Bruce Greenwald on Value Investing

American Express, WellPoint top the noted professor’s list

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Bruce Greenwald, who holds the Robert Heilbrunn Professorship of Finance and Asset Management at Columbia Business School, is coeditor of the forthcoming sixth edition of the value investing classic Graham and Dodd's Security Analysis (McGraw Hill).

After watching stocks plummet this year, he's sizing up the opportunities seen through the lens of value greats like Warren Buffett who perceive a rare chance to start buying on the cheap. Excerpts:

What's the current environment like for a value guy?

I'll tell you the one really nice reason to be a value investor: When things like this happen, you cannot help but go nuts at the opportunity. What this looks like is the end of 1974, where good stocks are selling at three times sustainable earnings and stocks that normally wouldn't have sold at less than 20 times earnings are selling at 10 times earnings. These are exciting times. The short-term issue is that in the near term there will be a painful macroeconomic environment and we don't know how long it will last.

What should investors eyeing cheap stocks watch out for?

The craziest thing to do is take recent earnings and add a multiple to it. There are a lot of stocks, like steel companies, that have very high recent earnings and trade at only four to five times earnings. They look like a 20 percent return stock, but those earnings won't be sustainable. If you look at steel companies five years ago before this huge capacity run-up, their earnings were about a third to a quarter of what they are now. You have to stay away from those kinds of enthusiasms—things that look cheap on the basis of peak earnings. You're looking for [stocks] that are protected by assets.

How should you approach earnings predictions?

What you don't want to do is use unmoderated price-to-earnings. Never look at current or even recent earning, especially in areas like oil companies where we know they are inflated and coming down. Typically, what a value investor will do first is get a sustainable earnings number, an average PE over a business cycle. You really have to go back 10-12 years to get a feel for what average margins typically look like in these businesses. That's what you use for earnings. The second thing, when you look at a PE, you're always assuming it's sustainable. You always want to make sure it's protected either by assets or the kind of moat that Buffet talks about. Otherwise, even if it's been making lots of money, it's a business that will be competitively vulnerable.

Does the weak credit environment change the value investing proposition?

The first thing is that for value investors, you are not going to try to forecast the future. Most value investors would say if it's anything like credit crunches we've seen in the past, it will be gone in a year. That's what the betting has to be. It's a short-term problem and not something you focus on. It has, however created opportunities in debt markets. Banks are dumping senior secured debt, selling it on the market for 50-60-70 cents on the dollar. The implied returns are north of 15 percent, and because you're senior to everybody else in the event of bankruptcy, you're likely to get paid. That's where opportunities have been created by the credit crunch. If you listen to Buffet, it's where he's been investing up until now. Those opportunities are still there, but my guess is they're going to go a way.

Any advice for inve s tors who a re still nervous?

If you look at any (mutual) fund and you look at the average annual return—a dollar invested every year through the life of the fund—and then you look at the returns weighted by how much money was in the fund . . . , the difference in those two returns is 6 percent a year. That's true almost across every category of funds. What that means is investors are buying in at exactly the wrong time and dumping things at the exactly wrong time. In this environment, the people who are dumping things are getting out at almost exactly the wrong time. What you want to have is a steady, well-developed policy you stick to.