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Intrinsic Value: A Big Deal?

Here is an email I received from a tribesman yesterday…

I agree that evaluating and buying great businesses at the correct price (i.e. prices below the intrinsic value) is of utmost importance.

However, while I think I am getting better in evaluating the growth of businesses, their durable moats and creating my own check list of investing, my biggest challenge is in calculating the range of the “intrinsic value”.

I am still not able to calculate the risk associated with the stock and that is prohibiting me from confidently buying a stock which I believe is a value buy.

May I request you to please share any pointers, books, frameworks which can help me estimate the risk and/or this intrinsic value?

I believe this – calculating intrinsic value – is one big issue most investors face, and thus I thought of replying to this email via a post.

Well, the concept of intrinsic value is indeed tricky.

But it’s not tricky because it involves math, but because most of us work on intrinsic values while keeping an eye on stock prices.

So, we start with the assumption that calculating intrinsic value of a stock is difficult, then we see the stock’s price jumping up and down, then we try to connect the intrinsic value with this stock’s price, and then we think how in the world we can ever calculate intrinsic value of something with certainty whose ‘price’ is so uncertain.

Another thing that makes us look at intrinsic value calculation as a complicated concept is because most of us have the inherent fear of going wrong with our estimates and thus losing our money when the stock falls even after we bought it thinking it was cheap.

So again, we are relating the value to the stock’s (future) price.

Now, let me settle the dust for you.

Say this to yourself at least 10 times, and loudly so that you can hear yourself – “A stock’s price is different than its intrinsic value. A stock’s price is different than its intrinsic value. A stock’s price is different…”

The reason you must remember this is because…

  • Stock price works on a “voting machine” concept where thousands of stock market participants, behaving in a funny way, move it (price) based on how they are feeling that day.
  • Intrinsic value – or the underlying business value – works on a “weighing machine” concept where it (value) changes not due to the CEO’s changing moods, but because of the way the business moves.

Of course, a stock price is very important for you to consider in relation to its value before making an investment decision, but to remember the fact that it is different than intrinsic value will make the task of calculating the latter relatively easier.

Why Intrinsic Value is Important?
Here is something the legendary investor Howard Marks wrote in his book The Most Important Thing

The oldest rule in investing is also the simplest: “Buy low; sell high.” Seems blindingly obvious: Who would want to do anything else? But what does that rule actually mean?

…it means that you should buy something at a low price and sell it at a high price. But what, in turn, does that mean? What’s high, and what’s low?

On a superficial level, you can take it to mean that the goal is to buy something for less than you sell it for. But since your sale will take place well down the road, that’s not much help in figuring out the proper price at which to buy today.

There has to be some objective standard for “high” and “low,” and most usefully that standard is the asset’s intrinsic value. Now the meaning of the saying becomes clear: buy at a price below intrinsic value, and sell at a higher price.

Of course, to do that, you’d better have a good idea what intrinsic value is.

Now, I will not go into describing what intrinsic value is all about, because it’s all explained in my earlier post – Intrinsic Value: The Holy Grail of Value Investing.

However, one important thing I will like to mention here is that calculating a stock’s “exact” intrinsic value is not just a difficult task, but it’s impossible!

Like, for calculating intrinsic value using the DCF method, you need to predict the company’s cash flows, say, ten years into the future…and then discount them to the present value using an appropriate discount rate. That’s the way a bond’s price is calculated.

But businesses, unlike bonds, do not have contractual or certain cash flows. And thus, they cannot be as precisely valued as bonds.

Ben Graham, the father of Value Investing, knew how hard it is to pinpoint the value of businesses and thus of stocks that represent fractional ownership of those businesses.

In his seminal book, Security Analysis, which he first wrote in 1934 along with David, he discussed the concept of a range of value. He wrote…

The essential point is that security analysis does not seek to determine exactly what is the intrinsic value of a given security. It needs only to establish that the value is adequate – e.g., to protect a bond or to justify a stock purchase – or else that the value is considerably higher or considerably lower than the market price. For such purposes an indefinite and approximate measure of the intrinsic value may be sufficient.

Indeed, Graham frequently performed a calculation known as net working capital per share (also known as “net-net”), a back-of-the-envelope estimate of a company’s liquidation value. His use of this rough approximation was a tacit admission that he was often unable to ascertain a company’s value more precisely.

Now, while the net-net method cannot be used in current times as stocks generally don’t trade at a price lower than the company’s net working capital (Current Assets minus Current Liabilities minus Borrowings), the important thing to note is that it is not possible to determine the intrinsic value of a business with exact precision. It is usually a range of values.

If you can establish this range – which this excel spreadsheet can help you do – you can then determine if the stock is undervalued, overvalued, or fairly valued.

This lack of precision need not be a problem, if you can buy the stock cheap enough i.e., after a 30-40% margin of safety to your estimate.

By analogy, Graham says it is quite possible to determine that a man is obese even if we do not know his precise weight, or that a woman is old enough to vote even if we do not know her precise age.

Intrinsic Value Process
When it comes to stocks, if you can understand the underlying business well, it will become quite possible for you to determine whether the stock is ‘obviously cheap’ or ‘obviously expensive’.

So the most important things to do with respect to calculating intrinsic value of a stock are…

  1. Understand the business well whose intrinsic value you are trying to calculate. This can only happen when you stay within your circle of competence and study businesses you understand. Simply exclude everything that you can’t understand in 30 minutes.
  2. Write down your initial view on the business – what you like and not like about it – even before you start your analysis. This should help you in dealing with the “I love this company” bias.
  3. Run your analysis through your investment checklist. A checklist saves life…during surgery and in investing.
  4. Avoid “analysis paralysis”. Trying to increase your confidence by doing complicated analysis or gathering information on the business that is supposedly unknown to most others really only makes you more comfortable with your investment decisions, not better at them, and is generally an unproductive use of your limited time.
  5. All this while, as you are building your understanding on the business, ignore the stock price.
  6. After understanding the business, and after assessing whether it is really good to warrant an intrinsic value calculation, proceed with the actual calculations of value ‘estimates’.
  7. Calculate your intrinsic values ‘estimates’ using simple models (like I have enumerated in this excel spreadsheet), and avoid using too many input variables. In fact, use the simplest model that you can while valuing a stock. If you can value a stock with three inputs, don’t use five. Remember, less is more.
  8. Use the most important concept in value investing – ‘margin of safety’. Without this, any valuation calculation you perform will be useless.

If the stock passes the business quality, valuation, and margin of safety tests, go and invest in it.

Remember, there are not many that pass all these tests, so you must have faith in your assessment after having made one.

Now, even after all this, could you go wrong?

Yes, you will be wrong sometimes. But you see, success in investing comes not from being right but from being wrong less often than everyone else.

So, get going on understanding businesses first, and then valuing stocks.

And please remember, don’t have one eye on the business and other on its stock price, because then you would equate a rising price with a good business, and a falling price with a bad business. Both of these are dangerous assumptions that can spoil your investment returns.

Intrinsic value is not a big deal, if you believe it is not a big deal. But it surely is very-very important.

Want to Learn Intrinsic Value Calculations? Join Mastermind.
Out of the 50+ lessons that are part of my one-year Value Investing Course – The Safal Niveshak Mastermind – six are dedicated to the concept of Intrinsic Value. So, if you want to learn this concept and how you can apply it to valuing stocks, subscribe to Mastermind. Click here to subscribe now!

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About the Author

Vishal Khandelwal is the founder of Safal Niveshak. He works with small investors to help them become smart and independent in their stock market investing decisions. He is a SEBI registered Research Analyst. Connect with Vishal on Twitter.


  1. Anil Kumar Tulsiram says:

    Excellent one Vishal and I think readers should also FOCUS on the ORDER in which you have mentioned these eight points.

    What I learnt hard way is to concentrate both on “what you like and not like about it”. Otherwise one tends to become over optimistic or over pessimistic and both are bad. Secondly its very important to “as you are building your understanding on the business, ignore the stock price.” Till couple of months back, I use to start with valuation. The problem with this approach is one will never study excellent business models and fail to buy them when they fall in price.

    My process more or less matches with the first five steps which you have mentioned. The only thing differently I am doing is i have completely stop calculating any intrinsic value. Instead I try to find out what sort of growth rates is implied by current price over next 5-10 years. I will buy then only if the implied growth is only 50% of what I think is possible using the method prescribed in Accounting for value book [residual earnings] and reverse DCF.

  2. fantastic job vishal, i just discussed with you over phone reg safalnivesak mastermind fee

  3. In your post, you say “Now, while the net-net method cannot be used in current times as stocks generally don’t trade at a price lower than the company’s net working capital (Current Assets minus Current Liabilities minus Borrowings), ”

    Aren’t you, by this statement, deciding what intrinsic value is “not” by looking at the stock price? Is it right to ignore the net-net method because a stock does not trade there. Shouldn’t intrinsic value not be linked to the stock price?

    • No Rohan. I am first calculating the net-net value and then comparing this with the stock price, and then making the decision. You must not ignore the net-net method, but then Graham proposed using it at the depths of the Great Depression when companies were selling at such low values. Even in 2008, I do not know how many Indian stocks fell to such levels.

      In short, IV must be compared to the stock price, after it has been calculated after the business has been understood.

  4. Hi Vishal, I might sound a bit like playing a devil’s advocate but here is my problem with the concept of Intrinsic value itself.

    In my opinion, everything in the world is relative. This is as true in physics as in philosophy. This rule is as basic and versatile as conservation. When we say a kid is tall, we mean that he is taller than normal. A student failed in an exam generally means that he scored a lot lesser than other students.

    Now when we calculate the intrinsic value, we calculate a lot of things, for example its debt. But to decide whether the company has acceptable debt levels, we have to start comparing it, to the company’s other parameters e.g. equity, earnings, assets etc but more importantly to other similar companies or some benchmark which is in turn calculated the same way for many peers. Only after that can we estimate whether debt levels are acceptable or not. So in a way, intrinsic value of the company is still dependent on extrinsic factors.

    Simplistically speaking, Intrinsic value calculation methods are closer to pass-fail method in an exam where everyone scoring above x marks is a pass. I believe a relative model will be more useful for stock picking where only the students in top y percentile are a pass.

    • Dinesh Agrawal says:

      Hi Abhijeet,
      You might find 50 stocks within your circle of competence which might pass intrinsic value test but you can choose to invest in only top 5-10 companies based on margin of safety compared to current stock price which is similar to you analogy of students in top y percentile.

      External factors influencing intrinsic value would be interest rates, expected inflation, equity risk premium


      • Hi Dinesh, Thank you for your comments. I sincerely appreciate it.

        Let me give you an example. Ideally an investor using intrinsic value model would come up with a figure for the stock after his research is complete, say Rs 2000 for TCS (just an example). Now if the current price of TCS is say 1000, it would be considered a good buy since the ratio of Intrinsic value to the stock price is 2:1.

        Now this is exactly where I have my reservations. Lets assume for a moment that this ratio of 2:1 is present in a lot of other software companies too because software market itself is down or because the market itself is battered. Shouldn’t we think of other companies which may have this ratio as 5:1. But how to do that. Lets face it. We don’t have that much time and resources.

        Doing intrinsic value calculations for 50 companies is like taking detailed interview of 50 students for selecting 5 students. In my humble opinion, a more efficient way would be to drop 20 students based on their academic results, take a quick quantitative test of remaining 30 and drop another 15-20. And then take a detailed extremely thorough interview of remaining 10 or 15 students.


        • No Abhijeet. IV must be calculated “only after” you have zeroed in on businesses that are worth investing into at the right prices. Only then you calculate what those right prices are.

          When you write – Doing intrinsic value calculations for 50 companies is like taking detailed interview of 50 students for selecting 5 students – you are implying that one must calculate the IVs of all 50 companies. A better way would be to calculate IVs only after you have shortlisted your best 10-15 students in terms of their quality.

          • But Vishal, The process of judging quality is about as time-consuming as IV calculations. So shortlisting 10-15 students in terms of their quality won’t really help much in making things more efficient.


            • Sudhir Bhargava says:

              But what is the hurry. It is your hard earned money. If we invest time and resources over a good 1 to 2 years we should be able to ferret out 10 to 20 possible cos. out of say 100. 100 cos. would mean atleast reading the annual report of about 1 every week and doing some more work on them. IV can then be the next step.
              As I am doing the mastermind course, am reading some of the recommendations and reading comments from some of the experienced tribesmen I realise it is indeed a lot of hard work.
              In any case IV is one of the indicators and as with any tool what you do with it matters not the tool.

              • There is no hurry Sudhir. But at the same time, shouldn’t we try and find more efficient ways to do this hard work. Can we simplify the process a bit.

                I have been having a few chats with investor community in past few days and I am seeing a few curious traits. Any attempt to make long term investment a little easier is seen as “impure” by quite a lot of investors. Just like in a religious discussion, you can’t question methods of deities, you can’t question methods of Warren Buffet, even if those methods are pertaining to the tools available to Warren Buffet in his time. Had Warren Buffet been a young man in today’s world, I am sure he would have been using a computer a lot more in stock picking process.


  5. Great post!
    I also had similar doubts when it came to strongly backing my instrinic value calculations. For investors I have a very basic tool on instrinic value calculation you can check it out here.


  6. Hi,

    I was looking balance sheet of Asian Paints of march 2012(from moneycontrol) which you typed in excel sheet.
    But all figures are not same. So the data given in moneycontrol is true and have to check for other site??

  7. Sudhir Bhargava says:

    I would agree first read and understand the dynamics of a business (there is enough material online and thanks to google we can get reasonably sensible answers to a lot of questions whether simple or complicated), give yourself time and try to grasp some of the mental models as well.
    Pursue this whole game of investing as a hobby or profession with serious thinking and dedication.
    From what I have learnt so far it does not seem to be very complicated.
    Peter Lynch’s book “One up on the Wall Street” is an interesting read, reinforcing common sensical stuff.


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