By Keith Fitz-Gerald
Money Morning/The Money Map Report
Value funds have long been viewed as conservative investments. So why are they down an average of 42% during the past 12 months, and what’s wrong with them?
No question, such numbers are scary, especially for large-cap value fund investors who have experienced that 42% drop. And the fact that some of the biggest names in value investing have taken such big beatings has to be especially disconcerting for investors who already have had their confidence badly shaken and their portfolios eviscerated.
Bill Miller’s once-vaunted Legg Mason Value Trust fund (LMVTX) has dropped 62%. Meanwhile, Marty Whitman’s Third Avenue Value Fund (TAVFX) is down 50%. Even the Dodge & Cox Stock Fund (DODGX) fund has tumbled 49% year to date.
For many investors who viewed value funds as comparatively “safe,” low-risk investments, this has to feel like a betrayal. And that’s understandable, given that history has repeatedly shown the value discipline to be one of the strongest, most stable investment strategies available for navigating a bear market.
What’s different this time?
Some managers – like Legg Mason’s Miller, as well as the Dodge & Cox team, for example – simply underestimated the depth and severity of the challenges facing their investments. Adding insult to injury, they concentrated their investments in a relatively small number of core holdings they thought they “knew.” During good times, this concentration strategy can dramatically boost returns when stellar companies that had been trading at deep discounts subsequently rebound. But now, when times are tough, as is readily apparent, stockpiling money in one or two holdings like Lehman Bros. Holdings Inc. (OTC: LEHMQ) or Freddie Mac (FRE) can be devastating.
Others, like Whitman – a gentleman who is often regarded as the “Dean of Value Investing” – simply don’t sell all that often, preferring to ride out market gyrations, which they view as a mere nuisance. So their performance is likely to suffer in line with the markets. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, Whitman, who is notorious for looking beyond what the public markets do, doesn’t care that prices have fallen so low. He believes that undervalued companies will be taken over, liquidated or refinanced which, as he pointed out in an interview with Brian Zen last year, is “where you make your money.”
While such strategies put value players on the losing side of the investment ledger for now, it will be a different ballgame when the markets turn, as they eventually will.
In fact, when we emerge from the other side of the current financial crisis – which we will, and probably sooner than everybody realizes – the deep-value choices available today will be some of the highest-performing investments for decades to come.
And for all the right reasons: Many of the underlying companies are still expecting solid business growth, diversified revenue streams and a clear path to higher earnings.
That means that one of the smartest moves a savvy investor can make today is to stick with the value-investing discipline. The historical record suggests that the best choices continue to be those companies with low or no debt, a high proportion of international revenue, and a history of solid dividend growth that pays us cold, hard cash for the ownership risks we take.
That is why there is nothing “wrong” with making value investing a key component of your investment strategy. Especially now.
As for the notion that “value” investing is broken, we don’t buy into that. Studies show that investing styles come and go. For instance, indexing might hold sway for awhile, until it gives way to a total-return strategy. Then the momentum players hold the majority. And so on.
What’s important to understand, however, is that styles don’t work all the time; they work over time, which is why it is more important than ever to maintain a laser-like focus when the going gets tough. The following five guidelines can help you keep that focus.
Five Keys To Consider Right Now
- Be Patient: Investors have fled the markets in droves lately. According to And that suggests that we may be approaching a bottom – even if it’s not immediately apparent. , mutual fund investors have pulled $175 billion out of stock funds so far this year, with $56 billion of that capital exodus taking place in October alone. This is the first year that equity flows have been negative since 2002, which reaffirms something we frequently point out: Investors tend to rush in at market tops and out at market bottoms.
- Rebalance: Tough markets can really skew your financial perspective. And your portfolio balance. “Rebalancing” can help you get back on track to higher returns, as we’ve mentioned in the past. Not only does rebalancing force you to take profits, but it also encourages you to put more money to work in areas that have been hit the hardest (and which are also poised for the biggest-potential rebounds, studies show).
- Look For Consistency: As redemption requests mount and conditions deteriorate, some value funds are shifting managerial styles in an attempt to make up lost ground. Not only does this suggest that these funds never had a strategy to start with, but it also suggests a lack of discipline, which is exactly what we don’t want right now. Studies show that value funds, in particular, tend to rebound more sharply than other investment choices because they’re often chocked full of quality stocks trading at deep – but temporary — discounts.
- Make Sure Value Really Is Valuable: “Value” has many different meanings, so it’s important to make sure you understand what the term means when it comes to picking a suitable investment. For some managers, value means companies that are simply trading at steep discounts to other stocks. For others, it means a concentration on those stocks trading in predetermined ranges, perhaps as measured by such indicators as Price/Earnings (P/E) or (P/B) ratios. Different definitions can lead to vastly different types of stocks.
- When Buying On The Cheap, Understand That Near Term Outlook Often Stinks: During good times, value investing is often about buying companies that, at least in the near-term, have fallen on hard times. Now, however, pretty much everything is “cheap,” so the more important issue is identifying those companies with superior fundamentals and improving outlooks that may simply be caught in this bad-market maelstrom.
After all, Wall Street knows the price of everything. But very few people understand the value of anything.
[ Editor’s Note: As Keith Fitz-Gerald’s value-investing commentary underscores, uncertainty has been the watchword in the whipsaw markets of recent months. Just when it seems as if clear patterns have emerged, another bad-news revelation seems to jump up out of nowhere to roil then markets anew. But what if you knew what that next “revelation” was going to be? And you had enough time to prepare a strategy to tackle this new development – or, better still, someone also handed you a strategy with which to capitalize on this event. Money Morning’s latest investment report does just that – it predicts five key “aftershocks” that we expect will emanate from the U.S. financial crisis, and talks about profit opportunities that will flow forth from these “seismic” market events. Indeed, we’re so excited about the potential for these new predictions that we’ve actually launched a news series to watch as they unfold in the weeks and months to come. To read our first installment in this new news series, check out “The Five Financial Crisis “Aftershocks” Investors Can Play for Profit.” Make sure to watch for additional installments of that series. In the meantime, check out our full research report on the five aftershocks investors can play for profit. And check out our just-launched economic forecasting news series, “Outlook 2009” series. The latest installment, our forecast for the U.S. housing market, appears elsewhere in this issue of Money Morning.]
News and Related Story Links:
Money Morning 2009 Economic Outlook Series (Part II):
For the U.S. Economy in the New Year, the Pain Will Precede the Promise.
Money Morning 2009 Economic Outlook Series (Part III):
Unprecedented Volatility Will Continue to Rock the Stock Market in Advance of a Possible Rebound in Mid-2009.
Price/Earnings (P/E) Ratio.
Price/Book (P/B) Ratio.
Money Morning Aftershock Investing Series (Part I):
The Five Financial Crisis “Aftershocks” Investors Can Play for Profit.