Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Having multiple reasons to own

Looking at my overall portfolio performance, I feel pretty good, but two of my biggest positions are way down against the market (as defined by the S&P 500). First Marblehead doesn't bother me too much because I just bought shares and I can't believe how cheap they are. The first and primary reason to own a company for a value investor is that shares are worth far more than the price assigned them by the market. It's sort of the litmus test of value investing.

Select Comfort is a different story. Since I doubled-down, at the end of 2006, the price has gone down, but so has the value. Based on 85¢ EPS last year and 20% projected growth, a fair value would have been about $34 a share. But this year, 87¢ EPS seems pretty optimistic and 15% is a better guess for growth, which makes my best guess for Select Comfort's value to be $24 1/2. I wouldn't argue against a valuation as low as $20 or so. Even so, this is still less than the $18 I paid last year or the $13.30 (adjusted for a 3:2 split) I paid in 2005.

The other reason First Marblehead is easier to own is that it pays a regular dividend. I cheer for low prices since they mean I'm reinvesting at low prices. But Select Comfort doesn't pay a dividend. They do have a buyback program, which I expect is taking full advantage of the low prices the market is offering. I still prefer a dividend, however, since it is more certain and reliable. First Marblehead is buying back shares as well, so I'm doubly pleased.

One lesson I've learned from Select Comfort over the last year is that as a stock price approaches parity with its value, there needs to be another reason to own the stock. You can't force a company to pay a dividend and share buybacks become less worthwhile, so selling becomes a reasonable option even for a company that is operating on all cylinders. As I have done with Select Comfort and Oracle, you don't have to place a sell order in order to sell a stock—writing a call option works nearly as well. I missed that chance a year ago when Select Comfort was trading near $25, but I won't miss it next time.

I've already started practicing sell discipline with Oracle. Improving, rather than worsening, financial conditions make a company easier to own. But stock prices tend to peak around the time that performance peaks. If price are getting close to value, there has to be another reason to keep the company. At the moment, Oracle is priced to grow earnings at 14.5%. Though this is possible, I'm afraid there is a real possibility Oracle's business could falter like Select Comfort's did. I don't see any reason to take that risk when there are other investments that trade well under their current value.

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