Value investing is purchasing a stock for less than its calculated value. Surprisingly, this fact alone separates value investing from most other investment philosophies. True (long-term) growth investors such as Phil Fisher focus solely on the value of the business. They do not concern themselves with the price paid, because they only wish to buy shares in businesses that are truly extraordinary. They believe that the phenomenal growth such businesses will experience over a great many years will allow them to benefit from the wonders of compounding. If the business’ value compounds fast enough, and the stock is held long enough, even a seemingly lofty price will eventually be justified.Some so-called value investors do consider relative prices. They make decisions based on how the market is valuing other public companies in the same industry and how the market is valuing each dollar of earnings present in all businesses. In other words, they may choose to purchase a stock simply because it appears cheap relative to its peers, or because it is trading at a lower P/E ratio than the general market, even though the P/E ratio may not appear particularly low in absolute or historical terms.Should such an approach be called value investing? I don’t think so. It may be a perfectly valid investment philosophy, but it is a different investment philosophy. Value investing requires the calculation of an intrinsic value that is independent of the market price. Techniques that are supported solely (or primarily) on an empirical basis are not part of value investing. The tenets set out by Graham and expanded by others (such as Warren Buffett) form the foundation of a logical edifice.Although there may be empirical support for techniques within value investing, Graham founded a school of thought that is highly logical. Correct reasoning is stressed over verifiable hypotheses; and causal relationships are stressed over correlative relationships. Value investing may be quantitative; but, it is arithmetically quantitative.There is a clear (and pervasive) distinction between quantitative fields of study that employ calculus and quantitative fields of study that remain purely arithmetical. Value investing treats security analysis as a purely arithmetical field of study. Graham and Buffett were both known for having stronger natural mathematical abilities than most security analysts, and yet both men stated that the use of higher math in security analysis was a mistake. True value investing requires no more than basic math skills.Contrarian investing is sometimes thought of as a value investing sect. In practice, those who call themselves value investors and those who call themselves contrarian investors tend to buy very similar stocks.Let’s consider the case of David Dreman, author of “The Contrarian Investor”. David Dreman is known as a contrarian investor. In his case, it is an appropriate label, because of his keen interest in behavioral finance. However, in most cases, the line separating the value investor from the contrarian investor is fuzzy at best. Dreman’s contrarian investing strategies are derived from three measures: price to earnings, price to cash flow, and price to book value. These same measures are closely associated with value investing and especially so-called Graham and Dodd investing (a form of value investing named for Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, the co-authors of “Security Analysis”).
Ultimately, value investing can only be defined as paying less for a stock than its calculated value, where the method used to calculate the value of the stock is truly independent of the stock market. Where the intrinsic value is calculated using an analysis of discounted future cash flows or of asset values, the resulting intrinsic value estimate is independent of the stock market. But, a strategy that is based on simply buying stocks that trade at low price-to-earnings, price-to-book, and price-to-cash flow multiples relative to other stocks is not value investing. Of course, these very strategies have proven quite effective in the past, and will likely continue to work well in the future. The magic formula devised by Joel Greenblatt is an example of one such effective technique that will often result in portfolios that resemble those constructed by true value investors. However, Joel Greenblatt’s magic formula does not attempt to calculate the intrinsic value of the stocks purchased. So, while the magic formula may be effective, it isn’t true value investing. Joel Greenblatt is himself a value investor, because he does calculate the intrinsic value of the stocks he buys.
Simply put, you can not be a value investor unless you are willing to calculate business values. To be a value investor, you don’t have to value the business precisely – but, you do have to value the business.