns $100 invested on January 1, 1976, into $36,354 by December 31, 2011, which represents an average yearly compound rate of return of 17.80 percent—outperforming even Graham’s estimate of approximately 15 percent per year. This compares favorably with the performance of the S&P 500 over the same period, which would have turned $100 invested on January 1, 1976, into $4,351 by December 31, 2011, an average yearly compound rate of return of 11.05 percent. The performance of the Graham strategy is attended by very high volatility, 23.92 percent versus 15.40 percent for the total return on the S&P 500.

The evidence suggests that Graham’s simplified approach to value investment continues to outperform the market. I think it’s a reasonable argument for skill on the part of Graham.

It’s useful to consider why Graham’s simple strategy continues to outperform. At a superficial level, it’s clear that some proxy for price—like a P/E ratio below 10—combined with some proxy for quality—like a debt-to-equity ratio below 50 percent—is predictive of future returns. But is something else at work here that might provide us with a deeper understanding of the reasons for the strategy’s success? Is there some other reason for its outperformance beyond simple awareness of the strategy? We think so.

Graham’s simple value strategy has concrete rules that have been applied consistently in our study. Even through the years when the strategy underperformed the market  our study assumed that we continued to apply it, regardless of how discouraged or scared we might have felt had we actually used it during the periods when it underperformed the market. Is it possible that the very consistency of the strategy is an important reason for its success? We believe so. A value investment strategy might provide an edge, but some other element is required to fully exploit that advantage.

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger believe that the missing ingredient is temperament. Says Buffett, “Success in investing doesn’t correlate with IQ once you’re above the level of 125. Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble in investing.”

Was Graham skillful or lucky? Yes. Does the fact that he was lucky detract from his extraordinary skill? No because he purposefully concentrated on the undervalued tranch of stocks that provide asymmetric outcomes: good luck in the fortunes of his holdings helped his portfolio disproportionately on the upside, and bad luck didn’t hurt his portfolio much on the downside. That, in my opinion, is strong evidence of skill.

For more like this, please see our new book, Quantitative Value: A Practitioner’s Guide to Automating Intelligent Investment and Eliminating Behavioral Errors.

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Multpl.com has a handy Graham / Shiller PE10 chart for the S&P500 that updates on daily basis. Where is the PE10 today? 19.93:

Interested in the mean, median, minimum or the maximum? Multpl.com has those too:

Mean: 16.37
Median: 15.74
Min: 4.78 (Dec 1920)
Max: 44.20 (Dec 1999)?

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In MarketBeat’s Stocks Too Cheap? Or Earnings Estimates Too Rosy? (subscription required), Matt Phillips has an interesting article on forward price-to-earnings ratios:

The forward-earnings in question are really consensus forward-earnings estimates, churned out by Wall Street’s broker dealers,  the so-called “sell side.” And the “sell-side” as a whole tend to be a bullish bunch.

Phillips takes Oppenheimer Asset Management analysts to task for their Monday report:

With that in mind, we turn to the question of whether stocks are cheap right now, or not. Some look at the numbers and argue, of course they are.  On a price-to-forward-earnings basis, you can make that argument. Oppenheimer Asset Management analysts did so Monday. They write:

The S&P 500’s current forward multiple of 12.9x represents the lowest level for the index since early 1995. According to our analysis, market performance has been relatively strong in all periods following similar forward P/E levels. The S&P 500 averaged a roughly 12% 12-month return in all periods since 1960 when the forward P/E was between 10x and 15x.

In the same note, Oppenheimer says that some clients are starting to wonder whether analyst expectations being too high could be the reason stocks look so cheap. “Based on our client conversations, there appears to be a growing concern that 2010 earnings expectations have become too optimistic and that forward price multiples are thereby understated,” Oppenheimer writes. Oppenheimer analysts counter this concern saying the firm doesn’t “find earnings expectations out of context from a normalized growth perspective,” writing that after a recession as sharp as the one we had, it’s reasonable to expect the earnings growth rate to be a bit higher than usual as the economy recovers.

Phillips points to Robert Shiller’s calculation of Graham’s P/E10 ratio as evidence that stocks are not be as cheap as Oppenheimer’s one-year forward estimates might have us believe:

Prof. Shiller tracks P/E ratios back to the 19th century, smoothing out short-term ups and downs in profits by using a 10-year earnings average. Even after the May declines, his P/E ratio still is almost 20, well above the historical average of about 16.

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Mebane Faber has an interesting analysis of the expected ten-year annualized real returns to investors in the various Shiller / Graham P/E10 deciles:

I’ve discussed the Graham / Shiller PE10 metric before (see my April 9 post Graham’s PE10 ratio). In that article, Doug Short described the PE10 ratio thus:

Legendary economist and value investor Benjamin Graham noticed the same bizarre P/E behavior during the Roaring Twenties and subsequent market crash. Graham collaborated with David Dodd to devise a more accurate way to calculate the market’s value, which they discussed in their 1934 classic book, Security Analysis. They attributed the illogical P/E ratios to temporary and sometimes extreme fluctuations in the business cycle. Their solution was to divide the price by the 10-year average of earnings, which we’ll call the P/E10. In recent years, Yale professor Robert Shiller, the author of Irrational Exuberance, has reintroduced the P/E10 to a wider audience of investors. …  The historic P/E10 average is 16.3.

I assume that the 8th decile – the decile highlighted by Mebane – is the decile in which the market presently sits (although it’s right on the threshold between the 8th and the 9th decile). This would suggest that the median expected annualized real return for the market over the next decade is between 3% and 5%. Not great, but better than it was in April, when Dylan Grice was anticipating returns of 1.7%.

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