Value investors are bargain shoppers. They seek stocks they believe are undervalued. They look for stocks with prices they believe don’t fully reflect the intrinsic value of the security. Value investing is predicated, in part, on the idea that some degree of irrationality exists in the market. This irrationality, in theory, presents opportunities to get a stock at a discounted price and make money from it.
It’s not necessary for value investors to comb through volumes of financial data to find deals. Thousands of value mutual funds give investors the chance to own a basket of stocks thought to be undervalued. The Russell 1000 Value Index, for example, is a popular benchmark for value investors and several mutual funds mimic this index.
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But if you are a true value investor, you don't need anyone to convince you need to stay in it for the long run because this strategy is designed around the idea that one should buy businesses—not stocks. That means the investor must consider the big picture, not a temporary knockout performance. People often cite legendary investor Warren Buffet as the epitome of a value investor. He does his homework—sometimes for years. But when he’s ready, he goes all in and is committed for the long-term.
Consider Buffett’s words when he made a substantial investment in the airline industry. He explained that airlines "had a bad first century." Then he said, "And they got a bad century out of the way, I hope."2 This thinking exemplifies much of the value investing approach. Choices are based on decades of trends and with decades of future performance in mind.
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For those who don’t have time to perform exhaustive research, the price-earnings ratio (P/E) has become the primary tool for quickly identifying undervalued or cheap stocks. This is a single number that comes from dividing a stock’s share price by its earnings per share (EPS). A lower P/E ratio signifies you’re paying less per $1 of current earnings. Value investors seek companies with a low P/E ratio.
While using the P/E ratio is a good start, some experts warn this measurement alone is not enough to make the strategy work. Research published in the Financial Analysts Journal determined that “Quantitative investment strategies based on such ratios are not good substitutes for value-investing strategies that use a comprehensive approach in identifying underpriced securities.” 3 The reason, according to their work, is that investors are often lured by low P/E ratio stocks based on temporarily inflated accounting numbers. These low figures are, in many instances, the result of a falsely high earnings figure (the denominator). When real earnings are reported (not just forecasted) they’re often lower. This results in a “reversion to the mean.” The P/E ratio goes up and the value the investor pursued is gone.
What's the Message?
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The message here is that value investing can work so long as the investor is in it for the long-term and is prepared to apply some serious effort and research to their stock selection. Those willing to put the work in and stick around stand to gain. One study from Dodge & Cox determined that value strategies nearly always outperform growth strategies “over horizons of a decade or more.” The study goes on to explain that value strategies have