Deep Value Investing has its Inherent Problems.

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Buffett said it best:

Unless you are a liquidator, that kind of approach to buying businesses is foolish.

  • First, the original ‘bargain’ price probably will not turn out to be such a steal after all. In a difficult business, no sooner is one problem solved than another surfaces – never is there just one cockroach in the kitchen. 
  • Second, any initial advantage you secure will be quickly eroded by the low return that the business earns

There are better ways to make money (see below).

Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter, 1989.

When the overall market valuation is high, and everything else is rising, those dropping and appearing in the deep-bargain screener probably deserved to be traded by low valuations.

  • Their stock prices were likely low for the right reasons, and buying these would likely have resulted in deep losses.
  • Therefore, when it comes to deep-value investing, investors need to be cautious and aware of this approach’s inherent problems.

The inherent problems with deep value investing

“Cigar-butt investing”

This was coined by Buffett for the strategy of buying mediocre businesses at prices that are much lower than the companies’ net asset values.

He said the approach is like “a cigar butt found on the street that has only one puff left in it and may not offer much of a smoke, but the “bargain purchase” will make that puff all profit.”

There are several problems with this approach.

1. Erosion of value over time.

Mediocre businesses do not create value for their shareholders; instead, they destroy business value over time.

The value of the business can decline and the initial margin of safety may gradually shrink, even if the stock price doesn’t go up.

Investors need to be lucky enough to have the stock prices rise in time and sell before prices drop again following the intrinsic value of the business.

“Time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre.” Buffett wrote in his 1989 shareholder letter.

2. Timing and Pain

Buy these bargain portfolios when you can find plenty of them, but if the broad market is in quick decline, like in 2008, the bargain portfolio will be very likely to lose much more than the general market.

  • If the decline lasts longer, many of the companies in the portfolio may suffer steeper operating losses and may even go out of business.
  • It is much more painful to hold such a portfolio in bad times, as anyone who owns these stocks during bear markets or recessions will attest – and lose much sleep over.

Because of the quick erosion of business value, selling the deep-asset bargains quickly is key, even if stock prices do not appreciate. The biggest profits are usually achieved within the first 12 months.

“If you buy something because it is undervalued, then you have to think about selling it when it approaches your calculation of its intrinsic value. That’s hard.” (Charlie Munger.)

Buffett likens buying mediocre businesses at deep bargain prices for a quick profit to dating without the intent of getting married. In that situation, it is essential to end the courtship at the right time and before the relationship turns sour.

3. Not Enough Stocks Qualify

To avoid errors and disasters caused by single stocks in the deep-bargain portfolio, it is important to have a diversified group of them.

But when the market valuation is high, it is just not possible to find enough stocks to satisfy the diversification requirement. They simply dried up as the market continued to tick higher.

This situation may last a long time, as the close-to-zero interest rate has lifted the valuations of all assets.

4. Tax Inefficiency

Because of the short holding time, any gain from the portfolio is subject to the same tax rate as the investor’s income tax (for U.S. investors, unless it is in a retirement account.)

This drastically reduces the overall return over the long term.

If buying mediocre businesses at deep bargain prices for a quick profit is like a date without the intent of getting married, buying them and getting involved long term is like a marriage without love. A lot of other things need to be right to work things out, and it will never be a happy marriage.

Important Notes on Deep-Asset Bargains strategy

Though buying deep-asset bargains can be very profitable, this strategy comes with its inherent problems.

– This strategy comes with a much higher mental cost to investors.

– More importantly, business deterioration and the erosion of value put investors in a riskier position.

– As a result, they need to strictly follow the rules of maintaining a diversified portfolio and selling within 12 months whether investments worked out or not.

Ask yourself:

Why would you, as an investor, want to get involved in this mess (a deep-asset-bargain) and witness things deteriorating, hoping the situation will improve?

Even if it works out eventually, which is very unlikely (in the majority), the mental and psychological drain is simply not worth it.

There are better ways to make money.

Buy Only Good Companies!

“Bargain-purchase folly.”

Instead of buying companies with deteriorating values on the cheap and hoping things will improve, why not buy companies that grow value over time?

Warren Buffett summarized in a single sentence the priceless lessons he learned from his personal “bargain-purchase folly”.

“It is far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.”

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