I recently discussed (in Investment Styles) the two major different styles of investing: value and momentum. One difficulty with following a value approach is the difficulty in measuring value, since much of it these days is tied up in intangible assets. I will suggest here that, counter-intuitively, buying bank stocks is the solution to this problem.
The value approach to investing is simple to understand, though perhaps a little harder to implement. The basic idea is that you buy things when they are cheap. Finding cheap assets would classically rely on looking at concepts like “book value,” which is just the accounting value of everything owned by the firm in which you are thinking of investing.
In previous decades, book value would have been simple to calculate: you could just look at the published accounts and examine how much the accountants said each asset was worth. A company making cars, say, would own a lot of items like factories, car parts, machinery and land. You could look at all of those items that you could walk up to and touch, and add up all the values, and that’s it: you have calculated book value. If you can buy the stock for less than book value per stock, you have made a good investment. If the company sold all of its assets, and turned that book value into actual cash, each shareholder would get more than book value. That’s why value investing is a good idea, and why you should try to buy stocks at less than book value.
This simple approach is more difficult in modern times, because IP — Intellectual Property — is much more important than it used to be. IP is anything the company owns which is valuable but that you can’t touch. It could be a suite of software, the value of a brand, or
simply the know-how involved in producing the products or services that the company produces. To illustrate the scale of this IP problem for value investors, consider the following estimate. Ocean Tomo, an investment bank, reckoned that the proportion of the value of S&P500 companies which was tied up in IP increased from 17% in 1975 to a huge 84% in 2015. So it is clear that there is a very serious problem in adopting a value investment approach these days, and that’s unfortunate because in my opinion, it is the only approach that works.
So what should investors do about this? I think they should look at bank stocks. This will seem dramatically strange at first sight, because banks own hardly anything at all that is tangible. However, we already saw above that this is true for all companies now, so it can’t be avoided. The key point though is this: there is a well-determined market value for everything owned by a bank.
If you look at the balance sheet for Deutsche Bank, for example, you will see a very large number of items. They will all have market values though. That will be true of shares, bonds, interest rate swaps, credit default swaps, loans to corporates, futures and options, office buildings, warrants, cash in various currencies and any of the other myriad financial assets. There will also be a certain amount of brand value but I think that will be fairly low in the mix. So basically everything owned by Deutsche Bank could be turned into cash, and a known amount of cash, quite quickly.
Banks typically traded at 2.0x book value before the crisis. The rule of thumb for value investors in the sector was “buy at 1.0x book value, sell at 2.0.” Something like this is still true: you can buy Deutsche Bank at 0.3x book value and I think you should. That’s the right approach for value investors today.