Jason Zweig has an interesting column today in the WSJ:
Inquiring minds want to know: What would Graham do?
This column, named after Benjamin Graham’s classic book on value investing, launched only two weeks ago — and several readers have already asked whether Graham would be loading up on financial stocks now. Unfortunately, I can’t ask the great investor directly. Graham died in 1976. But a close look at his writings suggests that the answer is unambiguous: No.
That may seem surprising. After all, by mid-July, the Dow Jones Wilshire Financials index was down 46% from one year earlier. It’s such big red numbers that get value investors licking their chops.
Even after rising over 30% in the past week, the 1,001 financial stocks tracked by Dow Jones Indexes are trading at an average of just 1.1 times their book value (assets minus liabilities). Before bank stocks climbed part way out of the crypt, you could buy Wachovia Corp. for 51% of reported book value. If that isn’t Ben Graham territory, what is?
To see why I think Graham would sit on his hands, you need to understand his crucial distinction between investment and speculation. "An investment operation," he wrote in his first book, Security Analysis, "is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and a satisfactory return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative."
Trained as a mathematician and Greek and Latin scholar, Graham crafted his definition with the stark rigor of a Euclidean theorem. He wanted no weaseling about what he meant. All three, not just one or two, conditions have to be met: Your analysis must be thorough, your principal stay safe and your expectations be reasonable. "Thorough analysis" demands "the study of the facts in the light of established standards of safety and value," while "safety of principal" means "protection against loss under all normal or reasonably likely conditions or variations."
You cannot even pretend to be protected against loss while real estate prices — the wobbly foundation for most financial stocks — are still crumbling.
Nor can you study the facts when it’s unclear what the facts are. Each quarter, the banks set money aside in reserve against losses on their loan portfolios and say they believe those reserves should be adequate. The next quarter, they find out they were wrong. Loan-loss provisions at Washington Mutual, for example, have mushroomed from $967 million to $1.5 billion to $3.5 billion to $5.9 billion over the past four quarters.
The timely Graham admonition that "You must never delude yourself into thinking that you’re investing when you’re speculating" is a reminder that no one really knows when the real estate crisis ends, or what the true situation of the financials firms balance sheets really are like.
As Zweig states, "For many banks, the nightmare has only begun."
Is It Time to Tiptoe Into Financial Stocks?
The Stocks May Look Cheap, But Bank on it: These Are Treacherous Waters.
WSJ, July 26, 2008
Free version at Yahoo
Financials Are Still Reeling
Even Firms That Avoided Worst of the Credit Crunch Face Threat From Slowdown
Antony Currie and Robert Cyran
WSJ, July 26, 2008; Page B18