The kinks of financial journalism

This is the tile of a 2014 paper by Prof. Diego Garcia of the University of North Carolina, in which heanalyzes the relationship between recent behavior of the stock market and subsequent reporting in financial newspapers.

Conventional wisdom holds that reporters’ articles mirror and perhaps intensify the tone of the recent past.  That is to say, they are unduly bearish when the stock market has been making losses, and similarly unduly bullish when it has been making gains.

Prof. Garcia, studying Wall Street as reflected in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times from 1920 to 2005, draws a different conclusion.  He writes:

“…the asymmetry of journalists’ writing is pervasive: it has barely changed from the 1920s to the 1990s, and virtually all authors exhibit the same pattern, emphasizing negative returns, ignoring large positive market moves.”

Why should financial reporting have a negative bias?

The first thing that comes to my mind is television and radio weather people, who have a strong tendency to predict more precipitation than the US Weather Service, the government body from which they derive their data, says will happen.  How so?  Media weather people know that talking about looming bad weather has more entertainment value than a more benign forecast.  Also, viewers/listeners feel relieved if the forecast is for rain and the day is sunny instead.  They only get angry if the forecast is for fair weather and it ends up pouring.  Therefore, media weather people have every business/career reason to shade their forecasts heavily toward more precipitation rather than less.

John Authers, a reporter from the Financial Times from whom I learned about Prof. Garcia’s paper, gives more or less the same rationale for the similar phenomenon with newspapers.

my thoughts

–if the default position of a newspaper writer is to write a negative story, then we probably get no investment information from it.  On the other hand, if the story is positive, it’s unusual enough that we should look into the company or industry being reported on as a possible investment idea.

–Mr. Authers illustrates the risks to a journalist of making a positive recommendation.   Better, he says, to recommend not buying Amazon and watch it double than to run the risk of a loss.  Suppose the positive recommendation turn out to be Enron?

Of course, anyone in his right mind who read the Enron financials would have stayed as far away from that company as possible (yes, a couple of less-skilled colleagues at my last firm were, incomprehensibly to me, quite eager to buy the stock just before it imploded–and, yes, I did buy a stock certificate before it was delisted at $.80 or so as a souvenir–but that’s another story).  Reporters are trained journalists, however, not securities analysts.  They typically don’t have the economics, accounting or finance background to do analysis (although Mr. Authers does have an MBA from Columbia).  Nor do they have the time.  So the risk they run by saying something positive about a company is enormously high.

–An aside:  oddly enough, one of the first steps in training a growth stock analyst is to question this common sense attitude that avoiding all possibility of loss is the highest virtue.  For growth investors, finding a stock that can triple is.

–this study is only of US newspapers.  In my experience, reporters for the Financial Times are much more highly skilled than their US paper counterparts.



what a good analysis of Tesla (TSLA) would contain

A basic report on TSLA by a competent securities analyst would contain the following:

–an idea of how the market for electric cars will develop and the most important factors that could make progress faster or slower.  My guess is that batteries–costs, power/density increases, driving range, charging speed–would end up being key.  Conclusions would likely not be as firm as one might like.

–TSLA’s position in this market, including competitive strengths/weaknesses.  I suspect one main conclusion will be that combustion engine competitors will be hurt by the internal politics of defending their legacy business vs. advancing their electric car position.  The ways in which things might go wrong for TSLA will be relatively easy to come up with; things that could go right will likely be harder to imagine.

–a detailed income statement projection.  The easy part would be to project (i.e., more or less make up) future unit volume and selling price.  The harder part would be the detail work of breaking down unit costs into variable (meaning costs specific to that unit, like labor and materials, with a breakout of the most important materials (i.e., batteries)) and fixed (meaning each unit’s share of the cost of operating the factory).  An important conclusion will be the extent of operating leverage, that is, the degree to which fixed costs influence that total today + the possibility of very rapid profit growth once the company exceeds breakeven.

There are also the costs of corporate overhead, marketing and interest expense.  But these are relatively straightforward.

The income statement projection is almost always a tedious, trial-and-error endeavor.  Companies almost never reveal enough information, so the analyst has to make initial assumptions about costs and revise them with each quarterly report until the model begins to work.

–a projection of future sources and uses of cash.  Here the two keys will be capital spending requirements and debt service (meaning interest payments + any required repayments of principal).  Of particular interest in the TSLA case will be if/when the company will need to raise new capital.



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.





the changing nature of competition

Happy Halloween!!

This is the continuation of my post from last Friday.

A generation ago, establishing a competitive edge in a business was about having plant and equipment, operating that physical capital efficiently and, for consumer-facing firms, advertising to create and maintain a brand image.

First mover advantage was often key, since it might allow the initial entrant to achieve economies of scale (lower unit costs) in manufacturing or marketing that would discourage potential rivals  by making their path to profits prohibitively long and expensive.

The Internet, and the rise of China as a low-cost contract manufacturing hub, changed all that.  Supply chain management software did allow vertically integrated companies to coordinate actions much more efficiently.  But it also gave smaller, more focused firms the power to create virtual integration using third-party supply chain partners.


Today’s competition, particularly in the consumer arena, is as much about services as physical products.  The development of internet-based social media has made it much easier for a fledgling niche product to find a voice without spending heavily on traditional advertising.

Knowledge and relationships have replaced plant and cumulative advertising expense as “moats” that protect a firm from competition.


These developments present two problems for stock market investors:

–the first one is straightforward.  Comparing a stock price with the per share value of tangible balance sheet assets (Benjamin Graham) may no longer provide relevant buy/sell signals.  Nor will supplementing this analysis by including intangibles (Warren Buffett), using, say, the sum of the past ten years’ advertising expense.

A very successful value investor friend of mine used to say that there are no bad businesses, there are only bad managements   …and bad managements will invariably be replaced.  In an overly simple form, he thought that so long as he could see large and growing revenue, everything else would take care of itself.  Broken companies were actually better investments, since their stock prices would leap as new managements created turnarounds.

As I see it, in today’s world this traditional approach to valuation is less and less effective–because assets no longer have the enduring worth they formerly did.

–first mover advantage is probably more important today than in the past.  But while network effects are readily apparent, a company’s development stage, where the network is growing but the source of eventual profits is unclear, can be very long.  And it may be difficult in the early days to separate a Fecebook from a Twitter.


So while we can all dream of finding a profit-spinning machine that has high turnover and negative working capital, today’s versions are inherently more vulnerable than those of a generation ago.  They may also come to market in their infancy, when what kind of adults they’ll tun into is harder to imagine or predict.


are high margins better than low ones?

This post is indirectly about Amazon’s retailing business, although it has much wider implications.

My answer:  not necessarily.  It depends on what kind of company we’re talking about.  Note, also, that this is a topic that’s badly misunderstood, particularly in the financial press, which clings to the simple assumption that high margins, of themselves, are better than low ones.


The apparent virtue of having high margins is clear.  Companies that have, for instance, essential intellectual property protected by high patent/copyright/manufacturing-knowhow walls, can achieve selling prices that are much greater function of the usefulness of their products/services to customers than of their production costs (this latter is the functional definition of a commodity company).  Software firms can easily achieve 50%–or maybe 80% or 90%–operating margins for their wares.


Most distribution companies–both wholesale and retail–don’t work this way, however.  They thrive through low margins, high inventory turnover and careful working capital management to achieve superior financial results.  In fact, for these companies high margins are a threat, not a boon.  Why?    …because high margins attract competition.

the low-margin model

Here’s a (highly simplified) account of how the low-margin model works:

the simplest case

A warehouse holds inventory of $1 million.  It constantly replenishes its stocks, and pays cash immediately for new supplies, so that it always has $1 million invested.  It marks items up by 5% over its costs.

Let’s say the company generates an average of $525,000 in sales per month.  That means it turns over about half its inventory (a turnover ratio of 6x/year) each month, earning operating income of $25,000.  $25,000 x 12 = $300,000 in operating profit per year.  Applying a 1/3 income tax rate, it produces $200,000 in net income.  That’s a 20% return on invested capital. Not bad.

a more favorable one

Let’s now imagine that the company can turn its inventory once a month (turnover ratio = 12).  This means it earns operating income of $50,000/month, or $600,000 per year. This translates into $400,000 in net income. That’s a 40% return on capital.


Let’s say the company turns inventory once a month but is large enough or important enough to suppliers that they no longer ask for payment on delivery.  Instead, they are willing to wait for 30-45 days.

Now the company has zero/negative working capital, i.e., no capital invested in inventory.  It’s return on investment is now infinite.


Yes, this third case is probably too good to be true.  But it illustrates the enormous, badly-understood, power of high inventory-turnover companies.


A post on potential troubles in paradise on Tuesday.



“The Dying Business of Picking Stocks”

That’s the title of an interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal on the accelerating replacement of active investing with indexing in portfolios of all stripes in the US.

One important factor in the lagging performance of most active investment groups is being left out, however.  It’s the one no active investment organization wants to talk about.

Beginning in the 1980s and increasing in momentum in the 1990s, active investment groups began to dismantle their in-house investment research departments.

Why do this?

In my view it’s because,

–research departments are expensive.  They’re hard to run well.  Evaluating securities analysts over short periods of time, like a year, is as much an art as a science.  Because of its pain-in-the-neck character, a less tha nstellar research effort is very easy to regard as an unneeded expense rather than a valuable asset

–most money management organizations are run by the chief marketing person, with the head portfolio manager being the Chief Investment Officer.  So the ultimate decision maker on firm-wide administrative matters is typically not an expert on what it takes to have sustainably good investment performance

–in the 1980s and 1990s brokerage firms built and maintained strong research departments, whose output they offered to money management clients in return for charging a higher commission rate for trades.  So reliable–although not proprietary–third party research was available to money managers without their having to pay for it from management fees.  This added to the view that good in-house research was unnecessary

–eliminating in-house research would mean salaries “saved” that could be used to boost compensation for the professionals who remained (including the CEO and CIO, of course).


Not every firm used all the reasons on this list, but many found some combination of them persuasive enough that they decided to substantially reduce, or eliminate their independent research entirely.

This, of course, made these firms radically dependent on brokerage research…

…which has proved a disaster when, in their dark days immediately after the stock market collapse of 2008-09, most brokerage houses laid off virtually all their experienced researchers and pared back their for-commission research efforts to the bone.

This left money managers who had eliminate their own research high and dry.  It also meant the affected firms were faced with the prospect of rebuilding their own in-house research.  Because this would involve a substantial expansion of the professional staff, the resulting expense would pressure income for–I think–at least a couple of years.


I haven’t followed this issue carefully.  My experience, though, is that this is the kind of decision CEOs really don’t want to make–to admit they were wrong, and badly enough that fixing their mistake will retard or eliminate future profit growth.  As a result, a kind of paralysis sets in and the process of fixing the error never begins.



operating margin

operating margin

The financial ratio that professional investors focus on more than any other is operating margin, or operating income ÷ revenue.

The major categories of expenses subtracted from revenue to get to operating income are:  direct costs of creating a product/service (cost of materials, wages, power, water…) plus depreciation and SG&A (sales, general and administrative) expenses.  SG&A includes things like the cost of top management, sales force and corporate headquarters.

the higher, the better?

Most people assume that the higher the operating margin is, the more attractive a company is as an investment.  The idea is that the company in question must have spectacular offerings to be able to charge high prices that exceed the cost of creating them by a lot.  But that’s only true in very specific circumstances.

value and sustainability

The two big questions are whether current high margins are valuable and whether they are sustainable.


The first point sounds weird but is actually an important special case.  Some companies (think:  fine jewelry or furniture) have high margins–high profits on each sale–because to do business they have to maintain large inventories that don’t turn over very frequently.  Unlike candy in the checkout aisle, where the starting inventory may be sold several times a day, it may take six months or longer to sell a brooch or a sofa that’s on the showroom floor.  So, yes, the margins are high.  But a good part of that is to compensate for the expense of holding inventory (not such a concern in a 0% interest rate world) and the risk that items may go out of style (or never have been in style) before they’re sold.


Most of the time, however, sustainability is the key issue.  That’s because high margins draw competition.  Personally, I think very high margins are never sustainable forever.  So for me the question is how quickly, and how publicly, they’ll be eroded.  I’m willing to believe that there’s an enduring  value to intellectual property like patents.  So I’m happy to buy tech companies.  There’s also a value to intangibles, like a strong brand name, an efficient distribution network and good customer service.  However, intangibles are not the no-brainer it used to be.  The internet has eroded that value badly from what it was twenty years ago–much to the consternation of people like Warren Buffett, whose career was built on his superior understanding of intangibles.

In any event, the holder of high-margin firms has to be alert to possible threats to the franchise.  Often the threat comes in the form of what are initially thought to be inferior products.  The $3000 PC replaced the $100,000 mini-computer, not because the former was better than the latter but because you could get 30 of them and make do for less than a single machine from DEC.  Same thing with mp3 players vs. stereos.  The sound is inferior but the machines are cheaper and portable.

the beauty of low margins


Again, personally, I find myself attracted to distribution companies, which have high operating income despite low operating income margins, because they have high inventory turnover.  The ones I find most compelling send to sell a product long before they have to pay their supplier for it.  Also, they’re badly understood by devotees of high margins.

broken companies

A final note:  value investors begin to salivate when they find a firm with much lower margins than is the norm for the industry.  Typically, the stock will be very cheap and, they believe, it’s just a matter of time before either the board of directors takes corrective action or the company is taken over.  Normally not my cup of tea but I’ll dabble on occasion.