Why Benjamin Graham Might Have Picked International Paper Company (IP)

Paper & Paper Products firm International Paper Company is one of the rare companies that fulfills most of Graham’s requirements for a defensive high-quality stock.

At Market Inference, we adhere to Benjamin Graham’s view that precise forecasting of a company’s prospects is highly uncertain. Investing with a wide margin of safety, determined on the basis of the company’s historical track record, offers far greater chances of positive investment results.

International Paper Company Trades at Fair Multiples

The “Graham number” is an equation that enables us to quickly determine how a stock is valued in terms of its earnings and assets:

√(22.5 * 4 year average earnings per share (3.26) * 4 year average book value per share (24.289) = $42.21

At today's price of $35.99 per share, International Paper Company is now trading -14.7% below price that Graham would recommend paying for the stock.

Some people use the Graham number alone, but it is best to consider it together with the other requirements for defensive stocks that Graham listed in Chapter 14 of The Intelligent Investor.

Impressive Revenues, Consistent Profitability, and a Growing Dividend Imply Value

International Paper Company’s average sales revenue over the last 4 years has been $19.1 Billion, so by Graham’s standards the stock has sufficient revenues to make it worthy of investment. When published in 1972, Graham’s threshold was $100 million in average sales, which would be the equivalent of around a half million dollars today.

Ben Graham believed that a margin of safety could be obtained by investing only in companies with consistently positive retained earnings. Retained earnings represent the cumulative net earnings or (deficit) left to equity holders after dividends have been paid out. International Paper Company had positive retained earnings from 2008 to 2022 with an average of $5.34 Billion over this period.

International Paper Company’s ongoing share buybacks are contributing significantly to its EPS growth, but we can also see that its net income is growing in line with its revenues, and that its profitability is stable. In other words, the company isn’t trying to hide a decline in its business operations. Taken together with its solid dividend of 5.1 , we can infer that International Paper Company’s board of directors is intent on returning value to its shareholders.

Ben Graham would also require a cumulative growth of Earnings Per Share of at least 30% over the last ten years.To determine International Paper Company's EPS growth over time, we will average out its EPS for 2007, 2008, and 2009, which were $2.70, $-3.05, and $-0.24 respectively. This gives us an average of $-0.20 for the period of 2007 to 2009. Next, we compare this value with the average EPS reported in 2020, 2021, and 2022, which were $0.39, $0.28, and $-0.90, for an average of $-0.08. Now we see that International Paper Company's EPS growth was 60.0% during this period, which satisfies Ben Graham's requirement.

Negative Current Asset to Liabilities Balance and an Average Current Ratio

Graham sought companies with extremely low debt levels compared to their assets. For one, he expected their current ratio to be over 2 and their long term debt to net current asset ratio to be near, or ideally under, under 1. International Paper Company fails on both counts with a current ratio of 1.4 and a debt to net current asset ratio of -0.8.


Graham is best known for the Graham number valuation method, and his net-net strategy of investing in a broad portfolio of companies that trade below their net current asset value. But these approaches are too narrow, and fail to capture the full scope of Graham’s statistical approach to stock picking.

International Paper Company offers a rare combination of value, growth, and profitability. So it comes as no surprise that the company isn’t cheap enough to meet Graham’s definition of a net-net, and that it does not trade, on average, far below its Graham number. Rather, International Paper Company is an interesting company because it meets Graham’s broader definition of quality.

2020-02-19 2021-02-19 2022-02-18 2023-02-17
Revenue (MM) $18,317 $17,565 $19,363 $21,161
Gross Margins 30.8% 29.8% 28.6% 28.4%
Operating Margins 9.5% 7.7% 7.6% 8.3%
Net Margins 6.69% 2.74% 9.05% 7.11%
Net Income (MM) $1,225 $482 $1,752 $1,504
Net Interest Expense (MM) -$499 -$446 -$337 -$325
Depreciation & Amort. (MM) -$1,306 -$1,287 -$1,210 -$1,040
Earnings Per Share $2.91 $1.15 $4.46 $4.53
EPS Growth n/a -60.48% 287.83% 1.57%
Diluted Shares (MM) 421 418 393 347
Free Cash Flow (MM) $4,868 $3,055 $1,929 $2,161
Capital Expenditures (MM) -$1,258 $8 $101 $13
Net Current Assets (MM) -$19,114 -$12,614 -$9,065 -$8,673
Current Ratio 0.77 1.36 1.71 1.35
Long Term Debt (MM) $11,986 $10,390 $7,718 $7,205
Net Debt / EBITDA 6.21 6.95 2.13 2.31
The above analysis is intended for educational purposes only and was performed on the basis of publicly available data. It is not to be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell any security. Any buy, sell, or other recommendations mentioned in the article are direct quotations of consensus recommendations from the analysts covering the stock, and do not represent the opinions of Market Inference or its writers. Past performance, accounting data, and inferences about market position and corporate valuation are not reliable indicators of future price movements. Market Inference does not provide financial advice. Investors should conduct their own review and analysis of any company of interest before making an investment decision.