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Pitfalls of Traditional Valuation Metrics

August 22, 2019 | Systematic

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We wrote about the pitfalls associated with mainstream approaches to measuring quality, but this is not the only measure of company characteristics that we feel has shortcomings; we experience the same phenomenon with valuation.

Many believe that valuation can be described neatly by the well-established growth or value factors that rank stocks on a metric such as price-to-book (P/B) ratio.

But portfolios that profess similar philosophical beliefs can perform very differently. That raises an important question: Why is there such wide dispersion of performance for funds within a value or growth category?

We believe that mainstream metrics for defining valuation have serious shortcomings. They tend to be influenced by accounting distortions.

As they did with quality, William Blair quantitative analysts began addressing the issue several years ago. They recognized that mainstream metrics for defining valuation have serious shortcomings that prevented their acceptance by our team of fundamental analysts and portfolio managers. Our quantitative analysts worked closely with them to identify a better combination of metrics that helps our investment teams identify stocks that better meet our criteria for measuring attractive valuation.

How are our metrics different? In our view, the main shortcoming of mainstream metrics is that they tend to be influenced by accounting distortions that can affect analyses of quality and valuation. The metrics we use to determine valuation instead emphasize cash flow analysis.

Why Does this Problem Arise?

We believe that these problems arise partly because mainstream metrics are so well accepted and used broadly to select stocks in popular style-based portfolios, such as index funds and smart beta strategies. They are commonly used as initial screening tools by active managers that profess a growth or value style of investing.

After underperforming traditional growth stocks for most of the past decade, however, questions have begun to surface as to whether value stocks are best defined by low P/B ratios. Many companies may have valuable intangible assets that are not captured by a traditional book value calculation, and therefore may fall into the growth category despite possessing compelling valuation characteristics when evaluated using cash-flow-driven metrics.

Demonstrating the Problem

In the table below, we show metrics for a Japanese healthcare company whose stock looked unattractive using price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio and average using P/B ratio. But it has strong valuation attributes based on our own metrics.

The lesson: P/E and P/B ratios may conceal attractive valuations because they can be distorted by the presence of accounting measures such as goodwill and depreciation/amortization.

Metrics that emphasize cash flows and de-emphasize noncash measures paint a better picture of the stock's valuation because the stock's free cash flow (FCF) yield and price-to-tangible-book-value (P/TB) ratio rank attractively.

How Widespread Is This Phenomenon?

The graph below charts our proprietary approach to measuring valuation against a traditional metric: P/B ratio. The individual points represent individual stocks in the MSCI AC World ex U.S. IMI. We divided this chart into three regions:

  • The area between the two yellow lines represents stocks where there is relative alignment between our approach to measuring valuation and traditional metrics.
  • The area above and left of the top yellow line represents stocks that the market perceives as having unattractive valuation using a traditional approach but that our approach identifies as attractively valued.
  • The area below and right of the bottom yellow line represents stocks that the market perceives as attractively valued but our approach identifies as unattractively valued. We interpret these stocks as value-trap candidates or cheap for a reason.


While most stocks fall within the bands, there are hundreds of stocks where our approach and the traditional metric disagree.

Implications for Active Management

Valuation is an important input to our Systematic team's investment decision-making process, but we believe it needs to be integrated with a stock's fundamentals, the stock's market sentiment, and how combinations of stocks can be integrated into a well-diversified portfolio.

With that said, this analysis offers several important implications for our approach to asset management.

First, there are attractively valued stocks that are underappreciated in the market. These are stocks that might be candidates for portfolio inclusion after considering fundamentals and sentiment.

Second, there are stocks that the market perceives as attractively valued that we identify as weakly valued. Our approach seeks to avoid stocks like these in a wholesale fashion, and we believe this can help improve relative performance over the long term.

Furthermore, we believe the combination of favoring attractively valued stocks and simultaneously striving to avoid weakly valued stocks in a core portfolio helps foster a more consistent performance experience.

Peter Carl is a portfolio manager for William Blair's systematic strategies.

Investing involves risks, including the possible loss of principal. Equity securities may decline in value due to both real and perceived general market, economic, and industry conditions. Different investment styles may shift in and out of favor depending on market conditions. Any investment or strategy mentioned herein may not be suitable for every investor. The William Blair valuation model combines varying metrics used to characterize the relationship between the stock's trading price and its intrinsic value. References to specific securities and their issuers are for illustrative purposes only and are not intended and should not be interpreted as recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. William Blair may or may not own the securities referenced and, if such securities are owned, no representation is being made that they will continue to be held. It should not be assumed that any investment in the securities referenced was or will be profitable. Past performance is not indicative of future returns.


The Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI) All Country World Ex-U.S. IMI Index (net) is a free float-adjusted market capitalization weighted index that is designed to measure the equity market performance of developed and emerging markets, excluding the United States. This series approximates the minimum possible dividend reinvestment. The Index is unmanaged, does not incur fees or expenses, and cannot be invested in directly.