Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Always invest for future but don't forget the past

Investing is always done keeping future in mind. When today I invest in any business I am mostly interested in what the cash flows would be in future. Based on these estimated cash flows I come up with my intrinsic value of the business and then based on what market is offering me I decide on my buying decision. The business may have done great in past, however if I somehow feel that the past performance can no longer be replicated I won't buy into that business no mater how attractive its current price is relative to its past earnings.
As Mr. Warren E. Buffet rightly puts: If past history was all there was to the game, the richest people would be librarians.

P/E or price to earnings ratio is one of the commonly used yardstick to evaluate any business. The question here is what P/E we should use trailing or forward. Most rookie investor blindly follow trailing P/E. This is very easy to calculate and can be calculated fairly accurately. Business may (deceptively) look very attractive on this parameter, however when there is no visible earning potential in future, soon it turns out to be very expensive. What mostly happens is that earnings fall sharply and then even with little or no fall in price the P/E ratio becomes very high and same business which looked cheap a year back now looks very expensive and all we are left with is holding a dud business.

So should we use forward P/E? Math isn't simpler here too! Forward P/Es are not easy to estimate and each analyst comes up with his own estimates of same business. Whats even more dangerous is that every month depending upon cheer or gloom in the market, they continue to revise their own estimates of P/E. Investor ends up even more confused with all these flip/flops.

Evaluating individual business based on P/E does no good. One should not pay too much attention to this parameter at the time of buying a business. What one can do is look at the business you 'really' understand and use your own experience and judgment to estimate future cash flows of the business. Discount them at an appropriate discounting rate to come up with intrinsic value of that business. This exercise has to be done in complete isolation from market. Don't do such a thing like if market price is 100 and then you say that my acceptable entry price would be 80, this way you are nothing but a slave of market moods and all you would end up is speculating and not investing per say. If your honest valuation comes to 50 even if current market price is 100, stick to that and one day you would find that same business quoting below your valued price. Buying a business quoting a discount of your estimated intrinsic value and not at a discount of current market price is a better way of making expected returns from the market.

What I have so far mentioned has lot of subjectivity attached to it like 'business you really understand', 'honest estimation of cash flows', but again investing itself is subjective in nature and not objective or algorithm driven like many people assume it to be.

As I mentioned at start that past numbers don't translate to same for future, you should still look at a business's or company's past. A business which acts like a black hole for capital would continue to do so in future too and keep on raising or sucking more capital year on year to survive. A business which hasn't gone anywhere in past 10 years is unlikely to go somewhere in next 10 years too. A business run by dishonest management would continue to churn out fraudulent numbers in future too in order for growth to appear real. So if a business has done good things in past there are good chances that good things would happen in future too, provided surrounding conditions are still favourable for that business to survive (which your understanding of that business should tell).

The investor of today does not profit from yesterday's growth.


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