This is part 2 of my follow up thoughts on compounders, cheap stocks, and the importance of returns on capital. Part 1 is here. Also, some previous posts before that are relevant to this post as well:

To recap last post, I basically wanted to convey that valuation and quality are not mutually exclusive. There seems to be two factions within the large value investing community. It sometimes feels like a presidential primary race. We’re all on the same team at the end of the day, but these two factions seem to always disagree on numerous points. The factions I’m referring to are the Graham deep value followers and the Buffett quality company followers, for lack of a better way to put it.

I espouse that there really isn’t as much of a difference between the two that everyone seems to think. The end game is that we are all trying to locate low risk 50 cent dollars.

In the last post, I made a comment about Fastenal Company (NASDAQ:FAST), and that the stock has been one of the best performers in the US Stock market in the last 25 years, averaging better than 20% annual returns since the late 1980’s. Of course, many will say: “sure, it’s easy to use FAST as an example”. That’s true, it is…

And I agree that even though paying 50 times earnings would have worked very well for Fastenal Company (NASDAQ:FAST) shareholders in 1989, I’m not interested in going anywhere near that type of valuation, because I don’t want to rely on my dubious ability to predict the future that far in advance. However, this does not mean that I want to abandon my effort to study some of the most successful businesses of years past. Improving pattern recognition skills increases the probability of successfully identifying these types of quality firms going forward.

I want to find good businesses and I want to own them. I just am not willing to pay the prices they typically trade at. So I wait for opportunities for good operating businesses at cheap prices, occasionally investing in some special situations, hidden asset situations, or other undervalued safe ideas. Often enough, I’ll locate an idea where I can buy into a quality company at a very cheap price. In the last post, I referenced a very low risk, low cost bank that I own that has grown book value at 9.3% annually over the past 15 years without a single down year, has paid a sizable dividend every year since 1926, and yet could be purchased at 7 times earnings and 60% of book value. Those are the types of compounders that I like to own. If I’m wrong about the quality, I didn’t pay much for it. If I’m right about quality, my returns will be significantly better than a similarly valued lower quality stock.

As Pabrai says, “Heads I win, tails I don’t lose much”.

Return on Invested Capital is Most Important Over Time

The following is a collection of some comments that I made following one of the previous posts. I thought it would be interesting to demonstrate the importance of quality (return on capital) when it comes to long term ownership of equities. Again, this doesn’t mean that buying at 70% of book value and selling at 100% is a bad idea (on the contrary, it’s one that I will participate in under certain circumstances) it just means that over time, companies that can consistently produce returns of 15% on their capital are going to create far more wealth for their owners than companies that only produce 5% on their capital.

As I mentioned, I’ve done some rudimentary studies of this ROIC vs Value topic previously. A good way to demonstrate the importance of high returns on capital is to look at long term shareholder returns (over 15-20 years or more). For example, I just picked up my Value Line and flipped to the steel section, and industry that is known for their low returns on capital over time. Note: the steel industry is cyclical, which leads to very volatile results. The companies will produce periods of very high returns followed by periods of very low/negative returns. But over the full cycle, the economics of the steel business inevitably lead to very mediocre returns on capital of 4-6% in most cases.

We could do this exercise on a number of stocks, but take US Steel for example. This company has reorganized a couple times in the past few decades and so a glance at the chart doesn’t reflect the entire story, but it still provides a Keynes style “roughly right” look at the results a long term owner would have achieved. Pulling up a long term chart we see that the stock (X) traded around $30 per share in the early 1990?s.

ROIC Cheap Stocks

USX earned around $3 per share in the early 1990?s, followed by a few years of losses, and then a period of excellent profits in the early 2000?s, and then back to losses.

But just taking a snapshot in time in the early 1990?s, one could have bought the stock at $30 or so at around 10 times earnings. Today, the stock trades at $25, leaving long term shareholders with a loss of principal after 20 years or so.  Interestingly, even if we paid 3 times earnings for X in the early 1990?s—which would have been around $9 per share—our returns over the next couple decades would have only amounted to around 5% per year, which equates roughly to the company’s average return on capital.

Now, you might notice that we could have paid 3 times earnings and then sold out at a profit a few years later, reaping a nice IRR. But this relies on buying low and selling high in a shorter period of time–a feat that is much easier said than done. In retrospect, it seems like a cinch: just buy in 2003 and sell in 2007, right? Some can practice this type of investing, but I find that timing is the most difficult aspect of executing an investment approach, so I try to minimize the importance of getting the timing right.

But the point here is that paying low prices to earnings is more important if your holding period is a shorter period of time and you have confidence in your ability to know when to unload your shares at a higher price at some point in the future—a necessary skill when trying to buy and sell mediocre businesses that produce unexciting returns on capital.

Some Other Examples in Steel

Flipping through the steel section of Value Line, this example holds true with many other steel stocks—subpar ROICs over time leading to subpar investment returns over time. Gibraltar Industries Inc (NASDAQ:ROCK) traded at $7 in 1994 (20 years ago), and it trades at $15 now, an annualized return of just 3.5%.