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Is There Really A Magic Formula For Investing?

One question almost every investor asks at some point is whether it is possible to achieve above market returns by selecting a diversified group of stocks according to some formula, rather than having to evaluate each stock from every angle. There are obvious advantages to such a formulaic approach. For the individual, the amount of time and effort spent caring for his investments would be reduced, leaving more time for him to spend on more enjoyable and fulfilling tasks. For the institution, large sums of money could be deployed without having to rely upon the investing acumen of a single talented stock picker. Many of the proposed systems also offer the advantage of matching the inflow of investable funds with investment opportunities. An investor who follows no formula, and evaluates each stock from every angle, may often find himself holding cash.

Historically, this has been a problem for some excellent stock pickers. So, there are real advantages to favoring a formulaic approach to investing if such an approach would yield returns similar to the returns a complete stock by stock analysis would yield. Many investment writers have proposed at least one such formulaic approach during their lifetime. The most promising formulaic approaches have been articulated by three men: Benjamin Graham, David Dreman, and Joel Greenblatt. As each of these approaches appeals to logic and common sense, they are not unique to these three men.

But, these are the three names with which these approaches are usually most closely associated; so, there is little need to draw upon sources beyond theirs. Benjamin Graham wrote three books of consequence: “Security Analysis”, “The Intelligent Investor”, and “The Interpretation of Financial Statements”. Within each book, he hints at various workable approaches both in stocks and bonds; however, he is most explicit in his best known work, “The Intelligent Investor”. There, Graham discusses the purchase of shares for less than two – thirds of their net current asset value. The belief that this method would yield above market returns is supported on both empirical and logical grounds. In fact, it currently enjoys far too much support to be practicable. Public companies rarely trade below their net current asset values. This is unlikely to change in the future. Buyout firms, unconventional money managers, and vulture investors now check such excessive bouts of public pessimism by taking large or controlling stakes in troubled companies. As a result, the investing public is less likely to indulge its pessimism as feverishly as it once did; for, many cheap stocks now have the silver lining of being takeover targets.

As Graham’s net current asset value method is neither workable at present, nor is likely to prove workable in the future, we must set it aside. David Dreman is known as a contrarian investor. In his case, it is an appropriate label, because of his keen interest in behavioral finance. However, in most cases the line separating the value investor from the contrarian investor is fuzzy at best. Dreman’s contrarian investing strategies are derived from three measures: price to earnings, price to cash flow, and price to book value. Of these measures, the price to earnings ratio is by far the most conspicuous. It is quoted nearly everywhere the share price is quoted. When inverted, the price to earnings ratio becomes the earnings yield. To put this another way, a stock’s earnings yield is “e” over “p”. Dreman describes the strategy of buying stocks trading at low prices relative to their earnings as the low P/E approach; but, he could have just as easily called it the high earnings yield approach.

Whatever you call it, this approach has proved effective in the past. A diversified group of low P/E stocks has usually outperformed both a diversified group of high P/E stocks and the market as a whole. This fact suggests that investors have a very hard time quantifying the future prospects of most public companies. While they may be able to make correct qualitative comparisons between businesses, they have trouble assigning a price to these qualitative differences. This does not come as a surprise to anyone with much knowledge of human judgment (and misjudgment). I am sure there is some technical term for this deficiency, but I know it only as “checklist syndrome”. Within any mental model, one must both describe the variables and assign weights to these variables. Humans tend to have little difficulty describing the variables – that is, creating the checklist. However, they rarely have any clue as to the weight that ought to be given to each variable. This is why you will sometimes hear analysts say something like: the factor that tipped the balance in favor of online sales this holiday season was high gas prices (yes, this is an actual paraphrase; but, I won’t attribute it, because publicly attaching such an inane argument to anyone’s name is just cruel).

It is true that avoiding paying high prices at the pump is a possible motivating factor in a shopper’s decision to make online Christmas purchases. However, it is an immaterial factor. It is a mere pebble on the scales. This is the same kind of thinking that places far too much value on a stock’s future earnings growth and far too little value on a stock’s current earnings. The other two contrarian methods: the low price to cash flow approach and the low price to book value approach work for the same reasons. They exploit the natural human tendency to see a false equality in the factors, and to run down a checklist. For instance, a stock that has a triple digit price to cash flow ratio, but is in all other respects an extraordinary business, will be judged favorably by a checklist approach. However, if great weight is assigned to present cash flows relative to the stock price, the stock will be judged unfavorably. This also illustrates the second strength of the three contrarian methods.


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