Best of Five Years (1): cash flow per share as a valuation metric

I’ve been writing Practical Stock Investing for something over five years now.  I decided to go back through my archives so look at the most looked-at (and possibly read) posts over that time.  I’m going to re-post ten over the next two weeks.  This will give you a chance to see some of my earlier work that you may have missed.  And I’ll have time for home repairs I’ve been putting off.  I may just see a couple of baseball games and watch the basketball playoffs, though.

Here’s #1.

investor preferences

A large number of investors in the US want to buy stocks where the underlying companies are growing profits rapidly.  The same is true in many other stock markets of the world.  For such investors, earnings per share growth is the main metric they look for when transacting.

This isn’t an immutable law of equity investing, however.  To a large degree, the search for growth is also a question of investor preferences.  In the US, the market I have the longest experience with, I’ve seen the mix of price and growth that investors prefer change dramatically several times.  In my view, this has been not so much because the macroeconomic environment has changed, but because the personal circumstances of investors (their age and wealth) did.

Also, I’ve seen other markets where preferences are quite different, where a “good” stock is one that pays a high dividend and where the company is mature enough that it has little need to spend on expansion.  These are markets where the search is for income, not for growth.  Taiwan in the 1980s is the first strong example I’ve encountered personally (technology stocks there couldn’t list unless they were willing to pay a 5% yield!).   But the US in the pre-WWII era seems to me to have been another.

the search for income

Not every company can grow at a rapid clip for a long time.  As well, some companies temporarily experience declining profits, either because the economy has turned against them cyclically, or because they’ve just lost their way.  In any of these cases, the large group of investors I’ve mentioned above lose interest in the stocks and more or less consign them to the equity junk pile.

There’s a whole set of other professional investors–in fact, in the US they are arguably in the majority–who evaluate stocks not on their earnings growth potential but on the companies’ ability to generate cash from operations.  There are many variations on this approach.  But all use cash flow per share as their main tool.  Such investors calculate an absolute worth for the company (usually a present value of cash flows over, say, ten years) and compare that with the share price.  They buy what they hope are the most undervalued stocks.

Around the globe, such value investors expect that at some point either the company’s fortunes will take a cyclical turn for the better, or that other investors will realize the undervaluation they see, or (in the US at least) that pressure will be brought to bear on the company to improve its operations.

[By the way, about two years ago, I wrote a series of posts on growth investing vs. value investing that you might want to read.  Take the test (which of two stocks would you buy) to see if you’ve got more growth or value tendencies.]

the stock as a quasi-bond

The key to this approach, viewing it through my growth investor eyes, is to regard the stock as a quasi-bond.

Let’s say the firm is now generating $1 a share in cash from profits and $2 a share in cash from depreciation and amortization.  That’s $3 a share in yearly cash flow.  Taking a ten-year investing horizon, the company will generate a total of $30, even with no growth at all–if the firm can get away without serious new capital investments.  If we were to assume that the company could achieve an inflation-matching rise in cash flow, then the present value of the stream of cash flow is $30.  (Yes, this is a vast oversimplification, but it is the thought process.  Remember, too, we’re also figuring there’s nothing left after ten years.)

What would a company like this sell for on Wall Street?  $20 a share?  …less?

We do have a yardstick, since if we reverse the profit and depreciation figures the description in the last paragraph is a rough approximation of INTC.  The value investor’s explanation for serious undervaluation is that people are so worried about the possibility that processors using designs from ARM Holdings will gradually eat in to INTC’s markets that they are overlooking the latter’s substantial cash generating power.

happy vs. unhappy shareholders

Another way of putting the difference between looking at earnings per share and cash flow per share–

–investors look at eps to gauge a firm’s value when they’re happy with the way the company is performing;

–they look at cash flow per share when they’re not, when they’re trying to figure out how much the company would be worth with different management, or in private hands, or after being acquired by a competitor.

The risk the first group takes is that all good things eventually come to an end.  The worry of the second group is that they’ll be unable to pry the company out of the hands of current management.

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