Stock-Picking for Dummies – Welcome to the Triangle of Safety

Growth is not uniform – it is hap-hazard.

We need to accept this anomaly. It is a signature of the times we live in.

Growth happens in spurts, at unexpected times, in unexpected sectors.

What our economic studies do is that they pinpoint a large area where growth is happening. That’s all.

Inside that area – you got it – growth is hap-hazard.

To take advantage of growth, one can do many things. One such activity is to pick stocks.

For some, stock-picking is a science. For others. it is an art. Another part of the stock-picking population believes that it is a combination of both. There are people who write PhD theses on the subject, or even reference manuals. One can delve into the subject, and take it to the nth-level. On the other hand, one can (safely) approach the subject casually, using just one indicator (for example the price to earnings ratio [PE]) to pick stocks. Question is, how do we approach this topic in a safe cum lucrative manner in today’s times, especially when we are newbies, or dummies?

Before we plunge into the stock-picking formula for dummies that I’m just about to delineate, let me clarify that it’s absolutely normal to be a dummy at some stage and some field in life. There is nothing humiliating about it. Albert Einstein wasn’t at his Nobel-winning best in his early schooldays. It is rumoured that he lost a large chunk of his 1921 Nobel Prize money in the crash of ’29. Abraham Lincoln had huge problems getting elected, and lost several elections before finally becoming president of the US. Did Bill Gates complete college? Did Sachin Tendulkar finish school? Weren’t some of Steve Jobs’ other launches total losses? What about Sir Issac Newton? Didn’t I read somewhere that he lost really big in the markets, and subsequently prohibited anyone from mentioning the markets in his presence? On a personal note, I flunked a Physical Chemistry exam in college, and if you read some of my initial posts at Traderji.com, when I’d just entered the markets, you would realize what a dummy I was at investing. At that stage, I even thought that the National Stock Exchange was in Delhi!

Thing is, people – we don’t have to remain dummies. The human brain is the most sophisticated super-computer known to mankind. All of us are easily able to rise above the dummy stage in topics of our choice.

Enough said. If you’ve identified yourself as a dummy stock-picker, read on. Even if you are not a dummy stock-picker, please still read on. Words can be very powerful. You don’t know which word, phrase or sentence might trigger off what kind of catharsis inside of you. So please, read on.

We are going to take three vital pieces of information about a stock, and are going to imagine that these three pieces of information form a triangle. We are going to call this triangle the triangle of safety. At all given times, we want to remain inside this triangle. When we are inside the triangle, we can consider ourselves (relatively) safe. The moment we find ourselves outside the triangle, we are going to try and get back in. If we can’t, then the picked stock needs to go. Once it exits our portfolio, we look for another stock that functions from within the triangle of safety.

The first vital stat that we are going to work with is – you guessed it – the ubiquitous price to earnings ratio, or the PE ratio. If we’re buying into a stock, the PE ratio needs to be well under the sector average. Period. Let’s say that we’ve bought into a stock, and after a while the price increases, or the earnings decrease. Both these events will cause the PE ratio to rise, perhaps to a level where it is then above sector average. We are now positioned outside of our triangle of safety with regards to the stock. We’re happy with a price rise, because that gives us a profit. What we won’t be happy with is an earnings decrease. Earnings now need to increase to lower the PE ratio to well below sector average, and back into the triangle. If this doesn’t happen for a few quarters, we get rid of the stock, because it is delaying its entry back into our safety zone. We are not comfortable outside of our safety zone for too long, and we thus boot the stock out of our portfolio.

The second vital stat that we are going to work with is the debt to equity ratio (DER). We want to pick stocks that are poised to take maximum advantage of growth, whenever it happens. If a company’s debt is manageable, then interest payouts don’t wipe off a chunk of the profits, and the same profits can get directly translated into earnings per share. We want to pick companies that are able to keep their total debt at a manageable level, so that whenever growth occurs, the company is able to benefit from it fully. We would like the DER to be smaller than 1.0. Personally, I like to pick stocks where it is smaller than 0.5. In the bargain, I do lose out on some outperformers, since they have a higher DER than the level I maximally want to see in a stock. You can decide for yourself whether you want to function closer to 0.5 or to 1.0. Sometimes, we pick a stock, and all goes well for a while, and then suddenly the management decides to borrow big. The DER shoots up to outside of our triangle of safety. What is the management saying? By when are they going to repay their debt? Is it a matter of 4 to 6 quarters? Can you wait outside your safety zone for that long? If you can, then you need to see the DER most definitely decreasing after the stipulated period. If it doesn’t, for example because the company’s gone in for a debt-restructuring, then we can no longer bear to exist outside our triangle of safety any more, and we boot the stock out of our portfolio. If, on the other hand, the management stays true to its word, and manages to reduce the DER to below 1.0 (or 0.5) within the stipulated period, simultaneously pushing us back into our safety zone, well, then, we remain invested in the stock, provided that our two other vital stats are inside the triangle too.

The third vital stat that we are going to work with is the dividend yield (DY). We want to pick companies that pay out a dividend yield that is more than 2% per annum. Willingness to share substantial profits with the shareholder – that is a trait we want to see in the management we’re buying into. Let’s say we’ve picked a stock, and that in the first year the management pays out 3% per annum as dividend. In the second year, we are surprised to see no dividends coming our way, and the financial year ends with the stock yielding a paltry 0.5% as dividend. Well, then, we give the stock another year to get its DY back to 2% plus. If it does, putting us back into our triangle of safety, we stay invested, provided the other two vital stats are also positioned inside our safety zone. If the DY is not getting back to above 2%, we need to seriously have a look as to why the management is sharing less profits with the shareholders. If we don’t see excessive value being created for the shareholder in lieu of the missing dividend payout, we need to exit the stock, because we are getting uncomfortable outside our safety zone.

When we go about picking a stock for the long term as newbies, we want to buy into managements that are benevolent and shareholder-friendly, and perhaps a little risk-averse / conservative too. Managements that like to play on their own money practise this conservatism we are looking for. Let’s say that the company we are invested in hits a heavy growth phase. If there’s no debt to service, then it’ll grow much more than if there is debt to service. Do you see what’s happening here? Our vital stat number 2 is automatically making us buy into risk-averse managements heading companies that are poised to take maximum advantage of growth, whenever it occurs. We are also automatically buying into managements with largesse. Our third vital stat is ensuring that. This stat insinuates, that if the management creates extra value, a proportional extra value will be shared with the shareholder. That is exactly the kind of management we want – benevolent and shareholder-friendly. Our first vital stat ensures that we pick up the company at a time when others are ignoring the value at hand. Discovery has not happened yet, and when it does, the share price shall zoom. We are getting in well before discovery happens, because we buy when the PE is well below sector average.

Another point you need to take away from all this is the automation of our stop-loss. When we are outside our safety zone, our eyes are peeled. We are looking for signs that will confirm to us that we are poised to re-enter our triangle of safety. If these signs are not coming for a time-frame that is not bearable, we sell the stock. If we’ve sold at a loss, then this is an automatic stop-loss mechanism. Also, please note, that no matter how much profit we are making in a stock – if the stock still manages to stay within our triangle of safety, we don’t sell it. Thus, our system allows us to even capture multibaggers – safely. One more thing – we don’t need to bother with targets here either. If our heavily in-the-money stock doesn’t come back into our safety zone within our stipulated and bearable time-frame, we book full profits in that stock.

PHEW!

There we have it – the triangle of safety – a connection of the dots between our troika PE…DER…DY.

As you move beyond the dummy stage, you can discard this simplistic formula, and use something that suits your level of evolution in the field.

Till then, your triangle of safety will keep you safe. You might even make good money.

PE details are available in financial newspapers. DER and DY can be found on all leading equity websites, for all stocks that are listed.

Here’s wishing you peaceful and lucrative investing in 2013 and always!

Be safe! Money will follow! 🙂

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