how traditional value investing has to change

Yesterday I wrote about the Indexology observation that value investing hasn’t worked well over the past decade.  That’s a long time.  Here’s what I think is happening:

Every professional investor, no matter how he describes what he does, looks to buy undervalued securities.  That’s not unique to value investors, no matter how academics may insist otherwise.  Growth stock investors seek this undervaluation in the market’s underestimation of a company’s future prospects, as measured by how fast earnings are growing, how the trajectory is accelerating and how long super-normal growth  may continue.  Value investors look for undervaluation in underestimation of the worth of companies’ here-and-now, based on metrics like price to book, price to cash flow and price to earnings.

 

Most often, value investors are attracted to companies that:

–are suffering from temporary misfortune–the wrong part of the business cycle or a management miscue–that the market mistakenly thinks is a permanent defect, or

–are badly run, but the market doesn’t realize that change is possible, either by action by the board of directors or by third parties forcing change of control.

In either case, the presumption is that cumulative spending on property, physical plant and equipment or on intangibles like brand names, patents, distribution networks or building brand names through advertising and marketing all have an enduring value that will most likely grow with time.  In the worst case, the worth of these assets will erode only very slowly.

 

This assumption is value investing’s chief problem, I think.

How so?

–through e-commerce and social media, the internet continues to erode the value of traditional distribution networks and the power of the decades of advertising and marketing spending that have established and (until a decade or so ago) protected them

generational change.  The gradual but steady replacement of the Baby Boom by younger generations who want to distinguish themselves from their parents means not only a change in what categories consumers spend on but a change in tastes, implying traditional firms may not benefit

the Great Recession.  In my experience, big economic downturns most often trigger changes in behavior.  They’re the reason for reassessing and changing spending habits.  They are also, if nothing else, the excuse for severing traditional relationships.  Some of this is economic necessity, some not.  Gen-Xers, for example, congregate in cities instead of the suburbs where their parents live.  They can’t afford to get sick and miss work, and they can’t afford restaurant meals, so they avoid fast food and make healthy meals at home.  They use mass transportation rather than owning a car.  Macys and McDonalds are the last places you’ll find them.

These three developments all attack the traditional order, and thereby undermine the assumption of the relative permanence of asset value for many firms.  This phenomenon is greatest in consumer-facing enterprises, less so in industrial.

 

The result is, I think, that value investors have to become more like their growth colleagues in investigating in great depth a firm’s ability to withstand the disruptive forces I’ve just listed.  Buying and selling based on screens of low price to book, low price to cash flow and low price to earnings is no longer enough

 

why buying is the key decision for value investors

Value investors like to describe themselves as buying companies worth $1 for, say, $.20 and selling them for $.80.  Less ambitious practitioners say buying for $.30 and selling for $.70.   But the idea is the same–buy at a deep discount, sell at a slight discount.

What remains unexpressed, but what’s crucial for value investors, is that the firm in question is not being assessed on any pie-in-the-sky future developments, but on an evaluation of what the company as it stands now is worth.

Three types of situations get value investors particularly excited:

–periods of general stock market undervaluation,

–overall business cycle slumps, or specific industry group declines, when the market fears that an (inevitable) upturn won’t happen and decides to unload the underperforming stocks into the market for whatever they can get, or

–companies that are industry laggards and which would fare far better if run by more competent managers.

In a sense, all of these situations involve temporarily damaged goods.

In each case, value investors also have plenty of data for figuring out what normal or reasonable prices for now-undervalued companies should be.  The data might be projections from past industry or economic cycles about how far earnings might rebound during an upcycle and how far price earnings multiples might change (usually expand).  In the case of badly run firms, the comparison is with healthy companies in the same industry.

In every instance, however, it’s a relatively straightforward thing to set a target price–what the company would be worth in better times.

The more difficult question is at what price to buy.

Investors will certainly demand a premium, say, 20% or 30%, for taking the risk of making a purchase while a business may be doing badly or while the overall market is cringing in fear.

Beyond that, value investors seem to me to fall into two types:

–those who are willing to buy at what they consider a rock-bottom price, regardless of the near-term outlook, and

–those who are waiting to see an initial ray of sunshine, or a “catalyst,” that convinces them that the worst is past.

In the first case, the skill is in judging the bottom.  In the second, it’s finding the turn upward before the market in general does.  But in both cases, it’s the decision to buy that’s the key to success.

 

 

 

 

comparing growth and value styles

 

Growth                                                        Value

stock volatility high                                   low

character aggressive                                   defensive

upside high                                                    limited

downside can be high                                 low

firms have very bright future                  cheap assets

outperforms bull market                         bear market

benefit from market greed                      market fear

(sell high)                                                       (buy low)

uncertainty extent of rise                        timing of rise

portfolio size 50 issues                            100

 

All this is leading up to talking about why buying is the crucial step for value investors, selling the most important for their growth counterparts.

failing toll roads in the US-why?

I’m convinced that studying the behavior of Millennials –and in particular how it differs from previous generations’–will ultimately produce a treasure trove of equity investment ideas.

So my ears perked up when I began noticing recent reports of continuing failure of toll road investment projects that had been in vogue ten years or so.  Many were packaged by Australian investment bank Macquarie and/or Spain’s Ferrovial.

Chapter 11 filings have been attributed in the media to a sharp slowdown in total miles driven by Americans since 2007 (“…largest decline since World War II,” said one article).  Millennials’ aversion to autos and the suburbs are the supposed causes.

A quick check shows that’s not exactly right.

The Federal Highway Administration’s monthly Traffic Volumes Trends indicates that total miles driven by Americans has fallen from the peak of 3.03 trillion miles in 2007.  But the present level is still 2.98 trillion, a seven-year decline that totals only 1.65%.  Yes, this is a change from the pretty steady rise of just over 1% annually during the prior couple of decades.  But it’s hard to image that worst-case planning didn’t allow for a flattening out of traffic volume.

Two other characteristics of these deals stand out to my, admittedly cursory, glance, as being much more important:

–they’re very highly financially leveraged, and

–they contained a ton of derivative protection against rising interest rates–which backfired horribly, adding significantly to the already-high debt burden.

The deals also appear to have suffered from wildly overoptimistic projections of future road usage, although these were likely less linked to project survival and more to the possibility of above-average gains.

In any event, my main point is that this is not a story of differing Millennial behavior.  It’s all about bad project design and mistaken derivatives overlays.

 

 

 

value investing, American-style–riskier than it seems

First, my usual caveat when I write on this subject.  I’m a dyed-in-the-wool growth stock investor.  But I my initial training was as a value investor.  And I practiced that craft for my first eight years in the business.  (Then I began to research mid-cap Pacific Basin stocks in earnest.  They had, at the time, a unique combination of extremely low valuations and unusually high growth.  After a couple of years of owning these hybrids I woke up one day and realized I had morphed into a growth stock investor.) Since that time, I’ve worked side by side with value colleagues for most of the rest of my career, though.

Growth investing is all about finding situations where a company is likely to expand its profits much faster than the consensus expects, and/or at an above average rate for much longer than the consensus believes.  It’s about where the company is going, not where it is now.

value investing

Value investing, in contrast, is all about where the company is now.   It’s about finding companies whose equities have been beaten down excessively by overemotional holders who have abandoned ship because of temporary earnings disappointment.  This disappointment can come from any number of causes.  Common ones include:  highly cyclical companies entering the down part of their business cycle, a big misstep by a normally competent management, or flat-out terrible corporate managers.

As an astute former value colleague put it, “There are no bad businesses, only bad managers.”  Put another way, there is enduring worth in a company’s tangible (think:  factories and inventories) and intangible (think: brand names, market positioning) assets that persists despite whatever earnings disappointments the firm may be experiencing at present.

In the first two causes I cite, time will cure the earnings deficiency.  Wayward shareholders will rediscover their zeal for the name and bid the stock price up aggressively.

But what if the management is genuinely awful?  In this case, value investors believe that the incompetents will be shown the door and be replaced by more highly skilled individuals.  The board of directors may do this, because, after all, that’s their job.  Or shareholders may demand a change.  (Fat chance of either of these happening, in my view.)  Or–and this is particularly American–either activist investors or hostile acquirers will swoop in and force a change.

two risks

As far as I can see, this last American idea–that justice will be served and the bad management tossed out–is valid in the US, but almost nowhere else.  Just look at the experience of activist value investors over the past quarter century in Japan or in continental Europe.  Yet, oddly enough, otherwise rational American value investors try the same tactic over and over, each time in the expectation of a different result.

This risk has been around for a long time.  The second hasn’t.

One of the deep underlying assumptions of value investing is that a company’s assets have an enduring economic worth, despite current headwinds.  All we need is some spark, some catalyst that will enable this worth to shine through.  And we can wait, since the value of accumulated assets is unlikely to deteriorate.

This is the sense behind the observation that a stock is trading at a discount to book value–that is, to the total sum of the assets the company owns, after subtracting out anything it owes to the rest of the world.  Calculations of “book” are based on the actual historical cost of acquiring the assets, which very often understates (usually by a lot) what it would cost to replace them.

Two new, still poorly understood, threats to this view:  the internet and Millennials.

Take suburban shopping malls as an example.  Millennials, at least more affluent ones, seem to like to live in cities, not the suburbs.  Internet shopping has reached the point where retailers are openly saying (they’ve probably secretly know this for much longer) that they have too much mall retail space.  Who to sell it to?

In other words, demographic/technological change is accelerating.  This increases the chance that balance sheet assets are writeoffs waiting to happen rather than “straw hats in winter,” needing only a change of season to flower.

 

more on reversion to the mean

Happy Halloween!!!  

Trick or Treating for all!!!

This is a continuation of my post from yesterday.

why value works less well today

I’m a growth investor by temperament.  But I’ve spent more than half of my working career as an analyst and portfolio manager in value shops.  My basic contention is that traditional value investing works much less well in a globalized and post-Internet world than it did previously.

Why do I think this?

One of the two basic premises of value investing is that a firm’s investment in plant, equipment, distribution networks and brand name have a value that is substantial and that endures despite current mismanagement or battering by the business cycle.  The Internet has upended a lot of this, and the ability to move production to the emerging world has done more.

(The second premise is that change of control–either though action by the board of directors or by outside influences–is possible.  True in the US, but very often not elsewhere.  Twenty five years of activist investor failure in Japan is the most notable example.  But continental Europe is just the same.)

flavors of value

I’ve written about this before.  Basically, some value investors buy stocks simply because they’re very cheap, period.  Others wait to identify a catalyst for change before they jump in.

Personally, I believe that in today’s world the latter is the far safer course.  Yes, you may miss the absolute bottom.  But you also have greater assurance that you’re not booking passage on a latter-day Flying Dutchman that is doomed to never go up.

growth and value cycles

Through most of my thirty years in the investment business, periods of value outperformance and growth supremacy were each relatively short and both contained within a four-year business cycle.  For the past fifteen years or so, the periods of one style or the other being in vogue have been much longer.  I don’t know why.  But this phenomenon may make slavish devotion to one style or the other riskier than it has been in the past.

Consumer Discretionary vs. Staples

Back to the uninformative Bloomberg discussion of Consumer Discretionary vs. Staples.  Is there anything to the idea that Staples may make a recovery vs. Consumer Discretionary?

Yes and no.

yes

I think conditions are beginning to come into place for Staples stocks in the US to begin to do well again.  Many Staples stocks have large international exposure, much of that in the EU.  Europe appears to finally have moved past the bottom of its Great Recession and to be beginning to recover.  So revenues for Staples companies there should begin to perk up.  More important, the euro has moved up by about 7% against the dollar since July.  So the dollar value of those recovering sales to a US firm with EU exposure will, I think, be surprisingly high.

It’s possible that a continuation of economy-damaging politics as usual in Washington will make even slow growth in the EU look relatively attractive.  A renewed global investor interest in Europe may well cause its currency to remain firm.

On the other hand, Consumer Discretionary has less foreign exposure and a greater tilt toward the Pacific.  China’s recent economic reacceleration is therefore a plus.  But there’s less chance of currency gain.

no?

If portfolio managers begin to reallocate money to Staples, where will the funds come from?  It’s not clear to me that it will come from Consumer Discretionary.  It might well come from Energy, Materials, Technology or Industrials–all more cyclical industries than Consumer Discretionary.  If so, both Discretionary and Staples might do well.  In fact, although I haven’t thought this through enough, my hunch is that this is what will happen.

To me, the relevant points are that Staples are statistically cheap and that there’s a reason to think better times are in store, at least for US-based firms.  Whether this potential outperformance comes at the expense of Discretionary is much less important.

 

reversion to the mean

Mean version has two senses:

1.  The first is important for traders, less so for investors.  It’s that if we construct a trend line or moving average for a stock from past prices, the stock will tend to trade in a reasonably well-defined band or channel around the trend.  In theory at least, one can make money by buying when the stock is at the lower edge of the band and selling when it’s at the higher edge.

2.  The second is a cardinal tenet for value investors.  It’s that over long periods of time stocks in general tend to rise and fall in line with overall earnings performance, which is, in turn, a function of the ebb and flow of nominal GDP.  Some stocks may have episodes where they perform far better than that.  Others may have extended periods when they fall far short of this mark, which in the US probably averages around +8% per year.  The value investor’s argument is that both classes, serial outperformers and serial underperformers alike, will inevitably see their fortunes reverse and their stocks revert to the long-term mean performance.

For high-fliers, this means they’ll, sooner or later, crash and burn.  For the stock market’s junk pile, on the other hand, its denizens will have periods when they’ll rise like the phoenix.  The latter are what value investors look for.

old school value investing

For some value investors, this is it.  This is all they do.  They run screens that find the cheapest stocks based on price/cash flow, price/earnings or price/assets–or some combination of the three.  And then they buy them.

I knew one who systematically went through books of charts looking for stocks that had experienced catastrophic drops (not a good strategy–once they figured out what he was doing, brokers began to send this guy charts with the price axis stretched out and the time axis compressed, so that every stock they touted looked like a train wreck.  Last I heard–I was hired to clean up the unholy mess he created–he was selling real estate in the Philippines).

Every investor is in some sense a contrarian.  At the very least, we all believe that the stock we are buying has more up left in it than the seller does, and the stock we are selling has less.  We also know the cardinal rule is to “buy low and sell high.”  Nevertheless, I think the simple strategy I just outlined, which is at the heart of the value investing practiced a generation ago, no longer works.

Why am I writing about this today?  

I was listening to Bloomberg radio in my car yesterday,when Dave Wilson repeated the observation of a market strategist that the divergence between the strong relative performance of the sector ETF for Consumer Discretionary and the weak outcome for Staples was as great as it was just before the Internet bubble popped in 2000.  What followed was a fierce reversion to the mean by both sectors.

The implication was that this factoid is significant.  As usual for Bloomberg, what or why was not forthcoming.

More tomorrow.