Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Where "Value" Investors Often Go Wrong

After what happened to equity markets in 2008, many financial "experts" began to question whether or not any investing school of thought really worked. Those who believed that the market was efficient found egg on their face when all was said and done. I didn't need 2008 to prove to me that markets were inefficient. The proof positive reason I have for market inefficiency is simple this: the stock market consists of human participants who by their very nature are irrational and inefficient creatures.

The other school of thought that took a beating was that of value investing. I've never really been fond of using the term value investing, since I subscribe to the Charlie Munger view that "all investing is value investing." Further I believe that the value and growth aspects of investing are merely two sides of the same coin. Nonetheless, its because precisely that so few individuals actually subscribe to the tenants of value investing (those being risk aversion, avoidance of crowd psychology, buying businesses in out in favor places, etc.) that we do use the term value investing. So it is in this context that I dispense of the term value investing and how I adhere to it.

Let me use a moment now to throw in a shameless plug for my recent book that was just published by John Wiley and Sons, "The Business of Value Investing" which focuses on precisely how a businesslike mind frame is what true value investors employ in selecting equities. The book focuses on the six essential elements (use of the word element is deliberate - elements are essential to life) that are incorporated in the value investors mind.

Back to the topic at hand. Value investing was left for dead after 2008. I mean when Bill Miller nearly 50% in a year and Mohnish Pabrai drops by nearly 60%, surely the approach is flawed. Never mind that folks criticizing the tenets of value are dismissing over 80 years of results by Ben Graham, Walter Schloss, Warren Buffett, and Seth Klarman. Even I will admit the Gad Partners Funds' had a terrible 2008, down nearly 45 percent. But the value investor sticks to his knitting, obviously willing to tweak his or her approach, but never doubting the inherent success of the foundations of value investing. (By the way, I believe Miller is up nearly 50% this year and Pabrai is up over 100%. As for the GPF, I can't get into the specifics but we are in between Miller and Pabrai. Obviously simple tells you that even those results have yet to get any of us back above 2008 levels, but we are not done, not by a long shot.)

Where many "value" folk go wrong is in a very fundamental sense. Many investors spend far too much time focusing on the income statement first and the balance sheet second. No question, profits are important, but without a solid foundation, those profits are only as good as the business environment. And no business environment stays rosy forever - there are hiccups. And if business setbacks are hiccups, 2008 was a trip to the ICU.

The balance sheet must always be the most relied upon piece of information. In basic value terminology, the balance sheet is the FIRST MOAT. Of course, the balance sheet alone is not enough. The income statement is the SECOND MOAT. A debt free, cash rich company is great, but not so great if that business can't produce profits. Still a profitless company with a sound balance sheet still has value creating catalysts - buyout, liquidation, etc. - that serve to protect the investor. The same is not true for a profitless company loaded with debt or poor assets. The results here can often be massive shareholder dilution in order to keep the company afloat or worse, bankruptcy.