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Friday, September 23, 2011

Moneyball: It's About Investing, Not Baseball

Moneyball: It's About Investing, Not Baseball

By Joseph Hogue

The movie adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book, “Moneyball” comes out today to what will surely be big box office bucks (if advertising is any indication). The book is based on the front office career of Oakland A’s scout Billy Beane. Around 2002, Beane adopted Bill James’ Sabermetric approach to recruitment in order to help the team compete against teams with upwards of three times their salary power. Not able to recruit the big name athletes, the A’s had to find undervalued players. They did this by using statistical analysis of uncommon metrics, but ones with higher correlations to career success in athletes, than the more traditional metrics like stolen bases and RBIs.

The movie is sure to be a feel good romp about an underdog story and determination. What most will never know is that the book, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” was written by one of the great financial journalists and has significant importance for investors. Those of us without the money power of institutional investors would do well to learn something from Mr. Beane and the Oakland A’s.


Sabermetrics places emphasis on in-game statistics rather than the industry norm of career averages. Key metrics include: "late-inning pressure situations" (LIPS) and my favorite "narration, exposition, reflection, description" (NERD). What is important to investing is the idea that many measurements, i.e. price-to-earnings, debt-to-equity, and earnings per share are so popularized as to be commoditized and of relatively little value. To compete with the institutional players, investors must look deeper into stock metrics to find measures more highly correlated with success and less often used. To this end I will present two methods of measurement not universally used and with proven success.

The first method will be the Piotroski Score, named after the University of Chicago Professor, Joseph Piotroski. Piotroski argued that because value stocks are often distressed companies, investors should implement a way to distinguish between companies with good future potential and those more likely to be value traps. The scoring is built on a series of nine criteria for evaluating a firm’s financial strength. Over a 20-year test period, those stocks scoring highest also outperformed a portfolio of all value stocks by about 7.5%. Additionally, those stocks scoring lowest were up to five times more likely to file bankruptcy or de-list their shares. Piotroski immediately came to mind when I first saw the commercials for "Moneyball." Both the movie and the method involve finding undervalued picks with a good future. Both Sabermetrics and the Piotroski Score look at ‘in-game’ (financial statement) statistics instead of getting caught up in the more popular relative valuation methods.

The scoring is fairly simple and straightforward with one point given for each of the following criteria:

Positive prior year net income.
Positive prior year operating cash flow: This is a better gauge of income and less susceptible to management manipulation.
Current year return-on-assets is greater than prior year: A good measure of profitability.
Prior year operating cash flow exceeds net income: A warning sign of income statement manipulation by management is net income that significantly exceeds operating cash flow. Managers can manipulate accounts to show higher net income, but it is much harder to manipulate actual cash flows.
Ratio of long-term debt to assets is lower than prior year: Lower liabilities relative to assets is a sign of improving financial stability.
Increasing current ratio (current assets divided by current liabilities): This is a signal of improving access to working capital and solvency.
Number of shares outstanding is equal or lower than prior year: An increasing number of shares outstanding means that prior investments are being diluted.
Current year gross margin exceeds prior year: Margins measure the company’s competitive position.
Percentage increase in sales exceeds percentage increase in total assets: An improving asset turnover means the company is improving productivity.

DR Horton (DHI) and Dell Inc. (DELL) both did well in a Piotroski screen with top scores of nine. DR Horton is a $3.1 billion homebuilder operating in 26 states. Its stock price has been pressured along with the rest of the homebuilders, losing 11.4% over the last twelve months. Eighty-seven percent of the shares are held by institutions and 12.5% are held by insiders making the float relatively limited. Another 26 million shares are sold short, about 11.2% of float, meaning there could be some support as short-sellers return to buy back their positions.

Dell is the $27 billion computer-maker and retailer that was once the darling of wall street and the kind of stock that made you rich. In the ten years to 2000, the stock price increased by 846 times, but has not been able to catch a break since. The stock is up 14.7% over the past year but still off 15.1% from its July highs. The company’s CEO, Michael Dell, recently told Bloomberg that they would continue to look for 8-10 acquisitions per year of companies with proven technologies. The stock price is relatively cheap at only 8.0 times trailing earnings though return on assets is fairly low at only 7.5%.

Big Lots (BIG) and Eastman Kodak (EK) did not do as well on the screen with scores of 0 for Big Lots and 3 for Eastman Kodak. Big Lots operates a chain of cost-leader retail stores across the 48 contiguous states and 88 stores in Canada. Though the stock has been supported over the last few years as a low-cost retailer, lowered expectations on economic growth and a generally tired consumer are holding the company back. The stock, at $33.62, is up 1.4% over the year but well off its highs of $43.68 per share.

Eastman Kodak, that once great camera company is now only a $700 million shell of its former glory. The company operates in three segments: consumer digital imaging; graphic communications; and film, photofinishing, & entertainment. Looking over the financial statements is depressing with negative profit margins, return-on-assets, and cash flow. The stock is down 38.7% over the last year and has a negative book value when goodwill is backed out.

The Altman Z-Score is similar to the Piotroski Score in that it is a predictor of financial distress and used primarily in value investing. The method, published in 1968, was named after Professor Edward Altman of New York University. It uses five ratios, multiplied by a coefficient for weighting of importance, to predict the likelihood of bankruptcy within two years. The model was found to successfully predict 72% of corporate bankruptcies two years prior to filing chapter 7 and only falsely predicted bankruptcy in 6% of cases. Subsequent studies have found the method to accurately predict distress 80-90% of the time with 15-20% false predictions (pdf).

The five ratios and their coefficients are:

Working Capital/Total Assets (1.2): Measures liquidity of assets and the financial flexibility of the firm.
Retained Earnings/Total Assets (1.4): A measure of profitability relative to the company’s size.
Earnings Before Interest and Taxes/Total Assets (3.3): A measure of operating efficiency outside of tax and debt considerations.
Market Value of Equity/Book Value of Total Liabilities (.6): It is a possible warning signal when the market value of the firm is substantially below the book value.
Sales/Total Assets (1.0): A measure for total asset turnover and efficient use of firm assets.

The scores for each ratio are then summed and interpreted as follows:

Score>3.0 - The company is safe based on financial figures.
2.7><2.99 - The company is on alert and investors should be cautious.
1.8><2.7 - There is a good chance the company will file bankruptcy within two years.
Score<1.8 - The probability of the company filing for bankruptcy within two years is high.

One notable Altman Z laggard is media conglomerate Time Warner Inc. (TWX) with a score of negative .50 and a high probability of financial distress. The company trades for a persuasive price-to-earnings growth (PEG) ratio of just .78 and an even price-to-book value. The stock is only off 3.6% over the last year but has traded flat since 2002 and is off its 2007 highs by more than half. Media companies have had a tough go of it lately as more content goes to the internet and traditional media loses advertising revenues. Though the company’s margins and revenue growth are in-line with industry averages, a deeper look into the financial statements presents a possible unstable future.

There is some redundancy between the two measurements and not much research as to which is the better predictor. They are relatively easy to calculate and an Excel spreadsheet template makes the process even faster, so I use both for my value investments. Stocks scoring well on both metrics usually make the cut for value picks, while those scoring well in one but not the other would need further scrutiny. A note of caution, I’ve found several screens on the internet that give different scores for the same stock so you will want to take the time to dig into the financial statements and do the actual scoring yourself.

Adapt or Lose Money

Another key take-away from the book is the idea of adaptation to market efficiency. The success of the A’s Sabermetrics approach brought imitators and competitors in the field. Today, most big league teams have a staff of statisticians analyzing a slew of data. To continue their run, the A’s had to continuously search for neglected metrics that would correlate with success.

This is just as true in investing. The first guy to discover the January Effect probably made some good money. The millions of investors that have tried the approach since then haven’t fared as well. As soon as a metric or strategy is popularized, the market starts pricing for it and the easy money is gone. Investors must continuously adapt their strategy to stay one step ahead of the market.

Investing, like professional baseball, is an extremely competitive field. Those that do not spend the time to find novel and superior analytical tools will be fodder to the big dogs, i.e. the Detroit Tigers. Further, without an analytical staff to back our stock picks, regular investors like you and me need to analyze and adapt our strategies continuously to gain those coveted few percentage points above the index. The two measurement tools above will help to assess financial stability and solvency, but you’ll need a few other predictors to build out your toolbox.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Payout Ratio: Important Dividend Metric, Too Often Overlooked

Payout Ratio: Important Dividend Metric, Too Often Overlooked
1 comment | September 12, 2011 | includes: DUK, ETE, FTR, MO, NOK, T, VGR

I was recently talking to one of my friends last week. He had about $600,000 invested in high yield stocks. These were companies paying well above what they were earning. I told him to be careful as these companies could cut their dividends in the future. This seems like a common problem for investors who overlook one simple metric, which is the payout ratio. The payout ratio is simply the percentage of earnings that are being paid out in dividends. Here are four companies that are actually paying out more than they take in.

Frontier Communications Corporation (FTR), a communications company, provides regulated and unregulated voice, data, and video services to residential, business, and wholesale customers in the United States. It offers local and long distance voice services, including basic telephone wireline services to residential and business customers.

Frontier pays nearly 11% in dividends. It sounds nice, except for the fact the payout ratio is around 450%. The company pays 75 cents a year and isn't even expected to earn half that next year. Another issue with Frontier is that it is in a dying area of business. It primarily deals with landlines. Landlines are quickly going away as people start switching to wireless telecom carriers.

Nokia Corporation (NOK) manufactures and sells mobile devices, and provides Internet and digital mapping and navigation services worldwide. Its devices & services segment develops and manages a portfolio of mobile devices, such as mobile phones, smartphones, and mobile computers; services; applications; and content.

Nokia pays a 7.6% dividend. The payout ratio is about 110%. This is set to increase as the company's earnings are set to decrease. Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) have been taking a bite out of Nokia's market share. Nokia is already said to be stumbling as it tries to find new ways to innovate.

Energy Transfer Equity, L.P., (ETE) through its direct and indirect investments in the limited partner and general partner interests in Energy Transfer Partners, L.P., engages in midstream, intrastate, and interstate transportation of natural gas, as well as in storage of natural gas in the United States.

Energy Transfer Equity pays a 6.5%. The payout ratio is more than 200%. ETE has a good business model and I do like the MLP space, but the fact that it pays out so much is a huge red flag.

Vector Group Ltd., (VGR) through its subsidiaries, engages in the manufacture and sale of cigarettes in the United States.

The company pays an 8.5% dividend. The payout ratio is over 200%. Vector's brand of cigarettes have a very small market share. With the company paying out all its earnings and taking on debt, it is not putting any capital into potential growth opportunities.

The payout ratio can tell us what future distributions will look like. A few things to note is that you also need to look at future earnings growth. If a company cannot match distributions with earnings, it may be time to sell. Here are three companies that have a nice yield and low payout ratios.

AT&T Inc., (T) together with its subsidiaries, provides telecommunication services to consumers, businesses, and other service providers worldwide. Its Wireless segment offers wireless voice communication services, including local wireless communications service, long-distance service, and roaming services.

AT&T pays a 6.2% dividend. The payout ratio is 50%. The company has a strong base of customers. There is plenty of growth in the dividend as well. The company is a strong blue chip as well as being a Dow component. AT&T is a favorite amongst many dividend investors.

Altria Group, Inc., (MO) through its subsidiaries, engages in the manufacture and sale of cigarettes, smokeless products, and wine in the United States and internationally.

Altria pays a 6.1% dividend. Its payout ratio is 93%. However, its earnings are suppose to increase substantially over the coming years, meaning the payout ratio will decrease. The company has some of the strongest brands around. Although, the dividend may not be as high as Vector's, the company is much safer.

Duke Energy Corporation (DUK) operates as an energy company in the Americas. It operates through three segments: U.S. franchised electric and gas, commercial power, and international energy.

Duke currently pays a 5.3% dividend. The payout ratio is 64%. Duke is one of the largest utility companies in the U.S. Americans will always need energy and consumption is set to increase. Duke is an extremely stable company and with its recent purchase of Progress Energy (PGN), the company is set to increase its earnings power.

These three companies are great example of strong dividend payers with a low payout ratio. Always be careful when investing. Sometimes companies have high yields for a reason simply because there exists more risk. The best advice I can give in this case is "Slow and steady wins the race."

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.