cash flow per share and earnings per share as valuation metrics (ll): cash flow per share

investor preferences

A large number of investors in the US want to buy stocks where the underlying companies are growing profits rapidly.  The same is true in many other stock markets of the world.  For such investors, earnings per share growth is the main metric they look for when transacting.

This isn’t an immutable law of equity investing, however.  To a large degree, the search for growth is also a question of investor preferences.  In the US, the market I have the longest experience with, I’ve seen the mix of price and growth that investors prefer change dramatically several times.  This has been not so much because the macroeconomic environment has changed, but because the personal circumstances of investors (their age and wealth) did.

Also, I’ve seen other markets where preferences are quite different, where a “good” stock is one that pays a high dividend and where the company is mature enough that it has little need to spend capital on expansion.  These are markets where the search is for income, not for growth.  Taiwan in the 1980s is the first strong example I’ve encountered personally (technology stocks there couldn’t list unless they were willing to pay a 5% yield!).   But the US in the pre-WWII era seems to me to have been another.

the search for income

Not every company can grow at a rapid clip of a long time.  As well, some companies temporarily experience declining profits, either because the economy has turned against them cyclically, or because they’ve just lost their way.  In any of these cases, the large group of investors I’ve mentioned above lose interest in the stocks and more or less consign them to the equity junk pile.

There’s a whole set of other professional investors–in fact, in the US they are arguably in the majority–who evaluate stocks not on their earnings growth potential but on the companies’ ability to generate cash from operations.  There are many variations on this approach.  But all use cash flow per share as their main tool.  Such investors calculate an absolute worth for the company (usually a present value of cash flows over, say, ten years) and compare that with the share price.  They buy what they hope are the most undervalued stocks.

Around the globe, such value investors expect that at some point either the company’s fortunes will take a cyclical turn for the better, or that other investors will realize the undervaluation they see, or (in the US at least) that pressure will be brought to bear on the company to improve its operations.

[By the way, about two years ago, I wrote a series of posts on growth investing vs. value investing that you might want to read.  Take the test (which of two stocks would you buy) to see if you’ve got more growth or value tendencies.]

the stock as a quasi-bond

The key to this approach, viewing it through my growth investor eyes, is to regard the stock as a quasi-bond.

Let’s say the firm is now generating $1 a share in cash from profits and $2 a share in cash from depreciation and amortization.  That’s $3 a share in yearly cash flow.  Taking a ten-year investing horizon, the company will generate a total of $30, even with no growth at all–if the firm can get away without serious new capital investments.  If we were to assume that the company could achieve an inflation-matching rise in cash flow, then the present value of the stream of cash flow is $30.  (Yes, this is a vast oversimplification, but it is the thought process.  Remember, too, we’re also figuring there’s nothing left after ten years.)

What would a company like this sell for on Wall Street?  $20 a share?  …less?

We do have a yardstick, since if we reverse the profit and depreciation figures the description in the last paragraph is a rough approximation of INTC.  The value investor’s explanation for serious undervaluation is that people are so worried about the possibility that processors using designs from ARM Holdings will gradually eat in to INTC’s markets that they are overlooking the latter’s substantial cash generating power.

happy vs. unhappy shareholders

Another way of putting the difference between looking at earnings per share and cash flow per share–

–investors look at eps to gauge a firm’s value when they’re happy with the way the company is performing;

–they look at cash flow per share when they’re not, when they’re trying to figure out how much the company would be worth with different management, or in private hands, or after being acquired by a competitor.

The risk the first group takes is that all good things eventually come to an end.  The worry of the second group is that they’ve be unable to pry the company out of the hands of current management.

cash flow per share and earnings per share as valuation metrics (l): earnings per share

two types of investors, two toolboxes

In the US and increasingly in the rest of the world, investors tend to fall into two psychological types:

growth investors (like me) are dreamers.  We buy stocks based on the belief that future profit growth will be strong enough to make the stock rise in price.  Our mantra is:  better eps than expected for longer than expected.  We typically buy stock in well-managed, industry-leading companies and use projected future eps as our main tool.

value investors (the more venerable [read: older] school)are pragmatists.  They buy stocks on the idea that they are undervalued based on what one can see in the here and now–the earning power of today’s well-understood businesses + the value of assets on the balance sheets.  They are happy to buy a mediocre company whose stock is trading on the mistaken belief that the firm is truly wretched.  They often have an eye to change of control.  They use both cash flow per share and eps as tools.


Looking at earnings per share growth is, I think, pretty straightforward conceptually.  Earnings go up, the stock goes along for the ride.  The problem is that forecasting earnings with a reasonable degree of accuracy  even twelve months ahead is much more difficult than you’d imagine.  The evidence is that as a group even professional securities analysts, with lots of information at their fingertips and unparalleled access to company managements, fail at doing this.

One issue is that company managements understand the Wall Street game:  show surprisingly strong earnings and you’ll look like a genius and your stock (your stock options, too) will go up a lot.  So they pressure analysts to understate earnings.  Analysts, too, since their livelihood depends on investor interest in the stocks they cover, sometimes become like home town radio announcers for “their” industry and fail to notice trouble developing.

For growth investors, cash flow per share doesn’t come up in discussion very much.  For me–and I spent a little more than half my career in value shops)–three instances where  cash flow is important stand out:

–An emerging company has spent a lot on creating the infrastructure it needs to launch its products/ services, but they haven’t caught on yet.  The firm is showing small profits, or maybe losses at present.  This situation often creates the opportunity for significant operating leverage (large profit increases from small increases in sales).  So if you can find a convincing reason that the company will be successful, it is probably a very interesting investment.

–A more established company has persistently high cash flow but small profits.  This means cash flow consists mostly of depreciation.  Put another way, the company continues to make capital investments but then spends most of its time just trying to recover its (poorly conceived) outlays.  Value investors are drawn to this kind of firm like moths to a flame–thinking that either the board of directors, shareholders or activist investors will force changes.  Growth investors, in contrast, run away as fast as they can.

–A company has two divisions, one of which provides all the growth.  This happens more often than you might think.  In fact, WYNN (which I own) is in just this position.  Macau operations provide all the profits.  To my (growth investor) mind, a situation like this can provide very good performance.  That’s provided you can convince yourself that the second division–Las Vegas, in this case–won’t turn into a black hole of losses that devours the profitable division. This is where cash flow comes in as analytic tool.

As an investor, it’s not good but it is acceptable that the second division is losing money.  But it’s a great comfort if the division is in the black on a cash flow basis, as WYNN is in Nevada.  Operating leverage can be a worry if there’s a significant chance it can turn negative.  But it can be a longer-term plus, if you think there’s a bigger chance operating leverage can eventually turn positive.

That’s it for today.  Tomorrow, cash flow per share and value investors.