Know what you own, and know why you own it.

—Peter Lynch

In his prime, few would bet against Peter Lynch or his insights. During his 23 years running Fidelity’s Magellan Fund, he averaged double digit annual returns and assets grew more than 80-fold. Yet, for all his success, we wonder what investors would make of his words today—based on comments heard lately, probably not much.

At a “best ideas” conference we recently participated in, portfolio managers from top firms around the country pitched what they saw as surefire investments. Talks focused on fascinating businesses and great growth projections. The one thing missing? Valuations of the companies.

Case in point, when a portfolio manager was asked what would make her sell the stock she was touting, she answered by giving a market cap target—no price-to-earnings, or cash flows, or any other valuation metric. If sales are projected to jump, buy it! Forget the price.

This was just one event, but it echoes the drumbeat we’ve been hearing for many months: “Valuations don’t matter.” The indifference toward valuation is troubling given the level of angst in the market.

A look at the most recent AAII survey shows that 38% of investors have no sense whether the markets are heading higher or about to drop. Throw in the 33% who are bearish and you are left with just 29% who think equities will rise in the near term.

Following the Brexit vote last month, we saw how quickly anxiety can turn into selling. The surprising results heightened concerns already out there and raised fears of challenges still unknown.

So what are the question marks investors are focusing on? Here are a few culprits:

  • Sluggish gross domestic product (GDP) growth
  • An earnings recession
  • Muddled messages from the Federal Reserve
  • Global economic and political uncertainty

This backdrop appears to be pushing investors toward what makes them feel safe—bonds and Index funds. The chart shows the flood of money going to passive products. By spreading bets across hundreds of stocks, they hope to insulate themselves from risk. But a look at recent winners in the popular benchmarks raises more concerns than it answers. The top 20 performing names in the S&P 500 Index are trading at 40x 2016 earnings. On a price-to-book, they’re at 6x. Debt levels also leave little room for error.

Given the slow-growth economy, these valuations seem unsustainable. Instead of buying 500 companies in an index and hoping the good will offset the bad, we believe the best approach is to follow Lynch’s words and know what we own and why. That means bottom up analysis, scouring balance sheets, and grilling management.

A good example of this discipline is holding MDU Resources Group, Inc. (MDU), a $4 billion Utility with construction, pipeline, and energy services businesses. It reported solid earnings thanks to recently approved rate increases. We think overlooked potential lies in its construction services and materials units. Backlogs for both groups grew considerably and the aggregates business could see improved margins in the quarters ahead.

Based on our work, it is trading at a 20% discount to the sum-of-its-parts, offers a healthy dividend, and MDU’s diversified business should provide multiple avenues to continue to grow. We took a position in the company when it was trading at 1.4x book value—significantly below the average of the S&P 500.

As active managers we agree with Lynch on the importance of knowledge, and knowing our portfolios show compelling values gives us peace of mind when uncertainty runs rampant.

Disclosure:

Past performance does not guarantee future results.

The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the presenter(s). Any discussion of investments and investment strategies represents the presenter’s views as of the date created and are subject to change without notice. The opinions expressed are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. The specific securities discussed above, which are intended to illustrate the advisor’s investment style, do not represent all of the securities purchased, sold, or recommended by the advisor for client accounts, and the reader should not assume that an investment in these securities was or would be profitable in the future. Certain security valuations are based on Heartland Advisors’ estimates. Any forecasts may not prove to be true. Economic predictions are based on estimates and are subject to change.

Investing involves risk, including the potential loss of principal. There is no guarantee that any particular investment strategy will be successful. Value investments are subject to the risk their intrinsic value may not be recognized by the broad market.

Definitions: American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) Investor Sentiment Survey: measures the percentage of individual investors who are bullish, bearish, and neutral on the stock market for the next six months by polling AAII members on a weekly basis. Only one vote per member is accepted in each weekly voting period. Exchange Traded Fund (ETF): is a security that tracks an index, a commodity or a basket of assets like an index fund, but trades like a stock on an exchange. ETFs experience price changes throughout the day as they are bought and sold. Gross Domestic Product (GDP): is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period, though GDP is usually calculated on an annual basis. Price/Book Ratio: of a company is calculated by dividing the market price of its stock by the company's per-share book value. Price/Cash Flow: represents the amount an investor is willing to pay for a dollar generated from a particular company's operations, shows the ability of a business to generate cash, and acts as a gauge of liquidity and solvency. Price/Earnings Ratio: of a stock is calculated by dividing the current price of the stock by its trailing or its forward 12 months’ earnings per share. S&P 500 Index: is an index of 500 U.S. stocks chosen for market size, liquidity and industry group representation and is a widely used U.S. equity benchmark. All indices are unmanaged. It is not possible to invest directly in an index.

©2016 Heartland Advisors heartlandadvisors.com

2016191

© Heartland Advisors

Read more commentaries by Heartland Advisors