Apple (AAPL) is splitting its stock, 7 for 1

AAPL’s 2Q14 earnings report last night was full of mostly positive surprises:

–earnings per share came in at $11.62.  That’s about 15% more than the Wall Street analyst consensus had expected, and higher, by about the same amount, than results in the same quarter a year ago.  It’s the largest margin AAPL has beaten the consensus by in years.

–the company is raising its dividend and increased its proposed share buyback amount by $30 billion

–AAPL is going to split its stock by 7 to 1.

Of these developments, I think the most important is the stock split.

stock splits

Academics will tell you two things about stock splits:

1.  Stock splits have no direct economic significance.  Its’ simply paper shuffling.  Instead of having one share that trades at, say, $560 you’ll soon have seven shares, each trading at $80.

2.  The stocks of companies that have stock splits tend to underperform for a period after the split occurs.

 

The second comment, while true, is, well, silly.  All the outperformance comes between the period when the stock split is anticipated by the stock market or actually announced and the date when the split takes place.

The first is also true–particularly in the United States (but not in many foreign markets).  But this doesn’t mean that the AAPL split has no relevance.

(See my post on stock splits for more details.)

Two reasons:

–stocks with very high per share prices tend to underperform.  Why?  I don’t know.  I think it’s because retail investors prefer to buy stock in round” lots (usually 100 shares).  This may be an echo from the days a half-century ago when trading costs were very high and when the commission for an “odd” lot (anything that isn’t a round lot) was particularly expensive.  For AAPL, this would be a commitment of over $50,000–too rich for a single position for most people.

Yes, it makes no sense.  But, whatever the reason, retail investors like stock splits and respond positively to them.

–more important, studied management contempt for shareholders, who after all are the owners of the company, has long been a key feature of the AAPL persona.  It’s part of the Steve Jobs legacy.  But it’s not a good one.  To me the stock split is a sign that the current management finally realizes how poisonous the Just-Like-Steve mentality has been and is beginning to shake off its shackles.

I don’t think this means AAPL returns to the super growth of its past.  On the other hand, I do think that, if I’m right about the attitude change, that the JLS discount multiple Wall Street now applies to AAPL stock will gradually disappear.  Just achieving a market multiple would imply a 30% gain in the stock.

 

publicly traded US companies have about $1 trillion in cash stashed abroad

That’s the best number I could come up with–admittedly through a fast internet search.

It’s not the exact figure that I find interesting, though, but the motives companies have for doing so.  Three of them are well-known, two less so.

the well-known

–Multinational companies have operations in many countries.  It may be that much of their growth–and all of their possible acquisitions–will be outside the US.  It makes no sense to move money back to the US, pay 35¢ on the dollar in Federal income tax and then resending the net amount abroad to make a foreign acquisition.  A CEO might, and probably should, lose his job for allowing this to happen.  Also the official reason companies cite for not returning cash to the US is that the funds are permanently invested internationally.

–Versus other countries, the IRS is unusually harsh in the way it taxes earnings repatriated from abroad.  There has already been one discount deal, the Homeland Investment Act of 2004, offered by the IRS to allow corporates to repatriate cash without the stiff tax bill.  The terms were:  tax at 5.25%, but all money brought back had to be invested in hiring new workers or building new plant.

As it turns out, aggregate hiring and plant construction didn’t rise during the amnesty period, even though about $300 billion was repatriated, making the case for another HIA a bit shaky.  Nevertheless, the possibility of a new HIA is a powerful deterrent to repatriation.  Who wants to be that idiot who paid $3.5 billion on a $10 billion repatriation a month before HIA II is enacted?

–Big corporates can borrow a ton of money very cheaply in the US.  APPL did it last year, for example, and the company seems to be warming up for another tranche in the near future.

the other two

–Companies have found a workaround.  It doesn’t count as repatriation if you keep the money in the US for less than 90 days and don’t get money again from the same source for a certain amount of time.  So multinationals have created daisychains of intracorporate loans, whose effect is to keep cash permanently in the US.  The first loan comes, say, from Hong Kong.  Three months later, it is repaid with cash from, say, Ireland.  That loan is repaid with money from, say, Switzerland.  And the Swiss loan is repaid with fresh funds from Hong Kong…  Ingenious, yes, but most owners would wish, I think, that corporate minds be put to more productive uses.

–In recent years, companies have boosted eps growth by tax planning, that is, by opting to recognize profits in low-tax jurisdictions.  A generation ago, investors wouldn’t have allowed this.  The market back then would only pay a discount PE for earnings that weren’t fully taxed at the rate prevailing in the firm’s home country.

No longer.  As far as I can see, investors are now indifferent to the tax rate firms pay.  The market no longer discounts earnings taxed at a low rate.  So managements have every incentive to recognize profits in low-tax countries.  After all, it takes $1.50 in pre-tax earnings in the US to produce a dollar of net.  That’s 50% more than a US firm needs to produce the same net from Hong Kong.

More than that, suppose a firm suddenly got it into its head to recognize all its earnings in the US.  What would happen to profits?  There’s an easy way to find out.  Just look at the actual corporate tax rate and adjust it to 35%.  If the actual rate is 25%, then each dollar of pre-tax becomes 75¢ of net.  At 35%, each dollar of pre-tax would be 65¢ of net–a 14% drop.  What CEO wants to report that earnings growth is slowing–or worse, disappearing–because he’s monkeying around with the tax rate?

 

 

 

 

 

reverse takeover or financial “inversion”

This is a followup to yesterday’s post, in which I commented that there’s something wrong with the US Federal corporate tax system.

One of the symptoms is the growing use of a type of reverse takeover, called an inversion, by US corporations to lower their taxes by shifting their headquarters internationally.  No one has to move; this is simply a legal change.

I don;t think US companies necessarily want to do this, but–aside from a few heavily tax-subsidized industries–US corporate taxes are considerably higher than those in other countries.

how a reverse takeover works

Let’s say Company A buys Company B.

In a plain vanilla , and simplified, version of the takeover/merger:

–the management and shareholders of Company A maintain control of A and add control of the combined A + B

–legally, Company B either becomes a subsidiary of Company A, or the assets of Company B are folded into Company A and

the empty shell of Company B goes out of existence.

In a reverse version of the same takeover/merger:

–the management and shareholders of company A still take control of A + B, but

–legally, the assets of Company A are folded in to Company B.  The original company A goes out of existence.  Often, B renames itself “A,” so that no one on the outside can tell that anything has changed.

why do a reverse takeover?

Why go to the extra legal trouble?

historically…

…a big reason has been to allow a private company to go public quickly.  The private company locates a moribund firm with few assets–sometimes called a shell company–that already has a public listing.  By buying it and executing a reverse merger, the private company ends up with its assets and operations inside the “clothes,” as it were, of the public firm.  All at once, it has a public quote, and  –this is the important thing–it has not had to go through the often lengthy regulatory scrutiny involved in an IPO.  Many Chinese firms, for example, have taken this route to public listing in the United States.

…and now

In recent years, this process–now termed an inversion–has been used by US companies buying foreign firms.  Many have been pharmaceuticals buying European counterparts.  The surviving legal entity has virtually always been the European firm, even though the Americans are in control.

Why do this?

Although the firms may say otherwise, I can’t help believing it’s to shift the company’s tax home away from the US, where corporate taxes are unusually high for health care.  The corporate tax rate is 35% in the US vs. 12.5% in Ireland, for example.

Walgreen

…which brings us to US drugstore operator Walgreen (WAG).  WAG is acquiring the Swiss-based drugstore chain Alliance-Boots.  According to the Financial Times, investors who in total own about 5% of WAG, including Goldman Sachs and  Jana Partners, are urging the company to redomicile to Switzerland.  Doing so, the investors say, would reduce the corporate tax rate from WAG’s current 37.5% to something closer to the 20% Alliance-Boots now pays.  If so, the move would increase WAG’s after-tax earnings by 80% or so–slashing the stock’s PE multiple to less than 14.  That would be considerably below the S&P 500 average.

Since in today’s world investors rarely look at a low tax rate as a negative, zeroing in almost exclusively instead on EPS, WAG shares would presumably rise to restore the PE either to its previous level or at least to the market average of about 17.  At the very least, WAG could boost its dividend substantially.

WAG probably won’t heed the Goldman/Janus advice, for fear Congress would have a fit.  Still, the “brain drain” will likely continue unless/until Washington overhauls the income tax code.

 

 

 

 

 

 

average wages in the US are back to pre-recession levels …the point is?

Good news, but not great.

How so?

80% of the wage gains since 2008 have gone to the top 20% of wage earners, meaning those earning $190,000 a year or more (this is despite recent government allegations that top tech firms in Silicon Valley have conspired to hold down their employee wages).

In other words, the vast bulk of the workforce still isn’t as well off as six years ago.

In addition, the unemployment situation remains stubbornly high.

My conclusion is that what we have now is about as good as it gets in the domestic economy, without policy action from Washington.

Two data points suggest that structural changes in the world economy are at the root of a lot of this:

–the decline in the fortunes of the middle class in the US coincides with an improvement in the lot of the middle class in emerging markets, and

–anecdotal accounts are circulating of firms filling their vacancies by poaching from rivals, which would suggest we’re close to full employment.  I heard economist Paul Krugman the other day saying that the basic problem in the US is that there are too few jobs.  He means that necessity isn’t forcing employers to hire unskilled workers and train them.  In a sense, that may be right.  On the other hand, how long will it take and how much will it cost to train an average high school graduate to become a statistician or a web designer?   Why not relocate to a place where skilled workers are more plentiful and corporate taxes are lower (the latter meaning just about anyplace else)?

investment implications

The current domestic economic situation says, I think, that we should continue to focus on companies with worldwide, rather than simply US, businesses.  We should also avoid firms that cater to domestic customers with average or below-average incomes.  These will only be able to grow revenues by “stealing” them from competitors–persistent price wars will break out, in other words.

At the same time, this state of affairs has been around long enough that we should also be scanning the horizon for evidence of change.  I suspect that changes in education/training will come informally–not through intelligent government action–and will sort of sneak up on us.  On the other hand, reduction of the Federal corporate tax rate to a level more in line with the rest of the world would probably give a surprisingly large spur to job formation (more about this tomorrow).

when quantitative investment strategies “add up to fraud”

Yesterday’s online Financial Times contains an article titled “When use of pseudo-maths adds up to fraud.”  It references an academic paper (which I haven’t read yet–and may never) which concludes that while quantitative management strategies may look impressive to neophytes, many are mathematically bogus.  This could be why they often fail deliver the superior investment performance they appear to promise.  Anyone with mathematical training needed to construct such a statistical stock-picking system should know this.

Quelle surprise!, as they say.

There’s a powerful cognitive urge to simplify and systematize data.  But that’ not why investment management companies typically create the mathematical apparatus they tout to clients.

The reality is that investment management has a large right-brain component to it.  It depends on individual judgment and intuition honed by experience.  This fact makes clients uncomfortable.

Typically the company treasurer, or other person in the finance department who is in charge of supervising the company pension plan, has little or no investment training or experience.  He may know corporate finance, but that’s a lot different from portfolio investing.  Suppose the manager I just hired begins to lose something off his fastball, he thinks.  He tells me he reads 10-Ks, but suppose he just goes into his office, takes an hallucinogen and picks stocks based on the visions he experiences.  How can I explain this to my boss if the pension plan returns go south?

That’s why his first step is to hire a third-party pension consultant.  It’s not necessarily that the consultant knows any more than the treasurer–in my experience, the consultant probably doesn’t.  Hiring an “expert” is a form of insurance.

Selecting a manager with a quantitative stock-picking system is another.  The supposed objectivity of the system itself–safe from emotions or other human foibles–is a second form of defense.

Up until now, the apparent safety net created by hiring the consultant and selecting a recommended manager who relies on “science” instead of intuition has been enough to clinch the deal for many quantitative managers.   Of course, while this decision may make the treasurer feel better–and may be an effective defense as/when the quantitative system in question blows up–it doesn’t eliminate the risk in manager selection.  It simply shifts the risk fulcrum away from the human portfolio manager to the statistician who has constructed the stock selection model.  The paper the FT references, “Pseudo-Mathematics and Financial Charlatanism,” argues that, empirically, this is a terrible idea.

I wonder if anything will come of it.

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