Many investors create their own portfolios by picking stocks in individual companies. As discussed in my post on the basics of stocks, picking stocks in individual companies is one of several strategies for creating an investment portfolio. Alternatives to picking stocks in individual companies include buying mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. I’ll talk about those strategies in another post.
When I first started investing in the early 1980s, mutual funds were quite common but index funds and exchange-traded funds, while they existed, were not well known. I started my investment story by picking stocks in individual companies. One of the best books I’ve ever read on investing is One Up on Wall Street by Peter Lynch, originally published in 1989.
Confirmation of Independence: I have no affiliation with the author or publisher of the book I am reviewing. I do not receive any compensation for recommending it or if you purchase it. I truly think it is a great source of investing information.
Lynch was the manager of a very successful mutual fund, the Fidelity Magellan fund, from 1977 to 1990. During that time, the fund had a 29.3% annual average return or more than twice the average return on the S&P 500 over the same time period. If you are considering picking stocks in individual companies, I recommend his book even though it is quite dated. It references companies and trends with which you may not be familiar, but the fundamental concepts are still relevant and it is a quick, easy read.
In this post, I’ll essentially provide an overview of some of the key points I learned from One Up on Wall Street and illustrate them with some personal examples when I can.
Picking Stocks in Companies You Know
One of the first concepts that Lynch introduces is that you are your own local expert. You are familiar with the business in which you work and shop. You are a consumer and you can observe trends in the area in which you live. By watching the world around you, you can identify possible investment opportunities, possibly even before the “market” or “experts” discover them. In many cases, if you identify a trend very early and invest in a company that will benefit from it, you can earn a much-higher-than-market-average return on your investment. In fact, Lynch points to this opportunity as giving individual investors a better chance of beating the market than professional investors who have to invest larger amounts so tend to purchase more mature companies.
Our Kids’ Choices
To illustrate what I mean by “invest in what you know,” I will use an experience we had with our children as an example. When they were in their early teens (probably around 2004 or 2005), we gave them each a very small amount of money to invest. Our son, who was very interested in trains and large equipment, chose the following companies:
- John Deere
- Canadian Pacific Railway
- Canadian National Railway
- ASV – a company that makes skid-steer loaders.
Our daughter, who was much more aware of what was happening in the retail space, chose the following companies:
- JC Penney
- One other company that I don’t recall.
How it Turned Out
I don’t remember exactly when we started this exercise, so have looked at the two- and five-year average annual returns starting on January 1, 2006. By using two-year returns, I have excluded the impact of the market decline in 2008 and early 2009. The five-year returns go through December 31, 2010, so include the market decline and part of the recovery.
The S&P 500 averaged a 4.5% increase per year during the two-year period and was essentially flat for the five-year period. By comparison, my daughter’s stocks increased at an annual average rate of 9% over the two-year period and 8% over the five-year period. My son did even better, with annual average returns of 15% over the two-year period and 9% over the five-year period.
What is even more impressive about my son’s returns is that his returns were dragged down significantly by a single company – ASV. When my son bought it, the company had its own patented suspension system for its tracks. As I recall, not too much later, it had a change in management. The new management decided to license the patent to Caterpillar. Unfortunately for ASV, Caterpillar’s much larger market share caused a large reduction in ASV’s sales that couldn’t be made up by the licensing fees. Over a several year period, ASV’s stock price went down by about one-third. This experience illustrates another lesson when looking a company’s fundamentals for investment decisions – carefully follow the decisions of any new management teams.
Without ASV, our son’s returns were much more impressive – 19% over the two-year period and 13% over the five-year period.
Don’t Invest in What You Don’t Understand
A related concept, but somewhat different one, is to avoid picking stocks in companies and sectors you don’t understand. Lynch has all sorts of great examples of why people buy stock in companies whose business they don’t understand – hot tips from a “rich uncle,” aggressive buy recommendations from a broker and so on and so forth.
Not understanding a company’s business can be everything from it having a very technical focus to not being familiar with its marketplace (i.e., to whom and how it sells its products) to being so diverse that it is hard to figure out what drives profits. Essentially, his advice is that, if you can’t explain to someone what the company does in a few sentences, you shouldn’t buy its stock.
One Example of My Choices
I fell into that trap. We had a little extra money many years ago and decided to take some risk by making a very small investment in a private placement. When a company sells its stocks to a small group of investors and not the general public, it is called a private placement.
The two choices we were offered were a company that was marketing telemedicine to the Veterans Administration and a barbeque restaurant that was just opening its first locations. Our assessment was that the restaurant space was grossly overcrowded and that telemedicine would catch on quickly with the aging population and increases in technology. Not understanding that the telemedicine company didn’t actually have any customers or the challenges of getting a contract with the Veterans Administration, we made a very small investment in it.
Were we wrong! Many years later, we wrote off the entire value of the investment in the telemedicine company as it had become worthless. The restaurant was Famous Dave’s.
One of Lynch’s goals is picking stocks that are ten-baggers. These are companies whose stocks appreciate to at least 10 times what you paid for them in relatively short periods of time. By identifying trends in your local area, you are more likely to be able to earn the high returns associated with companies that start small and grow rapidly. As an example, consider the increases in Apple’s stock price.
The picture above shows the annual appreciation of Apple stock from 1981 through 2018. If you had owned the stock during any of the years circled in green, you would have more than tripled your money in two years. Not quite 10 times, but 3 to 5 times in 2 years is still a return anyone would envy. If you look at the returns in more recent circled in orange, you’ll see much more modest appreciation. The returns were still very attractive, but much lower than the earlier period.
Lynch points out the benefit of having just one ten-bagger in a portfolio with otherwise mundane performers. For example, if you invest the same amount in 9 stocks each having a total return of 5% per year, your total return in 5 years will be 27.6%. If you add a ten bagger to the mix, your total return increases to 115% or 16.5% per year.
Although our daughter didn’t have any ten baggers, her portfolio benefited from a similar effect. From 2006-2010, her three retail stocks had an annual average return of -1.6%. Apple, on the other hand, was almost a 4.5-bagger (its price at the end of 2010 was 4.4 times its price at the end of 2005). The addition of that one company to her portfolio increased her return from -1.6% to +8.2%!
Do Your Research
Once you’ve identified a company with an appealing product or service, it isn’t time to buy yet! Lynch suggests looking at the company’s financial statements and several financial metrics. The importance of this step is illustrated by the price volatility observed in GameStop and other companies’ stocks in January 2020. I’ll talk about a few of them here.
Percent of Sales
The first thing to check is whether the new “thing” is big enough to have an impact on the profitability of the company. To illustrate, let’s look at two companies that make widgets. Company A makes primarily widgets, so 90% of its sales is from widgets. Company B makes a lot of things. Only 5% of Company B’s sales is from widgets. A new thingamabob has been designed that will double the sales of widgets with no impact on the profit margin (percent of sales cost that turns into profit). Company A’s profit will increase by 90%, whereas Company B’s profit will increase by only 5%. Because stock prices are driven in large part by estimates of future profitability, you would expect that Company A’s stock price would increase much more if it added thingamabobs to its widgets than Company B’s stock price.
For many reasons identified by Lynch, stock prices don’t always move in line with earnings. Nonetheless, the more that earnings increase, the more that the stock price is likely to go up. Lynch suggests that you make sure you understand how a company plans to grow its earnings.
Ways to Increase Earnings
He identifies the following five ways for increasing earnings:
- Reduce costs
- Raise prices
- Expand into new markets
- Sell more product to existing markets
- Revitalize, close or otherwise dispose of losing operations
If you plan to hold the company’s stock for a fairly short time, any of these ways of increasing earnings could provide nice returns. I tend to buy and hold my stocks for a long time (over 25 years in several cases), so I prefer companies whose growth strategies include expanding into new markets or selling more product to existing markets. The other three approaches tend to produce one-time increases to earnings that can’t be replicated over and over again.
Expanding into New Markets
One of the most common ways existing companies expand into new markets is through acquiring other companies. There are many companies that have grown very successfully through acquisition.
One such company is Berkshire Hathaway, whose chairman is Warren Buffett. Over the past 40 years, Berkshire Hathaway has purchased such companies as Burlington Northern, Dairy Queen, and Fruit of the Loom, among others. The graph below shows the value of $1 invested in Berkshire Hathaway (stock symbol: BRK-A) since 1980 as compared to a $1 investment in the S&P 500.
Clearly, Berkshire Hathaway has been highly successful in its acquisition strategy.
Other companies have been less successful with their expansion and acquisition strategies. One such example is General Electric (GE). When I was young, I thought of GE as primarily manufacturing appliances and light bulbs. The graph below shows how the value of $1 invested in GE increased between 1962 and 2000 as compared to the same investment in the S&P 500.
Clearly, over that time frame, GE was very successful. In fact, my in-laws bought a few shares of GE for each of my kids when they were young (in the 1990s) because it was considered such a great, stable company.
Over the past 20 years, it has expanded its operations into loans, insurance and medical products and related services. In hindsight, it appears that GE wasn’t sufficiently familiar with all of the business it entered or acquired. It also used a lot of debt to finance its acquisitions and expansions. As a result, its stock price suffered. The graph below shows how much a $1 investment in GE’s stock has changed over the past 20 years as compared to the S&P 500.
From 2000 to late 2019, Berkshire Hathaway’s stock price went up by a factor of almost 5 while GE’s stock price decreased by more than 50%. Interestingly, GE’s new CEO (hired in 2018) announced a transformation plan that includes selling several of its businesses, allowing it to focus primarily on “safely delivering people where they need to go; powering homes, schools, hospitals, and businesses; and offering more precise diagnostics and care when patients need it most.”
You’ll want to make sure you understand which new markets a company plans to enter, think about whether management has sufficient experience or expertise to expand successfully and understand how much debt the company is using to finance these expansions.
The ratio of the price of a company’s stock to its annual earnings is known as the P/E ratio. A P/E ratio is one way to measure whether a company’s stock price is expensive. A rule of thumb mentioned by Lynch is that a stock is reasonably priced when its P/E is about the same as its future earnings growth rate. He acknowledges the important point that the future earnings growth rate isn’t ever known and that lots of experts spend a lot of time incorrectly estimating the earnings growth rate.
Nonetheless, you can at least look to see if a company’s P/E ratio is the right order of magnitude. For example, if you are looking at a company that slowly expands its sales in its current market, its earnings growth rate might be 5% to 7%. If that company’s P/E were 25, you’d know it was expensive. If the P/E ratio were 2, it might be an attractive buy. So, it isn’t necessarily important to know whether the company’s earnings growth rate is going to 5% or 7%, but rather whether it is likely to be 5% or 25%.
Schwab has an entire post on using the P/E ratio as part of stock analyses.
Companies can get cash from three sources to finance their operations – equity (selling shares of stock), borrowing and profits. Long-term debt is the amount of money that a company has borrowed, other than to meet short-term cash needs (such as through a line of credit). Long-term debt frequently is in the form of bank loans or bonds issued by the company.
The ratio of the amount of long-term debt to equity (the difference between assets and liabilities which is an estimate of the value of the company to the stockholders) is known as the debt-to-equity ratio. There are both advantages and disadvantages to a high debt-to-equity ratio. Let’s look at an example.
Company A has $100 of profit before interest (and ignoring taxes) and $60 of interest payments, for net income of $40 ($100 – $60). Company B is the same as Company A but it has no long-term debt, so its net income is $100. If profit before interest went down by 40%, Company B’s net income would also decrease by 40% to $60. Company A’s net income, though would go from $40 to $0 or a 100% decrease. The primary disadvantage of debt is that it magnifies the impact of bad news. The 40% decrease in profit before interest turned into a 100% decrease in net income for Company A with all its debt. This magnification is called leverage or debt leverage.
On the plus side, increases in profits are also magnified. If Company A’s profit before interest increased by 50% to $150, its net income would increase by $50 to $90. The percentage increase in net income in this case is +125% as compared to the +50% increase in Company B’s net income.
Lynch discusses several other things to check on a company’s financial statements before making an investment. I talk about one of them, the dividend payout ratio, in my post on investing for dividends. I’ll let you read One Up on Wall Street to learn more about the other metrics and to get Lynch’s views and examples on the ones I’ve discussed here.
Create Your Story
For every company in which you invest, Lynch recommends that you create a story. There are two parts to the story.
First, you should be able to describe the company’s business in what I would call an “elevator speech.” That is, it is important to be able to explain to someone else what the company does and why you think it will grow all in two minutes. If your explanation takes longer, it is likely an indication that the company’s business is too complex to benefit from a trend you observe or you don’t fully understand its business.
Second, you’ll want to have a story for yourself that includes a bit more detail about what you think will cause earnings (and hopefully therefore the stock price) to increase. Is it one of the one-time actions, such as cutting expenses or increases prices, or a longer-term plan to increase sales?
If the former, you’ll want to monitor the progress of those actions. Are they being implemented? Have they been effective? Has their full impact been reflected in earnings and/or the stock price? If the company’s plans don’t come to fruition or they were successful and reflected in earnings, you’ll want to evaluate whether you want to continue to own the company’s stock or whether it is time to sell it.
If the latter, you’ll want to understand what steps the company plans to take to increase sales. You can then monitor the company’s progress towards those plans. If it doesn’t appear to be on track, it might be time to considering selling the stock and investing in another company.
As I re-read Lynch’s book in preparation for writing this post, I was reminded how many useful tidbits he provides in it. Interspersed among the anecdotes are lots of lists, checklists and guidance on everything from identifying a company in which to possibly invest to determining the company’s growth pattern to reading financials to designing your portfolio. If you plan to start picking stocks in individual companies, I highly recommend One Up on Wall Street by Peter Lynch as a good first book on the topic. If you are looking for a shorter source for similar information, I suggest this post from Schwab.
 Taken from Yahoo Finance, November 8, 2019.
 Taken from Yahoo Finance on November 8, 2019
 General Electric 2008 Annual Report, https://www.ge.com/investor-relations/sites/default/files/GE_AR18.pdf, p3.