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What Would Interest Benjamin Graham Now?

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- As the markets continue to rise despite clouds on the horizon, value investors are having to work very hard to find enticing stocks.

That's okay, we don't mind hard work, but admittedly, it does get a bit frustrating. This is not the first time this has happened, and it won't be the last. Sometimes you have to wait until the markets pull back, not that I relish a market correction just so that I can have a deeper bench of value ideas.

So, today I'll turn to the old master, Ben Graham, the father of value investing, and a stock screen based on one of his investment techniques. Markets and available information have changed dramatically since Graham's death in 1976, but the investment principles he espoused still have merit.

In selecting stocks for the defensive investor, Graham laid out the following criteria; criteria I've modified slightly since the last edition of The Intelligent Investor was published in 1973.
  1. Adequate Size: Graham excluded smaller companies; I've set the minimum market cap at $1 billion.
  2. Strong Financial Condition: Minimum ratio of current assets to current liabilities of two; long-term debt must be less than working capital.
  3. Earnings Stability: Graham required profits for at least 10 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 PE ratios should be less than 15 over the past three years.
  7. Moderate Ratio of Price to Assets: Graham sought companies with price-to-book ratios below 1.5, but would accept a higher PE ratio, if price to book was lower. This end result was that PE times price-to-book ratio should be less than 25.5.
  8. U.S. Companies: I excluded foreign companies and American depository receipts.

Not surprisingly, the list is about as thin as I've ever seen it, and just four companies met the very stringent criteria. For perspective, when I wrote my initial column for TheStreet on this subject in May 2012, the following eight stocks made the cut: AVX Corp. (AVX), Diamond Offshore Drilling (DO), Halliburton (HAL), Helmerich & Payne (HP), Curtiss Wright (CW), UniFirst (UNF), Cash America (CSH) and Universal Corp. (UVV)

That group is up an average of 37.4% since that column ran, versus 27.9% for the S&P 500. UNF Chart UNF data by YCharts

Two companies from that initial list, tobacco company Universal Corp and pawn shop operator Cash America, still make the cut. The other current qualifiers are mining machinery company Joy Global (JOY) and oil and gas producer HollyFrontier (HFC).

It's slim pickings at best, and time to dig a little deeper.

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.
At the time of publication, Heller was long XXXX.

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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