analyzing sales rather than earnings (ii)

The answer the Bloomberg Radio reporter gave to the question, “Why sales, not earnings?” was that sales are harder for a less-than-honest company to manipulate.  In some highly abstract and technical way this might be true, but in any practical sense the reply is ridiculous.  Stuffing the channel is a time-honored, easy to do way of inflating sales.

Still, there are instances where an investor will want to look at sales rather than earnings.

1.  Value investors looking for turnaround situations will seek out companies with lots of sales but little in the way of earnings.  They’ll benchmark the poorly performing firm against a healthy rival in the same industry.  They figure that if the two firms have comparable plant, equipment and intellectual property, then a change of management should enable the weaker firm to achieve results that are at least close to what the stronger one is posting now.

As I see it, this mindset is what separates value investors from their growth counterparts.  The latter, myself included, begin to salivate when they see a strong bottom line; the former are magnetically attracted to big sales/no profits firms instead.

2.  Especially in the tech world, companies often go public before they become profitable.  AMZN, which didn’t report black ink for eight years after its IPO, is the poster child for this phenomenon.

Potential investors routinely look at the size of the market a given firm is addressing and the rate of its sales growth as a way of gauging its potential value.  This is a tricky thing to do, since it requires us to decide how much of the money the company is now spending is akin to capital spending–one-time foundation laying that won’t recur–and how much is spending that’s needed to generate each new sale.  Put a different way, it’s a decision on what is SG&A and what is cost of goods.  As AMZN illustrated, there’s huge scope for error here.

(An aside:  I attended an AMZN IPO roadshow presentation.  Management mostly said that during the PC era investors could have bought then-obscure companies like MSFT and CSCO and made a fortune.  The internet age was dawning and AMZN offered a similar chance.  Nothing but concept.)

3.  A simpler variation on #1  + #2, which is currently being worked vigorously by activist investors at the present time, is to find companies that may not break out results by line of business but which in fact operate in two different areas.  In the most favorable case for activists, the target firm will look like nothing special but have one high-growth, high-profit area whose strong performance is being obscured by a low-growth low/no-profit sibling.  The activist forces a separation, after which growth investors bid up the price of one area, value investors the other.

 

Obviously, no one uses just one metric.  But the way I look at it, the only persuasive case for using sales as the keystone to analysis is the value investor use I outlines in #1.

 

when to analyze sales rather than earnings

I was listening to Bloomberg News on the radio the other day, when a stock market reporter began a segment of an afternoon show by mentioning a a study he’d received of US stock market valuation based on price to sales rather than PE.

“Why sales and not earnings?” asked the show host.

The reporter had no clue. (An aside: it’s not clear to me whether this host asks probing questions of this particular reporter despite the fact he never can answer them or because he can’t.  I also sometimes wonder how aware each party is of the dynamics of their interaction–showing I must have too much time on my hands.)

Anyway, I decided to write about using sales as an analytic tool.

First, I should be clear that I’m not normally a fan of price to sales.  That’s probably because I’m a growth stock investor and am most often seeking out situations where profits are going to expand faster than sales..

To answer the host’s question as best I can:

Some companies are highly cyclical, like American autos or semiconductor equipment makers.  In bad times, they still have sales but may be posting losses.  Yet nobody pays you to take the shares off their hands; the stock trade at a price greater than zero.  In other words, at market bottoms they trade on something (i.e., sales or assets) other than earnings.  Similarly, as the economy recovers and the profits of deep cyclicals begin to explode to the upside, the PE multiple they sport progressively contracts.  In many cases, profits continue to surge but the stock price stops going up–because investors are anticipating the next dip of the cyclical roller coaster.  Again, they’e not trading on earnings.

So, at market bottoms the losses from cyclicals reduce overall index earnings, making the market look more expensive than it arguably should be.  At market tops, the stingy multiples that investors apply to peak earnings can make the market look misleadingly cheap.

Both distortions are eliminated, or at lest mitigated, by using price/sales.

Also, one might maintain that price/sales allows a better comparison between past decades, when a large portion of the market consisted of deep cyclicals, and the present, when the cyclical content is much smaller.

More tomorrow.

a professional portfolio manager performance check

I subscribe to the S&P Indexology blog.  Like most S&P communications efforts, I find this blog interesting, useful and reliable.

Anyway, two days ago Indexology published a check on the performance of equity managers who offer products to US customers.

In one respect, the findings were unsurprising.  For managers with US stock portfolio mandates, well over half underperformed their benchmarks over the one-year period ending in June.  Over five years, more than three-quarters failed to match or exceed the return of their index.

This is business as usual.  Why this is so isn’t 100% clear to me.

One of my mentors used to say that ” the pain of underperformance lasts long after the glow of outperformance has faded.”   I think that’s right.  In other words, clients will punish a PM severely for underperformance, but reward him/her by a much smaller amount for outperformance.  In a world where risks and rewards aren’t symmetrical, it’s probably better not to take the buck-the-crowd positions necessary to outperform.  Instead, it’s better to accept mild underperformance, keep close to the pack of rival managers and spend a lot of time marketing your like-me/trust-me attributes.

(To be clear, this isn’t a strategy I wholeheartedly embraced.  I generally achieved significant outperformance in up markets, endeavored not to lose my shirt in down markets.  My long-term US results were a lot better than the index, but at the cost of short-term volatility that was greater than the market’s.  Pension consultants, heavily reliant on academic theories of finance, tended to demand a smoother ride, even if that meant consistently less money in the pockets of their clients.  Yes, a constant problem for me.  But it illustrates the systematic pressure put on managers to conform, to look like everyone else.)

 

The surprising news in the blog post comes in international markets.   Generally speaking, the markets overseas are simpler in structure, information flows much more slowly than in the US, and PMs tend to be ill-trained and poorly paid.  Rather than being the culmination of a long a successful career, being a PM abroad is often only an early stepstone to something better.  So pencil in outperformance.

On a one-year view, however, Indexology reports that the vast majority of managers of global, international and emerging markets portfolios all underperformed their benchmarks.  This is the first time this has happened since S&P has been checking!!

I don’t watch this arena closely enough to have a worthwhile opinion on how this happened.  The fact of underperformance itself is surprising–the fact that more than 75% of managers of international funds underperformed is stunning.  My guess is that no one saw the deceleration of Continential European economies coming.

For anyone with international equity exposure, which is probably just about everyone, current manager performance is well worth monitoring closely.

 

a Fall stock market swoon?

Over the past thirty years, the US stock market has tended to sell off from late September through mid-October, before recovering in November.  That historical pattern has some brokerage strategists predicting a similar outcome for this fall.

Why the annual selloff?

It has to do with the legal structure of mutual funds/ETFs and the fact that virtually all mutual funds and ETFs end their tax year in October.

1.  Mutual funds are a special type of corporation.  They’re exempt from income tax on any profits they may achieve.  In return for this tax benefit, they are required to limit their activities to portfolio investing and to distribute any investment gains as dividends to shareholders (so the IRS can collect income tax from shareholders on the distributions).

2.  All the mutual funds and ETFs I know of end their fiscal years in October.  This gives their accountants time to get the books in order and to make required distributions before the end of the calendar year.

3.  For some reason that escapes me, shareholders seem to want an annual distribution–even though they have to pay tax on it–and regard the payout as a sign of investment success.  Normally management companies target a distribution level at, say, 3% of assets.  (Just about everyone elects to have the distribution automatically reinvested in the fund/ETF, so this is all about symbolism.)

4.  The result of all this is that:

a.  if realized gains in a given year are very large, the fund manager sells positions with losses to reduce the distribution size.

b.  If realized gains are small, the manager sells winners to make the distribution larger.

c.  Because it’s yearend, managers typically take a hard look at their portfolios and sell clunkers they don’t want to take into the following year.

In sum, the approach of the yearend on Halloween triggers a lot of selling, most of it tax-related.

not so much recently

That’s because large-scale panicky selling at the bottom of the market in early 2009 (of positions built up at much higher prices in 2007-07) created mammoth tax losses for most mutual funds/ETFs continue to carry on the books.  At some point, these losses will either be used up as offsets to realized gains, or they’ll expire.

Until then, their presence will prevent funds/STFs from making distributions.  Therefore, all the usual seasonal selling won’t happen.

how do we stand in 2014?

I’m not sure.  My sense, though, is that the fund industry still has plenty of accumulated losses to work off.  As a general rule, no-load funds have bigger accumulated unrealized losses than load funds;  ETFs have more than mutual funds, because of their shorter history.

This would imply that there won’t be an October selloff in 2014.

Even if I’m wrong, the important tactical point to remember is that the selling dries up by October 15 -20.  Buying begins again in the new fical year in November.

 

 

 

 

 

the euro at $1.30–what’s a stock investor to do?

The €, which had been on a steady rise vs the US$ since spending time at around the $1.20 level two years ago, has been sliding again, after peaking at $1.39 in May.

Several related reasons:

–anemic economic growth, which has conjured up in investors’ minds the specter of deflation and begun to evoke comparisons of the EU with 1990s Japan

–political troubles with Russia and Ukraine, which have created higher uncertainty and lower trade flows, and

–further cuts in interest rates by the ECB to address the persistent economic weakness.  Today’s include a reduction in the equivalent of the Fed Funds rate from 0.15% to 0.05%, and in increase in the penalty fee for keeping deposits with the ECB (instead of lending out the money) from 0.1% to 0.2%.

The important thing for equity investors to note is that the financial markets are reacting to the bad economic developments by selling the currency rather than by selling €-denominated stocks and bonds.  The latter two have been rising in € terms, rather than falling.  The decline against the $ and £ has been about 6% since the peak in May, and about 4% against the yuan.

The currency decline will likely end up being a much larger spur to economic growth than the interest rate cut, which is all about numbers that are basically zero already.  But currency declines rearrange the focus of growth, as well as promoting growth overall.  Export-oriented and import-competing industries are relative winners: purely domestic companies, like utilities, are relative losers.   Typically, too, the currency decline comes in advance of the positive equity reaction.

So, I think it’s time to look at Continental Europe-based multinationals again.  This “good” news doesn’t apply, of course, to their UK-based counterparts, since sterling has been steady as a rock against the dollar recently.

The flip side of this coin is that US- or UK-based multinationals that have large businesses on the Continent have lost a significant amount of their near-term allure.

 

 

the Market Basket saga: taking Arthur S’s position

Market Basket is a privately held New England discount grocery chain controlled by two third-generation branches of the founding family.  One branch, owning 50.5% of MB, is led by Arthur S. and has no role–other than being on the board of directors–in the day-to-day running of the firm.  The other is led by the largest single shareholder, Arthur T.

MB recently deposed Arthur T. as CEO and replaced him with two non-family members.  Warehouse and delivery workers struck when they heard the news (with the encouragement of Arthur T., some have suggested), preventing the 71 stores from restocking and effectively hamstringing the firm.  Recently, the Arthur S. branch has agreed to sell its shares of MB to Arthur T. for $1.5 billion.

Throughout this highly public dispute, Arthur T. has been portrayed as a benevolent retail genius, creating an immensely successful business with fanatically devoted employees and extremely loyal customers.  Arthur S., on the other hand, has been seen as a money-grubbing child of privilege who wants to fund his yacht and string of polo ponies by pillaging the workers’ retirement plans.

A lot of this may be true, for all I know.  And the issues rocking MB are all pretty routine third-generation family owned company stuff (see my earlier post on MB).  But in the feel-good story line being taken by the media, one fact is being overlooked.  From what little has been in the press about MB’s profits, it doesn’t appear to be a particularly well-run company.  Arthur S. is probably right that Arthur T. isn’t a good manager.

the case for Arthur S.

Let’s say I’m a member of the Arthur S family and I hold 5% of MB’s outstanding stock.  I receive a yearly dividend of $5 million.  My genetic good fortune is significantly better even than winning the Megamillions jackpot.  So in one sense I should have no complaints.

On the other hand, my share of the assets of MB is worth about $175 million.  Therefore, my annual return on that asset value is 2.9%.  That’s about half the return on assets that Kroger achieves.  It’s also just over a third of what Wal-Mart generates, but I’m confident MB doesn’t aspire to be WMT.

I presumably also know that good supermarket locations are extremely hard to find in New England and that those MB has established over prior generations are immensely valuable.  It’s conceivable that if MB were to conceptually divide itself into two parts, a property owning one and a supermarket operating one, and have the property arm charge market rents to the stores, MB would see that the supermarket operations lose money and are only kept afloat by subsidies from the property arm.  (This situation is more common than you’d think.  It was, for example, the rationale behind the hedge fund attack on J C Penney.  That fact that inept activists botched the retail turnaround doesn’t mean the underlying strategy was incorrect.)

Even back-of-the-envelope numbers suggest something is very wrong with the way MB is being run.  Personally, my guess is that the inefficiency has little to do with employee compensation or with merchandise pricing, although the former has apparently been the focus of the AS’s discontent.  I’d bet it’s in sourcing and in how shelf space is allocated.

At the same time, Arthur T is presumably blocking my every attempt at finding stuff out and is rebuffing board suggestions that he bring in help to analyze why his returns are so low.  If MB were a publicly traded company, I could sell my shares and reinvest in a higher-return business.  I’m probably not able to do this with MB.  Even if I were, the public intra-family feuding would suggest the stock wouldn’t fetch a high price.

I have two choices, then.  I can accept the status quo, or I can try to create a consensus for the family to sell the firm.  That latter is what Arthur S. chose to do.

information asymmetry

That’s the fancy name for the situation where either you know more than the other guy or vice versa.  Think:  buying a used car, or competing in a game/sport with someone who has only half your experience and skill.

In investing, cases like the first are ones that everyone not an auto mechanics wants to  avoid.  We should, however,be spending a lot of our research time seeking out the second type.

practice vs. academic theory

One of the odder things about financial theory taught in MBA programs is the professors’ insistence–despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary–that such situations don’t exist in investing.  Officially at least, they maintain that everyone possesses the same information.

There are several odd aspects to this state of affairs:

–professional investors are happy not to rock the boat, since, to the degree that students actually believe this stuff, business schools churn out large amounts of “dumb money” to be taken advantage of,

–if all market participants have precisely the same information, how is it an ethical enterprise to charge thousands of dollars a credit to inform students that they already know everything?

–in some deep sense, professors know they live in a Copernican world despite the fact they teach Ptolemy to get a paycheck.

When I was a student at NYU, the finance faculty had a number of eminent tenured theoreticians, as well as one semi-retired portfolio manager who was an adjunct teaching for fun.  One professor proposed a contest:  faculty members would each provide $10,000 of their own money into either a portfolio managed by the theoreticians or one managed by the adjunct “practitioner.”  Over, say, a year or two that would provide a practical illustration of the superiority of theory over vulgar practice.  Unfortunately, the test never got off the ground.  No one was willing to give real money to the professors; everyone wanted to back the working portfolio manager.

More tomorrow, on making information asymmetry work for you and me.

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