There is a strongly held perception that Wall Street’s analysts tend to call a stock a “strong buy” when its price and earnings are high and to label it a “sell” after its price and earnings have fallen. Many investors also tend to follow the momentum of the market, wanting to invest when the market is rising and sell when the market is falling. Such investors and even some sophisticated stock analysts confuse the high earnings during favorable economic times with the average earnings power of the company. Investments purchased at peak earnings or at high multiples often do not offer an adequate margin of safety or long-term rate of return.
Value investing is conceptually easy to grasp but a difficult discipline to practice as it runs contrary to a herd mentality.
Margin of safety is a fundamental principle of value investing, which states that an investor will purchase a stock if it is priced below its intrinsic value. Intrinsic value is the economic value of a company based on its long-term earnings power. The difference between the purchase price and the intrinsic value is the margin of safety. The greater the difference, the larger the margin of safety that provides an extra cushion in the event of future pressure on earnings from a myriad of factors (economic, market or company specific). Prices fluctuate more than intrinsic value, meaning opportunities exist to take advantage of irrational pricing and market psychology.
The purpose of margin of safety is not just to preserve the initial capital investment, but to improve upon it. When a stock is purchased below its fair or intrinsic value, the expectation is that in some future time period the stock price will converge with its fair value in a rational market. If the growth expectations end up being correct, an investor who has bought at the discounted price will ultimately earn a superior rate of return.
Our First Quarter Letter noted that the current bull market celebrated its eighth anniversary on March 9, 2017. Value investing and margin of safety concepts are not so attractive in rising markets. The essence of value investing is finding a veritable bargain, which can be difficult in an aged bull market. As we’ve mentioned before, value investing is conceptually easy to grasp but difficult to practice as it runs contrary to a herd mentality. It entails researching investment options in depth, usually to discover the stock is fairly priced even though it shows some value attributes. It requires patience and a willingness not to participate in market momentum or a particular sector fad. It also requires fortitude to invest “in the foulest of weather.” Purchasing stocks in a declining market without knowing the bottom can be challenging. Stocks tend to trade at their greatest margin of safety during negative economic periods when investors are overly pessimistic.