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The Economist: "Value investing is struggling to remain relevant"
Found this to be an excellent read and would love to hear what /investing has to say. Full article below:
It is now more than 20 years since the Nasdaq, an index of technology shares, crashed after a spectacular rise during the late 1990s. The peak in March 2000 marked the end of the internet bubble. The bust that followed was a vindication of the stringent valuation methods pioneered in the 1930s by Benjamin Graham, the father of “value” investing, and popularised by Warren Buffett. For this school, value means a low price relative to recent profits or the accounting (“book”) value of assets. Sober method and rigour were not features of the dotcom era. Analysts used vaguer measures, such as “eyeballs” or “engagement”. If that was too much effort, they simply talked up “the opportunity”.
Plenty of people sense a replay of the dotcom madness today. For much of the past decade a boom in America’s stockmarket has been powered by an elite of technology (or technology-enabled) shares, including Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon. The value stocks favoured by disciples of Graham have generally languished. But change may be afoot. In the past week or so, fortunes have reversed. Technology stocks have sold off. Value stocks have rallied, as prospects for a coronavirus vaccine raise hopes of a quick return to a normal economy. This might be the start of a long-heralded rotation from overpriced tech to far cheaper cyclicals—stocks that do well in a strong economy. Perhaps value is back.
This would be comforting. It would validate a particular approach to valuing companies that has been relied upon for the best part of a century by some of the most successful investors. But the uncomfortable truth is that some features of value investing are ill-suited to today’s economy. As the industrial age gives way to the digital age, the intrinsic worth of businesses is not well captured by old-style valuation methods, according to a recent essay by Michael Mauboussin and Dan Callahan of Morgan Stanley Investment Management.
The job of stockpicking remains to take advantage of the gap between expectations and fundamentals, between a stock’s price and its true worth. But the job has been complicated by a shift from tangible to intangible capital—from an economy where factories, office buildings and machinery were key to one where software, ideas, brands and general know-how matter most. The way intangible capital is accounted for (or rather, not accounted for) distorts measures of earnings and book value, which makes them less reliable metrics on which to base a company’s worth. A different approach is required—not the flaky practice of the dotcom era but a serious method, grounded in logic and financial theory. However, the vaunted heritage of old-school value investing has made it hard for a fresher approach to gain traction.
Graham’s crackerTo understand how this investment philosophy became so dominant, go back a century or so to when equity markets were still immature. Prices were noisy. Ideas about value were nascent. The decision to buy shares in a particular company might by based on a tip, on inside information, on a prejudice, or gut feel. A new class of equity investors was emerging. It included far-sighted managers of the endowment funds of universities. They saw that equities had advantages over bonds—notably those backed by mortgages, railroads or public utilities—which had been the preferred asset of long-term investors, such as insurance firms.
This new church soon had two doctrinal texts. In 1934 Graham published “Security Analysis” (with co-author David Dodd), a dense exposition of number-crunching techniques for stockpickers. Another of Graham’s books is easier to read and perhaps more influential. “The Intelligent Investor”, first published in 1949, ran in revised editions right up until (and indeed beyond) Graham’s death in 1976. The first edition is packed with sage analysis, which is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago.
Underpinning it all is an important distinction—between the price and value of a stock. Price is a creature of fickle sentiment, of greed and fear. Intrinsic value, by contrast, depends on a firm’s earnings power. This in turn derives from the capital assets on its books: its factories, machines, office buildings and so on.
The approach leans heavily on company accounts. The valuation of a stock should be based on a conservative multiple of future profits, which are themselves based on a sober projection of recent trends. The book value of the firm’s assets provides a cross-check. The past might be a crude guide to the future. But as Graham argued, it is a “more reliable basis of valuation than some other future plucked out of the air of either optimism or pessimism”. As an extra precaution, investors should seek a margin of safety between the price paid for a stock and its intrinsic value, to allow for any errors in the reckoning. The tenets of value investing were thus established. Be conservative. Seek shares with a low price-earnings or price-to-book ratio.
The enduring status of his approach owes more to Graham as tutor than the reputation he enjoyed as an investor. Graham taught a class on stockpicking at Columbia University. His most famous student was Mr Buffett, who took Graham’s investment creed, added his own twists and became one of the world’s richest men. Yet the stories surrounding Mr Buffett’s success are as important as the numbers, argued Aswath Damodaran of New York University’s Stern School of Business in a recent series of YouTube lectures on value investing. The bold purchase of shares in troubled American Express in 1964; the decision to dissolve his partnership in 1969, because stocks were too dear; the way he stoically sat out the dotcom mania decades later. These stories are part of the Buffett legend. The philosophy of value investing has been burnished by association.
It helped also that academic finance gave a back-handed blessing to value investing. An empirical study in 1992 by Eugene Fama, a Nobel-prize-winning finance theorist, and Kenneth French found that volatility, a measure of risk, did not explain stock returns between 1963 and 1990, as academic theory suggested it should. Instead they found that low price-to-book shares earned much higher returns over the long run than high price-to-book shares. One school of finance, which includes these authors, concluded that price-to-book might be a proxy for risk. For another school, including value investors, the Fama-French result was evidence of market inefficiency—and a validation of the value approach.
All this has had a lasting impact. Most investors “almost reflexively describe themselves as value investors, because it sounds like the right thing to say”, says Mr Damodaran. Why would they not? Every investor is a value investor, even if they are not attached to book value or trailing earnings as the way to select stocks. No sane person wants to overpay for stocks. The problem is that “value” has become a label for a narrow kind of analysis that often confuses means with ends. The approach has not worked well for a while. For much of the past decade, value stocks have lagged behind the general market and a long way behind “growth” stocks, their antithesis (see chart 1). Old-style value investing looks increasingly at odds with how the economy operates.
In Graham’s day the backbone of the economy was tangible capital. But things have changed. What makes companies distinctive, and therefore valuable, is not primarily their ownership of physical assets. The spread of manufacturing technology beyond the rich world has taken care of that. Any new design for a gadget, or garment, can be assembled to order by contract manufacturers from components made by any number of third-party factories. The value in a smartphone or a pair of fancy athletic shoes is mostly in the design, not the production.
In service-led economies the value of a business is increasingly in intangibles—assets you cannot touch, see or count easily. It might be software; think of Google’s search algorithm or Microsoft’s Windows operating system. It might be a consumer brand like Coca-Cola. It might be a drug patent or a publishing copyright. A lot of intangible wealth is even more nebulous than that. Complex supply chains or a set of distribution channels, neither of which is easily replicable, are intangible assets. So are the skills of a company’s workforce. In some cases the most valuable asset of all is a company’s culture: a set of routines, priorities and commitments that have been internalised by the workforce. It can’t always be written down. You cannot easily enter a number for it into a spreadsheet. But it can be of huge value all the same.
A beancounter’s nightmareThere are three important aspects to consider with respect to intangibles, says Mr Mauboussin: their measurement, their characteristics, and their implications for the way companies are valued. Start with measurement. Accounting for intangibles is notoriously tricky. The national accounts in America and elsewhere have made a certain amount of progress in grappling with the challenge. Some kinds of expenditure that used to be treated as a cost of production, such as r&d and software development, are now treated as capital spending in gdp figures. The effect on measured investment rates is quite marked (see chart 2). But intangibles’ treatment in company accounts is a bit of a mess. By their nature, they have unclear boundaries. They make accountants queasy. The more leeway a company has to turn day-to-day costs into capital assets, the more scope there is to fiddle with reported earnings. And not every dollar of r&d or advertising spending can be ascribed to a patent or a brand. This is why, with a few exceptions, such spending is treated in company accounts as a running cost, like rent or electricity.
The treatment of intangibles in mergers makes a mockery of this. If, say, one firm pays $2bn for another that has $1bn of tangible assets, the residual $1bn is counted as an intangible asset—either as brand value, if that can be appraised, or as “goodwill”. That distorts comparisons. A firm that has acquired brands by merger will have those reflected in its book value. A firm that has developed its own brands will not.
The second important aspect of intangibles is their unique characteristics. A business whose assets are mostly intangible will behave differently from one whose assets are mostly tangible. Intangible assets are “non-rival” goods: they can be used by lots of people simultaneously. Think of the recipe for a generic drug or the design of a semiconductor. That makes them unlike physical assets, whose use by one person or for one kind of manufacture precludes their use by or for another.
In their book “Capitalism Without Capital” Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake provided a useful taxonomy, which they call the four Ss: scalability, sunkenness, spillovers and synergies. Of these, scalability is the most salient. Intangibles can be used again and again without decay or constraint. Scalability becomes turbo-charged with network effects. The more people use a firm’s services, the more useful they are to other customers. They enjoy increasing returns to scale; the bigger they get, the cheaper it is to serve another customer. The big business successes of the past decade—Google, Amazon and Facebook in America; and Alibaba and Tencent in China—have grown to a size that was not widely predicted. But there are plenty of older asset-light businesses that were built on such network effects—think of Visa and Mastercard. The result is that industries become dominated by one or a few big players. The same goes for capital spending. A small number of leading firms now account for a large share of overall investment (see chart 3).
Physical assets usually have some second-hand value. Intangibles are different. Some are tradable: you can sell a well-known brand or license a patent. But many are not. You cannot (or cannot easily) sell a set of relationships with suppliers. That means the costs incurred in creating the asset are not recoverable—hence sunkenness. Business and product ideas can easily be copied by others, unless there is some legal means, such as a patent or copyright, to prevent it. This characteristic gives rise to spillovers from one company to another. And ideas often multiply in value when they are combined with other ideas. So intangibles tend to generate bigger synergies than tangible assets.
The third aspect of intangibles to consider is their implications for investors. A big one is that earnings and accounting book value have become less useful in gauging the value of a company. Profits are revenues minus costs. If a chunk of those costs are not running expenses but are instead spending on intangible assets that will generate future cashflows, then earnings are understated. And so, of course, is book value. The more a firm spends on advertising, r&d, workforce training, software development and so on, the more distorted the picture is.
The distinction between a running expense and investment is crucial for securities analysis. An important part of the stock analyst’s job is to understand both the magnitude of investment and the returns on it. This is not a particularly novel argument, as Messrs Mauboussin and Callahan point out. It was made nearly 60 years ago in a seminal paper by Merton Miller and Francesco Modigliani, two Nobel-prize-winning economists. They divided the value of a company into two parts. The first—call it the “steady state”—assumes that that the company can sustain its current profits into the future. The second is the present value of future growth opportunities—essentially what the firm might become. The second part depends on the firm’s investment: how much it does, the returns on that investment and how long the opportunity lasts. To begin to estimate this you have to work out the true rate of investment and the true returns on that investment.
The nature of intangible assets makes this a tricky calculation. But worthwhile analysis is usually difficult. “You can’t abdicate your responsibility to understand the magnitude of investment and the returns to it,” says Mr Mauboussin. Old-style value investors emphasise the steady state but largely ignore the growth-opportunities part. But for a youngish company able to grow at an exponential rate by exploiting increasing returns to scale, the future opportunity will account for the bulk of valuation. For such a firm with a high return on investment, it makes sense to plough profits back into the firm—and indeed to borrow to finance further investment.
Picking winners in an intangible economy—and paying a price for stocks commensurate with their chances of success—is not for the faint-hearted. Some investments will be a washout; sunkenness means some costs cannot be recovered. Network effects give rise to winner-takes-all or winner-takes-most markets, in which the second-best firm is worth a fraction of the best. Value investing seems safer. But the trouble with screening for stocks with a low price-to-book or price-to-earnings ratio is that it is likelier to select businesses whose best times are behind them than it is to identify future success.
Up, up and awayProperly understood, the idea of fundamental value has not changed. Graham’s key insight was that price will sometimes fall below intrinsic value (in which case, buy) and sometimes will rise above it (in which case, sell). In an economy mostly made up of tangible assets you could perhaps rely on a growth stock that had got ahead of itself to be pulled back to earth, and a value stock that got left behind to eventually catch up. Reversion to the mean was the order of the day. But in a world of increasing returns to scale, a firm that rises quickly will often keep on rising.
The economy has changed. The way investors think about valuation has to change, too. This is a case that’s harder to make when the valuation differential between tech and value stocks is so stark. A correction at some stage would not be a great surprise. The appeal of old-style value investing is that it is tethered to something concrete. In contrast, forward-looking valuations are by their nature more speculative. Bubbles are perhaps unavoidable; some people will extrapolate too far. Nevertheless, were Ben Graham alive today he would probably be revising his thinking. No one, least of all the father of value investing, said stockpicking was easy.
Please put me on the do not call list
I stared at the screen of my phone for a few minutes longer before pulling up the Steam app on my desktop and scrolling over the library of games I’d never play. I wanted to play all of them and none of them simultaneously. After biting my cheek and deciding on exactly no game to play, I began scrolling through the store instead, hoping that maybe I’d find a secret cheap gem I’d yet to notice. I nearly choked on my coffee when my phone began to buzz on the desk. Was she calling me? That is not what I’d expected after sending her the message. I pulled the ringing phone up to my face. Private?
Without a moment’s hesitation, I answered, hoping to hear her voice on the other end of the line. “Hello?” My voice was timid and dry.
“Hello, is this Mark?” said the male voice on the other end of the line.
I blinked, processing that I was not, in fact, talking to her. “Yes?”
“Hello, Mark, my name’s Darren and I’ll be assisting you today. Are you satisfied with your current network service provider?”
I moved my tongue around uncomfortably in my mouth, hoping to sound as polite as possible. “Fuck off, Darren.”
My thumb smacked the red phone icon before the man on the other end of the line had an opportunity to respond. I turned my attention back to my monitor and thought briefly about purchasing some survival game I’ve already forgotten the name of. The phone rang and I inspected the number. Private. I laid it back on the desk after ignoring it and that’s when I noticed something really strange. In the bottom right-hand corner of my computer monitor, a text chat popped up. It was one that I’d never seen before. The person in the chat was named Darren.
“No fucking way.” The words fell from my lips like soft warm molasses.
The text bubble popped up with the three dots to let me know that Darren was typing something. “Hey there, Mark, just checking in to see whether or not you’re satisfied with your current network service provider. If you have any questions about the exciting opportunities Sceptre Inc. is involved in, feel free to ask! We’re always here for you, Mark!”
My heart skipped a beat. Had this psycho hacked my computer somehow? None of this made any sense. I pulled up my task manager to check all the programs that were running, and nothing seemed tethered to the little chat box he was communicating with. I closed everything out. Except that chat box. For whatever reason, whenever I’d strike the little X for its window, it simply refused to respond. I shut my PC down and booted it back up.
As the OS warmed up and began running the apps I wanted on start-up, I breathed a little easier seeing that the chat box did not return. I scrolled through the Steam app some more and finally gave up on it, opting to go and take a break on the crapper. I scrolled through reddit, giving myself the two red marks across my thighs. Then my phone began buzzing in my hand. Private. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me man. This is a bit much.
I answered, “What do you want Darren?”
“Would you be willing to fill out a survey that I can then turn in to my supervisors?”
“No, Darren, no I would not.” I paused. “Is there anyway that I can get you to put me on a no-call list?”
“No call list?” His voice came across as confused. It was as though he’d never before heard anyone say those words before. “What. Is. A. No. Call. List?”
I hung up and finished my business. Boy, coffee keeps you regular, or so they say. I sat at my desk and wiggled the mouse. I was frozen to the spot, eyes bulging in response to what was on my screen. My background had been changed to a completely white one with black lettering. The message read:
ARE YOU SATISFIED WITH YOUR CURRENT NETWORK SERVICE PROVIDER?
Nah man. Fuck that. I unplugged the computer and ran my fingers through my hair. I was losing my mind. That’s what was happening. No doubt about it. I moved to the living room and attempted to forget the debacle with Darren. After checking out the bounty Netflix had to offer, I opted to flip it to The Office and only mildly paid attention to what was on the TV screen. Another call. Private. I put my phone on silent and sat it on the ottoman, hoping that maybe I could just ignore that fucking guy.
I downed another cup of coffee while craned over the stove. The smell of pancakes filled the kitchen. The Alexa in the corner played “We Didn’t Start the Fire” as I scooped the pancakes onto a plate and moved to the nook near the window. As I ate my breakfast and watched the birds in the back yard catch the wind and glide across the overgrown weeds, a knock came on my door. I raised an eyebrow but stood and went to the living room to the front door.
After peering from the window adjacent the door, and seeing that no one was on my stoop, I opened the door, glancing left and right. I almost didn’t see the package at my feet. It was plain without a signifier of its origin, wrapped in brown paper and twine. It had average, chest sized, package dimensions.
I sat it on the ottoman after bringing it in and stared at it, entirely forgetting my pancakes. There was a brief internal struggle of ethics as I wondered whether or not I should open it. At some point, without my hands having permission from my brain, I tore it open. It was a devil’s food cake. There was a message on its face:
ARE YOU SATISFIED WITH YOUR CURRENT NETWORK SERVICE PROVIDER?
I lifted the cake, walked to the front door, opened it, and yeeted the cake clear into the street. A dog barked somewhere far off and I slammed the door shut.
After checking my phone, I saw I’d missed over twenty phone calls. Almost all of them were from a private number. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” My heart jumped into the back of my throat. One of the phone calls was from her. I threw myself onto the couch and immediately called her back.
It rang and rang and rang. Just when I was sure the voicemail would pick it up, a click came across the other end of the line. “Hello?” I wagered.
“Hi there, Mark, this is Darren from Sceptre Inc. I was hoping to pick your brain. Have you looked over the catalogue we sent you in the mail?”
“C-catalogue?” Was he talking about the cake?
“That’s right. We were hoping to hear back from you about what we can do for you when it comes to your network needs. Would you happen to have a few hours to complete a survey that I can turn into my supervisors?”
I hung up. I’d called her, hadn’t I? I checked my call log. Yes, I’d called her. What was happening? I felt a needless chill in the air, so I decided to get myself dressed properly and run down to the store. Maybe getting out of the PJs and seeing another living breathing human being would do me some good. I dumped the remainder of my pancakes into the trash and moseyed out to my truck. It felt like someone was watching me. I surmised that after spending all night awake, I was having one of those floaty morning where all normal things felt strange.
I turned on the radio in the cab of my truck and pulled out of the driveway. I waved by people as I drove with my cigarette wielding hand out the window. It was strange. The pedestrians I drove past came to a full stop upon seeing me and locked eyes with me. They smiled warmly and waved mechanically. I tossed my cigarette out the window and rolled it up. “Weird.”
I parked in the gas station parking lot and hopped out, locking my truck. After perusing their fine selection of pork skins and fatty chips, I opted to grab a bag of trail mix. That’s healthier right? I slapped the bag on the counter and the clerk glanced down from the book he was reading. He dog-eared the page and scanned the item. “Two fifty-nine,” he said.
I took my trail mix after paying and went to the glass door that rang out a little jingle upon me pushing against it.
“How’s your current network service provider treating you?” asked the clerk.
I spun around to look at the man sitting behind the counter. “What’s that?”
“Have a good day.” He said.
As I moved to my truck, I saw that someone had placed innumerable paper fliers under the windshield wipers while I’d been inside of the store. I swiped them off with a hand, cussing, but upon catching a glance at one of them, I started checking each of them I pulled off the windshield. They all had the same message. I’ll let you guess what they said.
In a panic, I dove into my truck and fired the ignition alive, peeling out of the asphalt lot.
On the way home, passersby continued to stop and wave. I was sweating. It was getting hard to swallow. The sun was too bright. My ears were ringing. My heart was thumping in tandem with the spinning of the world. What the hell was happening?
My anxiety swelled just as I pulled into my driveway as someone had left a stack of perhaps twenty or thirty packages on my doorstep. I sprinted to my front door, punting the boxes out of the way. I fought with my keys, continuously fumbling them. Just as I plunged the house key into the knob, I screamed, “Fuck yes!” and threw myself into the house.
I shut all of the curtains in the house, absolutely certain that someone would peek in on me. They were after me and they wanted, more than anything, to know how I felt about my current network service provider. Fuck that. Fuck them. I googled online how much installing bars on my windows would cost and realized I did not have anywhere near enough cash on hand. Maybe if I changed my network service provider, I could save some money and afford the bars. No! Hell no! What was I thinking?
I locked myself in my home office, shutting off my cell phone. Days went by and I refused to leave the room. I swear, every so often, I could hear someone outside. They won’t leave me alone! They want to take my network service provider from me! They’re trying to force me into a contract that seems like a good deal on the face of it, but I just know I’ll be paying for those surprise fees along the way! Please! God! I don’t know what to do. I’m honestly terrified of these people. Or things. Or whatever they are.
A knock came on my door and I eventually crept from the home office down the hall, to the living room. I peered out of the window adjacent to the door to see that she was standing out there.
I’m sure I looked like hot garbage, but I was honestly happy to see someone I genuinely knew in the flesh and blood. As the door swung in, she looked me over with an air of worry. “Are you alright, Mark?” she asked.
I nervously scratched behind my ear. “Yeah. I’m fine. How’ve you been?”
I invited her in, and we sat on the couch. I tried offering her something to eat or drink. I promise, I tried to be a good host, but she was having none of it. “I’m just here because of that message you sent me a few days ago.”
The red embarrassment hit my face like a heat lamp. “Please, excuse me.” I said. “I need to use the restroom.” I pattered down the hall quickly to the bathroom. I locked the door behind me and bathed my face in the sink. After wiping my face red with the towel next to the sink, I looked at the black circles around my eyes. “You’re crazy, bub.” I spoke to myself. “No, I’m not. You’re the crazy one.” I chuckled to myself and swiped my hand through my hair.
I stepped out of the bathroom to be confront by her. It was as though she’d been standing outside of the door, listening to me. Perhaps she was making sure I was not attempting to escape. “Hey, Mark,” each of her hands were held behind her back, “I wanted to let you know something.”
Nearly choking in surprise, I hacked, “Y-yes? What’s that?”
She removed the knife from behind her back and arched it over her head. That could do some serious damage, I idly thought.
“Whoa there,” I put up my hands, “There’s no reason for that.”
She pursed her lips. “You know, I’ve recently changed my network service provider.”
My breath caught in the back of my throat. “T-that so?”
“They sent me.” She spoke robotically, far away. “To make sure that you’ve looked over the catalogue they sent you.” The knife swept through the air and caught in my left shoulder. A shower of blood, my blood, shot onto the wall and I screamed as she tore the knife down with such ferocity that I was sure she’d cut through bone.
I shoved her and the knife dislodged. I staggered into the bathroom and slammed the bathroom door. The blood was everywhere, and I slipped in it. I ran on my knees to lock the door just as she slammed into it.
Her cries and beating against the door reverberated all around as I quickly tried managing my wound. The iron in the air was intoxicating. I was woozily looking through pinholes. I knew what I had to do.
I swung the door in just as she intended to slam a shoulder into it and she darted past me, flying into the tub. Without thought, I straddled her, fighting her hands. I grabbed her wrist and plunged the knife into her chest. Again. Again. Again. Until her eyes went unfocused. Then some more. I wasn’t stabbing a person. I looked down at the places the knife was striking. Beneath her flesh were wires and coolant tubes. “What the fuck?”
Her jaw clacked open sporadically, but the motions did not match the words. It was as though the words were coming from a speaker in the back of her throat. “Hello, Mark. This is Sceptre Inc. We were wondering if you are happy with your current network service provider.” The speaker went staticky then cut out as her head slowly jerked to the side.
I’ve cleaned the bathroom and thrown that thing in the trash bins.
My phone no longer works properly. Every time I attempt to make a call from it, Darren’s on the other end of the line. “Hello, Mark.” No matter what I try, this is what happens.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I have to change my network service provider.