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Posts Tagged ‘Liquidation Value’

The superb Manual of Ideas blog has an article by Ravi Nagarajan, Marty Whitman Reflects on Value Investing and Net-Nets, on legendary value investor Marty Whitman’s conversation with Columbia Professor Bruce Greenwald at the Columbia Investment Management Conference in New York. I have in the past discussed Marty Whitman’s adjustments to Graham’s net net formula, which I find endlessly useful. Whitman has some additional insights that I believe are particularly useful to net net investors:

“Cheap is Not Sufficient”

At several points in the discussion with Prof. Greenwald, Mr. Whitman came back to a central theme:  It is not sufficient for a security to be “cheap”.  It must also possess a margin of safety as demonstrated by a strong balance sheet and overall credit worthiness.   In other words, there are many securities that may appear cheap statistically based on a number of common criteria investors use to judge “cheapness”.  This might include current year earnings compared to the stock price, current year cash flow, and many others.  However, if the business does not have a durable balance sheet, adverse situations that are either of the company’s own making or due to macroeconomic factors can determine the ultimate fate of the company.  A durable balance sheet demonstrates the credit worthiness a business needs to manage through periodic adversity.

Whitman also discusses an issue near and dear to my heart: good corporate governance, and, by implication, activism:

One other point that Mr. Whitman made while discussing corporate governance also applies to many net-net situations.  The true value of a company may never come out if there is no threat of a change in control.  This obviously makes intuitive sense because the presence of a very cheap company alone will not result in realization of value unless management is willing to act in the interests of shareholders either by liquidating a business that has no future prospects but a very liquid balance sheet or taking steps to improve the business.

Read the balance of the article at The Manual of Ideas blog.

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Jon Heller of the superb Cheap Stocks, one of the inspirations for this site, has published the results of his two year net net index experiment in Winding Down The Cheap Stocks 21 Net Net Index; Outperforms Russell Microcap by 1371 bps, S&P 500 by 2537 bps.

The “CS 21 Net/Net Index” was “the first index designed to track net/net performance.” It was a simply constructed, capitalization-weighted index comprising the 21 largest net nets by market capitalization at inception on February 15, 2008. Jon had a few other restrictions on inclusion in the index, described in his introductory post:

  • Market Cap is below net current asset value, defined as: Current Assets – Current Liabilities – all other long term liabilities (including preferred stock, and minority interest where applicable)
  • Stock Price above $1.00 per share
  • Companies have an operating business; acquisition companies were excluded
  • Minimum average 100 day volume of at least 5000 shares (light we know, but welcome to the wonderful world of net/nets)
  • Index constituents were selected by market cap. The index is comprised of the “largest” companies meeting the above criteria.

The Index is naïve in construction in that:

  • It will be rebalanced annually, and companies no longer meeting the net/net criteria will remain in the index until annual rebalancing.
  • Only bankruptcies, de-listings, or acquisitions will result in replacement
  • Does not discriminate by industry weighting—some industries may have heavy weights.

If a company was acquired, it was not replaced and the proceeds were simply held in cash. Further, stocks were not replaced if they ceased being net nets.

Says Jon of the CS 21 Net/Net Index performance:

This was simply an experiment in order to see how net/nets at a given time would perform over the subsequent two years.

The results are in, and while it was not what we’d originally hoped for, it does lend credence to the long-held notion that net/nets can outperform the broader markets.

The Cheap Stocks 21 Net Net Index finished the two year period relatively flat, gaining 5.1%. During the same period, The Russell Microcap Index was down 8.61%, while the Russell Microcap Index was down 9.9%. During the same period, the S&P 500 was down 20.27%.

Here are the components, including the weightings and returns of each:

Adaptec Inc (ADPT)
Weight: 18.72%
Computer Systems
+7.86%
Audiovox Corp (VOXX)
Weight: 12.20%
Electronics
-29.28%
Trans World Entertainment (TWMC)
Weight:7.58%
Retail-Music and Video
-69.55%
Finish Line Inc (FINL)
Weight:6.30%
Retail-Apparel
+350.83%
Nu Horizons Electronics (NUHC)
Weight:5.76%
Electronics Wholesale
-25.09%
Richardson Electronics (RELL)
Weight:5.09%
Electronics Wholesale
+43.27%
Pomeroy IT Solutions (PMRY)
Weight:4.61%
Acquired
-3.8%
Ditech Networks (DITC)
Weight:4.31%
Communication Equip
-56.67%
Parlux Fragrances (PARL)
Weight:3.92%
Personal Products
-51.39%
InFocus Corp (INFS)
Weight:3.81%
Computer Peripherals
Acquired
Renovis Inc (RNVS)
Weight:3.80%
Biotech
Acquired
Leadis Technology Inc (LDIS)
Weight:3.47%
Semiconductor-Integrated Circuits
-92.05%
Replidyne Inc (RDYN) became Cardiovascular Systems (CSII)
Weight:3.31%
Biotech
[Edit: +126.36%]
Tandy Brands Accessories Inc (TBAC)
Weight:2.94%
Apparel, Footwear, Accessories
-57.79%
FSI International Inc (FSII)
Weight:2.87%
Semiconductor Equip
+66.47%
Anadys Pharmaceuticals Inc (ANDS)
Weight:2.49%
Biotech
+43.75%
MediciNova Inc (MNOV)
Weight:2.33%
Biotech
+100%
Emerson Radio Corp (MSN)
Weight:1.71%
Electronics
+118.19%
Handleman Co (HDL)
Weight:1.66%
Music- Wholesale
-88.67%
Chromcraft Revington Inc (CRC)
Weight:1.62%
Furniture
-54.58%
Charles & Colvard Ltd (CTHR)
Weight:1.50%
Jewel Wholesale
-7.41%

Cash Weight: 8.58%

Jon is putting together a new net net index, which I’ll follow if he releases it into the wild.

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Jae Jun at Old School Value has updated his great post back-testing the performance of net current asset value (NCAV) against “net net working capital” (NNWC) by refining the back-test (see NCAV NNWC Backtest Refined). His new back-test increases the rebalancing period to 6 months from 4 weeks, excludes companies with daily volume below 30,000 shares, and introduces the 66% margin of safety to the NCAV stocks (I wasn’t aware that this was missing from yesterday’s back-test, and would explain why the performance of the NCAV stocks was so poor).

Jae Jun’s original back-test compared the performance of NCAV and NNWC stocks over the last three years. He calculated NNWC by discounting the current asset value of stocks in line with Graham’s liquidation value discounts, but excludes the “Fixed and miscellaneous assets” included by Graham. Here’s Jae Jun’s NNWC formula:

NNWC = Cash + (0.75 x Accounts receivables) + (0.5 x  Inventory)

Here’s Graham’s suggested discounts (extracted from Chapter XLIII of Security Analysis: The Classic 1934 Edition “Significance of the Current Asset Value”):

As I noted yesterday, excluding the “Fixed and miscellaneous assets” from the liquidating value calculation makes for an exceptionally austere valuation.

Jae Jun has refined his screening criteria as follows:

  • Volume is greater than 30k
  • NCAV margin of safety included
  • Slippage increased to 1%
  • Rebalance frequency changed to 6 months
  • Test period remains at 3 years

Here are Jae Jun’s back-test results with the new criteria:

For the period 2001 to 2004

For the period 2004 to 2007

For the period 2007 to 2010


It’s an impressive analysis by Jae Jun. Dividing the return into three periods is very helpful. While the returns overall are excellent, there were some serious smash-ups along the way, particularly the February 2007 to March 2009 period. As Klarman and Taleb have both discussed, it demonstrates that your starting date as an investor makes a big difference to your impression of the markets or whatever theory you use to invest. Compare, for example, the experiences of two different NCAV investors, one starting in February 2003 and the second starting in February 2007. The 2003 investor was up 500% in the first year, and had a good claim to possessing some investment genius. The 2007 investor was feeling very ill in March 2009, down around 75% and considering a career in truck driving. Both were following the same strategy, and so really had no basis for either conclusion. I doubt that thought consoles the trucker.

Jae Jun’s Old School Value NNWC NCAV Screen is available here (it’s free).

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Jae Jun at Old School Value has a great post, NCAV NNWC Screen Strategy Backtest, comparing the performance of net current asset value stocks (NCAV) and “net net working capital” (NNWC) stocks over the last three years. To arrive at NNWC, Jae Jun discounts the current asset value of stocks in line with Graham’s liquidation value discounts, but excludes the “Fixed and miscellaneous assets” included by Graham. Here’s Jae Jun’s NNWC formula:

NNWC = Cash + (0.75 x Accounts receivables) + (0.5 x  Inventory)

Here’s Graham’s suggested discounts (extracted from Chapter XLIII of Security Analysis: The Classic 1934 Edition “Significance of the Current Asset Value”):

Excluding the “Fixed and miscellaneous assets” from the NNWC calculation provides an austere valuation indeed (it makes Graham look like a pie-eyed optimist, which is saying something). The good news is that Jae Jun’s NNWC methodology seems to have performed exceptionally well over the period analyzed.

Jae Jun’s back-test methodology was to create two concentrated portfolios, one of 15 stocks and the other of 10 stocks. He rolled the positions on a four-weekly basis, which may be difficult to do in practice (as Aswath Damodaran pointed out yesterday, many a slip twixt cup and the lip renders a promising back-tested strategy useless in the real world). Here’s the performance of the 15 stock portfolio:

“NNWC Incr.” is “NNWC Increasing,” which Jae Jun describes as follows:

NNWC is positive and the latest NNWC has increased compared to the previous quarter. In this screen, NNWC doesn’t have to be less than current market price. Since the requirement is that NNWC is greater than 0, most large caps automatically fail to make the cut due to the large quantity of intangibles, goodwill and total debt.

Both the NNWC and NNWC Increasing portfolios delivered exceptional returns, up 228% and 183% respectively, while the S&P500 was off 26%. The performance of the NCAV portfolio was a surprise, eeking out just a 5% gain over the period, which is nothing to write home about, but still significantly better than the S&P500.

The 10 stock portfolio’s returns are simply astonishing:

Jae Jun writes:

An original $100 would have become

  • NCAV: $103
  • NNWC: $544
  • NNWC Incr: $503
  • S&P500: $74

That’s a gain of over 400% for NNWC stocks!

Amazing stuff. It would be interesting to see a full academic study on the performance of NNWC stocks, perhaps with holding periods in line with Oppenheimer’s Ben Graham’s Net Current Asset Values: A Performance Update for comparison. You can see Jae Jun’s Old School Value NNWC NCAV Screen here (it’s free). He’s also provided a list of the top 10 NNWC stocks and top 10 stocks with increasing NNWC in the NCAV NNWC Screen Strategy Backtest post.

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Here’s your book for the fall if you’re on global Wall Street. Tobias Carlisle has hit a home run deep over left field. It’s an incredibly smart, dense, 213 pages on how to not lose money in the market. It’s your Autumn smart read. –Tom Keene, Bloomberg’s Editor-At-Large, Bloomberg Surveillance, September 9, 2014.

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Aswath Damodaran, a Professor of Finance at the Stern School of Business, has an interesting post on his blog Musings on Markets, Transaction costs and beating the market. Damodaran’s thesis is that transaction costs – broadly defined to include brokerage commissions, spread and the “price impact” of trading (which I believe is an important issue for some strategies) – foil in the real world investment strategies that beat the market in back-tests. He argues that transaction costs are also the reason why the “average active portfolio manager” underperforms the index by about 1% to 1.5%. I agree with Damodaran. The long-term, successful practical application of any investment strategy is difficult, and is made more so by all of the frictional costs that the investor encounters. That said, I see no reason why a systematic application of some value-based investment strategies should not outperform the market even after taking into account those transaction costs and taxes. That’s a bold statement, and requires in support the production of equally extraordinary evidence, which I do not possess. Regardless, here’s my take on Damodaran’s article.

First, Damodaran makes the point that even well-researched, back-tested, market-beating strategies underperform in practice:

Most of these beat-the-market approaches, and especially the well researched ones, are backed up by evidence from back testing, where the approach is tried on historical data and found to deliver “excess returns”. Ergo, a money making strategy is born.. books are written.. mutual funds are created.

The average active portfolio manager, who I assume is the primary user of these can’t-miss strategies does not beat the market and delivers about 1-1.5% less than the index. That number has remained surprisingly stable over the last four decades and has persisted through bull and bear markets. Worse, this under performance cannot be attributed to “bad” portfolio mangers who drag the average down, since there is very little consistency in performance. Winners this year are just as likely to be losers next year…

Then he explains why he believes market-beating strategies that work on paper fail in the real world. The answer? Transaction costs:

So, why do portfolios that perform so well in back testing not deliver results in real time? The biggest culprit, in my view, is transactions costs, defined to include not only the commission and brokerage costs but two more significant costs – the spread between the bid price and the ask price and the price impact you have when you trade. The strategies that seem to do best on paper also expose you the most to these costs. Consider one simple example: Stocks that have lost the most of the previous year seem to generate much better returns over the following five years than stocks have done the best. This “loser” stock strategy was first listed in the academic literature in the mid-1980s and greeted as vindication by contrarians. Later analysis showed, though, that almost all of the excess returns from this strategy come from stocks that have dropped to below a dollar (the biggest losing stocks are often susceptible to this problem). The bid-ask spread on these stocks, as a percentage of the stock price, is huge (20-25%) and the illiquidity can also cause large price changes on trading – you push the price up as you buy and the price down as you sell. Removing these stocks from your portfolio eliminated almost all of the excess returns.

In support of his thesis, Damodaran gives the example of Value Line and its mutual funds:

In perhaps the most telling example of slips between the cup and lip, Value Line, the data and investment services firm, got great press when Fischer Black, noted academic and believer in efficient markets, did a study where he indicated that buying stocks ranked 1 in the Value Line timeliness indicator would beat the market. Value Line, believing its own hype, decided to start mutual funds that would invest in its best ranking stocks. During the years that the funds have been in existence, the actual funds have underperformed the Value Line hypothetical fund (which is what it uses for its graphs) significantly.

Damodaran’s argument is particularly interesting to me in the context of my recent series of posts on quantitative value investing. For those new to the site, my argument is that a systematic application of the deep value methodologies like Benjamin Graham’s liquidation strategy (for example, as applied in Oppenheimer’s Ben Graham’s Net Current Asset Values: A Performance Update) or a low price-to-book strategy (as described in Lakonishok, Shleifer, and Vishny’s Contrarian Investment, Extrapolation and Risk) can lead to exceptional long-term investment returns in a fund.

When Damodaran refers to “the price impact you have when you trade” he highlights a very important reason why a strategy in practice will underperform its theoretical results. As I noted in my conclusion to Intuition and the quantitative value investor:

The challenge is making the sample mean (the portfolio return) match the population mean (the screen). As we will see, the real world application of the quantitative approach is not as straight-forward as we might initially expect because the act of buying (selling) interferes with the model.

A strategy in practice will underperform its theoretical results for two reasons:

  1. The strategy in back test doesn’t have to deal with what I call the “friction” it encounters in the real world. I define “friction” as brokerage, spread and tax, all of which take a mighty bite out of performance. These are two of Damodaran’s transaction costs and another – tax. Arguably spread is the most difficult to prospectively factor into a model. One can account for brokerage and tax in the model, but spread is always going to be unknowable before the event.
  2. The act of buying or selling interferes with the market (I think it’s a Schrodinger’s cat-like paradox, but then I don’t understand quantum superpositions). This is best illustrated at the micro end of the market. Those of us who traffic in the Graham sub-liquidation value boat trash learn to live with wide spreads and a lack of liquidity. We use limit orders and sit on the bid (ask) until we get filled. No-one is buying (selling) “at the market,” because, for the most part, there ain’t no market until we get on the bid (ask). When we do manage to consummate a transaction, we’re affecting the price. We’re doing our little part to return it to its underlying value, such is the wonderful phenomenon of value investing mean reversion in action. The back-test / paper-traded strategy doesn’t have to account for the effect its own buying or selling has on the market, and so should perform better in theory than it does in practice.

If ever the real-world application of an investment strategy should underperform its theoretical results, Graham liquidation value is where I would expect it to happen. The wide spreads and lack of liquidity mean that even a small, individual investor will likely underperform the back-test results. Note, however, that it does not necessarily follow that the Graham liquidation value strategy will underperform the market, just the model. I continue to believe that a systematic application of Graham’s strategy will beat the market in practice.

I have one small quibble with Damodaran’s otherwise well-argued piece. He writes:

The average active portfolio manager, who I assume is the primary user of these can’t-miss strategies does not beat the market and delivers about 1-1.5% less than the index.

There’s a little rhetorical sleight of hand in this statement (which I’m guilty of on occasion in my haste to get a post finished). Evidence that the “average active portfolio manager” does not beat the market is not evidence that these strategies don’t beat the market in practice. I’d argue that the “average active portfolio manager” is not using these strategies. I don’t really know what they’re doing, but I’d guess the institutional imperative calls for them to hug the index and over- or under-weight particular industries, sectors or companies on the basis of a story (“Green is the new black,” “China will consume us back to the boom,” “house prices never go down,” “the new dot com economy will destroy the old bricks-and-mortar economy” etc). Yes, most portfolio managers underperform the index in the order of 1% to 1.5%, but I think they do so because they are, in essence, buying the index and extracting from the index’s performance their own fees and other transaction costs. They are not using the various strategies identified in the academic or popular literature. That small point aside, I think the remainder of the article is excellent.

In conclusion, I agree with Damodaran’s thesis that transaction costs in the form of brokerage commissions, spread and the “price impact” of trading make many apparently successful back-tested strategies unusable in the real world. I believe that the results of any strategy’s application in practice will underperform its theoretical results because of friction and the paradox of Schrodinger’s cat’s brokerage account. That said, I still see no reason why a systematic application of Graham’s liquidation value strategy or LSV’s low price-to-book value strategy can’t outperform the market even after taking into account these frictional costs and, in particular, wide spreads.

Hat tip to the Ox.

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In his Are Japanese equities worth more dead than alive?, SocGen’s Dylan Grice conducted some research into the performance of sub-liquidation value stocks in Japan since the mid 1990s. Grice’s findings are compelling:

My Factset backtest suggests such stocks trading below liquidation value have averaged a monthly return of 1.5% since the mid 1990s, compared to -0.2% for the Topix. There is no such thing as a toxic asset, only a toxic price. It may well be that these companies have no future, that they shouldn’t be valued as going concerns and that they are worth more dead than alive. If so, they are already trading at a value lower than would be fetched in a fire sale. But what if the outlook isn’t so gloomy? If these assets aren’t actually complete duds, we could be looking at some real bargains…

In the same article, Grice identifies five Graham net net stocks in Japan with market capitalizations bigger than $1B:

He argues that such stocks may offer value beyond the net current asset value:

The following chart shows the debt to shareholders equity ratios for each of the stocks highlighted as a liquidation candidate above, rebased so that the last year’s number equals 100. It’s clear that these companies have been aggressively delivering in the last decade.

Despite the “Japan has weak shareholder rights” cover story, management seems to be doing the right thing:

But as it happens, most of these companies have also been buying back stock too. So per share book values have been rising steadily throughout the appalling macro climate these companies have found themselves in. Contrary to what I expected to find, these companies that are currently priced at levels making liquidation seem the most profitable option have in fact been steadily creating shareholder wealth.

This is really extraordinary. The currency is a risk that I can’t quantify, but it warrants further investigation.

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Since last week’s Japanese liquidation value: 1932 US redux post, I’ve been attempting to determine whether the historical performance of Japanese sub-liquidation value stocks matches the experience in the US, which has been outstanding since the strategy was first identified by Benjamin Graham in 1932. The risk to the Japanese net net experience is the perception (rightly or not) that the weakness of shareholder rights in Japan means that net current asset value stocks there are destined to continue to trade at a discount to net current asset value. As I mentioned yesterday, I’m a little chary of the “Japan has weak shareholder rights” narrative. I’d rather look at the data, but the data are a little wanting.

As we all know, the US net net experience has been very good. Research undertaken by Professor Henry Oppenheimer on Graham’s liquidation value strategy between 1970 and 1983, published in the paper Ben Graham’s Net Current Asset Values: A Performance Update, indicates that “[the] mean return from net current asset stocks for the 13-year period was 29.4% per year versus 11.5% per year for the NYSE-AMEX Index. One million dollars invested in the net current asset portfolio on December 31, 1970 would have increased to $25,497,300 by December 31, 1983.” That’s an outstanding return.

In The performance of Japanese common stocks in relation to their net current asset values, a 1993 paper by Bildersee, Cheh and Zutshi, the authors undertook research similar to Oppenheimer’s in Japan over the period 1975 and 1988. Their findings, described in another paper, indicate that the Japanese net net investor’s experience has not been as outstanding as the US investor’s:

In the first study outside of the USA, Bildersee, Cheh and Zutshi (1993)’s paper focuses on the Japanese market from 1975 to 1988. In order to maintain a sample large enough for cross-sectional analysis, Graham’s criterion was relaxed so that firms are required to merely have an NCAV/MV ratio greater than zero. They found the mean market-adjusted return of the aggregate portfolio is around 1 percent per month (13 percent per year).

As an astute reader noted last week “…the test period for [the Bildersee] study is not the best. It includes Japan’s best analog to America’s Roaring Twenties. The Nikkei peaked on 12/29/89, and never recovered:”

Many of the “assets” on public companies’ books at that time were real estate bubble-related. At the peak in 1989, the aggregate market price for all private real estate in the city of Tokyo was purportedly greater than that of the entire state of California. You can see how the sudden runup in real estate during the bubble could cause asset-heavy companies to outperform the market.

So a better crucible for Japanese NCAVs might be the deflationary period, say beginning 1/1/90, which is more analogous to the US in 1932.

To see how the strategy has performed more recently, I’ve taken the Japanese net net stocks identified in James Montier’s Graham’’s net-nets: outdated or outstanding? article from September 2008 and tracked their performance from the data of the article to today. Before I plow into the results, I’d like to discuss my methodology and the various problems with it:

  1. It was not possible to track all of the stocks identified by Montier. Where I couldn’t find a closing price for a stock, I’ve excluded it from the results and marked the stock as “N/A”. I’ve had to exclude 18 of 84 stocks, which is a meaningful proportion. It’s possible that these stocks were either taken over or went bust, and so would have had an effect on the results not reflected in my results.
  2. The opening prices were not always available. In some instances I had to use the price on another date close to the opening date (i.e +/1 month).

Without further ado, here are the results of Montier’s Graham’’s net-nets: outdated or outstanding? picks:

The 68 stocks tracked gained on average 0.5% between September 2008 and February 2010, which is a disappointing outcome. The results relative to the  Japanese index are a little better. By way of comparison, the Nikkei 225 (roughly equivalent to the DJIA) fell from 12,834 to close yesterday at 10,057, a drop of 21.6%. Encouragingly, the net nets outperformed the N225 by a little over 21%.

The paucity of the data is a real problem for this study. I’ll update this post as I find more complete data or a more recent study.

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