Watch out for inflation, says veteran value manager Jean-Marie Eveillard

Value investing was the focus of the presentation by Jean-Marie Eveillard, senior adviser and board trustee to the First Eagle Funds and senior vice president of First Eagle Investment Management, LLC, to the Boston Security Analysts Society (BSAS) on April 13. Eveillard also opined on the world economic outlook.

Three economic scenarios
Eveillard thinks there are three potential directions for the U.S. from here.
1. A typical post-WWII expansion— In this scenario, the authorities lever up the system again, so we get a three- to five-year expansion, Eveillard said. This would mean that we are still in a post-World War II environment. Eveillard is concerned about the short-term, even speculative orientation of investors in an environment in which equity mutual funds average 100% annual turnover.
2. Japanese-style stagflation–As the private sector continues to deleverage, the U.S. might fall into stagflation similar to that experienced in Japan for the past 20 years. This would happen if lenders don’t want to lend and borrowers don’t want to borrow, despite the government’s efforts to combat their resistance. Eveillard considers this unlikely because, unlike the Japanese, Americans are not resigned to economic stagnation. We’ll act.
3. Negative, unintended consequences including inflation–Eveillard is concerned about the unprecedented scale of the U.S. government’s intervention. This includes a gigantic budget deficit, zero interest rates, and the ballooning of the federal balance sheet.

The third scenario is most likely, said Eveillard, who spoke about the lessons of the Austrian school of economists. The main lesson: If you’re stupid enough to get into a really bad credit boom, you’ll have a bad credit bust. However, the Austrians also say not to do a short-term patch after a bust because you’ll compromise the medium-term and long-term recovery. This seems to be one of the roots of Eveillard’s fear of the third scenario.

But Eveillard’s inflation fears haven’t made him give up on stocks. People make the mistake of thinking that inflation is all bad for stocks, he said. He believes in owning the stocks of companies that are able to raise prices as their costs rise. For example, that’s something that newspapers were able to do back in the 1970s.

Eveillard did not comment on specific stocks that he favors now. “If I knew what my five best ideas were, that’s all I would own,” he quipped.

Benjamin Graham and The Intelligent Investor
Eveillard spent most of his time with the BSAS talking about the history of value investing. For him, the two big names are Benjamin Graham, author of The Intelligent Investor, and well-known investor Warren Buffett.

Graham’s emphasis on the role of humility, caution, and order in investing make sense to Eveillard. He illustrated Graham’s approach to investing as finding a business with an intrinsic value of $50 per share, buying it at $30-$35 per share, and starting to sell it at $40. This is what Warren Buffett called the cigar butt–one puff and it’s over, said Eveillard.

Although Eveillard conceded that Graham’s approach to investing is static and balance sheet-oriented, it still offers opportunities. There are “Ben Graham-type stocks” in Japan, especially among small caps, he said. Because “net cash is greater than market cash…you get the business for less than nothing,” he said.

Warren Buffett added qualitative to quantitative
Benjamin Graham was “all about numbers.” Even today,  value investors all start with companies’ publicly available financial information, and then move on only if they’re satisfied with the public numbers, said Eveillard.

Warren Buffett added qualitative analysis on top of Graham’s quantitative analysis, said Eveillard. For example, Buffett likes companies that have a “moat,” a sustainable competitive advantage.

Comparing Graham and Buffett, Eveillard said that the Graham approach is much less time-consuming, though potentially less rewarding, than the Buffett approach. The First Eagle Funds started out in Graham style, then switched to Buffett’s style after adding the analysts that enabled them to do the necessary research, said Eveillard.

The case for value investing
Eveillard gave two reasons for pursuing value investing. First, it makes sense. Second, it works over time. He doesn’t buy the argument that value investing works only in the U.S. In fact, First Eagle has never opened offices overseas because it doesn’t want to be influenced by how the locals think. Still, he noted, “There are few genuine value investors in the U.S., but even fewer outside the U.S.”

Why so few value investors? For starters, it’s hard work. “Sell-side research is seldom useful” because of its six- to 12-month time horizon, said Eveillard. When your time horizon is five years, it makes a big difference in how you look at a business. That’s why First Eagle’s 11 analysts are “the true heart of our operation,” he said.

The psychological hurdle to value investing is even higher than the research hurdle. It’s not easy sticking with value investing’s long-term time horizon. That’s especially true when it means your investment performance may lag its benchmark in the short-term. First Eagle lost seven out of 10 investors during the period when its performance lagged from Fall 1997 to Spring 2000, said Eveillard.

To be a value investor, “there has to be a willingness on the part of the investor to take the short-term pain.” In addition, you have to be willing to move away from the herd when it’s nearing the cliff, said Eveillard, citing Warren Buffett. Value investing takes a temperament that many lack.

If you’d like to learn more about Eveillard’s views, he’s scheduled to appear on Bloomberg TV on Wed., April 14 April 14 at 5 p.m. EST, according to the First Eagle Funds website.

The next session of “How to Write Blog Posts People Will Read: A Five-Week Teleclass for Financial Advisors starts April 22. Sign up to receive my free monthly newsletter.Copyright 2010 by Susan B. Weiner All rights reserved