The 3 dimensions of value investing

Apr 06, 2021

The clichéd “value” investor is one who holds statistically cheap stocks and a “growth” investor is one who holds statistically expensive stocks.

Vitaliy N. Katsenelson reminds us that the truth is a lot more complex, and crude segmentations don’t capture it. Here he shares his perspective.

The values of value investing

I organize a conference every summer called VALUEx Vail. Vail is a quaint, beautiful, ritzy ski resort town tucked away in the Rocky Mountains.

One day, I received an e-mail from a reader asking why I — a value investor — would have a conference in an expensive place like Vail. He suggested that as a true value investor I should hold the conference in a hotel somewhere by the airport where prices are much cheaper. His precise comment was, “I thought value investors were supposed to like cheap stuff.”

This e-mail challenged my value-investment-hood. It made me question my value investing “values.” Was that reader right? Was I straying from value investor traditions? Maybe I should rename the conference VALUEx Motel 6 and hold it at a $36-a-night, remote airport hotel?

I recognized that the notion was slightly silly, but I began to ponder: What are the values of value investing?

In one of my articles, I called Charlie Munger “Warren Buffett’s sidekick.” Jeff Matthews, a friend and the author of Pilgrimage to Warren Buffett’s Omaha, sent me an impassioned note saying:

Charlie is not a ‘sidekick’! Charlie changed Buffett’s investment philosophy. Sidekicks don’t do that.

At Munger’s 90th birthday party, Buffett pulled out an old, yellowed letter that Munger had written back in the day where Munger actually told Buffett explicitly that he had to change — that the cigar-butt stuff wouldn’t scale, that it was better to buy good businesses even if the price wasn’t dirt cheap.

I thought that was astonishing, maybe the most insightful thing I’d ever heard about Munger. He didn’t just talk about it; he actively pushed Buffett to change. Literally, without Munger there’s no Berkshire as we know it.

Munger turned Buffett from being a one-dimensional to a three-dimensional investor.

The opposite of value is NOT growth

  • Cheapness

In Ben Graham’s 1949 The Intelligent Investor, he spent a lot of time talking about cheap stocks. He defined them as the ones that trade at single-digit price-earnings multiples, trade at a discount to book value, or trade below their cash value (net-nets).

Graham placed great emphasis on statistical cheapness — his flavour of value investing is tangible, staring you in the face. It requires very little imagination. You just need to close your eyes, plug your nose, take a deep breath and buy whatever you scrape off the bottom of the stock market abyss — what Warren Buffett calls the cigar-butt approach to investing.

But if the only thing you get out of Graham’s teachings is to buy statistically cheap stocks, then you are shortchanging yourself. This analysis is one-dimensional and ignores much that is important.

A statistical value investor does not even have to be good at math — the counting skills you acquired in kindergarten are enough. As long as the P/E of the stock you want to buy doesn’t exceed the number of digits you have on two hands, you are a Ben Graham value investor.

But as Munger pointed out, this one-dimensional strategy is not scalable. You have only a very few opportunities in your lifetime to assemble a portfolio of (in-your-face) statistically cheap stocks that are decent businesses. All other times, you’ll end up owning a lot of melting ice cubes.

The quality and growth dimensions may lack in-your-face tangibility — they are often more difficult to quantify — but are very important sources of value.

  • Quality

A high-quality, mature company that is barely growing earnings (think Coca-Cola) is like an inflation-protected bond. This company dominates its industry, and its existing (key word) business generates a high return on capital; but it cannot put this capital to work at these high rates because it already has a large market share in an industry with GDP-like growth.

As an investor, you’ll collect dividends that will grow with inflation. You will make or lose money on the stock price depending on the pendulum swing of price to earnings around the fair (par) value (which will also appreciate in line with inflation).

From today’s perch, in a world where investors are starved for yield, mature high-quality businesses trade like very, very expensive bond substitutes — their P/E pendulum puts their valuation much above par.

  • Growth

Growth is a tricky dimension. On a stand-alone basis it means very little and can often be dangerous. A company that grew earnings at a fast pace in the past but lacked a sustainable competitive advantage (a bedrock of quality) will invite competition that will destroy current and future profitability.

When you combine growth with quality, however, the mixture is magical and will result in a lot of value (think Apple).This value lies in future earnings. Another way to say the same thing is: A high-quality company with a high return on capital married to a significant growth runway — the ability to reinvest at a high rate in the future — will create significant value, which will not be observable in last year’s or even next year’s earning power but years from now.

Think about some of Buffett’s best investments: American Express and Geico. Both had significant competitive advantages. In the case of Geico, it sold directly to consumers and thus was a low-cost producer in a commodity industry. American Express simply had an unassailable brand. Both had a huge growth runway ahead when Buffett purchased them.

Myth: Value and Growth are completely different

If Graham’s Intelligent Investor is the bible of value investing, then what should we learn from it?

Don’t trade stocks like you would trade sardines; view them as partial ownership of businesses.

Mr. Market is there to serve you, not the other way around.

Margin of safety — buying stocks at a discount to what they are worth. But a discount to “worth” doesn’t equate to statistically cheap. A $36-a-night room at Motel 6 by the airport, overrun by cockroaches and bedbugs and with questionable plumbing, may be statistically cheap, but it’s not a bargain. If I held my investment conference in a hotel like that, it wouldn’t be attended by anyone other than the vermin that are already there.

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ninan joseph
Apr 10 2021 02:54 PM
With respect to value investing
ONGC - Intrinsic value of the stock is 433 and market value is 103
SBI - IV - 383, MV - 353.
REC - IV - 166, MV - 132.
NTPC - IV - 137 - MV - 102

Intrinsic value is determined based on the Median of the 3 historical models.
Fair Value [Median EV / EBIDTA Model] : Rs. 136.56
Fair Value [Median EV / Sales Model] : Rs. 137.70
Fair Value [Median Price / Sales Model] : Rs. 203.84
Median Fair Value of NTPC : Rs. 137.70

This is a better valuation methodology than simple PE less than 10. The bigger picture is although these few stocks are cheaper no one is interested in buying them. Why - because it is Govt Owned and payout dividends like anything.

Anyone who has invested in these companies, not sure if there is any real wealth creation.
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