It’s hard to take something called a “Magic Formula” seriously.  But you should.  It’s beaten the market by a wide margin over the past two decades and with less volatility.

The Magic Formula—a stock screener designed by hedge fund guru Joel Greenblatt –ranks stocks by two factors:

  1. Profitability (based on Greenblatt’s chosen metric, Return on Capital)
  2. Earnings yield (the inverse of the P/E ratio, defined here by Greenblatt as EBIT / Enterprise Value)

Buying good, profitable companies at cheap prices is not exactly a revolutionary idea; this is what Warren Buffett has successfully done for decades.   But Greenblatt has created a systematic way to do it, and most of the heavily lifting of number crunching is done by the screener.

By Greenblatt’s analysis, the Magic Formula generates annual returns in excess of 30% per year.  Independent back tests have generally come up with smaller returns, though the general consensus is that the Magic Formula does indeed beat the market, even after taxes and transactions costs are taken into effect.

For the casual investor, Greenblatt recommends buying a portfolio of 20-30 Magic Formula stocks, holding for one year, and then re-running the process annually.  That’s one way to do it.  But I prefer to use Greenblatt’s screener as a starting point for ideas.  I like to see which sectors are overweighted on the screen.  And while I am not a big fan of technical analysis and charting, I do take a quick look at a chart to see what the stock price is doing.  It’s usually a bad idea to try to catch the proverbial falling knife; all else equal, I like to see a stock in the early stages of a new uptrend.

So with all of this said, let’s take a peek at which stocks make the Magic Formula cut as of July.  I ran a screen of for the top 30 Magic Formula stocks with market caps over $1 billion, and here are the results:



Abbott Laboratories


Activision Blizzard Inc


Apollo Group Inc


Apple Inc


Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp


CACI International Inc.


CF Industries Holdings Inc


Chemed Corp


Cirrus Logic Inc.


Cisco Systems Inc


Dell Inc


Deluxe Corp


Fluor Corp.


GameStop Corp.


Herbalife Ltd


InterDigital Inc


Lender Processing Services Inc


Lorillard Inc


Microsoft Corp


Northrop Grumman Corp


PDL BioPharma Inc


Pitney Bowes Inc.


Questcor Pharmaceuticals Inc.


Raytheon Co.




Seagate Technology Plc


Unisys Corp


United Therapeutics Corp


Valassis Communications Inc.


Weight Watchers International Inc.



A few names jump off the list, such as former market darling Apple (AAPL).  It’s a strange world  in which the second-largest company in the world by market cap appears in a value stock screen with a strong bias towards small caps.  But Apple is cheap enough—and profitable enough—to make the cut.

After spending most of the fourth quarter of last year in free fall, Apple has traded in a range of 400-450 for most of this year.  Could the stock have further to fall?  Absolutely. But it fits the Magic Formula criteria, and the price seems to have a fairly hard floor just below $400.

Apple’s old PC nemesis Microsoft (MSFT) also made the list, as did Cisco Systems (CSCO)—both of which I own in my dividend-focused portfolios.

Technology companies make up a full third of the screen.  In addition to the three I already noted, video game maker Activision Blizzard (ATVI), enterprise IT solutions companies CACI (CACI) and Unisys Corporation (UIS), semiconductor maker Cirrus Logic (CRUS), computer manufacturer  Dell (DELL), cyber security firm SAIC (SAI) and hard drive manufacturer Seagate Technologies (STX) made the screen.

Health and nutritionals company Abbott Labs (ABT)—a Sizemore Capital holding—also made the cut, as did Big Tobacco firm Lorillard (LO) and defense giant Northrop Grumman (NOC).

There are a couple points to note here.  First, cheap companies—even those with high returns on capital—can stay cheap for a long time.  Microsoft and Lorillard have both been regular fixtures on the Magic Formula screen for several years.  (Of course, both have also beaten the S&P by a healthy margin over the past five years, so duration of time on the list is not necesarily a bad thing.)

Second, some companies are not really investable at this point, or at least shouldn’t be.  I’ll use Dell as an example.  Given that Dell is currently in the midst of heated dispute over whether to take the company private, this is probably a company you should avoid.

I might also add that you don’t have to use my screen.  Greenblatt allows you to set a much lower market cap minimum (as low as $50 million), though you’ll want to be careful when trading in small, illiquid stocks.  And you can also expand the list from 30 to 50 stocks to give yourself a larger pool to research.

One final note: the math behind the Magic Formula is explained in Greenblatt’s book, The Little Book that Beats the Market

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5 Responses
  1. Greg

    Hi Charles, I wanted to ask you what your thoughts are re: why Greenblatt is changing his investment style from Magic Formula (at Formula Investing) to long/short Mutual Funds (via Gotham)? I suppose I should ask them; as an investor with Formula Investing managed accounts we personally killed it this year – so I want to understand the strategy change, in part because I’m considering rolling over our accounts to the mutual funds they’re offering – specifically GENIX and GARIX. But why fix something that isnt broken? Formula Investing’s explanation for the change was “volatility” and that the long/short strategy will smooth the volatility. I have to imagine that they might be concerned that their “retail investors” will flee when the market inevitably turns down and the Magic Formula performs poorly for a time. But its hard to know what they mean. My understanding of Magic Formula is that it handles volatility, on average, better than other strategies. Also, why would these value investors get involved in leverage? That seems to be contrary to value investing principles. On the other hand, Greenblatt and Goldstein are investing masters – and they “eat their own cooking”. They will be using the same metrics as MFI but in the long/short mutual fund format, and they do their homework. I imagine they’ve backtested this strategy as well. Interested in your thoughts.

    1. Hi Greg,

      I wouldn’t read too deeply into this. Remember, Greenblatt’s compensation is tied to his assets under management. So for him, it makes all the sense in the world to offer multiple investment strategies that can potentially bring in new money. Plus, the Magic Formula was never his only strategy. He wrote two other books detailing some of his other favorite hunting grounds:

      The Magic Formula is a great stock screener and an excellent place to START your investment research. But just as Greenblatt himself pursues multiple strategies, so should the rest of us!

      Thans for reading, and best wishes in 2014!

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