Debt/Equity: A simple way to identify companies that can go the distance

Value Works

I could name a litany of research, books, blogs, articles all showing a simple conclusion. The conclusion is pretty basic: the less you pay for a stock relative to a fundamental metric (earnings, asset value, etc.) the more likely it is to outperform. It’s common sense and all of the research shows it works.

Much of this blog is about how these simple approaches work over the long run. Cheap stocks outperform expensive stocks. In this blog post, I performed a simple backtest against the effectiveness of different valuation metrics. My conclusion was pretty simple: every one of them works even though some work better than others.

Why does value work?

Every valuation ratio is a measure of the expectations. A low valuation implies that the market has low expectations about the prospects of the stock. Embedded in expectations are emotional and behavioral biases. Value investors exploit these emotional and behavioral biases.

Value investing “works” because other investors overreact to news because they are more emotional. That’s the essence of Ben Graham’s allegory about “Mr. Market.”

The expectations embedded in a valuation ratio tend to be false. In reality, a stock with low expectations is likely to exceed those expectations. A stock with high expectations is likely to disappoint. This is true at a macro level when looking at entire stock markets based on CAPE ratios, and it’s true at a micro level when looking at individual companies.

I like to think of a value stock as a C-average kid. All that kid needs to do to impress their parents is come home with a B on their report card. Their parents are going to be thrilled. That’s Gamestop right now. In contrast, a straight-A student that comes home with a B is going to be grounded. That’s Amazon right now. Valuation = expectations.

Why Does EBIT/EV Work?

Most research shows that EBIT/EV is the best valuation metric of all. My own above backtesting reflects this along with backtests and analysis performed by people much smarter than I.

The reason why EBIT/EV works is the focus of Tobias Carlisle’s books that I highly recommend: The Acquirer’s Multiple and Deep Value.

It works for a few reasons. Like all the valuation metrics, the enterprise multiple captures low expectations. It goes further than a standard market cap metric for two other reasons: (1) Using enterprise value in the calculation brings the strength of the balance sheet into the valuation ratio. Enterprise values also reveal the actual size of the enterprise, as debt can sometimes dwarf market cap (this is something General Motors investors found out the hard way 10 years ago). (2) The further that you move up an income statement, the less likely that the accounting numbers are prone to manipulation. This is the reason that metrics like price/sales work better than price/earnings – it’s harder for an accountant to fake sales than it is for them to fake earnings.


How do we improve on valuation alone?

We know that low valuation metrics work and we know that EBIT/EV is the best metric of all. Joel Greenblatt sought to improve upon EBIT/EV in The Little Book That Beats the Market. He added his own quality metric: return on invested capital (ROIC). He showed that the combination delivers impressive results.

However, separate research from Tobias Carlisle in Deep Value and James Montier in The Little Note that Beats the Market shows that the “quality” component actually brings performance down.

The question is: why doesn’t return on invested capital work?

Quite naturally, a company earning high returns on invested capital will attract competition. A high ROIC is a target on a company’s back. It attracts competitors, which over the long run depresses ROIC. In contrast, a low ROIC implies that competitors are leaving the industry. The industry is likely near a cyclical trough and is about to rebound. The goal of the deep value investor is to identify these moments and buy.

Warren Buffett emphasizes high ROIC, but the key to his success is that he can identify businesses with sustainable high ROIC. In other words, companies that can maintain a high ROIC over decades. Moreover, he recognizes these businesses when their price offers a margin of safety. This is a skill that hardly any other investors have been able to duplicate. You should be skeptical of anyone who claims they can identify these companies.

ROIC is probably useless for average investors because, unlike Buffett, we don’t have the ability to determine whether or not a company can sustain it.

In that case, if ROIC doesn’t work for the average investor, then what metric improves on merely buying cheap?

Debt/Equity: A simple metric with significant results

What quality metric actually works? Ben Graham provided his answer: quality isn’t ROIC, it’s about the quality of the balance sheet.

Graham’s preferred metric was the debt/equity ratio. In 1976, Graham recommended buying baskets of 30 companies that have a simultaneously low P/E ratios and a low debt/equity ratio. His backtesting revealed that this strategy returned 15% per year.

My backtesting reveals that Graham (as usual) is right. A low debt/equity ratio improves the performance of every single valuation ratio and reduces maximum drawdowns.

My backtest only goes back to 1999, the universe is the S&P 1500, the portfolios are rebalanced annually, and the portfolio size is 30 stocks. The results are below.


As you can see, merely restricting the backtest to a population of companies with a debt/equity ratio below 50% (i.e., they have triple the assets that they have in debts) improves every single valuation metric that I tested. It seems absurd that such a simple metric would vastly improve the performance of every valuation metric, but that’s the result.

Why is this the case?

I think it is because any company whose stock has a cheap valuation is going to be in some type of trouble. The strength of a balance sheet is the reason that a company survives the crisis that it is mired in.

For most value stocks, all that they need to do to thrive is merely survive. There is nothing that guarantees survival more than a strong balance sheet. Usually, these companies are in an industry that is going through a difficult time (like retail right now). When the industry is going through a tough time, competitors go out of business or leave the industry voluntarily. When the competition is gone, the stage is set for the industry to come back to life. When the industry comes back to life, the survivors reap the rewards.

In the retail sector right now, the casualties are going to be the highly leveraged firms. An excellent example of this is Sears. Sears currently has negative equity and is highly leveraged (debts exceed assets). The Sears balance sheet is probably not strong enough to survive the “retailpocalypse”. In contrast, a company like Foot Locker (one of my holdings) has a strong balance sheet and will likely survive the shakeout. There is no way to know for sure, but common sense tells me that this is the likely outcome.

The survivors of an industry decline will have plenty of reasons for why they survived: Our management is excellent, our product is better, we have strategic vision, our employees are just so damn good, blah blah blah MBA buzzwords.

The real reason the company survived is that it had a stronger balance sheet than everyone else going into the downturn. The balance sheet made the company survive the tough time and hang in there longer than everyone else — in other words, a company with a good balance sheet can survive. As Rocky Balboa might have put it, the company can “go the distance”. In battered industry going through a crisis, all that a company needs to do to win is go the distance and survive.

The lesson of Rocky: Going the distance is the same thing as winning.

PLEASE NOTE: The information provided on this site is not financial advice and it is for informational and discussion purposes only. Do your own homework. Full disclosure: my current holdings.  Read the full disclaimer.


2 thoughts on “Debt/Equity: A simple way to identify companies that can go the distance”

  1. Hey Value Stock Geek, you’ve hit on a really critical metric here – there are so many Australian retailers in trouble at the moment also, but the number 1 reason many might not survive is DEBT! The ones that are debt-free have a good chance at riding this out and being very good investments.

    Cheers, Frankie


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