In my last post I covered the investing strategy of Benjamin Graham, a renowned investor who managed huge success with growth shares. Further to his ideas, let me run through a strategy based on defensive investing.
Graham insisted upon certain criteria for the stock section of the defensive investors portfolio. I have listed them below, adding my own reasoning to why they remain good practice.
(1) Adequate though not excessive diversification- 10-30 companies. Diversification is very important- simply not putting all of your eggs into one basket. No matter how stable the company selected is, there is always an inherent risk of a highly negative unforeseeable future development, hence buying 10-30 of these companies means that you can afford for one or two to drop. BP is a fantastic case in point- the company looked in great shape, yet had you invested exclusively in it, your portfolio would have lost around half of its value. Yet had you owned a portfolio of 20 large companies, one of which was BP the half drop in share price would mean a loss of 2.5%- far more manageable.
(2) Companies should be of sufficient size. Graham suggests $1 billion – £1billion would probably be a reasonable marker for UK stocks.
(3) Earnings Stability. Graham suggests all suitable companies should have delivered some profit for each of the last ten years. Of Grahams criteria, arguably this one of the most important- if a company is not consistently profitable it is likely a very poor investment, and certainly one that is not suitable for the defensive investor.
(4) Record of continuous dividend payments. Record should extend for at least ten years. It is very important for the defensive investor that they can reasonably expect dividend payments to continue- large companies that claim it is in the shareholders interests for the profits to stay entirely within the business are often in serious trouble.
(5) Some growth in earnings. Graham insists upon a minimum increase of 1/3 in earnings per share over the last ten years, calculate using 3 yer averages at the beginning an end of the ten year period.Such growth earnings is actually very modest- an annual return of just under 3%. We should probably insist upon a 50% increase over the last decade- still only 4.1% average annual growth.
(6) Moderate Price to Earnings ratio. Graham recommended that the defensive investor should not pay more than 25 x average earnings over the last seven years for growth shares- the “last seven years” bit is very important as it would exclude most highly speculative growth shares, as it insists on at least a moderate track record.
(7) Moderate ratio of price to assets.
(a) Current price not more than 1.5 x Net tangible assets per share
The first of Grahams “price to assets” criteria ensures a defensive investor does not purchase shares that do not hold significant underlying value. This criteria was designed for traditional investing activities, and it may be hard to find growth shares priced so moderately in comparison to their assets. However, I will include it, as it still certainly a good sign if a share meets this criteria, as it offers something of Graham’s margin of safety.
These criteria are in no way guaranteed to be the most successful- do not simply go out an buy all of the stocks meeting this criteria. Graham designed it to protect defensive investors from severely overvalued shares, and to provide a list of stocks from which investors could select.