Dr. Chris Leithner has prepared a paper for the von Mises Institute, Ludwig von Mises, Meet Benjamin Graham: Value Investing from an Austrian Point of View, in which he argues that Grahamite value investors and economists from the Austrian School hold “compatible views about a range of fundamental economic and financial phenomena” and Austrian economics should therefore be compelling to value investors “because it subsumes real economic and financial events within justifiable laws of human action.”
This paper shows that value investors and Austrians hold compatible views not only about the price and value, but also about other vital economic and financial phenomena. These include risk and arbitrage; capital and entrepreneurship; and time-preference and interest. Indeed, with respect to these matters each group may have more in common with the other than each has with the mainstream of its respective field.
While we’ve never explicitly said so on this site, many of you will have guessed that we subscribe to the Austrian School of economics. We know that view is unpopular with some of our readers, but we ask that you read Leithner’s paper before inveighing in the comments or the mail bag. Leithner is the principal of Leithner & Company, a private investment company based in Brisbane, Australia, and a strict adherent to the “traditional “value” approach to investment pioneered by Benjamin Graham and adapted by his colleagues Warren Buffett, Thomas Knapp and Walter Schloss.” His paper is a tour de force on both Grahamite value investment and Austrian economics, and describes our views with a clarity that escapes us.
Set out below are some important excerpts from Leithner’s paper. The first describes the Austrian view of the operation of markets and its rejection of Efficient Market Theory, which is relevant given the discussion in the comments on Jim Hodge’s guest post several weeks ago:
A deep chasm separates the theory of entrepreneurial discovery from the mainstream model of perfect competition. To mainstream economists, the decisions to buy and sell in the market are mere mathematical derivations. A decision, in other words, is “made” by a “given” model, probability distribution and data. The mainstream model thus eliminates the real-life, flesh-and-blood decision-maker – the heart of the Austrian economics and value investing – from the market. Market automatons do not err; accordingly, it is unthinkable that an opportunity for pure profit is not instantly noticed and grasped. The mainstream economist, goes the revealing joke, does not take the $10 banknote lying on the floor because he believes that if it were really there then somebody would already have grabbed it.
In sharp contrast, Austrians recognise that decisions are taken by real people whose plans are imperfectly clear, indistinctly ranked, often internally-inconsistent and always subject to change. Further, at any given moment a market participant will be largely unaware of other market participants’ present and future plans. It is participation in the market that makes buyers and sellers a bit more knowledgeable about their own plans and slightly less unaware of others’ plans. Market participants will inevitably make mistakes; further, it is probable that they will not automatically notice them. Accordingly, it is not just possible – it is typical – that opportunities for gain (“pure profit”) appear but are not instantly detected. Recognising the obvious – namely that he has possibly been the first to notice it – the Austrian will therefore take the $10 note inadvertently dropped on the floor and ignored by his mainstream colleague. An “Austrian” act of entrepreneurial discovery, then, occurs when a market participant seeks and finds what others have overlooked.
It is important to emphasise that this discovery, like Buffett’s and Graham’s many others, did not derive from information that other buyers and sellers could not possess. These acts of entrepreneurial discovery stemmed from the alert analysis of publicly available information and the superior detection of opportunities that others had simply overlooked. On numerous occasions, Graham and his students and followers have found promising places to look and have been the first, in effect, to detect the piles of notes that others have disregarded and left lying on the floor. Anybody, for example, could have bought parts of American Express, The Washington Post, GEICO (whose enormous potential Graham was the first to find) and Coca-Cola when Mr Buffett did; but few saw what he saw, ignored the irrelevancies and reasoned so clearly. Instead, most were distracted by myriad worries – and economic and financial fallacies – and so very few followed Buffett’s lead.
In this second excerpt, Leithner discusses the Grahamite approach to investment in an uncertain world (as it ever is), and why Grahamites pay no heed to mainstream economists’ forecasts about macroeconomic aggregates such as inflation, exchange rates, joblessness, trade and budget deficits and the like:
Grahamites recognise that the future is inherently uncertain. That is to say, there is no probability distribution and there are no data that can “model” it. The future is not radically uncertain, in the sense that Ludwig Lachmann maintained, but it is largely so. Like many Austrians, Grahamites accept that one can know some things (such as historical data, relationships of cause and effect and hence the laws of economics), and therefore that to some extent the past does project into the future. Grahamites do not agree, in other words, that anything can happen; but they are acutely aware – because they have learnt from unpleasant personal experience – that the unexpected can and often does happen. They also acknowledge that forecasting the future is the job of entrepreneurs, not economists or bureaucrats, and therefore that the entrepreneur-investor-forecaster must be cautious and humble.
Market timers, commentators and mainstream economists, then, cannot foresee economic events and developments with any useful degree of accuracy. And even if they could, the aggregate phenomena upon which they fixate are typically of little interest to Grahamites. Hence value investors ignore analysts, economists and others who claim that they possess clear crystal balls. But Grahamite investors do not ignore the future per se. Quite the contrary: they plan not by making particular predictions about what will happen but by considering general scenarios – particularly pessimistic scenarios – of what might conceivably happen. They then structure their actions and investments in order to reduce the risk of permanent loss of capital in the event that undesirable eventsand developments actually occur.
Grahamites also recognise that if markets tend towards but never attain a state of equilibrium, and if profit-seeking entrepreneurs constitute the “oil” that enables the market mechanism to operate and adapt so smoothly, then over time particularly talented and shrewd and lucky entrepreneurs will tend, more often than not and relatively consistently, to accumulate capital. Less successful entrepreneurs, on the other hand, will consistently lose some – and eventually all – of their capital. It is for this reason that Grahamites search incessantly for businesses that possess consistently solid and relatively stable track records, and the demonstrated ability to surmount a variety of unexpected changes and vicissitudes.
In this final excerpt, Leithner discusses the calculation of desired rates of return, and the relationship to firm value:
On what bases, then, do Grahamites reason towards an assessment of a given security’s value? First, they assess the structure of the underlying firm’s capital and the stability of its earnings. Second, they ascertain their time preference (i.e., the extent to which they are prepared forego consumption today in order to consume more in the future) and thus their desired rate of return. Although value investors have never used the term “time preference,” embedded within the Grahamite approach to the valuation of securities is a notion of time preference and interest that is compatible with Austrian understandings of these concepts.
What is an appropriate payback period? The answer depends upon one’s time preference; and that, in turn, will vary from one investor to another. But a few general points can be made. First, a shorter payback period (i.e., a higher rate of return) is preferable to a longer one (i.e., lower rate of return). This is because the longer the time required in order to recoup an investment, the riskier that investment becomes. The longer the payback period, the more a decision to invest depends upon the veracity of its underlying assumptions, i.e., the more imperative it becomes that those assumptions correspond to reality. With each additional year of waiting, the chances increase that unforseen or uncontrollable factors – a recession, a decrease of the purchasing power of the currency, new competition, the loss of key contracts, employees and other innumerable and perhaps unimaginable factors – will decrease (or halt the rate of increase of) the size of the yearly coupon and hence prolong further the payback period.
Second, a high natural rate of interest implies a large required rate of return and a more stringent hurdle for potential investments to surmount. For example, a natural rate of 12-15% (which Leithner & Co. uses to conduct its investment operations) and a constant stream of coupons imply a payback period of 6-8 years. By that criterion, both the Telstra stock’s and the Commonwealth bond’s payback period is unacceptably long; and by this absolute, more challenging – and, to mainstream investors, virtually unknown – yardstick, neither of these securities are compelling. Since the late 1990s, in other words, wide swaths of the investment universe (i.e., most equities, bonds and real estate) have been unacceptably dear; and the five-year investment results of most mainstream investors confirm the sad consequences of buying securities at inflated prices.
Leithner’s paper is superb,and well worth reading. His explication of the concept of “capital goods” and capital, and the relationship to firm value should not be missed.