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Must-read for serious investors of any stripe
on August 12, 2006
A must-read for investors of any stripe, growth or value. This book, written by a couple of the most popular professors at Columbia Business School, explains the innovations in the field of value investing as practiced by some of the most successful investors in the field. (fair disclosure: I took Prof. Greenwald's courses in 2007) This book successfully bridges the gap between the traditional Graham & Dodd style of value investing to what works today. Although it's a paperback, it's written with the density of a textbook. The writing style is not light, and the actual meat of the book takes some time to wade through. If you don't have some experience in accounting or corporate finance, then Joel Greenblatt's The Little Book That Beats the Market is good to read first.
The substance of this book is a process for modern value investing: value investing is not investing in lousy companies just because they appear cheap. The authors also teach a structured way to value a company. Finally, the authors address how to value growth.
First, before reading this book I had the mistaken impression that value investing was all about investing in the ugliest, least interesting company you could find just because it had a low P/E ratio. I was completely wrong! (Maybe I have attended too many stock pitch sessions and heard too many poultry stocks and encyclopedia companies get pitched.) Modern value investing, according the authors: "When B. Graham went scouring financial statements looking for his net-nets, it did not concern him that he may have known little about the industry in which he found his targets. All he was concerned with were asset values and a margin of safety by that measure. A contemporary value investor had better be able to identify and understand the sources of a company's franchise and the nature of its competitive advantages. Otherwise he or she is just another punter, taking a flier rather than making an investment." What a breath of fresh air to read this passage.
Second, this book lays out a structured way to value a company by first looking at reproduction costs of assets, then earnings power, and finally the value of profitable growth. I, like the authors, find traditional DCF valuations to be plagued by false precision. The authors' more practical method starts by adjusting the balance GAAP balance sheet to calculate the cost of the assets for a potential business entrant. Next, the company is valued based on the earnings generates consistently, assuming no growth. A key insight is the value of the franchise: the difference between asset value and Earnings Power Value is the value created by a company that has significant competitive advantage. Last, the value of profitable growth is considered.
As a self-admitted recovering growth stock addict, I learned from this book that value investors are skeptical about growth for two reasons. One reason is that it is so hard to predict, but more important, many times growth is not worth much. Unless the return on capital (ROC) of the company is higher than the cost of capital, growth does not create value. (I am a slow learner; Greenblatt's example in The Little Book That Beats the Market of opening an additional gum store is even clearer to me.) The growth matrix and formulas in the book were a revelation to me. The surprising thing is how little multiple expansion a stock deserves based on growth. Unless a company truly has a franchise, expanding into other areas and "diversifying" the business often destroys value. And growth for growth's sake will not make a stock go up.
This book brings value investing into the modern stock market. Modern value investors still use traditional valuation principles in a structured way, but they also consider the value of growth and the attractiveness of the business. What a relief, I not restricted to buying typewriter and pay phone stocks! The authors quote Warren Buffett: It's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.