What is book value?
The book value of a company is generally considered its net worth; the book value per share would be the net worth of a company divided by the number of shares outstanding.
Benjamin Graham definitions
There is a need, in considering the book value of a company share, to know what certain terms mean – and who better to explain them than the doyen of investment analysis, Benjamin Graham. His definitions are:
Tangible assets: Assets either physical or financial in character eg plant, inventory, cash, receivables, investments.
Intangible assets: Assets which are neither physical nor financial in character. Include patents, trademarks, copyrights, franchises, good will, leaseholds and such deferred charges as unamortised bond discount.
Graham took the view in Security Analysis that intangible assets should not be taken into account when calculating book value; hence, in this sense, book value per share would be the same as net tangible assets per share (NTA) as opposed to net assets per share (NA).
So, the assets of a company can be either tangible or intangible and, on this point, Benjamin Graham and Warren Buffett appear to have differences in importance.
You can determine these values by examination of the company balance sheets which are generally available on company websites or financial information services like ADVFN calculate them for you for free for current and past years.
The Benjamin Graham approach to book value
Graham clearly considered book value an important factor in assessing share investment. He did not include intangibles in his calculations of book value and was attracted towards companies that sold at below their book value. This was a big factor in making a judgment about the company as an investment. He said this:
It is an almost unbelievable fact that Wall Street never asks, “How much is the business selling for?”. Yet this should be the first question in considering a stock purchase.
If a business man were offered a 5% interest in some concern for $10,000, his first mental process would be to multiply the asked price by 20 and thus establish a proposed value of $200,000 for the entire undertaking. The rest of his calculation would turn about whether the business was a “good buy” at $200,000.
Graham did however acknowledge that under ‘modern conditions’ intangibles were just as much an asset as tangibles, assuming of course that a proper value could be determined. They could, in some situations, even be superior assets.
What Benjamin Graham said about intangible assets
Earnings based on these intangibles [eg goodwill] may be even less vulnerable to competition than those which require only a cash investment in productive facilities.
Furthermore, when conditions are favorable, the enterprise with the relatively small capital investment is likely to show a more rapid rate of growth.
Ordinarily it can expand its sales and profits at slight expense and therefore more rapidly and profitably for its stockholders than a business requiring a large plant investment per dollar of sales.’ Emphasis added.
How Warren Buffett looks at intangible assets
This last comment of Graham has importance for Warren Buffett, who seems to really like companies with valuable, and sometimes irreplaceable, goodwill. To Warren Buffett, it is this intangible good will, an asset that continually produces profits without the need to spend money on maintenance, upgrading or replacement, that adds value to a company. Consider what it is that is most important in producing profits for Coca Cola: its name and recipe, or the various factories that produce the drink.
Warren Buffett on economic goodwill
This is what Warren Buffett calls economic good will which he explained in 1983 like this:
[B]usinesses logically are worth far more than net tangible assets when they can be expected to produce earnings on such assets considerably in excess of market rates of return.
Using by analogy, one of the favorite examples of Warren Buffett, take two separate companies. Company A has a net worth of $100,000, $40,000 of which is net tangible assets and $60,000 of which is intangible (brand name, goodwill, patents etc). Company B has the same net worth but $90,000 its assets are tangible. Each company earns $10,000 a year.
So Company A is earning $10,000 from tangible assets of $40,000 and Company B is earning $10,000 from tangible assets of $90,000.
If both companies wanted to double earnings, they might have to double their investment in tangible assets. For Company A to do this, it would have to spend $40,000 to add $10,000 of earnings. For Company B to do this, it would have to spend another $90,000 to add $10,000 to earnings. All other things being equal, Company A would have better future prospects of increase in real earnings than Company B.
The real profitability of a company
For these reasons, Warren Buffett has said that, in calculating the real profitability of a company, there should be no amortisation of economic goodwill. Does the Gillette brand name actually decrease in value each year? Of course not.
The thoughts of both Graham and Warren Buffett are worth consideration. Book value is another ingredient in the investment equation.