Friday, April 27, 2007

Investment Newsletter Performance

Subscribers to my investment newsletters sometimes ask exactly how well our recommendations are doing. They don't have to take my word for it because our performance is regularly monitored by the Hulbert Financial Digest, which also tracks the performance of almost 200 other investment newsletters. According to Hulbert, the Forbes Special Situation Survey (SSS) returned 26.5% (excluding dividends) over the year ending March 31, making it the third-best performing investment newsletter during that period. In comparison, the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained just 11.2%. What’s more, if you compare us to newsletters that focus only on domestic equities like we do, we are actually No. 1.

Furthermore, SSS has been consistent over the long term. Ever since Hulbert began tracking us in January 2002, we have produced an annualized return of 14.6%. The annualized return on the Dow during the same time is only 4.1%. It is true that a handful of newsletters managed to beat us, but at least some of them relied on the use of margin, short selling, or derivatives. Their performance is not necessarily due to good stock picking. It can be explained at least in part by market timing and the use of leverage. In contrast, SSS does not assume that subscribers buy stocks on margin or employ other kinds of strategies. Our returns are solely the result of stock-picking ability.

The Forbes Growth Investor (FGI), which relies on a quantitative, momentum-based model also did well, significantly outperforming the market averages since Hulbert began tracking it. It has produced an annualized return of 9.0% since January 2002. Because this newsletter has a diversified recommended list of 50 stocks, it tends to be less volatile than SSS.

We credit these outstanding results to our disciplined screening process. Most importantly, for SSS, we rely on our proprietary discounted cash flow (DCF) model. We are sometimes told that our model is not realistic. This is absolutely true. Indeed, our model is overly conservative. For example, if we believe a company can realistically grow revenues by 10% each year, we might model only 5% growth. If we believe the operating profit margin is likely to be around 15%, we might model only 10%. We do this because we are not trying to determine what a stock is actually worth. Instead, we are trying to determine what it is worth at a minimum. In other words, our methodology is designed to find reasons not to recommend a stock. However, if despite all our conservative assumptions we derive a minimum intrinsic value that is greater than the stock’s market price, that stock becomes a candidate for recommendation.

It is interesting to note that Warren Buffett, perhaps the greatest investor of all time, also relies on a DCF methodology to determine a company’s intrinsic value. He points out, however, that two analysts using this methodology will rarely derive the same intrinsic value. This is because DCF analysis is as much art as it is science. It is prone to error because it requires making assumptions about the future. It is precisely for this reason that we try to make our assumptions as conservative as possible.

DCF analysis does not always work. For example, during the dotcom boom of the late 1990s stocks that DCF analysis flagged as overvalued continued to go up. This was because of overly optimistic investor sentiment. Barring such unusual periods, we believe a conservative DCF approach is the best way to pick undervalued stocks over the long term.

For FGI, we rely on a proprietary quantitative model. This product is more short-term oriented and puts a lot of weight on price and earnings momentum.