To begin our series on the two types of investment strategies Benjamin Graham outlines in The Intelligent Investor (defensive and enterprising), we’ll start with Graham’s guidelines for the defensive investor.

I like to think of the defensive investment strategy along the lines of the The Tortoise and the Hare:

Hare ran down the road for a while and then and paused to rest. He looked back at Slow and Steady and cried out, “How do you expect to win this race when you are walking along at your slow, slow pace?”

Hare stretched himself out alongside the road and fell asleep, thinking, “There is plenty of time to relax.”

Slow and Steady walked and walked. He never, ever stopped until he came to the finish line.

The animals who were watching cheered so loudly for Tortoise, they woke up Hare.

Hare stretched and yawned and began to run again, but it was too late. Tortoise was over the line.
After that, Hare always reminded himself, “Don’t brag about your lightning pace, for Slow and Steady won the race!”

As silly as drawing investment advice from a children’s fable seems, there are a lot of parallels between the strengths of defensive investing and the tortoise’s winning strategy. Yes, the tortoise may not have a hot year where his portfolio is on fire; but he also won’t be subject to the same or greater downside risk. While the hare counts down the minutes to their latest hot stock’s earnings call, only to find out the value of the stock options they purchased have been crushed; the tortoise may be thinking up his dinner plans on the drive home from work, oblivious and unanxious at his blue chip’s stock’s earnings which just hit Wall Street expectations.

The tortoise will seldom have exciting stocks to brag about at dinner parties, but he will slowly but surely grow his investments while focusing on his main source of income – his career.

So what are the four rules for defensive stock picking?

  1. Reasonable Diversification – Graham recommends holding 10-30 names at any given time. Too few names, and the risk of any one stock plummeting can derail your portfolio, too many names and all the work you do in choosing quality stocks will become diluted.

    I would add that diversification requires a bit more thought than simply the number of stocks in your portfolio, having 20 gold stocks would still be a risky proposition. In a recent podcast interview with Howard Marks the founder of Oaktree Capital Management, Mark’s suggested a novel defensive investment strategy I – since none of us can consistently accurately predict the future, develop a portfolio which will do well in a range of outcomes we can imagine instead of betting the farm on one potential outcome. Mark’s noted that over the last 20 years, his flagship fund has never been above the 40th percentile in returns, but the fund has also never been below the 25th percentile in returns; and amazingly enough over the 20 years his cumulative return is above the 95th percentile.

    Returning to the topic over-diversification, while Graham didn’t have this intention when he first published TII in 1949, his warnings about over-diversification seem to dip into 21st century debate over active vs passive investing. Buying an S&P 500 ETF would give you a portfolio of 500 stocks, far more than the 10-30 names Graham recommended. Does this mean that Graham would be against index funds? The Motley Fool investigated the subject and concluded he would support index funds.

    We will revisit Graham’s views on index funds and passive investing in a future article. However, I do believe the new craze of passive investing deserves some reflection. Is it truly “passive”? An investor still decides the ETFs they want to purchase, sometimes by market – US, Global, Europe, Emerging, other times by sector – financial, technology, utilities, etc. Then the “passive” investor may still face the same challenges of active investors – they may interrupt or disrupt their returns by following the herd and pouring money into ETFs when they are most expensive; or they may sell in fear when the market takes a turn.

  2. Stock’s should be “large, prominent, and conservatively financed.” Graham defined large as a company with a market of at least $50 million, but because that number was established in his ‘72 edition, we’ll use Investopedia’s definition of a blue-chip stock as a market cap above $5 billion. A defensive stock is considered “prominent” if it is above the 65th percentile in it’s industry.

  3. A defensive stock should also have a long record of dividends. Graham recommends a stock having a dividend history of longer than 10 years, at which point a company has established a track record of consistent profits and returns for the company’s investors.

  4. Set a maximum Price-to-Earnings ratio that you are willing to pay for stocks. Graham recommends a maximum P/E of 20.

    Interesting, especially in a chapter outlining defensive investing strategy, Graham doesn’t rule out growth stocks, which he defines as stocks which are poised to double their earnings in 10 years (7.1% per year). Graham writes, “obviously stocks of this kind are attractive to buy and to own, provided the price paid is not excessive.” Using Graham’s open definition of defesinve stocks, I believe a case can be made for Facebook, the poster-child of growth stocks, based on today’s valuation. Even though Facebook has an incredible market cap of $441 billion and a P/E of 43 (as of April 28, 2017); their earnings growth over the last 3 years is an astronomical 90% per year, from $1.5 billion in 2015 to over $10 billion in 2016. While a 90% growth rate is unsustainable, even a 20% per year growth rate over the next ten years would lead Facebook’s earnings to be rise from $10 billion per year to $62 billion per year, which given a more conservative 20 P/E makes the stock a $1.2 trillion company. Although Graham might not have, I would exempt FB from Graham’s third requirement for dividends, as I believe Facebook’s return on investing moneyin their own business is higher than the return a shareholder would find with dividends. In sum, Is Facebook’s P/E high by traditional standards, yes; is it excessively priced based on its track record and prospects for growth? I don’t believe so.

Finally, Benjamin Graham closes his advice for the defensive investor by recommending an annual review of our portfolio. If we choose high-quality companies, at reasonable prices, we remove both the need and the risk over micromanaging and over-trading our portfolios. In a poignant (if not slightly depressing) paper by U.C. Berkley, “Do Investors Trade Too Much?” they wrote:

“This paper tests whether the trading profits of discount brokerage customers are sufficient to cover their trading costs. The surprising finding is that not only do the securities that these investors buy not outperform the securities they sell by enough to cover trading costs, but on average the securities they buy underperform those they sell.”

Posted by Max Asciutto

Hi I'm Max Asciutto! The Intelligent Investor blog is dedicated to blending Benjamin Graham's time-testing investment advice with a modern flair to write contemporary investment articles and stock reports to help you make better investment decisions. If you'd like to stay in touch, you can subscribe to my monthly newsletter or follow @aValueInvestor on Twitter.

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