Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Technique of Fundamental Analysis

Fundamental analysts believe that the market is 90% logical and only 10% psychological.  Value is related to a company's assets, its expected growth rate of earnings and dividends, interest rates, and risk.  By studying these factors, the fundamentalist arrives at an estimate of a security's intrinsic value or firm foundation of value.

Fundamentalists believe that eventually the market will reflect the security's real worth.

The fundamentalist strives to be relatively immune to the optimism and pessimism of the crowd and makes a sharp distinction between a stock's current price and its true value.

In estimating the firm-foundation value of a stock, the fundamentalist's most important job is to estimate the firm's future stream of earnings and dividends.  The worth of a share is taken to be the present or discounted value of all the cash flows the investor is expected to receive.  The analyst must estimate the firm's sales level, operating costs, tax rates, depreciation, and the sources and costs of its capital requirements.

The fundamentalist uses four basic determinants to help estimate the proper value for any stock.

1.  The expected growth rate.
Rule:  A rational investor should be willing to pay a higher price for a share the larger the growth rate of dividends and earnings.
Rule:  A rational investor should be willing to pay a higher price for a share the longer an extraordinary growth rate is expected to last.

2.  The expected dividend payout.
Rule:  A rational investor should be willing to pay a higher price for a share, other things being equal, the larger the proportion of a company;s earnings that is paid out in cash dividends.

3.  The degree of risk.
Rule:  A rational (and risk averse) investor should be willing to pay a higher price for a share, other things being equal, the less risky the company's stock.

4.  The level of market interest rates.
Rule:  A rational investor should be willing to pay a higher price for a share, other things being equal, the lower the interest rates.

The above valuation rules imply that a security's firm-foundation value (and its price-earnings multiple) will be higher 

  • the larger the company's growth rate and the longer its duration;
  • the larger the dividend payout for the firm; 
  • the less risky the company's stocks; and 
  • the lower the general level of interest rates.
In principle, such rules are very useful in suggesting a rational basis for stock prices and in giving investors some standard of value.  But before using these rules, bear in mind the following caveats.

1.  Expectations about the future cannot be proven in the present.
Predicting future earnings and dividends is a most hazardous occupation.  It is extremely difficult to be objective; wild optimism and extreme pessimism constantly battle for top place. "Forecasts are difficult to make - particularly those about the future."

2.  Precise figures cannot be calculated from undetermined data.
There is always some combination of growth rate and growth period that will produce any specific price.  In this sense, it is intrinsically impossible, given human nature, to calculate the intrinsic value of a share.  

The point to remember is that the mathematical precision of fundamental value formulas is based on treacherous ground: forecasting the future.  "God Almighty does not know the proper price-earnings multiple for a common stock."

3.  What's growth for the goose is not always growth for the gander.
It is always true that the market values growth, and that higher growth rates and larger multiples go hand in hand.  But the crucial question is:  How much more should you pay for higher growth?  

There is no consistent answer.  In some periods, the market was willing to pay an enormous price for stocks exhibiting high growth rates.  At other times, high growth stocks commanded only a modest premium over the multiples of common stocks in general.   Growth can be as fashionable as tulip bulbs, as investors in growth stocks painfully learned. 

From a practical standpoint, the rapid changes in market valuations that have occurred suggest that it would be very dangerous to use any one year's valuation relationships as an indication of market norms.  However, by comparing how growth stocks are currently valued with historical precedent, the investor should at least be able to isolate those periods when a touch of the tulip bug has smitten investors.

Why might fundamental analysis fail to work?

There are three potential flaws in this type of analysis.
1.  The information and analysis may be incorrect.
2.  The security analyst's estimate of "value" maybe faulty.
3.  The market may not correct its "mistakes", and the stock price may not converge to its value estimate.

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