If you're a busy investor with more than just stock-picking on your plate, you might want to consider a mechanical investing strategy. And if you're interested in stocks, one of the most intriguing of these strategies is Joel Greenblatt's Magic Formula.

Greenblatt details this approach in his enriching, funny The Little Book That Beats the Market. His strategy revolves around two factors:

  • How cheap is the stock?
  • How profitable is the company?

This simplified approach really boils down value investing to its essence. When you find a company whose price fails to reflect its high profits, you might have a winner.

A cheap business and a profitable company
To find cheap companies, the Magic Formula looks for a high earnings yield -- basically, a company's EBIT divided by its enterprise value. EBIT is earnings before interest and taxes, otherwise known as operating earnings. Enterprise value includes the company's market capitalization, then adds its net debt. In general, the higher the earnings yield, the better. The Magic Formula looks for a yield higher than 10%.

To find profitable companies, Greenblatt's Magic Formula seeks businesses that generate pre-tax returns on assets (ROA) greater than 25%. In other words, for every $100 in assets it holds, the company would produce at least $25 in net profit. In general, the higher the ROA, the better the business. Greenblatt looks for companies with an ROA higher than 25%.

So how do some of the biggest companies in air freight and logistics fare?


Enterprise Value


Earnings Yield


United Parcel Service (NYSE: UPS) $73,555 $6,495 8.8% 18.4%
FedEx (NYSE: FDX) $25,175 $2,642 10.5% 9.5%
CH Robinson Worldwide (Nasdaq: CHRW) $10,396 $691 6.6% 31.7%
Expeditors International of Washington (Nasdaq: EXPD) $7,809 $612 7.8% 21.2%
UTi Worldwide $1,572 $143 9.1% 6.1%
Hub Group $1,139 $90 7.9% 10.9%
Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings (Nasdaq: AAWW) $1,138 $160 14.1% 7.6%
Forward Air $894 $73 8.1% 19.4%
Air Transport Services Group (Nasdaq: ATSG) $640 $88 13.8% 9.2%
Park-Ohio Holdings (Nasdaq: PKOH) $508 $59 11.6% 9.3%

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Going by the Magic Formula criteria, none of these companies meets both standards, but four of them meet the formula's 10% earnings yield, and CH Robinson Worldwide exceeds the formula's 25% ROA. United Parcel Service, Expeditors International, and Forward Air also come close to offering a 25% ROA.

The biggest competitors in this area are United Parcel Service and FedEx. UPS' 2.9% dividend yield is much higher dividend than FedEx's 0.6% dividend yield. However, UPS is paying out a huge portion of its net income in dividend payments, which means it has less money to reinvest into the business while maintaining dividend growth

Hub Group, CH Robinson, and Expeditors International have a business model that involves facilitating transport between customers and shipping companies. This business model allows these companies to gain profit without having to own the infrastructure needed to do the shipping on their own. While Hub Group does not offer a dividend, CH Robinson pays a 1.7% dividend yield, and Expeditors International offers a 1.2% dividend.

Foolish bottom line
The key advantage of the Magic Formula is speedy decision-making. You can run a screen and mechanically buy the stocks, then spend your free time doing the activities you love. However, such an approach means that you need to pick a lot of stocks (say, 25 or 30), since you haven't performed any strategic analysis of your investments. According to the formula, you should hold the stocks for one year in order to receive favorable tax treatment, sell all of them, and then run the screen again to find your new picks.

While this approach sounds easy, Greenblatt cautions that it can be tough to stick with during hard times. In some years, this mechanical strategy simply won't work. However, Greenblatt's extensive backtesting suggests that over the long haul, his Magic Formula can significantly outperform the market.

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This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.