But how, you will ask, does one decide what [stocks are] "attractive"? Most analysts feel they must choose between two approaches customarily thought to be in opposition: "value" and "growth," ... We view that as fuzzy thinking ... Growth is always a component of value [and] the very term "value investing" is redundant.
-- Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway annual report, 1993
We take Buffett's thoughts one step further. We think the best opportunities arise from a complete understanding of all investing disciplines in order to identify the most attractive stocks at any given time. Valuentum therefore analyzes each stock across a wide spectrum of philosophies, from deep value through momentum investing. We think companies that are attractive from a number of investment perspectives--whether it be growth, value, income, momentum, etc.--have the greatest probability of capital appreciation and relative outperformance. The more investors that are interested in the stock for reasons based on their respective investment mandates, the more likely it will move higher.
As such, the Valuentum Buying Index (VBI) combines rigorous financial and valuation analysis with an evaluation of a firm's technicals and momentum indicators to derive a score between 1 and 10 for each company (10=best). The VBI places considerable emphasis on a firm's DCF valuation, its relative valuation versus peers (both forward PE and PEG ratios), as well as its technicals in order to help investors pick the best entry and exit points on the most interesting stocks. We believe our methodology helps identify the most attractive stocks at the best time to buy, helping to avoid value traps and lagging performance due to the opportunity cost of holding a stock with great potential but at an inopportune time. In the spirit of transparency and with respect to full disclosure, the biggest generators of outperformance in the "9 through 10" bucket were Apple (AAPL), Astronics (ATRO), and EDAC Tech (EDAC), though Ancestry.com (ACOM) has weighed on results there. In the bucket "1 through 4", AMR, the parent of American Airlines, has been the worst performance since it registered a 1 on our index, declaring bankruptcy recently.
A Rigorous, Discounted Cash Flow Valuation Assessment
Our methodology starts with in-depth financial statement analysis, where we derive our ValueCreation, ValueRisk, and ValueTrend ratings, which together provide a quantitative assessment of the strength of a firm's competitive advantages. After evaluating historical trends, we then make full annual forecasts for each item on a company's income statement and balance sheet to arrive at a firm's future free cash flows. We derive a company-specific cost of equity (using a fundamental beta based on the expected uncertainty of key valuation drivers) and a cost of debt (considering the firm's capital structure and synthetic credit spread over the risk-free rate), culminating in our estimate of a company's weighted average cost of capital (WACC). We don't use a market price-derived beta, as we embrace market volatility, which provides investors with opportunities to buy attractive stocks at bargain-basement levels.
We assess each company within our complete three-stage free cash flow to the firm (enterprise cash flow) valuation model, which generates an estimate of a company's equity value per share based on its discounted future free cash flows and the company's net balance sheet impact, including other adjustments to equity value (namely pension and OPEB adjustments). Our ValueRisk rating, which considers the underlying uncertainty of the capacity of the firm to continue to generate value for shareholders, sets the margin of safety bands around this fair value estimate. For firms that are trading below the lower bound of our margin of safety band, we consider these companies undervalued based on our DCF process. For firms that are trading above the higher bound of our margin of safety band, we consider these companies overvalued based on our DCF process.
A Forward-Looking Relative Value Assessment
Our discounted cash-flow process allows us to arrive at an absolute view of the firm's intrinsic value. However, we also understand the critical importance of assessing firms on a relative value basis, versus both their industry and peers. Many institutional money-managers--those that drive stock prices--pay attention to a company's price-to-earnings (PE) ratio and price-earning-to-growth (PEG) ratio in determining whether entities are undervalued. With this in mind, we have included a forward-looking relative value assessment in our process to further augment our rigorous discounted cash-flow process. If a company is undervalued on both a price-to-earnings ratio and a price-earnings-to-growth ratio versus industry peers, we would consider the firm to be attractive from a relative value standpoint.
Avoiding Value Traps and Opportunity Cost
Once we have estimated a firm's intrinsic value on the basis of our discounted cash-flow process, determined if it is undervalued according to its firm-specific margin of safety bands, and assessed its relative value versus industry peers, we then evaluate the company's technical and momentum indicators to pin-point the best entry and exit points on the stock. An evaluation of its moving averages, relative strength, upside-downside volume, and money flow index are but a few considerations we look at with respect to our technical and momentum assessment of a company's stock.
Putting It All Together - the Valuentum Buying Index
Let's follow the red line on the flow chart below to see how a firm can score a 10, the best mark on our index (a "Top Pick"). Please click here to view an enlarged pdf version. First, the company would need to be 'UNDERVALUED' on a DCF basis and 'ATTRACTIVE' on a relative value basis. The stock would also have to be exhibiting 'BULLISH' technicals. The firm would need a ValueCreation rating of 'GOOD' or 'EXCELLENT', exhibit 'HIGH' or 'AGGRESSIVE' growth prospects, and generate at least a 'MEDIUM' or 'NEUTRAL' assessment for cash flow generation, financial leverage, and relative price strength.
This is a tall order for any company, but we're looking to deliver the very best of ideas to our clients and subscribers. Firms that don't make the cut for a 10 are ranked accordingly, with the least attractive stocks garnering a score of 1 ("We'd sell"). Most of our coverage universe falls between 3 and 7, but at any given time there could be large number of companies garnering either high or low scores, especially at market lows or tops, respectively. Click here to enlarge the chart below for easier viewing:
Our Buying Index does not fit to any distribution, meaning that at any time we may have a large number of firms with a high score (10 = best), a large number of firms with a low score (1 = worst), or a cluster of firms with mediocre scores. As of February 2012, 3% of firms had scores between 8 and 10, inclusive, 76% of companies had scores between 4 and 7, inclusive, and 21% of firms had scores between 1 and 3, inclusive. This distribution is updated frequently and changes as a result of fair value changes and/or market movements.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.