The “Buffett Factor” Revisited

Global Head of Research

One of our most popular blog posts this year has been the one that connects our quality dividend growth Index methodology to the way Warren Buffett looks at potential acquisitions, key aspects being: Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Acquisition Criteria1 • Demonstrated consistent earnings power • Businesses earning good return on equity (ROE) while employing little or no debt   The key phrase is “businesses earning good returns on equity while employing little or no debt.” However, the Quality Discussion within equity investing has a long history, and Warren Buffett certainly isn’t the only one to mention it.   Benjamin Graham’s Quality Criteria One of Warren Buffett’s teachers, Benjamin Graham, who is known as one of the fathers of value investing, also had a rigorous focus on quality traits. Many focus on Graham’s criteria for finding inexpensive companies, but he was at least equally focused on attributes of quality, if not more so.   Benjamin Graham’s Attributes of Quality2 • “Adequate” enterprise size, as insulation against the “vicissitudes” of the economy • Strong financial condition, measured by current ratios that exceed 2 and net current assets that exceed long-term debt • Earnings stability, measured by 10 consecutive years of positive earnings • A dividend record of uninterrupted payments for at least 20 years • Earnings-per-share growth of at least one-third over the last 10 years   Fama-French Operating Profitability Factor Research done by Kenneth French and Eugene Fama arrives at a similar place. In their draft of “A Five-Factor Asset Pricing Model” from September 2014, they cite operating profitability, defined as annual revenues minus cost of goods sold, interest expense and selling, general & administrative (SG&A) expenses, all divided by book value of equity. Note, this is similar to Buffett’s criteria above: a company earning a good return (profits) on its equity (book value)—in other words, a high ROE. Arranging the U.S. market into quintiles based on operating profitability further emphasizes that high-quality stocks have won over longer holding periods.   The Spectrum of Operating Profitability Quintiles from June 30, 1963, to June 30, 2015 The Spectrum of Operating ProfitabilityTop Two Quintiles Outperformed the Market: We saw the top two quintiles outperform the market on two fronts—average annual returns and Sharpe ratio. In other words, this outperformance was not achieved with a significant increase in risk.   Grantham on Why Quality May Outperform over Long Periods One of the long-standing investment practitioners of quality investing has been Jeremy Grantham’s firm, GMO. In a paper written in 2004,3 GMO wrote of quality firms:
… even though many of these corporations tend to generate high profits year after year, they are systematically underpriced because they lack volatility. Instead of overpaying for these companies, as finance theory would suggest—given their low risk profile—shareholders in fact do just the opposite: they underpay. The result is that investors in high-quality companies get to forge ahead with 15+% returns year after year without overpaying. Of course, in any given year, low-quality stocks can and do stage rallies and high-quality stocks can underperform. But the high-quality stocks have always won over longer holding periods. No matter what metric is used to identify quality stocks—leverage, profitability, earnings volatility or beta—high-quality stocks have beaten out low-quality stocks.
  In other words, the desire to try to find that “next big thing” tends to exert so much power over the investment psyche that focusing on quality companies has, at least historically, been one avenue through which to achieve outperformance. We will continue exploring some of our other findings from our research into the concept of quality investing. Click here for the full in-depth research piece “The Dividends of a Quality and Growth Factor Approach.”         1Source: Berkshire Hathaway annual letter to shareholders from Warren E. Buffett, 2/28/15. 2Source: Benjamin Graham, “The Intelligent Investor” (4th revised edition), Harper & Row, 1973. 3“The Case for Quality—The Danger of Junk,” GMO white paper, 3/04.

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About the Contributor
Global Head of Research

Christopher Gannatti began at WisdomTree as a Research Analyst in December 2010, working directly with Jeremy Schwartz, CFA®, Director of Research. In January of 2014, he was promoted to Associate Director of Research where he was responsible to lead different groups of analysts and strategists within the broader Research team at WisdomTree. In February of 2018, Christopher was promoted to Head of Research, Europe, where he was based out of WisdomTree’s London office and was responsible for the full WisdomTree research effort within the European market, as well as supporting the UCITs platform globally. In November 2021, Christopher was promoted to Global Head of Research, now responsible for numerous communications on investment strategy globally, particularly in the thematic equity space. Christopher came to WisdomTree from Lord Abbett, where he worked for four and a half years as a Regional Consultant. He received his MBA in Quantitative Finance, Accounting, and Economics from NYU’s Stern School of Business in 2010, and he received his bachelor’s degree from Colgate University in Economics in 2006. Christopher is a holder of the Chartered Financial Analyst Designation.