Great Companies Don’t Always Make Great Stocks

Many times one will look at a value investor’s portfolio and wonder why on earth they own some of the stocks they do. Usually the answer lies in the fact that the manager understands that just because a firm isn’t considered to be a great company, it could very well be a great stock going forward. Stock market investing is about buying a share for less than it will ultimately be worth in the future. It is not about buying stocks of great companies and waiting for the cash to roll in. If the stock isn’t cheap, it won’t outperform consistently over the long term.

I think this is one of the reasons why sell-side analysts tend to be very poor stock pickers. More often than not, they don’t want to have a “sell” rating on Best Buy (BBY) and a “buy” on RadioShack (RSH), for instance. The average person will look at that dichotomy and laugh. They might even ask, based on their shopping preferences, “How can RadioShack be a better stock than Best Buy?”

The reason I bring this up is because of an article I read in the March 5th issue of Fortune. It talked about the performance of America’s most admired companies versus the least admired. When I see the term “most admired” I equate that to what many investors consider a “great company,” a so-called blue chip.

Well, looking at a 1-year chart of the two, we can see who would have been right:

Accordingly, the results of the study cited in the article weren’t surprising to a value investor like myself. The mean annualized return from 1983 through 2006 was +17.8% per year for the least admired, versus just +15.4% for the most admired.

Why was this the case? Because stocks trade based on valuation over long periods of time, not according to the underlying company’s popularity or brand name. In fact, the article also cited the average price-to-book ratios of the two groups of stocks being examined. Most admired: 2.07 times book value. Least admired: 1.27 times book value. Hence, the outperformance over a 23 year period of time.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of RSH at time of writing