playing cyclical recovery

Yet another slow-motion human catastrophe seems to be starting to play itself out in the US. Yes, Trump’s strange attempt to undermine the finances of the American university system, one of our crown jewels, by barring its highest-paying students from attending, disappeared almost as soon as it was unveiled (to be fair, my guess is Trump had no idea what he was doing; he just wanted to burnish his xenophobe credentials). But the real economic/social issue is the rolling start to the national school year next month. Just as with mask wearing, Trump appears to be insisting on resuming school in person and on schedule, which seems to me to be a recipe for another surge in coronavirus cases, similar to the one resulting from Trump’s urging southern and western states to reopen too early.

I think the stock market reaction to this will be twofold: to stop the rotation away from secular growth to domestic cyclicals, and to reconsider whether or not the latter’s current prices are too high.

What I have tended to forget is that, possibly ex the UK, the US response to the coronavirus has been by a mile the worst in the world. Europe and Asia are already starting to rebound at the same time equity investors are coming to grips with the fact that Washington–and a number of state governors–are about to inflict another round of damage to GDP.

Anyway, my thought is to reduce my exposure to what I see as very expensive tech names and build up cyclical exposure–in the EU and Asia.

thinking about the US stock market

tactics

There’s a struggle going on in the market between secular growth stocks and business-cycle sensitives. This contest has two parts: valuation and concept.

valuation

If we look at the performance of NASDAQ vs. the Russell 2000 over the past 2 1/2 years, the former has outperformed the latter by an almost unheard of amount for a developed country. Relative valuation alone argues that the R2000 should have its day in the sun.

One would expect balance to be restored by some combination of NASDAQ losing relative ground and R2000 going up. The immense money and fiscal stimulus coming out of Washington suggests the central tendency of stocks will be up, so NASDAQ could conceivably do its part to restore valuation balance by simply standing still.

concept

On the other hand, this performance differential is arguably justified. Thanks to Trump’s epic incompetence, the domestic economy has been increasingly weak–both vs our own history and results in most other places (not the UK) since the effects of the 2017 tax cut have warn off. And the R2000 is much more closely tied to the US than the more global NASDAQ. Every recent rally attempt by the R2000 has petered out in short order–although the one now underway may have more legs than its predecessors.

Then there’s the pandemic. Washington has spent trillions of dollars, correctly so in my view, to prop up a country being ravaged by a deadly disease. Unfortunately for us, with his usual blend of insight and judgment, Trump has armtwisted states like Florida, Texas, Arizona et al into lifting quarantine restrictions much too soon. The result has been that while Canada and the EU have Covid under control and are revving up their economies, we’re seeing the virus flare up again with huge increases in new cases and red-state hospitals and funeral homes overwhelmed. He’s now, in inexplicable fashion, compounding his error by pressuring schools to reopen shortly, amplifying the risk of disease to both students and teachers.

All this implies both that another round of aid from Washington may be necessary to offset Trump’s gaffe and that the domestic economy will be relatively weak for longer than hoped–and longer than any other OECD country. (The financial press has begun to link Trump’s handling of the coronavirus with his disastrous foray into Atlantic City gambling, even though the fact that he’s done this sort of thing before isn’t a great explanation for why he should be doing it again.)

Other worries: the national debt is now higher as a percentage of GDP than it was at the end of WWII, and the budget deficit is already approaching $4 trillion.

Concept, then, argues that investors should continue to do what they’ve been doing for the past couple of years–stay as far away from the domestic economy as possible.

strategy: i.e., what happens next?

I think we muddle along for a while. But the two big questions that I see eventually coming to the forefront of the market’s consciousness are:

–in November, will the US reelect a white racist economic illiterate who has crushed GDP growth, who’s a fanboy of corrupt dictators, who seems to revel in the suffering of others and who appears to be unraveling mentally before our eyes? It says something about the parlous state of domestic politics that the answer is not clear.

–how/when/at what cost does the country begin to clean up the gigantic mess Trump, his administration and his enablers in Congress have created?

Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs) and speculative fever

SPAC is a new name for an old capital-raising form. The first instance I’m aware of is a mention in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, a famous 1841 book on the craziness that happens in financial markets at times of speculative fever. The author, Charles Mackay, cites an operator during the eighteenth-century South Sea Bubble in the UK. He writes:

“…the most absurd and preposterous of all, and which shewed, more completely than any other, the utter madness of the people, was one started by an unknown adventurer, entitled ‘A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.’ Were the fact not stated by scores of credible witnesses, it would be impossible to believe that any person could have been duped by such a project.”

According to Mackay, the “adventurer” set up an office, issued shares and then disappeared.

I came across this form early in my investing career, when the vehicles were called blind pools. They’ve also been called blank check companies. My reaction was the same as Mackay’s. Now, as SPACs, the name is fancier but the idea is the same, as far as I can see. An entrepreneur offers to use his skills to make shareholders a lot of money by means not specified in the offering document. Unlike the case in 18th-century London, the adventurer doesn’t simply close up shop and disappear. My impression is that the entrepreneur mostly pays himself fees while he looks. I have no idea about the ultimate outcome from such blind pools, but the fact that promoters don’t seem to point to past glories suggests that results aren’t that great–for shareholders, at least.

The current reemergence of blank check offerings is important to me in only one sense. They appear at times when speculation is rampant. They serve as an unambiguous signal that government policy is too stimulative. In other words, they typically signal market tops.

In the present case, I’m not so sure. Even before the pandemic, Trump had somehow managed to get a vibrant US economy to grind to a halt. Now, a second tour de force, as Canada and the EU are opening up again–crediting this outcome to having followed the advice of US medical research–the coronavirus is spiking again here. Why? …because Trump pressuring state and local governments to ignore medical protocols. Sort of Trump’s Atlantic City debacle twice over, only a lot worse.

The upshot is that while I can imagine more economic stimulus from Washington, I can’t see the punch bowl being taken away any time soon.

Tesla (TSLA) again, with fewer numbers plucked out of the air

I got a comment from Russ about my recent TSLA post, in which I concluded that a ton of future growth is already priced into the stock. The gist of his comment is that earnings could be a lot higher than I’ve been assuming. What powers a conventional car is an internal combustion engine–an expensive machine spewed out of large-scale factories that need to operate at close to capacity just to break even. The technology is also mature. In contrast, TSLA uses gigantic batteries, a technology in its infancy, i.e., one where costs are falling.

So I decided to abandon my back-of-the-envelope approach and take a look at TSLA’s 2019 financials. Call this my front-of-the-envelope analysis.

2019 sales and direct expenses

TSLA sold 367,500 cars in 2019, at an average price of $54,341 each. It made a gross profit from auto sales (I’ve ignored leases) of $4.0 billion, or $10,900 per car. Gross profit means after all direct cost of manufacture, including materials, labor and the cost of running the plant (including depreciation).

general expenses

The company spent about $4 billion on R&D + sales, general and administrative expenses (SG&A). This offset basically all the manufacturing profit. TSLA had interest expense + taxes, so it made a loss for the year.

where the operating leverage is

The essential point, which somehow eluded me last week, is that the general expenses laid out in the preceding paragraph have been steady for the past several years. Typically, an analyst would have them accelerate at some (low) trend rate of increase. Still, any increase in this expense number will be dwarfed in short order by the rise in gross income if TSLA continues to grow at the current high rate.

If we thought that TSLA could expand sales at 30%/year for the next half-decade, while retaining the same gross profit, then it would have gross profit in 2025 of about $15 billion. If general expenses increase at 5% yearly, they would be around $5 billion then. Net income would likely be about $7.5 billion, or close to $40/share.

new battery?

What about the battery? Let’s assume–I’m just making numbers up here–that the cost of parts is a third of total gross costs (three kinds of costs: materials, labor, factory) and that the battery is half of the cost of all parts. That would make the cost of today’s battery about $7000 per car. Say new technology cuts that figure in half. That would add $3500 to the gross profit per car for TSLA, assuming (unlikely, I think) it could retain the whole amount. TSLA’s unit sales in 2025 would be about 1.4 million at a 30% cagr, meaning $14/ share more in eps, if so.

As I’m writing this, the TSLA price is about $1700, implying a pe of just over 40x, assuming no changes in unit profits and 30+, on the same assumptions, if all the profits of new battery technology accrue to TSLA.

dealing with Tesla (TSLA)

If the question came up about whether to buy TSLA at $1400 (I have no intention to do so), how would I decide?

If I were making a recommendation to someone else I’d do a detailed spreadsheet in which I’d try to project the level of future earnings, the rate of their growth and how long I thought the superior growth would continue.

Today, I’m going to do a quick, back of the envelope, calculation. My aim is to get an idea of what level of future earnings is already reflected in the price of TSLA.

valuation

Let’s say the current price is $1400 a share. The market cap is $260 billion, implying that about 185 million shares are outstanding. Let’s say that I would be willing to pay 30x future earnings for TSLA, once it starts to earn on a regular basis. That implies earnings at some point of $45 a share, or earnings of about $8.5 billion a year, to justify today’s price.

Let’s assume this all comes from selling electric cars. Let’s put the average selling price at $40,000 and the net profit to TSLA from each at $4,000. If so, how many cars does TSLA need to sell to make $8.5 billion? The answer is 2.2 million units. That’s as many as Mercedes or Kia or BMW do and would put TSLA at the low end of the top ten global auto brands.

If I’ll only pay 20x earnings for an auto company, TSLA has to sell 50% more vehicles, or 3.3 million, to get the $1400 share valuation. That would put the company in the lower middle of the top ten, somewhere around Chevrolet, Hyundai or Nissan.

Is that doable? Well, the American car companies, operating in a heavily protected market, have been by and large pretty sorry companies for most of my lifetime. The Europeans are currently embroiled in a scandal that’s resulted from widespread falsification of emissions testing results for the diesel cars they sell in their home markets. The chaebol and zaibatsu conglomerate structures in Korea and Japan mean profits and innovation are at best secondary considerations. In other words, the competition isn’t particularly stiff.

The world market is about 70 million units annually, so 3.3 million would be around a 5% market share. Again, not impossible–although at the high end of what traditional auto companies have been able to achieve recently.

time

How long will it take for TSLA to be able to manufacture 2 million+ cars a year? The company was making them at a 400,000 unit annual rate at the end of 2019. At a 30% growth rate, it would take close to ten years. At a 50% growth rate it would take four or five.

In other words, today’s stock price is discounting very large growth for TSLA and paying today for earnings that are easily a half-decade in the future. What I think is significant about this is that in my experience the US stock market rarely discounts earnings more than two years ahead. How so? Pre-financial crisis studies (when there were lots more experienced analysts) show that securities analysts aren’t able to make accurate earnings forecasts more than a year ahead. Also, how far in the future the market is willing to discount is also a measure of market bullishness. I’ve rarely seen markets where investors are willing to pay today for estimated earnings three years in the future. Eighteen months is more usual. In bear markets, no one pays for any future earnings! In this case, though, the market is willing to pay for profits much farther ahead than in typical bull markets.

my take

I can imagine a world where TSLA is the leading maker of electric vehicles, with a global market share of, say, 10% and where electric vehicles are the dominant form of ground transportation. That outcome is not in the current TSLA price, in my view. But my guess is that if this happens, it’s also at least another half-decade in the future. Unless/until enough time passes that the market wants to pay for this, my guess is that TSLA will be at best a market performer.

I think the market’s willingness to discount far into the future is primarily a function of super-low interest rates. There’s also the sense that substantial structural changes to global economic life are in the offing and that it’s important to have a portfolio oriented toward companies of the future rather than those of the past. But if fixed income investments were to become more attractive–that is, if interest rates were higher–portfolios would shift toward bonds. At the same time, I think, the discounting mechanism in the stock market would become more conservative/less willing to look five-ten years ahead. That would spell trouble for TSLA …and many other tech-ish names.