Value investing is struggling to remain relevant

The Economist | Nov 2020

Book value in an intangibles world - Value investing is struggling to remain relevantThe main reason is the inexorable rise of hard-to-analyse intangible assets

IT IS NOW more than 20 years since the Nasdaq, an index of technology shares, crashed after a spectacular rise during the late 1990s. The peak in March 2000 marked the end of the internet bubble. The bust that followed was a vindication of the stringent valuation methods pioneered in the 1930s by Benjamin Graham, the father of “value” investing, and popularised by Warren Buffett.

For this school, value means a low price relative to recent profits or the accounting (“book”) value of assets. Sober method and rigour were not features of the dotcom era. Analysts used vaguer measures, such as “eyeballs” or “engagement”. If that was too much effort, they simply talked up “the opportunity”.

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Plenty of people sense a replay of the dotcom madness today. For much of the past decade a boom in America’s stockmarket has been powered by an elite of technology (or technology-enabled) shares, including Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon. The value stocks favoured by disciples of Graham have generally languished. But change may be afoot.

In the past week or so, fortunes have reversed. Technology stocks have sold off. Value stocks have rallied, as prospects for a coronavirus vaccine raise hopes of a quick return to a normal economy. This might be the start of a long-heralded rotation from overpriced tech to far cheaper cyclicals—stocks that do well in a strong economy. Perhaps value is back.

This would be comforting. It would validate a particular approach to valuing companies that has been relied upon for the best part of a century by some of the most successful investors.

But the uncomfortable truth is that some features of value investing are ill-suited to today’s economy. As the industrial age gives way to the digital age, the intrinsic worth of businesses is not well captured by old-style valuation methods, according to a recent essay by Michael Mauboussin and Dan Callahan of Morgan Stanley Investment Management.

The job of stockpicking remains to take advantage of the gap between expectations and fundamentals, between a stock’s price and its true worth. But the job has been complicated by a shift from tangible to intangible capital—from an economy where factories, office buildings and machinery were key to one where software, ideas, brands and general know-how matter most.

The way intangible capital is accounted for (or rather, not accounted for) distorts measures of earnings and book value, which makes them less reliable metrics on which to base a company’s worth. A different approach is required—not the flaky practice of the dotcom era but a serious method, grounded in logic and financial theory. However, the vaunted heritage of old-school value investing has made it hard for a fresher approach to gain traction.

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In their book “Capitalism Without Capital” Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake provided a useful taxonomy, which they call the four Ss: scalability, sunkenness, spillovers and synergies. Of these, scalability is the most salient. Intangibles can be used again and again without decay or constraint. Scalability becomes turbo-charged with network effects.

The more people use a firm’s services, the more useful they are to other customers. They enjoy increasing returns to scale; the bigger they get, the cheaper it is to serve another customer. The big business successes of the past decade—Google, Amazon and Facebook in America; and Alibaba and Tencent in China—have grown to a size that was not widely predicted. But there are plenty of older asset-light businesses that were built on such network effects—think of Visa and Mastercard. The result is that industries become dominated by one or a few big players. The same goes for capital spending. A small number of leading firms now account for a large share of overall investment (see chart 3).

The nature of intangible assets makes this a tricky calculation. But worthwhile analysis is usually difficult. “You can’t abdicate your responsibility to understand the magnitude of investment and the returns to it,” says Mr Mauboussin. Old-style value investors emphasise the steady state but largely ignore the growth-opportunities part. But for a youngish company able to grow at an exponential rate by exploiting increasing returns to scale, the future opportunity will account for the bulk of valuation. For such a firm with a high return on investment, it makes sense to plough profits back into the firm—and indeed to borrow to finance further investment.

The economy has changed. The way investors think about valuation has to change, too.

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