The Quality Quandary

November 30, 2018

Randall Abramson, CFA
President & CEO,
Portfolio Manager

This article has been excerpted and edited from our quarterly newsletter to clients dated September 7, 2018.
As value investors, we are always on the lookout for bargains—stocks or bonds that are trading at prices below our estimate of Fair Market Value (FMV). Both research and common sense dictate that the greater the discrepancy between price and FMV, the better—it provides a higher possible margin of safety and implied upside. However, securities are often detached from their FMVs because the business is suffering, leaving investors to figure out whether the issues at hand will be minor and temporary or debilitating and permanent.

Buying the most statistically undervalued companies can be quite lucrative but can also expose investors to deteriorating businesses—some are clearly cheap for a reason. On the other end of the spectrum, the highest quality businesses tend to be fully priced—some unduly, due to their popularity—so high quality investment opportunities can be scarce. Hence, the quality quandary.

Investors generally fall into two camps. Value investors usually dwell in the bargain basement bin. In the other camp, which comprises most investors, are growth or momentum investors, who tend to gloss over valuation work as they prize business metrics over all else. Our philosophy requires both—a high quality business at an attractive valuation. Simply stated but not easily executed, because it requires additional analysis to determine a company’s lasting competitive advantages and the patience to await a price sufficiently below our FMV estimate to justify a potential outsized rate of return.

Our own philosophy has evolved. In years past, we emphasized the more undervalued opportunities, still preferring good businesses but valuation was a key driver. In emphasizing undervaluation, we held some less predictable businesses. Our migration toward higher quality businesses was motivated by our desire to have fewer clunkers—to lower the number of losers and to shrink the size of the losses.

We aim for more winners than losers. Who wouldn’t? And, to maximize the gains from our winners while minimizing the losses from our losers. But, again, simple to say, harder to achieve.

The better the business, the more predictable are its earnings. The more predictable the earnings, the easier it is to estimate the value with relative confidence. Companies that are less susceptible to competitive threats, with higher returns on capital and efficient balance sheets, are usually the steady growers. Therefore, these companies are more likely to have consistently rising FMVs. While certain companies trade at low valuation multiples, appearing undervalued, and can provide tremendous upside should the business improve, the risk of erring in our analysis, we believe, is substantially increased when the business has less predictability. That’s the reason we often invest in companies trading at 20% discounts to our FMV appraisals, rather than those trading at perhaps larger discounts, as high quality companies typically don’t detach too far from intrinsic value.

In between unanalyzable companies—the impossible ones to predict—and the highly predictable ones, lie most businesses, a wide swath for whose trajectory is less certain. These companies often have too many moving parts, too many competitors, are too levered—both financially and operationally (from high fixed cost structures)—and therefore are overly vulnerable to sudden changes in the landscape (i.e., new entrants, falling demand, higher interest rates, or regulatory changes). For these reasons we find ourselves mostly passing over opportunities which are potentially high reward but equally, if not more so, high risk.

Even though, in the last few years, the markets have been much less volatile, there are still enough instances where the shares of high quality companies fall to at least a 20% discount, allowing us to build a diversified portfolio. Usually, a 20% discount is as good as it gets for high quality companies. Only at the depths of bear markets, when everything’s on sale, can one normally find superb companies at larger discounts.