Friday, March 09, 2007

John Burr Williams and the Theory of Investment Value

Because we have long espoused John Burr Williams' theories of dividend investing, we are often asked why he focused on dividends and not on earnings in determining a stock's value.  This prioritizing of dividends ahead of earnings was controversial in 1937 when he published his book, and it remains so today.  

This is Part 1 of series of three blogs in which we will describe who John Burr Williams was, why he believed dividends trumped earnings in determining the intrinsic value of a company, and finally, why his theories matter so much today.

In 1937 near the end of the worst bear market in US history, Williams, a thirty-five year old Harvard doctoral student in economics, made the following statement in his thesis: “The investment value of a stock is the present worth of all future dividends to be paid upon it . . . discounted at the pure [riskless] interest rate demanded by the investor.” 

Mr. Williams’ dissertation, entitled “The Theory of Investment Value,” did not immediately earn him his doctorate. That would not be forthcoming until 1940.  Prior to his final oral exam, he sold the rights to his thesis to Harvard University Press, who published his dissertation as a book, but only with Mr. Williams subsidizing a portion of the costs. 

It would seem that only foolish greed could compel a doctoral student to sell his thesis before he had been granted the degree. Williams, however, who was already a successful Wall Street investor when he went back to Harvard, explained that he had returned to college to learn what had caused the 1930s stock market crash (and the subsequent economic depression) from the best minds possible. Since he had come for the knowledge and not the degree and since his work was complete, he wanted to share his findings with the public as quickly as possible. 

What he did not say at the time, but would later admit, was that because of some of the views he had expressed in his thesis, he had become persona non-grata with key Harvard professors and was unlikely to have been awarded the degree anyway. 

Blaming the Bureaucrats 

His troubles with the dons of the school of economics were many but were centered in two areas: (1) Williams claimed that the correct method of determining the intrinsic value of a company was by calculating the present value of its future dividend payments, not earnings as was the universal belief at the time, and (2) he voiced great skepticism of the theories of John Maynard Keynes and the state-sponsored programs of President Franklin Roosevelt. Williams devotes an entire chapter in the book entitled "Taxes and Socialism" to debunking the notion that the redistribution of wealth could lead a country to prosperity.

Finally, in 1940, with the book drawing praise from important financial commentators, and his success as an investor gaining accolades, John Burr Williams went before the Harvard dons to seek his doctorate. 

As expected, he was soundly criticized for publishing the thesis before he had obtained his doctorate, and his professors were upset that he did not embrace Keynes’s teachings. Oddly enough, however, they did not dispute his dividend-centric theory of investment value but questioned if a thesis studying the valuation of stocks was of enough significance to justify a doctorate in economics from Harvard.  After a heated debate he was granted his doctorate. 

The truth is often born of travail, matures under constant testing, and once acknowledged, is subject to twisting. That has certainly been the case with John Burr Williams’ theory. What had angered his Harvard professors, at first, caused Wall Street brokers to scoff. The majority of the wizards of Wall Street believed then, as they still do today, that earnings are the driver of stock prices and that dividends are only a by-product. Furthermore, intrinsic value has never commanded a big following on Wall Street, where trading and short-term speculation have long been the accepted modus operandis

Blaming Wall Street 

But, a closer reading of the book turned Wall Street’s ridicule to scorn. The ways of Wall Street were being blamed, at least partly, for the stock market crash. Williams' thesis stated the following: 
“The wide changes in stock prices during the last eight years, when prices fell by 80% to 90% from their 1929 peaks only to recover much of their decline later, are a serious indictment of past practices in Investment Analysis [Wall Street]. Had there been any general agreement among analysts themselves concerning the proper criteria of value, such enormous fluctuations should not have occurred, because the long-run prospects for dividends have not, in fact, changed as much as prices have. Prices have been based too much on current earning power, too little on long-run dividend-paying power. Is not one cause of the past volatility of stocks a lack of a sound Theory of Investment Value? Since this volatility of stocks helps in turn to make the business cycle itself more severe, may not advances in Investment Analysis prove a real help in reducing the damage done by the cycle?” 

Gradually, particularly among seasoned investment analysts and some academicians, Williams’ valuation theories gained credence. Arnold Bernhard, the founder of “The Value-Line Investment Survey,” perhaps the most famous of all independent, investment research firms, quoted Williams in his 1959 book, The Evaluation of Common Stocks, and echoed his concerns, “Williams postulates that the value of a stock is the sum of all its future dividends discounted by the present interest rates. . . . Because there is no generally accepted standard of value, the market prices of stocks fluctuate far more widely than their true values. The wide fluctuations have in the past imposed a heavy burden on the general economy and undermined the faith of many people in the free market economy. The need, therefore, exists for rational and disciplined standards of value that cannot lead to the wildness of 1929 or 1949 or the present." 

 Next Time: Investing versus Speculating