You can go your whole life without ever buying a single stock. But until you do, you won’t really understand the full potential of investing — and the rewards that come with it.
For beginners, mutual funds give you a great way to get your feet wet. With just a few hundred dollars, you can invest in a mutual fund that will give you instant access to thousands of different stocks. The diversification that comes with broad-based mutual funds brings with it a measure of security. You may still lose a lot if the whole market goes down, but if one particular company gets hurt, it won’t have a huge impact on your overall portfolio.
Conversely, though, buying individual stocks can be a lot more rewarding. You can earn far greater returns from individual stocks than you’ll ever find from a diversified mutual fund — if you pick the right stocks.
So how should you pick?
Investing, like most other things, requires that you have a general philosophy about how to do things in order to avoid careless errors. Would you make a souffle without a recipe? Would you play cello in the London Philharmonic Orchestra without sheet music? Would you aim a shuffleboard disk without figuring out whether you’re trying to knock off your own color or your opponent’s? We hope not.
So before you dig deeper into some specialized investing strategies, you should first understand the various methods people use to analyze stocks. While investing is not nearly as difficult as these other challenges (especially the souffle), you certainly need a considered plan before investing your hard-earned savings.
Fundamental Analysis — Buying a Business (Value, Growth, Income, GARP, Quality)
Many people rightly believe that when you buy a share of stock you are buying a proportional share in a business. As a consequence, to figure out how much the stock is worth, you should determine how much the business is worth. Investors generally do this by assessing the company’s financials in terms of per-share values in order to calculate how much the proportional share of the business is worth. This is known as “fundamental” analysis by some, and most who use it view it as the only kind of rational stock analysis.
Although analyzing a business might seem like a straightforward activity, there are many flavors of fundamental analysis. Investors often create oppositions and subcategories in order to better understand their specific investing philosophy. In the end, most investors come up with an approach that is a blend of a number of different approaches. Many of the distinctions are more academic inventions than actual practical differences. For instance, value and growth have been codified by economists who study the stock market even though market practitioners do not find these labels to be quite as useful. In the following descriptions, we will focus on what most investors mean when they use these labels, although you always have to be careful to double-check what someone using them really means.
A cynic, as the saying goes, is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. An investor’s purpose, though, should be to know both the price and the value of a company’s stock. The goal of the value investor is to purchase companies at a large discount to their intrinsic value — what the business would be worth if it were sold tomorrow. In a sense, all investors are “value” investors, in that they want to buy a stock that is worth more than what they paid. Typically, those who describe themselves as value investors are focused on the liquidation value of a company, or what it might be worth if all of its assets were sold tomorrow. However, value can be a very confusing label as the idea of intrinsic value is not specifically limited to the notion of liquidation value. Novices should understand that although most value investors believe in certain things, not all who use the word “value” mean the same thing.
The person viewed as providing the foundation for modern value investing is Benjamin Graham, whose 1934 book Security Analysis (co-written with David Dodd) is still widely used today. Other investors viewed as serious practitioners of the value approach include Sir John Templeton and Michael Price. These value investors tend to have very strict, absolute rules governing how they purchase a company’s stock. These rules are usually based on relationships between the current market price of the company and certain business fundamentals. Examples include:
- Price-to-earnings ratios (P/E) below a certain absolute limit.
- Dividend yields above a certain absolute limit.
- Book value per share at a certain level relative to the share price.
- Total sales at a certain level relative to the company’s market value.
Growth investing is the idea that you should buy stock in companies whose potential for growth in sales and earnings is excellent. Growth investors tend to focus more on the company’s value as an ongoing concern. Many plan to hold these stocks for long periods of time, although this is not always the case. At a certain point, “growth” as a label is as dysfunctional as “value,” given that very few people want to buy companies that are not growing. The concept of growth investing crystallized in the 1940s and the 1950s with the work of T. Rowe Price, who founded the mutual fund company of the same name, and Phil Fisher, who wrote one of the most significant investment books ever written, Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits.
Growth investors look at the underlying quality of the business and the rate at which it is growing in order to analyze whether to buy it. Excited by new companies, new industries, and new markets, growth investors normally buy companies that they believe are capable of increasing sales, earnings, and other important business metrics by a minimum amount each year. Growth is often discussed in opposition to value, but sometimes the lines between the two approaches become quite fuzzy in practice.
Although common stocks are widely purchased today by people who expect the shares to increase in value, there are still many people who buy stocks primarily because of the stream of dividends they generate. Called income investors, these individuals often entirely forgo companies whose shares have the possibility of capital appreciation in favor of high-yielding, dividend-paying companies in slow-growth industries. These investors focus on companies that pay high dividends, like utilities and real estate investment trusts (REITs), although many times they may invest in companies undergoing significant business problems whose share prices have sunk so low that the dividend yield is consequently very high.
GARP, aside from being the name of the title character in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, is an acronym for growth at a reasonable price. The world according to GARP investors combines the value and growth approaches and adds a numerical slant. Practitioners look for companies with solid growth prospects and current share prices that do not reflect the intrinsic value of the business, getting a “double play” as earnings increase and the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios at which those earnings are valued increase as well. Former Fidelity fund manager Peter Lynch is GARP’s most famous practitioner.
One of the most common GARP approaches is to buy stocks when the P/E ratio is lower than the rate at which earnings per share can grow in the future. As the company’s earnings per share grow, the P/E of the company will fall if the share price remains constant. Since fast-growing companies normally can sustain high P/Es, the GARP investor is buying a company that will be cheap tomorrow if the growth occurs as expected. If the growth does not come, however, the GARP investor’s perceived bargain can disappear very quickly.
Because GARP presents so many opportunities to focus just on numbers instead of looking at the business, many GARP approaches, like the nearly ubiquitous PEG ratio and Jim O’Shaughnessy’s work in What Works on Wall Street, are really hybrids of fundamental analysis and another type of analysis — quantitative analysis.
Most investors today use a hybrid of value, growth, and GARP approaches. These investors are looking for high-quality businesses selling for “reasonable” prices. Although they do not have any shorthand rules for what kind of numerical relationships there should be between the share price and business fundamentals, they do share a similar philosophy of looking at the company’s valuation and at the inherent quality of the company — measured both quantitatively by concepts like return on equity (ROE) and qualitatively by the competence of management. Many of them describe themselves as value investors, although they concentrate much more on the value of the company as an ongoing concern rather than on liquidation value.
Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway is probably the most famous practitioner of this approach. He studied under Benjamin Graham at Columbia Business School, but was eventually swayed by his partner, Charlie Munger, to also pay attention to Phil Fisher’s message of growth and quality.
Arguments against fundamental analysis. Those who do not use fundamental analysis have two major arguments against it. The first is that they believe that this type of investing is based on exactly the kind of information that all major participants in publicly traded markets already know, so therefore it can provide no real advantage. If you cannot get a leg up by doing all of this fundamental work understanding the business, why bother? The second is that much of the fundamental information is “fuzzy” or “squishy,” meaning that it is often up to the person looking at it to interpret its significance. Although gifted individuals can succeed, this group reasons, the average person would be better served by not paying attention to this kind of information.
Quantitative Analysis — Buying the Numbers
Pure quantitative analysts look only at numbers with almost no regard for the underlying business. The more you find yourself talking about numbers, the more likely you are to be using a purely quantitative approach. Although even fundamental analysis requires some numerical inputs, the primary concern is always the underlying business, focusing on things like management’s expertise, the competitive environment, the market potential for new products, and the like. Quantitative analysts view these things as subjective judgments, and instead focus on the incontrovertible objective data that can be analyzed.
One of the principal minds behind fundamental analysis, Benjamin Graham, was also one of the original proponents of this trend. While running the Graham-Newman partnership, Graham exhorted his analysts to never talk to management when analyzing a company and focus completely on the numbers, as management could always lead one astray.
In recent years as computers have been used to do a lot of number-crunching, many “quants,” as they like to call themselves, have gone completely native and will buy and sell companies based on a purely quantitative basis, without regard for the actual business or the current valuation. That’s a radical departure from fundamental analysis. “Quants” will often mix in ideas like a stock’s relative strength, a measure of how well the stock has performed relative to the market as a whole. Many investors believe that if they just find the right kinds of numbers, they can always find winning investments. D.E. Shaw is one example of a firm that uses sophisticated mathematical algorithms to find minute price discrepancies in the markets.
Company size. Some investors purposefully narrow their range of investments to companies of a certain size, measured either by market capitalization or by revenue. The most common way to do this is to break up companies by market capitalization and call them micro caps, small caps, mid caps, and large caps, with “cap” being short for “capitalization.” Different size companies have shown different returns over time, with the returns being higher the smaller the company. Others believe that because a company’s market capitalization is as much a factor of the market’s excitement about the company as it is the size, revenues are a much better way to break up the company universe. Although there is no set breakdown used by all investors, most distinctions look something like this:
Micro cap — $250 million or less.
Small cap — $250 million to $2 billion.
Mid cap — $2 billion to $10 billion.
Large cap — $10 billion or more.
The majority of publicly traded companies fall in the micro or small categories. Some statisticians believe that the perceived outperformance of these smaller companies may have more to do with “survivor” bias than actual superiority, as many of the databases used to do this performance testing routinely expunged bankrupt companies until pretty recently. Since smaller companies have higher rates of bankruptcy, excluding this factor helps “juice” up their historical returns as a result. However, this factor is still being debated.
Screen-based investing. Many quantitative analysts use “screens” to select their investments, meaning that they use a number of quantitative criteria and examine only the companies that meet these criteria. As the use of computers has become widespread, this approach has increased in popularity because it is easy to do. Screens can look at any number of factors about a company’s business or its stock over many time periods.
While some investors use screens to generate ideas and then apply fundamental analysis to assess those specific ideas, others view screens as “mechanical models” and buy and sell based purely on what comes up on the screen. These investors claim that using the screens removes emotions from the investing process. (Those who do not use screens would counter that using a screen mechanically also removes most of the intelligence from the process.) One of the proponents of using screens as a starting point is Eric Ryback, and one of the most famous advocates of screens as a mechanical system is James O’Shaughnessy.
Momentum investors look for companies that are not just doing well, but that are flying high enough to get nosebleeds. “Well” is defined as either relative to what investors were expecting or relative to all public companies as a whole. Momentum companies often routinely beat analyst estimates for earnings per share or revenue, or have high quarterly and annual earnings and sales growth relative to all other companies, particularly when the rate of this growth is increasing every quarter. This kind of growth is viewed as a sign that things are really, really good for the company. High relative strength is often a category in momentum screens, as these investors want to buy stocks that have outperformed all other stocks over the past few months.
CANSLIM is a system pioneered by William J. O’Neil that is a hybrid of quantitative analysis and technical analysis, detailed in his book How to Make Money in Stocks. According to Investor’s Business Daily, O’Neil’s newspaper, the “C” and ”A” of the CANSLIM formula tell investors to look for companies with accelerating Current and Annual earnings. The ”N” stands for New, as in new products, new markets, or new management. ”S” stands for Small capitalization and big volume demand. ”L” tells investors to figure out whether the company is a Leader or Laggard. ”I” has them look for Institutional sponsorship, and ”M” concentrates on the direction of the Market. O’Neil originally created Investor’s Business Daily to be a tool that investors could use to practice CANSLIM, although it has become a business publication widely read by all types of investors. CANSLIM includes components of the next type of analysis –technical analysis.
Arguments against quantitative analysis. Because quantitative analysis hinges on screens that anyone can use, as computing horsepower becomes cheaper and cheaper many of the pricing inefficiencies quantitative analysis finds are wiped out soon after they are discovered. If a particular screen has generated 40% returns per year and becomes widely known, and if lots of money flows into the companies that the screen identifies, the returns will start to suffer.
As “fuzzy” as fundamental analysis might be, there are often times that knowing even a little about the company you are buying can help a lot. For instance, if you are using a high-relative-strength screen, you should always check and see if the companies you find have risen in price because of a merger or an acquisition. If this is the case, then the price will probably stay right where it is, even if the “screen” you used to pick this company has generated high annual returns in the past.
Technical Analysis — Buying the Chart
What would you do if you truly believed that all information about publicly traded companies was efficiently distributed and that nobody could get an edge on anyone else by either understanding the business or analyzing the numbers? You might consider simply giving up on beating the market’s returns by buying an index fund. Some investors have taken an alternate route, attempting to create a set of tools that might tell them what other investors thought about a stock at any given time, particularly looking for the footprints of large institutional investors that tend to cause the most extreme price changes. Investors who focus on this kind of psychological information call themselves technical analysts and believe that charts can sometimes provide insight into the psychology surrounding a stock. Although there are plenty of pure chartists, some investors use charts just to time investments after looking at them from a fundamental or quantitative perspective.
There is no set of clearly defined approaches to technical analysis, but there are a number of different tools. The most important indicators seem to be specific chart formations that show certain price movements at times when trading volume is at a certain level. The most common kinds of charts include point and figure charts, logarithmic charts, and Japanese candlesticks, to name a few.
Arguments against technical analysis. Technical analysis assumes that certain chart formations can indicate market psychology about either an individual stock or the market as a whole at key points. However, most of the statistical work done by academics to determine whether the chart patterns are actually predictive has been inconclusive at best, as detailed in Burton Malkiel’s A Random Walk Down Wall Street. Much of the faith in technical analysis hinges on anecdotal experience, not any kind of long-term statistical evidence, unlike certain quantitative and fundamental methodologies that have been shown in many instances to be pretty predictive. Critics of technical analysis feel that it is basically as useful as reading tea leaves.
Trading — Doing What Works
As trading commissions have fallen and more and more people have gained access to instantaneous data about stock prices, trading has become more and more popular, and very likely much too popular, somewhat like Madonna or Beanie Babies. Traders normally use a hodgepodge of fundamental, quantitative, and technical techniques with a short-term orientation. Trading tends to be a highly charged experience where one looks to make a few percentage points from each trade. Although widespread, trading is far from a systematized, philosophical body of knowledge that is easily explained in a few paragraphs.
Many novice investors, lulled by the apparently easy casino-like gains possible in trading, tend to lose a lot of money before they realize that when there are thousands of other traders out there looking for the same things, it is often those who are fastest, have the most experience, and own the best equipment that make money, and that’s normally not the people just starting out. All traders emphasize that successful trading requires careful attention, discipline, and a lot of work, so anyone who thinks that he can use a Quotrek in between meetings to make a fortune might want to reconsider.
Arguments against trading. Trading is clearly a time-consuming adventure. Although there are a number of very famous and successful traders, many individuals ignore the fact that these traders are well equipped to trade and have all day to do so. Given the time and effort most successful traders put into their trading, the potential for amateurs to reap the same rewards with less effort and fewer resources is very low. With so much money competing in the one-day to one-year investment time frame, an individual with a minimal amount of time will probably be more successful finding businesses to own for the long term and not trying to engage in high-octane, almost gambling-like behavior.