The last one year has been a value investor’s dream. Analyze and find an undervalued stock, buy decent quantities of it and voila!, in a few months time the market has recognized the undervaluation and corrected it. As a result most of the stocks in my portfolio have corrected substantially and I am looking at decent gains.
This has been the experience across the board and I don’t think it is proof of my or anyone else’s special genius or abilities. Now, before we start considering this as a normal state of affairs, let me point out an experience I have had for the last few years. This experience is not unique and has happened to me several times, but I am giving this example as it is recent and ongoing.
I read and analyzed Merck in Aug-Sept 2006 and found it to be substantially undervalued. The company had a growth problem, where due to the limited portfolio of products, its topline was more or less stagnant. However the company was able to improve its bottom line by 50% during the same period by cutting costs. In addition the company had almost 350 Crs in excess cash and was thus selling at 4-5 times its earnings.
So here was a company with great ROE, moderate growth and high cash balance selling for a song. I decided to start building a position and started buying the stock slowly. I eventually built my position for 2 years with the stock dropping during that period. The net result of the position was a loss of around 15% by the end of 2008 including dividends.
Was it a bad pick?
Now a valid argument could be that the stock was bad pick in the first place. In investing, it is important to remember that decision need to be made looking forwards and not backwards. My approach to investing is to compute intrinsic value with conservative assumptions and buy at a discount to this number. This approach may not work everytime, but works surprisingly well most of the time.
The company had a decent performance in the past, was reasonably well managed and had quite a bit of cash. During the period 2006-2008, the company was able to grow the topline by 30% and the bottom line by 10%. Not exactly a blowout performance, but pretty decent. In addition, there were a few things happening below the surface. The company started investing heavily in sales and marketing during this period due to which the topline started accelerating at the cost of the net margins.
The turnaround in the price finally came in Q2-Q3 2009 as the topline growth started flowing through to the net profit in terms of growth. At the same, the market was also in a mood to correct undervaluations and price most stocks closer to their fair value.
Whats the point?
The point is that undervaluation and fundamental performance alone are not sufficient triggers. A lot of times it is the market mood which decides when the undervaluation will correct and you will make your returns.
Now, one can say that if it all depends on the moods, then one should wait for the mood to turn and buy the stock before the turn happens. Well, on that please leave me a comment if you know some logical approach of figuring that out without getting into mumbo jumbo.
The point of the post is that an investor cannot control when the market will correct the undervaluation, but he or she can look for sound companies selling below intrinsic value, buy them and hold a portfolio of such companies with patience. Some of the holdings may take time, but over the course of time the portfolio as a whole will do reasonably well to be worth your while.