Investor Relations

Is Value Investing Dead?

Maybe not, but investors historically on the value side are now buying more stocks on the growth side of the market. But should they be?
David McCannJune 7, 2019

According to many market commentators, value investing doesn’t work the way it used to. Some tout statistics that growth has outperformed value over the last decade.

How do you rebut that view? I have two answers to the question.

My first answer is within the bounds of the “growth” and “value” constructs, wherein you take a valuation metric, let’s say price-to-earnings, and divide the market into halves: the top, expensive half (“growth” stocks) and the cheap bottom (“value” stocks). That’s an arbitrary and crude way to look at it, but it’s what research services do to make the growth-vs.-value comparison.

Growth companies by definition have higher valuations, as the bulk of their earnings are expected (a very important word) to happen in the future.

Thus, just as long-term bonds benefit from low interest rates, growth companies’ valuations expand more when interest rates decline. That’s because their cash flows, which may lie far in the future, are worth significantly more when discounted (brought to today’s dollars) at lower rates. Over the last decade interest rates declined, so growth stocks did better.

Value stocks, just like short-term bonds, don’t benefit as much from low interest rates, and thus they have underperformed.

Just remember, though: low interest rates, unlike diamonds, are not forever.

My second answer to the above question is more complex. I think value investing is often misunderstood. It’s looked upon as buying statistically cheap stocks that trade at, let’s say less than 10x earnings. But if counting were the only skill required to be a value investor, my five-year-old daughter would be a great one. She can count to 100 in both English and Russian.

Value investing to me is a philosophy governed by what I call the Six Commandments of Value Investing — all principles that come from the teachings of Ben Graham, spelled out in his book The Intelligent Investor and later popularized by Warren Buffett. (I won’t delve into the commandments here, but you can get a free chapter from my future book here that goes through them in great detail.)

In short, the value investor approaches the stock market like a smart businessperson would if he or she were buying a business or an office building with the intention of owning it for a long time. If you approach stock investing from that perspective, you’d probably keep away from most of today’s so-called “growth” stocks.

By that I mean stocks that are already expensive and just became even more so, priced as if the economy will continue to march uninterrupted by recessions for another decade, unimpeded by the ever-growing mountain of government debt that has historically led to higher interest rates.

If you think the economy is doing great, let me remind you that we haven’t had a recession in 10 years. The Federal Reserve stopped raising interest rates because it was afraid higher rates (that is, greater than 2.5%) would dump us into a recession.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to run trillion-dollar annual deficits. So the future may not be as perfect as the expectations (read: high valuations) that are priced into “growth” stocks might imply.

I can’t talk about “growth” without mentioning the FANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google). These companies are responsible for a very large portion of the outperformance of growth stocks.

They are all terrific, well-run companies, and their products and services are incredibly popular. If you did not own these stocks over the last five years, you faced a huge headwind in your attempt to outperform the market. Due to their large market capitalizations and their weight in indices, they account for a big chunk of stock market returns.

These companies’ underlying businesses have produced high growth rates for longer than most rational observers would have expected. But the larger they get, the more important the law of large numbers will become, as they are limited by the size of their markets.

Netflix already has almost saturated the U.S. market, and international growth is less profitable for the company due to the higher fragmentation of languages (not everyone speaks English) and lower prices for the service.

Google and Facebook are in the advertising business. They will face natural constraints: the size of advertising markets and the consequences of what happens to advertising spending during a recession.

And then there is Amazon — a sheer freak of a company.

Today everybody knows how great Amazon is. But its stock (just like that of the other FANGs) has already been “discovered” and thus trades at over 60 times 2019 earnings. That valuation that may prove to be a bargain if Amazon’s business continues to grow at the rate it has in the past.

And though I would not want to bet against Bezos (I just don’t want to bet on his stock), I vividly remember how in the late 1990s anyone who doubted Walmart when it traded at 52 times earnings was a heretic, scoffing at the repeatability of the company’s three decades of enormous success.

The 13 years that followed were not the finest moments for Walmart shareholders. That’s how long it took for the stock to grow into its earnings and come back to its 1999 high.

At some point Amazon, with its $250 billion of revenues, will suffer a similar fate. But I’m not calling the top for Amazon stock, for two reasons. First, I have no idea how much fuel (growth) is left in that rocket. Second, just because something is overvalued doesn’t mean it can’t get more overvalued. In May 1999 Walmart stock was trading at 35 times earnings; a few months later and almost 50% higher, it was trading at 52 times earnings.

Value has outperformed growth over decades in the past because it’s the human condition to be eternally optimistic, to draw straight lines from the past to the future, and to expect good times to roll for longer than they usually do.

Value vs growth? Today it’s more than a debate of just cheap vs. expensive. The debate extends much further: can something that can’t last forever do so anyway? Most people know the right answer to this rhetorical question (despite the fact that the stock market can stay irrational longer than most value investors can stay sane or disciplined).

I’m already seeing FANGs slowly creeping into value investors’ portfolios. Maybe they’re beginning to understand the value in the future growth of FANG stocks, or maybe they simply can no longer take the pain of not owning them.

Value has outperformed growth over decades in the past because it’s the human condition to be eternally optimistic, to draw straight lines from the past to the future, and to expect good times to roll for longer than they usually do.

Thus, the expectations that are built into the valuation of growth stocks end up being greater than the reality they eventually face. At Berkshire Hathaway’s 2018 annual meeting Warren Buffett said, “You can turn any investment into a bad deal by paying too much.”

So, value investing is not dead. It’s just waiting until all value managers lose their hair and capitulate.

Vitaliy Katsenelson is CEO of Investment Management Associates, which is anything but your average investment firm. (Why? Get the company brochure in your inbox here, or simply visit IMA’s website.) Sign up here to receive his articles.