Chapter OneThe Scope and Limitations of Security Analysis. The Concept of Intrinsic Value
Analysis Connotes the careful study of available facts with the attempt to draw conclusions therefrom based on established principles and sound logic. It is part of the scientific method. But in applying analysis to the field of securities we encounter the serious obstacle that investment is by nature not an exact science. The same is true, however, of law and medicine, for here also both individual skill (art) and chance are important factors in determining success or failure. Nevertheless, in these professions analysis is not only useful but indispensable, so that the same should probably be true in the field of investment and possibly in that of speculation.
In the last three decades the prestige of security analysis in Wall Street has experienced both a brilliant rise and an ignominious fall—a history related but by no means parallel to the course of stock prices. The advance of security analysis proceeded uninterruptedly until about 1927, covering a long period in which increasing attention was paid on all sides to financial reports and statistical data. But the "new era" commencing in 1927 involved at bottom the abandonment of the analytical approach; and while emphasis was still seemingly placed on facts and figures, these were manipulated by a sort of pseudo-analysis to support the delusions of the period. The market collapse in October 1929 was no surprise to such analysts as had kept their heads, but the extent of the business collapse which later developed, with its devastating effects on established earning power, again threw their calculations out of gear. Hence the ultimate result was that serious analysis suffered a double discrediting: the first—prior to the crash—due to the persistence of imaginary values, and the second—after the crash—due to the disappearance of real values.
The experiences of 1927–1933 were of so extraordinary a character that they scarcely provide a valid criterion for judging the usefulness of security analysis. As to the years since 1933, there is perhaps room for a difference of opinion. In the field of bonds and preferred stocks, we believe that sound principles of selection and rejection have justified themselves quite well. In the common-stock arena the partialities of the market have tended to confound the conservative viewpoint, and conversely many issues appearing cheap under analysis have given a disappointing performance. On the other hand, the analytical approach would have given strong grounds for believing representative stock prices to be too high in early 1937 and too low a year later.
THREE FUNCTIONS OF ANALYSIS: 1. DESCRIPTIVE FUNCTION
The functions of security analysis may be described under three headings: descriptive, selective, and critical. In its more obvious form, descriptive analysis consists of marshalling the important facts relating to an issue and presenting them in a coherent, readily intelligible manner. This function is adequately performed for the entire range of marketable corporate securities by the various manuals, the Standard Statistics and Fitch services, and others. A more penetrating type of description seeks to reveal the strong and weak points in the position of an issue, compare its exhibit with that of others of similar character, and appraise the factors which are likely to influence its future performance. Analysis of this kind is applicable to almost every corporate issue, and it may be regarded as an adjunct not only to investment but also to intelligent speculation in that it provides an organized factual basis for the application of judgment.
2. THE SELECTIVE FUNCTION OF SECURITY ANALYSIS
In its selective function, security analysis goes further and expresses specific judgments of its own. It seeks to determine whether a given issue should be bought, sold, retained, or exchanged for some other. What types of securities or situations lend themselves best to this more positive activity of the analyst, and to what handicaps or limitations is it subject? It may be well to start with a group of examples of analytical judgments, which could later serve as a basis for a more general inquiry.
Examples of Analytical Judgments. In 1928 the public was offered a large issue of 6% noncumulative preferred stock of St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Company priced at 100. The record showed that in no year in the company's history had earnings been equivalent to as much as 1Â1/2 times the fixed charges and preferred dividends combined. The application of well-established standards of selection to the facts in this case would have led to the rejection of the issue as insufficiently protected.
A contrasting example: In June 1932 it was possible to purchase 5% bonds of Owens-Illinois Glass Company, due 1939, at 70, yielding 11% to maturity. The company's earnings were many times the interest requirements—not only on the average but even at that time of severe depression. The bond issue was amply covered by current assets alone, and it was followed by common and preferred stock with a very large aggregate market value, taking their lowest quotations. Here, analysis would have led to the recommendation of this issue as a strongly entrenched and attractively priced investment.
Let us take an example from the field of common stocks. In 1922, prior to the boom in aviation securities, Wright Aeronautical Corporation stock was selling on the New York Stock Exchange at only $8, although it was paying a $1 dividend, had for some time been earning over $2 a share, and showed more than $8 per share in cash assets in the treasury. In this case analysis would readily have established that the intrinsic value of the issue was substantially above the market price.
Again, consider the same issue in 1928 when it had advanced to $280 per share. It was then earning at the rate of $8 per share, as against $3.77 in 1927. The dividend rate was $2; the net-asset value was less than $50 per share. A study of this picture must have shown conclusively that the market price represented for the most part the capitalization of entirely conjectural future prospects—in other words, that the intrinsic value was far less than the market quotation.
A third kind of analytical conclusion may be illustrated by a comparison of Interborough Rapid Transit Company First and Refunding 5s with the same company's Collateral 7% Notes, when both issues were selling at the same price (say 62) in 1933. The 7% notes were clearly worth considerably more than the 5s. Each $1,000 note was secured by deposit of $1,736 face amount of 5s; the principal of the notes had matured; they were entitled either to be paid off in full or to a sale of the collateral for their benefit. The annual interest received on the collateral was equal to about $87 on each 7% note (which amount was actually being distributed to the note holders), so that the current income on the 7s was considerably greater than that on the 5s. Whatever technicalities might be invoked to prevent the note holders from asserting their contractual rights promptly and completely, it was difficult to imagine conditions under which the 7s would not be intrinsically worth considerably more than the 5s.
A more recent comparison of the same general type could have been drawn between Paramount Pictures First Convertible Preferred selling at 113 in October 1936 and the common stock concurrently selling at 15. The preferred stock was convertible at the holders' option into seven times as many shares of common, and it carried accumulated dividends of about $11 per share. Obviously the preferred was cheaper than the common, since it would have to receive very substantial dividends before the common received anything, and it could also share fully in any rise of the common by reason of the conversion privilege. If a common stockholder had accepted this analysis and exchanged his shares for one-seventh as many preferred, he would soon have realized a large gain both in dividends received and in principal value.
Intrinsic Value vs. Price. From the foregoing examples it will be seen that the work of the securities analyst is not without concrete results of considerable practical value, and that it is applicable to a wide variety of situations. In all of these instances he appears to be concerned with the intrinsic value of the security and more particularly with the discovery of discrepancies between the intrinsic value and the market price. We must recognize, however, that intrinsic value is an elusive concept. In general terms it is understood to be that value which is justified by the facts, e.g., the assets, earnings, dividends, definite prospects, as distinct, let us say, from market quotations established by artificial manipulation or distorted by psychological excesses. But it is a great mistake to imagine that intrinsic value is as definite and as determinable as is the market price. Some time ago intrinsic value (in the case of a common stock) was thought to be about the same thing as "book value," i.e., it was equal to the net assets of the business, fairly priced. This view of intrinsic value was quite definite, but it proved almost worthless as a practical matter because neither the average earnings nor the average market price evinced any tendency to be governed by the book value.
Intrinsic Value and "Earning Power." Hence this idea was superseded by a newer view, viz., that the intrinsic value of a business was determined by its earning power. But the phrase "earning power" must imply a fairly confident expectation of certain future results. It is not sufficient to know what the past earnings have averaged, or even that they disclose a definite line of growth or decline. There must be plausible grounds for believing that this average or this trend is a dependable guide to the future. Experience has shown only too forcibly that in many instances this is far from true. This means that the concept of "earning power," expressed as a definite figure, and the derived concept of intrinsic value, as something equally definite and ascertainable, cannot be safely accepted as a general premise of security analysis.
Example: To make this reasoning clearer, let us consider a concrete and typical example. What would we mean by the intrinsic value of J. I. Case Company common, as analyzed, say, early in 1933? The market price was $30; the asset value per share was $176; no dividend was being paid; the average earnings for ten years had been $9.50 per share; the results for 1932 had shown a deficit of $17 per share. If we followed a customary method of appraisal, we might take the average earnings per share of common for ten years, multiply this average by ten, and arrive at an intrinsic value of $95. But let us examine the individual figures which make up this ten-year average. They are as shown in the table on page 66. The average of $9.50 is obviously nothing more than an arithmetical resultant from ten unrelated figures. It can hardly be urged that this average is in any way representative of typical conditions in the past or representative of what may be expected in the future. Hence any figure of "real" or intrinsic value derived from this average must be characterized as equally accidental or artificial.
The Role of Intrinsic Value in the Work of the Analyst. Let us try to formulate a statement of the role of intrinsic value in the work of the analyst which will reconcile the rather conflicting implications of our various examples. The essential point is that security analysis does not seek to determine exactly what is the intrinsic value of a given security. It needs only to establish either that the value is adequate—e.g., to protect a bond or to justify a stock purchase—or else that the value is considerably higher or considerably lower than the market price. For such purposes an indefinite and approximate measure of the intrinsic value may be sufficient. To use a homely simile, it is quite possible to decide by inspection that a woman is old enough to vote without knowing her age or that a man is heavier than he should be without knowing his exact weight.
This statement of the case may be made clearer by a brief return to our examples. The rejection of St. Louis-San Francisco Preferred did not require an exact calculation of the intrinsic value of this railroad system. It was enough to show, very simply from the earnings record, that the margin of value above the bondholders' and preferred stockholders' claims was too small to assure safety. Exactly the opposite was true for the Owens-Illinois Glass 5s. In this instance, also, it would undoubtedly have been difficult to arrive at a fair valuation of the business; but it was quite easy to decide that this value in any event was far in excess of the company's debt.
In the Wright Aeronautical example, the earlier situation presented a set of facts which demonstrated that the business was worth substantially more than $8 per share, or $1,800,000. In the later year, the facts were equally conclusive that the business did not have a reasonable value of $280 per share, or $70,000,000 in all. It would have been difficult for the analyst to determine whether Wright Aeronautical was actually worth $20 or $40 a share in 1922—or actually worth $50 or $80 in 1929. But fortunately it was not necessary to decide these points in order to conclude that the shares were attractive at $8 and unattractive, intrinsically, at $280.
The J. I. Case example illustrates the far more typical common-stock situation, in which the analyst cannot reach a dependable conclusion as to the relation of intrinsic value to market price. But even here, if the price had been low or high enough, a conclusion might have been warranted. To express the uncertainty of the picture, we might say that it was difficult to determine in early 1933 whether the intrinsic value of Case common was nearer $30 or $130. Yet if the stock had been selling at as low as $10, the analyst would undoubtedly have been justified in declaring that it was worth more than the market price.
Flexibility of the Concept of Intrinsic Value. This should indicate how flexible is the concept of intrinsic value as applied to security analysis. Our notion of the intrinsic value may be more or less distinct, depending on the particular case. The degree of indistinctness may be expressed by a very hypothetical "range of approximate value," which would grow wider as the uncertainty of the picture increased, e.g., $20 to $40 for Wright Aeronautical in 1922 as against $30 to $130 for Case in 1933. It would follow that even a very indefinite idea of the intrinsic value may still justify a conclusion if the current price falls far outside either the maximum or minimum appraisal.
More Definite Concept in Special Cases. The Interborough Rapid Transit example permits a more precise line of reasoning than any of the others. Here a given market price for the 5% bonds results in a very definite valuation for the 7% notes. If it were certain that the collateral securing the notes would be acquired for and distributed to the note holders, then the mathematical relationship—viz., $1,736 of value for the 7s against $1,000 of value for the 5s—would eventually be established at this ratio in the market. But because of quasi-political complications in the picture, this normal procedure could not be expected with certainty. As a practical matter, therefore, it is not possible to say that the 7s are actually worth 74% more than the 5s, but it may be said with assurance that the 7s are worth substantially more—which is a very useful conclusion to arrive at when both issues are selling at the same price.
The Interborough issues are an example of a rather special group of situations in which analysis may reach more definite conclusions respecting intrinsic value than in the ordinary case. These situations may involve a liquidation or give rise to technical operations known as "arbitrage" or "hedging." While, viewed in the abstract, they are probably the most satisfactory field for the analyst's work, the fact that they are specialized in character and of infrequent occurrence makes them relatively unimportant from the broader standpoint of investment theory and practice.