June 18, 2013 Comments

It was another strong day on the markets with the S&P 500 up 0.8% and Toronto up 0.6%. Most of our stocks picks were up.

Yesterday I listed the 10-year compound average annual earnings per share growth rates for all the companies currently on my list for which I had 11 years of adjusted earnings data in my spreadsheet. The growth rates were very strong. Now that would not be at all impressive if these were mostly new stock picks that I had recently added to the site. (Since I could have simply added stocks with strong past growth rates). Instead many of these stocks have been on the list for over ten years. Few of them are particularly recent. The one with negative earnings “growth” Toll Brothers, however has been on the list for only two years. RioCan another low earnings grower (albeit it has a large dividend) has been on the list for less than two years. The highest grower, Couche-Tard has been on the list for eight years, it was first rated as (lower) Strong Buy. Since then it is up 239%.

If a stock grows its earnings at 15% per year (three of the stocks below were higher than that) then its earnings grow by 305% in ten years. If that stock was purchased at a reasonable P/E and if the P/E has remained stable or not declined much then the investor is going to have seen returns pretty close to that 305%, plus dividends.

When you boil it down to basics the key to big returns on stocks, is big earnings per share growth (combined with buying at a reasonable price). And the key to big earnings per share growth is (believe it or not) LOW dividends and (most importantly) a high ROE.

If a company has and maintains a 15% ROE and no dividend then its earnings per share will grow at 15% per year. (If it paid a 50% dividend it would grow at 7.5% instead.)  And if it starts out with a reasonable Price to book ratio or price to earnings ratio and if that ratio is stable then the stock price must rise at 15% per year. Now, in reality the P/E ratio and P/B ratio will bump around and it will fall went the whole market’s in a slump. But as long as the P/E eventually recovers, 15% ROE and no dividend generates 15% returns per year as long as the P/E ratio eventually is as high as it was at the start.

This is the very simple math that sent Buffett looking for companies that he figured could be relied upon to deliver growth in earnings per share of 15% or more. And he found that PREDICTABLE growth was available in some (but certainly not all) boring low-tech companies and often companies with very strong consumer brand names.

Having observed as (literally) a little boy that if one could compound money at a rate like 15% one would become very rich, Buffett soon set out to gather the seed money (from massive paper routes as a teenager and some early employment and from performance fees on a hedge fund partnership). He worked like a dog and ferreted out a few companies where he could make 15% plus on his own money and for the hedge fund. Then he kept doing that for 60 years (but stopped the hedge fund partnership when he was 39). He was very wealthy by age 30. He was beyond wealthy by age 40 and on his way to becoming for a time the wealthiest person in the world. His long term average return is around 20% per year compounded in the past 50 years and somewhat higher than that in the early years.

It seems to me that Buffet’s simple formula is worth trying to copy. Find stocks that can be predicted to grow earnings per share at relatively high rates and which sell for reasonable prices. Buy, wait, reap rewards.

To a good extent I have been doing this, but Buffett’s approach would probably suggest more focus on the the company being high quality (high ROE) and not as much focus on it being a bargain. The great company will grow to offset a somewhat (but not ridiculously) higher price paid.

This formula will tend to work. But meanwhile the stocks prices may jump all over the place and predictions of gloom and hyperinflation and all manner of calamities keep most people from staying in the market through the ugly times or buying more shares at the ugly times. But a few brave people will persevere and become rich with simple thinking like this.


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