Value Investing Redux

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Includes: PWV, QCELX, QVAL
by: Gary Antonacci

Editor's note: Originally published on 10/25/2014

Believe it or not, I was once a value investor. From an early age I was impressed with the long-run success of such value luminaries as John Neff, Bill Ruane, Walter Schloss, and Max Heine. Being of a contrary temperament, I also liked the idea of buying stocks that were out-of-favor and ignored. Supporting this approach, DeBondt and Thaler (1985) presented evidence that stocks overreact to bad news, and that poor performers over the past 3 to 5 years tend to outperform when moving forward. Value investing also seemed to have representative bias going for it, whereby investors overreact to poor performance and project it far into the future while failing to account for long-run mean reversion.

In 1992, Fama and French presented their groundbreaking paper indicating that value and small cap stocks offered up a risk premium to investors. I, along with the rest of the civilized world, readily accepted this idea. In 1995, Kothari et al. discovered that the Fama and French results may have been due to sample selection bias. Using a different data source, Kothari et al. found no significant evidence of a positive relationship between value and average returns. However, since Kothari et al. were challenging the work of the highly respected Fama and French, their discovery got very little attention.

What got me away from value wasn't anything about value itself, but rather was my discovery after reading a plethora of research papers on momentum of just how strong momentum is compared with anything else. Looking at relative strength momentum applied to individual stocks showed a much higher premium than from anything else. What I also found is that you can easily apply momentum to different asset classes in order to gain the benefits of diversification, while applying value to asset classes other than equities can be speculative and uncertain.

What really got me excited about momentum though was my own research showing that momentum can be applied not just across different investment opportunities, but to single investments themselves in the form of trend-following absolute momentum. Absolute momentum not only enhances returns like relative momentum, but it can also dramatically reduce drawdown. As far as I could tell, no other anomaly could do this.

With all these advantages accruing to momentum, I saw no reason to consider any other investment approach. Reinforcing this view in my mind were the surprising results with respect to value in the research report last year by Israel and Moskowitz (See my post "Momentum…the Only Practical Anomaly?"). Working with U.S. equities data back to 1926, the authors said:

The value premium… is largely concentrated only among small stocks and is insignificant among the largest two quintiles of stocks (largest 40% of NYSE stocks). Our smallest size groupings of stocks contain mostly micro-cap stocks that may be difficult to trade and implement in a real-world portfolio.

So value, as popularly derived, was of no practical benefit to investors. On another front, Chen et al. (2011) proposed an asset pricing model in which investment and profitability are the main explanatory variables, rather than value and size. Fama and French (2014) then expanded their established three-factor model to include investment (expected future changes in book equity) and profitability (expected future net income relative to book assets). When doing so, they concluded that value was redundant.

VALUE METRICS

So did all this put a nail in the coffin with respect to value investing? Not necessarily. Israel and Moskowitz looked at value using the popular book-to-market (or price-to-book) ratio. They found similar results using other value measures, such as dividend yield and long-term reversals that had data going back to at least the 1930s. However, these were only singular measures of value.

Dhatt et al. (2001) found that composite measures of value were superior to any individual metric. Moreover, in their book Quantitative Value: A Practitioner's Guide to Automating Intelligent Investment and Eliminating Behavioral Errors, Gray and Carlisle identified a superior valuation metric based on enterprise multiple, defined as total enterprise value (TEV) divided by earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA). Here is a table of valuation metric comparisons by Gray using equal weight portfolios sorted into quintiles. Data is from 1971 through 2010 and excludes micro caps. Perhaps use of the enterprise multiple instead of price-to-book (P/B) could restore confidence in the value premium?

VALUE AND QUALITY

Researchers have also found that adding a financial strength or quality metric can substantially improve the risk-adjusted results of value portfolios. Paying attention to these additional factors can help overcome the problem of the "value trap," which happens when stocks remain depressed (and may go bankrupt) because their poor fundamentals warrant it.

Using global data from 1988 through 2012 and U.S. data from 1963 through 2012, Kozlov and Petajisto (2013) found that going long stocks with high quality earnings (based on high return on equity, high cash flow, and low leverage) and short stocks with low quality earnings gave higher Sharpe ratios than a similar value strategy. They also found earnings quality to be negatively correlated with value. The best Sharpe ratio came from combining high quality with value, since there were significant diversification benefits.

Using a different approach, Piotroski and So (2012) came up with a multi-factor scoring method (F-Score) to measure a firm's financial strength. This method was positively correlated with profitability and earnings growth. Piotroski and So found that strategies formed jointly on F-Score and value dramatically outperformed traditional value strategies.

Novy-Marx (2012) found he could simplify the quality factor to just gross profitability, defined as revenues minus cost of goods sold, scaled by assets. Novy-Marx (2013) found on U.S. stock data from 1963 through 2012 that profitable firms generated significantly higher returns (0.31% per month) than unprofitable firms, despite having higher price-to-book ratios. Novy-Marx (2012) also found that joint strategies combining value with Piotroski/So's F-Score, Greenblatt's magic formula, or gross profitability outperformed traditional value, with profitability with value being the strongest combination:

What was particularly impressive here was the reduction in maximum drawdown that came from the joint use of value and profitability due to their large negative correlation. As we can see from the above table, maximum drawdown for large cap strategies dropped from -43% with value alone to -18.9% for value combined with profitability.

The key here is that combining quality with value could help us find stocks that are both reasonably priced and expected to grow. As Warren Buffett said, "Whether we're talking about socks or stocks, I like buying quality merchandise when it is marked down."

WHAT TO DO

Despite the above enhancements to value investing, given the advantages of dual momentum investing, if I were ever to get the urge to do value investing, I would just lie down until the urge goes away. However, if I were actually going to add value to my portfolio, it would need to be calculated on a more sophisticated basis than price-to-book, and it would need to be combined with profitability/quality to mitigate the potential value trap problem. More specifically, here is what I would look for in a value fund:

1) It should combine value with quality and/or profitability screens.
2) It should determine value based on multiple value metrics and/or a value metric that incorporates the enterprise multiple.
3) It should re-balance at least quarterly to reduce possible style drift and to increase expected profits.
4) It should not dilute returns by having an overly broad portfolio. In Chapter 6 of my new book, Dual Momentum Investing: An Innovative Strategy for Higher Returns with Lower Risk, I show that many so-called smart beta funds are like closet index funds with modest stylistic tilts. Unfortunately, most value funds are the same. Even though the value effect is more pronounced in the top 10-20% of value rated stocks, most funds dilute this effect by using the top third or top half of value stocks instead of the more profitable top 10-20%.
5) The expense ratio should be reasonable. (This is true of all the funds I use.)
6) For taxable accounts, ETFs are preferred over mutual funds and hedge funds. Tax liabilities usually only occur when you sell your ETF holdings, whereas mutual funds have yearly taxable distributions of dividends and capital gains.

CANDIDATES

Since value and quality do well together, it is natural to think of actively managed mutual funds when considering investment candidates based on these factors. This is because most active managers use fundamental analysis, which takes into account profitability in the form of financial strength, managerial acumen, competitiveness, quality of earnings, and other judgmental factors, in addition to valuation.

However, most active managers lack transparency so as to give the appearance of possessing proprietary knowledge that is worth paying a premium to access. This means it is usually very difficult to tell if they meet the first two criteria listed above. In addition, active managers usually charge high fees. The Morningstar average large cap value fund annual expense ratio is 1.16%. Mutual funds also have a drag on their performance because of reserves held for redemption, and, as mentioned above, these funds are generally not tax efficient.

There is one mutual fund, however, that may be worth looking at more closely. It is the AQR Core Equity Fund (MUTF:QCELX).[1] This fund meets our first three requirements, since it rebalances monthly and uses three indicators of profitability along with five indicators of value. For good measure, it adds three momentum indicators. QCELX also has a reasonable annual expense ratio of 58 basis points. However, it is not tax efficient, although AQR has plans for a more tax efficient version of the fund. But on the negative side, QCELX currently holds 413 stocks, which is more than 40% of the stocks in its 1000 mid/large cap stock selection universe.

AQR has this same kind of broad participation in their momentum fund, where they hold 47% of the 1000 stocks in their selectable universe. Why they do not target factor profits more aggressively remains a mystery to me. Perhaps they expect so much capital to enter their funds that they anticipate liquidity issues. This may also explain why their portfolios are, for the most part, capitalization weighted instead of value or equal weighted.

In the ETF realm, until this past week there was only one fund that qualified with the above criteria. It is the PowerShares Dynamic Large Cap Value ETF (NYSEARCA:PWV), based on Intellidex methodology. PWV uses a ranking selection method with four indicators of value and four indicators of growth. They subtract the value from the growth rankings and then select the largest negative scores. This process automatically gives PWV some profitability exposure, according to the research of Bridgeway Capital Management. Bridgeway found that a multi-indicator value approach (adding price/cash flow, price/earnings, and price/sales) provided greater exposure to gross profitability than a portfolio based only on price/book.

To help further with profitability exposure, after doing their basic screens, PWV adds weightings for price momentum, earnings momentum, quality, and management action. PWV selects the top 20% of the largest 250 stocks from a potential universe of 2000. This gives them a focused portfolio of just 50 stocks that PWV rebalances quarterly. However, I would prefer that they derive their portfolio of 50 stocks by selecting the top 10% of the largest 500 stocks instead of the top 20% of the 250 largest stocks. They allocate half their capital equally to the top 15 ranked stocks, and the other half of their capital is divided equally among the remaining 35 stocks. Their annual expense ratio is a reasonable 58 basis points. PWV's performance since inception has been attractive compared to the iShares S&P 500 Value ETF.

Past performance is no assurance of future success.

This past week another ETF got to the short list of qualified candidates. The new kid on the block is Value Shares U.S. Quantitative Value ETF (BATS:QVAL) offered by Wes Gray's Alpha Architect. QVAL incorporates quality in a number of ways. First, it has forensic accounting screens to avoid firms at risk for financial distress or manipulation. Then it filters for financial strength using a modified Piotroski/So F-Score. Finally, QVAL checks for sound business fundamentals through what it calls an "economic moat." This is a screen for firms having sustainable competitive advantages, ala Warren Buffett.

Having written the book on valuation metrics, QVAL's management uses the enterprise multiple. They select just the top 10% of their large cap universe based on value, then drop the bottom half of these based on quality. The remaining 50 stock portfolio is equal weighted and rebalanced quarterly. QVAL's annual expense ratio of 79 basis points is higher than PWV and QCELX, but QVAL is the most focused fund among the three, selecting only the top 5% of quality/value stocks in their mid/large cap universe, compared to PWV's 20% and QCELX's 40%. QVAL represents true active management rather than the more usual "no guts, no glory" approach of most watered down, over diversified funds.

WHAT CAN GO WRONG

Value investing in general poses risks that all investors should be aware of. Chief among them is the high tracking error relative to the overall market. Value can go through sustained periods of under performance, such as during the 1990s. From 1994 through 1999, value underperformed growth by over 10% per year! With focused portfolios of just 50 stocks, PWV and QVAL can potentially have higher tracking error than other value funds. Value investors need to have a very long-term investment horizon and a high tolerance for long periods of under performance.

Value investing with focused portfolios, such as those of PWV and QVAL, is also subject to high volatility and high maximum drawdown, and investors should be prepared for this as well. Unfortunately though, investors can lose sight of this. They can panic and act counter to their best interests when confronted with severe drawdown. In a survey of its members since 1988, AAII found that the highest weight to cash and the lowest weight to equities was in March 2009, right at the bottom of the worst bear market since the 1930s.

There is a way, though, to mitigate this harmful behavior through the use of absolute momentum. (You didn't really think I would write a long post like this without mentioning momentum, did you?) My research paper on absolute momentum and my new book show how to use trend following absolute momentum to reduce the expected drawdown of any investment opportunity. The chart below of absolute momentum applied to the S&P 500 illustrates this. Through absolute momentum, maybe value and momentum can coexist after all.

Disclosure: No positions

[1] This material is for informational purposes only. It is not a recommendation to buy or an endorsement of any securities. Investments are subject to risk including loss of principal. You should do your own research before investing. Please see our Disclaimer page for additional information.

Disclosure: The author has no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

The author wrote this article themselves, and it expresses their own opinions. The author is not receiving compensation for it. The author has no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.