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Posts Tagged ‘The Little Book That Beats The Market’

In How to Beat The Little Book That Beats The Market: Redux I showed how in Quantitative Value we tested Joel Greenblatt’s Magic Formula outlined in The Little Book That (Still) Beats the Market). We found that Greenblatt’s Magic Formula has consistently outperformed the market, and with lower relative risk than the market, but wondered if we could improve on it.

We created a generic, academic alternative to the Magic Formula that we call “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. The price ratio is drawn from the early research into value investment by Eugene Fama and Ken French. The Quality and Price strategy, like the Magic Formula, seeks to differentiate between stocks on the basis of … wait for it … quality and price. The difference, however, is that Quality and Price uses academically based measures for price and quality that seek to improve on the Magic Formula’s factors, which might provide better performance.

The Magic Formula uses Greenblatt’s version of return on invested capital (ROIC) as a proxy for a stock’s quality. The higher the ROIC, the higher the stock’s quality and the higher the ranking received by the stock. Quality and Price substitutes for ROIC a quality measure we’ll call gross profitability to total assets (GPA). GPA is 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 rationale for using gross profitability, rather than any other measure of profitability like earnings or EBIT, is simple. Gross profitability is the “cleanest” measure of true economic profitability. According to Novy-Marx:

The farther down the income statement one goes, the more polluted profi tability measures become, and the less related they are to true economic profi tability. 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 cash flows relative to its competitors. These facts suggest constructing the empirical proxy for productivity using gross profits.

The Magic Formula uses EBIT/TEV as its price measure to rank stocks. For Quality and Price, we substitute the classic measure in finance literature – book value-to-market capitalization (BM):

BM = Book Value / Market Price

 We use BM rather than the more familiar price-to-book value or (P/B) notation because the academic convention is to describe it as BM, and it makes it more directly comparable with the Magic Formula’s EBIT/TEV. The rationale for BM capitalization is straightforward. Eugene Fama and Ken French consider BM capitalization a superior metric because it varies less from period to period than other measures based on income:

We always emphasize that different price ratios are just different ways to scale a stock’s price with a fundamental, to extract the information in the cross-section of stock prices about expected returns. One fundamental (book value, earnings, or cashflow) is pretty much as good as another for this job, and the average return spreads produced by different ratios are similar to and, in statistical terms, indistinguishable from one another. We like [book-to-market capitalization] because the book value in the numerator is more stable over time than earnings or cashflow, which is important for keeping turnover down in a value portfolio.

Next I’ll compare show the results of our examination of Quality and Price strategy to the Magic Formula. If you can’t wait, you can always pick up a copy of Quantitative Value.

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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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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.

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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