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5 ways to avoid the ‘value trap’

Everyone loves a bargain but it is important to look deep below the surface.

Investors with a predisposition to high conviction value investing often need value to be combined with an element of growth. Let’s call it ‘growth-value’. Our approach is not to look for ‘cigar butts’ but we do seek turnaround or under-researched ideas where the profits and growth are likely to continue.

Finding a ‘value trap’ investment is easy, but finding growth-value in an investment is hard. Everyone loves a bargain but it is important to look deep below the surface.

Looking beyond the value trap

A value trap is a company whose shares look cheap because they are trading at low multiples of earnings, cash flow or book value. For example, a low price to earnings (P/E) ratio or low value to earnings (or EV/EBITDA) ratio may be caused by a good reason, making the company a potential value trap.

Mistakes can be minimised by considering:

1. Consistent ROE and ROA

Management is key to any small company but it is especially vital when looking for growth-value. In our view, return on equity (ROE) provides a mechanism to measure management’s track record delivering growth using the money shareholders have provided to the company. Value traps might have delivered strong ROE numerous years ago but a value-growth business will have consistent, and at a minimum, double digit ROE.

Should a company have debt, return on assets (ROA) needs to be taken into consideration. ROA accounts for the effectiveness of the company using that debt. Essentially, this provides a score of management’s ability to generate returns across all sources of funding, both debt and equity. Different industries have differing levels of what is considered a healthy amount of debt so looking for consistency rather than volatility in an ROA figure is key.

ROE and ROA are two vital checks that provide a level of confidence around how efficiently management’s ideas are being executed.

2. Balance sheet safety

For unloved small companies with debt, look at the interest cover ratio (EBIT relative to interest payments) as a proxy for business health. How many years’ worth of interest payments can the current earnings sustain? Anything less than a multiple of two would be a concern and ideally this should be a lot higher.

The ratio of short-term receivables to payables is also a factor to consider. Regardless of the industry, consistency in this ratio indicates good management of working capital.

3. More than the basic valuation metrics

It is easy to get distracted and focus solely on a low P/E or EV/EBITDA and assume this translates to a high margin of safety. On their own these metrics tell nothing about growth prospects. In finding value-growth, the obvious growth factors such as revenue and EPS growth are looked for but also for EBITDA margin growth, free cash to enterprise valuation yield and the historical consistency of EBITDA to cash conversion. Together these provide a better understanding of the true margin of safety. It is a good sign if all these factors are inversely related to a low P/E or EV/EBITDA. If that is not the case then the company is probably on a low P/E or EV/EBITDA for a very good reason: it is a value trap.

We have made errors along the way by mistaking value traps for value-growth.

Investing is about maximising winners and minimising losers. Despite the perceived idea of minimal losses in value investing you still have to weigh up the likelihood of easily exiting an investment and the opportunity cost of that capital.

We like to think we are constantly learning from our mistakes, and the following two points have refined our investment approach.

4. Do not ignore industry thematics

We are fundamentally stock pickers, meaning our analysis is bottom up rather than looking at top down or macro and industry events and their potential impact on stock valuations. Regardless, it is a mistake to ignore the current and future industry environment in which a particular business operates. We have seen the speed and scale of technological disruption that is already impacting many industries. If tailwinds exist then growth is a lot easier to obtain, if headwinds are present then conviction on management’s ability to adapt is needed.

5. Have a timeframe and stick to it

Always think about your opportunity cost of capital. Progress for small companies can take much longer than expected. Before making any value investment, have a timeframe in place. Within that timeframe, if benchmarks are not hit or are not explained in a logical manner, then it is time to reassess the investment.

To summarise, stick to what is known, look below the surface to assess business growth and management track record and always remember the opportunity cost of the invested dollar. Watch the investment rule that: “You don’t have to make money back the same way you lost it.”

Content first published in the financial newsletter on 31 August 2017.