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Posts Tagged ‘NCAV’

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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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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Following on from last week’s Japanese liquidation value: 1932 US redux post, I’ve been trying to determine whether the historical performance of Japanese sub-liquidation value stocks matches the experience in the US. The question arises because of the perception (rightly or not) that the weakness of shareholder rights in Japan means that net current asset value stocks there are destined to trade at a discount to net current asset value. I’m always a little chary of the “Japan has weak shareholder rights” narrative (or any narrative, for that matter). I’d rather look at the data. In this instance, unfortunately, the data are wanting.

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 analyzed the performance of Japanese net nets between 1975 and 1988. Here are their findings described in another paper:

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).

Not a great return, but obviously a difficult period through 1987 and not an exact facsimile of Graham’s strategy. An astute reader notes that “…the test period for that 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.

It would be interesting to see an update of the performance, but, as far as I am aware, none exists. To that end, I’ve undertaken a little research project of my own. I’ll publish the results tomorrow.

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Daniel Rudewicz, the managing member of Furlong Samex LLC, has provided a guest post today on Paragon Technologies (PGNT.PK). Furlong Samex is a deep value investment partnership based on the principles of Benjamin Graham. Daniel can be reached at rudewicz [at] furlongsamex [dot] com.

Anyone Need a (Sanborn) Map?

In his 1960 partnership letter, Warren Buffett described his investment in Sanborn Map. At the time of his investment, Sanborn Map was selling for less than the combined value of its cash and investment portfolio. Additionally, the operating portion of the company was profitable. Opportunities like Sanborn Map are a dream for value investors.

The market downturn of 2008 had created some similar opportunities. But by early 2010 the market price of most of those companies had converged to at least the value of their cash and investment portfolio. One company that has managed to stay under the radar is Paragon Technologies. It was trading below its cash level when the company elected to be listed on the Pink Sheets. This also removed the requirement to file with the SEC and now the company is no longer on many of the databases and stock screens.

It’s a fairly illiquid company whose most recent quarter was profitable. As of 9/30/2009, Paragon had just over $6 million in cash, or $3.88 per share.

Cash and cash equivalents $6,094,000
Shares outstanding 1,571,810
Cash per share $3.88

Year to date, its stock has traded between $2.20 and $2.55, quite a discount from its cash. The Board and the interim CEO are looking at strategic alternatives and will consider shareholder proposals. Unfortunately, what we had hoped was a 1960 Buffettesque proposal was turned down. In the proposal we outlined the benefits of the company offering a fixed price tender at $3.88 per share. Maybe next time. To the Board’s credit, they have authorized a large share buyback and have increased the amount authorized several times. The problem is that authorizing an amount and buying back an amount is not the same thing.

While the interim CEO searches for opportunities, the company could conceivably end up buying back enough shares in the open market so that we’re the only shareholder left. The downside is that I’m not sure that we would want that. Even though it was profitable last quarter, the long term earnings record is not that impressive. Looking back at Buffett’s Sanborn Map investment, it seems like Sanborn’s Board should have encouraged Buffett to stay on and manage its investment portfolio. Our hope is that Paragon moves in the direction of becoming a tiny Berkshire or Fairfax by putting a great capital allocator in charge of the cash. It would be a great way to use some of the company’s operating losses to shield future investment gains. So if you’re the next Buffett — or even ‘Net Quick’ Evans — send them your resume. Maybe they’ll hire you (I doubt it).

Our firm’s portfolio is relatively small and we have purchased as much of Paragon as we would like to at this time. If you would like a copy of our letter to the Board or any of our research, feel free to contact us and we’d be happy to share it with you. There are risks involved with this company so do your own research before investing.

Disclosure: Long Paragon Technologies (PGNT.PK). This is neither a recommendation to buy or sell any securities. All information provided believed to be reliable and presented for information purposes only. Do your own research before investing in any security.

[Full Disclosure: I do not hold PGNT. This is neither a recommendation to buy or sell any securities. All information provided believed to be reliable and presented for information purposes only. Do your own research before investing in any security.]

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Continuing the quantitative value investment theme I’ve been trying to develop over the last week or so, I present my definition of a simple quantitative value strategy: net nets. James Montier, author of the essay Painting By Numbers: An Ode To Quant, which I use as the justification for simple quantitative investing, authored an article in September 2008 specifically dealing with net nets as a global investment strategy: Graham’’s net-nets: outdated or outstanding? (Edit: It seems this link no longer works as SG obliterates any article ever written by Montier). Quelle surprise, Montier found that buying net-nets is a viable and profitable strategy:

Testing such a deep value approach reveals that it would have been a highly profitable strategy. Over the period 1985-2007, buying a global basket of net-nets would have generated a return of over 35% p.a. versus an equally weighted universe return of 17% p.a.

An annual return of 35% over 23 years would put you in elite company indeed, so Montier’s methodology is worthy of closer inspection. Unfortunately he doesn’t discuss his methodology in any detail, other than to say as follows:

I decided to test the performance of buying net-nets on a global basis. I used a sample of developed markets over the period 1985 onwards, all returns were in dollar terms.

It may have been a strategy similar to the annual rebalancing methodology discussed in Oppenheimer’s Ben Graham’s Net Current Asset Values: A Performance Update. That paper demonstrates a purely mechanical annual rebalancing of stocks meeting Graham’s net current asset value criterion generated a mean return between 1970 and 1983  of “29.4% per year versus 11.5% per year for the NYSE-AMEX Index.” It doesn’t really matter exactly how Montier generated his return. Whether he bought each net net as it became a net net or simply purchased a basket on a regular basis (monthly, quarterly, annually, whatever), it’s sufficient to know that he was testing the holding of a basket of net nets throughout the period 1985 to 2007.

Montier’s findings are as follows:

  • The net-nets portfolio contains a median universe of 65 stocks per year.
  • There is a small cap bias to the portfolio. The median market cap of a net-net is US$21m.
  • At the time of writing (September 2008), Montier found around 175 net-nets globally. Over half were in Japan.
  • If we define total business failure as stocks that drop more than 90% in a year, then the net-nets portfolio sees about 5% of its constituents witnessing such an event. In the broad market only around 2% of stocks suffer such an outcome.
  • The overall portfolio suffered only three down years in our sample, compared to six for the overall market.

Several of Montier’s findings are particularly interesting to me. At an individual company level, a net net is more likely to suffer a permanent loss of capital than the average stock:

If we define a permanent loss of capital as a decline of 90% or more in a single year, then we see 5% of the net-nets selections suffering such a fate, compared with 2% in the broader market.

Here’s the chart:

This is interesting given that NCAV is often used as a proxy for liquidation value.

Very few companies turn out to have an ultimate value less than the working capital alone, although scattered instances may be found.

Montier believes this may provide a clue as to why the net net strategy continues to work:

This relatively poor performance may hint at an explanation as to why investors shy away from net-nets. If investors look at the performance of the individual stocks in their portfolio rather than the portfolio itself (known as ‘narrow-framing’), then they will see big losses more often than if they follow a broad market strategy. We know that people are generally loss averse, so they tend to feel losses far more than gains. This asymmetric response coupled with narrow framing means that investors in the net-nets strategy need to overcome several behavioural biases.

Paradoxically, it seems that what is true at the individual company level is not true at an aggregate level. The net net strategy has fewer down years than the market:

If one were to frame more broadly and look at the portfolio performance overall, the picture is much brighter. The net-net strategy only generated losses in three years in the entire sample we backtested. In contrast, the overall market witnessed some six years of negative returns.

Here’s the chart:

And it seems that the net net strategy is a reasonable contrary indicator. When the market is up, fewer can be found, and when the market is down, they seem to be available in abundance:

The main drawback to the net net strategy is its limited application. Stocks tend to be small and illiquid, which puts a limit on the amount of capital that can be safely run using it. That aside, it seems like a good way to get started in a small fund or with a individual account. Montier concludes:

…In various ways practically all these bargain issues turned out to be profitable and the average annual return proved much more remunerative than most other investments.

Good old Benjamin Graham. What a guy.

Buy my book The Acquirer’s Multiple: How the Billionaire Contrarians of Deep Value Beat the Market from on Kindlepaperback, and Audible.

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.

Click here if you’d like to read more on The Acquirer’s Multiple, or connect with me on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook. Check out the best deep value stocks in the largest 1000 names for free on the deep value stock screener at The Acquirer’s Multiple®.

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Update: I’ve removed SIG from the list.

In Ben Graham’s Net Current Asset Values: A Performance Update Professor Henry Oppenheimer examined the return on stocks selected using Benjamin Graham’s net current asset value strategy over the period 1970 to 1983. Oppenheimer’s conclusion about the returns from such stocks was nothing short of extraordinary:

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. By comparison, $1,000,000 invested in the NYSE-AMEX Index would have increased to $3,729,600 on December 31, 1983. The net current asset portfolio’s exceptional performance over the entire 13 years was not consistent over smaller subsets of time within the 13-year period. For the three-year period, December 31, 1970 through December 31, 1973, which represents 23% of the 13-year study period, the mean annual return from the net current asset portfolio was .6% per year as compared to 4.6% per year for the NYSE-AMEX Index.

Oppenheimer’s methodology was to acquire all stocks meeting Graham’s investment criterion on December 31 of each year, hold those stocks for one year, and replace them on December 31 of the subsequent year. I’m introducing a new portfolio to track the performance of Graham NCAV stocks in real time. I’ll roll it over annually, like Oppenheimer did. Here’s the Greenbackd 2010 Graham NCAV Portfolio (extracted from the Graham Investor screen):

You can track the performance of the Greenbackd 2010 Graham NCAV Portfolio throughout 2010 with Tickerspy.

[Full Disclosure:  No positions. This is neither a recommendation to buy or sell any securities. All information provided believed to be reliable and presented for information purposes only. Do your own research before investing in any security.]

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I’m setting up a new experiment for 2009/2010 along the same lines as the 2008/2009 Net Net vs Activist Legend thought experiment pitting a little Graham net net against activist investing legend Carl Icahn (Net Net vs Activist Legend: And the winner is…). This time around I’m pitting a small portfolio of near Graham net nets against a small portfolio of ultra-low price-to-book value stocks. The reason? Near Graham net nets are stocks trading at a small premium to Graham’s two-thirds NCAV cut-off, but still trading at a discount to NCAV. While they are also obviously trading at a discount to book, they will in many cases trade at a higher price-to-book value ratio than a portfolio of stocks selected on the basis of price-to-book only. I’m interested to see which will perform better in 2010. The two portfolios are set out below (each contains 30 stocks). I’ll track the equal-weighted returns of each through the year.

The Near Graham Net Net Portfolio (extracted from the Graham Investor screen):

The Ultra-low Price-to-book Portfolio:

The Ultra-low Price-to-book Portfolio contains a sickly lot from a net current asset value perspective. Most have a negative net current asset value, as their liabilities exceed their current assets. Where that occurs, the proportion of price to NCAV is meaningless, so I’ve just recorded it as “N/A”. The few stocks that do have a positive net current asset value are generally trading a substantial premium to that value, with the exception of NWD and ZING, which qualify as Graham net nets.

While the Net Net vs Activist Legend thought experiment didn’t amount to (ahem) a formal academic study, there are two studies relevant to the outcome in that experiment: Professor Henry Oppenheimer’s Ben Graham’s Net Current Asset Values: A Performance Update, which found “[the] mean return from net current asset stocks for the 13-year period [from 1970 to 1983] was 29.4% per year versus 11.5% per year for the NYSE-AMEX Index.” Also relevant was Hedge Fund Activism, Corporate Governance, and Firm Performance, by Brav, Jiang, Thomas and Partnoy, in which the authors found that the “market reacts favorably to hedge fund activism, as the abnormal return upon announcement of potential activism is in the range of [7%] seven percent, with no return reversal during the subsequent year.”

This experiment is similar to the Net Net vs Activist Legend thought experiment in that it isn’t statistically significant. There are, however, several studies relevant to divining the outcome. In this instance, Professor Oppenheimer’s study speaks to the return on the Near Graham Net Net Portfolio, as Roger Ibbotson’s Decile Portfolios of the New York Stock Exchange, 1967 – 1984 (1986), Werner F.M. DeBondt and Richard H. Thaler’s Further Evidence on Investor Overreaction and Stock Market Seasonality (1987), Josef Lakonishok, Andrei Shleifer, and Robert Vishny’s Contrarian Investment, Extrapolation and Risk (1994) as updated by The Brandes Institute’s Value vs Glamour: A Global Phenomenon (2008) speak to the return on the Ultra-low Price-to-book Portfolio. One wrinkle in that theory is that the low price-to-book value studies only examine the cheapest quintile and decile, where I have taken the cheapest 30 stocks on the Google Finance screener, which is the cheapest decile of the cheapest decile. I expect these stocks to do better than the low price-to-book studies would suggest. That said, I expect that the Near Graham Net Net Portfolio will outperform the Ultra-low Price-to-book Portfolio by a small margin. Let me know which horse you’re getting on and the reason in the comments.

[Full Disclosure:  I hold RCMT and TSRI. This is neither a recommendation to buy or sell any securities. All information provided believed to be reliable and presented for information purposes only. Do your own research before investing in any security.]

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We have a guest post today on Solitron Devices Inc (OTC:SODI) from Floris Oliemans. Floris is a recent graduate of the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands with a MSc in Finance. He also holds a BSc in Economics. He wrote his masters thesis on the performance of Net Current Asset Value stocks.  He currently works as a financial analyst for a Dutch multinational. He is very interested in applying the value concepts proposed by Graham, Whitman and Buffett, for the portfolio of his family and where ever it may be used professionally. Here his view of Solitron Devices Inc (OTC:SODI):

Solitron Devices is a manufacturer of Semiconductors for military, extraorbital and industrial purposes. It produces analog vs digital semiconductors (I dont quite know the difference, I lack a BA in engineering).

The reason I bought this stock is because it is trading at a 30% discount to NCAV. I believe the assets in place are of high quality. Its current market cap is 4,97 million. After subtracting all liabilities it has (roughly) 3,5 million in net cash. The remainder of the assets is tied up in 1 million of acc. rec (very high acc rev turnover) and 2,71 mio of inventory. The inventory consists mostly of raw materials and of goods already ordered by customers. It does not produce products that the customer has not ordered, therefore inventory can and should be liquidated at near 100% of nominal value. Furthermore it has an inventory reserve of nearly 1,4 mio which might or might not be too conservative.

The company is tiny, but it has been profitable for the last decade. Based on last years earnings the firm is yielding 16%. The reason for this high earnings yield is because it has a large tax loss carryforward worth 8 million. This tax loss carry forward is due to the bankruptcy of the firm in 1993, and lasts until 2023. With net income of 900,000 last year, and a tax rate of 30%, it will not be able to use the tax loss carryforward completely. This is one reason why the tax loss carryforward is only listed in the footnotes and not on the balance sheet. One can be safe to assume that the firm will not be required to pay taxes for the foreseeable future. This is an offbalance sheet asset that can definitely add value to the current shareholder.

I do not expect a massive increase in earnings but there are a couple of factors which could act as a catalyst to the firm:

1. The large tax loss carryforward. By buying this firm, a larger competitor could use this tax loss carryforward to lower incometaxes for the entire firm. This would unlock the value of this hidden asset. A cautionary note: The annual report states that a new majority owner of the firm might not be able to use all of the tax loss carryfowards.

2. A wrapping up of all bankruptcy proceedings. The firm has promised all previous creditors that it will not pay any dividends until all the bankruptcy obligations have been paid. As far as I can deduct, the firm is still obliged to pay 1.1 mio in accrued liabilities. At the current scheduled payment rate the firm will be done paying in 4 years. After this, the built up cash reserve could be used to redistribute to shareholders.

3. An increase in business due to the new ISO certification. The company recently received an ISO certification allowing it to produce semiconducters suitable for space. What the impact on the business will be, I have no clue, but it might be positive.

4. An increase in margins. Recently a large competitor left the market, motorola. A decrease in competition lifts the bargaining power of the firm and could increase margin. It could also increase its market share.

Risks:

1. The backlog has decreased over the last 12 months. This could imply a sharp decrease in demand and lower sales volume/margins. The company has relatively few fixed assets in place, thus the risk of a decrease in NAV is minimal.
2. Fraud. Altough I have no reason to suspect fraud (the firms accounting is pretty simple), the majority shareholders could be misrepresenting the figures.
3. Majority shareholders abusing their voting rights. Majority shareholders could abuse their position to siphon of shareholder value and take Something Off the Top (SOTT). There are some options outstanding but they have not increased significantly.

4. I dont understand the business. I have no idea how a semiconductor is made or what function it has. I could be buying into a dying company and/or industry and not know about it.

Conclusion:

The high quality of assets in place, the consistent earnings and the large tax loss carryforward make this a confident invesment. Something could happen that I have not foreseen in my analysis, but this is always a risk. I am just going to leave this stock for the next 2 years and see what happens. As Pabrai says “Low Risk, High Uncertainty”.

The stock is very thinly traded, so, if you’re inclined to do so, take care getting set.

[Full Disclosure:  I do not have a holding in SODI. This is neither a recommendation to buy or sell any securities. All information provided believed to be reliable and presented for information purposes only. Do your own research before investing in any security.]

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Forward Industries Inc (NASDAQ:FORD) has filed its 10K for the period ended September 30, 2009.

We started following FORD (see the post archive here) because it was trading at a discount to its net cash and liquidation values, although there was no obvious catalyst. Management appeared to be considering a “strategic transaction” of some kind, which might have included an “acquisition or some other combination.” I think a better use of the cash on the balance sheet is a share buy-back or a dividend. Trinad Management had an activist position in the stock, but had been selling at the time I opened the position and only one stockholder owned more than 5% of the stock. The stock is up 40.3% since I opened the position to close yesterday at $2.00, giving the company a market capitalization of $15.9M. Following my review of the most recent 10K, I’ve increased my estimate of FORD’s liquidation value to around $20.3M or $2.56 per share.

The value proposition updated

FORD continues to face difficult trading conditions, writing in the most recent 10K:

Trends and Economic Environment

We believe that the poor economy, high unemployment, tight credit markets, and heightened uncertainty in financial markets during the past two years have adversely impacted discretionary consumer spending, including spending on the types of electronic devices that are accessorized by our products. In response to the economic recession certain of our major diabetic case customers have significantly reduced their sales forecasts to us for blood glucose diagnostic kits, with which our products are packaged in box, therefore implying reduced sales revenues from these customers in future periods. We expect this challenging business environment to continue in the near term.

Our response to current conditions has been to cut operating expenses and reduce headcount; and we have attempted to limit increases in operating expenses except where we think increases are critical to potential future growth.

In response to increasing customer and sales concentration, we have focused marketing efforts on expanding our customer base. These efforts are meeting with some preliminary success, although the degree of success will not become apparent until we are deeper into Fiscal 2010. We have received small, initial orders from first time customers. The key question in Fiscal 2010 will be whether our overall net sales and net profit will primarily reflect revenue contribution from new customers or the decline in revenues from existing customers that have indicated reduced order flow in Fiscal 2010. See Part I, Item IA. of this Annual Report, “Risk Factors”, including “We have announced our intention to diversify our business by means of acquisition or other business combination.”

The company had another quarter that was better than the preceding one, generating positive cash from operating activities of around $0.35M (the “Book Value” column shows the assets as they are carried in the financial statements, and the “Liquidating Value” column shows our estimate of the value of the assets in a liquidation):

Summary balance sheet adjustments

I’ve made the following adjustments to the balance sheet estimates (included in the valuation above):

  • Cash burn: I’ve got no real idea about FORD’s prospects. It seems to have stopped burning cash over the last quarter and actually generated $0.35M. If we assume, as management has, that the company will face a tough operating environment over the next 12 months, I estimate that the company will generate no cash over that period.
  • Off-balance sheet arrangements: According to FORD’s most recent 10Q, it has no off-balance sheet arrangements.
  • Contractual obligations: FORD’s contractual obligations are minimal, totalling $0.8M.

Possible catalysts

FORD’s President and Acting Chairman, Mr. Doug Sabra, said in the letter to FORD shareholders accompanying the notice of annual shareholders’ meeting, that in 2008 “management began to implement operational and strategic initiatives in order to put [FORD]’s business on a stronger, more sustainable footing. …  This past August we retained an outside consultant to assist us in vetting possible partners for a strategic transaction.” It seems that the “strategic transaction” might include a “possible acquisition or other combination that makes sense in the context of [FORD’s] existing business, without jeopardizing the strong financial position that we have worked so hard to build.” My vast preference is for a sale of the company, buyback, special dividend or return of capital over an acquisition. Rather than spend the cash on their balance sheet, they should focus on the work on their desk and pay a big dividend.

Any sale transaction will require the consent of FORD’s board. While it has a free float of around 92%, the company’s so-called “Anti-takeover Provisions” authorize the board to issue up to 4M shares of “blank check” preferred stock. From the 10K:

Our Board of Directors is authorized to issue up to 4,000,000 shares of “blank check” preferred stock. Our Board of Directors has the authority, without shareholder approval, to issue such preferred stock in one or more series and to fix the relative rights and preferences thereof including their redemption, dividend and conversion rights. Our ability to issue the authorized but unissued shares of preferred stock could be used to impede takeovers of our company. Under certain circumstance, the issuance of the preferred stock could make it more difficult for a third party to gain control of Forward, discourage bids for the common stock at a premium, or otherwise adversely affect the market price of our common stock. In addition, our certificate of incorporation requires the affirmative vote of two-thirds of the shares outstanding to approve a business combination such as a merger or sale of all or substantially all assets. Such provision and blank check preferred stock may discourage attempts to acquire Forward. Applicable laws that impose restrictions on, or regulate the manner of, a takeover attempt may also have the effect of deterring any such transaction. We are not aware of any attempt to acquire Forward.

Conclusion

FORD is still trading at a substantial discount to its liquidation and net cash values. The risk to this position is management spraying the cash away on an acquisition. A far better use of the company’s cash is a buyback, special dividend or return of capital. Another concern is Trinad Management exiting its activist position in the stock. Those concerns aside, I’m going to maintain the position because it still looks cheap at a discount to net cash.

[Full Disclosure:  We have a holding in FORD. This is neither a recommendation to buy or sell any securities. All information provided believed to be reliable and presented for information purposes only. Do your own research before investing in any security.]

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Greenbackd is dedicated to unearthing undervalued asset situations where a catalyst exists likely to remove the discount or unlock the value. My favorite stocks are those trading at a substantial discount to net current assets or liquidation value, with an activist pushing for a catalyst to unlock the value. Those opportunities, however, are few and far between. I can frequently find deeply undervalued asset situations with no obvious catalyst. I can often also find activists in stocks that are not undervalued on a Graham asset basis.

A little over a year ago in a post titled Net Net vs Activist Legend I started a thought experiment pitting Dataram Corporation (NASDAQ:DRAM), a little Graham net net, against activist investing legend Carl Icahn and his position in Yahoo! Inc. (NASDAQ: YHOO) (click on the links to laugh at how rudimentary Greenbackd looked then). The idea was simple: Compare the performance of two stocks, one a net net / net cash stock lacking a catalyst, and the other a stock not obviously undervalued on an asset basis, but nonetheless pursued by an activist investor, Carl Icahn.

In the blue corner, YHOO, the super heavyweight

Here’s what I had to say about YHOO at the time:

YHOO is a stock that is not cheap on an asset basis but it does have a prominent activist investor with a 5.5% stake and two seats on the board. At its Friday close of $11.66, which is around two-thirds lower than Microsoft’s May 2008 $33 bid, YHOO still trades at a 70% premium to our $6.82 per share estimate of its asset value. Activist investor Carl Icahn’s presence on the register, however, indicates that he believes YHOO is worth more. Icahn has paid an average of $23.59 per share to accumulate his 5.5 percent stake. At $11.66, YHOO must more than double before Icahn will see a profit. He’s unlikely to sit idly by to see if that happens.

YHOO is not cheap on any theory of value we care to employ. It is trading at a substantial premium to its asset backing, which means the market is still generously valuing its future earnings. It is generating substantial operating cash flow and earnings, which in a better market might be worth more, but it’s not obviously cheap to us.

The best thing about YHOO from our perspective is the presence of Carl Icahn on the register. His holdings were purchased at much higher prices than are presently available and he is unlikely to sit idly by while the stock stagnates.

Buying YHOO at these prices is a bet that Icahn can engineer a deal for the company. Given his legendary status as an activist investor earned through canny acquisitions over many years, we think that’s a good bet. But a bet is what it is – it’s speculation and not investment. If speculation is your game, then we wish you the best of luck but know that the price might fall a long way if he sells out. If you’re an investor, the price is too high.

YHOO closed Friday at $11.66 and the S&P 500 Index closed at 876.07.

And in the red corner, DRAM, a light flyweight

Here’s my take on DRAM’s chances:

DRAM, at 58% of its liquidating value and 76% of its cash backing, is very cheap. We believe that it is worth watching but, with no obvious catalysts and a high cash burn rate, probably one to avoid unless you are willing to bet that its remaining cash might attract an activist or the business will turn around before it runs out of money.

The risk with DRAM, as it is with any net net or net cash stock, is that the company might not make a profit any time soon and won’t liquidate before it dissipates its remaining cash. As we said above, we’ve got no insight into DRAM’s business and don’t know whether it can trade out of its present difficulties and back to at least a positive operating cash flow. According to the 10Q, the company is authorized to repurchase 172,196 shares under a stock repurchase plan but this is an immaterial amount in the context of the 8.9M shares on issue and the plan has been in existence since 2002. The best hope for the stockholders is that the company re-institutes its dividend, which, given its $16M in cash, it certainly seems able to do. No noted activists have disclosed a holding in the company, which means management have no incentive to do anything so stockholder friendly.

Let’s get ready to rumbllllllllllllllllllllllllle…..

Here’s the call of the fight:

The first 10 rounds were to YHOO, but DRAM landed a crushing blow at the end of the 10th. From there, DRAM pounded away while YHOO got the staggers. At the final bell, YHOO managed a respectable 34.2%, but it wasn’t in DRAM’s league, up an incredible 192.8%.

Post mortem

There’s nothing statistically significant about this little experiment, but, regardless, I think it’s interesting. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, small investors have a huge advantage over larger, professional investors. There is nothing easier to analyse than a Graham net net or liquidation play (here’s my post on Graham’s liquidation value methodology), and, as Professor Henry Oppenheimer demonstrated, the returns to a very simple buy-and-hold-for-a-year-and-repeat strategy will put investment professionals to shame. Graham’s methodology is robust and has withstood the test of time. With a little patience, investing like Graham did provides a tailwind that forgives many investing sins. Here’s to the little guys.

Gonna fly now

Go. Go. Go. Go. Go. Goooooooooo…..

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