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What would Ben Graham Buy These Days?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- One of my initial columns for TheStreet.com back in May, focused on what names one on my investment heroes and the father of value investing Benjamin Graham, might be interested in if he were still alive today.

I surmised at the time that Facebook (FB), which had commenced trading just days earlier, would not have been interesting Graham due to his reluctance to purchase IPOs because he believed, for one, that sellers have the advantage over the buyers in new issues.

Graham had several investment criteria he used to find compelling candidates, and this one in particular focused on identifying stocks for the "defensive investor," which he discussed in his great work "The Intelligent Investor." Due to the fact that the last edition of this book Graham published was in 1973, I did modify Graham's original criteria slightly:

  1. Adequate Size: Graham excluded smaller companies; I've set the minimum market cap at $1 billion.
  2. Strong Financial Condition: Minimum current ratio of 2; long-term debt must be less than working capital.
  3. Earnings Stability: Graham required positive earnings for at least ten consecutive years: I am using seven years.
  4. Dividends: Graham required "uninterrupted" dividends for at least 20 years; I am using seven years here as well.
  5. Earnings Growth: Graham sought a minimum increase of 33% in earnings per share in the past 10 years; I am using a minimum compounded annual growth rate in earnings of 5% over seven years.
  6. Moderate Price-To-Earnings Ratio: Average P/E should be less than 15 over the past three years.
  7. Moderate Price-to-Assets Ratio: Graham sought companies with price-to-book ratios below 1.5, but would accept a higher P/E ratio, if price-to-book was lower. This end result was that P/E times price-to-book ratio should be less than 25.5.
  8. Other: U.S. companies only; I excluded foreign companies and American Depository Receipts from the results.

The search revealed just eight names that met these rather stringent criteria. Since my initial column ran in late May, these companies are up an average of 9.3%, slightly better that the S&P 500 which is up about 7.4% , and S&P Mid Cap Index which is up 8% during the same period.

The best performers of the group include UniFirst (UNF) up 27.9%, Helmerich & Payne (HP) up 20.6%, Diamond Offshore Drilling (DO) up 18%, Universal Corporation (UVV) up 13.5% and Haliburton (HAL) up 10%, were also in positive territory.

One of the names I was most interested in, AVX (AVX) was down 3%, while Cash America International (CSH) was the worst performer, down 12.2%, and Curtiss-Wright (CW) was down 0.2%.

For any of the value related screens that I utilize, six months is far too short a period to claim success or failure, but it is still important to periodically review the results. As a value investor, holding periods are typically longer than for the average investor. Sometimes this is as exciting as watching the grass grow, or paint dry, but the rewards can be worth the wait. Only those with patience, however, need apply.

At the time of publication the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Jonathan Heller, CFA, is president of KEJ Financial Advisors, his fee-only financial planning company. Jon spent 17 years at Bloomberg Financial Markets in various roles, from 1989 until 2005. He ran Bloomberg's Equity Fundamental Research Department from 1994 until 1998, when he assumed responsibility for Bloomberg's Equity Data Research Department. In 2001, he joined Bloomberg's Publishing group as senior markets editor and writer for Bloomberg Personal Finance Magazine, and an associate editor and contributor for Bloomberg Markets Magazine. In 2005, he joined SEI Investments as director of investment communications within SEI's Investment Management Unit.

Jon is also the founder of the Cheap Stocks Web site, a site dedicated to deep-value investing. He has an undergraduate degree from Grove City College and an MBA from Rider University, where he has also served on the adjunct faculty; he is also a CFA charter holder.

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