Doesn't "Value" actually denote something of significant worth?
Benjamin Graham - once known as The Dean of Wall Street - was a scholar and financial analyst who mentored legendary investors such as Warren Buffett, William J. Ruane, Irving Kahn and Walter J. Schloss.
Warren Buffett wrote a detailed article explaining how Graham's record of creating exceptional investors (such as Buffett himself) is unquestionable, and how Graham's principles are everlasting. The article is called "The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville".
But most Graham analyses today only follow the quantitative part of Graham's recommendations (NCAV, Graham Number, etc.) without the supporting qualitative criteria, thus leading to the misconception that Graham only recommended inexpensive stocks.
Such misinterpretations - along with today's mass marketing of low cost products as "value" purchases - has resulted in Graham's timeless methods being mistaken for bargain hunting, and in Graham himself now being known as "the father of value investing".
Benjamin Graham actually did recommend paying more for quality and growth. His only prerequisite was that there be the Margin of Safety between Price and Value.
While the popular interpretation of the Margin of Safety today is to buy stocks with low P/E and P/B ratios, a true Graham Margin of Safety is both qualitative and quantitative.
In fact, when we look at Graham's actual stock selection rules, we see that most of the rules were concerned with the qualitative assessment of a stock.
Net Current Asset Value (or NCAV/Net-Net)
Two common valuation methods attributed to Graham today are NCAV and the Benjamin Graham Formula.
While NCAV analyses today have the saving grace of being at least partially correct, the Benjamin Graham Formula is misunderstood to the point of actually being dangerous.
The NCAV valuation method was indeed developed and recommended by Benjamin Graham. But Graham also recommended in The Intelligent Investor that an NCAV stock have a positive EPS figure to be eligible for investment.
The positive EPS requirement is the qualitative check for NCAV stocks; and is - if you think about it - a very logical rule. There's really not much point buying a stock for its current assets (cash equivalents), if the company's losing money.
NCAV stocks were also the last of Graham's recommended stock categories. Graham specified 8 rules for Defensive quality stocks and 7 rules for Enterprising quality stock, most of which were checks for quality and growth.
It's a capital mistake to invest based on quantitative valuations alone, often leading to what are referred to as a value traps. But such problems are not the result of following Graham, but rather the result of following Graham incompletely.
The Benjamin Graham Formula
This is always some variation of the below equation:
V = EPS x (8.5 + 2g), or
Value = Current (Normal) Earnings x (8.5 plus twice the expected annual growth rate)
Benjamin Graham actually gave several warnings about this formula and only mentioned it briefly to demonstrate why projections of growth are never reliable. But due to an omission in recent editions of The Intelligent Investor, this formula is often mistakenly used today instead of Graham's actual (and more thorough) methods for stock analysis.
Understanding The Benjamin Graham Formula Correctly discusses the issue in detail.
What Graham Taught
Perhaps two of Graham's most important principles from The Intelligent Investor are:
"to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture the motto - Margin of Safety."
"An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis promises safety of principal and an adequate return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative."
In fact, when we study the methods of most successful investors, we see similar principles expressed and applied in different ways by all of them. Graham's is probably just the best documented, and most recommended.
Buffett too says "Rule No.1: Never lose money. Rule No.2: Never forget rule No.1."
Seth Klarman says "Loss avoidance must be the cornerstone of your investment philosophy."
Almost everyone knows the principle of the Margin of Safety, in one form or another. But only a select few apply it successfully.
The application is actually best explained in Graham's definition of investment given above, i.e., never risk your principal amount. This is the central theme of what Graham, Buffett and Klarman are all saying - one can never invest successfully by risking one's money.
Graham repeatedly emphasized this counterproductive nature of risk in investment. Again, from the The Intelligent Investor:
"there has developed the general notion that the rate of return which the investor should aim for is more or less proportionate to the degree of risk he is ready to run. Our view is different. The rate of return sought should be dependent, rather, on the amount of intelligent effort the investor is willing and able to bring to bear on his task."
Another common thread we see between Graham, Buffett and Klarman is their emphasis about the unpredictability of stock markets over the short-term.
In fact, George Soros' theory of reflexivity is a direct refutation of Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH); a theory that Buffett too derided in "The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville".
The theory of reflexivity states that our view of the world is inherently flawed.
But those who have a marginally clearer view of reality tend to make slightly better decisions and over time, the slightly better decisions can snowball into significant differences in gains.
Buffett and Growth
Here's a note on Value and Growth from Warren Buffett's 1992 letter to shareholders:
"most analysts feel they must choose between two approaches customarily thought to be in opposition: "value" and "growth." Indeed, many investment professionals see any mixing of the two terms as a form of intellectual cross-dressing."
"In our opinion, the two approaches are joined at the hip: Growth is always a component in the calculation of value, constituting a variable whose importance can range from negligible to enormous and whose impact can be negative as well as positive. In addition, we think the very term "value investing" is redundant. What is "investing" if it is not the act of seeking value at least sufficient to justify the amount paid?"
Growth is very much a part of true value investing, and is checked for objectively - using past growth rates - in Graham's real stock selection framework.
Graham's Actual Methods
Warren Buffett describes Graham's book - The Intelligent Investor - as "by far the best book about investing ever written" (in its preface).
Graham's first recommended strategy - for casual investors - was to invest in Index stocks.
For more serious investors, Graham recommended three different categories of stocks - Defensive, Enterprising and NCAV - and 17 qualitative and quantitative rules for identifying them.
For advanced investors, Graham described various "special situations".
The first requires almost no analysis, and is easily accomplished today with a good S&P500 Index fund.
The last requires more than the average level of experience, intuition and talent. Such stocks are not amenable to impartial algorithmic analysis, and require a case-specific approach.
But Defensive, Enterprising and NCAV stocks can be reliably detected by today's data-mining software, and offer a great avenue for accurate automated analysis and profitable investment.
Application of Graham's Methods Today
Before talking about actual application, perhaps a note on diversification should perhaps first be included. The principle on which diversification (and dollar cost averaging) works is that a given investment results in more units acquired for undervalued stocks, and vice versa.
So betting heavily on a few promising stocks goes against Graham's very definition of sound investment. Even for Defensive quality stocks - his safest category of stocks - Benjamin Graham did not recommend having less than 10 stocks in one's portfolio; no matter how undervalued a stock may appear.
Serenity provides two web-based Graham screeners:
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