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Posts Tagged ‘Magic Formula’

In the How to beat The Little Book That Beats The Market (Part 1 2, and 3) series of posts I showed how in Quantitative Value we tested Joel Greenblatt’s Magic Formula (outlined in The Little Book That (Still) Beats the Market) and found that it had consistently outperformed the market, and with lower relative risk than the market.

We sought to improve on it by creating a generic, academic alternative that we called “Quality and Price.” Quality and Price is the academic alternative to the Magic Formula because it draws its inspiration from academic research papers. We found the idea for the quality metric in an academic paper by Robert Novy-Marx called The Other Side of Value: Good Growth and the Gross Profitability Premium. Quality and Price substitutes for the Magic Formula’s ROIC a quality measure called gross profitability to total assets (GPA), defined as follows:

GPA = (Revenue − Cost of Goods Sold) / Total Assets

In Quality and Price, the higher a stock’s GPA, the higher the quality of the stock.

The price ratio, drawn from the early research into value investment by Eugene Fama and Ken French, is book value-to-market capitalization (BM), defined as follows:

BM = Book Value / Market Price

The Quality and Price strategy, like the Magic Formula, seeks to differentiate between stocks by equally weighting the quality and price metrics. Can we improve performance by seeking higher quality stocks in the value decile, rather than equal weighting the two factors?

In his paper The Quality Dimension of Value Investing, Novy-Marx considered this question. Novy-Marx’s rationale:

Value investors can also improve their performance by controlling for quality when investing in value stocks. Traditional value strategies formed on price signals alone tend to be short quality, because cheap firms are on average of lower quality than similar firms trading at higher prices. Because high quality firms on average outperform low quality firms, this quality deficit drags down the returns to traditional value strategies. The performance of value strategies can thus be significantly improved by explicitly controlling for quality when selecting stocks on the basis of price. Value strategies that buy (sell) cheap (expensive) firms from groups matched on the quality dimension significantly outperform value strategies formed solely on the basis of valuations.

His backtest method:

The value strategy that controls for quality is formed by first sorting the 500 largest financial firms each June into 10 groups of 50 on the basis of the quality signal. Within each of these deciles, which contain stocks of similar quality, the 15 with the highest value signals are assigned to the high portfolio, while the 15 with the lowest value signals are assigned to the low portfolio. This procedure ensures that the value and growth portfolios, which each hold 150 stocks, contain stocks of similar average quality.

Novy-Marx finds that the strategy “dramatically outperform[s]” portfolios formed on the basis of quality or value alone, but underperforms the Greenblatt-style joint strategy. From the paper:

The long/short strategy generated excess returns of 45 basis points per month, 50% higher than the 31 basis points per month generated by the unconditional quality strategy, despite running at lower volatility (10.4% as opposed to 12.2%). The long side outperformed the market by 32 basis points per month, 9 basis points per month more than the long-only strategy formed without regard for price. It managed this active return with a market tracking error volatility of only 5.9%, realizing an information ratio of 0.63, much higher than the information ratio of 0.42 realized on the tracking error of the unconditional long-only value strategy.

For comparison, Novy-Marx finds the Greenblatt-style joint 50/50 weighting generates higher returns:

The long/short strategy based on the joint quality and value signal generated excess returns of 61 basis points per month, twice that generated by the quality or value signals alone and a third higher than the market, despite running at a volatility of only 9.7%. The strategy realized a Sharpe ratio 0.75 over the sample, almost two and a half times that on the market over the same period, despite trading exclusively in the largest, most liquid stocks.

The long side outperformed the market by 35 basis points per month, with a tracking error volatility of only 5.7 percent, for a realized information ratio of 0.75. This information ratio is 15% higher than the 0.65 achieved running quality and value side by side. Just as importantly, it allows long-only investors to achieve a greater exposure to the high information ratio opportunities provided by quality and value. While the strategy’s 5.7% tracking error still provides a suboptimally small exposure to value and quality, this exposure is significantly larger than the long-only investor can obtain running quality alongside value.

And a pretty chart from the paper:

Novy-Marx 2.1

We tested the decile approach and the joint approach in Quantitative Value, substituting better performing value metrics and found different results. I’ll cover those next.

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In How to Beat The Little Book That Beats The Market: Redux (and Part 2) I showed how in Quantitative Value we tested Joel Greenblatt’s Magic Formula outlined in The Little Book That (Still) Beats the Market).

We created a generic, academic alternative to the Magic Formula that we call “Quality and Price,” that substituted for EBIT/TEV as its price measure the classic measure in finance literature – book value-to-market capitalization (BM):

BM = Book Value / Market Price

Quality and Price substitutes for ROIC a quality measure called gross profitability to total assets (GPA). GPA is defined as follows:

GPA = (Revenue − Cost of Goods Sold) / Total Assets

Like the Magic Formula, it seeks to identify the best combination of high quality and low price. The difference is that Quality and Price substitutes different measures for the quality and price factors. There are reasonable arguments for adopting the measures used in Quality and Price over those used in the Magic Formula, but it’s not an unambiguously more logical approach than the Magic Formula. Whether one combination of measures is better than any other ultimately depends here on their relative performance. So how does Quality and Price stack up against the Magic Formula?

Here are the results of our study comparing the Magic Formula and Quality and Price strategies for the period from 1964 to 2011. Figure 2.5 from the book shows the cumulative performance of the Magic Formula and the Quality and Price strategies for the period 1964 to 2011.

Magic Formula vs Quality and Price

Quality and Price handily outpaces the Magic Formula, turning $100 invested on January 1, 1964, into $93,135 by December 31, 2011, which represents an average yearly compound rate of return of 15.31 percent. The Magic Formula turned $100 invested on January 1, 1964, into $32,313 by December 31, 2011, which represents a CAGR of 12.79 percent. As we discuss in detail in the book, while much improved, Quality and Price is not a perfect strategy: the better returns are attended by higher volatility and worse drawdowns. Even so, on risk-adjusted basis, Quality and Price is the winner.

Figure 2.7 shows the performance of each decile ranked according to the Magic Formula and Quality and Price for the period 1964 to 2011. Both strategies do a respectable job separating the better performed stocks from the poor performers.

Qp MF Decile

This brief examination of the Magic Formula and its generic academic brother Quality and Price, shows that analyzing stocks along price and quality contours can produce market-beating results. This is not to say that our Quality and Price strategy is the best strategy. Far from it. Even in Quality and Price, the techniques used to identify price and quality are crude. More sophisticated measures exist.

At heart, we are value investors, and there are a multitude of metrics used by value investors to find low prices and high quality. We want to know whether there are other, more predictive price and quality metrics than those used by Magic Formula and Quality and Price.

In Quantitative Value, we conduct an examination into existing industry and academic research into a variety of fundamental value investing methods, and simple quantitative value investment strategies. We then independently backtest each method, and strategy, and combine the best into a new quantitative value investment model.

Order from Quantitative Value from Wiley FinanceAmazon, or Barnes and Noble.

Click here if you’d like to read more on Quantitative Value, or connect with me on LinkedIn.

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Last May in How to beat The Little Book That Beats The Market: An analysis of the Magic Formula I took a look at Joel Greenblatt’s Magic Formula, which he introduced in the 2006 book The Little Book That Beats The Market (now updated to The Little Book That (Still) Beats the Market).

Wes and I put the Magic Formula under the microscope in our book Quantitative Value. We are huge fans of Greenblatt and the Magic Formula, writing in the book that Greenblatt is Benjamin Graham’s “heir in the application of systematic methods to value investment”.

The Magic Formula follows the same broad principles as the simple Graham model that I discussed a few weeks back in Examining Benjamin Graham’s Record: Skill Or Luck?. The Magic Formula diverges from Graham’s strategy by exchanging for Graham’s absolute price and quality measures (i.e. price-to-earnings ratio below 10, and debt-to-equity ratio below 50 percent) a ranking system that seeks those stocks with the best combination of price and quality more akin to Buffett’s value investing philosophy.

The Magic Formula was born of an experiment Greenblatt conducted in 2002. He wanted to know if Warren Buffett’s investment strategy could be quantified. Greenblatt read Buffett’s public pronouncements, most of which are contained in his investment vehicle Berkshire Hathaway, Inc.’s Chairman’s Letters. Buffett has written to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway every year since 1978, after he first took control of the company, laying out his investment strategy in some detail. Those letters describe the rationale for Buffett’s dictum, “It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.” Greenblatt understood that Buffett’s “wonderful-company-at-a-fair-price” strategy required Buffett’s delicate qualitative judgment. Still, he wondered what would happen if he mechanically bought shares in good businesses available at bargain prices. Greenblatt discovered the answer after he tested the strategy: mechanical Buffett made a lot of money.

Wes and I tested the strategy and outlined the results in Quantitative Value. We found that Greenblatt’s Magic Formula has consistently outperformed the market, and with lower relative risk than the market. Naturally, having found something not broke, we set out to fix it, and wondered if we could improve on the Magic Formula’s outstanding performance. Are there other simple, logical strategies that can do better? Tune in soon for Part 2.

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The only fair fight in finance: Joel Greenblatt versus himself. In this instance, it’s the 250 best special situations investors in the US on Joel’s special situations site valueinvestorsclub.com versus his Magic Formula.

Wes Gray and crew at Empiritrage have pumped out some great papers over the last few years, and their Man vs. Machine: Quantitative Value or Fundamental Value? is no exception. Wes et al have set up an experiment comparing the performance of the stocks selected by the investors on the VIC – arguably the best 250 special situation investors in the US – and the top decile of stocks selected by the Magic Formula over the period March 1, 2000 through to the end of last year. The stocks had to have a minimum market capitalization of $500 million, were equally weighted and held for 12 months after selection.

The good news for the stocks pickers is that the VIC members handed the Magic Formula its head:

There’s slightly less advantage to the VIC members on a risk/reward basis, but man still comes out ahead:

Gray et al note that the Man-versus-Magic Formula question is a trade-off.

  • Man brings more return, but more risk; Machine has lower return, but less risk.
  • The risk/reward tradeoff is favorable for Man, in other words, the Sharpe ratio is higher for Man relative to Machine.
  • Value strategies dominate regardless of who implements the strategy.

Read the rest of the paper here.

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Joel Greenblatt’s rationale for a value-weighted index can be paraphrased as follows:

  • Most investors, pro’s included, can’t beat the index. Therefore, buying an index fund is better than messing it up yourself or getting an active manager to mess it up for you.
  • If you’re going to buy an index, you might as well buy the best one. An index based on the market capitalization-weighted S&P500 will be handily beaten by an equal-weighted index, which will be handily beaten by a fundamentally weighted index, which is in turn handily beaten by a “value-weighted index,” which is what Greenblatt calls his “Magic Formula-weighted index.”

Yesterday we examined the first point. Today let’s examine the second.

Market Capitalization Weight < Equal Weight < Fundamental Weight < “Value Weight” (Greenblatt’s Magic Formula Weight)

I think this chart is compelling:

It shows the CAGRs for a variety of indices over the 20 years to December 31, 2010. The first thing to note is that the equal weight index – represented by the &P500 Equal Weight TR – has a huge advantage over the market capitalization weighted S&P500 TR. Greenblatt says:

Over time, traditional market-cap weighted indexes such as the S&P 500 and the Russell 1000 have been shown to outperform most active managers. However, market cap weighted indexes suffer from a systematic flaw. The problem is that market-cap weighted indexes increase the amount they own of a particular company as that company’s stock price increases. As a company’s stock falls, its market capitalization falls and a market cap-weighted index will automatically own less of that company. However, over the short term, stock prices can often be affected by emotion. A market index that bases its investment weights solely on market capitalization (and therefore market price) will systematically invest too much in stocks when they are overpriced and too little in stocks when they are priced at bargain levels. (In the internet bubble, for example, as internet stocks went up in price, market cap-weighted indexes became too heavily concentrated in this overpriced sector and too underweighted in the stocks of established companies in less exciting industries.) This systematic flaw appears to cost market-cap weighted indexes approximately 2% per year in return over long periods.

The equal weight index corrects this systematic flaw to a degree (the small correction is still worth 2.7 percent per year in additional performance). Greenblatt describes it as randomizing the errors made by the market capitalization weighted index:

One way to avoid the problem of buying too much of overpriced stocks and too little of bargain stocks in a market-cap weighted index is to create an index that weights each stock in the index equally. An equally-weighted index will still own too much of overpriced stocks and too little of bargain-priced stocks, but in other cases, it will own more of bargain stocks and less of overpriced stocks. Since stocks in the index aren’t affected by price, errors will be random and average out over time. For this reason, equally weighted indexes should add back the approximately 2% per year lost to the inefficiencies of market-cap weighting.

While the errors are randomized in the equal weight index, they are still systematic – it still owns too much of the expensive stocks and too little of the cheap ones. Fundamental weighting corrects this error (again to a small degree). Fundamentally-weighted indexes weight companies based on their economic size using price ratios such as sales, book value, cash flow and dividends. The surprising thing is that this change is worth only 0.4 percent per year over equal weighting (still 3.1 percent per year over market capitalization weighting).

Similar to equally-weighted indexes, company weights are not affected by market price and therefore pricing errors are also random. By correcting for the systematic errors caused by weighting solely by market-cap, as tested over the last 40+ years, fundamentally-weighted indexes can also add back the approximately 2% lost each year due to the inefficiencies of market-cap weighting (with the last 20 years adding back even more!).

The Magic Formula / “value” weighted index has a huge advantage over fundamental weighting (+3.9 percent per year), and is a massive improvement over the market capitalization index (+7 percent per year). Greenblatt describes it as follows:

On the other hand, value-weighted indexes seek not only to avoid the losses due to the inefficiencies of market-cap weighting, but to add performance by buying more of stocks when they are available at bargain prices. Value-weighted indexes are continually rebalanced to weight most heavily those stocks that are priced at the largest discount to various measures of value. Over time, these indexes can significantly outperform active managers, market cap-weighted indexes, equally-weighted indexes, and fundamentally-weighted indexes.

I like Greenblatt’s approach. I’ve got two small criticisms:

1. I’m not sure that his Magic Formula weighting is genuine “value” weighting. Contrast Greenblatt’s approach with Dylan Grice’s “Intrinsic Value to Price” or “IVP” approach, which is a modified residual income approach, the details of which I’ll discuss in a later post. Grice’s IVP is a true intrinsic value calculation. He explains his approach in a way reminiscent of Buffett’s approach:

[How] is intrinsic value estimated? To answer, think first about how much you should pay for a going concern. The simplest such example would be that of a bank account containing $100, earning 5% per year interest. This asset is highly liquid. It also provides a stable income. And if I reinvest that income forever, it provides stable growth too. What’s it worth?

Let’s assume my desired return is 5%. The bank account is worth only its book value of $100 (the annual interest payment of $5 divided by my desired return of 5%). It may be liquid, stable and even growing, but since it’s not generating any value over and above my required return, it deserves no premium to book value.

This focus on an asset’s earnings power and, in particular, the ability of assets to earn returns in excess of desired returns is the essence of my intrinsic valuation, which is based on Steven Penman’s residual income model.1 The basic idea is that if a company is not earning a return in excess of our desired return, that company, like the bank account example above, deserves no premium to book value.

And it seems to work:

Grice actually calculates IVP while Greenblatt does not. Does that actually matter? Probably not. Even if it’s not what I think the average person understands real “value” weighting to be, Greenblatt’s approach seems to work. Why quibble over semantics?

2. As I’ve discussed before, Greenblatt’s Magic Formula return owes a great deal to his selection of EBIT/TEV as the price limb of his model. EBIT/TEV has been very well performed historically. If we were to substitute EBIT/TEV for the P/B, P/E, price-to-dividends, P/S, P/whatever, we’d have seen slightly better performance than the Magic Formula provided, but you might have been out of the game somewhere between 1997 to 2001.

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Investors struggle to implement the Magic Formula strategy for behavioral reasons. They take a market beating model and proceed to underperform.

Greenblatt found that a compilation of all the “professionally managed” accounts earned 84.1 percent over two years against the S&P 500 (up 62.7 percent). A compilation of “self-managed” accounts over the same period showed a cumulative return of 59.4 percent, losing to the market by 20 percent, and to the machines by almost 25 percent. 

Joel Greenblatt has a series of recommendations that he describes as “a helpful list of things NOT to do!“:

1.  Self-managed investors avoided buying many of the biggest winners.

Wow? Well, the market prices certain businesses cheaply for reasons that are usually very well known. Whether you read the newspaper or follow the news in some other way, you’ll usually know what’s “wrong” with most stocks that appear at the top of the magic formula list. That’s part of the reason they’re available cheap in the first place! Most likely, the near future for a company might not look quite as bright as the recent past or there’s a great deal of uncertainty about the company for one reason or another. Buying stocks that appear cheap relative to trailing measures of cash flow or other measures (even if they’re still “good” businesses that earn high returns on capital), usually means you’re buying companies that are out of favor. These types of companies are systematically avoided by both individuals and institutional investors. Most people and especially professional managers want to make money now. A company that may face short term issues isn’t where most investors look for near term profits. Many self-managed investors just eliminate companies from the list that they just know from reading the newspaper face a near term problem or some uncertainty. But many of these companies turn out to be the biggest future winners.

2.  Many self-managed investors changed their game plan after the strategy underperformed for a period of time.

Many self-managed investors got discouraged after the magic formula strategy underperformed the market for a period of time and simply sold stocks without replacing them, held more cash, and/or stopped updating the strategy on a periodic basis. It’s hard to stick with a strategy that’s not working for a little while. The best performing mutual fund for the decade of the 2000’s actually earned over 18% per year over a decade where the popular market averages were essentially flat. However, because of the capital movements of investors who bailed out during periods after the fund had underperformed for awhile, the average investor (weighted by dollars invested) actually turned that 18% annual gain into an 11% LOSS per year during the same 10 year period.[2]

3.  Many self-managed investors changed their game plan after the market and their self-managed portfolio declined (regardless of whether the self-managed strategy was outperforming or underperforming a declining market).

This is a similar story to #2 above. Investors don’t like to lose money. Beating the market by losing less than the market isn’t that comforting. Many self-managed investors sold stocks without replacing them, held more cash, and/or stopped updating the strategy on a periodic basis after the markets and their portfolio declined for a period of time. It didn’t matter whether the strategy was outperforming or underperforming over this same period. Investors in that best performing mutual fund of the decade that I mentioned above likely withdrew money after the fund declined regardless of whether it was outperforming a declining market during that same period.

4.  Many self-managed investors bought more AFTER good periods of performance.

You get the idea. Most investors sell right AFTER bad performance and buy right AFTER good performance. This is a great way to lower long term investment returns.

 

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Yesterday I looked at James Montier’s 2006 paper The Little Note That Beats The Market and his view that investors would struggle to implement the Magic Formula strategy for behavioral reasons.

The Magic Formula is a logical value strategy, it works in backtest, and, most importantly, it seems to work in practice, as this chart from Formula Investing attests:

As Montier predicted, Joel Greenblatt has found that investors do in fact struggle to implement in the Magic Formula strategy in practice. In a great piece published earlier this year, Adding Your Two Cents May Cost You A Lot Over The Long-Term, Greenblatt examined the first two years of returns to Formula Investing’s US separately managed accounts:

Formula Investing provides two choices for retail clients to invest in U.S. stocks, either through what we call a “self-managed” account or through a “professionally managed” account. A self-managed account allows clients to make a number of their own choices about which top ranked stocks to buy or sell and when to make these trades. Professionally managed accounts follow a systematic process that buys and sells top ranked stocks with trades scheduled at predetermined intervals. During the two year period under study[1], both account types chose from the same list of top ranked stocks based on the formulas described in The Little Book that Beats the Market.

Greenblatt has conducted a great real-time behavioral investing experiment. Self-managed accounts have discretion over buy and sell decisions, while professionally managed accounts are automated. Both choose from the same list of stocks. So what happened?

[The] self-managed accounts, where clients could choose their own stocks from the pre-approved list and then follow (or not) our guidelines for trading the stocks at fixed intervals didn’t do too badly. A compilation of all self-managed accounts for the two year period showed a cumulative return of 59.4% after all expenses. Pretty darn good, right? Unfortunately, the S&P 500 during the same period was actually up 62.7%.

“Hmmm….that’s interesting”, you say (or I’ll say it for you, it works either way), “so how did the ‘professionally managed’ accounts do during the same period?” Well, a compilation of all the “professionally managed” accounts earned 84.1% after all expenses over the same two years, beating the “self managed” by almost 25% (and the S&P by well over 20%). For just a two year period, that’s a huge difference! It’s especially huge since both “self-managed” and “professionally managed” chose investments from the same list of stocks and supposedly followed the same basic game plan.

Let’s put it another way: on average the people who “self-managed” their accounts took a winning system and used their judgment to unintentionally eliminate all the outperformance and then some!

Just as Montier (and Greenblatt) predicted, investors struggle to implement the Magic Formula. Discretion over buy-and-sell decisions in aggregate can turn a model that generates a market beating return into a sub-par return. Extraordinary!

Greenblatt has to be admired for sharing this research with the world. Value investing is as misunderstood in the investment community at large as quantitative value investing is misunderstood in the value investing community. It takes a great deal of courage to point out the flaws (such as they are) in the implementation of a strategy, particularly when they are not known to those outside his firm. Given that Greenblatt has a great deal of money riding on the Magic Formula, he should be commended for conducting and sharing a superb bit of research.

I love his conclusion:

[The] best performing “self-managed” account didn’t actually do anything. What I mean is that after the initial account was opened, the client bought stocks from the list and never touched them again for the entire two year period. That strategy of doing NOTHING outperformed all other “self-managed” accounts. I don’t know if that’s good news, but I like the message it appears to send—simply, when it comes to long-term investing, doing “less” is often “more”. Well, good work if you can get it, anyway.

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In his 2006 paper, “The Little Note That Beats the Markets” James Montier backtested the Magic Formula and found that it supported the claim in the “Little Book That Beats The Market” that the Magic Formula does in fact beat the market:

The results certainly support the notions put forward in the Little Book. In all the regions, the Little Book strategy substantially outperformed the market, and with lower risk! The range of outperformance went from just over 3.5% in the US to an astounding 10% in Japan.

The results of our backtest suggest that Greenblatt’s strategy isn’t unique to the US. We tested the Little Book strategy on US, European, UK and Japanese markets between 1993 and 2005. The results are impressive. The Little Book strategy beat the market (an equally weighted stock index) by 3.6%, 8.8%, 7.3% and 10.8% in the various regions respectively. And in all cases with lower volatility than the market! The outperformance was even better against the cap weighted indices.

Regardless, Montier felt that investors would struggle to implement the strategy for behavioral reasons:

Greenblatt suggests two reasons why investors will struggle to follow the Little Book strategy. Both ring true with us from our meeting with investors over the years. The first is “investing by using a magic formula may take away some of the fun”. Following a quant model or even a set of rules takes a lot of the excitement out of stock investing. What would you do all day if you didn’t have to meet companies or sit down with the sell side?

As Keynes noted “The game of professional investment is intolerably boring and over- exacting to anyone who is entirely exempt from the gambling instinct; whilst he who has it must pay to this propensity the appropriate toll”.

Secondly, the Little Book strategy, and all value strategies for that matter, requires patience. And patience is in very short supply amongst investors in today’s markets. I’ve even come across fund managers whose performance is monitored on a daily basis – congratulations are to be extended to their management for their complete mastery of measuring noise! Everyone seems to want the holy grail of profits without any pain. Dream on. It doesn’t exist.

Value strategies work over the long run, but not necessarily in the short term. There can be prolonged periods of underperformance. It is these periods of underperformance that ensure that not everyone becomes a value investor (coupled with a hubristic belief in their own abilities to pick stocks).

As Greenblatt notes “Imagine diligently watching those stocks each day as they do worse than the market averages over the course of many months or even years… The magic formula portfolio fared poorly relative to the market average in 5 out of every 12 months tested. For full-year periods… failed to beat the market averages once every four years”.

The chart below shows the proportion of years within Montier’s sample where the Magic Formula failed to beat the market  in each of the respective regions.

Europe and the UK show surprisingly few years of historic market underperformance. Montier says investors should “bear in mind the lessons from the US and Japan, where underperformance has been seen on a considerably more frequent basis:”

It is this periodic underperformance that really helps ensure the survival of such strategies. As long as investors continue to be overconfident in their abilities to consistently pick winners, and myopic enough that even a year of underperformance is enough to send them running, then strategies such as the Little Book are likely to continue to do well over the long run. Thankfully for those of us with faith in such models, the traits just described seem to be immutable characteristics of most people. As Warren Buffet said “Investing is simple but not easy”.

Montier has long promoted the theme that the reason value investors underperform value models is due to behavioral errors and cognitive biases. For example, in his excellent  2006 research report Painting By Numbers: An Ode To Quant Montier attributes most of the underperformance to overconfidence:

We all think that we know better than simple models. The key to the quant model’s performance is that it has a known error rate while our error rates are unknown.

The most common response to these findings is to argue that surely a fund manager should be able to use quant as an input, with the flexibility to override the model when required. However, as mentioned above, the evidence suggests that quant models tend to act as a ceiling rather than a floor for our behaviour. Additionally there is plenty of evidence to suggest that we tend to overweight our own opinions and experiences against statistical evidence.

Greenblatt has conducted a study on exactly this point. More tomorrow.

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Since Joel Greenblatt’s introduction of the Magic Formula in the 2006 book “The Little Book That Beats The Market,” researchers have conducted a number of studies on the strategy and found it to be a market beater, both domestically and abroad.

Greenblatt claims returns in the order of 30.8 percent per year against a market average of 12.3 percent, and S&P500 return of 12.4 percent per year:

In Does Joel Greenblatt’s Magic Formula Investing Have Any Alpha? Meena Krishnamsetty finds that the Magic Formula generates annual alpha 4.5 percent:

It doesn’t beat the index funds by 18% per year and generate Warren Buffett like returns, but the excess return is still more than 5% per year. This is better than Eugene Fama’s DFA Small Cap Value Fund. It is also better than Lakonishok’s LSV Value Equity Fund.

Wes Gray’s Empirical Finance Blog struggles to repeat the study:

[We] can’t replicate the results under a variety of methods.

We’ve hacked and slashed the data, dealt with survivor bias, point-in-time bias, erroneous data, and all the other standard techniques used in academic empirical asset pricing analysis–still no dice.

In the preliminary results presented below, we analyze a stock universe consisting of large-caps (defined as being larger than 80 percentile on the NYSE in a given year). We test a portfolio that is annually rebalanced on June 30th, equal-weight invested across 30 stocks on July 1st, and held until June 30th of the following year.

Wes finds “serious outperformance” but “nowhere near the 31% CAGR outlined in the book.

Wes thinks that the outperformance of the Magic Formula is due to small cap stocks, which he tests in a second post “Magic Formula and Small Caps–The Missing Link?

Here are Wes’s results:

[While] the MF returns are definitely higher when you allow for smaller stocks, the results still do not earn anywhere near 31% CAGR.

Some closer observations of our results versus the results from the book:

For major “up” years, it seems that our backtest of the magic formula are very similar (especially from a statistical standpoint where the portfolios only have 30 names): 1991, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, and 2003.

The BIG difference is during down years: 1990, 1994, 2000, and 2002. For some reason, our backtest shows results which are roughly in line with the R2K (Russell 2000), but the MF results from the book present compelling upside returns during market downturns–so somehow the book results have negative beta during market blowouts? Weird to say the least…

James Montier, in a 2006 paper, “The Little Note That Beats the Markets” says that it works globally:

The results of our backtest suggest that Greenblatt’s strategy isn’t unique to the US. We tested the Little Book strategy on US, European, UK and Japanese markets between 1993 and 2005. The results are impressive. The Little Book strategy beat the market (an equally weighted stock index) by 3.6%, 8.8%, 7.3% and 10.8% in the various regions respectively. And in all cases with lower volatility than the market! The outperformance was even better against the cap weighted indices.

So the Magic Formula generates alpha, and beats the market globally, but not by as much as Greenblatt found originally, and much of the outperformance may be due to small cap stocks.

The Magic Formula and EBIT/TEV

Last week I took a look at the Loughran Wellman and Gray Vogel papers that found the enterprise multiple,  EBITDA/enterprise value, to be the best performing price ratio. A footnote in the Gray and Vogel paper says that they conducted the same research substituting EBIT for EBITDA and found “nearly identical results,” which is perhaps a little surprising but not inconceivable because they are so similar.

EBIT/TEV is one of two components in the Magic Formula (the other being ROC). I have long believed that the quality metric (ROC) adds little to the performance of the value metric (EBIT/EV), and that much of the success of the Magic Formula is due to its use of the enterprise multiple. James Montier seems to agree. In 2006, Montier backtested the strategy and its components in the US, Europe ex UK, UK and Japan:

The universe utilised was a combination of the FTSE and MSCI indices. This gave us the largest sample of data. We analysed the data from 1993 until the end of 2005. All returns and prices were measured in dollars. Utilities and Financials were both excluded from the test, for reasons that will become obvious very shortly. We only rebalance yearly.

Here are the results of Montier’s backtest of the Magic Formula:

And here’re the results for EBIT/TEV over the same period:

Huh? EBIT/TEV alone outperforms the Magic Formula everywhere but Japan?

Montier says that return on capital seems to bring little to the party in the UK and the USA:

In all the regions except Japan, the returns are higher from simply using a pure [EBIT/TEV] filter than they are from using the Little Book strategy. In the US and the UK, the gains from a pure [EBIT/TEV] strategy are very sizeable. In Europe, a pure [EBIT/TEV] strategy doesn’t alter the results from the Little Book strategy very much, but it is more volatile than the Little Book strategy. In Japan, the returns are lower than the Little Book strategy, but so is the relative volatility.

Montier suggests that one reason for favoring the Magic Formula over “pure” EBIT/TEV is career defence. The backtest covers an unusual period in the markets when expensive stocks outperformed for an extended period of time.

The charts below suggest a reason why one might want to have some form of quality input into the basic value screen. The first chart shows the top and bottom ranked deciles by EBIT/EV for the US (although other countries tell a similar story). It clearly shows the impact of the bubble. For a number of years, during the bubble, stocks that were simply cheap were shunned as we all know.


However, the chart below shows the top and bottom deciles using the combined Little Book strategy again for the US. The bubble is again visible, but the ROC component of the screen prevented the massive underperformance that was seen with the pure value strategy. Of course, the resulting returns are lower, but a fund manager following this strategy is unlikely to have lost his job.

In the second chart, note that it took eight years for the value decile to catch up to the glamour decile. They were tough times for value investors.

Conclusion

The Magic Formula beats the market, and generates real alpha. It might not beat the market by as much as Greenblatt found originally, and much of the outperformance is due to small cap stocks, but it’s a useful strategy. Better performance may be found in the use of pure EBIT/EV, but investors employing such a strategy could have very long periods of lean years.

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The excellent Empirical Finance Blog has a superb series of posts on an investment strategy called “Profit and Value” (How “Magic” is the Magic Formula? and The Other Side of Value), which Wes describes as the “academic version” of Joel Greenblatt’s “Magic Formula.” (Incidentally, Greenblatt is speaking at the New York Value Investors Congress in October this year. I think seeing Greenblatt alone is worth the price of admission.) The Profit and Value approach is similar to the Magic Formula in that it ranks stocks independently on “value” and “quality,” and then reranks on the combined rankings. The stock with the lowest combined ranking is the most attractive, the stock with the next lowest combined ranking the next most attractive, and so on.

The Profit and Value strategy differs from the Magic Formula strategy in its methods of determining value and quality. Profit and Value uses straight book-to-market to determine value, where the Magic Formula uses EBIT / TEV. And where the Magic Formula uses EBIT / (NPPE +net working capital) to determine quality, Profit and Value uses “Gross Profitability,” a metric described in a fascinating paper by Robert Novy-Marx called “The other side of value” (more on this later).

My prima facie attraction to the Profit and Value strategy was twofold: First, Profit and Value uses book-to-market as the measure of value. I have a long-standing bias for asset-based metrics over income-based ones, and for good reasons. (After examining the performance analysis of Profit and Value, however, I’ve made a permanent switch to another metric that I’ll discuss in more detail later.) Secondly, the back-tested returns to the strategy appear to be considerably higher than those for the Magic Formula. Here’s a chart from Empirical Finance comparing the back-tested returns to each strategy with a yearly rebalancing (click to enlarge):

Profit and Value is the clear slight winner. This is the obvious reason for preferring one strategy over another. It is not, however, the end of the story. There are some problems with the performance of Profit and Value, which I discuss in some detail later. Over the next few weeks I’ll post my full thoughts in a series of posts on the following headings, but, for now, here are the summaries. I welcome any feedback.

Determining “quality” using “gross profitability”

In a 2010 paper called “The other side of value: Good growth and the gross profitability premium,” author Robert Novy-Marks discusses his preference for “gross profitability” over other measures of performance like earnings, or free cash flow. The actual “Gross Profitability” factor Novy-Marx uses is as follows:

Gross Profitability = (Revenues – Cost of Goods Sold) / Total Assets

Novy-Marx’s rationale for preferring gross profitability is compelling. First, it makes sense:

Gross profits is the cleanest accounting measure of true economic profitability. The farther down the income statement one goes, the more polluted profitability measures become, and the less related they are to true economic profitability. For example, a firm that has both lower production costs and higher sales than its competitors is unambiguously more profitable. Even so, it can easily have lower earnings than its competitors. If the firm is quickly increasing its sales though aggressive advertising, or commissions to its sales force, these actions can, even if optimal, reduce its bottom line income below that of its less profitable competitors. Similarly, if the firm spends on research and development to further increase its production advantage, or invests in organizational capital that will help it maintain its competitive advantage, these actions result in lower current earnings. Moreover, capital expenditures that directly increase the scale of the firm’s operations further reduce its free cashflows relative to its competitors. These facts suggest constructing the empirical proxy for productivity using gross profits. Scaling by a book-based measure, instead of a market based measure, avoids hopelessly conflating the productivity proxy with book-to-market. I scale gross profits by book assets, not book equity, because gross profits are not reduced by interest payments and are thus independent of leverage.

Second, it works:

In a horse race between these three measures of productivity, gross profits-to-assets is the clear winner. Gross profits-to-assets has roughly the same power predicting the cross section of expected returns as book-to-market. It completely subsumes the earnings based measure, and has significantly more power than the measure based on free cash flows. Moreover, demeaning this variable dramatically increases its power. Gross profits-to-assets also predicts long run growth in earnings and free crashflow, which may help explain why it is useful in forecasting returns.

I think it’s interesting that gross profits-to-assets is as predictive as book-to-market. I can’t recall any other fundamental performance measure that is predictive at all, let alone as predictive as book-to-market (EBIT / (NPPE +net working capital) is not. Neither are gross margins, ROE, ROA, or five-year earnings gains). There are, however, some obvious problems with gross profitability as a stand alone metric. More later.

White knuckles: Profit and Value performance analysis

While Novy-Marx’s “Gross Profitability” factor seems to be predictive, in combination with the book-to-market value factor the results are very volatile. To the extent that an individual investor can ignore this volatility, the strategy will work very well. As an institutional strategy, however, Profit and Value is a widow-maker. The peak-to-trough drawdown on Profit and Value through the 2007-2009 credit crisis puts any professional money manager following the strategy out of business. Second, the strategy selects highly leveraged stocks, and one needs a bigger set of mangoes than I possess to blindly buy them. The second problem – the preference for highly leveraged stocks – contributes directly to the first problem – big drawdowns in a downturn because investors tend to vomit up highly leveraged stocks as the market falls. Also concerning is the likely performance of Profit and Value in an environment of rising interest rates. Given the negative rates that presently prevail, such an environment seems likely to manifest in the future. I look specifically at the performance of Profit and Value in an environment of rising interest rates.

A better metric than book-to-market

The performance issues with Profit and Value discussed above – the volatility and the preference for highly leveraged balance sheets – are problems with the book-to-market criterion. As Greenblatt points out in his “You can be a stockmarket genius” book, it is partially the leverage embedded in low book-to-market that contributes to the outperformance over the long term. In the short term, however, the leverage can be a problem. There are other problems with cheap book value. As I discussed in The Small Cap Paradox: A problem with LSV’s Contrarian Investment, Extrapolation, and Risk in practice, the low price-to-book decile is very small. James P. O’Shaughnessy discusses this issue in What works on Wall Street:

The glaring problem with this method, when used with the Compustat database, is that it’s virtually impossible to buy the stocks that account for the performance advantage of small capitalization strategies. Table 4-9 illustrates the problem. On December 31, 2003, approximately 8,178 stocks in the active Compustat database had both year-end prices and a number for common shares outstanding. If we sorted the database by decile, each decile would be made up of 818 stocks. As Table 4-9 shows, market capitalization doesn’t get past $150 million until you get to decile 6. The top market capitalization in the fourth decile is $61 million, a number far too small to allow widespread buying of those stocks.

A market capitalization of $2 million – the cheapest and best-performed decile – is uninvestable. This leads O’Shaughnessy to make the point that “micro-cap stock returns are an illusion”:

The only way to achieve these stellar returns is to invest only a few million dollars in over 2,000 stocks. Precious few investors can do that. The stocks are far too small for a mutual fund to buy and far too numerous for an individual to tackle. So there they sit, tantalizingly out of reach of nearly everyone. What’s more, even if you could spread $2,000,000 over 2,000 names, the bid–ask spread would eat you alive.

Even a small investor will struggle to buy enough stock in the 3rd or 4th deciles, which encompass stocks with market capitalizations below $26 million and $61 million respectively. These are not, therefore, institutional-grade strategies. Says O’Shaughnessy:

This presents an interesting paradox: Small-cap mutual funds justify their investments using academic research that shows small stocks outperforming large ones, yet the funds themselves cannot buy the stocks that provide the lion’s share of performance because of a lack of trading liquidity.

A review of the Morningstar Mutual Fund database proves this. On December 31, 2003, the median market capitalization of the 1,215 mutual funds in Morningstar’s all equity, small-cap category was $967 million. That’s right between decile 7 and 8 from the Compustat universe—hardly small.

I spent some time researching alternatives to book-to-market. As much as it pained me to do so, I’ve now abandoned book-to-market as my primary valuation metric. In fact I no longer use it all. I discuss these metrics, and their advantages over book in a later post.

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