Value Investing – Three Simple Rules for Picking Stocks

On Friday, one of our colleagues mentioned he’d re-read Ben Graham’s value investing bible, The Intelligent Investor.

It got us thinking about the timeless principles of value investing again. And marvelling at how you can adapt them to suit any market.

Which is just as well…

Because from around 9:45 this morning, we watched the Greeks vote for austerity. Again.

They had to. Otherwise, Greek default.

But in case you missed it, the price of the bailout has jumped from $130 billion to $210 billion, too. Where did that extra $80 billion come from? Check out for the answer.

A few of our friends are turning away from stocks and moving into fixed-income investments. They’d rather miss out on share price gains than risk losing what they’ve already got.

Whether that mirrors your own investing strategy or not, we don’t know. (Like to let us know what you think/how you’re investing in this market? Email … put ‘My Strategy’ in the subject line.)

But deserting the stock market just because things look scary isn’t always the best idea. Because that’s when the savviest investors find some of the stock market’s best valued stocks. All you have to do is follow these 3 timeless value investing principles. After all, they’ve worked for Warren Buffett.

Rule #1: Value the business, not the share


This is the number one rule of value investing. Focus on the company, not the stock.

That is, don’t worry about who is buying what – or how much a stock is climbing, or falling. It’s just noise.

You really need to look to invest in strong businesses that have sound fundamentals…

  • A solid business plan that brings in money
  • A product/service that is in demand today and probably still will be tomorrow
  • A manager that knows how to spend money the right way – that is, a manager who invests a lot of money in resources that will bring in more money rather than a reckless spender

Rule #2: Always invest with a margin of safety

If you want to make money on stocks, the simplest way is to pay LESS than what a share is worth… like buying a share worth $1 for 80 cents.

This is where good old-fashioned balance sheet analysis comes in.

The market capitalisation of a company is the value the market puts on a company. That is the number of shares on issue multiplied by the share price.

In an ideal world, a business that earns profits of $1 million a year and has $1 million in assets would have a market cap of $2 million.

But in reality, this never happens.

Earnings estimates, bullish stock price predictions cause people to buy and sell shares for almost no other reason than the hope that the stock will go up or down.

And that makes it possible for you to find ‘unpopular’ stocks that the market undervalues. I.e. a company with assets and earnings equal to, say, $20 million, but a market cap of $16 million.

That gap between the real value of the company and its perceived value is your margin of safety. And you often find it when people are feeling negative about stocks in a certain sector. (Like retail stocks before Christmas, for example.)

Rule #3: Focus on ‘fair range’ not precise value

You really only need basic math skills to work out a company’s intrinsic value… As long as you know which figures to look at…

But you need to accept you’ll probably NEVER estimate the ‘intrinsic value’ of a company to the exact cent.

No matter how much data you have about a company’s profitability and the macro outlook, you’ll probably NEVER get the intrinsic value spot on…

But you can do the next best thing…

And that is estimate a precise range of fair value… 20% above and below your best, most accurate estimate.

Once you pinpoint that ‘fair range’, you’re almost mathematically guaranteed your investments will make gains and avoid losses. Because it gives you the margin of safety that can help ensure you’re buying quality stocks at sensible prices.

Follow these simple rules and you’re on your way to almost mathematically guaranteed gains.

To find out more about how value investors are playing this market, click here.

Aaron Tyrrell
Editor, Money Morning


Aaron Tyrrell

Aaron Tyrrell

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21 Comments on "Value Investing – Three Simple Rules for Picking Stocks"

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“In an ideal world, a business that earns profits of $1 million a year and has $1 million in assets would have a market cap of $2 million.” I’ve never heard of this. Well not when it comes to public companies. Safe secure well differentiated company with good management earning $1m per year would have to be worth between $5m to $8m. Earning between 12.5% and 20%. It has to earn more than the risk free rate otherwise why invest at risk. Every company has inherent risk. If its completely risky (like a snack bar) then yes it would be… Read more »

Make that ” In which case a business earning $1m should be worth $1m”.

Anyway, the problem of value investing is that you have to have patience because as I’ve learned its a beauty contest and company prices can often far exceed value.

Peter Fraser

Fly Me, Drood, TRB, M&M et al – read Robert Gottleibsens post at Business Spectator today re Aussie Dollar and bank funding.


Thanks Peter.

I always thought the govt would scheme something.

Hope it isn’t what Gottleibsen suggests nor what amounts to a MacAussie.

This sort of interference signals a race to the bottom….. who will have the lower interest rate. Again causing malinvestment.

Personally I want house prices to (really) slowly melt so the economy can adjust normally, and that savers can benefit.

If inflation is low then wage growth will be low and we can then compete again.

Anything else is surely a cocaine hit, followed by the inevitable downer.

Peter Fraser

“slowly melt”

Obviously you read at MB.

I read all that I can. 😉 It seams to fit what should happen. What would be safest. Don’t want a crash and burn. What should happen and what will happen are two different things. I’ve been looking at Commercial Properties of late and I see the yeilds are around 7-9% net. What a bonanza if rates come down. I can’t remeber your take on Commercial Properties. Do you have any insights? Might be worth a sneeking investment if you can find a property with 9% return & mutiple tenancies to spread the risk of default.
M&M. May I suggest you be very careful with commercial property. The returns are always 7-12% with tenants paying outgoings it sounds pretty good. However, with the tough retail world and increasing difficulty in many businesses, I expect to see commercial property go backwards over the next few years. When there’s no tenant you are getting 0% and commercial properties can be hard to let. Banks are unlikely to lend more than 50-60% becaus of the higher risk and then they want the property revalued regularly to ensure you don’t exceed your LVR. I’m the executor of an estate that… Read more »
DM – I was thinking of looking around and waiting (could be 6 months to a year) before they’re priced back at 12%. I think they were priced at around 7-9% when interest rates were dropping (and depending on length of contract and tenant worthiness (if that makes sense)). I did see a property at circa $1.6m returning net $110k with 4 tenants, but that’s a net return of 6.9% – they’re dreaming – they’d expect a lower offer. Because the tenancies are quite cheep, they would be easy to fill if one or two left. But you’re right, the… Read more »
Peter Fraser

DM is correct. Actually the LVR is about 65% but close enough in my opinion.

returns are good but tenuous as per DM’s advice.

It’s a good time to think about commercial property if you are well cashed up and can travel without a tenant, but a bad time to think about commercial property if you don’t have the ready cash to get you through without a tenant for maybe 12 months, depending on the area.

Retail property is risky. Many retailers are finding conditions difficult – but high risk brings high reward for those who have strength and intelligence.

Well PF I did read your article good example of this was when Macqaurie Bank was toasted and Wayne Swan gave Macqaurie Bank a government funded gaurantee bond to survive the meltdown of 2008. Macqaurie went on a shopping spree overseas and brought many assets cheap and used taxpayers money to get a better return on interest rates overeseas. Wayne Swan was very angry and piss off about that so he may think twice about allowing investment bankers a free taxpayer funded ride. Do you really think PF the power elite in business and shareholders are going to let Wayne… Read more »