Value Investing: Don’t Make it Difficult

Value investing can be difficult for some because value investors often buy what is unpopular at the moment. After all a company’s stock usually has to be out of favor to be cheap, right? Friends and neighbors are talking about their insightful investments in Apple and the awesome leading edge products or Amazon and the amazing reach to consumers. You are quietly on the sidelines thinking about the fallen star you just purchased (hopefully after the fall).  Value investing is not the right approach if you want to be in the most popular stocks. But if you want the best chances of earning a decent return, avoiding permanent loss as much as possible, if you can be patient and understand the concept of deferred gratification; value investing can work.

Warren Buffett, Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Benjamin Graham’s star student described value investing during the fiftieth anniversary of Benjamin Graham and David I. Dodd’s Security Analysis.  This timeless article entitled, “The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville” prepared in 1984 for a class at Columbia University is available in its entirety at the Columbia Business School website here.

Here is how Warren Buffett answered the question in part:

Is the Graham and Dodd “look for values with a significant margin of safety relative to prices” approach to security analysis out of date?Many of the professors who write textbooks today say yes. They argue that the stock market is efficient; that is, that stock prices reflect everything that is known about a company’s prospects and about the state of the economy. There are no undervalued stocks, these theorists argue…..Well, maybe. But I want to present to you a group of investors who have, year in and year out, beaten the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index.…In this group of successful investors that I want to consider, there has been a common intellectual patriarch, Ben Graham…

The common intellectual theme of the investors from Graham-and-Doddsville is this:
they search for discrepancies between the value of a business and the price of small pieces of that business in the market. Essentially, they exploit those discrepancies without the efficient market theorist’s concern as to whether the stocks are bought on Monday or Thursday, or whether it is January or July, etc. Incidentally, when businessmen buy businesses, which is just what our Graham & Dodd investors are doing through the medium of marketable stocks, I doubt that many are cranking into their purchase decision the day of the week or the month in which the transaction is going to occur. If it doesn’t make any difference whether all of a business is being bought on a Monday or a Friday, I am baffled why academicians invest extensive time and effort to see whether it makes a difference when buying small pieces of those same businesses. Our Graham & Dodd investors, needless to say, do not discuss beta, the capital asset pricing model, or covariance in returns among securities. These are not subjects of any interest to them. In fact, most of them would have difficulty defining those terms. The investors simply focus on two variables: price and value.

I always find it extraordinary that so many studies are made of price and volume behavior, the stuff of chartists. Can you imagine buying an entire business simply because the price of the business had been marked up substantially last week and the week before? Of course, the reason a lot of studies are made of these price and volume variables is that now, in the age of computers, there are almost endless data available about them. It isn’t necessarily because such studies have any utility; it’s simply that the data are there and academicians have worked hard to learn the mathematical skills needed to manipulate them. Once these skills are acquired, it seems sinful not to use them, even if the usage has no utility or negative utility. As a friend said, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I think the group that we have identified by a common intellectual home is worthy of  study. Incidentally, despite all the academic studies of the influence of such variables as price, volume, seasonality, capitalization size, etc., upon stock performance, no interest has been evidenced in studying the methods of this unusual concentration of value oriented winners.”

Warren Buffett continues after providing tables of the successful investing records of nine well known value investors:

“…I haven’t selected them with hindsight from among thousands. It’s not like I am
reciting to you the names of a bunch of lottery winners, people I had never heard of before they won the lottery. I selected these men years ago based upon their framework for investment decision-making. I knew what they had been taught and additionally I had some personal knowledge of their intellect, character, and temperament. It’s very important to understand that this group has assumed far less risk than average; note their record in years when the general market was weak. While they differ greatly in style, these investors are, mentally, always buying the business, not buying the stock. A few of them sometimes buy whole businesses far more often they simply buy small pieces of businesses. Their attitude, whether buying all or a tiny piece of a business, is the same. Some of them hold portfolios with dozens of stocks; others concentrate on a handful. But all exploit the difference between the market price of a business and its intrinsic value.

I’m convinced that there is much inefficiency in the market. These Graham-and-Doddsville investors have successfully exploited gaps between price and value. When the price of a stock can be influenced by a “herd” on Wall Street with prices set at the margin by the most emotional person, or the greediest person, or the most depressed person, it is hard to argue that the market always prices rationally. In fact, market prices are frequently nonsensical.

I would like to say one important thing about risk and reward. Sometimes risk and reward are correlated in a positive fashion. If someone were to say to me, “I have here a six-shooter and I have slipped one cartridge into it. Why don’t you just spin it and pull it once? If you survive, I will give you $1 million.” I would decline — perhaps stating that $1 million is not enough. Then he might offer me $5 million to pull the trigger twice — now that would be a positive correlation between risk and reward.

The exact opposite is true with value investing. If you buy a dollar bill for 60 cents, it’s riskier than if you buy a dollar bill for 40 cents, but the expectation of reward is greater in the latter case. The greater the potential for reward in the value portfolio, the less risk there is.

One quick example: The Washington Post Company in 1973 was selling for $80 million in the market. At the time, that day, you could have sold the assets to any one of ten buyers for not less than $400 million, probably appreciably more. The company owned the Post, Newsweek, plus several television stations in major markets. Those same properties are worth $2 billion now, so the person who would have paid $400 million would not have been crazy.

Now, if the stock had declined even further to a price that made the valuation $40 million instead of $80 million, its beta would have been greater. And to people that think beta measures risk, the cheaper price would have made it look riskier. This is truly Alice in Wonderland. I have never been able to figure out why it’s riskier to buy $400 million worth of properties for $40 million than $80 million. And, as a matter of fact, if you buy a group of such securities and you know anything at all about business valuation, there is essentially no risk in buying $400 million for $80 million, particularly if you do it by buying ten $40 million piles of $8 million each. Since you don’t have your hands on the $400 million, you want to be sure you are in with honest and reasonably competent people, but that’s not a difficult job.

You also have to have the knowledge to enable you to make a very general estimate about the value of the underlying businesses. But you do not cut it close. That is what Ben Graham meant by having a margin of safety. You don’t try and buy businesses worth $83 million for $80 million. You leave yourself an enormous margin. When you build a bridge, you insist it can carry 30,000 pounds, but you only drive 10,000 pound trucks across it. And that same principle works in investing.

In conclusion, some of the more commercially minded among you may wonder why I am writing this article. Adding many converts to the value approach will perforce narrow the spreads between price and value. I can only tell you that the secret has been out for 50 years, ever since Ben Graham and Dave Dodd wrote Security Analysis, yet I have seen no trend toward value investing in the 35 years that I’ve practiced it. There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult. The academic world, if anything, has actually backed away from the teaching of value investing over the last 30 years. It’s likely to continue that way. Ships will sail around the world but the Flat Earth Society will flourish. There will continue to be wide discrepancies between price and value in the marketplace, and those who read their Graham & Dodd will continue to prosper.”

So there you have it from one of the best. I encourage you to read the entire article available at the Columbia Business School website here. If you are not comfortable with this or any style of investing you should move on to find one that is suitable for your temperament if any. Nothing beats a good night’s sleep. 🙂

Disclosures:

The information contained herein is provided for informational purposes only, is not comprehensive, does not contain important disclosures and risk factors associated with investments, and is subject to change without notice. The author is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness or lack thereof of information, nor has the author verified information from third parties which may be relied upon. The information does not take into account the particular investment objectives or financial circumstances of any specific person or organization which may view it. Nothing contained within may be considered an offer or a solicitation to purchase or sell any particular financial instrument. Any investment can be very risky and is not suitable for everyone. You should never enter into an investment unless you can afford to lose your entire investment. Before making any investment, investors are advised to review such investment thoroughly and carefully with their financial, legal and tax advisors to determine whether it is suitable for them.

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