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Has Value Investing Worked to Protect the Downside?

If you use Ben Graham's definition of value investing, the answer is yes.

John Coumarianos, 03/17/2009

A few months ago I published an article highlighting mutual funds that avoid disaster. I suggested that adhering to Benjamin Graham's advice to buy earnings cheaply and avoid companies with large amounts of debt helped Yacktman YACKX, Sequoia SEQUX, and Greenspring GRSPX hold up in bad times. (Graham was Warren Buffett's teacher at Columbia Business School and is widely considered to be the founder of value investing.)

As the markets have continued to plummet, the debate about whether value investors have protected on the downside has been rekindled among Morningstar's fund analysts. Some point to members of the value school who outperformed the S&P 500 Index in 2008 (that is, lost less than 37%) and claim victory for Graham and his students. Others aren't satisfied with the relative outperformance of this rather narrow list of managers or point to other value hounds, who were crushed by owning struggling financials in 2008 and judge failure. Still others say it's silly to point to one-year performance numbers and thus trot out good relative cumulative 10-year records of funds that were pummeled in 2008.

I'm in the camp that thinks long-term performance numbers matter most, but I also think some value investors have protected the downside well in the recent downdraft. In this follow-up article, I'll discuss why Graham-inspired investors held up better in 2008 than has been acknowledged, and I'll highlight two Graham-inspired funds.

The Case Against Value
The main value indexes didn't outperform the broader market in this downturn. The Russell 1000 Value Index and the Russell 3000 Value Index both dropped around 55% from mid-2007 through February 2009, more than the 49% drop of the broader the DJ Wilshire 5000 Index. Also, large- and mid-value funds in aggregate dropped by around 52% in that timeframe, so active managers in the aggregate didn't outperform the broader market either. Lay the blame on financials. They've been a mainstay in value portfolios for years, and they got pounded during the second half of 2007 and in all of 2008.

Some high-profile value funds also got hit especially hard by the financial mess. Dodge and Cox Stock DODGX, Oakmark Select OAKLX, Legg Mason Value Trust LMVTX, Weitz Value WVALX, John Hancock Classic Value PZFVX, and DWS Dreman High Return Equity KDHAX all suffered mightily. The first three are managed by former winners of the Morningstar Manager of the Year award. These managers not only bought financials, but added with gusto to several institutions that ultimately went bust or remain in their death throes, including Citigroup C, Fannie Mae FNM, Freddie Mac FRE, AIG AIG, Merrill Lynch MER Wachovia WB, Washington Mutual, and Countrywide.PAGEBREAK

The Value Rebuttal
The most straightforward reply to this damning evidence is that the value indexes don't truly represent value investing. A fund manager who understands his investment universe to be the Russell 1000 Value Index or Russell 3000 Value Index isn't really a value investor. Index-hugging funds can be fine, but they don't employ a true value approach based on Graham's tenets.

The main difference between an index approach and a Graham-inspired approach is debt. Graham made numerous warnings against debt and opaque balance sheets in his writings. So although financials find themselves in the value indexes because of their perennially low price/earnings and price/book ratios, value investors from the Graham school are often leery of them. In fact, value hedge-fund manager Seth Klarman has remarked that many value investors habitually avoid commercial banks and property/casualty insurance companies because of their opaque balance sheets. Additionally, Walter Schloss, an associate of Graham, whom Buffett himself cites as one of the finest investors of his time, has also said that avoiding debt is among his most important investment principles. Finally, Buffett himself says bank financial statements are basically unanalyzable and that an investment in a financial stock is effectively a bet on the integrity of management.

Many value investors like to hold cash at times, which also puts them at odds with all equity indexes. The main reason for this is that value investors don't think they can predict when opportunities will arise, and they never want to be caught without the ability to pounce. All the funds I mentioned in my previous piece--Yacktman, Sequoia, and Greenspring--often carry large amounts of cash. All held up relatively well in 2008.

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