I was perusing Aswath Damodaran’s website and came across some interesting observations in his March 10, 2017 post. Many investors use various value indicators as proxies instead of doing a heavy number crunch. Damodaran reminds us that we cannot rely wholly on numbers. One number we tend to over-rely on is the P/E ratio:

“I mistrust PE ratios for many reasons. First, the more accountants can work on a number, the less trustworthy it becomes, and there is no more massaged, manipulated and mangled variable than earnings per share. Second, the sampling bias introduced by eliminating a large subset of your sample, by eliminating money losing companies, is immense. Third, it is the most volatile of all of the multiples as it is based upon earnings per share.”

What about other ratios? P/B and EV/EBITDA can also be misleading:

“In many ways, the price to book ratio confronts investors on a fundamental question of whether they trust markets or accountants more, by scaling the market’s estimate of what a company is worth (the market capitalization) to what the accountants consider the company’s value (book value of equity).”

“The EV to EBITDA multiple has quickly grown in favor among analysts, for some good reasons and some bad. Among the good reasons, it is less affected by different financial leverage policies than PE ratios (but it is not immune) and depreciation methods than other earnings multiples. Among the bad ones is that it is a cash flow measure based on a dangerously loose definition of cash flow that works only if you live in a world where there are no taxes, debt payments and capital expenditures laying claim on those cash flows.”

Damodaran concludes with some useful advice:

"Rules for the Road

  1. Absolute rules of thumb are dangerous (and lazy): The investing world is full of rules of thumb for finding bargains. Companies that trade at less than book value are cheap, as are companies that trade at less than six times EBITDA or have PEG ratios less than one. Many of these rules have their roots in a different age, when data was difficult to access and there were no ready tools for analyzing them, other than abacuses and ledger sheets. In Ben Graham's day, the very fact that you had collected the data to run his "cheap stock" screens was your competitive advantage. In today's market, where you can download the entire market with the click of a button and tailor your Excel spreadsheet to compute and screen, it strikes me as odd that screens still remain based on absolute values. If you want to find cheap companies based upon EV to EBITDA, why not just compute the number for every company (as I have in my histogram) and then use the first quartile  (25th percentile) as your cut off for cheap. By my calculations, a company with an EV/EBITDA of 7.70 would be cheap in the United States but you would need an EV to EBITDA less than 4.67 to be cheap in Japan, at least in January 2017.
  2. Most stocks that look cheap deserve to be cheap: If your investment strategy is buying stocks that trade at low multiples of earnings and book value and waiting for them to recover, you are playing a game of mean reversion. It may work for you, but there is little that you are bringing to the investing table, and there is little that I would expect you to take away. If you want to price a stock, you have to bring in not just how cheap it is but also look at measures of value that may explain why the stock is cheap.
  3. If you are paying a price, you are "estimating" the future: When I do an intrinsic valuation (as I did a couple of weeks ago with Snap), I am often taken to task by some readers for playing God, i.e., forecasting revenue growth, margins and risk for a company with a very uncertain future. I accept that critique but I don't see an alternative. If your view is that using a multiple lets you evade this responsibility, it is because you have chosen not to look under the hood. If you pay 50 times revenues for a company, which is what you might be with Snap, you are making assumptions about revenue growth and margins, whether you like it or not. The only difference between us seems to be that I am being explicit about my assumptions, whereas your assumptions are implicit. In fact, they may be so implicit that you don't even know what they are, a decidedly dangerous place to be in investing."

The more I read about valuation methods, the more I like Buffett’s simple maxim on buying good companies at fair prices. It’s faster, easier, and perhaps more reliable in the long run. But Buffett himself spends a lot of time going through the numbers, he just makes it sound easy. Value investing is not for the lazy.

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