Part 3 in a series of tutorials on value investing : Earnings, book value, debt, growth rates and market capitalization.
The Investor’s Toolkit
There are a lot of tools that you can use to take the measure of a company. Things like return on equity, profit margin, enterprise value and so forth. But there are 5 key concepts which I want to explore in some more detail in this section before we dive into building out a more comprehensive valuation framework: market capitalization, earnings, book value, growth rates and debt.
Larger companies have their advantages. Their operations tend to be more stable. Earnings don’t jump around nearly as much as they do with the smaller companies. During recessions they’ll often continue to churn out profits, albeit typically at a reduced rate. They are widely followed by analysts so you can always find someone who will confirm that you are making a wise investment. (Although this is really not such a good thing.) For investors who may be a little less comfortable with the whole investing process, the relative safety and security of these large cap companies can be reassuring.
Personally, though, I usually prefer to hunt for opportunities on the smaller end of the spectrum. Smaller companies offer many advantages too and some wonderful opportunities to the independent investor. As you head down the size spectrum, the big, professional investors get squeezed out. There are simply not enough shares of these smaller companies trading hands to allow a big mutual fund to take a meaningful stake. That means that as an astute investor, you aren’t competing with the professionals anymore, you are matching wits with your fellow small-time investors. Analysts are less likely to report on these smaller companies and they don’t often make it into the news. They are largely ignored by the Wall Street machine and that means there is more of an opportunity for them to become mispriced.
Small cap companies have other inherent advantages. They are more nimble and able to pivot into new lines of business as opportunity presents itself. They are often run by enthusiastic founders with skin in the game. Being smaller, they can grow very quickly if the conditions are right. And not least, they are far easier to understand and analyze. Their annual report is unlikely to be some 100 page monstrosity, as you’ll occasionally see with the big conglomerates.
The lines between the large cap “blue chip” stocks and the small cap or mid cap arena are vague. Some small cap companies may exhibit very stable, large cap characteristics while some large cap companies can be even more volatile than their small cap cousins. Generally, though, the line in the sand seems to be around the $4 billion market cap mark. Above this level, investors are more likely to give companies the benefit of the doubt and afford them a higher valuation. Below this level, and they will approach companies with a bit more skepticism. When market caps move below the $300 million mark, they move into micro cap territory and valuations often take another leg down.
If you look at a list of stocks in the newspaper or pull up a stock’s summary page on one of the big financial websites, you’ll always see the p:e ratio prominently displayed. Ignore it. The p:e ratio as quoted by these services is so frequently wrong so as to be pretty much useless to you in your investigation of the company. The quoted p:e ratio can be wrong for any number of reasons. The earnings figure that the p:e ratio is based on could simply be out of date. Or the company may have issued more shares since the last time the data was updated. More shares means lower earnings per share and therefore a higher p:e. The earnings could be technically accurate but include one-time items that distort the picture significantly. The earnings could be inflated by a big tax rebate or licensing payment. A more accurate approach to calculating earnings could be to back out these windfall items or else average them out over a period of several years. The earnings on which the p:e is being quoted may not even be the right ones to use. If the economy is in recession and earnings have plunged, the p:e ratio could look extraordinarily high (because the ‘e’ has dropped so low). If you are banking on the idea that the company will recover, then it makes more sense to use the earnings figure from before the start of the recession as your guidepost.
What we are looking for is an earnings number that filters out all the noise and leaves us with a clearer picture of what the ongoing day to day operations of the business are. To this end, I’ll factor out things like currency exchange gains and losses, legal settlements, restructuring charges (unless they are a regular occurrence!), goodwill write downs, investment gains and losses, fair value adjustments, tax rates that fluctuate up and down like a yo-yo, etc. If the company is in a slump, I’ll use the earnings from before the downturn, adjusted for any subsequent share issuance or changes in the business.
In short, the earnings number I use for my p:e calculations is heavily edited and can be miles away from what is reported by the company or by the financial media. What I’m trying to construct is an earnings figure that represents what I expect the company to earn from its regular, day to day operations over the course of a typical, non-recessionary year. I call these my “baseline” earnings.
For every company I look at, I add up all their debt and then subtract out any cash they might have squirreled away. If the total debt is more than five times their annual earnings, that’s a deal breaker for me. And if it’s over three times, I start to get uneasy. Some of the low p:e stocks you may come across could have a low p:e precisely because investors are nervous about the amount of debt the company is carrying. Debt limits a company’s options and can be a real millstone around its neck when things turn south (as they inevitably do from time to time). A financially strong company (low debt, cash on hand) is much better equipped to handle the occasional setback and has the flexibility to pursue new business opportunities when they present themselves.
Most of my attention gets focused on the underlying earnings of a company and my fair value assessments usually revolve around these earnings numbers. But there are times when book values also enter into the equation. The book value of a company is the sum total of all of its assets minus all of its liabilities. In a bankruptcy sale, this is supposedly what you might be left with after all the assets have been sold off and the creditors made whole. Thus, it provides a sort of safety net under the stock price. As well, the book value gives you an important insight into how much substance there is behind those sparkling profit numbers.
As with debt levels, this number tends to come more into focus when things go badly. If profits unexpectedly dry up, there may be no ‘e’ to base a p:e ratio on and investors instead will start to look at the value of a company’s assets to determine what they are still willing to pay for the company.
If I’m looking at book value in the context of a worst case scenario, I typically calculate the tangible book value, which is the book value minus any intangible assets like “goodwill” that can’t be readily converted into cash in a fire sale.
Growth rates are an essential piece of the puzzle when evaluating new stock market investments. A company that is doubling in size every 3 years is worth a lot more than one that is slowly withering away. But like value, growth can be a slippery concept. Are we looking at growth in sales, growth in earnings or maybe growth in book value? What if earnings have doubled but sales have stayed flat? Has the company been inflating its earnings by cutting costs and if so, is this sustainable? Is the company growing because of something they are doing particularly well or are they just riding an updraft in their industry? Is growth set to accelerate in the future or level off? And so on.
When I consider growth, I am generally looking for long-term growth in all three of the main company yardsticks: earnings, sales and book value. Over a 5 or 10 year period, one may have grown slightly faster than the others, but I like to see them all in the same rough ballpark. If not, if, for example, book value has dropped while sales have flatlined and earnings have doubled, I need to know why. In this case, it could be that the company took a big write-down to shut down a division that was losing money and diverting management’s attention. This would have the effect of lowering the company’s book value and sales while boosting its apparent earnings. I could get a better idea of the company’s ongoing growth rate by looking at the results of the continuing operations only and ignoring the jump in earnings caused by shedding the unprofitable division, obviously an event that can’t be repeated. What I’m trying to do is form an opinion of what the future outlook for growth is and for that I need to have a clear understanding of what’s transpired in the past.
Softer, more subjective factors often find their way into your growth estimations. Does the company have a hot, new product coming out? Do they have patents that are set to expire? Are new competitors moving in on their turf?
In assessing historical growth rates (which hopefully give you some insight into what future growth rates might be) it is important to compare the current situation to an equivalent point in time during the last business cycle. The economy goes through cycles of growth and contraction and companies, especially smaller ones, tend to follow along. Earnings may be robust during the expansion phase of the business cycle, fall to next to nothing during a recession and then jump back up when the recession ends. If you only look at the growth in earnings over a short time period, say from a cycle low to a cycle high, you may get a very misleading sense of how the company has actually grown over time. If you’ve just come out of a recession, it might look as if earnings have tripled over the last 3 years but if you looked back a little further you might see that the company is actually no further ahead than it was 5 years previously, before the recession began.
There are a couple of formulas that come in handy when assessing growth. If you are looking at a company’s historical results and you want to know what the annual growth rate has been over a period of time, you can calculate that using the formula below. You need to know the starting value of the item you are trying to evaluate, the ending value, and the number of years in between. The caret symbol (^) in the formula below means “to the power of”.
Growth Rate = (Final Value / Starting Value) ^ (1 / # Years) -1
If you’re looking at a company that has doubled its earnings over the past 5 years, for instance, growing its earnings per share from $1.00 to $2.00 over that time period, you can calculate the annual growth rate in earnings using the formula above. (2 / 1) ^ (1 / 5) -1 = .149 or approximately 15% per year.
Working back the other way, you can use the “Rule of 72”. If you divide 72 by the annual percentage rate of growth, it will tell you how many years it will take your measurement to double. If earnings are growing at 15% per year, then they will double in value roughly every 72 / 15 = 5 years. The rule of 72 is an approximation only but it’s good for a quick and dirty back of the envelope type of estimate.
Assessing the potential growth rate of a company is a real art and I never try to put too fine a point on my own analysis. But it’s nonetheless an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to determining a company’s true value, as we’ll explore further in the next section.
In Part 4: Building a Valuation Framework, we’ll use our investor toolkit to develop a comprehensive approach to calculating the value of a company, that we can then use to unearth those undervalued opportunities.