Peter Lynch's strategy for all seasons

More than 80% of investment managers don't beat the market. Peter Lynch did it consistently over 13 years with Magellan. His secret: PEG ratios, and staying power.

It stands to reason that professional mutual fund managers should be considerably more successful at picking stocks than the average investor. After all, people who have degrees in finance and years of practical experience in the market -- and who are willing to take your money in exchange for their expertise -- should be very good at what they do, right?

Unfortunately, many times that is not the case. In fact, my own research has shown that 80 to 90 percent of active fund managers fail to beat the market in the long term.

But there are, of course, fund managers who have proved you can beat the market over the long haul, and if you're looking for inspiration there's probably no better example than Peter Lynch. During his 13-year tenure as the head of Fidelity Investments' Magellan Fund, Lynch guided the fund to a 29.2 percent average yearly return -- nearly twice the 15.8 percent return that the S&P 500 posted during the same period. According to Barron's, over the last five years of Lynch's tenure, Magellan beat 99.5 percent of all other funds. Looked at another way, if you had invested $10,000 in Magellan the day Lynch took the helm, you would have had $280,000 on the day he retired 13 years later.

How did Lynch achieve such success where so many other professional investors failed? Interestingly, a big part of his approach involved something that is not at all exclusive to being a renowned professional fund manager: He invested in what he knew. Lynch believed that if you personally know something positive about a stock if you buy the company's products, like its marketing, etc. -- you can get a beat on successful businesses before professional investors get around to them. In fact, one of the things that led him to one of his most successful investments -- undergarment manufacturer Hanes -- was his wife's affinity for the company's new pantyhose years ago.

Investing in what you know is really just a starting point for Lynch, however. His strategy also has many quantitative aspects, and I was so impressed by it that it became the basis for one of my "Guru Strategies", computer models each of which mimics the approach of a different investing great. Here's a look at how my Lynch-based strategy works, and some examples of companies that fit the bill.

Different criteria on one PEG

An important aspect of Lynch's strategy is that he didn't apply the same rules to all stocks. He classified companies by their size and growth rate (and sometimes by the nature of their business), and used different sets of criteria to analyze these different groups.

His favorite type of investment was "fast-growers" -- companies whose earnings have been increasing at a rate of 20 to 50 percent per year. Other groups he focuses on in his book are large "stalwarts", which grow at a more moderate pace, and "slow-growers", which have single-digit growth rates but are attractive for their high dividend payouts.

Before I examine what Lynch looks for in each of these categories of stocks, however, I should note that there is one variable that Lynch considers crucial no matter what the stock's classification: the P/E/Growth ratio.

While the price/earnings ratio (which compares a company's per-share price to its per-share earnings) may be the best-known stock market variable, Lynch found that looking at the P/E ratio by itself was less useful than looking at it in comparison to a company's growth. The rationale was that higher P/E ratios are okay, provided that the firm is growing at an appropriate pace. If a company's P/E ratio was about even with or less than its growth rate (i.e. P/E divided by growth rate equals 1.0 or less), Lynch saw that as acceptable

Lynch found that this P/E/Growth ratio -- or "PEG" -- was a great way to identify growth stocks that were still selling at good prices. In fact, the P/E/G ratio became the most important variable he considered when looking at a stock, and his reliance on it is one of the things he is most known for in the investing world.

To show how the P/E/G can be more useful than the P/E ratio, Lynch cited Wal-Mart, America's largest retailer. In his book "One Up On Wall Street", he notes that Wal-Mart's P/E was rarely below 20 during its three-decade rise. Its growth rate, however, was consistently in the 25 to 30 percent range, generating huge profits for shareholders despite the P/E ratio not being particularly low. That also proved another one of Lynch's tenets: that you have plenty of time to identify and invest in exceptional growth companies, even after they have exhibited years, or even a decade, of rapid growth and have become quite large.

An example of a company with a very strong P/E/G ratio is energy giant Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM), which has a P/E of 12.15. When we divide that by its growth rate of 31.69 percent (based on the average of its three-, four-, and five-year earnings per share growth figures), we get a P/E/G ratio of 0.38. This not only betters my Lynch-based model's 1.0 maximum; it also falls into the strategy's best-case category (0.5 or below).


Now let's take a look at those three categories I mentioned earlier, beginning with fast-growers. Exxon Mobil is an example of one such stock, because of its 31.69 percent growth rate.

For fast-growers, Lynch looks not only at the P/E/G, but also at the P/E ratio by itself. For large companies -- which my model views as those with annual sales greater than $1 billion -- he likes to see P/E ratios below 40, because he found that larger companies have trouble maintaining high enough growth to support P/Es over that threshold. (Smaller firms can have very high P/E ratios during their growth years, however).

Another quality Lynch looks for in fast-growers is manageable debt. He likes companies that are conservatively financed, and my Lynch-based model calls for debt to be no greater than 80 percent of equity. Exxon again makes the grade, with a debt/equity ratio of 7.56 percent.

An even better example of a fast-grower that meets this criterion is computer software power Microsoft (NASD:MSFT). Microsoft has no long-term debt, which my model considers exceptional. (Its 0.89 P/E/G ratio is another reason it passes my Lynch-based method.)

Lynch also made an astute observation about inventory, which can be applied not only to fast-growers but to other firms as well. He viewed it as a red flag when inventory increased more quickly than sales. (Inventory piling up indicates the products aren't as in-demand as the company had hoped.) My Lynch-based model thus likes the inventory/sales ratio to stay the same or decrease from year to year, but will allow for an increase of up to 5 percent if all other financials are in order. Exxon's inventory/sales ratio increased by just 0.32 percent this year while Microsoft's dropped by 1.13 percent, so each passes the test.

One caveat about "fast-growers": to Lynch, there is such a thing as too much growth. When a firm's historic growth rate is greater than 50 percent, he avoids it. Growth that high is unlikely to be maintained over the long run, and an investor shouldn’t pay for a stock on the basis of the assumption that a growth rate this high or higher will be maintained for long.


Because of their large size (sales in the multi-billion-dollar range) and moderate earnings growth rate (10 to 19 percent per year), Lynch always keeps a few stalwarts in his portfolio, as they offer protection during recessions or hard times. An example of a stalwart that my Lynch-based model likes is credit card giant American Express (NYSE:AXP), which has a growth rate of 18.1 percent (again based on the average of the three-, four-, and five-year EPS growth rate figures) and annual sales of $29.8 billion.

One of the main differences between stalwarts and fast-growers is that dividends are often important for stalwarts, so Lynch adjusted the earnings portion of their P/E/G calculations for dividend yield. (He makes this adjustment by adding the yield, 1.01%, to the growth rate in the P/E/G formulathe yield supplements the EPS growth.) American Express's yield-adjusted P/E/G is 0.93, which comes in under my model's 1.0 upper limit.

Lynch also looked at debt for stalwarts, and my model again calls for debt to be no greater than 80 percent of equity.

When it comes to financial companies like American Express, however, debt is often a required part of business. Recognizing this, Lynch didn't apply the debt/equity ratio to financials. Instead, he looks at how a company's equity compares with its assets for a sign of financial health, and at how much of a return it is generating on those assets for a sign of its profitability.

The model I base on Lynch's writings calls for financial firms to have an equity/assets ratio of at least 5 percent, and a return on assets of at least 1 percent. At 8 percent and 3.18 percent, respectively, American Express passes both tests. (Note that while American Express is a stalwart, the equity/assets and return on assets figures are used for fast-growing and slow-growing financials as well.)


Lynch was less keen on slow-growers and their single-digit growth than he was on fast-growers or stalwarts. But they can have high dividend yields, so they may be a good option if you're investing for income.

Lynch liked slow-growers to be large companies, so the model I base on his writings requires their sales to be greater than $1 billion. Just as with stalwarts, the P/E/G ratio for slow-growers is adjusted for dividend yield, and the debt-equity ratio should be below 80 percent (unless the firm is a financial).

One key difference when it comes to slow-growers: Because by definition they don't post big earnings increases, their dividend yields must be greater than 3 percent or greater than the yield of the S&P 500, whichever is larger.

Few slow-growers currently pass my Lynch-based model, but one that does is the US financial firm Comerica (NYSE: CMA), a Texas-based company that offers banking and financial management services in the US, Canada, and Mexico. Comerica's growth rate (7.34 percent, based on the average of the three-, four-, and five-year EPS figures) and high sales ($3.6 billion) make it a slow-grower, and its yield of 4.78 percent (which more than doubles the S&P's current 2.09 percent yield) is one reason my Lynch strategy considers it a good slow-grower. In addition, Comerica's yield-adjusted P/E/G is an acceptable 0.91, its equity/assets ratio is a healthy 9 percent, and its ROA is a strong 1.32 percent.

Be ready for all weathers

There is another critical aspect of Lynch's approach not specifically included in my quantitative model. It's simple in theory, but in practice it is one of the hardest things for an investor: Stay in the market.

Lynch recognized that the stock market was unpredictable in the short term, even to the smartest investors. In fact, he once said in an interview with American television station PBS that putting money into stocks and counting on having nice profits in a year or two is like "just like betting on red or black at the casino. ... What the market's going to do in one or two years, you don't know."

Over the long-term, however, good stocks rise like no other investment vehicle, something Lynch recognized. His philosophy: Use a proven strategy and stay in the market for the long term and you'll realize those gains; jump in and out and there's a good chance that you'll miss out on a chunk of them.

That, of course, means resisting the temptation to bail when the market takes some short-term hits, no easy task. But as Lynch once said, "The real key to making money in stocks is not to get scared out of them." If you have the fortitude to follow that advice -- and the discipline to follow Lynch's quantitative blueprints -- your portfolio should be much the better for it.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on September 20, 2007

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