What Is Fundamental Analysis?

Fundamental analysis (FA) is a method of measuring a security's intrinsic value by examining related economic and financial factors. Fundamental analysts study anything that can affect the security's value, from macroeconomic factors such as the state of the economy and industry conditions to microeconomic factors like the effectiveness of the company's management.

The end goal is to arrive at a number that an investor can compare with a security's current price in order to see whether the security is undervalued or overvalued.

This method of stock analysis is considered to be in contrast to technical analysis, which forecasts the direction of prices through an analysis of historical market data such as price and volume.

Key Takeaways

  • Fundamental analysis is a method of determining a stock's real or "fair market" value.
  • Fundamental analysts search for stocks that are currently trading at prices that are higher or lower than their real value.
  • If the fair market value is higher than the market price, the stock is deemed to be undervalued and a buy recommendation is given.
  • In contrast, technical analysts ignore the fundamentals in favor of studying the historical price trends of the stock.
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Understanding Fundamental Vs. Technical Analysis

Understanding Fundamental Analysis

All stock analysis tries to determine whether a security is correctly valued within the broader market. Fundamental analysis is usually done from a macro to micro perspective in order to identify securities that are not correctly priced by the market.

Analysts typically study, in order, the overall state of the economy and then the strength of the specific industry before concentrating on individual company performance to arrive at a fair market value for the stock.

Fundamental analysis uses public data to evaluate the value of a stock or any other type of security. For example, an investor can perform fundamental analysis on a bond's value by looking at economic factors such as interest rates and the overall state of the economy, then
studying information about the bond issuer, such as potential changes in its credit rating.

For stocks, fundamental analysis uses revenues, earnings, future growth, return on equity,
profit margins, and other data to determine a company's underlying value and potential for future growth. All of this data is available in a company's financial statements (more on that below).

Fundamental analysis is used most often for stocks, but it is useful for evaluating any security, from a bond to a derivative. If you consider the fundamentals, from the broader economy to the company details, you are doing fundamental analysis.

Investing and Fundamental Analysis

If the intrinsic value is higher than the current market price the stock is deemed to be undervalued and a buy recommendation is given. If the intrinsic value is lower than its market price the stock is considered overvalued and a sell recommendation is issued.

Investors go long (purchasing with the expectation that the stock will rise in price) companies that are strong, and go short (selling shares that you believe will drop in value with the expectation of repurchasing them at a lower price) companies that are weak.

This method of stock analysis is considered to be the opposite of technical analysis, which forecasts the direction of prices through an analysis of historical market data such as price and volume.

Quantitative and Qualitative Fundamental Analysis

The problem with defining the word fundamentals is that it can cover anything related to the economic well-being of a company. They obviously include numbers like revenue and profit, but they can also include anything 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 much different from their standard definitions. Here is how a 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.

In this context, quantitative fundamentals are hard numbers. They are the measurable characteristics of a business. That's why the biggest source of quantitative data is financial statements. Revenue, profit, assets, and more can be measured with great precision.

The qualitative fundamentals are less tangible. They might include the quality of a company's key executives, its brand-name recognition, patents, and proprietary technology.

Neither qualitative nor quantitative analysis is inherently better. Many analysts consider them together.

Qualitative Fundamentals to Consider

There are four key fundamentals that analysts always consider when regarding a company. All are qualitative rather than quantitative. They include:

  • The business model: What exactly does the company do? This isn't as straightforward as it seems. If a company's business model is based on selling fast-food chicken, is it making its money that way? Or is it just coasting on royalty and franchise fees?
  • Competitive advantage: A company's long-term success is driven largely by its ability to maintain a competitive advantage—and keep it. Powerful competitive advantages, such as Coca Cola's brand name and Microsoft's domination of the personal computer operating system, create a moat around a business allowing it to keep competitors at bay and enjoy growth and profits. When a company can achieve a competitive advantage, its shareholders can be well rewarded for decades.
  • Management: Some believe that management is the most important criterion for investing in a company. It makes sense: Even the best business model is doomed if the leaders of the company fail to properly execute the plan. While it's hard for retail investors to meet and truly evaluate managers, you can look at the corporate website and check the resumes of the top brass and the board members. How well did they perform in prior jobs? Have they been unloading a lot of their stock shares lately?
  • Corporate Governance: Corporate governance describes the policies in place within an organization denoting the relationships and responsibilities between management, directors and stakeholders. These policies are defined and determined in the company charter and its bylaws, along with corporate laws and regulations. You want to do business with a company that is run ethically, fairly, transparently, and efficiently. Particularly note whether management respects shareholder rights and shareholder interests. Make sure their communications to shareholders are transparent, clear and understandable. If you don't get it, it's probably because they don't want you to.

It's also important to consider a company's industry: customer base, market share among firms, industry-wide growth, competition, regulation, and business cycles. Learning about how the industry works will give an investor a deeper understanding of a company's financial health.

Quantitative Fundamentals to Consider

Financial statements are the medium by which a company discloses information concerning its financial performance. Followers of fundamental analysis use quantitative information gleaned from financial statements to make investment decisions. The three most important financial statements are income statements, balance sheets, and cash flow statements.

The Balance Sheet

The balance sheet represents a record of a company's assets, liabilities and equity at a particular point in time. The balance sheet is named by the fact that a business's financial structure balances in the following manner:

Assets = Liabilities + Shareholders\' Equity

Assets represent the resources that the business owns or controls at a given point in time. This includes items such as cash, inventory, machinery and buildings. The other side of the equation represents the total value of the financing the company has used to acquire those assets. Financing comes as a result of liabilities or equity. Liabilities represent debt (which of course must be paid back), while equity represents the total value of money that the owners have contributed to the business - including retained earnings, which is the profit made in previous years.

The Income Statement

While the balance sheet takes a snapshot approach in examining a business, the income statement measures a company's performance over a specific time frame. Technically, you could have a balance sheet for a month or even a day, but you'll only see public companies report quarterly and annually.

The income statement presents information about revenues, expenses and profit that was generated as a result of the business' operations for that period.

Statement of Cash Flows

The statement of cash flows represents a record of a business' cash inflows and outflows over a period of time. Typically, a statement of cash flows focuses on the following cash-related activities:

  • Cash from investing (CFI): Cash used for investing in assets, as well as the proceeds from the sale of other businesses, equipment or long-term assets
  • Cash from financing (CFF): Cash paid or received from the issuing and borrowing of funds
  • Operating Cash Flow (OCF): Cash generated from day-to-day business operations

The cash flow statement is important because it's very difficult for a business to manipulate its cash situation. There is plenty that aggressive accountants can do to manipulate earnings, but it's tough to fake cash in the bank. For this reason, some investors use the cash flow statement as a more conservative measure of a company's performance.

The Concept 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. Why else do a price analysis?

In financial jargon, this true value is known as intrinsic value.

For example, say that a company's stock was trading at $20. After doing extensive homework on the company, you determine that it is really worth $25. That is, you determine the intrinsic value of the stock to be $25.

This is clearly relevant because you want to buy stocks that are trading at prices significantly below their intrinsic value.

This leads to a second major assumption of fundamental analysis: In the long run, the stock market will reflect the fundamentals. The problem is, 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 find opportunities to buy at a discount. The investment will pay off when the market catches up to the fundamentals.

One of the most famous and successful fundamental analysts is the so-called "Oracle of Omaha," Warren Buffett, who champions the technique in picking stocks.

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

Technical analysis is the other primary form of security analysis. Put simply, technical analysts base their investments (or, more precisely, their trades) solely on the price and volume movements of stocks. Using charts and other tools, they trade on momentum and ignore the fundamentals.

One of the basic tenets of technical analysis is that the market discounts everything. All news about a company is already priced into the stock. Therefore, the stock's price movements give more insight than the underlying fundamentals of the business itself.

The Efficient Market Hypothesis

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 beat the market through either fundamental or technical analysis. Since the market efficiently prices all stocks on an ongoing basis, any opportunities for excess returns are almost immediately whittled away by the market's many participants, making it impossible for anyone to meaningfully outperform the market over the long term.

Examples of Fundamental Analysis

Take the Coca-Cola Company, for example. When examining its stock, an analyst must 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 is complete without taking into account its brand recognition. Anybody can start a company that sells sugar and water, but few companies are known to billions of people. It's tough to put a 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.

Even the market as a whole can be evaluated using fundamental analysis. For example, analysts looked at fundamental indicators of the S&P 500 from July 4 to July 8, 2016. During this time, the S&P rose to 2129.90 after the release of a positive jobs' report in the United States. In fact, the market just missed a new record high, coming in just under the May 2015 high of 2132.80. The economic surprise of an additional 287,000 jobs for the month of June specifically increased the value of the stock market on July 8, 2016.

However, there are differing views on the market's true value. Some analysts believe the economy is heading for a bear market, while other analysts believe it will continue as a bull market.