is the S&P expensive?

I’ve been reading a lot of commentary recently that maintains stocks are generally expensive.  Sometimes the commentators even recommend selling, although in true Wall Street strategist style, they’re not very specific about how much to sell or how deep they think the downside risk is.

The standard argument is that if you compare the PE ratio of the S&P today with its past, the current number, just about 25x, is unusually high.

That’s correct.

What I haven’t see anyone do, however, is consider the price of stocks against the price of alternative liquid investments–cash and bonds.  That would tell you what to do with the money if you sell stocks.  It would also tell you that bonds are much more expensive than stocks.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury is currently 2.23%.  That’s the equivalent of a PE of about 44x.  The return on cash is worse.  Cash, however, protects principal from capital loss, except in the most dire circumstances–ones where you’re thinking you should have bought canned goods and a cabin in the woods..

In addition, I think the most likely course for interest rates in the US is for them to rise.  When this has happened in the past, bond prices have fallen while stocks have gone basically sideways.  There’s no guarantee this will happen with stocks again.  But rising rates are always bad news for bonds.

What is surprising to me about current market movements is that stocks continue to be so strong during a time of typical seasonal weakness.





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.


Disney (DIS): the valuation issue

Long-time readers may recall that I became interested in DIS in late 2009, the company acquired Marvel Entertainment, a stock I held, for stock and cash.

corporate structure

I hadn’t looked at DIS for years before that.  I quickly learned that DIS was a conglomerate, that is, a type of company where the most useful analysis comes taking the sum of its constituent parts.

I knew the company’s movie business had been struggling for some time and the theme parks were being hit hard by recession.  Still, I was more than mildly surprised that ESPN (plus other media that we can safely ignore) made up somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of DIS’s operating earnings.  Why did they still call it Disney?


Given that the parks are a highly cyclical business and movies moderately so–meaning the PE applied to those earnings should be relatively low–and that ESPN was showing all the characteristics of a secular growth business–meaning high PE–I thought that ESPN represented at least 80% of the market capitalization of DIS.  (That’s despite the fact that the market would apply a higher than normal multiple to cyclically depressed results).

So DIS was basically ESPN with bells and whistles.

ESPN’s turning point

In 2012, ESPN made a major effort to enter the UK sports entertainment market.  To my mind, this wasn’t a particularly good sign, since it implied ESPN believed the domestic market was maturing.  Worse, ESPN lost the bidding, closing out its path to growth through geographic expansion.

It seemed to me that DIS management, which I regard as excellent, understood clearly what was happening.  It began to redirect corporate cash flow away from ESPN and toward the movie and theme park business, which had better growth prospects, and where it has since had unusually good success.

2014-16 results

Over the past two fiscal years (DIS’s accounting year ends in September), the company’s line of business results look like this:

ESPN +        revenues up by +11.9%, operating earnings by +6%

parks           revenues up by +12%, op earnings  +24%

movies        revenues up by +30%, op earnings +74%

merchandise   revenues up by +4.6%, op earnings +33%.

the valuation issue

ESPN has gone ex growth.  This implies these earnings no longer deserve a premium PE multiple.  To me, the fact that ESPN now treats WWE as a sport (!!) just underlines its troubles.

The other businesses are booming.  But they’re also cyclical.  So while improving efficiency implies multiple expansion, earnings approaching a cyclical high note implies at least some multiple contraction.

Because the two businesses are so different, I think Wall Street is making a mistake in treating earnings from the two as more or less equal.


DIS will most likely earn $6 a share or so this fiscal year.  That will be something like $3 from ESPN and $3 from the rest.

Take the parks… first.  Let’s say I’d be willing to pay 18x earnings for their earnings.  If that’s the right number, then these businesses make up $54 a share in DIS value.

Now ESPN.  If we assume that the worst is over for ESPN in terms of subscriber and revenue-per-subscriber losses, we can argue that the future earnings stream looks like a bond’s.  If we think that ESPN should yield, say, 5% (a 20x earnings multiple), that would mean ESPN is worth $60 of DIS’s market cap.  If we’d still on the downslope, that figure could be a lot too high.

$54 + $60 = $114.  Current stock price:  $109.

my bottom line

My back of the envelope calculation for the parks… segment may be a bit too low.  I could also be persuaded that my figure for ESPN is too rich, but it would take a lot to make me want to move the needle higher for it.

Yes, most of DIS’s earnings are US-sourced, so the company could be a big winner from domestic income tax reform.

But if I were to be holding a fully valued stock on the idea of a tax reform boost, I’d prefer one with more solid underpinnings.  At $90, maybe the stock is interesting.  But I think ESPN–the multiple as much as the future earnings–remains a significant risk.





1Qfiscal17 earnings for Microsoft(MSFT)

MSFT reported a strong 1Q17 after the close last night.

Revenue was up +3% (non-GAAP) year on year.  Operating income was flat, on the same basis, and net up +6%.  EPS was up by +9%, at $.76, exceeding the high end of the expectations of the thirty-odd professional sell side analysts who follow the company.

Growth businesses, like the cloud or the Surface line of laptop/tablet hybrids, were up strongly.  Legacy businesses held their own.  Guidance is for a flattish 2Q17.


In many ways, the MSFT report is similar to the Intel (INTC) results from the night before.  Guidance for both companies appeared roughly the same, as well–more or less flat quarter on quarter performance, during a period that’s typically seasonally strong.

The reaction in the press and in the stock price for MSFT, however, was strongly positive.  The stock was up by 4%+ when the results were made public   …and by more than that after the conference call.  As I’m writing this on Friday afternoon, MSFT is holding onto almost all of its after-hours gain during a down day on Wall Street.

INTC, in contrast, fell at all three waypoints–announcement, conference call, next-day trading.


Part of the contrast in stock performance has to do with the differing nature of the two companies’ businesses, hardware vs. software.  Part is a function of the greater speed at which MSFT has been able to demonstrate that it is turning itself around.


On the other hand, I find it noteworthy that there should be a 10% relative performance difference in two days between the two behemoths who were once the constituents of the former Wintel alliance–and on bottom lines that, if we removed the company names, don’t look all that different.

The rest, of course, must represent two different sets of expectations.  I hold both stocks, which I’ve been studying for over a quarter century (and which I find a little scary).  My expectations aren’t that different.

I’m not simply grousing about being wrong aobut INTC.  I think of investing in the stock market as somewhat like playing a game whose rules each player has to figure out as play progresses.  I’ve often likened the difference between investing in, say, the UK or Japan vs. the US as like that between playing checkers or Sorry and playing chess.

I have a hunch that in reports like these we’re seeing evidence of a change in how the stock market game will be played in the US in the future.  If so, it will be important to catch on to the new state of things as soon as possible.


3Q16 earnings for Intel (INTC): implications

Last night after the close, INTC reported 3Q16 earnings results.

The number were good.  INTC’s growth businesses grew; its legacy arms showed unusual pep.  The latter development had been flagged by INTC during the quarter when the company announced wholesale customers were increasing their chip inventories. Nevertheless, earnings per share of $.80 exceeded the average of 29 Wall Street analysts by $.07–and surpassed even the highest street estimate by a penny.

Despite this, the stock fell by about 3% as soon as the earnings release was made public.  Traders clipped another 2% off the share price on the earnings conference call.  During trading today, the stock initially fell almost another 2%, before rallying a bit to close just below its worst aftermarket level.

There was some bad news in the report.  It will cost INTC more than anticipated to rid itself of McAfee.  It also looks like chip customers are no longer so eager to build inventory.  Instead, thus far in the fourth quarter they seem to be subtracting some of the extra they added during 3Q.   The result of this is that INTC thinks 4Q–usually the strongest period of the year seasonally–will only be flat with the robust performance of 3Q16.


I find the selling to be unusually harsh (be aware:  I own INTC shares).  After all, if INTC had earned the $.73/share the market had expected, a forecast of $.76 wouldn’t look all that bad.  That outcome, which appears to be the company’s current guidance, would also be better than the analyst consensus had been predicting for 4Q last week.

I’m not trying to argue that the stock should have gone up on this report.  I just don’t see enough bad–or, better said, enough unforeseeably bad–news to warrant a selloff of this magnitude in a gently rising market.

I attribute the aftermarket selloff to some combination of computer trading and thin volumes.  What surprises me is that there were no significant buyers once regular trading–overseen, presumably, by senior human investors–began.

Because of this, I think that trading in INTC over the next days is well worth watching to see if/when buyers reenter the market.  We may be able to draw conclusions that reach wider than INTC itself.

earnings growth: velocity vs. acceleration

velocity vs. acceleration

For investors, earnings velocity is the rate of change of earnings.

Earnings acceleration is the rate of change of velocity.


If a company is growing earnings per share at a steady +10% annual rate, it has earnings velocity of +10% and acceleration of 0.

To have earnings acceleration, the rate of earnings growth has to increase.  The growth rate pattern has to be something like:  +10%, +12%, +15%…

Both velocity and acceleration can be negative as well as positive.  If velocity is negative, earnings are shrinking.  If acceleration is negative, the rate of earnings growth is slowing down.  For growth investors, both are bad signs.

as applies to growth investing

Having any earnings per share growth is better than having none.  Having eps growth that’s fast, and faster than that of the average stock, is an important characteristic of attractive growth stocks.

Having eps acceleration is also important.  Its presence typically creates the largest price earnings multiple expansion.

Acceleration is a two-edged sword, however.  Securities analysts looks for signs of earnings growth deceleration as an early warning sign that a company’s period of superior growth–and therefore of its attraction to investors–is coming to an end.  So it’s often the case that the PE will begin to contract, even though absolute growth is high, because that growth is starting to decelerate.

why this can be important:  performance implications

This can create an odd situation between the performance of two stocks, A and B.

Annual growth of A’s earnings: +20%, +35%, +45%, +25%.

Growth of B’s earnings:  +10%, +12%, +15%, +18%.

In the first two years,  Stock A most likely has outperformed Stock B.  By year 4, B is most likely outperforming A, even though the rate of growth of A’s earnings is continually better than B’s.  That’s because A’s earnings are beginning to decelerate, while B’s are not.








earnings surprisingly strong, sales a little light–the stock plunges: why?

strong eps, light sales

Sometimes the way that the mind of Wall Street expresses itself in stock prices strikes casual observers as odd.  A prime example of this is when a company (DELL is a recent example) reports earnings that exceed the Wall Street consensus handily, yet the stock doesn’t go up the way you’d expect.  Instead, it drops like a stone.  The market seemingly ignores the strong earnings and points to revenues as the cause of its unhappiness.

Seems kind of petty.

Is there any sense to this reaction?

Yes  ….and no.

the yes part

Remember, the growth stock investor’s mantra has two features:

–surprisingly strong earnings

longer than the market expects.

In situations like the one I describe above, it’s the assumed lack of permanence in the earnings gains that the market is making a negative reaction to.  The argument is this:

Companies make money either by selling more stuff, in which case revenues will rise, or by cutting expenses, in which case they won’t.  So earnings without revenues = cost-cutting.  Cost-cutting opens the door to two bad outcomes:

–sooner or later (probably sooner) the company will run out of expenses to cut and earnings will drop back to their pre-surprise level

–the firm may reducing crucial expenditures, such as research and development or customer service to an extent that future earnings prospects are harmed.  Therefore, earnings won’t just drop back to the pre-surprise level, they’ll fall below that.

the no part

The knee-jerk reaction that earnings growth without revenue growth isn’t a good sign will probably turn out to be right in the majority of cases.  But there can be instances where this is a mistake.

As I’m writing this, I’m struggling to find a plausible concrete example to illustrate what I’m about to say–which tells you (and me) something.

Anyway, it’s possible that a company is composed of a fast-growing, high-margin component and a slower-growing, lower-margin (or loss-making) one.  It may be that new products in the high-margin component are what’s creating the slow revenue, fast profit-growth pattern.  It’s even possible that the company in question is preparing to separate into two parts, either by sale or spinoff, in a way that will remove barriers to investors seeing the full potential of the growth component that the mature one creates.

for a positive market reaction?

For the market to have a positive reaction to strong earnings, light sales, I think three things are necessary:

–the company has to communicate clearly what the dynamics of the earnings situation are (it may have competitive reasons for not wanting to do this)

–professional analysts have got to trust what the company is saying and/or find confirming evidence, and

–investors have to be in a relatively bullish mood, so they’re willing to overlook the bearish signal and believe the bullish story.