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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

value investing and mergers/acquisitions

buy vs. build

When any company is figuring out how it should grow its existing businesses and potentially expand into other areas, it faces the classic “buy or build” problem.  That is to say, it has to decide whether it’s more profitable to use its money to create the new enterprise from the ground up, or whether it’s better to acquire a complementary firm that already has the intellectual property and market presence that our company covets.

There are pluses and minuses to either approach. Build-your-own takes more time.  The  buy-it route is faster, but invariably involves purchasing a firm that’s only available because it has been consigned to the stock market bargain basement because of perceived operational flaws.  Sometimes, acquirers learn to their sorrow that the target they have just bought is like a movie set, something that looks ok from the outside but is only a veneer.

when the urge is greatest

Companies feel the buy/build expansion urge the most keenly at times like today, when they are flush with cash after years of rising profits.

so why isn’t value doing better?

Many economists are explaining the apparent current lack of capital spending by companies by arguing that firms are opting in very large numbers to buy rather than to build.

The beneficiaries of such a universal impulse should be value investors, who specialize in holding slightly broken companies that are trading at large discounts to (what value investors hope is) their intrinsic value.  Growth investors, on the other hand, typically hold the strong-growing companies with high PE stocks who do the acquiring.

On the announcement of a bid, the target company typically goes up.  The bidder’s stock, on the other hand, usually goes down.  That’s partly because the bid is a surprise, partly because the target is perceived to be priced too high, partly simply because of arbitrage activity.

All this leads up to my point.

Over the past couple of years, growth investing has done very well.  Value has lagged badly.  How can this be if merger/acquisition activity continues to be large enough that it is making a significant dent in global capital spending?

 

 

oil at $80 a barrel–a Saudi plot?

I don’t think so  …and if the Saudis are trying to keep oil prices low in order to drive American shale oil out of business, it’s a pretty pathetic one  (Tom Randall of Bloomberg, for example, recently wrote an otherwise excellent article in which he supports the plot view).

Here’s why:

Any oil project starts with geology work to locate prospective acreage for drilling.  The oil firm then purchases mineral rights from the owner of the land where it intends to drill.  Next comes the actual drilling, which can cost $5 million – $10 million a well.  The driller also needs some way of getting output to market, which may entail building a spur to the nearest pipeline, or at least paving the local roads so that trucks he hires can get to the wellsite.

All that outlay comes before the exploration company can collect a penny from the oil or gas that comes to the surface.

In other words, the project costs are significantly front-end loaded.  This is important.  It means the economics of the situation change dramatically according to whether you’ve already made the up-front investment or not.

An example:

I took a quick look at the latest 10-Q for EOG Resources, a shale oil driller.

Over the first six months of the year, EOG took in $6.5 billion from selling oil and gas, and had net income of $1.4 billion.  That’s a net margin of 21.5%.  At first blush, it looks like a 20% drop in prices would put EOG in big trouble.

Look at the cash flow statement, however, and a different picture emerges.  The $1.4 billion in net comes after a provision of $1.9 billion for depreciation of some of those upfront expenses and after another provision of $479 million for deferred (that is, not actually paid yet) income taxes.  So the actual cash that came into EOG’s hands during the period was $3.8 billion.  That’s a margin of 58.4%–meaning that prices could be more than cut in half and EOG would still be getting money by continuing to operate existing wells.

Yes, at $70 a barrel, new shale oil projects are probably not sure-fire winners.  But oil companies will continue to operate oil share wells, even at prices below this in order to recover capital investments they have already made.  The right time for Saudi Arabia to throw a monkey wrench in to the shale oil works would have been three or four years ago, not today.

The wider point:  once a new entrant has made a big capital investment to get into any industry, it’s very hard to get the newcomer out.  Even if incumbents make the new firm’s position untenable, the latter’s goal just shifts away from making money to minimizing its mistake by extracting as much of its capital as it can.  It will be willing to destroy the industry pricing structure if necessary to do so.

 

 

 

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.

 

capitalizing, expensing and the internet (ii)

Back when I entered the stock market, and when the CFA Institute was run by professional investors, that organization published an industry-by-industry guide to securities analysis written by veteran industry specialists.

The section on technology was a real eye-opener.  It was a litany of virtually every accounting fraud known to man.  The abuses ran in two related areas:

–capitalizing (and therefore delaying recording as expense) almost everything, especially research and development expense, and

–setting unrealistically lenient schedules for depreciating or amortizing these balance sheet accounts.

The result (and intent) of this chicanery was income statements that showed profits far in excess of the “real” amounts–even paper “profits” when a company was actually bleeding red ink.

The abuses were so blatant that the accounting rules were changed in the US to force virtually all companies to expense R&D costs as incurred, rather than store them up on the balance sheet.  Virtually all companies still write off against income the cost of their plant and equipment much more slowly in their financial reporting to shareholders than they do in their tax reporting to the IRS.

Fast forward to the present.

What effect does the long-ago change in accounting rules for R&D have on today’s publicly traded companies?  For hardware-dependent firms, not that much.  Yes, computers may wear out or become obsolete much faster than, say, a cement plant.  But the presentation of profits to actual and potential shareholders of a semiconductor foundry, a server farm or a steel mill allow for a more or less apples to apples comparison.

Not so for software-oriented firms.

Let’s take AMZN as an example and do a back-of-the-envelope calculation.

During the first half of 2013, AMZN spent $2.97 billion on technology and content.  If we assume that all of that were capitalized instead of expenses (an aggressive assumption) but that any resulting financial reporting profits were subject to tax at the very-high US rates, then I figure AMZN would have shown earnings of $4.50 per share so far in 2013 instead of the $.46 actually reported.  This would suggest, in ballpark figures, $10 a share in EPS for the full year.

Maybe the multiple isn’t so crazy.

Just as important, the same adjustment should apply to any other R&D-centric firm.   R&D may be creating important long-term intellectual property assets for a company, but the accounting rules (for sound historical reasons) portray this activity as a minus.

 

 

capitalizing, expensing and the internet (i)

finitude and stocks

I’ve been having memento mori thoughts recently.

No, not about me personally or anyone I know.  Instead, I’ve been thinking about the role of value investing in today’s world.

Several things have turned my mind in this direction:

–as I travel, I can’t help but notice the increasing numbers of businesses that are giving up the ghost in rural and suburban areas–restaurants, inns, whole strip malls either shuttered or never opened

–I realize that I’m part of the problem as, to my wife’s dismay, I order increasing amounts of stuff through Amazon

–I sometimes wonder what investors are thinking when they pay over $300/share for AMZN, a company whose book value is under $20 and whose high-water mark for earnings was $2.53/share, pre-Great Recession.  Don’t misunderstand me–I’m not saying there aren’t reasons for buying AMZN (after all, I own SPLK (Splunk–great name).  I don;t own AMZN, though.).  I just wonder whether people have thought through what they’re doing or whether they’re just going with the flow.

value investing

What does this have to do with value investing?

When a company spends money, it has two basic choices about how to account for the expenditure.  It can:

–record the money as an expense against current earnings.  In this case the money appears on the income statement as a cost–e.g., raw materials, marketing expense, salary…–and then disappears forever, or

–record the spending as an asset on the balance sheet and dribble the amount as a cost into the income statement over a long (possibly very long) period of time.  The fancy name for this process is capitalizing and it’s normally done only with assets that have long useful lives, like office buildings, stores or factories.  (The company will disclose the rules it uses for the gradual writeoff of asset value in the footnotes to its financial statements.)

The money has already left the building in either case.  The difference is a decision about what revenues to use to match what costs to.

is capitalizing a problem?

I think so.

Value investors like to look at per share book value (also called shareholders’ equity, or net asset value)–i.e., the value of the assets listed on the balance sheet minus any liabilities–and compare this with the stock price.  They consider a stock trading at a discount to book value to be a potential bargain and one trading at a premium (or, like AMZN, at 15x book!) to be potentially overvalued.

The rationale behind this is that:

–the asset base is a defense against competition.  A potential rival would presumably have to spend a similar amount just to enter the business.

–book value is based on the actual prices paid, and is not adjusted for inflation.  A company with a long history may well have assets whose value has increased over time but whose cost has already been partly or completely written off against income.  Therefore, book value may significantly understate the actual value of the company’s assets.

I have two concerns

In the current time of deep social and technological change, having a lot of capital sunk into yesterday may not be such a great thing. After all, it didn’t help Toys R Us or Borders or Circuit City.

Also, my experience is that US companies are very reluctant to decrease the balance sheet value of not-so-hot assets.  And auditors are not inclined to push the issue.  The more dead real estate I see, the more I wonder whether corporate balance sheets are as up-to-date as they’re supposed to be.

 

Amazon is the polar opposite of the book value enthusiast’s ideal stock.  How much of that is reality, how much accounting quirks?  That’s tomorrow’s topic.