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John Neff: Buying stocks on sale

Larissa Fernand  |  20 Nov 2017Text size  Decrease  Increase  |  
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John Neff chased stocks that had been ignored. When they began to receive the attention he felt they deserved, he bailed out.

In 1991, Citibank had made more than $13 billion in commercial real estate loans. Nearly 43 per cent of them were nonperforming. The bank had lent up to 80 per cent or more of the value of the properties, putting Citibank's investment underwater when values plunged 40 per cent or more.

Residential mortgages were turning sour. Some of Citicorp's debt, which was downgraded by the major rating agencies in 1990, was reduced to junk bond status by 1991.

Around that time, the world's developing countries owed more than $1.3 trillion to industrialised countries. Among the largest problem debtors were Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina. Of the total developing-country debt, roughly half was owed to private creditors, mainly commercial banks--Citibank being a prominent one.

Naturally, investors were fearful looking at Citibank's bleak prospects.

One fund manager thought otherwise. He carefully weighed Citibank's situation and decided it was a good time to buy.

In his book On Investing, John Neff explains his stance when he picked up Citibank for his Windsor Fund: " … investment success does not require glamour stocks or bull markets. Judgement and fortitude were our prerequisites."

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"Judgement singles out opportunities, fortitude enables you to live with them while the rest of the world scrambles in another direction. Citibank exemplified this investment challenge. To us, ugly stocks were often beautiful. If Windsor's portfolio looked good, we weren't doing our job."

Citibank was not a one-off case. His wager on Ford Motor Company in 1984 was said to be one of his best. When many feared the company's sales were due to slow down and analysts began to give a sell call, the P/E sank to 2.5.

Neff ignored the noise in the market and saw immense potential--lean management with good control of costs and a new model, the Taurus. Neff began picking up the stock, which had dropped to $12 a share. It climbed to $50 within three years.

He made millions on that move. A few years later, when oil prices collapsed in 1986, he plunged into oil stocks and was rewarded once again.

So, one can have a discreet guffaw when Neff describes the Windsor Fund as "relatively prosaic, dull, and conservative".

By courting unloved stocks, which resulted in numerous letters from irate shareholders and criticism in the press, prosaic was certainly not a word many would use to exemplify the fund's style.

Neither would the term dull qualify as a description of its returns. On the contrary, the returns were rather sensational. The fund delivered a 13.7 per cent average annual return over the 31 years spanning 1964 to 1995, outpacing the S&P 500's 10.6 per cent return during that time.

A $10,000 investment in the fund (with dividends reinvested) would have amounted to around $564,000, more than twice what the same investment in the S&P 500 would have yielded (about $233,000).

(Neff managed the Windsor Fund run by Wellington Management in 1964. The fund eventually became part of John Bogle's new Vanguard operation in the early 1970s.)

Ironically, though he shunned publicity and opted for a low-key existence, his returns grabbed the attention of other money managers. In polls, he was often the preferred fund manager to manage their personal money, leading him to be referred to as the "professional's professional".

Neff was daring in his convictions and fearlessly courted battered stocks. In the case of the Citibank stock he confessed to enduring "slings and arrows," which did not faze him but led him to eventually experience "sweet vindication and very handsome returns".

Neff's investment process began in the "dusty rag and bone shop of the mart, where the supply of cheap stocks replenishes itself daily". He would scour the Wall Street Journal for stocks making new lows. He would also look for the worst performers from the previous day's close--stocks which fell from 8 per cent to 30 per cent or more.

The one time this was best elucidated was on Black Monday—19 October 1987. The Dow crashed over 20 per cent in a single day. Amid the panic, Neff went shopping. It is estimated that on that day he spent $118 million purchasing stocks, with plans to double his buying the next morning.

Don't get misled into thinking that all cheap stocks made the cut. Neff once said that, "As a low P/E investor, you have to distinguish misunderstood and overlooked stocks selling at bargain prices from many more stocks with lacklustre prospects".

He looked for good companies with moderate growth, solid earnings, high dividends and low P/E ratios.

For instance, in an interview in 2006, Neff recommended Citigroup. At that time, it was trading close to a single-digit P/E level, with a return on equity near 20 per cent, a current dividend yield of more than 4 per cent, and yield growing by about 10 per cent per year.

Management was also buying back stock and Neff projected Citigroup's overall growth at about 10 per cent per year--almost as high as its P/E multiple.

Neff believed that no solitary parameter should govern a buy decision. "You need to probe a whole raft of numbers and facts, searching for confirmation or contradiction. Fundamentals consistent with benchmarks usually reinforce the unrecognised virtues of low P/E stocks; fundamental shortfalls may expose gaps that cripple prospects for P/E expansion."

1) Low P/E ratio

Neff did not call himself a contrarian or value investor but preferred to be known as a "low price-earnings investor".

2) Earnings growth

Fundamental earnings growth above 7 per cent, but not exceptionally high. A stock with too high a growth rate (above 20 per cent) could have trouble sustaining that over the long haul.

3) Solid, and ideally rising, dividend

Neff believed strong dividends were an oft overlooked part of how investors could beat the market.

If two companies offer a prospective 14 per cent return, but Company A's consists of 14 per cent earnings growth and no dividend, whereas Company B's consists of 7 per cent growth plus a 7 per cent dividend, it is better to choose Company B, because the dividend makes the outcome more certain.

4) A much-better-than-average total return in relation to the P/E ratio

Neff targeted stocks with P/E ratios between 40 and 60 per cent of the market average.

He hunted for stocks that were cheaply priced in relation to the total return indicated by the sum of their earnings growth plus their dividend yield. He called this the "terminal relationship" or "what you pay for what you get".

More simply, he would take the estimated growth rate plus the dividend yield and divide it by the P/E.

For example, let's look at a stock in different scenarios.

Stock in Scenario A: Growth rate = 10 per cent/Yield = 5 per cent/PE = 7.5

Stock in Scenario B: Growth rate = 10 per cent/Yield = 5 per cent/PE = 15

The terminal relationship of the stock in scenario B at 1 is much less attractive.

5) Cyclical stocks

No exposure to cyclical downturns without a compensatory low P/E to compensate for their volatility.

6) Solid companies making a strong fundamental case for investment

Sound cash flow, a stable balance sheet, and an attractive market for the products or services are some of the other criteria he kept in mind. He once told a journalist, "I don't want to do so well that I lose my sense or recognition of how the middle class might react to something like a new retailing concept".

In the process of analysing Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corporation, Neff sent his wife and daughter on a shopping expedition to scout one of the chain's off-price stores. They returned with three coats. By 1988, he held about 500,000 shares of Burlington Coat Factory.

On selling

Finally, it's worth ending with a note on how Neff took his selling strategy as seriously. And rightly so, or else you risk losing profits. He cited two basic reasons to sell.

Deteriorating fundamentals: The main fundamentals to keep an eye on are earnings estimates and five-year growth rates. If these start to slip, sell at once.

When the stock price matches your expectations: In other words, when the market begins to chase the stock and recognise its value, it's time to bail out, with a tidy profit of course.

"An awful lot of people keep a stock too long because it gives them warm fuzzies--particularly when a contrarian stance has been vindicated. If they sell it, they lose bragging rights."

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Larissa Fernand is the editor of the Morningstar India website, where this article initially appeared.

© 2017 Morningstar, Inc. All rights reserved. Neither Morningstar, its affiliates, nor the content providers guarantee the data or content contained herein to be accurate, complete or timely nor will they have any liability for its use or distribution. This information is to be used for personal, non-commercial purposes only. No reproduction is permitted without the prior written consent of Morningstar. Any general advice or 'class service' have been prepared by Morningstar Australasia Pty Ltd (ABN: 95 090 665 544, AFSL: 240892), or its Authorised Representatives, and/or Morningstar Research Ltd, subsidiaries of Morningstar, Inc, without reference to your objectives, financial situation or needs. Please refer to our Financial Services Guide (FSG) for more information at www.morningstar.com.au/s/fsg.pdf. Our publications, ratings and products should be viewed as an additional investment resource, not as your sole source of information. Past performance does not necessarily indicate a financial product's future performance. To obtain advice tailored to your situation, contact a licensed financial adviser. Some material is copyright and published under licence from ASX Operations Pty Ltd ACN 004 523 782 ("ASXO"). The article is current as at date of publication.

is the editor of the Morningstar India website.

© 2021 Morningstar, Inc. All rights reserved. Neither Morningstar, its affiliates, nor the content providers guarantee the data or content contained herein to be accurate, complete or timely nor will they have any liability for its use or distribution. This information is to be used for personal, non-commercial purposes only. No reproduction is permitted without the prior written consent of Morningstar. Any general advice or 'regulated financial advice' under New Zealand law has been prepared by Morningstar Australasia Pty Ltd (ABN: 95 090 665 544, AFSL: 240892), or its Authorised Representatives, and/or Morningstar Research Ltd, subsidiaries of Morningstar, Inc, without reference to your objectives, financial situation or needs. For more information, refer to our Financial Services Guide (AU) and Financial Advice Provider Disclosure Statement (NZ). Our publications, ratings and products should be viewed as an additional investment resource, not as your sole source of information. Morningstar’s full research reports are the source of any Morningstar Ratings and are available from Morningstar or your adviser. Past performance does not necessarily indicate a financial product's future performance. To obtain advice tailored to your situation, contact a licensed financial adviser. Some material is copyright and published under licence from ASX Operations Pty Ltd ACN 004 523 782. The article is current as at date of publication.

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