Margin of Safety Chapter 20: A Mr. Market Lecture The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing. A Book of Practical Counsel
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ESG (environmental, social, governance) has become a hot topic in recent years, especially lately with the debate over whether pension funds should be able to factor in ESG when choosing investments. At Morningstar's recent conference, the firm argued that ESG has become a requirement for long-term investors. Q2 2020 hedge fund letters, conferences and more Read More
Chapter 20: “Margin of Safety” as the Central Concept of Investment by Benjamin Graham In the old legend the wise men finally boiled down the history of mortal affairs into the single phrase, “This too will pass.” Confronted with a like challenge to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture the motto,
MARGIN OF SAFETY.1 This is the thread that rounds through all the preceding discussion of investment policy–often explicitly, sometimes in a less direct fashion. Let us now, briefly, to trace that idea in a connected argument. All experienced investors recognize that the margin of safety concept is essential to the choice of sound bonds and preferred stocks. For example, a railroad should have earned its total fixed charges better than five times (before income tax), taking a period of years, for its bonds to qualify as investment-grade issues.
This past ability to earn in excess of interest requirements constitutes the margin of safety that is counted on to protect the investor against loss or discomfiture in the event of some future decline in net income. (The margin of above charges may be stated in other ways—for example, in the percentage by which revenues or profits may decline before the balance after interest disappears—but the underlying idea remains the same.) The bond investor does not expect future average earnings to work out the same as the in the past; if he were sure of that, the margin demanded might be small. Nor does he rely to any controlling in his judgment as to whether future earnings will be materially better or poorer than in the past, if he did that, he would have to measure his margin in terms of a carefully projected income account, instead of emphasizing the margin shown in the past record.
Here the function of the margin of safety is, in essence, that of rendering unnecessary an accurate estimate of the future. If the margin is a large one, then it is enough to assume that future earnings will not fall far below those of the past in order for an investor to feel sufficiently protected against the vicissitudes of time. The margin of safety for bonds may be calculated, alternatively, by comparing the total value of the enterprise with the amount of debt. (Ditto for preferred stock issue) If the business owes $10 million and is fairly worth $30 million, there is room for a shrinkage of two-thirds in value—at least theoretically— before the bondholders will suffer loss.
The amount of this extra value, or “cushion,” above the debt may be approximated by using the average market price of the junior stock issues over a period of years. Since average stock prices are generally related to average earning power, the margin of “enterprise value” over debt and the margin of earnings over charges will in most cases yield similar results. So much for the margin-of-safety concept as applied to “fixed-value investments.”
Can it be carried over into the field of common stocks? Yes, but with some necessary modifications. There are instances where a common stock may be considered sound because it enjoys a margin of safety as large as that of a good bond. This will occur, for example, when a company has outstanding only common stock that under depression conditions is selling for less than the amount of bonds that could
safely be issued against it property and earning power2 . That was the position of a host of strongly financed industrial companies at the low price levels of 1932-33. In such instances the investor can obtain the margin of safety associated with a bond, plus all the chances of larger income and principal appreciation inherent in a common stock.
(The only thing he lacks is the legal power to insist on dividend payments “or else”—but this is a small drawback as compared with his advantages.) Common stocks bought under such circumstances will supply an ideal, through infrequent, combination of safety and profit opportunity.
As a quite recent example of this condition, let us mention once more National Presto Industries Stock, which sold of a total enterprise value of $443 million in 1972. With its $16 million of recent earnings before taxes the company could easily have supported this amount of bonds. In the ordinary common stock, brought for investment under normal conditions, the margin of safety lies in an expected earning power considerably above the going rate for bonds. In former editions we elucidated these points with the following figures:
Assume in a typical case that the earning power is 9% on the price and that the bond rate is 4%; then the stock buyer will have an average annual margin of 5% accruing in his favor. Some of the excess is paid to him in the dividend rate; even though spent by him, it enters into his overall investment result. The undistributed balance is reinvested in the business for his account. In many cases such reinvested earnings fail to add commensurately to the earning power and value of his stock. (That is why the market has a stubborn habit of valuing earnings disbursed in dividends more generously than the portion retained in the business.)* But, if the picture is viewed as a whole, there is a reasonably close connection between the growth of corporate surpluses through reinvested earnings and the growth of corporate values.
Over a ten-year period the typical excess of stock earning power over bond interest may aggregate 450% of the price paid. This figure is sufficient to provide a very real margin of safety—which, under favorable conditions, will prevent or minimize a loss. If such a margin is present in each of a diversified list of twenty or more stocks, the probability of a favorable result under “fairly normal conditions” becomes very large. That is why the policy of investing in representative common stocks does not require high qualities of insight and foresight to work out successfully. If the purchases are made at the average level of the market over a span of years, the prices paid should carry with them assurance of an adequate margin of safety.
The danger to investors lies in concentrating their purchase in the upper levels of the market, or in buying non-representative common stocks that carry more than average risk of diminished earning power. As we see it, the whole problem of common-stock investment under 1972 conditions lies in the fact that “in a typical case” the earning power is now much less than 9% on the price paid.3
Let us assume that by concentrating somewhat on the low-multiplier issues among the large companies a defensive investor may now acquire equities at 12 times recent earnings—i.e., with an earnings return of 8.33% on cost. He may obtain a dividend yield of about 4%, and he will have 4.33% of his cost reinvested in the business for
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