Sunday, March 29

Month 105 - A-rated Companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average - March 2020

Situation: If you’ve been picking stocks for a retirement portfolio, and have more than 15 years of experience, you’ve learned enough about risk to appreciate last month’s blog about Haven Stocks (Month 104). You’re probably ready to take on more risk for more reward, assuming that you’ve learned how to ride out a market crash without selling. Warren Buffett, the reigning value investor, also stretches beyond investing in large-capitalization value stocks like those discussed in our Month 103 blog about Berkshire Hathaway’s portfolio.

In his most recent Annual Letter to the shareowners of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren explains how to do that by focusing on Retained Earnings (see the excerpt below in Appendix). Retained Earnings are what’s left over from Free Cash Flow after Dividends have been paid. Free Cash Flow is what’s left over from Operating Earnings (EBIT) after Capital Expenditures have been paid. Warren Buffett uses Return on Net Tangible Capital to estimate whether Retained Earnings are likely to be substantial. Return on Net Tangible Capital is the same as the familiar ROCE (Return on Capital Employed) except that Capital Employed is changed from Total Assets minus Current Liabilities to Total Assets minus Intangible Assets minus Current Liabilities. He thinks 20% is a good Return on Net Tangible Capital (see Column P in the Table).

The company’s CEO will eventually deploy Retained Earnings to build a better company faster. The cost for deploying that capital is zero. Going forward, the return on that investment is approximately the same as the return on Operating Earnings, which is EBIT (Earnings Before Interest and Taxes) divided by Market Capitalization. In a well-managed and well-positioned company, that return represents a high rate of Compound Interest over time--the 20%/yr Return on Net Tangible Capital that Warren Buffett is looking to achieve in most years on most of Berkshire Hathaway’s portfolio.

The trick, of course, is to find such companies. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) is a good place to start, given that those companies have traditionally been picked (in part) because they expected to have a high Free Cash Flow Yield (see Column H in the Table).

Mission: Pick companies from the 30-stock DJIA that have S&P ratings on the bonds they’ve issued that are A- or higher, and insert a new column in our Standard Spreadsheet for Free Cash Flow Yield (Column K). Exclude any DJIA companies that do not have an S&P stock rating of at least B+/M, or do not have the 16 year trading record that is required for quantitative analysis by the BMW Method ( (We display at Columns L-M in the Table a summary of BMW Method findings for the most recent week.)

Administration: see Table.

Bottom Line: These 19 companies have an aggregate Return on Net Tangible Capital of 19.5%, which almost meets Warren Buffett’s requirement of 20%. Whether any of these stocks can be bought at a “sensible price” is not an easy question to answer. Here at ITR, we call a stock “sensibly priced” if the 50 day moving average in the price per share is no more than twice the Graham Number (see Columns AC & AD) and is no more than 25 times the 7-yr P/E (see Column AF). Five companies meet those criteria: PFE, INTC, JPM, TRV, IBM.

Risk Rating: 6 (where 10-yr US Treasury Notes = 1, S&P 500 Index = 5, and gold bullion = 10)

Full Disclosure: I dollar-average into MSFT, NKE, PFE, BA, KO, INTC, PG, JPM, WMT, JNJ, CAT and IBM, and also own shares of UNH, CSCO, AAPL, DIS, TRV and MMM.

Appendix: Excerpt from Warren Buffett’s February 2020 Letter to the shareowners of Berkshire Hathaway: “Charlie and I urge you to focus on operating earnings and to ignore both quarterly and annual gains or losses from investments, whether these are realized or unrealized...Over time, Charlie and I expect our equity holdings – as a group – to deliver major gains, albeit in an unpredictable and highly irregular manner. To see why we are optimistic, move on to the next discussion. The Power of Retained Earnings. In 1924, Edgar Lawrence Smith, an obscure economist and financial advisor, wrote Common Stocks as Long Term Investments, a slim book that changed the investment world. Indeed, writing the book changed Smith himself, forcing him to reassess his own investment beliefs. Going in, he planned to argue that stocks would perform better than bonds during inflationary periods and that bonds would deliver superior returns during deflationary times. That seemed sensible enough. But Smith was in for a shock. His book began, therefore, with a confession: “These studies are the record of a failure – the failure of facts to sustain a preconceived theory.” Luckily for investors, that failure led Smith to think more deeply about how stocks should be evaluated. For the crux of Smith’s insight, I will quote an early reviewer of his book, none other than John Maynard Keynes: “I have kept until last what is perhaps Mr. Smith’s most important, and is certainly his most novel, point. Well-managed industrial companies do not, as a rule, distribute to the shareholders the whole of their earned profits. In good years, if not in all years, they retain a part of their profits and put them back into the business. Thus there is an element of compound interest operating in favour of a sound industrial investment. Over a period of years, the real value of the property of a sound industrial is increasing at compound interest, quite apart from the dividends paid out to the shareholders.” 

Warren concludes that history lesson on this note: “Charlie and I have long focused on using retained earnings advantageously. Reinvestment in productive operational assets will forever remain our top priority. In addition, we constantly seek to buy new businesses that meet three criteria. First, they must earn good returns on the net tangible capital required in their operation. Second, they must be run by able and honest managers. Finally, they must be available at a sensible price.”

"The 2 and 8 Club" (CR) 2017 Invest Tune All rights reserved.

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