Phillip Arthur Fisher is going to be on the fringe of investors' knowledge - only those that are truly serious and deep in investing and stock analysis will likely know this man's name in our era. Everyone should know his name, however, as Phillip Fisher is one of the greatest investors of all time.
Starting his career after dropping out of Stanford in 1928 to work in a San Francisco bank. Think about how astonishing this is - the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and other Silicon Valley wunderkinds would follow suit (likely without even knowing who Fisher was) half a century or more later.
Fisher's seminal work Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits is a foundational piece of investing theory and writing that was published in 1958 but has remained in publication ever since, demonstrating how relevant Fisher still is to this day.
Fisher's investing approach was focused on purchasing growth at incredible discounts. Let's take a look at what to screen for if you want to perform stock screening in a manner aligned with Phillip Arthur Fisher's investing principles.
Increase in Year-over-Year Sales For the Last 5 Years
Here we can already see that we are not going to be playing games with the typical price to earnings (P/E) ratios and similar metrics most investors focus on too much - Fisher isn't going to play in that field but will instead be looking at metrics that evince a strong and growing business.
Year over year sales growth simply means that the current year's sales are greater than last year's sales - we want to see such growth for the last 5 years. Seeing a dip (or even a plateauing) of sales indicates that the business model is either (1) quite mature, (2) is experiencing cyclical difficulties, or (3) the firm's management isn't doing a good job.
Clearly, 1 and 3 above are not good, but many investors would accept 2 and say that the sales decline is simply due to the business cycle or the general cyclicality that the firm's business is exposed to. By required year-over-year sales growth for 5 years, Fisher implicitly answers the investors by saying that if the business is capable of being affected by this type of cyclicity, it isn't the type of business we want to invest in - we want businesses that thrive in good time and do well in bad times (we want robust businesses that can thrive in almost any economic environment).
P/E to Growth (PEG) Between 0.1 and 0.5
The P/E to Growth (PEG) ratio is simply the P/E divided by the earnings growth rate - it shows you how much you're paying relative to a firm's earnings growth.
In the piece on The Peter Lynch Stock Screen we looked at a PEG ratio of less than 1 - here we take that even further and require an almost astoundingly low PEG ratio between 0.1 and 0.5. We can see that Fisher's approach is to find not just deeply undervalued companies, but deeply undervalued companies in terms of the growth they are exhibiting. In effect, the key in Fisher's approach is to pay as little as possible for as much steady and reliable growth you can get.
Research and Development (R&D) as a Percent of Sales Greater than Industry
Again we are focusing on things that will demonstrate intense growth or growth potential. Research and development is a good indication of a firm's belief of its ability to innovate - generally speaking, if a firm invests in R&D it believes that the benefits derived from the initial capital outlays (eg. the returns) will be higher than other potential capital uses (eg. the opportunity cost) - if a firm invests in R&D, it generally means that they think they have an ability to innovate.
Additionally, successful R&D generally results in growth. Therefore, a firm that is heavily investing in research and development is more likely to be a firm that is either already growing at a strong pace or will do so down the line. By choosing those firms that have a higher research and development expense compared to sales than others in the industry, you have a greater chance to look at firms that are Horwitz and creating new and innovative products/services.
However, it is important to be aware that only looking at research and development expenses as a percentage of sales is far from sufficient - looking only at R&D can deeply mislead you if that's all you look at. For example, imagine a firm that has sales of $1 and R&D expenses of $10 - this firm would have a tremendous R&D budget compared to sales, but we can clearly see that this firm is doomed because it's sales are too low in absolute terms and its R&D is excessively high in relative terms.
Growth in Sales Greater than Growth in Research and Development (R&D ) Expenses
Here we see Fisher again focusing on research and development - this time, however, we're focusing on R&D growth. We want R&D growth to be less than sales growth - this will help prevent the plant scenario ($1 sales vs. $10 R&D) discussed above because a growing R&D budget doesn't by itself mean that much. A growing R&D budget that is accompanied by growing sales, however, does mean a lot - sales growth even greater than R&D growth means even more because it implies that the R&D expenses are producing great returns and that the firm is ultimately becoming more efficient in terms of the percentage of sales required for R&D.