Monday, April 27, 2009

What is Value Investing?

Value Investing is perhaps one of the most important topics in life that is misunderstood by the most people. This is a reflection of our modern society that constantly tries to replace rationality, long term thinking and hard truths with sensations, material gains and get-rich-quick mentality.

It is a sad fact that most people today equate investing with gambling when the segregation can be crystal clear. To quote Benjamin Graham, father of value investing, “An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and an adequate return and operations not meeting these requirements are speculative”.

In simple layman terms,

Value investing simply means adopting an investment philosophy to buy something that's worth a dollar with a lot less, like 60c or less.

Here is a modification of the old formal definition that I posted some years back.

Value investing is a broad definition of a style of investment that follow two basic principles:
1) Buying at a price that is less than its intrinsic value
2) Buying with a margin of safety

In a nutshell, value investing is simply applying the concept of "shopping during bargain sale" to buying stocks, bonds, properties ie investing. It means paying less for more. Get good value for money. Buy one get two free. Buy a dollar for 60 cents.

The concepts here are not difficult to understand and their applications are also straightforward but as with dieting, what makes sense doesn't mean that it's easy to accomplish. This is because human emotions like greed and fear are constantly playing tricks to blur our rational minds which it what makes value investing tough. Especially when there are prices, charts and patterns, talking heads with irrelevant short term newsflow bombarding us daily.

Over the years, the paradigm of value investing has expanded to encompass many things:

1. Fundamental analysis (FA) needs to be rigorously employed in order to determine the stock's intrinsic value. This plots value investing into the infamous FA vs TA argument. TA stands for technical analysis ie looking at charts and stuff.

2. Buying a stock is like owning a business. Hence long investment horizon becomes norm as business owners don't buy and sell their co.s like oranges. And also undervalued stocks usually take some time to revert to it's intrinsic value.

3. Stocks that have certain characteristics become known as value stocks

a. predictable business operations and stable earnings (easier to calculated its intrinsic value)

b. low PER, PBR, high dividend, high cashflow or other "value" quantitative factors

4. Based on the points raised in Pt 3 above, value stocks typically come from mundane industries like food and staples, utilities and other old economy industries ie no high-tech, alternative energy or bio-venture stuff.

5. It is generally accepted that Benjamin Graham is the father of value investing. Other well-known value investing practitioners include: David Dodd, Irving Kahn, William Ruane, Martin Whitman, Charles de Vaulx, John Templeton, Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett.

Since the concept of buying something that is undervalued is so broad, value investing is sometimes used to refer to investing in special situations like merger arbitrage, discount bonds (e.g. some bonds trading at 50% below par value and pays 10% interest and has little risk of default). However, this blogger thinks that this is a stretch for value investing.

For most people, it should suffice to understand that value investing is about owning a partial stake in a good company by buying its stock at a reasonable price.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How long term should we be?

The investment horizon that is appropriate for our generation is probably 15-20 yrs, in my opinion. This is bcos we usually have some savings after the age of 30-35 for some real investing as we get married, buy house, have kids etc. And if you think about at what age should you enjoy the fruits of your investment, then it's probably 15-20 yrs later. I mean retirement age may go up to 62 but shouldn't we start thinking about enjoying life in our late 40s, early 50s? No point investing for 40 yrs and then get old and immobile and use the fruits of investment to pay for medical bills right?

Also, we shouldn't forget that even though official retirement may become 62 or it might go up to 65, probably it gets harder and harder to stay employed as our generation hits 45 years old. This is a major social reality/issue and it is already biting at a lot of people. Look around, do you see a lot of your colleagues who are in the 50s or 60s? The career life span is shortening. If you are in your 30s like me, we cannot expect to stay employed until 50.

Say if the investment horizon is only 15 yrs, and intrapolating the no.s on my previous post, the returns probably vary around +3% to +18%. ie if you bought at the peak of the market, you can expect to get 3%pa, which is worse off than leaving money in CPF. And worse still, if you had bought in 2007, it is likely that you might take more than 15 years to break even.

In order to mitigate this undesirable outcome, we must definitely employ a sound investment plan or some form of dollar cost averaging which basically means you put aside some money to buy stocks or bonds or funds every month. This should provide a +ve return after 15 years.

To aim higher, ie achieve an ok return like 8%pa, we must pay attention to market cycles in the macroeconomic sense. Don't buy a whole lot of stocks during the peakish periods and look to buy during doldrums (like now). Of course for true Graham/Buffett style value investing, the valuation takes care of this. You won't be buying stocks at the peak bcos the valuations will say No-No. Graham is famous for using his 10 yr valuation to smooth out earnings peak and trough during cycles. He would say BUY only if stocks are trading well below 10 yr valuations. ie Price/Average EPS over 10 yrs is less than 18x. He also have 6 other criteria to follow. Basically, you can't find stocks meeting most criteria in 2006-2007.

In conclusion, to get an ok return on investment (like 8%pa) over a 15 yr investment horizon, we need to know the macroeconomic trends, don't jump into stocks when everyone is also jumping in, focus A LOT on valuations, esp long-term valuation (not 1-2 yr forward EPS) and keep that margin of safety concept in our heads, and we should be ok.