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).

 

 

3Q2016 earnings for Tesla (TSLA): still a “dream” stock

TSLA reported 3Q16 results yesterday after the New York close. The numbers were better than admittedly modest expectations:  the company sold a record number of cars: it had profits; cash flow was strongly positive–although flattered by better management of working capital and sale of pollution tax credits.  Still, a plus.  And the stock is up by about 4% in pre-market trading as I’m writing this.  (I should mention that other members of my family and I hold small positions in TSLA.)

The fact that a $30+ billion market cap company earned $22 million in a quarter would scarcely be considered good news under most circumstances.  Annualizing and rounding up to $100 million for a full year would imply a PE of 300x for the company’s stock!  However, TSLA is still to a considerable degree a “dream” or “concept” stock.

 

The prototypcial “dream” stock is a firm that starts up with the intention of prospecting for gold.  It makes what it thinks/says is a significant strike.  While the company creates the mine and associated processing facilities, speculation about the quality and extent of the orebody runs rampant.  After all, there’s no factual information to contradict any rumors that may float about.

Then the mine opens.  There are now facts available about ore quality and mining costs.  So there’s no more dream–only brass-tacks reality.  The stock typically peaks the day the mine opens.

TSLA’s case is an unusual one.  Auto production has been under way for some time.  Yet the stock hasn’t reverted to trading on actual results.  To some degree the dream has been dented–I find it hard to imagine TSLA could repeat today its 2014 convertible bond offering, whose conversion price was set at $350.  But Elon Musk has expanded and reset his aspirations for TSLA  often enough during its short life as a public company that at least some version of the dream remains alive.  Unless/until TSLA disappoints severely in its results, I’d think the stock will continue to trade without a strong connection to earnings for some time to come.

 

 

 

growth vs. value test: my answers

The growth stock investor’s answer:  Joe’s, of course.  Why?  I pay $18 for the stock now.  At the end of five years, earnings per share will likely be $2.70.  Assuming the stock keeps the same p/e multiple, its price will be $48 and I will have almost tripled my money.

Look at Bill’s in contrast.  I pay $10 for the stock.  At the end of five years, eps will be up 61% and I will have collected $2.50 in dividends (which I may have to pay tax on, but let’s not count that here).  Assuming the stock keeps the same multiple, it will be trading at $16.10.  Add in the dividends and the total is $18.60.  That’s a return of 86%, or about half what I would get from holding Joe’s.

One more thing.  Maybe in five years, people will start to worry about whether Joe’s can continue to expand at its current rate.  As a result, the p/e multiple could begin to contract.  Maybe that will happen, maybe not.  But even if it does, the multiple will have to drop from 18 to 12! before I would be better off with Bill’s.

The value stock investor’s answer:  It’s obviously Bill’s.  Joe’s has a much more aggressive  growth strategy.  Maybe it will work, maybe not.  I don’t see why I have to decide.  A lot of the potential reward for success is already built into Joe’s current stock price.  And if Joe’s strategy is unsuccessful, the stock has a very long way to fall.

If Joe’s strategy doesn’t work, then I’m much better off with Bill’s.  On the other hand, suppose it really is the way to go.  In that case, either Bill’s management will see the light and adopt a more aggressive stance itself, or the board or activist shareholders or a potential predator (Joe’s?) will force a change.  And the stock will skyrocket.  While it may take a little more time, I’ll enjoy all the rewards of backing the winning strategy without taking on the higher risk of holding Joe’s.

It’s a question of temperament.  A conversation between the growth and value sides could have several more rounds before it degenerated into name-calling, but you have the basic idea already.

Maybe the most salient points to be made about each answer are:

–not that many companies grow so rapidly as Joe’s without any hiccups;

–wresting control from an entrenched management is not that easy (look at the sorry history of  Western-style value investing in Japan–or most places in Continental Europe, for that matter–for confirmation).  It may not be possible, and could be a long and arduous process in any event.

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.

 

 

 

where’s the bottom for the gold price?

falling gold

The gold price has fallen steadily from a high of just under $1800 an ounce last October to the current spot price of $1231 this morning.

How low can the gold price go from here?

supply/demand…

In the simplest terms, prices fall when producers supply more to the market than buyers want at a given price.  The price drops to the point where buyers are willing to absorb the excess supply.  Typically, producers read the market signal and begin to cut back on the amount they put on the market.  When cutbacks are large enough, the price stabilizes.

For most things, adjustment happens quickly.  For gold   …not so much.

…for gold

Gold is mined in remote, inhospitable places by hardy workers who operate expensive and highly specialized machinery that needs considerable maintenance.  Once a mine shuts down, chances are it won’t reopen.  It’s hard to reassemble the needed mining crews…and it’s expensive to bring the plant and equipment back up to snuff.  So mining companies try to avoid shutdown at all costs.

Part their planning tends to make over/undersupply worse rather than better.

As the gold price rises, mines continue to process the same amount of ore, but switch to lower-grade areas.  This means they produce less gold, increasing the supply squeeze.  Conversely, when prices being to fall–the situation we’re in now–mines routinely shift to processing higher-grade deposits.  The idea is to keep their revenue steady–and therefore the mining crew together and the mine profitable.  But putting more gold on the market tends to depress prices further.

waiting for the weak to falter

Experienced mining firms also know how any market downturn will play out, even if no one voluntarily withdraws supply from the market.  At some point, the gold price will drop below the cash outlays of the highest-cost mines.  When red ink causes enough of these to cease production, supply will shrink, restoring equilibrium.

So…

…the gold price bottom question boils down to what cash costs for gold miners are and at what price do high-cost gold mines begin to die.

the Thompson-Reuters report

On April 4th, Thompson Reuters issued its 2013 Gold Survey.

TR says current average cash costs for the gold mining industry are $738 an ounce.

Average cash costs in 2009 were well under $500 an ounce, suggesting that that price level is highly defensible.   The addition of high-cost South African supply (averaging over $1,000 an ounce) and cost increases in Australia (much of it currency-induced, I think) are responsible for most of the rise since.

my take

Relative to nine months ago, gold looks cheap.  But supply probably isn’t going to be withdrawn from the market until the gold price falls below $1,000.  And rock-bottom (sorry) is probably $600 or so.

That’s a long way down.

To my mind, no one other than dyed-in-the-wool gold bugs will be interested in gold today.

one company, three sets of accounting records

In almost all countries publicly traded companies maintain three sets of accounting records.  They are:

–tax books in which the firm keeps track of the taxable income it generates, and the taxes due on that income, according to the rules of the appropriate tax authority.

Keeping the tax records may also involve a tax planning element.  A company may, for example, decide to recognize profits, to the extent it can, in a low-tax jurisdiction.  Or, as is often the case with US companies, it may decide not to repatriate profits earned abroad, at least partially because they would thereby become subject to a 35% tax.

Tax considerations can also have operational consequences.  For instance, a firm may choose to locate factories or sales offices in low tax jurisdictions over similar high tax alternatives mostly for tax reasons.

–financial reporting books, in which publicly traded firms keep track of profits, and report them to shareholders, according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).

If the purpose of tax accounting is to yield the smallest amount of taxable income, and thereby the smallest amount of tax, the intent of financial reporting books can be seen as trying to present the same facts in the rosiest possible manner to shareholders.

The main difference between the two accounting systems comes in how long-lived assets are charged as costs against revenue.  Financial accounting rules allow such costs to be spread out evenly over long periods of time.  Tax accounting rules, which may be specifically designed to encourage investment, typically allow the firm to front-load a large chunk of the spending into one or two years.

The end result is that for most publicly traded companies, the net income reported to shareholders is far higher than that reported to the tax authorities.

management control books, kept according to cost accounting rules.  These are the records that a company’s top executives use to organize and direct the firm’s operations.  They set out company objectives and incentives, and are used to assess how each of its units are performing against corporate goals.  Not all parts of a firm are supposed to make profits.  Some may have the job of making, at the lowest possible cost, high quality components used elsewhere in the company.  A mature division may not have the job of growing itself anymore,  but of generating the largest possible amount of cash.

investment implications

Investors normally don’t get to see either a company’s tax books or its management control books.

Financial reporting books can sometimes give a picture that’s too rosy.  The two main culprits are deferred taxes and capitalized interest.  “Capitalized” interest is usually the interest on construction loans taken out for a project than’s underway but not yet finished.  Even though money is going out the door, under GAAP it’s not shown as a current expense.   I’ll explain deferred taxes next week.

In a very practical sense, you don’t need to understand either one too much (although it might be nice to).  Turn to the company’s cash flow statement in its latest SEC earnings filing.  Are there deferred tax or capitalized interest entries?  Do they add to cash flow or subtract from it?   …by how much?  If the answer is no, or that they add to cash flow, there’s nothing to worry about.  If they subtract–and a lot, on the other hand, there’s a potential problem.

return on equity (II): cleaning up a mess

a company as a project portfolio

Every company can be seen as a collection–maybe a portfolio–of investment projects, each with its own risk and return on investment characteristics.  This is not the only way of looking at a business.  And it’s probably not the best way, as the ugly collapse of the conglomerate craze in the US during the 1960s illustrates.  Nevertheless, looking at the business as a project portfolio highlights an issue that the top management of a firm can face.

the BCG growth/cash matrix

One common way of sorting projects  is to use the growth/cash generation matrix invented by the Boston Consulting Group in the 1960s: stars = high growth, high cash generation cash cows = low growth, high cash generation questions marks = high growth, low cash generation dogs = low growth, low cash generation. loaded with canines What do you do if you’re a company with a boatload of dogs?  ..or just one really big dog. To see the issue clearly, let’s simplify: –let’s say that equity is your only source of funding (no working capital or debt), and –let’s say you have only two projects, with 100 units of equity invested in Project 1, which earns 20/year, and 100 units in Project 2, which earns 1/year. the problem: the sterling 20% return on equity of Project 1 is obscured by the near breakeven status of Project 2. The overall return on equity for the company of 10.5%. Why is this bad? Wall Street loves high return on equity–and loathes low return.  And the computer screens that even many professional investors use to narrow down the vast universe of available stocks into a more manageable number to investigate will toss a company like this on the reject pile.  So you’ll be overlooked. What should management do? The possibilities: 1.  eliminate inefficiencies in Project 2 and in doing so raise the ROE to a respectable figure 2.  if that’s not possible, sell Project 2 to someone else who, mistakenly or not, thinks he can do #1 3.  close Project 2 down and write the equity off as a loss, or 4.  divide the company in two, and either (a) spin Project 2 off as a separate entity (that is, give it to shareholders) or (b) gradually sell it to the investing public.

cutting to the chase

Let’s skip down to #4, since what we’re ultimately concerned with is what motivates a company to create a REIT.

why #4?

How can a company get into a situation where solution #4 is the best alternative? In my experience, this almost always involves long-lived assets, where the investment is big, and a company puts all the money in upfront, in the hope of getting steady income over 20 or 30 years.  Examples: a chemical plant, container ships, hotels, or mineral leases. One of two things happens –either the company soon discovers it has wildly overpaid for the assets, or –some unforeseen change, like technological change or a sharp increase in input prices, alters the economics of the project in a fundamentally negative way.

two forms of cash generation

Any project generates cash in two ways: –a return of the capital invested in the project, and –profits. In describing Project 2 above, I said it produces 1 unit of profit per year.  But that profit is after subtracting an expense of, say, 5 as depreciation and amortization. D&A are ways of factoring into costs the gradual wearing out of the factory, the machines or the other investment assets that are used in making the project’s output. In the case of a motel, D&A is a charge for the gradual deterioration of the structure over the years, until the building is too shabby to be used any more and must be razed and rebuilt.  Similarly, big machines either wear out or become technologically obsolete. The key fact to note is that depreciation and amortization aren’t actual outflows of cash–they’re inflows.  But they’re classified as return of capital, not as profit.  (I think this make sense, but I’ve been analyzing companies for over 30 years.  Don’t worry if it doesn’t to you.  Fodder for another post on cash flow vs. profits, and why it makes a difference to investors.)

In the case of Project 2, the actual cash inflow is probably 6/year (depreciation and amortization of 5 + profit of 1).  That’s a 6% yield.  But it’s also a millstone around the neck of the company that launched the project.  It’s return on equity–a key stock market screening factor–will be depressed for as long as it owns the project. On the other hand, to an income-oriented buyer a yield of 6 units/year for the next 20 years is nothing to sneeze at.  At a price of 85, the yield would be an eye-popping 7%.

this has happened before

In the early 1980s, T Boone Pickens, a brilliant financial engineer if no great shakes as an oilman, wildly overpaid for a number of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico.  Once he realized these properties would struggle to make back his initial lease payment and would never make money, he repackaged them as a limited partnership and spun it off. Around the same time, Marriott did the same thing.  It made a similarly unwise decision to build a number of very expensive luxury hotels.  When bookings started to come in, the company saw the properties would provide large cash flow–but never any profits.  So it rolled them all up into a limited partnership, which it sold to retail investors. In both cases, management “repurposed” assets to emphasize their cash generation characteristics rather than their lack of profitability.  Both also used a tax-minimization structure to enhance the assets’ attractiveness to income-oriented individual investors. REITS do the same thing. More tomorrow.