History's best valuation measure suggests Rio Tinto (RIO) and BP (BP) look cheap.
We all have our favourite company valuation measures. Among the most popular you'll encounter are the price-to-earnings ratio (P/E), price-to-book value (P/B) and dividend yield.
But which measure is best? According to distinguished finance professors Eugene Fama and Ken French:
"One fundamental (book value, earnings, or cashflow) is pretty much as good as another … and the average return spreads produced by different ratios are similar to and, in statistical terms, indistinguishable from one another."
This orthodoxy has recently been challenged in a paper from Drexel University's Wesley Gray and Jack Vogel: "Analyzing Valuation Measures: A Performance Horse-Race Over the Past 40 Years".
Gray and Vogel examined US stock data between 1971 and 2010. They found that while value-investor favourites low P/E and low P/B did indeed deliver similar average annual performances -- 15.2% and 15.0%, respectively -- a less popular measure delivered a significantly higher average annual return of 17.7%.
In passing, it's worth mentioning that the worst performing metric by a mile was forecast P/E – "suggesting that investors shy away from using analyst earnings estimates to make investment decisions."
Gray and Vogel found the best indicator of superior future returns to be a low EV/EBITDA (Enterprise Value divided by Earnings Before Interest, Tax, Depreciation and Amortisation).
Unlike the P/E, where the ‘P' is derived simply from the company's market capitalisation, EV also takes account of debt. EV can be calculated as market cap plus net debt (or minus net cash).
EV puts companies with different levels of debt and cash on a level playing field. EBITDA does a similar thing on the earnings side -- but is scorned by many private investors for whom it will always be associated with dot-com era accounting chicanery that made unprofitable companies look profitable.
All financial ratios have their strengths and weaknesses, but Gray and Vogel's work suggests we would be foolish (with a small ‘f') to ignore EV/EBITDA's strength as the best single measure of a company's 'cheapness'.
Cheap as (blue) chips
EBITDA isn't a required entry on company income statements, so it tends not to be among the criteria you can screen for using online stock screeners -- or the free ones a skinflint such as me uses!
I manually searched the FTSE 100 index (UKX) for five cheap EV/EBITDA shares in five different industries, using Morningstar, whose independent analysts calculate EBITDA.
I followed Gray and Vogel by excluding financials and utilities, because EV doesn't work for financials, while the economic returns of utilities are set by regulators.
Each of the five tables below is headed by a cheap EV/EBITDA share, followed by its two FTSE peers (or the next cheapest two where there are more than three companies in the sector).
|Rio Tinto (LSE: RIO)||2,982p||2.9||5.8|
|Eurasian Natural Resources (LSE: ENRC)||414p||3.3||4.2|
|Kazakhmys (LSE: KAZ)||702p||3.9||4.1|
Oil & Gas
|Company||Share price (p)||EV/EBITDA||P/E|
|BP (LSE: BP)||407p||3.1||5.1|
|Royal Dutch Shell (LSE: RDSB)||2,174p||3.5||7.4|
|BG (LSE: BG)||1,218p||7.1||13.2|
|AstraZeneca (LSE: AZN)||2,772p||3.8||5.9|
|GlaxoSmithKline (LSE: GSK)||1,477p||8.7||14.6|
|Shire (LSE: SHP)||1,966p||13.2||19.4|
Aerospace & Defence
|BAE Systems (LSE: BA)||287p||4.3||6.9|
|Meggitt (LSE: MGGT)||371p||8.7||14.2|
|Rolls-Royce (LSE: RR)||843p||9.9||19.1|
|J Sainsbury (LSE: SBRY)||294p||5.8||10.9|
|Wm Morrison (LSE: MRW)||270p||6.1||10.3|
|Tesco (LSE: TSCO)||312p||6.5||9.6|
As you can see, BP, AstraZeneca and BAE Systems are all cheap on both EV/EBITDA and P/E and the peer companies in their sectors are ranked identically on both measures.
In the case of miners and supermarkets, though, the EV/EBITDA ranking runs opposite to the P/E ranking.
Rio Tinto is more expensive than Eurasian Natural Resources and Kazakhmys on P/E, but the cheapest of the three on EV/EBITDA. Likewise, Sainsbury is a pricier P/E share than Morrison and Tesco, but comes out cheapest at the EV/EBITDA checkout.
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G A Chester does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares in Tesco.