P/E Ratios: Part 1

What is a good P/E ratio? Well, good P/E ratios are low. But how low is low enough? Is 20 good? Is 15 good? There are a couple ways to look at this–in terms of a business in general, and in terms of what the markets have determined to be an average P/E in the past. I address historical P/E ratios in the stock market in a future post.

Let’s say you own Acme Brick, and your company makes an average profit of $1 million per year. As the owner, you can pay that to yourself or reinvest it in the business. Let’s say you want to sell, though. What is a fair value? To do this, you need to compare the return that you would make on your business relative to the risk-free interest rate (the rate of interest that you could earn on a U.S. government bond). The rate is now about 5%.

The person to whom you are selling Acme Brick should (at a fair selling price) be able to make a somewhat better return on his money than if he just bought government bonds. This is because he is taking on more risk in buying a company than he would be if he bought government bonds. The company may see its profits shrink, whereas the return on a government bond is guaranteed. So we then fire up a handy interest rate calculator and learn that at 5% interest, it takes about 14 years to double your money.

So what price would a buyer of Acme Brick have to pay so that it would take him 14 years to double his money? He would have to pay $14 million dollars. (In 14 years, his $1 million per year profit would have doubled his original investment to a value of $36 million, including both the company and cash.) I must note that it would actually take less than 14 years for Acme Brick to double the initial investment, because when earnings are paid out each year, they can be invested elsewhere and will thus compound, just like interest on a bond compounds.

Because there is more risk in Acme Brick than in the U.S. government, $14 million is too high, so we subtract some money from his buying price to compensate the buyer for his risk. Therefore, about $10-12 million should be a fair price for buyer and seller. This price translates to a P/E ratio of 10-12. So is this the fair P/E ratio of all businesses? No. In our example, we assume Acme is not growing more profitable. If the company is growing its profits rapidly, a higher price would be in order. However, if the company is becoming less profitable, a much lower price is in order. But the price is always determined from the future profits we can expect from the company. When we take into account the other possible uses of our money, such as buying government bonds, what we have done is an over-simplified discounted cash flow analysis (only the really courageous should follow that link). Again, this is simplified, but the future introduces so much uncertainty that more precise calculations are rarely helpful.

So, with current interest rates very low (around 5% for medium-term government bonds), a fair P/E for a company that is not growing more profitable is about 12. We don’t want to buy companies when they are fairly valued. We want to buy them when they are good values or great values. Thus, for companies that do not show strong growth, we will prefer to pay less than $9 for every $1 in earnings (or, a P/E ratio of 9). For companies with strong growth, we may be willing to pay up to around a P/E of 20 (although the lower, the better).

By paying less than the fair value, we give ourselves a margin of safety, so that we are protected in case we make a mistake in our calculations or in case the company in which we are investing suddenly starts to do worse. Half the battle of making money in the stock market is avoiding big losses, so in buying great values, we are halfway to success.

The Intelligent Investor

It was Ben Graham who taught me how to invest. Sure, I had played around with stocks before him, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. His book, The Intelligent Investor, is a one-book course on investing by understanding value.I recommend (and link to) the most recent edition, which has the 1970 edition of Graham’s writing, plus a 2002 commentary by financial writer Jason Zweig. This swells the book to over 600 pages, but it is all useful. I will try to outline below a couple of Graham’s key points.

The most important point that Graham emphasizes is that because we cannot accurately predict the future, we must have an adequate margin of safety. That is, we do not buy a company when it is fairly valued, because there is no room for error. Rather, we buy a stock that is very undervalued; even if the business starts to do a little worse it will still be a great value.

There are two ways we can look at value in companies. We can look at value from the viewpoint of the present value of the future earnings of the company or we can look at the present value of the assets of the company.

Graham liked to buy companies that were trading below 2/3 of their net tangible asset value. You calculate net tangible assets by subtracting all the debts of a company from all ‘hard’ assets, such as cash, receivables, investments, property (while ignoring goodwill, patents, and other hard to value assets).

In buying a company trading at a fraction of its tangible asset value, we are in essence buying it for less than its assets; theoretically, we could close the company and sell off its assets and make a decent profit.

Graham was not usually looking to do this, but in buying a company like that, he knew that its price could not fall much further–if it did, someone would buy up a majority of the company and sell off its assets for a profit. This gave the investor a very small downside risk but a lot of chance for a large profit on the upside.

Companies selling for less than their assets are rare nowadays, although if we wait until the next bear market, we will be able to find some and profit from them. In the meantime, though, we will most often buy companies that are undervalued in terms of their earning potential.

Another important point that Graham made is that, for an intelligent investor, there should be no difference between ‘growth’ and ‘value’ investing. If a company is increasing its earnings at a rapid pace, then its present value will be higher than a company that is not growing.

Thus, a rational value investor will be willing to pay more for a fast-growing company than for a slow-growing company. The problem with most so-called ‘growth’ investors is that they are willing to pay so much for stellar growth that they are left with no margin of safety. During the internet stock bubble, companies such as Yahoo [[YHOO]] and Amazon.com [[AMZN]] sold at astronomical P/E ratios. If you had bought Yahoo in late 1999 and held until today, you would have lost over half your money. Buying Amazon would have netted you a small loss–better than Yahoo, but not good considering it has been 8 years since 1999.

Even today, with P/E ratios of 44 and 108, these companies are not cheap. Most likely holding them for the next few years will not be a great investment.

While a company with a high valuation may continue to grow impressively, if its growth starts to slow even a bit, the stock will get hammered. This is why we stay away from overvalued companies, no matter how good they are. There is just too much risk.

Well, in one page I cannot do Ben Graham justice. Buy his book. If you buy only one investment book, this should be it.

Disclosure: I am neither long nor short any of the stocks mentioned above. I own The Intelligent Investor. See my disclosure policy.

The Value of Sloth

Are you worried that you aren’t doing enough to increase your investment performance? Perhaps all you need to do is go on a 2.5 year vacation. According to Mark Hulbert, the best performing investment newsletter over the last 5 years has not been published in the last 2.5 years. So by doing absolutely nothing it has garnered great profits. Surprisingly, this is not an isolated instance–mutual funds and individual investors who trade less often make more money. Partly because they reduce their costs and commissions, but also because the urge to always do something often leads to stupid mistakes.

Another good example of the benefits of sloth comes from investing in the S&P 500. As shown by a recent research article, you would have done better holding the original 500 companies in the S&P 500 and doing NOTHING rather than investing in the actual S&P 500 index (which adds or drops about 20 stocks each year). So even a 50 year vacation can be beneficial! And remember that the less frequently you trade, the fewer taxes you pay (because you are compounding pre-tax money–if you sell each year you compound after-tax money).

Disclosure: it has been far too long since I took a vacation!

Dilbert’s 9-point secret to financial happiness

Article at Marketwatch. Here are Dilbert’s 9 secrets to financial happiness

  1. Make a will
  2. Pay off your credit cards
  3. Get term life insurance if you have a family to support
  4. Fund your 401k to the maximum
  5. Fund your IRA to the maximum
  6. Buy a house if you want to live in a house and can afford it
  7. Put six months worth of expenses in a money-market account
  8. Take whatever money is left over and invest 70% in a stock index fund and 30% in a bond fund through any discount broker and never touch it until retirement
  9. If any of this confuses you, or you have something special going on (retirement, college planning, tax issues), hire a fee-based financial planner, not one who charges a percentage of your portfolio

here are my comments on each of the points:

  1. Very important — it is also important to have a living will, and if you have significant assets (particularly real estate), a revocable living trust with most of your assets in that living trust. This avoids probate if you die.
  2. Duh. But most people don’t.
  3. Duh. It is cheap.
  4. Especially if you have a company match.
  5. And fund your IRA at the beginning of each year rather than at the end.
  6. Houses are great forced-savings devices. They are also great to live in.
  7. Most bankruptcies are from unforeseen medical or other temporary emergencies. A rainy day fund is very useful.
  8. Unless you are 100% sure you know what you are doing, this is great advice. My advice to go with a target-date index fund from Vanguard is even better, though.
  9. Excellent advice

I would also add to buy a cheap car, either used or new, take care of it, and use it until it dies. Many monthly expenses are unnecessary and do not add to happiness–is Applebee’s really that much better than what you can do yourself?

Why Inexperienced Investors Do Not Learn

Why Inexperienced Investors Do Not Learn: They Don’t Know Their Past Portfolio Performance

Glaser and Weber just released a paper with the above title on SSRN. I urge you to download and read it. They examine the performance of 215 online investors over the past 4 years and find that the investors have no clue whatsoever as to how much money they made or lost. At the extreme, one investor who thought he had lost 50% per year had actually gained 2% per year. Another who thought she had gained 120% per year had lost 3% per year.

There was literally no correlation between the returns investors thought they had made and the returns they actually made. There was a tendency for those with better performance to be more accurate in assessing their past performance (they were better calibrated). This is a logical outcome–those investors who know how they did were more likely to allocate money to strategies that worked. So if they knew that they tended to lose money speculating in tech stocks, they would know to switch to something safer (index funds or blue chip stocks). That is why you should know your performance.

I am the poster boy for the importance of tracking performance. Since I started seriously investing in 2005 I have done all sorts of things–day trading, options, shorting stocks, speculating in gold, quantitative investing, value investing, and raw speculation. I know after tracking my performance in detail on Icarra that most of these things were not worthwhile. While I made a lot of money in gold I did not know what I was doing, so it made sense to get out. I lost money in day trading and got out with minuscule losses after only a week. I have made money shorting stocks. I have broken even on my options trading, mostly because I have gotten fairly good at shorting stocks and I used puts on a few stocks this summer that I could not borrow the shares to short. I have lost a lot of money in various stock speculation. When I have focused on finding and understanding good value stocks I have on the whole made money, doing slightly better than the market. My quantitative investing performance has been pretty darn spectacular.

So now that I know how I have performed, what will I do about it? I have forbidden myself from rank speculation in stocks or options. I have increased my short activity. I have limited the number of individual stock positions I pick for my value investing portfolio, increasing the size of each position, so that I can focus on better understanding each company. I have also drastically increased the portion of my portfolio that I allocate to quantitative strategies, both long and short.

So take a look at your performance. If it is okay, you may want to allocate more money to those strategies that are more profitable and less to those that are less profitable. If your performance is dismal, you may want to just stick all your investments in index funds. Remember, if you index, you can expect to outperform 80% of all investors, while spending a lot less time thinking about your investments.

Feel like timing the market?

It may not be such a good idea. A perfect market timer could have, over the last 80 years, turned $1 into $670 million. A perfectly inept market timer would have turned $100 million into $1,000. A market timer would have to be right about 70% of the time just to equal the return of a buy and hold index fund. Do you think you are that good? See the study here

Uncorrelated assets now correlated

One of the reasons for recommending diversification of asset classes (stocks, bonds, real estate, commodities, etc) is that since different asset classes are imperfectly correlated this will reduce volatility and risk. A recent report from Merrill Lynch shows that the correlation between different asset classes have increased over the last year. Your best bet for diversification? Short-term bonds with maturities of a 2 to 5 years. My bet is on treasuries, particularly TIPS. For my personal portfolio, I lend money on the P2P lending site prosper.com and I expect to earn an 8.5% annual return with little effort.

Article here (PDF): http://rsch1.ml.com/9093/24013/ds/20350591.PDF

Asset Allocation for Dummies

I will tell you now, and I will repeat myself as necessary: I am not an expert on asset allocation. That being said, I doubt that anyone else is, either. It is impossible to describe any investing philosophy without touching on asset allocation, so following is my philosophy.

Total up all the assets of significant value you have. That includes your car, house, savings and checking accounts, expensive objects (any object worth over $1,000 is worth counting), bonds, and mutual funds and stocks.

The first key to asset allocation is that you should eliminate any high-rate debt you have. If you have bonds or mutual funds that are not in a retirement account, then you should sell them off to pay off credit card debt. It is very hard to get better returns on your stocks than the credit companies get from you. Look at paying off credit cards as a safe, easy, guaranteed investment that will yield 18%.

Now, it is my firm belief that you should always have at least six months worth of living expenses in cash-type accounts (checking accounts, savings accounts, and money market accounts). A portion of this money can be in a higher yielding short-term CD, though. Some would say this is high. At the very least, you should have two months’ worth of expenses saved. Otherwise, if an emergency comes up, you will be forced to rely upon credit card debt or to liquidate your stocks.

After you have taken care of the basics, stick the first $10,000 of your money destined for stocks into a low cost index mutual fund. I recommend Vanguard funds. This is for a few reasons. First, it ensures that even if you do something really stupid and lose the rest of your stock money, you will still be exposed to possible gains in the stock market. Second, your individual stocks may be quite volatile, and having some of your stock in an index fund will probably help you sleep at night.

Now for the rest of the money. The traditional two investments are stocks and bonds. How should you allocate how much you have in bonds versus how much you have in stocks (including your mutual fund)? Ben Graham recommended that as a value investor, you should be most highly invested in stocks when the stock market is at a low (in the depths of a bear market), and least invested in stocks when the market is at a peak (and when the future seems rosiest). How do you time when the worst of a bear market will hit, or when the peak of the bull market will come?

You don’t. All you do is gradually sell more stocks as the stock market rises, and buy more as it declines. Any cash you generate from selling you put into bonds, and when you are buying stocks, you are selling bonds. You never want to hold all stocks or all bonds, in case you are wrong and the one outperforms the other for a period of time. You do not have to perfectly time the market to do quite well using this method.

Another view on asset allocation is that it should vary with your age. The thinking is that if you are older, you will need your money sooner, and should not have as much money in stocks, which could do poorly for years. Ben Graham thought this idea was bunk, and I would agree, to some extent. While stocks as a whole may underperform bonds for a period of years, if you are doing a good job as a value investor, then the stocks you buy will tend to do okay even in bear markets. When they go down, they will tend to come back up within a period of a couple years.

Thus, I recommend a hybrid approach. As you get very old, put some money in bonds. But if you are a successful stock investor, keep investing in stocks. Also, over time, stocks have generally outperformed bonds (though this is not certain in the future). Therefore, except at the heights of a bull market, keep the majority of your investable assets in stocks.

That being said, the stock market as a whole is not cheap right now, and neither is the bond market, so an allocation of 50% stocks, 40% bonds, and 10% cash in a money market account sounds reasonable.

If even this is too much thinking (and worrying) for you, I suggest investing your retirement money in Vanguard’s excellent target-date retirement funds, which have low fees and choose your asset allocation for you.

The Kelly Criterion

The Kelly Criterion is a formula for choosing how large a bet to make on each trade/investment/gamble. It works for the stock market, though it was originally developed for gambling. The formula is simple: bet the proportion of your investment as defined by the ratio of expected return divided by maximum return. Expected return is what you expect in the long run.

So, the formula is: P_invest = E(r) / M(r)
Proportion of portfolio to invest = P_invest
Expected return= E(r)
Maximum return = M(r)

Now, a couple of examples:

1. If you flip fair coin and win $1 if heads and lose $1 if tails, the expected return is $0 (.5 x $1 + .5 x -1). The maximum return is $1 (if heads). Therefore, the Kelly criterion suggests you bet no money ($0/$1). This makes sense, because you should not invest money where you expect to only break even.

2. You want to short Apple (AAPL) because you think there is an 80% chance the stock will go down in the next month. You think if that happens, the stock will go down 10%. You figure that there is a 20% chance that the stock will go up 5%. The expected return is 7% (.8 x 10% + .2 x -5%). The maximum gain is 10%. The Kelly formula suggests that you invest at most 70% (7/10) of your portfolio.

3. Same thing, shorting AAPL. You like the odds, so you increase your leverage by buying put options. You buy just out of the money options. Now, there is a 70% chance that your options expire worthless (-100% return) and a 30% chance that you make 300%. The expected return is +20% (.7 x -100 + .3 x 300). The maximum gain is 300%. The Kelly formula says that you should bet less than 1/15 (about 6.5%) of your portfolio (20/300).

One thing to consider is that the Kelly formula seeks only to maximize gains. If you wish to minimize portfolio variability as well, you should invest significantly less than the maximum allowed by the Kelly formula. Also, keep in mind that the formula is only as good as your guesses of probability.

I recommend a Legg Mason article on the Kelly Criterion, or this paper by Edward Thorp (who used it to great effect).

Visit Cisiova’s website for their advanced online Kelly Criterion calculator, which allows you to enter a large number of possible outcomes.

If you liked this post you may want to check out William Poundstone’s book Fortune’s Formula.

Disclosure: I own no Apple stock, long or short. Unfortunately, I did once lose money shorting AAPL. My disclosure policy never loses me money.