A characteristic of investing that will never change is that the sun will always be shining on something. In the past decade, the sun has shone brightly on high-relative price ‘growth’ stocks, while relatively cheap ‘value’ stocks have remained deep in the shadows, neglected and unloved.
This has sparked a vigorous debate among investment professionals about whether growth stocks, like formerly pasty-skinned holidaymakers falling asleep on Mediterranean beaches, have had too much of a good thing, or whether value is out of favour for good.
Certainly, there is a significant body of research showing there is a long-term premium available for investors who tilt their portfolios away from glitzy growth toward less fashionable value stocks — ones with low prices relative to fundamentals like earnings or book value.
The problem is that no one has worked out either when and where that premium will kick in. Of course, that hasn’t stopped some of the world’s best fund managers from trying to unlock a pattern, but most admit that timing is a fool’s game.
Why have growth stocks had such a good run?
As to why growth stocks (Amazon, Apple, Microsoft etc.;) have enjoyed such a run, there are several theories. One is that the era of central bank-led cheap money lifts the relative attraction of the expected strong future cash flows of growth stocks. This is known as the hunt for yield.
Another theory is that in an era of stagnant economic growth and significant technological disruption of many industries such as retailing and media, the share prices of traditional capital-intensive businesses risk becoming permanently depressed. This is known as the “value trap”.
A third theory is that the growth of so-called “passive” investing, in which funds just seek to track an index instead of making active bets on individual stocks and sectors, has created a self-perpetuating cycle in which high priced growth stocks just become more and more inflated.
The value premium isn’t dead
But these explanations, however persuasive on the surface, still overlook that long periods of underperformance for value are not unheard of and, in any case, don’t really tell us anything about what might happen next.
They also neglect to consider that the problem is not so much that something has gone wrong with the value premium, but that growth has had quite an exceptional decade.
Analysis by Dimensional Fund Advisors shows that while growth’s annualised compound return of 16.3% in the past decade was much stronger than its return over 90 years of 9.7%, the performance of value in the most recent 10 years at 12.9% was close to its long-term average.
A second point is that much of the attention on the value-growth conundrum has focused exclusively on the US market, when in fact the value premium has been positive in many other markets over the past decade, including New Zealand, Singapore, Canada and Australia.
As well, in past periods when value has turned, it has done so in spectacular fashion, such as after the tech wreck of the early 2000s.
Some takeaways for investors
We can draw a few conclusions from this. One is that the evidence still points to a long-term premium from value. That doesn’t mean it will be there every year or even decade. Of course, if it was predictable, it wouldn’t exist. It would be arbitraged away.
A second conclusion is that these premiums aren’t uniform across different markets. That argues for global diversification. At some point, value will kick in somewhere, so if you spread your net sufficiently wide, you’ll capture it.
A third conclusion is that you do not have to be focused entirely on value anyway. You can hold in your portfolio a mix of large, small, growth and value stocks. You might tilt your portfolio to value, but you can still get the benefit of growth when it is having its time in the sun.
Finally, consider this. The spread between value and growth stocks, measured by book-to-market ratios is now as wide as it was in 1992, when Professors Eugene Fama and Kenneth French published the landmark paper which highlighted the value premium.
That means the potential for outsized returns is greater now than it has been for some time. But as Warren Buffett says, you need to be patient and you must know that you can live with the ride in the meantime.
Value eventually will find its place back in the sun. But no one knows when.
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