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Picking the right stocks for your portfolio is not as straightforward as it looks. Many investors follow the principles of value investing and look at the intrinsic value of stocks before investing in them.

They try to identify undervalued stocks that can generate good returns over the long-term.

But are all value investors successful?

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The answer is NO. Then, what separates successful value investors from the not so successful ones?

One of the key characteristics is the ability to discern whether the undervalued stock is a good bet or a value trap.

So, what is a value trap? How do you know the investment you have zeroed in is a value trap?

All this and more is covered in the article ahead. Read on!

What is Value Investing?

Value investing is a popular investment strategy. It involves picking stocks that are trading at less than their book value or intrinsic value. In simpler terms, it is about investing in stocks that the markets are underestimating at a given time.

This is usually a long-term approach and value investors tend to focus on the fundamentals of the company to make these decisions.

Based on the intrinsic value, stocks can be categorized as:

Before going further, let’s take a quick look at how investors usually calculate the intrinsic value of a stock. They analyze the financial records of the company including its revenue, cash flow, profits, etc. and look at the non-financial parameters like the competition, brand image, target market, etc. to calculate the intrinsic value of the stock.

How to read profit & loss statements?

Let’s learn from a hypothetical example of a company that sells cars.

Some commonly used metrics are the price-to-earnings ratio, the price-to-book ratio, free cash flow, etc. Investors use various other metrics to calculate the intrinsic value to get a clear picture of the value of the company before investing.

Now, that we understand value investing and intrinsic value, let’s look at what a value trap is and how you can identify a value trap stock.

What is a Value Trap?

When you are looking for undervalued stocks, you can come across stocks that are cheaply priced since they have been trading below par for an extended time. While such stocks seem like a bargain since they seem inexpensive compared to the valuation multiples or industry peers, sometimes they fail to perform as per expectations and cause losses. These stocks are called value trap stocks.

How to Identify a Value Trap

As an investor, it is important to remember that buying a stock simply because its price has fallen considerably can lead you into a value trap. Here are some signs to help you identify a value trap:

1. Under-performing in its Sector

You should never analyze a stock as a standalone asset. Always compare its performance with its peers in the industry. If the company is at the top of its operating cycle but still showing lower growth as compared to its peers in the sector, then it calls for additional investigation. Look for reasons behind the lack of performance.

2. Improper Management Structure

All companies go through ups and downs. Usually, a drop in the stock price or earnings should be accompanied by a drop in the management’s pay structures displaying a responsible and alert management team.

However, if the company’s earnings have declined but the pay structures haven’t adapted, then such companies are less likely to weather economic storms and can be value traps in the long-run.

Also Read : How To Evaluate Stock In India?

3. Constantly Declining Market Share

This is an important aspect of identifying value traps. The market share of a company is an indicator of how it is faring against its competitors. If the company is constantly losing its market share, then there is a huge possibility of it being a value trap. Usually, an increasing market share is accompanied by a rising share price and vice versa.

4. Inefficient Capital Allocation

This requires some amount of understanding of the company and the industry. An important aspect of a value trap is that the company has good free cash flow but is failing to allocate the capital efficiently to boost business. Hence, if you merely look at the free cash flow numbers and compare it with the company’s peers, then you might fall into the ‘trap’.

Ensure that you determine the efficiency of capital allocation too. You can look at the Return on Equity (ROE) ratio to assess if the company is utilizing the shareholder equity optimally. Also, the Return on Assets (ROA) ratio can tell you more about how the company is managing its overall assets.

5. ‘Over-promising’ and ‘Under-delivering’

Another classic sign of a value trap. A company’s management always declares long-term and short-term goals based on a plan. However, when the operational results are out, some companies fail to improve at a majority of these goals.

This indicates a gap between the management and operations that is never good for business. Hence, look for companies that ‘under-promise’ and ‘over-deliver’ and not the other way round.

6. Debts

This is another important value trap indicator. While most companies use financial leverage or debts for working capital requirements, leases, etc., it should be able to sustain it too. If a company has more financial leverage than a multiple-year turnaround, then it can be the scariest value trap. 

The simplest way of identifying this is by looking at the debt ratio of the company. This is total liabilities divided by total assets of the company.

A quick look at the Debt to Equity ratio can tell you how deep the company is standing in debts as opposed to the equity capital.

There are several other ratios to help you get a clearer picture of the debts of the company. Remember, you need to determine if the company is positioned to pay off its debts without harming its business or not.

Also Read : 5 Financial Ratios Every Stock Investor Must Know 

7. Over-dependence on a Particular Product or Market Cyclicality

There can be some months or quarters when a company books unsustainable profits due to sudden changes in the economic conditions or a sudden surge in demand for a specific product. While markets usually consider sustainability, there can be cases where the stock prices climb assuming that the profits would be sustainable.

When the economic conditions change or the specific product loses its demand, the stock prices can nosedive in no time.

For example: Let’s say that the stock price of a pharmaceutical company manufacturing only paracetamol, which is useful in the treatment of COVID-19, rises due to a sudden increase in demand for the medicine.

The company increases its production capacity by investing in machinery and manpower. Without a vaccine or any other cure in sight, markets would assume this demand to last.

Hence, stock prices would rise further assuming that the company can sustain its profits based on increased sales.

However, in three months, another pharmaceutical company releases a cure for the disease bringing down the demand for paracetamol.

This can cause the stock price to drop and even crash if the investors feel that the company won’t be able to stay profitable due to the increased cost of operations.

Hence, what seemed like a good stock can turn into a value trap if the company is over-dependent on a particular product.

8. Following High-profile Investors or Successful Management Teams

Let’s say that there is a successful company that has generated a lot of value for its shareholders over the years. The CEO and other senior members of the company branch out and start a company of their own.

Some investors believe that they will be able to replicate the success in the new company too and invest in it without focusing on the fundamentals of the company. This can be counterproductive as investors assume that the team will sort all problems out over time.

Also, many investors have an investment strategy of following high-profile investors and replicating their portfolio on a smaller scale.

Their assumption is that if high-profile investors purchase a certain stock, then they have done all calculations and the risks would be worth the rewards in the long-term. This is walking into a minefield with your eyes closed!

9. A Massive Drop in Share Price in the Near-term

As a stock investor, buying a share at a cheap price followed by a ‘V-Shaped’ recovery in the price of the stock is like a dream come true. Having said that, making investment decisions based on this recovery pattern can be dangerous and lead you straight to a value trap.

Always look at the price trends over the last few months and avoid stocks that have experienced a drop of more than 30-40%. Such drops take a long time to recover and other macroeconomic factors can further delay it or make it worse too.

Also Read : Why Do Stock Prices Change?

10. Trading at Low Multiples of Book value, Earnings, Cash flow, etc. 

There are some companies that trade at low multiples of their book value, cash flow, earnings, etc. for a long period. In most of these cases, the reason behind it is that the company has little or no promise. S

Such companies usually have difficulty in generating consistent profits and are unable to stand against stiff competition in the industry. Also, such companies are not transparent about their story causing confusion in the minds of investors and opening the door to a value trap.

11. Lack of Institutional Investment

Usually, institutional investors buy a stock only when the company meets certain basic requirements. These can be a minimum stock price, minimum profit margins, etc. Hence, stocks of companies that don’t meet these criteria are usually avoided by institutional investors.

This leads to a fewer number of shares being traded every day. In such cases, the stock prices weaken and such shares usually turn into value traps.

12. High Insider Ownership

Imagine a company where the employees or promoters hold a major portion of stocks. Many investors look at this positively since it gives the insiders at the company a strong reason to increase shareholder value.

However, most institutional investors like mutual funds stay away from such companies because high insider ownership can interfere with the management of the company and lead to operational issues and subsequent losses. 

If you are planning to invest in a stock because it is undervalued, always ensure that you define the ‘value’ aspect clearly. Stocks might sell cheaper but are they undervalued? Or, has the company’s or industry’s performance dropped causing the stock price to follow suit?

The points mentioned above are aspects that can help you identify if a stock is a value trap or not. Remember, you need to take a 360-degree view of the company to determine its intrinsic value and ensure that you are not falling prey to value trap investing.

Summing Up

As an investor who looks at the valuation of stock as opposed to aggressively investing in shares based on the overall market conditions, you need to be aware of such value traps as they can cause a huge impact on your portfolio.

Remember, never invest in a stock if you don’t understand the company’s business or its financials or any other aspect. Invest in a stock only if you would be willing to invest in it as a partner (business investment). Stick with the basics and you will walk through the value trap minefield with ease. 

Happy Investing!

Investment in securities market are subject to market risks, read all the related documents carefully before investing. Please read the Risk Disclosure documents carefully before investing in Equity Shares, Derivatives, Mutual fund, and/or other instruments traded on the Stock Exchanges. As investments are subject to market risks and price fluctuation risk, there is no assurance or guarantee that the investment objectives shall be achieved. NBT do not guarantee any assured returns on any investments. Past performance of securities/instruments is not indicative of their future performance.

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