figuring out price-earnings ratios (PEs)

One part of this is easy.

PE is industry jargon.  It’s a shorthand way of expressing the value of an individual stock, an industry group or a whole stock market, in terms of how many times one year’s earnings we’d be willing to pay to own whichever it is.

On the face of it, a low PE, say, 4x, would seem to be good; a high PE, say, 50x, bad.

But how do we know?  What factors enter into determining a PE?


A point that I’m maybe too fond of making is that, strictly speaking, there’s no demand for stocks.  There is demand for liquid investments, though (for most people in the US, it’s so they can save to send their children to college and to retire).  Bonds and cash are the other two big categories of liquid investments.  The apparent hair-splitting distinction is important, however, because each fixed income markets is much larger in size than stocks.  They’re also less risky.  The potential returns on these alternatives have a deep influence on what people are willing to pay for stocks.  In fact, academics turn the PE upside down (1/PE) to get what they call the earnings yield on stocks.  If you make the assumption that $1 in earnings in the hands of company management is more or less the equivalent as $1 in interest paid to you by the US Treasury, then the yield on Treasury bonds should (and virtually always does) have a powerful influence on what the earnings yield, and PE of stocks should be.  Why pay 20x for stocks if bonds are yielding 10%?

As I’m writing this, the 10-year Treasury bond is yielding 2.68%.  That’s the equivalent of a PE of 37.  This compares with a PE of 26 on the S&P 500, based on current earnings.   So either stocks are cheap or bonds are overpriced.

Today’s situation is very unusual, given that the financial meltdown in 2007-08 compelled the Federal Reserve to push interest rates down to intensive-care lows.  The consensus judgment of financial professionals, which I think is correct, is that bonds are unusually expensive today, not that stocks are dirt cheap.  If the 10-year is on the way to a 3.5% yield as the Fed returns rates to normal over the next year or two, then the equivalent PE on the S&P would be 28.5x.

That’s about where US stocks are now priced vs. bonds, which suggests that stocks are fully valued if we factor in the likely course of the Fed.  This suggests that only new positive information will move the overall market higher.

Now the going gets harder.

The second important point is the the stock market is a futures market.  That is, it is always pricing in tomorrow’s prospects as well as current earnings.  Willingness to pay for future earnings ebbs and flows with the business cycle, however.  During recessions, investors play their cards very close to the chest and look at most a few months into the future when pricing stocks.  In normal times, the market begins to price in the following year’s earnings in June or July.  In a very buoyant market, investors may pay for earnings two or three years into the future.


A third consideration, related to the second, and applying to individual stocks, is the rate of earnings growth.  The importance of this factor changes from time to time.  But a useful general rule is that the PE based on this year’s earnings can reach as high as the long-term growth rate of the company.  In other words, if earnings per share are growing at a 50% annual clip–and will likely continue to do so for the next several years (or at least there’s no easily visible bar to growth like this)–then the PE can be as high as 50x.


Generally speaking, the US economy can probably grow at about 4%-5% a year in nominal terms (meaning, including inflation).  If so, publicly traded companies, which are arguably the cream of the crop, will grow earnings per share by about 8% – 10% annually.  All other things being equal, this latter figure should be the trend growth for stocks in general.Put a different way, a company that can sustain growth of 50% a year in an economic environment like this must have something extra special going for it.

This rule of thumb doesn’t work for many “value” stocks, since no growth/earnings declines would imply a zero multiple–which in most (academics would say “all”) cases is clearly wrong (Academics say every stock retains at least a kind of option value).



corporate taxes, consumer spending and the stock market

It looks as if the top Federal corporate tax rate will be declining from the current world-high 35% to a more median-ish 20% or so.  The consensus guess, which I think is as good as any, is that this change will mean about a 15% one-time increase in profits reported by S&P 500 stocks next year.

However, Wall Street has held the strong belief for a long time that this would happen in a Trump administration.  Arguably (and this is my opinion, too), one big reason for the strength in US publicly traded stocks this year has been that the benefits of corporate tax reform are being steadily, and increasingly, factored into stock quotes.  The action of computers reading news reports about passage is likely, I think, to be the last gasp of tax news bolstering stocks.  And even that bump is likely to be relatively mild.

In fact, one effect of the increased economic stimulus that may come from lower domestic corporate taxes is that the Federal Reserve will feel freer to lean against this strength by moving interest rates up from the current emergency-room lows more quickly than the consensus expects.  Although weening the economy from the addiction to very low-cost borrowing is an unambiguous long-term positive, the increasing attractiveness of fixed income will serve as a brake on nearer-term enthusiasm for stocks.


What I do find very bullish for stocks, though, is the surprising strength of consumer spending, both online and in physical stores, this holiday season.  We are now nine years past the worst of the recession, which saw deeply frightening and scarring events–bank failures, massive layoffs, the collapse of world trade.  It seems to me that the consumer spending we are now seeing in the US means that, after almost a decade, people are seeing recession in the rear view mirror for the first time.  I think this has very positive implications for the Consumer discretionary sector–and retail in particular–in 2018.

the Republican income tax plan and the stock market

The general outline of the Trump administration’s proposed revision of the corporate and individual income tax systems was announced yesterday.

The possible elimination of the deductability from federally taxable income of individuals’ state and local tax payments could have profound–and not highly predictable–long-term economic effects.  But from a right-now stock market point of view, I think the most important items are corporate:

–lowering the top tax bracket from 35% to 20% and

–decreasing the tax on repatriated foreign cash.

the tax rate

My appallingly simple back-of-the-envelope (but not necessarily incorrect) calculation says the first could boost the US profits of publicly listed companies by almost 25%.  Figuring that domestic operations account for half of reported S&P 500 profits, that would mean an immediate contraction of the PE on S&P 500 earnings of 12% or so.

I think this has been baked in the stock market cake for a long time.  If I’m correct, passage of this provision into law won’t make stock prices go up by much. Failure to do so will make them go down–maybe by a lot.


I wrote about this a while ago.  I think the post is still relevant, so read it if you have time.  The basic idea is that the government tried this about a decade ago.  Although $300 billion or so was repatriated back then, there was no noticeable increase in overall domestic corporate investment.  Companies used domestically available cash already earmarked for capex for other purposes and spent the repatriated dollars on capex instead.

This was, but shouldn’t have been, a shock to Washington.  Really,   …if you had a choice between building a plant in a country that took away $.10 in tax for every dollar in pre-tax profit you made vs. in a country that took $.35 away, which would you choose?  (The listed company answer:  the place where favorable tax treatment makes your return on investment 38% higher.)  Privately held firms act differently, but that’s a whole other story.


The combination of repatriation + a lower corporate tax rate could have two positive economic and stock market effects.  Companies should be much more willing to put this idle cash to work into domestic capital investment.  There could also be a wave of merger and acquisition activity financed by this returning money.





building a new company HQ–a sign of trouble ahead?

This is a long-standing Wall Street belief.  The basic idea is that as companies expand and mature, their leadership gradually turns from entrepreneurs into bureaucrats.  The ultimate warning bell that rough waters are ahead for corporate profits is the announcement that a firm will spend huge amounts of money on a grandiose new corporate headquarters.

An odd article in the Wall Street Journal reminded me of this a couple of days ago.  The company coming into question in it is Amazon, which has just initiated a search for the site of a second corporate HQ.

What’s odd:

–why no comment on Apple’s new over-the-top $5 billion HQ building?

–the headquarters idea was followed by a discussion of research results from a finance professor from Dartmouth, Kenneth French, which show that publicly traded firms with the highest levels of capital spending tend to have underperforming stocks.

I’ve looked on the internet for Prof. French’s work, much of which has been done in collaboration with Eugene Fama.  I couldn’t find the paper in question, although I did come across an interesting, and humorous, one that argues the lack of predictive value of the capital asset pricing model (CAPM)–despite it’s being the staple of the finance theory taught to MBAs.  (The business school idea is apparently that reality is too complicated for non-PhD students to understand so let’s teach them something that’s simple, even though it’s wrong.)

my thoughts

–money for creating/customizing computer software, which is one of the largest uses of corporate funds in the US, is typically written off as an expense.  From a financial accounting point of view, it doesn’t show up as capital spending.

–same thing with brand creation through advertising and public relations.  I’m not sure how Prof. French deals with this issue.

Over the past quarter-century, there’s been a tendency for companies to decrease their capital intensity.  In the semiconductor industry, this was the child of necessity, since each generation of fabs seems to be hugely more expensive than its predecessor.  Hence the rise of third-party fabs like TSMC.

For hotel companies, it has been a deliberate choice to divest their physical locations, while taking back management contracts.  For light manufacturing, it has been outsourcing to the developing world, but retaining marketing and distribution.


What’s left as capital-intensive, then?  Mining, oil and gas, ship transport, autos, steel, cement, public utilities…  Not exactly the cream of the capital appreciation crop.


At the very beginning of my investment career, the common belief was that high minimum effective plant size and correspondingly large spending requirements formed an anti-competitive “moat” for the industries in question.  But technological change, from the 1970s steel mini-mill that cost a tenth the price of a blast furnace onward, has shown capital spending to be more Maginot Line than effective defense.

So it may well be that the underperformance pointed to by Prof. French has less to do with profligate management, as the WSJ suggests, than simply the nature of today’s capital-intensive businesses–namely, the ones that have no other option.







sometimes cash isn’t really cash

This is a post about reading the balance sheet, not a more theory-laden discussion of whether having cash is a good thing for a company or not.

three examples

–The most obvious case where cash is not an unadulterated plus is when it’s offset by short- or long-term debt.  Having $5 a share in cash and no debt is certainly a different situation than having the cash but owing $15 a share to your bankers.  There are all sorts of subtleties here–bonds vs. bank debt, factoring receivables, coupon payments vs. accretion of discount, payables/receivables–but these are stories for another day.

The other two concern working capital, ex debt (as it turns out, the prospectus for Blue Apron (APRN) made me think of both of these).

deferred revenue.  If you subscribe to a magazine or newspaper or a home-delivery food service, you typically pay for the service in advance.  The way this is accounted for on the balance sheet of the company you’ve contracted with is:  the total amount you pay is listed on the asset side as cash; on day zero no services have been delivered so the cash is counterbalanced by an equal deferred revenue entry on the liabilities side.  As services are provided, the deferred revenue is gradually reduced by the amount being recognized on the income statement as sales.

(Note:  I can’t recall ever having seen a long-term deferred revenue balance sheet entry.  MSFT, maybe?  My guess is that if long-term deferred revenues exist, they’re folded into “other” among long-term liabilities.)

Pre-IPO APRN had $61.2 million in cash and $21.8 million in deferred revenue

receivables vs. payables.  Receivables are trade credit a firm extends to customers; payables are trade credit that suppliers are offering to the firm.  Having few payables and a lot of receivables is usually a sign of corporate strength.  Suppliers are eager enough to do business that they offer their wares on credit; customers eager enough to consume that they pay upfront.

Nevertheless, payables are basically the same as short-term loans.  They just come from a supplier rather than a financial lender.  In computing working capital (short-term assets minus short-term liabilities), payables are a subtraction.

In the APRN case, the pre-IPO company had $0.5 million in receivables and $77.7 million in payables.  Receivables – payables  =  -$77.2 million.


more on the APRN situation

In APRN’s case, $61.2 million (cash) – $21.8 million (deferred revenue) – $77.7 million (net receivables) =  – $38.3 million.

If we compare APRN at 12/31/16 with 3/31/17, we can see the transition from a positive of about $7 million for the calculation in the paragraph above to the -$38.3 million.  This is financed, as I read the balance sheet, by a $55 million increase in long-term debt during the quarter.  So APRN is not generating cash; it’s burning through it rather quickly.

My quick perusal of the prospectus didn’t turn up enough other data to draw a strong conclusion (e.g., is this seasonal?), but the 1Q17 cash deterioration certainly looks odd.




…are collections of businesses, often with little operational connection with one another, linked together by common ownership.  Outside the US, the controlling entity typically exercises its influence by taking large minority interests in the subsidiary firms;  in the US it’s more common that the controlling entity owns its subsidiaries entirely.

The former structure allows greater reach; the latter makes it easier to dividend cash from one arm to another without incurring tax.

the conglomerate era

Looking back, it’s often strange to see investment suppositions that, to us, are patently crazy but which investors of another era held as gospel.

In particular, there was a conglomerate “era” in the US during the 1960s.  This was a time when Wall Street thought that there is such a thing as “pure” management, which could be applied by expert practitioners to all kinds of businesses, no matter what they were.   So, a management expert could run, say, a movie studio without knowing anything about entertainment, or head a department store chain without knowing anything about fashion or real estate or retailing, or a lead computer chip company without knowing anything about coding or chip fabrication or materials science.

What were these “pure” management skills?  Allocation capital was one.  Your guess is as least as good as mine about any others.

During that period–a decade before I entered the stock market, so I’ve only read about it–conglomerates traded at a premium to the sum of their parts.

Maybe 1950s-style conglomerates made some sense.  I don’t know.  But their executives soon worked out that they could use debt to make acquisitions that would give a (temporary) boost to ep that would get their firm a higher earnings multiple.  So companies like Gulf and Western, ITT, National Student Marketing and Textron turned themselves into M&A machines.  As long as investors believed in the supposed alchemy of management, the worst low-PE dross a conglomerate held its nose and acquired, the greater the gain from multiple expansion when those earnings came under the conglomerate umbrella.

This all ended in tears in the late 1960s, through a combination of higher interest rates, the dead weight of senseless acquisitions,and the inability of conglomerate managers to improve businesses they owned but didn’t know the first thing about, that caused the conglomerates to crater.

today’s view

Today’s view is that conglomerates should trade at a discount to the sum of their parts.  It has its roots–not in the companies per se–but in the idea that investors want to fashion portfolios for themselves, not buy pre-assembled packages.  Off-the-rack conglomerates should be worth less than bespoke portfolios.

One of my favorite examples of this belief (which I think is basically correct) comes from one of the old opium trading companies in Hong Kong, Swire Pacific.  At one time, Swires was a property development company + an airline.  The first component is income-oriented and buttressed by a steady stream of rental payments.  The other is a highly economically-sensitive industrial.

Income-oriented investors, the argument goes, must be compensated through a lower overall PE for having to hold the airline component of Swires they don’t really want.  Similarly, more adventurous investors have to be compensated for being stuck with an income vehicle they don’t want.

Therefore, the parts separated should be worth more than the two together.

In fact, when Swires announced it would seek a separate listing for Cathay Pacific, the stock rose by 40%.


Tomorrow, Disney as a conglomerate.





when is a sale a sale?: the EFII case

On Thursday, Electronics for Imaging (EFII), a copier company I knew well twenty years ago, issued a press release which it filed as an 8-K with the SEC.  The release reads in part:

“Electronics For Imaging, Inc. (Nasdaq:EFII), a world leader in customer-focused digital printing innovation, is postponing the conference call at which it anticipated discussing second quarter 2017 preliminary results in order to enable the Company to complete an assessment of the timing of recognition of revenue. The assessment is related to certain transactions where a customer signed a sales contract for one or more large format printers and was invoiced, and the printer(s) were stored at a third party in-transit warehouse prior to delivery to the end user.

In addition, EFI is in the process of completing an assessment of the effectiveness of EFI’s current and historical disclosure controls and internal control over financial reporting. EFI expects to report a material weakness in internal control over financial reporting related to this matter. EFI also expects to report that EFI’s disclosure controls were not effective in prior periods.

The Company currently expects that the total aggregate revenue for the periods under review will not be materially different from the aggregate revenue that was previously reported for those periods, taking into account any revenue from the prior periods that may be moved into the current or upcoming periods.”

The stock lost 45% of its market value in Friday trading.

What’s this about?

While the situation is still pretty muddy, the basic issue is what counts as a sale–how an order for a company’s products ends up being counted as revenue in the company’s income statement.

In the case of large, expensive precision equipment (think: multi-million dollar semiconductor production machines), an order doesn’t become a sale until the unit is delivered to the plant and is installed and working to the satisfaction of the receiving company’s engineers.  This process can take weeks from the time the equipment leaves the factory.

For just about everything else, an item is considered sold the second it leaves the factory–whether in the mail or a UPS van, or in a truck owned by either party to the transaction–and a bill is sent.  Initiating delivery allows the sender to book the associated revenue on the income statement.  (Returns?  Companies typically reduce reported revenue by an estimate–based on their past experience–of likely returns.  The estimate is usually not disclosed.  Returns only become an issue if they’re much larger than the return provision.)


In the EFII case, in contrast, it sounds like items were shipped, a bill was sent and revenue was recorded on the income statement, even though no one had actually ordered the shipped merchandise.  The merchandise was then held in a third-party warehouse until an actual customer order came in–at which point the items were shipped.


Why do this?   …to make current earnings look better than they actually were.

What’s still unclear:

–who knew about this

–how long the practice was going on

–how large the phantom sales had grown

–how it was discovered.


The press release, which I’m regarding as having been carefully crafted by EFII’s lawyers, suggests to me that the revenue overstatements:

–have been going on for a long time (“controls were not effective in prior periods”), and

–the amounts involved may be large (“revenue from the prior periods…may be moved into…upcoming periods(emphasis mine)).

Yes, the warehoused merchandise may eventually be sold (that’s my reading of the third press release paragraph above).  The biggest issue for investors is that the company may have been overstating its growth rate for some time through phantom “sales.”