I frequently hear some members of the value investing community complain that “value investing no longer seems to work”. In my view, paying less than something is worth will always work. I guess what these investors may mean is that paying low multiples for mature, easy to understand businesses no longer seems to work.
Value investing has for reputation of paying a low multiple for a business and wait for the market to recognize its true value. But if you tried it, it doesn’t seem to always work that way. I have seen companies trading at 5x price-to-earnings (P/E) dropped to 2x P/E. The idea of only trading stocks on a low multiple of earnings is absurd. That would be too easy and it’s not supposed to be easy. If it was the case everybody would be rich doing that.
All businesses are worth the cash that they generate between now and eternity, discounted at the appropriate rate. The path that different companies’ cash generation takes can vary enormously. Some businesses may have outlived their useful purpose and be in liquidation. Others may have reached maturity and the current level of cash flow might be expected to continue indefinitely. Still others may have negative cash flow today as they invest to build growing cash flow in the future. At an appropriate price, each of these companies can be considered value investments. Only the size and the duration of the future cash flow relative to the price can tell you if it’s cheap. “There are no bad assets, just bad prices”.
I’ve own stocks with a P/E ratio that many money managers would label as high. I try to find out the free cash flow per share the company is generating, and I value the business based on that rather than GAAP P/E numbers. You need to ask yourself what are the fundamentals of the business in relation to its price? If you paid 20 times for a business that was compounding the economic value per share in the mid-teens and have some level of confidence it is likely to do that for a reasonable period of time, you should do all right. Here’s a stock tip: when Warren Buffett analyze a stock (which is a partial interest in a real business not a piece of paper) they discount the cash flows, not the P/E ratio.
Graham’s Net-Net Stocks
“Heavy ideology is one of the most extreme distorters of human cognition.” – Charlie Munger
Hardcore disciples of Graham and Dodd wouldn’t probably agree with my post. But have you tried investing in “net-net stocks”; companies trading below its net working capital. Of course I would love buying a company for less than its cash but there’s a reason why these companies are cheap. First, to do that, you really need to know what you are doing and it’s a lot of work. Maybe with a small amount of money you can make it work. However I doubt the risk and potential returns are worth the headache. True net-nets are hard to find and the one that comes off a filter are of dubious quality. Thomas Hobbes described the life of mankind as “nasty, brutish and short.” This is what you get on the list that typically pass the Ben Graham net-net working capital screen. Investors are much more efficient today than during Graham’s era. Let’s just say there are better alternatives, like buying a high quality company.
You need to keep learning. You need to adapt. You need to evolve. You need to be mentally flexible. Nobody demonstrates this better than Buffett. Buffett evolved from the cigar-butt approach he learned under Graham, and now he's the largest investor in Apple. He’s been at it for over fifty years and his style has evolved many times.
One might think that Buffett buying 140 million shares of Apple would dispel the notion that value investing as an analytical style is about buying “cheap stocks.” Quality is a key part of value and may not be reflected in current price creating a bargain or a margin of safety. The point is some bargains are only visible if you understand qualitative factors. I guess the holy grail of investing is buying a high quality company in high growth market with negative capital need at a discounted price.
Buy and Hold
Many also say that buy-and-hold investing no longer beat the market the way it did in the past. Buy and hold shouldn’t be your philosophy. What I want to do is own businesses that are exceptional until they are no longer exceptional. It’s a nuance on the notion of buy and hold. But it’s easy to call it buy and hold. There’s a saying in the investment world: “let your winners run, and cut your losers.” One of my greatest mistakes was selling my winners way too early. Peter Lynch said that “selling your winners and holding your losers is like cutting the flowers and watering the weeds.”
Historically value investors eschewed the tech sector because 1) its outside the circle of competence and 2) the tech sector is too fast moving. For long-term investors, basing investment decision on cash generation into the future, the sector was un-investable. Clearly, companies like Google, Apple or Amazon are far two entrenched in our modern, Internet-driven economy to be considered un-investable for the above reason. The change brought about by the Internet, mobile, and soon AI is fundamentally changing the economic basis of nearly every established business (look what Uber did to the taxi industry). A refusal to engage intellectually with these changes not only means that you miss out on the investment opportunity they throw up, but it blinds you to the fundamental changes taking place at every “easy to understand” business. It’s important to expand your circle of competence. In the past P&G or Coca-Cola were easy to understand branded consumer products. Today Apple is the modern-day incarnation of branded consumer goods company.
To conclude, what is within and what is beyond our circle of competence must continue to evolve over time. Risk comes from not knowing what you are doing, so it is wise to stay within your circle of competence. As for value investing, over time you need to keep re-calibrating the definition of value investors. The beauty of some systems is that they have the ability to evolve so as to adapt to new conditions. Value investing evolves over time and keep an open mind on what constitutes value.
*A version of this note was previously posted on my blog.
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.