|The analogy of keeping credit risk low coupled with the value of dividends as a potential income stream suggest it is possible to move the odds, as much as possible, in your favor with some thoughtful analysis…. or put another way, you want to create a steady income by only using financially solid stocks.|
When loaning money for a home or automobile purchase lenders rely heavily on a person’s credit score (also known as a FICO score). The idea being, that certain behaviors and traditional spending patterns can determine risk levels – the higher the score, the lower the risk of default. Traditionally scores were based on things like your history of timely (or not) payments on other debts; the length of your credit history and how much you currently owe; other types of credit you have (or had) including charge cards, loans, mortgages, and banking history.
Recently, in an effort to improve predictions of creditworthiness, some new information is being collected and aggregated. Gathered mostly from digital sources, it’s worth considering how you might stack-up against these new data points: uses both names in contact information forms; consistent travel patterns; limited contact with few entities; uses Uber; and, no regular contact with people who have bad credit. Now you really know why they want you to keep that location finder activated on your mobile device and check-in at Facebook regularly.
The reason I bring this up is due to shifts in the investing landscape which makes some traditional metrics used to measure value not so effective and suggests we might need to reconsider what criteria to use in scoring our investment prospects. Traditionally there have been three go-to metrics to make a quick, back of the napkin assessment of a potential equity investment. In other words, what’s the fastest way to determine the creditworthiness of a business you are thinking of owning part of? This, in turn, allows you to focus on learning more about only stocks that fit your investment profile.
A prime example is the price-to-book (P/B) ratio. Essentially the P/B value of a company is a measure of debt to assets – which when divided by the number of shares gives a ratio that might be a reasonable measure of financial soundness. An example of how this works is to look at a million-dollar piece of real estate owned by an individual.
When what looks good is bad.
If you own (hold the title) on a property valued at a million bucks, there are a couple of scenarios that can make this good or bad. If you hold a clear title (no mortgage or commercial loans) then you have an asset that reflects positively on your total net worth. On the other hand, if the property was financed by a loan of $1,00,000 and due to the vagaries of the real estate market it is now worth less than a million, you are at-risk – the property is a liability. This same concept was for a long time a significant marker for making investment decisions. The value of the tools a company uses to make its products can ensure the ability to survive hard times. If a factory and the land it sits on, are mostly paid for, this can make for an attractively low P/B. A business that owns a fleet of company vehicles has a liability, not an asset. The vehicles are depreciating items needing to be insured, maintained and ultimately replaced. The fleet can only be sold for less than the acquisition price and incurs an ongoing expense. Your loan to this company (through the purchase of stock) carries greater risk and would have a high P/B.
With outsourcing, a now standard practice, a company like Amazon (AMZN), that absolutely requires delivery vehicles, can operate just fine without actually owning any trucks. Uber (UBER) is now the biggest taxi service in the world, and they don’t own vehicles. The drivers who use Uber’s software to operate as individual contractors are the ones responsible for purchasing and bare all associated expenses. So, with hard-to-value assets like intellectual property being the driver of value, P/B might not provide much insight into a company’s cash value. And when a company gets in financial difficulties or goes bankrupt, fixed assets can often be the only way investors can recoup even a fraction of their investment. For our discussion, let’s compare AMZN and Apple (AAPL). P/B for AMZN is over 18, for AAPL 8 and generally speaking a good ratio is less than 4. This could imply that your investment in AMZN has a greater credit risk than AAPL, even though AAPL carries a P/S double the average.
Another classic metric is the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio. Assuming that a company is profitable – that it makes more money than it spends – the P/E is a reasonable way to calculate how much owning part of that profit stream will cost. A low P/E implies that the cost to buy some of a business’s profits is reasonable and that at some point in the foreseeable future you will have paid off the cost of your investment and the profits can become income. This might be best understood by thinking about dividends. If you buy a share of stock for $20 and get an annual dividend of $1 (5%) at some point you will get back what you paid for the share (which is then an asset, like a loan-free piece of real estate) and the dividend becomes income (like receiving rent from that loan-free piece of real estate).
But when a company isn’t profitable either there is no P/E or the gap between what the company is spending versus what it is earning becomes untenable. The P/E for amazon is north of 70, where the average long-term ratio for the market as a whole is around 18. This implies that it could take up to 4x longer for your investment in AMZN to become profitable than one in AAPL whose P/E is 16. One excuse investors use to justify stocks with a nosebleed P/E is that they have “momentum.” The assumption is the company is growing so fast that eventually, they will make more money than they spend. One culprit of the dot-com crash at the start of the new millennium was this kind reasoning.
In a similar vein, the price-to-sales (P/S) ratio can help identify stocks whose price offer compelling value. Using a formula that includes the total value of a company (the market capitalization) and the number of shares outstanding divided by 12-months of sales or revenue the P/S is like the P/E since it is intended to quantify the value of individual shares. The biggest limitation of the P/S is it doesn’t take into account if a company is profitable, or will ever be profitable. Using our example one more time, both AMZN and AAPL have a P/S of 3.5, which is considered high, but not unreasonable.
Now a quick summary. AMZN has rarely been profitable and continues to spend more than it makes. According to our traditional metrics, its P/B suggests it is a risky investment; the P/E suggests the stock is expensive and doesn’t offer much value; but, the P/S implies the stock is not grossly overvalued. AAPL has long been profitable by making things like phones and computers for both business and retail use. The P/B reflects less credit risk than AMZN, but more than average. The P/E says this is a good time if you want to buy some stock, while P/S urges caution around equity purchases. All of which points to a merely average credit score for AMZN and a slightly better one for AAPL which also gets points for paying a dividend (making for a quicker payback on that initial purchase of stock). One last point here, now that Microsoft (MSFT) had got its groove back it scores between AMZN and AAPL using our criteria here.
What does all this mean to you?
The most widely held exchange-traded funds are SPY and VOO, both indexed to the S&P 500. Passive investors and their retirement accounts (401Ks and IRAs) should be anchored with a large position in one of these index funds. The primary reason being that in any given year most of the stock market gains will come from just a handful of stocks. By owning a fund composed of the 500 biggest and usually best companies in America you get to take advantage of the fact that stocks go up more often than they go down. Investors get the benefit of upside in the winningest equities and at the same time hedging the performance of struggling stocks while still earning a modest dividend.
Hopefully, you have accounts intended for both short-term needs and long-term goals. These should be structured to meet your investment objectives and would likely vary in composition. Specifically, outsized risk should play no part in a retirement account, especially as you get older and the opportunity to rebuild after a significant loss becomes more daunting. The analogy of keeping credit risk low coupled with the value of dividends as a potential income stream suggest it is possible to move the odds, as much as possible, in your favor with some thoughtful analysis.
As it currently stands, of all 500 companies in the S&P index funds, MSFT, AMZN, and APPL make up a full 10% of total shares. The benchmark index is structured so that stocks with the largest market capitalization have a heavier weighting. The alternative for an S&P index is an index fund that is equal-weighted – meaning regardless of company size, all components in the fund have an equal percentage of shares. An example is the Invesco S&P 500® Equal Weight ETF (RSP) where the total shares of each company are around .23%. So, the MSFT-AMZN-AAPL triad makes up less than 1% of this index. I own two of these funds in a ratio of 65% VOO to 35% RSP and regard the combo as a single holding.
Personally, I still find the idea of weighting as criteria for fund composition a bit uncomfortable, which explains why S&P index funds are only 25% of the equity holdings in my retirement accounts. If you subscribe at Morningstar, one of their more valuable tools is a program that aggregates all the holdings in a portfolio and compares them to the S&P index. By comparison, my IRA is composed of 14 individual investments, not all of which are index funds, with several holdings having been in the account for a couple of decades. The idea is to increase the dividend stream without using riskier equities. Or put another way, I want to create a steady income by only using financially solid stocks. According to Morningstar analysis, my IRA has both a lower P/E and P/B ratio and almost twice the yield of the S&P 500 index. In an account intended for the long-term, I aim to keep my portfolio credit score high.