Saturday, 14 December 2013

Most valuations (even good ones) are wrong

Now this can be shocking to you if you spend a lot of time arriving at that magical number (intrinsic value) that helps you ascertain whether you must buy a stock or not.
Damodaran talks about three kinds of errors that cause most valuations – even the ones “meticulously” calculated – to go wrong:
  1. Estimation error…that occurs while converting raw information into forecasts.
  2. Firm-specific uncertainty…as the firm may do much better or worse than you expected it to perform, resulting in earnings and cash flows to be quite different from your estimates.
  3. Macro uncertainty…which can be a result of drastic shifts in the macro-economic conditions that can also impact your company.
The year 2008 is one classic example when most valuations – even the good ones – went horribly wrong owing to the last two factors – firm-specific and macro uncertainties.
As Damodaran writes…
While precision is a good measure of process in mathematics or physics, it is a poor measure of quality in valuation.
So, to value or not value?
Knowing that your valuation could be wrong (and in most cases, it would be) despite any kind of precision you employ in your calculations, it should not lead you to a refusal to value a business at all.
This makes no sense, since everyone else looking at the business faces the same uncertainty.
Instead what you must do to increase the probability of getting your valuations right is…
  1. Stay within your circle of competence and study businesses you understand. Simply exclude everything that you can’t understand in 30 minutes.
  2. Write down your initial view on the business – what you like and not like about it – even before you start your analysis. This should help you in dealing with the “I love this company” bias.
  3. Run your analysis through your investment checklist. A checklist saves life…during surgery and in investing.
  4. Avoid “analysis paralysis”. If you are looking for a lot of reasons to support your argument for the company, you are anyways suffering from the bias mentioned above.
  5. Calculate your intrinsic values using simple models, and avoid using too many input variables. In fact, use the simplest model that you can while valuing a stock. If you can value a stock with three inputs, don’t use five. Remember, less is more.
  6. Use the most important concept in value investing – ‘margin of safety’. Without this, any valuation calculation you perform will be useless.
At the end of it, Damodaran writes…
Will you be wrong sometimes? Of course, but so will everyone else. Success in investing comes not from being right but from being wrong less often than everyone else.
So don’t justify the purchase of a company just because it fits your valuation. Don’t fool yourself into believing that every cheap stock will yield good returns. A bad company is a bad investment no matter what price it is.
Charlie Munger explains that – “a piece of turd in a bowl of raisins is still a piece of turd”…and…“there is no greater fool than yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
So, get going on valuing stocks…but when you find that the business is bad, exercise your options.
Not a call or a put option, but a “No” option.
Have you ever avoided buying a stock you “loved” because its valuations were not right?

2 Bitter Truths of Stock Valuation

1. All valuations are biased
2. Most valuations (even good ones) are wrong

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