Fundamental Analysis: What Is It?
By Ben McClure
In this section we are going to review the basics of fundamental analysis, examine how it can be broken down into quantitative and qualitative factors, introduce the subject of intrinsic value and conclude with some of the downfalls of using this technique.
The Very Basics
When talking about stocks, fundamental analysis is a technique that attempts to determine a security's value by focusing on underlying factors that affect a company's actual business and its future prospects. On a broader scope, you can perform fundamental analysis on industries or the economy as a whole. The term simply refers to the analysis of the economic well-being of a financial entity as opposed to only its price movements.
Fundamental analysis serves to answer questions, such as:
- Is the company's revenue growing?
- Is it actually making a profit?
- Is it in a strong-enough position to beat out its competitors in the future?
- Is it able to repay its debts?
- Is management trying to "cook the books"?
Note: The term fundamental analysis is used most often in the context of stocks, but you can perform fundamental analysis on any security, from a bond to a derivative. As long as you look at the economic fundamentals, you are doing fundamental analysis. For the purpose of this tutorial, fundamental analysis always is referred to in the context of stocks.
Fundamentals: Quantitative and Qualitative
You could define fundamental analysis as "researching the fundamentals", but that doesn't tell you a whole lot unless you know what fundamentals are. As we mentioned in the introduction, the big problem with defining fundamentals is that it can include anything related to the economic well-being of a company. Obvious items include things like revenue and profit, but fundamentals also include everything from a company's market share to the quality of its management.
The various fundamental factors can be grouped into two categories: quantitative and qualitative. The financial meaning of these terms isn't all that different from their regular definitions. Here is how the MSN Encarta dictionary defines the terms:
- Quantitative – capable of being measured or expressed in numerical terms.
- Qualitative – related to or based on the quality or character of something, often as opposed to its size or quantity.
Turning to qualitative fundamentals, these are the less tangible factors surrounding a business - things such as the quality of a company's board members and key executives, its brand-name recognition, patents or proprietary technology.
Quantitative Meets Qualitative
Neither qualitative nor quantitative analysis is inherently better than the other. Instead, many analysts consider qualitative factors in conjunction with the hard, quantitative factors. Take the Coca-Cola Company, for example. When examining its stock, an analyst might look at the stock's annual dividend payout, earnings per share, P/E ratio and many other quantitative factors. However, no analysis of Coca-Cola would be complete without taking into account its brand recognition. Anybody can start a company that sells sugar and water, but few companies on earth are recognized by billions of people. It's tough to put your finger on exactly what the Coke brand is worth, but you can be sure that it's an essential ingredient contributing to the company's ongoing success.
The Concept of Intrinsic Value
Before we get any further, we have to address the subject of intrinsic value. One of the primary assumptions of fundamental analysis is that the price on the stock market does not fully reflect a stock's "real" value. After all, why would you be doing price analysis if the stock market were always correct? In financial jargon, this true value is known as the intrinsic value.
For example, let's say that a company's stock was trading at $20. After doing extensive homework on the company, you determine that it really is worth $25. In other words, you determine the intrinsic value of the firm to be $25. This is clearly relevant because an investor wants to buy stocks that are trading at prices significantly below their estimated intrinsic value.
This leads us to one of the second major assumptions of fundamental analysis: in the long run, the stock market will reflect the fundamentals. There is no point in buying a stock based on intrinsic value if the price never reflected that value. Nobody knows how long "the long run" really is. It could be days or years.
This is what fundamental analysis is all about. By focusing on a particular business, an investor can estimate the intrinsic value of a firm and thus find opportunities where he or she can buy at a discount. If all goes well, the investment will pay off over time as the market catches up to the fundamentals.
The big unknowns are:
1)You don't know if your estimate of intrinsic value is correct; and
2)You don't know how long it will take for the intrinsic value to be reflected in the marketplace.
Criticisms of Fundamental Analysis
The biggest criticisms of fundamental analysis come primarily from two groups: proponents of technical analysis and believers of the "efficient market hypothesis".
Technical analysis is the other major form of security analysis. We're not going to get into too much detail on the subject. (More information is available in our Introduction to Technical Analysis tutorial.)
Put simply, technical analysts base their investments (or, more precisely, their trades) solely on the price and volume movements of securities. Using charts and a number of other tools, they trade on momentum, not caring about the fundamentals. While it is possible to use both techniques in combination, one of the basic tenets of technical analysis is that the market discounts everything. Accordingly, all news about a company already is priced into a stock, and therefore a stock's price movements give more insight than the underlying fundamental factors of the business itself.
Followers of the efficient market hypothesis, however, are usually in disagreement with both fundamental and technical analysts. The efficient market hypothesis contends that it is essentially impossible to produce market-beating returns in the long run, through either fundamental or technical analysis. The rationale for this argument is that, since the market efficiently prices all stocks on an ongoing basis, any opportunities for excess returns derived from fundamental (or technical) analysis would be almost immediately whittled away by the market's many participants, making it impossible for anyone to meaningfully outperform the market over the long term.
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