A recent study by finance professors at the University of Missouri and Renmin University of China set out to analyze the predictive power of more than 18,000 factors with respect to stock performance over past decades, according to a recent article in Barron’s.
“That’s good news for stock-pickers,” the article reports, adding that some of the more familiar clues (such as price-book ratio, for example) rank “surprisingly high in predictive power.” Topping the list, it adds, was “ballooning leverage” (increasing total liabilities relative to assets).
The study revealed certain factors as solid predictors of outperformance were counterintuitive, such as high SG&A expense (selling, general and administrative) — some of which, the study authors argue, can create future value. Marketing costs, for example, could lead to better branding down the road, and high labor expenses might be a sign that “a company has highly productive workers that are worth the expense.”
The study found that a rise in tax-loss carryforwards, which might sound like a positive, was actually a negative predictor—perhaps because such carryforwards “spring from past problems that are more persistent than investors realize.”
The article highlighted some other interesting factors that the study revealed: “All else held equal,” it said, “things that puff companies up financially, like acquisitions, stock offerings, and debt issuance, tend to predict poor returns. Things that shrink assets, like spinoffs and dividends, are good signs.”