I find it ironic that more research is being done today than at any point in time in the past, yet a lot of value investors are failing to beat the market.
Ironically, the mountain of articles on popular investing websites just aren't helping. Part of the problem might be due to the "more brains" problem Graham cited years ago. Since everybody on Wall Street is so smart, all those brains ultimately cancel each other out.
This glut of brain power, investment research, and investors clamouring for bargains does not mean that you can't beat the market. But knowing how to pick value stocks is a key requirement, along with having a good strategy and being prepared to do things that most other investors aren't.
Where You Should Hunt When Picking Value Stocks
One core piece of the puzzle is leveraging your biggest competitive advantage as a small investor: your size. Let me explain.
Professional money managers manage billions of dollars each year. In fact, the entire mutual fund industry in the U.S. in 2012 amounted to $13 trillion and the size of the average mutual fund was a staggering $1.72 billion.
Legal regulations make owning more than 10% of a single company, or having a single company make up more than 5% of assets, a real burden for a fund company. Given that managers want to keep positions below 5% of their fund, the pool of investment candidates open to money managers is tiny. These restrictions essentially limit a manager's universe of stocks to firms that are $860 million in market cap or larger. That means focusing on roughly 500-600 of the largest companies in the US.
With that much money sloshing around the markets, small, medium and large cap companies are, understandably, extremely picked-over. This suggests a powerful advantage that small investors can leverage: investing where the pros aren't investing.
That really comes down to investing in micro cap and nano cap companies. It's in this universe, among the thousands of tiny publicly traded companies available, that a small investor can pick the most promising value stocks.
What Value Stocks to Concentrate On
15 years of experience in investing has taught me a few very valuable lessons.
The first is that, despite your research, you're probably not as important to the end result as you'd like to think you are. Sure, you can conduct an analysis and your stock can go up just as you predicted, but it may not have advanced for the reasons you thought. Sometimes the stocks that you assume that will workout well... don't. And, at other times, the stocks you thought were real dogs will advance in price.
Another core insight I've had over the previous decade is that I (and likely you, as well) am not Warren Buffett. Small investors can't bring the same amount of skill and experience to investing as he does, and blindly following how he invests today is what I call falling into the Warren Buffett trap.
Luckily, a small investor doesn't have to have Buffett's investing prowess to know how to pick value stocks and succeed as an investor. Investing is a probabilistic exercise, and I've found leveraging a statistical investment strategy (i.e. "mechanical" investing style) extremely rewarding. Leveraging them means being able to earn the same investment returns that drew you to value investing in the first place -- without you having to be an investing guru.
By simply buying a basket of stocks that are undervalued relative to some value metric, you can leverage those statistical returns to propel your portfolio to large profits.
In fact, this is the exact strategy that Ben Graham himself finally arived at just before his death in 1976. Ironically, some investors skip bits and pieces of Graham but don't actually comb through his entire work. They consider it good enough to just read Security Analysis, as if that represented everything the man thought. In fact, Graham had written extensively about conducting detailed security analysis throughout his life but finally tossed it aside in favour of just this strategy.
"I am no longer an advocate of elaborate techniques of security analysis in order to find superior value opportunities. This was a rewarding activity, say, 40 years ago, when our textbook "Graham and Dodd" was first published; but the situation has changed a great deal since then. "
[I recommend] a highly simplified [strategy] that applies a single criteria or perhaps two criteria to the price [of a stock] to assure that full value is present and that relies for its results on the performance of the portfolio as a whole--i.e., on the group results--rather than on the expectations for individual issues.
What Sorts of Strategies Am I Talking About?
The sort of strategies that I'm talking about fall into the "classic value investing" or "deep value investing" categories. These are the value strategies that Benjamin Graham talked about years ago when he taught his students how to pick value stocks. These strategies have been extensively tested and used successfully in practice for decades.
Low PE - One of these strategies is the classic Low Price to Earnings strategy. This strategy has been employed successfully by contrarian managers such as David Dreman, whose funds returned 16-17% per year over decades. In general, as reported by Tweedy Browne, a low-PE strategy is good for an average annual return of 16%.
Low PB - Low Price to Book value is another classic value metric that yields market-beating results. Using the strategy, investors should expect to bag a CAGR as high as 14.5%. That's a fat 45% in excess of the market return over the course of your life.
Low PC - One of the more recent classic value strategies, this focuses on finding stocks that are low relative to cash flow. This strategy performs a bit better, recording a CAGR of just over 18%.
High Dividend Yield - Mario Levis at the University of Bath conducted a study called "Stock Market Anomalies: A Reassessment Based on the UK Evidence." He found that the highest dividend yielding stocks returned 19.3% on average. Not bad for a basket of cheap stocks!
Net-Nets - But the king of these strategies is Ben Graham's famous net-net stock strategy. This strategy has consistently beaten the market both in studies and in practice by roughly 15% per year. That amounts to a 25% CAGR, and you can achieve even higher returns with a basket of net-nets by screening for other key characteristics. And my own portfolio has done very well using this strategy.
Of course, the catch is that while you can always find enough stocks to fill a portfolio using the first four strategies, during bull markets domestic net-nets dry up, making it almost impossible to use the strategy. At least that's what popular websites will tell you -- which tripped me up years ago. By expanding your universe of investment candidates to include friendly international markets you can fill your net-net stock portfolio under all market conditions.
How to Pick Value Stocks Once You've Nailed Down a Core Strategy
This is where hunting for tiny stocks comes into play. When picking value stocks, you're going to find your best opportunities within the universe of small companies.
I'm going to come at this from the perspective of a net-net stock investor, since this is where I've chosen to specialize. That being said, the process is the same for any statistical value strategy.
As it turns out, not only do small stocks offer the best opportunities for value investors, but statistical portfolios of the smallest value stocks also offer the best portfolio returns. When it comes to net-net stocks, Xiao & Arnold found that a portfolio of the smallest net-nets returned significantly more than the largest net-nets studied, 30.6% per year vs. 17.2% per year. That's a staggering difference in return.
The same trend is found among other sorts of classic value stocks. Tweedy Browne found that the smallest one-fifth of low-PE stocks outperformed the largest, 19.1% to 13.1%. So, no matter what strategy you use, go small. Go tiny, in fact.
This is where major investing websites really start to trip up investors. The focus on large investing sites is almost always on large stocks, and that causes small investors to give up a much more promising universe of investment opportunities in favor of trying to compete against the pros. Plus, you can only take advantage of a net-net stock strategy if you're buying tiny companies.
Once I've narrowed down my list of possible investment candidates to the smallest, I like to look for additional metrics that are highly correlated to outperformance versus the benchmark. For net-nets, one of those characteristics is a debt to equity figure below 20%. Companies with low debt to equity ratios drastically outperformed the benchmark in Tweedy Browne's study, "What Has Worked in Investing," recording a CAGR of nearly 35% compared to their universe of net-nets which returned 28.8%. That's 6% per year of extra return!
Some people assume that unprofitable companies trading as net nets make for bad investments. But the evidence, in the form of academic studies, just doesn't support that. Over a 38 year period, Oppenhiemer and Tobias Carleisle of Greenbackd fame looked at a range of net nets and found that money losing net nets actually outperformed the rest. This is ironic because Graham favoured not just profitable net nets, but net nets that pay a dividend. Yet, studies find that dividend paying net nets actually produce lower returns -- exactly opposite of what Graham suggested!
My own returns of money losing net nets have been uniformly good. Again, I base my own strategy on tangible evidence, not wishful thinking, theory, or how things "should" work. I'm very practical in what I do -- and I just do what's been shown to work.
I also avoid firms with major Chinese operations, due to the flood of reverse merger scams, as well as resource exploration companies, pharmaceutical companies, real estate companies and companies in regulated industries such as finance. None of these make for the highest quality net-nets, and I'm after the highest possible returns.
If net-net stocks interest you then pick up a free copy of my Core7 Scorecard, the checklist I use when selecting net-nets for my own portfolio here. Even if you aren't interested in net-nets, reviewing the characteristics I have in place can really help you understand how to pick value stocks.
As Graham mentioned just before his death in 1976, net nets were even then still his prefered investment strategy.
[this] technique confines itself to the purchase of common stocks at less than their working-capital value, or net-current-asset value, giving no weight to the plant and other fixed assets, and deducting all liabilities in full from the current assets. We used this approach extensively in managing investment funds, and over a 30-odd year period we must have earned an average of some 20 per cent per year from this source.
we found it almost unfailingly dependable and satisfactory in 30-odd years of managing moderate-sized investment funds.
I consider it a foolproof method of systematic investment--once again, not on the basis of individual results but in terms of the expectable group outcome.
How to Craft Your Portfolio
If you do a good enough job using additional criteria to screen out the less promising candidates, building a portfolio really takes care of itself.
At the end of the process you should be left with a very manageable number of firms. From there, spend time ranking the firms from most to least promising and then spend an equal dollar amount on the 20 most promising investments. That's it.
.... Sort of. Admittedly, screening for the top companies takes a lot of work. That's why I've created our Net Net Hunter Shortlists, lists of the most promising net-net stocks available. These help our members concentrate their research, saving up to 20 hours of work each month. An additional step is the in-depth stock research we publish, which aim to show our members which net nets are vetted and which should be avoided. These are often the same stocks that I include in my own portfolio.
There are also nuances in portfolio construction and management that can really impact your returns, but that's not the focus of this article. I'll write that article at some point in the future. By now, you should have a great idea of how to pick value stocks for your own portfolio.
Investing is really not as difficult as you think it is but, ironically, a lot of people try to make it more difficult than it needs to be. The hardest part is really sourcing the investment ideas and then narrowing down the pool of investment candidates you pick from.