by Benjamin Graham, published 1973, 2003, 2006
All you need to know about intelligent investing
Graham’s layman’s manual for thoughtful investing in common stocks and bonds is a long book, chock full of useful theory and wisdom-gained-by-experience as well as numerous “case studies” which serve to illustrate Graham’s points. While it’s all worth considering, the truth is that certain parts of the book shine more brightly than others and, following the 80/20 principle, are clearly more valuable overall.
The Intelligent Investor is of course a practical guide to sound investment, but it is also a work of philosophy. Buried throughout the book are invaluable caveats that are easy to overlook yet deserve to get full billing because they can spare an amateur a lot of headaches down the road. In the book’s introduction, there are two such provisos quite nearby one another, the first being,
be prepared to experience significant and perhaps protracted falls as well as rises in the value of [your] holdings
and the second being,
while enthusiasm may be necessary for great accomplishments elsewhere, on Wall Street it almost invariably leads to disaster
Subtle, but profound, these two warnings are Graham’s opening salvo on the subject of investor psychology, or more accurately, the investor’s own psychology. It will be a common thread running throughout TII— your biggest risk in investing is yourself and your psychological reaction to events impacting your portfolio.
Translating the first message, Graham is trying to gird the investor for the inevitabilities of the market, where volatility is constant in both directions. The key, as you will see, is to master volatility by recognizing that the upward variety is not necessarily proof of a good decision and the downward variety is not punishment but an opportunity to buy at bargain prices.
The second message is even more important– successful investing requires an even-keeled temperament and reasonable expectations about long-term success. The game is about expecting little and learning to be pleasantly surprised, rather than expecting a lot and constantly being disappointed. Most of your fellow market participants are excitable folks and their optimistic expectations will work with yours to crowd out any chance at realizing value, while you’ll always have plenty of room to maneuver on your own if you seek out the waters everyone of which everyone else has become bored.
The last warning is to be consistent and disciplined, to never abandon your principles in dire times because that is in fact when they become most valuable:
Through all their vicissitudes and casualties, as earth-shaking as they were unforeseen, it remained true that sound investment principles produced generally sound results
This is again a psychological appeal. When everyone else is losing their shirts, and their minds, forgetting what they’re doing and why, it will pay the long-term investor great dividends to be mindful of who he is and by what principles he invests as his conservatism is always in due time rewarded.
Security analysis 101
While the best treatment of Graham’s principles of security analysis are given in great detail in his treatise of the same name, Security Analysis, The Intelligent Investor does come with several basic recommendations on how to perform basic security analysis for issues under consideration for inclusion in one’s portfolio.
The key to bond investing is interest coverage, as without it a bond is in default and its principal value is imperiled. Therefore, the primary analytical factor is the number of times total interest charges have been covered by available earnings in years past. Typically two values are consulted:
- average coverage for a period of years (7)
- minimum coverage in the poorest year
Graham recommends 4x for public utilities, 5x for transportation companies, 7x for industrials and 5x for retail concerns, before income taxes on an average of 7 years basis, and 3x, 4x, 5x and 4x, respectively, measured by the poorest year.
On an after-tax basis, Graham recommends 2.65x for public utilities, 3.2x for transportation companies, 4.3x for industrials, and 3.2x for retail companies on an average of 7 years basis, and 2.1x, 2.65x, 3.2x and 2.65x, respectively, measured by the poorest year.
Additional factors for consideration are:
- size of the enterprise – something large and robust, so that depletions in revenue do not imperil the business as a whole
- equity ratio – the market price of equity versus the total debt, which shows the amount of “cushion” for losses standing in front of the debt
- property value – this is the asset value on the balance sheet, though “experience has shown that in most cases safety resides in the earning power”
Some basic principles of stock selection and analysis are considered in more detail below, based upon whether one is determined to be a defensive or an enterprising investor. For now, it is sufficient to quote Graham on the subject in the following manner:
The investor can not have it both ways. He can be imaginative and play for the big profits that are the reward for the vision proved sound by the event; but then he must run a substantial risk of major or minor miscalculation. Or he can be conservative, and refuse to pay more than a minor premium for possibilities as yet unproved; but in that case he must be prepared for the later contemplation of golden opportunities for gone
In essence, Graham is outlining the philosophy of “growth” versus “value” investing and stock analysis– attempting to forecast the future, or being content one is not paying too much for what he’s got based on an assessment of the past.
Keeping the shirt you have: the defensive investor
In Graham’s mind, there are two kinds of investors– the defensive investor, who is passive and seeks primarily to protect his capital, and the enterprising investor, who treats his investing like a professional business and expects similarly profitable results for his efforts. First, let’s talk about the defensive investor.
The defensive investor must confine himself to the shares of important companies with a long record of profitable operations and in strong financial condition
Specifically, Graham lists 4 criteria for selecting common stocks for the defensive investor’s portfolio:
- diversification – minimum of 10, maximum of 30 separate issues
- standing – companies which are large, prominent and conservatively financed (over $10B mkt cap and in the top third or quarter of their industry by market share or some other competitive metric)
- dividends – a long record of continuous payments
- price – no more than 25x avg earnings of past 7 yrs, nor 20x LTM earnings
Additionally, Graham warns against excessive trading or portfolio turnover:
if his list has been competently selected in the first instance, there should be no need for frequent or numerous changes
Graham also defines risk early on, saying,
the risk attached to an ordinary commercial business is measured by the chance of its losing money
and that further, a defensive investor should never compromise their standards of safety and quality in order to “make some extra income.” Safety first, income/returns second, or you’re likely to wind up with neither in the long run.
In terms of selecting individual stocks for the defensive investor’s portfolio, Graham suggests 7 criteria:
- adequate size of enterprise – generally speaking, small companies are excluded and medium size companies are included if their market/industry position is robust
- sufficiently strong financial condition – 2:1 current ratio, and LT debt < net current assets (working capital)
- earnings stability – some earnings for the common stock in each year over the past decade
- dividend record – uninterrupted payments for the past 20 years
- earnings growth – minimum of 1/3 increase in per-share earnings in the past ten years using three year average at the beginning and end
- moderate P/E – no more than 15x avg earnings of past 3 years
- moderate P/A – price should be < 150% of TBV, though may be higher if earnings multiplier is below 15, never to be greater as a combined ratio than 22.5 ( P/E * P/B <= 22.5)
The purpose is to eliminate companies which are: too small, with a weak financial position, with earnings deficits or with inconsistent dividend histories. In general, these factors should combine to create a stock portfolio which, in the aggregate, has an earnings yield (earnings/price) at least as high as the current high-grade bond rate.
At all times, remember that the defensive investor is
not willing to accept the prospects and promises of the future as compensation for a lack of sufficient value in hand
and that, generally speaking, rather than emphasizing the “best” stocks,
let him emphasize diversification more than individual selection
Making more and better shirts: the enterprising investor
Like the defensive investor, Graham counsels the enterprising investor to think firstly of not losing what they’ve got. But in this sense, the enterprising investor has a new tool in his kit that expands his realm of possible investment options while still maintaining safety of principal– the search for “bargain” priced opportunities, the idea here being that the price being offered for a security is a steep discount (generally 30% or greater) than the indicated “intrinsic” or underlying value of the security itself based upon its asset or earnings power fundamentals (with any luck, both).
About bonds and preferred stocks, Graham suggests that preferreds never be bought without at least a 30% discount, and a similar discount on a high-yield bond. More importantly,
experience clearly shows that it is unwise to buy a bond or preferred which lacks adequate security merely because the yield is attractive […] it is bad business to accept an acknowledged possibility of a loss of principal in exchange for a mere 1 or 2% of additional yearly income
About IPOs, Graham says to never touch them, however, busted IPOs can present interesting opportunities later on down the line:
Some of these issues may prove excellent buys– a few years later, when nobody wants them and they can be had at a small fraction of their true worth
With regards to selecting equity securities, Graham lays out three “recommended fields” for enterprising investors:
- large cap contrarianism
- “bargain” issues
- special situations
Digging in further, let’s take a closer look at large cap contrarianism. The idea here is to focus on companies that are well-known but are currently experiencing an earnings hiccup or some other negative news or general investor boredom that leaves them unpopular and trading at a lower than average multiple. The value in these companies are that,
they have the resources in capital and brain power to carry them through adversity and back to a satisfactory earnings base [and] the market is likely to respond with reasonable speed to any improvement shown
A good example of this principle in practice would be a situation such as buying well-known, large cap companies whose shares had strongly sold off during the financial panic of late 2008, early 2009.
According to Graham, a bargain issue is one in which the indicated value is 50% higher than the current price. Bargains can be detected one of two ways, either by estimating future earnings potential and applying an appropriate multiple and comparing this to current trading price for shares, or else by studying the value of the business for a private owner, which involves particular emphasis on the value of the assets (or the tangible book value of the shares).
For an earnings-based bargain, Graham adds some further criteria, such as:
he should require an indication of at least reasonable stability in earnings over the past decade or more — ie, no year of earnings deficit — plus sufficient size and financial strength to meet possible setbacks in the future
with the ideal being a large, prominent company selling below its past average price and P/E multiple.
Special situations encapsulate a range of investment activities, from liquidations (workouts), to hedging and merger arbitrage activities. While Graham sees this area as one offering special rewards to dedicated and knowledgeable investors, he advises that the trend is one towards increasing professionalization and thus even the enterprising investor is best to leave this area alone unless he has special confidence and competence in the area.
Of special emphasis is the idea of focus and dedication, that is to say, one is either an enterprising investor or a defensive one, but not some of both:
The aggressive investor must have a considerable knowledge of security values– enough, in fact, to warrant viewing his security operations as equivalent to a business enterprise. There is no room in this philosophy for a middle ground, or a series of gradations, between passive and aggressive status. Many, perhaps most, investors seek to place themselves in such an intermediate category; in our opinion that is a compromise that is more likely to produce disappointment than achievement
When considering individual stock selections for the enterprising investors portfolio, Graham reminds the reader that
Extremely few companies have been able to show a high rate of uninterrupted growth for long periods of time. Remarkably few, also, of the larger companies suffer ultimate extinction
To the last point, it is fascinating to see in the footnote commentary by Jason Zweig how many of Graham’s various example companies used throughout the book disappeared not due to bankruptcy, but because they were at some point acquired and absorbed wholesale into the operations of another business.
Several categories of equity selection stand out as particularly valuable for the enterprising investor in Graham’s eyes:
- arbitrages – purchase of one security and simultaneous sale of one or more other securities into which it is to be exchanged under a plan of reorganization, merger or the like
- liquidations – purchase of shares which are to receive one or more cash payments in liquidation of the companies assets; should present a minimum of 20% annual return w/ 80% probability of working out or higher
- related hedges – purchase of convertible bonds or convertible preferred shares and simultaneous sale of the common stock into which they are exchangeable
- NCAV – 2/3 or less of net current asset value (current assets – TOTAL liabilities); portfolios should have wide diversification, often of 100 securities or more, and require patience
- contrarian cyclical investing – buying important cyclical enterprises when the current situation is unfavorable, near-term prospects are poor and the low price fully reflects the current pessimism
Graham also recommended a special set of 5 criteria for selecting “bargain” issues of small or less well-known enterprises, which can be generated from lists from a stock guide or a stock screen beginning with companies trading for a P/E multiple of 9 or less:
- financial condition – current ratio of 1.5:1 and debt <= 110% of working capital
- earnings stability – no deficit in the last five years
- dividend record – some current dividend
- earnings growth – last year’s earnings greater than 5 years ago
- price – less than 120% of TBV
Graham notes that diversity is key to safety in these operations and such companies should be bought on a “group basis”.
A balancing act: the portfolio
As a broad strategic principle, Graham recommended that defensive and enterprising investors alike seek to allocate a minimum of 25% and a maximum of 75% of their portfolio into stocks and the remaining amount into bonds. In most cases, an even 50-50 split is recommended. The rule of thumb used to guide allocations above or below 50% is that, as the investor determines the “general price level” of the market to be higher than is prudent, he should allocate toward 75% bonds and 25% stocks, whereas when he determines this price level to be much lower than is reasonable (say, in the midst of a bear market), he should allocate toward 75% stocks and 25% bonds.
As Graham says on page 197,
the chief advantage, perhaps, is that such a formula will give him something to do
Remember, you are your biggest risk. Graham was concerned that without “something to do”, an investor might “to do” his portfolio to death with over activity, over-thought or over-worry.
This is a useful insight, but is Graham’s portfolio balancing technique still valid in today’s era of higher inflation risks?
Without stepping on the maestro’s toes too much in saying this, my thinking is that it is increasingly less valid. As Graham himself warns throughout the book, bonds provide no protection against inflation and, while inflation is not “good” for stocks in real terms, the ability to participate in increased earnings is at least better than having a fixed coupon payment in an inflationary environment.
In this sense, an allocation toward 100% stocks makes more sense, assuming we are entering a period of protracted inflationary pressures such as we are.
That being said, Graham’s warning about having something to do is still worth considering. Having kicked the legs out from under the “rebalancing act(ivity)”, perhaps a good substitute would be a continual turning over of rocks in the search for new investment ideas for the enterprising investor. For the defensive investor, the best course of action may be to enjoy the benefits of doing something through dollar-cost averaging, that is, making a little bit of his total intended investment each month or quarter rather than all at once. Another idea might be to allocate 10 or 15% of his portfolio into a MMF or equivalent when he feels the market is rising beyond prudent levels. But the thing that has never sat right with me about Graham’s reallocation technique is that, while in principle it makes sense, in practice it comes down to base attempts at market-timing that always end up generating unsatisfactory results.
Better to focus on Graham’s other major portfolio strategy tenet, which is diversification. Graham is a supporter of diversification for defensive and enterprising investors alike, mostly because it can serve to shield them from their own ignorance or over-enthusiasm. More specifically, many of Graham’s favored techniques (such as special situations, net-nets and bargain securities), while bearing overall pleasing risk/reward balances, nevertheless never bring certainty of either one and for this reason he believes developing a diversified portfolio of such opportunities is the best way for an investor to protect themselves from permanently losing a large part of their capital on one idea.
Saving the best for last: Mr. Market and the Margin of Safety concept
Markets are made up of people, and people are emotionally volatile. As a result, financial markets are volatile as well. While the vast majority of the time prices tend to move slightly above and slightly below an established trend line, at other times they can swing wildly off course in either direction:
the investor may as well resign himself in advance to the probability rather than the mere possibility that most of his holdings will advance, say, 50% or more from their low point and decline the equivalent one third [ X * 1.5 * .66 = ~X] or more from their high point at various periods in the next five years
Graham also warns against what might be termed the Paradox Of Market Goodwill:
The better a company’s record and prospects, the less relationship the price of its shares will have to their book value. But the greater the premium above book value, the less certain the basis of determining its intrinsic value–ie, the more this “value” will depend on the changing moods and measurements of the stock market
In Graham’s mind, the solution is to
concentrate on issues selling at a reasonably close approximation to their tangible-asset value– say, at not more than one-third above that figure [130% of TBV]
as a general principle of careful investing for the defensive investor. But there is more. Graham represents additional criteria based on the consideration of the firm’s earnings power, outlining what value-blogger Nate Tobik of Oddball Stocks likes to call the “two pillar” method:
A stock does not become a sound investment merely because it can be bought at close to its asset value. The investor should demand, in addition, a satisfactory ratio of earnings to price, a sufficiently strong financial position, and the prospect that its earnings will at least be maintained over the years
In terms of mastering an investor’s own psychology when facing the market, asset values reign supreme, however, because
the investor with a stock portfolio having such book values behind it can take a much more independent and detached view of stock-market fluctuations than those who have paid high multipliers of both earnings and tangible assets. As long as the earnings power of his holdings remains satisfactory, he can give as little attention as he pleases to the vagaries of the stock market. More than that, at times he can use these vagaries to play the master game of buying low and selling high
By Graham’s reasoning, buying a stock close to book value puts him in the same position as an individual offered an opportunity to buy into a private business’s book. Because he has paid a fair, businessman’s price, he doesn’t have to worry about what someone else thinks of his ownership stake, only the operating performance and financial strength of his chosen enterprise.
From a psychological standpoint, it is the high ground and much sought after.
But what is this “master game” of which Graham speaks? It is nothing more than the most masterly metaphor of the entire investing world, Mr. Market.
The idea of Mr. Market is that of a manic depressive business partner who on any given day may offer to buy your stake in the joint business for far more than you think it’s worth, or to sell you his stake for far less than you think it’s worth. The key to taking advantage of Mr. Market is to avoid trying to guess and anticipate why his mood ever suits him, instead relying on your own judgment and thinking about the value of the underlying enterprise regardless of Mr. Market’s various mood swings.
It’s worth quoting Graham at length on this subject:
The true investor scarcely ever is forced to sell his shares, and at all other times he is free to disregard the current price quotation. He need pay attention to it and act upon it only to the extent that it suits his book, and no more. Thus the investor who permits himself to be stampeded or unduly worried by unjustified market declines in his holdings is perversely transforming his basic advantage into a basic disadvantage. That man would be better off if his stocks had no market quotation at all, for he would then be spared the mental anguish caused him by other persons’ mistakes of judgement
the existence of a quoted market gives the investor certain options that he does not have if his security is unquoted. But it does not impose the current quotation on an investor who prefers to take his idea of value from some other source [such as his own study of the fundamentals]
price fluctuations have only one significant meaning for the true investor. They provide him with an opportunity to buy wisely when prices fall sharply and to sell wisely when they advance a great deal. At other times he will do better if he forgets about the stock market and pays attention to his dividend returns and to the operating results of his companies
In other words, once you have made your investment, the only value of further quotations is to be appraised of another opportunity to buy (if prices decline sharply from that point) or of an opportunity to sell at a profit (if prices rise sharply from that point).
The rest of the time, you can judge the soundness of your decision by studying whether the operating performance of the business plays out according to your expectations. If the underlying business performs as you anticipated over a long period of time, you only need wait for the market to recognize your good judgment. However, if the business steadily deteriorates in a surprising fashion, you may have a basis upon which to second-guess your original judgment. But a falling stock market price would not be the primary indicator in such a situation, nor would a rising one signal you have done well.
Margin of Safety, the central concept of investment
The intellectual principle of the margin of safety involves “inverting” a stock and thinking about it like a bond.
The margin of safety for bonds may be calculated, alternatively, by comparing the total value of the enterprise with the amount of debt
For example, if a business owes $X, but is valued at $3X, the business could shrink by 2/3rds before imperiling the position of the debt holders.
when a company has outstanding only common stock that under depression conditions is selling for less than the amount of bonds that could safely be issued against its property and earning power
the common stock can be considered to enjoy a margin of safety as large as that of a good bond.
Broadly, margin of safety can be thought of as the consistent earnings power of the equity, wherein
the margin of safety lies in an expected earning power considerably above the going rate for bonds
A proxy measure here would be to look at the earnings rate, or earnings yield (earnings/price) and compare this to the going rate on a similar bond.
Another, more general way to think about Margin of Safety is that it is the difference between how much you pay for something versus the calculated intrinsic value you determine that thing to have. In this sense, the Margin of Safety is always price dependent and will be higher at lower prices and lower at higher prices, relatively speaking.
And the Margin of Safety works in tandem with the principle of diversification:
Even with a margin in the investor’s favor, an individual security may work out badly. For the margin guarantees only that he has a better chance for a profit than for a loss– not that loss is impossible. But as the number of such commitments is increased the more certain does it become that the aggregate of the profits will exceed the aggregate of the losses. That is the simple basis of the insurance-underwriting business
The emphasis is always on finding an adequate margin of safety in order to protect your principal because if you do that, the returns will tend to take care of themselves:
To achieve satisfactory investment results is easier than most people realize; to achieve superior results is harder than it looks.
Special note on market-timing
There isn’t much more to it than this:
if he places his emphasis on timing, in the sense of forecasting, [the investor] will end up as a speculator and with a speculator’s financial results
In case you’re wondering, that’s a bad thing in Graham’s mind because he is convinced that all but the most talented and luckiest speculators lose out in the end because they do not pay attention to safety of principal.