Disney(DIS)/ESPN: from growth to value

the maturing of ESPN

In the 2016 DIS fiscal year (ended in October), earnings from the Media Networks segment, which is basically ESPN, decelerated from its fiscal 2015 +6% pace to a slight year-on-year decline.

Two problems:  increasing costs for sports rights; and “cord cutting,” that is, consumer reluctance to pay increasing fees for cable service and cancelling instead.

Part of the issue is the proliferation of new sports content generated by individual teams.

Part is the high cost of ESPN programming to consumers:  SNL Kagan estimates that by the year after next, ESPN will be charging $9.17 per cable subscriber for its services, up from what I think is around $8 now.

Part is also ESPN’s preferred position in the basic packages offered by cable companies.  I’ve read analyses, which I’m not sure are correct, that maintain that although all cable subscribers pay for ESPN, at few as 20% actually use the service regularly.  If so, $100 per year per subscriber translates into $500 per year per user.

In addition, as a sports fan I’m offended by the faux debates and shouting matches that ESPN has begun in an attempt to woo viewers.  Covering WWE as if it were a real sport   …Really?

the move from growth to value

It seems pretty clear to me that ESPN is no longer a growth business.  Gathering realization of this by investors is the reason, I think, that DIS has underperformed the S&P over the past two years by about 25%–despite its movie and theme park success.

The important question for investors is how much deceleration at ESPN is factored into today’s DIS quote.  Is the worst that can happen already priced in?

worst case

I think I understand the worst-case scenario.  It’s that pricing for ESPN ultimately shifts from per subscriber to per user.  This most likely means a substantial decrease in ESPN revenues.  The big question is how much “substantial” is.  If it’s correct that only one in five cable subscribers actually uses ESPN, then revenues could be cut in half by the change, even if users are willing to pay double what they are laying out today.

That outcome may be extreme, but it’s certainly not priced into DIS stock, in my view.

I’m not sure what the right calculation is.  However, while the outcome of this important issue is so up in the air, I find it hard to imagine DIS outperforming.

 

 

 

Disney (DIS) and ESPN: a lesson in analyzing conglomerates

DIS shares went on a fabulous run after the company acquired Marvel in late 2009, moving from $26 a share to $120 in early 2015.  Since then, however, the stock has been moving sideways to down–despite rising, consensus estimate-beating earnings reports in a stock market that has generally been rising.

What’s going on?

The basic thing to understand about analyzing a conglomerate like DIS is that aggregate earnings and earnings growth matter far less than evaluating each business in the conglomerate by itself and assembling a sum of the parts valuation, including synergies, of course.

In the case of DIS, the company consists of ESPN + television; theme parks; movies; merchandising related mostly to parks and movies; and odds and ends–which analysts typically ignore.

In late 2009, something like 2/3 of the company’s overall earnings and, in my view, 80%+ of the DIS market value came from ESPN.

How so?

At that time, ex Pixar, the movie business was hit and miss; the theme parks, always very sensitive to the business cycle, were at their lows; because of this, merchandise sales were similarly in the doldrums.  ESPN, on the other hand, was a secular growth business, with expanding reach in the global sports world and, consequently, dependably expanding profits.

ESPN profits not only made up the majority of the DIS conglomerate’s earnings, the market also awarded those profits the highest PE multiple among the DIS businesses.

At the time, I thought that if truth in labeling were an issue, the company should rename itself ESPN–although that would probably have detracted from the value of the remaining, Disney-branded, business lines.

Then 2012 rolled around.

More tomorrow.

 

the Sears “going concern” warning

the auditor’s opinion

On my first day of OJT in equity securities analysis, the instructor asked our class what the most important page of a company’s annual report/10k filing is.  The correct answer, which escaped most of us, is:  the one that contains the auditor’s assessment of the accuracy of the financials and the state of health of the company.  The auditor’s report is usually brief and formulaic.  Longer = trouble.

Anything less than a clean bill of health is a matter grave concern.  The worst situation is one in which the auditor expresses doubt about the firm’s ability to remain a going concern.

a new financial accounting rule

In today’s world, that class would be a little different.  Yes, the auditor’s opinion is the single most important thing.  But new, post-recession financial accounting rules that go into effect with the 2016 reporting year require the company itself to point out any risks it sees to its ability to remain in business.

the Sears case

That’s what Sears did when it issued its 2016 financials in late March.  What’s odd about this trailblazing instance is that while the firm raised the question, its auditors issued an “unqualified” (meaning clean-bill-of-health) opinion.

what’s going on?

Suppliers to retail study their customers’ operations very carefully, with a particular eye on creditworthiness.  That’s because trade creditors fall at the absolute back of the line for repayment in the case of a customer bankruptcy.  They don’t get unsold merchandise back; the money from their sale will likely go to interests higher up on the repayment food chain–like employee salaries/pensions and secured creditors.  So their receivable claims are pretty much toast.

Because of this, at the slightest whiff of trouble, and to limit the damage a bankruptcy might cause them, suppliers begin to shrink the amount and assortment of merchandise, and the terms of payment for them, that they offer to a troubled customer.   My reading of the Sears CEO’s recent blog post is that this process has already started there.

It may also be, assuming I’m correct, that the effects are not yet visible in the working capital data from 2016 that an auditor might look at.  Hence the unqualified statement.  But we’re at the very earliest stage with the new accounting rules, so nothing is 100% clear.

breaking a contract?

Sears has complained in the same blog post about the behavior of one supplier, Hong Kong-based One World, which supplies Craftsman-branded power tools to Sears through its Techtronic subsidiary.  Techtronic apparently wants to unilaterally tear up its contract  with Sears and stop sending any merchandise.

Obviously, Sears can’t allow this to happen.  It’s not only the importance of the Craftsman line.  If One World is successful, other suppliers who may have been more sympathetic to Sears will doubtless expect similar treatment.

Developments here are well worth monitoring, not only for Sears, but as a template for how new rules will affect other retailers.

 

 

 

buying an individual tech stock

This is just a brief overview:

–Buying any stock involves both a qualitative and a quantitative element.  That is:  What does the company do that makes this a good stock to own? and How do the numbers–the PE ratio, asset value, dividend yield and earnings growth–stack up?

–For value stocks, the numbers are more important; for growth stocks, the story is the key.  That’s because the primary element in success for value investors is how carefully they buy (because the ceiling for a given stock is relatively clearly defined).  For growth investors, it’s selling before/as the drivers of extra-fast earnings expansion run out of steam.

–Most tech stocks fall in the growth category.  My advocacy for Intel a few years ago was one of the rare occasions where a tech story is about under valued assets.

–In most cases, tech companies own key intellectual property–software, patents, industrial knowhow–that is in great demand, and which competitors don’t have and can’t seem to create substitutes for.  As long as that remains true, the company’s stock typically does well.  As I just mentioned, a crucial element in success with tech (or any other growth sector) is to exit before/as the growth story begins to unwind.  One yardstick is that this typically happens five years or so after the super-growth starts.  Yes, the best growth companies, like Apple or Microsoft or Amazon, have an ability reinvent themselves and thereby extend their period of strong earnings success.  But this isn’t the norm.

–Learning to be a stock investor is sort of like learning to play baseball.  There’s no substitute for actually playing the game.  The best way I know to learn about a stock is to buy a very small position and see what happens.  Don’t just sit idle, though.  Read everything on the company website, and the websites of competitors.  Read the last annual report and 10k.  Listen to (or read the transcripts of) the firm’s earnings conference calls.  Find and monitor (at least the headlines) financial newspapers and relevant blogs.  Try to form expectations about what future earnings might be and check this against what actually happens.  Then figure out where/how you went wrong and adjust.  Watch how the market reacts to news.  At first you may be terrible.  I certainly was.  But if you’re honest with yourself in your postmortems, you’ll probably make considerable progress quickly.

–Sooner or later–preferably sooner, learn to interpret a balance sheet and income statement.  A local community college course would probably be good, but you can get the basics of financial accounting (definitely don’t worry about double entry bookkeeping) from a book over a weekend.  Remember, here too there’s no substitute for the experience of trying to work out from a given company’s actuals what future income statements, balance sheets and flow-of-funds statements will look like.

 

the stock market cycle–where are we now?

As I wrote yesterday, stock market price-earnings multiples tend to contract in bad times and expand during good.  This is not only due to well-understood macroeconomic causes–the effect of higher/lower interest rates and falling/rising corporate profits–but also from psychological/emotional motivations rooted in fear and greed.

(An aside:  Charles McKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841) and Charles Kindleberger’s Manias, Panics and Crashes (1978) are only two of the many books chronicling the power of fear and greed in financial markets.  In fact, the efficient markets theory taught in business schools, which denies fear and greed have any effect on the price of financial instruments, was formulated while one of the bigger stock market bubbles in US history, the “Nifty Fifty” years, and a subsequent vicious crash in 1973-74, were taking place outside the ivory tower.)

Where are we now?

My take:

2008-09  PEs contract severely and remain compressed until 2013

2013  PEs rebound, but only to remove this compression and restore a more typical relationship between the interest yield on bonds and the earnings yield (1/PE) on stocks.

today  The situation is a little more nuanced.  The bond/stock relationship in general remains much the way it has been for the past several years, with stocks looking, if anything, somewhat undervalued vs. bonds.  But it’s also now very clear that, unlike the situation since 2008, that interest rates are on an upward path, implying downward pressure on bond prices.

In past plain-vanilla situations like this, stocks have moved sideways while bonds declined, buoyed by an early business cycle surge in corporate profits.

Since last November’s presidential election, stocks have risen by 10%+.  This is unusual, in my view, because we’re not at the dawn of a new business cycle.  It comes from anticipation that the Trump administration will introduce profit-boosting fiscal stimulus and reforms.  The “Trump trade” has disappeared since the inauguration, however.  Our new chief executive has displayed all the reality show craziness of The Apprentice, but little of the business acumen claimed for the character Mr. Trump portrayed in the show–and which he asserts he exhibited in in his long (although bankruptcy-ridden) career in the family real estate business.

Interestingly, the stock market hasn’t weakened so far in response to this development.  Instead, two things have happened.  Overall market PE multiples have expanded.  Interest has also shifted away from business cycle sensitive stocks toward secular growth stocks and early stage “concept” firms like Tesla, where PEs have expanded significantly.  TSLA is up by 76% since the election and 57% so far this year–despite the administration’s efforts to promote fossil fuels.  So greed still rules fear.  But animal spirits are no longer focused on beneficiaries of action from Washington.  They’re more amorphous–and speculative, as I see it.

Personally, I don’t think we’re at or near a speculative peak.  Of course, as a growth stock investor, and given my own temperament, I’m not going to be the first to know.  It does seem to me, however, that the sideways movement we’ve seen in the S&P since March tells us we are at limits of where the market can go without concrete economic positives, whether they be surprising strength from abroad or the hoped-for end to dysfunction in Washington.

 

discounting and the stock market cycle

stock market influences

earnings

To a substantial degree, stock prices are driven by the earnings performance of the companies whose securities are publicly traded.  But profit levels and potential profit gains aren’t the only factor.  Stock prices are also influenced by investor perceptions of the risk of owning stocks, by alternating emotions of fear and greed, that is, that are best expressed quantitatively in the relationship between the interest yield on government bonds and the earnings yield (1/PE) on stocks.

discounting:  fear vs. greed

Stock prices typically anticipate or “discount” future earnings.  But how far investors are willing to look forward is also a business cycle function of the alternating emotions of fear and greed.

Putting this relationship in its simplest form:

–at market bottoms investors are typically unwilling to discount in current prices any future good news.  As confidence builds, investors are progressively willing to factor in more and more of the expected future.

–in what I would call a normal market, toward the middle of each calendar year investors begin to discount expectations for earnings in the following year.

–at speculative tops, investors are routinely driving stock prices higher by discounting earnings from two or three years hence.  This, even though there’s no evidence that even professional analysts have much of a clue about how earnings will play out that far in the future.

(extreme) examples

Look back to the dark days of 2008-09.  During the financial crisis, S&P 500 earnings fell by 28% from their 2007 level.  The S&P 500 index, however, plunged by a tiny bit less than 50% from its July 2007 high to its March 2009 low.

In 2013, on the other hand, we can see the reverse phenomenon.   S&P 500 earnings rose by 5% that year.  The index itself soared by 30%, however.  What happened?   Stock market investors–after a four-year (!!) period of extreme caution and an almost exclusive focus on bonds–began to factor the possibility of future earnings gains into stock prices once again.  This was, I think, the market finally returning to normal–something that begins to happens within twelve months of the bottom in a garden-variety recession.

Where are we now in the fear/greed cycle?

More tomorrow.

back to talking about value investing

badly-managed companies

A highly-skilled former value colleague of mine used to say that there are no bad businesses–there are just bad companies.  What he meant was this:  let’s call any revenue-generating activity as a business; when revenue generation establishes a desire for a product or service, there is always a way to make a profit.  What stands in the way is most often bad management, although it might also be a poor configuration of assets.  (There are also highly cyclical firms, which are typically viewed through lenses that are too shortsighted, and firms that have temporarily stumbled.  Let’s put cases like those aside for now.)

 

In the US, it is legally and culturally acceptable to call bad companies into account.  This is usually done either by replacing management or by causing the company to be sold and returning the proceeds to shareholders.

Because of these factors, it makes sense to hold the shares of firms where the share price is substantially below asset value, even if the company is doing poorly.

As reader Alan Kaplan points out in a comment to last Thursday’s post, however, change is occuring at such a rapid rate in the current globalizedl and Internet-connected economy that it’s more difficult to make an assessment of how much assets are worth than it was when the tenets of value investing were being laid down almost a century ago.

a plummeting stock

Anyway, I recently noticed a holding that was sinking like a stone in a fund I’ve recently taken a small position in.  The stock is down about 60% over the past year in a market that’s up by 16%.  The portfolio manager, who doesn’t seem to have had much of a plan where this company is concerned, managed to lose two-thirds of his (i.e., my) money before kicking the stock out.

Seaspan?

The stock in question is Seaspan (SSW), a container ship leasing company.

My first reaction was to think the stock should never have been in a portfolio, based on the industry it’s in.  My experience of shipping is that it’s a snake pit of public subsidy and private double dealing in which an outsider like me will be lucky to escape with any of the clothes on his back.

On the other hand, my experience is also that people who are as horribly wrong about buying a stock as the pm I mentioned above end up also being horribly wrong again when they sell it.  I used to console myself when I was in this position by thinking that the stock would never bottom as long as I held it, so, yes, I was helping new buyers by selling–but I was helping my portfolio as well.  In any event, the last bull capitulating is usually an important positive sign.

SSW is now trading at $6.67.  Book value is $16+.  The dividend has recently been cut but the stock is still yielding 7%.  By the way, that’s not a good thing, in my view.  My preference would be for the payout to have been eliminated entirely, but I’m willing to give management the benefit of the doubt.

I’m still working myself through the financials.  There are potential issues with new ships now being built that SSW has contracted to buy but has as yet found no one to lease them.  There’s also the worry that existing customers will return ships before charters end and simply refuse to pay amounts still owed.  On the other hand, there’s some chance SSW will be able to refinance its existing debt.  And to some degree–not a great degree, but some–book value for older vessels is underpinned by the ability to sell them for scrap.

In sum, this is high-risk deep-value stuff that I would never recommend anyone else should consider.

Still, I’m surprised and intrigued to find a–to me, at least–plausible value story in such an unlikely place.