I write about trends. Technology trends are exciting, because they can come and go fast – making big winners of some companies (Apple, Facebook, Tesla, Amazon) and big losers out of others (Blackberry, Motorola, Saab, Sears.) Leaders that predict technology trends can make lots of money, in a hurry, while those who miss these trends can fail faster than anyone expected.
But unlike technology, one of the most important trends is also the most predictable trend. That is demographics. Quite simply, it is easy to predict the population of most countries, and most states. And predict the demographic composition of countries by age, gender, ancestry, even religion. And while demographic trends are remarkably easy to predict very accurately, it is amazing how few people actually plan for them. Yet, increasingly, ignoring demographic trends is a bad idea.
Take for example the aging world population. Quite simply, in most of the world there have not been enough births to keep up with those who ar\e getting older. Fewer babies, across decades, and you end up with a population that is skewed to older age. And, eventually, a population decline. And that has a lot of implications, almost all of which are bad.
Look at Japan. Every September 19 the Japanese honor Respect for the Aged Day by awarding silver sake dishes to those who are 100 or older. In 1966, they gave out a few hundred. But after 46 straight years of adding centenarians to the population, including adding 32,000 in just the last year, there are over 65,000 people in Japan over 100 years old. While this is a small percentage, it is a marker for serious economic problems.
Over 25% of all Japanese are over 65. For decades Japan has had only 1.4 births per woman, a full third less than the necessary 2.1 to keep a population from shrinking. That means today there are only 3 people in Japan for every “retiree.” So a very large percentage of the population are no longer economically productive. They no longer are creating income, spending and growing the economy. With only 3 people to maintain every retiree, the national cost to maintain the ageds’ health and well being soon starts becoming an enormous tax, and economic strain.
What’s worse, by 2060 demographers expect that 40% of Japanese will be 65+. Think about that – there will be almost as many over 65 as under 65. Who will cover the costs of maintaining this population? The country’s infrastructure? Japan’s defense from potentially being overtaken by neighbors, such as China? How does an economy grow when every citizen is supporting a retiree in addition to themselves?
Government policies had a lot to do with creating this aging trend. For example in China there was a 1 child per family policy from 1978 to 2015 – 37 years. The result is a massive population of people born prior to 1978 (their own “baby boom”) who are ready to retire. But there are now far fewer people available to replace this workforce. Worse, the 1 child policy also caused young families to abort – or even kill – baby girls, thus causing the population to skew heavily male, and reduce the available women to reproduce.
This means that China’s aging population problem will not recover for several more decades. Today there are 5 workers for every retiree in China. But there are already more people exiting China’s workforce than entering it each year. We can easily predict there will be both an aging, and a declining, population in China for another 40 years. Thus, by 2040 (just 24 years away) there will be only 1.6 workers for each retiree. The median age will shift from 30 to 46, making China one of the planet’s oldest populations. There will be more people over age 65 in China than the entire populations of Germany, Japan, France and Britain combined!
While it is popular to discuss an emerging Chinese middle class, that phenomenon will be short-lived as the country faces questions like – who will take care of these aging people? Who will be available to work, and grow the economy? To cover health care costs? Continued infrastructure investment? Lacking immigration, how will China maintain its own population?
“OK,” American readers are asking, “that’s them, but what about us?” In 1970 there were about 20M age 65+ in the USA. Today, 50M. By 2050, 90M. In 1980 this was 11% of the population. But 2040 it will be over 20% (stats from Population Reference Bureau.)
While this is a worrisome trend, one could ask why the U.S. problem isn’t as bad as other countries? The answer is simply immigration. While Japan and China have almost no immigration, the U.S. immigrant population is adding younger people who maintain the workforce, and add new babies. If it were not for immigration, the U.S. statistics would look far more like Asian countries.
Think about that the next time it seems appealing to reduce the number of existing immigrants, or slow the number of entering immigrants. Without immigrants the U.S. would be unable to care for its own aging population, and simultaneously unable to maintain sufficient economic growth to maintain a competitive lead globally. While the impact is a big shift in the population from European ancestry toward Latino, Indian and Asian, without a flood of immigrants America would crush (like Japan and China) under the weight of its own aging demographics.
Like many issues, what looks obvious in the short-term can be completely at odds with a long-term solution. In this case, the desire to remove and restrict immigration sounds like a good idea to improve employment and wages for American citizens. And shutting down trade with China sounds like a positive step toward the same goals. But if we look at trends, it is clear that demographic shifts indicate that the countries that maximize their immigration will actually do better for their indigenous population, while improving international competitiveness.
Demographic trends are incredibly accurately predictable. And they have enormous implications for not only countries (and their policies,) but companies. Do your forward looking plans use demographic trends to plan for:
- maintaining a trained workforce?
- sourcing products from a stable, competitive country?
- having a workplace conducive to employees who speak English as a second language?
- a workplace conducive to religions beyond Christianity?
- investing in more capital to produce more with fewer workers?
- products that appeal to people not born in the USA?
- selling products in countries with growing populations, and economies?
- paying higher costs for more retirees who live longer?
Most planning systems, unfortunately, are backward-looking. They bring forward lots of data about what happened yesterday, but precious few projections about trends. Yet, we live in an ever changing world where trends create important, large shifts – often faster than anticipated. And these trends can have significant implications. To prepare everyone should use trends in their planning, and you can start with the basics. No trend is more basic than understanding demographics.
My last column focused on growth, and the risks inherent in a Growth stall. As I mentioned then, Apple will enter a Growth Stall if its revenue declines year-over-year in the current quarter. This forecasts Apple has only a 7% probability of consistently growing just 2%/year in the future.
This usually happens when a company falls into Defend & Extend (D&E) management. D&E management is when the bulk of management attention, and resources, flow into protecting the “core” business by seeking ways to use sustaining innovations (rather than disruptive innovations) to defend current customers and extend into new markets. Unfortunately, this rarely leads to high growth rates, and more often leads to compressed margins as growth stalls. Instead of working on breakout performance products, efforts are focused on ways to make new versions of old products that are marginally better, faster or cheaper.
Using the D&E lens, we can identify what looks like a sea change in Apple’s strategy.
For example, Apple’s CEO has trumpeted the company’s installed base of 1B iPhones, and stated they will be a future money maker. He bragged about the 20% growth in “services,” which are iPhone users taking advantage of Apple Music, iCloud storage, Apps and iTunes. This shows management’s desire to extend sales to its “installed base” with sustaining software innovations. Unfortunately, this 20% growth was a whopping $1.2B last quarter, which was 2.4% of revenues. Not nearly enough to make up for the decline in “core” iPhone, iPad or Mac sales of approximately $9.5B.
Apple has also been talking a lot about selling in China and India. Unfortunately, plans for selling in India were at least delayed, if not thwarted, by a decision on the part of India’s regulators to not allow Apple to sell low cost refurbished iPhones in the country. Fearing this was a cheap way to dispose of e-waste they are pushing Apple to develop a low-cost new iPhone for their market. Either tactic, selling the refurbished products or creating a cheaper version, are efforts at extending the “core” product sales at lower margins, in an effort to defend the historical iPhone business. Neither creates a superior product with new features, functions or benefits – but rather sustains traditional product sales.
Of even greater note was last week’s announcement that Apple inked a partnership with SAP to develop uses for iPhones and iPads built on the SAP ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) platform. This announcement revealed that SAP would ask developers on its platform to program in Swift in order to support iOS devices, rather than having a PC-first mentality.
This announcement builds on last year’s similar announcement with IBM. Now 2 very large enterprise players are building applications on iOS devices. This extends the iPhone, a product long thought of as great for consumers, deeply into enterprise sales. A market long dominated by Microsoft. With these partnerships Apple is growing its developer community, while circumventing Microsoft’s long-held domain, promoting sales to companies as well as individuals.
And Apple has shown a willingness to help grow this market by introducing the iPhone 6se which is smaller and cheaper in order to obtain more traction with corporate buyers and corporate employees who have been iPhone resistant. This is a classic market extension intended to sustain sales with more applications while making no significant improvements in the “core” product itself.
And Apple’s CEO has said he intends to make more acquisitions – which will surely be done to shore up weaknesses in existing products and extend into new markets. Although Apple has over $200M of cash it can use for acquisitions, unfortunately this tactic can be a very difficult way to actually find new growth. Each would be targeted at some sort of market extension, but like Beats the impact can be hard to find.
Remember, after all revenue gains and losses were summed, Apple’s revenue fell $7.6B last quarter. Let’s look at some favorite analyst acquisition targets to explain:
- Box could be a great acquisition to help bring more enterprise developers to Apple. Box is widely used by enterprises today, and would help grow where iCloud is weak. IBM has already partnered with Box, and is working on applications in areas like financial services. Box is valued at $1.45B, so easily affordable. But it also has only $300M of annual revenue. Clearly Apple would have to unleash an enormous development program to have Box make any meaningful impact in a company with over $500B of revenue. Something akin of Instagram’s growth for Facebook would be required. But where Instagram made Facebook a pic (versus words) site, it is unclear what major change Box would bring to Apple’s product lines.
- Fitbit is considered a good buy in order to put some glamour and growth onto iWatch. Of course, iWatch already had first year sales that exceeded iPhone sales in its first year. But Apple is now so big that all numbers have to be much bigger in order to make any difference. With a valuation of $3.7B Apple could easily afford FitBit. But FitBit has only $1.9B revenue. Given that they are different technologies, it is unclear how FitBit drives iWatch growth in any meaningful way – even if Apple converted 100% of Fitbit users to the iWatch. There would need to be a “killer app” in development at FitBit that would drive $10B-$20B additional annual revenue very quickly for it to have any meaningful impact on Apple.
- GoPro is seen as a way to kick up Apple’s photography capabilities in order to make the iPhone more valuable – or perhaps developing product extensions to drive greater revenue. At a $1.45B valuation, again easily affordable. But with only $1.6B revenue there’s just not much oomph to the Apple top line. Even maximum Apple Store distribution would probably not make an enormous impact. It would take finding some new markets in industry (enterprise) to build on things like IoT to make this a growth engine – but nobody has said GoPro or Apple have any innovations in that direction. And when Amazon tried to build on fancy photography capability with its FirePhone the product was a flop.
- Tesla is seen as the savior for the Apple Car – even though nobody really knows what the latter is supposed to be. Never mind the actual business proposition, some just think Elon Musk is the perfect replacement for the late Steve Jobs. After all the excitement for its products, Tesla is valued at only $28.4B, so again easily affordable by Apple. And the thinking is that Apple would have plenty of cash to invest in much faster growth — although Apple doesn’t invest in manufacturing and has been the king of outsourcing when it comes to actually making its products. But unfortunately, Tesla has only $4B revenue – so even a rapid doubling of Tesla shipments would yield a mere 1.6% increase in Apple’s revenues.
- In a spree, Apple could buy all 4 companies! Current market value is $35B, so even including a market premium $55B-$60B should bring in the lot. There would still be plenty of cash in the bank for growth. But, realize this would add only $8B of annual revenue to the current run rate – barely 25% of what was needed to cover the gap last quarter – and less than 2% incremental growth to the new lower run rate (that magic growth percentage to pull out of a Growth Stall mentioned earlier in this column.)
Such acquisitions would also be problematic because all have P/E (price/earnings) ratios far higher than Apple’s 10.4. FitBit is 24, GoPro is 43, and both Box and Tesla are infinite because they lose money. So all would have a negative impact on earnings per share, which theoretically should lower Apple’s P/E even more.
Acquisitions get the blood pumping for investment bankers and media folks alike – but, truthfully, it is very hard to see an acquisition path that solves Apple’s revenue problem.
All of Apple’s efforts big efforts today are around sustaining innovations to defend & extend current products. No longer do we hear about gee whiz innovations, nor do we hear about growth in market changing products like iBeacons or ApplePay. Today’s discussions are how to rejuvenate sales of products that are several versions old. This may work. Sales may recover via growth in India, or a big pick-up in enterprise as people leave their PCs behind. It could happen, and Apple could avoid its Growth Stall.
But investors have the right to be concerned. Apple can grow by defending and extending the iPhone market only so long. This strategy will certainly affect future margins as prices, on average, decline. In short, investors need to know what will be Apple’s next “big thing,” and when it is likely to emerge. It will take something quite significant for Apple to maintain it’s revenue, and profit, growth.
The good news is that Apple does sell for a lowly P/E of 10 today. That is incredibly low for a company as profitable as Apple, with such a large installed base and so many market extensions – even if its growth has stalled. Even if Apple is caught in the Innovator’s Dilemma (i.e. Clayton Christensen) and shifting its strategy to defending and extending, it is very lowly valued. So the stock could continue to perform well. It just may never reach the P/E of 15 or 20 that is common for its industry peers, and investors envisioned 2 or 3 years ago. Unless there is some new, disruptive innovation in the pipeline not yet revealed to investors.
Netflix has been a remarkable company. Because it has accomplished something almost no company has ever done. It changed its business model, leading to new growth and higher profits.
Almost nobody pulls that off, because they remain stuck defending and extending their old model until they become irrelevant, or fail. Think about Blackberry, that gave us the smartphone business then lost it to Apple and its creation of the app market. Consider Circuit City, that lost enough customers to Amazon it could no longer survive. Sun Microsystems disappeared after PC servers caught up to Unix servers in capability. Remember the Bell companies and their land-line and long distance services, made obsolete by mobile phones and cable operators? These were some really big companies that saw their market shifts, but failed to “pivot” their strategy to remain competitive.
Netflix built a tremendous business delivering physical videos on tape and CD to homes, wiping out the brick-and-mortar stores like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. By 2008 Netflix reached $1B revenues, reducing Blockbuster by a like amount. By 2010 Blockbuster was bankrupt. Netflix’ share price soared from $50/share to almost $300/share during 2011. By the end of 2012 CD shipments were dropping precipitously as streaming viewership was exploding. People thought Netflix was missing the wave, and the stock plummeted 75%. Most folks thought Netflix couldn’t pivot fast enough, or profitably, either.
But in 2013 Netflix proved the analysts wrong, and the company built a very successful – in fact market leading – streaming business. The shares soared, recovering all that lost value. By 2015 the company had more than doubled its previous high valuation.
But Netflix may be breaking entirely new ground in 2016. It is becoming a market leader in original programming. Something we long attributed to broadcasters and/or cable distributors like HBO and Showtime.
Today’s broadcast companies, like NBC, CBS and ABC, are offering less and less original programming. Overall there are 3 hours/night of prime time television which broadcasters used to “own” as original programming hours. Over the course of a year, allowing for holidays and one open night per week, that meant about 900 hours of programming for each network (including reruns as original programming.) But that was long ago.
These days most of those hours are filled with sports – think evening games of football, basketball, baseball including playoffs and “March Madness” events. Sports are far cheaper to program, and can fill a lot of hours. Next think reality programming. Showing people race across countries, or compete to survive a political battlefield on an island, or even dancing or dieting, uses no expensive actors or directors or sets. It is far, far less expensive than writing, casting, shooting and programming a drama (like Blacklist) or comedy (like Big Bang Theory.) Plan on showing every show twice in reruns, plus intermixing with the sports and reality shows, and most networks get away with around 200-250 hours of original programming per year.
Against that backdrop, Netflix has announced it will program 600 hours of original programming this year. That will approximately double any single large broadcast network. In a very real way, if you don’t want to watch sports or reality TV any more you probably will be watching some kind of “on demand” program. Either streamed from a cable service, or from a provider such as Netflix, Hulu or Amazon.
When it comes to original programming, the old broadcast networks are losing their relevancy to streaming technology, personal video devices and the customer’s ability to find what they want, when they want it – and increasingly at a quality they prefer – from streaming as opposed to broadcast media.
To complete this latest “pivot,” from a video streaming company to a true media company with its own content, Morgan Stanley has published that Netflix is now considered by customers as the #1 quality programming across streaming services. 29% of viewers said Netflix was #1, followed by long-time winner HBO now #2 with 21% of customers saying their programming is best. Amazon, Showtime and Hulu were seen as the best quality by 4%-5% of viewers.
So a decade ago Netflix was a CD distribution company. The largest customer of the U.S. Postal Service. Signing up folks to watch physical videos in their homes. Now they are the largest data streaming company on the planet, and one of the largest original programming producers and programmers in the USA – and possibly the world. And in this same decade we’ve watched the network broadcast companies become outlets for sports and reality TV, while cutting far back on their original shows. Sounds a lot like a market shift, and possibly Netflix could be the game changer, as it performs the first strategy double pivot in business history.
Leading tech tracking companies IDC and Gartner both announced Q1, 2016 PC sales results, and they were horrible. Sales were down 9.5%-11.5% depending on which tracker you asked. And that’s after a horrible Q4, 2015 when sales were off more than 10%. PC sales have now declined for 6 straight quarters, and sales are roughly where they were in 2007, 9 years ago.
Oh yeah, that was when the iPhone launched – June, 2007. And just a couple of years before the iPad launched. Correlation, or causation?
Amazingly, when Q4 ended the forecasters were still optimistic of a stabilization and turnaround in PC sales. Typical analyst verbage was like this from IDC, “Commercial adoption of Windows 10 is expected to accelerate, and consumer buying should also stabilize by the second half of the year. Most PC users have delayed an upgrade, but can only maintain this for so long before facing security and performance issues.” And just to prove that hope springs eternal from the analyst breast, here is IDC’s forecast for 2016 after the horrible Q1, “In the short term, the PC market must still grapple with limited consumer interest and competition from other infrastructure upgrades in the commercial market. Nevertheless….things should start picking up in terms of Windows 10 pilots turning into actual PC purchases.”
Fascinating. Once again, the upturn is just around the corner. People have always looked forward to upgrading their PCs, there has always been a “PC upgrade cycle” and one will again emerge. Someday. At least, the analysts hope so. Maybe?
Microsoft investors must hope so. The company is selling at a price/earnings multiple of 40 on hopes that Windows 10 sales will soon boom, and re-energize PC growth. Surely. Hopefully. Maybe?
The world has shifted, and far too many people don’t like to recognize the shift. When Windows 8 launched it was clear that interest in PC software was diminishing. What was once a major front page event, a Windows upgrade, was unimportant. By the time Windows 10 came along there was so little interest that its launch barely made any news at all. This market, these products, are really no longer relevant to the growth of personal technology.
Back when I predicted that Windows 8 would be a flop I was inundated with hate mail. It was clear that Ballmer was a terrible CEO, and would soon be replaced by the board. Same when I predicted that Surface tablets would not sell well, and that all Windows devices would not achieve significant share. People called me “an Apple Fanboy” or a “Microsoft hater.” Actually, neither was true. It was just clear that a major market shift was happening in computing. The world was rapidly going mobile, and cloud-based, and the PC just wasn’t going to be relevant. As the PC lost relevancy, so too would Microsoft because it completely missed the market, and its entries were far too tied to old ways of thinking about personal and corporate computing – not to mention the big lead competitors had in devices, apps and cloud services.
I’ve never said that modern PCs are bad products. I have a son half way through a PhD in Neurobiological Engineering. He builds all kinds of brain models and 3 dimensional brain images and cell structure plots — and he does all kinds of very exotic math. His world is built on incredibly powerful, fast PCs. He loves Windows 10, and he loves PCs — and he really “doesn’t get” tablets. And I truly understand why. His work requires local computational power and storage, and he loves Windows 10 over all other platforms.
But he is not a trend. His deep understanding of the benefits of Windows 10, and some of the PC manufacturers as well as those who sell upgrade componentry, is very much a niche. While he depends heavily on Microsoft and Wintel manufacturers to do his work, he is a niche user. (BTW he uses a Nexus phone and absolutely loves it, as well. And he can wax eloquently about the advantages he achieves by using an Android device.)
Today, I doubt I will receive hardly any comments to this column. Because to most people, the PC is nearly irrelevant. People don’t actually care about PC sales results, or forecasts. Not nearly as much as, say, care about whether or not the iPhone 6se advances the mobile phone market in a meaningful way.
Most people do their work, almost if not all their work, on a mobile device. They depend on cloud and SaaS (software-as-a-service) providers and get a lot done on apps. What they can’t do on a phone, they do on a tablet, by and large. They may, or may not, use a PC of some kind (Mac included in that reference) but it is not terribly important to them. PCs are now truly generic, like a refrigerator, and if they need one they don’t much care who made it or anything else – they just want it to do whatever task they have yet to migrate to their mobile world.
The amazing thing is not that PC sales have fallen for 6 quarters. That was easy to predict back in 2013. The amazing thing is that some people still don’t want to accept that this trend will never reverse. And many people, even though they haven’t carried around a laptop for months (years?) and don’t use a Windows mobile device, still think Microsoft is a market leader, and has a great future. PCs, and for the most part Microsoft, are simply no more relevant than Sears, Blackberry, or the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yet it is somewhat startling that some people have failed to think about the impact this has on their company, companies that make PC software and hardware – and the impact this will have on their lives – and likely their portfolios.
Starboard Value last week sent a letter to Yahoo’s Board of Directors announcing its intention to ask shareholders to replace the entire Board. That is why Starboard is called an “activist” fund. It is not shy about seeking action at the Board level to change the direction of a company – by changing the CEO, seeking downsizings and reogranizations, changing dividend policy, seeking share buybacks, recommending asset sales, or changing other resource allocations. They are different than other large investors, such as pension funds or mutual funds, who purchase lots of a company’s equity but don’t seek to overtly change the direction, and management, of a company.
Activists have been around a long time. And for years, they were despised. Carl Icahn made himself famous by buying company shares, then pressuring management into decisions which damaged the company long-term while he made money fast. For example, he bought TWA shares then pushed the company to add huge additional debt and repurchase equity (including buying his position via something called “green mail”) in order to short-term push up the earnings per share. This made Icahn billions, but ended up killing the company.
Similarly, Mr. Icahn bought a big position in Motorola right after it successfully launched the RAZR phone. He pushed the board to shut down expensive R&D and product development to improve short-term earnings. Then borrow a lot of money to repurchase shares, improving earnings per share but making the company over-leveraged. He then sold out and split with his cash. But Motorola never launched another successful phone, the technology changed, and Motorola had to sell its cell phone business (that pioneered the industry) in order to pay off debt and avoid bankruptcy. Motorola is now a fragment of its former self, and no longer relevant in the tech marketplace.
So now you understand why many people hate activists. They are famous for
- cutting long-term investments on new products leaving future sales pipelines weakened,
- selling assets to increase cash while driving down margins as vendors take more,
- selling whole businesses to raise cash but leave the company smaller and less competitive,
- cutting headcount to improve short-term earnings but leaving management and employees decimated and overworked,
- increasing debt massively to repurchase shares, but leaving the company financially vulnerable to the slightest problem,
- doing pretty much anything to make the short-term look better with no concern for long-term viability.
Yet, they keep buying shares, and they have defenders among shareholders. Many big investors say that activists are the only way shareholders can do anything about lousy management teams that fail to deliver, and Boards of Directors that let management be lazy and ineffective.
Which takes us to Yahoo. Yahoo was an internet advertising pioneer. Yet, for several years Yahoo has been eclipsed by competitors from Google to Facebook and even Microsoft that have grown their user base and revenues as Yahoo has shrunk. In the 4 years since becoming CEO Marissa Mayer has watched Yahoo’s revenues stagnate or decline in all core sectors, while its costs have increased – thus deteriorating margins. And to prop up the stock price she sold Alibaba shares, the only asset at Yahoo increasing in value, and used the proceeds to purchase Yahoo shares. There are very, very few defenders of Ms. Mayer in the investment community, or in the company, and increasingly even the Board of Directors is at odds with her leadership.
The biggest event in digital marketing is the Digital Content NewFronts in New York City this time every year. Big digital platforms spend heavily to promote themselves and their content to big advertisers. But in the last year Yahoo closed several verticals, and discontinued original programming efforts taking a $42M charge. It also shut is online video hub, Screen. Smaller, and less competitive than ever, Yahoo this year has cut its spending and customer acquisition efforts at NewFronts, a decision sure to make it even harder to reverse its declining fortunes. Not pleasant news to investors.
And Yahoo keeps going down in value. Looking at the market the value of Yahoo and Alibaba, and the Alibaba shares held in Yahoo, the theoretical value of Yahoo’s core business is now zero. But that is an oversimplification. Potential buyers have valued the business at $6B, while management has said it is worth $10B. Only in 2008 Ballmer-led Microsoft made an offer to buy it for $45B! That’s value destruction to the amount of $35B-$39B!
Yet management and the Board remains removed from the impact of that value destruction. And the risk remains that Yahoo leadership will continue selling off Alibaba value to keep the other businesses alive, thus bleeding additional investor value out of the company. There are reports that CEO Mayer never took seriously the threat of an activist involving himself in changing the company, and removing her as CEO. Ensconced in the CEO’s office there was apparently little concern about shareholder value while she remained fixated on Quixotic efforts to compete with much better positioned, growing and more profitable competitors Google and Facebook. Losing customers, losing sales, and losing margin as her efforts proved reasonable fruitless amidst product line shutdowns, bad acquisitions, layoffs and questionable micro-management decisions like eliminating work from home policies.
There appear to be real buyers interested in Yahoo. There are those who think they can create value out of what is left. And they will give the Yahoo shareholders something for the opportunity to take over those business lines. Some want it as part of a bigger business, such as Verizon, and others see independent routes. Even Microsoft is reportedly interested in funding a purchase of Yahoo’s core. But there is no sign that management, or the Board, are moving quickly to redirect the company.
And that is why Starboard Value wants to change the Board of Directors. If they won’t make changes, then Starboard will make changes. And investors, long weary of existing leadership and its inability to take positive action, see Starboard’s activism as the best way to unlock what value remains in Yahoo for them. After years of mismanagement and underperformance what else should investors do?
Activists are easy to pick at, but they play a vital role in forcing management teams and Boards of Directors to face up to market challenges and internal weaknesses. In cases like Yahoo the activist investor is the last remaining player to try and save the company from weak leadership.
The three highest valued publicly traded companies today (2/3/16) are Google/Alphabet, Apple and Microsoft. All 3 are tech companies, and they compete – although with different business models – in multiple markets. However, investor views as to their futures are wildly different. And that has everything to do with how the leadership teams of these 3 companies have explained their recent results, and described their futures.
Looking at the financial performance of these companies, it is impossible to understand the price/earnings multiple assigned to each. Apple clearly had better revenue and earnings performance in all but the most recent year. Yet, both Alphabet and Microsoft have price to earnings (P/E) multiples that are 3-4 times that of Apple.
Much was made this week about Alphabet’s valuation exceeding that of Apple’s. But the really big story is the difference in multiples. If Apple had a multiple even half that of Alphabet or Microsoft it’s value would be much, much higher.
But, as we can see, investors did the best over both 2 years and 5 years by investing in Microsoft. And Apple investors have fared the poorest of all 3 companies regardless of time frame. Looking at investment performance, one would think that the revenue and earnings performance of these companies would be the reverse of what’s seen in the first chart.
The missing piece, of course, is future expectations. In this column a few days ago, I pointed out that Apple has done a terrible job explaining its future. In that column I pointed out how Facebook and Amazon both had stratospheric P/E multiples because they were able to keep investors focused on their future growth story, even more than their historical financial performance.
Alphabet stole the show, and at least briefly the #1 valuation spot, from Apple by convincing investors they will see significant, profitable growth. Starting even before earnings announcements the company was making sure investors knew that revenues and profits would be up. But even more they touted the notion that Alphabet has a lot of growth in non-monetized assets. For example, vastly greater ad sales should be expected from YouTube and Google Maps, as well as app sales for Android phones through Google Play. And someday on the short horizon profits will emerge from Fiber transmission revenues, smart home revenues via Nest, and even auto market sales now that the company has logged over 1million driverless miles.
This messaging clearly worked, as Alphabet’s value shot up. Even though 99% of the company’s growth was in “core” products that have been around for a decade! Yes, ad revenue was up 15%, but most of that was actually on the company’s own web sites. And most was driven by further price erosion. The number of paid clicks were up 30%, but price/click was actually down yet another 15% – a negative price trend that has been happening for years. Eventually prices will erode enough that volume will not make up the difference – and what will investors do then? Rely on the “moonshot” projects which still have almost no revenue, and no proven market performance!
But, the best performer has been Microsoft. Investors know that PC sales have been eroding for years, that PC sales will continue eroding as users go mobile, and that PC’s are the core of Microsoft’s revenue. Investors also knows that Microsoft missed the move to mobile, and has practically no market share in the war between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Further, investors have known forever that gaming (xBox,) search and entertainment products have always been a money-loser for Microsoft. Yet, Microsoft investors have done far better than Apple investors, and long-term better than Google investors!
Microsoft has done an absolutely terrific job of constantly trumpeting itself as a company with a huge installed base of users that it can leverage into the future. Even when investors don’t know how that eroding base will be leveraged, Microsoft continually makes the case that the base is there, that Microsoft is the “enterprise” brand and that those users will stay loyal to Microsoft products.
Forget that Windows 8 was a failure, that despite the billions spent on development Win8 never reached even 10% of the installed base and the company is even dropping support for the product. Forget that Windows 10 is a free upgrade (meaning no revenue.) Just believe in that installed base.
Microsoft trumpeted that its Surface tablet sales rose 22% in the last quarter! Yay! Of course there was no mention that in just the last 6 weeks of the quarter Apple’s newly released iPad Pro actually sold more units than all Surface tablets did for the entire quarter! Or that Microsoft’s tablet market share is barely registerable, not even close to a top 5 player, while Apple still maintains 25% share. And investors are so used to the Microsoft failure in mobile phones that the 49% further decline in sales was considered acceptable.
Instead Microsoft kept investors focused on improvements to Windows 10 (that’s the one you can upgrade to for free.) And they made sure investors knew that Office 365 revenue was up 70%, as 20million consumers now use the product. Of course, that is a cumulative 20million – compared to the 75million iPhones Apple sold in just one quarter. And Azure revenue was up 140% – to something that is almost a drop in the bucket that is AWS which is over 10 times the size of all its competitors combined.
To many, this author included, the “growth story” at Microsoft is more than a little implausible. Sales of its core products are declining, and the company has missed the wave to mobile. Developers are writing for iOS first and foremost, because it has the really important installed base for today and tomorrow. And they are working secondarily on Android, because it is in some flavor the rest of the market. Windows 10 is a very, very distant third and largely overlooked. xBox still loses money, and the new businesses are all relatively quite small. Yet, investors in Microsoft have been richly rewarded the last 5 years.
Meanwhile, investors remain fearful of Apple. Too many recall the 1980s when Apple Macs were in a share war with Wintel (Microsoft Windows on Intel processors) PCs. Apple lost that war as business customers traded off the Macs ease of use for the lower purchase cost of Windows-based machines. Will Apple make the same mistake? Will iPad sales keep declining, as they have for 2 years now? Will the market shift to mobile favor lower-priced Android-based products? Will app purchases swing from iTunes to Google Play as people buy lower cost Android-based tablets? Have iPhone sales really peaked, and are they preparing to fall? What’s going to happen with Apple now? Will the huge Apple mobile share be eroded to nothing, causing Apple’s revenues, profits and share price to collapse?
This would be an interesting academic discussion were the stakes not so incredibly high. As I said in the opening paragraph, these are the 3 highest valued public companies in America. Small share price changes have huge impacts on the wealth of individual and institutional investors. It is rather quite important that companies tell their stories as good as possible (which Apple clearly has not, and Microsoft has done extremely well.) And likewise it is crucial that investors do their homework, to understand not only what companies say, but what they don’t say.
America’s middle class has been decimated. Ever since Ronald Reagan rewrote the tax code, dramatically lowering marginal rates on wealthy people and slashing capital gains taxes, America’s wealthy have been amassing even greater wealth, while the middle class has gone backward and the poor have remained poor. Losing 30% of their wealth, and for many most of their home equity, has left what were once middle class families actually closer to definitions of working poor than a 1950s-1960s middle class.
When Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carole” he brought to life for readers the striking difference between those who “have” from those who “have not” in early England. If you had money England was a great place to be. If you relied on your labors then you were struggling to make ends meet, and regularly disappointing yourself and your family.
For a great many American’s that is the situation in 2015 USA.
At the book’s outset, Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge felt that his wealth was all due to his own great skill. He gave himself 100% of the credit for amassing a fortune, and he felt that it was wrong of laborers, such as his bookkeeper Mr. Cratchit, to expect to pay when seeking a day off for Christmas.
Unfortunately, this sounds far too often like the wealthy and 1%ers. They feel as if their wealth is 100% due to their great intelligence, skill, hard work or conniving. And they don’t think they owe anyone anything as they work to keep unions at bay as they campaign to derail all employee bargaining. Nor do they think they should pay taxes on their wealth as many actively seek to destroy the role of government.
Meanwhile, there are employers today who have taken a page right out of Mr. Scrooge’s book of worklife desolation. Ever since President Reagan fired the Air Traffic Controllers Union employee rights have been on the downhill. Employers increasingly do not allow employees to have any say in their work hours or workplace conditions – such as Marissa Mayer eliminating work from home at Yahoo, yet expecting 3 year commitments from all managers.
Just as Mr. Scrooge refused to put more coal in the office stove as Mr. Cratchit’s fingers froze, employers like WalMart rigidly control the workplace environment – right down to the temperature in every single building and office – in order to save cost regardless of employee satisfaction. Workplace comfort has little voice when implementing the CEOs latest cost-saving regimen.
Just as Mr. Scrooge objected to giving the 25th December as a paid holiday (picking his pocket once a year was his viewpoint,) many employers keep cutting sick leave and holidays – or, worse, they allow days off but expect employees to respond to texts, voice mails, emails and social media 24x7x365. “Take all the holiday you want, just respond within minutes to the company’s every need, regardless of day or time.”
Increasingly, those who “go to work” have less and less voice about their work. How many of you readers will check your work voice mail and/or email on Christmas Day? Is this not the modern equivalent of your employer, like Scrooge, treating you like a filcher if you don’t work on the 25th December? But, do you dare leave the smartphone, tablet or laptop alone on this day? Do you risk falling behind on your job, or angering your boss on the 26th if something happened and you failed to respond?
Like many with struggling economic uncertainty, Bob Cratchit had a very ill son. But Mr. Scrooge could not be bothered by such concerns. Mr. Scrooge had a business to run, and if an employee’s family was suffering then it was up to social services to take care of such things. If those social services weren’t up to standards, well it simply was not his problem. He wasn’t the government – although he did object to any and all taxes. And he had no value for the government offering decent prisons, or medical care to everyone.
Today, employers right and left have dropped employee health insurance, recommending employees go on the exchanges; even though these same employers do not offer any incremental income to cover the cost of exchange-based employee insurance. And many employers are cutting employee hours to make sure they are not able to demand health care coverage. And the majority of employers, and employer associations such as the Chamber of Commerce, want to eliminate the Affordable Care Act entirely, leaving their employees with no health care at all – as was the case for many prior to ACA passage.
Even worse, there are employers (especially in retail, fast food and other minimum wage environments) with employees earning so little pay that as employers they recommend their employees file for government based Medicaid in order to receive the bottom basics of healthcare. Employees are a necessity, but not if they are sick or if the employer has to help their families maintain good health.
But things changed for Mr. Scrooge, and we can hope they do for a lot more of America’s employers and wealthy elite.
Mr. Scrooge’s former partner, Mr. Jakob Marley, visits Mr. Scrooge in a dream and reminds him that, in fact, there was a lot more to his life, and wealth creation, than just Ebenezer’s toils. Those around him helped him become successful, and others in his life were actually very important to his happiness. He reminds Mr Scrooge that as he isolated himself in the search for ever greater wealth he gained money, but lost a lot of happiness.
Today we have some business leaders taking the cue from Mr. Marley, and speaking out to the Scrooges. In particular, we can be thankful for folks like Warren Buffet who consistently points out the great luck he had to be born with certain skills at this specific point in time. Mr. Buffett regularly credits his wealth creation with the luck to receive a good education, learning from academics such as Ben Graham, and having a great network of colleagues to help him invest.
Further, amplifying his role as a modern day Jacob Marley, Mr. Buffett recognizes the vast difference between his situation and those around him. He has pointed out that his secretary pays a higher percent of her income in taxes than himself, and he points out this is a remarkably unfair situation. Additionally, he makes it clear that for many wealth is a gift of birth – and “winning the ovarian lottery” does not make that wealthy person smarter, harder working or more valuable to society. Rather, just lucky.
What we need is for more wealthy Americans to have a vision of Christmas future – as it appeared to Mr. Scrooge. He saw how wealth inequality would worsen young Tiny Tim’s health, leaving him crippled and dying. He saw his employee Mr. Cratchet struggle and become ill. These visions scared him. Scared him so much, he offered a bounty upon his community, sharing his wealth.
Mr. Scrooge realized that great wealth, preserved just for him, was without merit. He was doomed to a future of being rich, but without friends, without a great world of colleagues and without the sharing of riches among everyone in order that all in society could be healthy and grow. Many would suffer, and die, if society overall did not take actions to share success.
These days we do have a few of these visionary 1%ers, such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and recently Mark Zuckerberg, who are either currently, or in the future, planning to disseminate their vast wealth for the good of mankind.
Yet, middle class Americans have been watching their dreams evaporate. Over the last 50 years America has changed, and they have been left behind. Hard work, well…….. it just doesn’t give people what it once did. Policy changes that favored the wealthy with Ayn Rand style tax programs have made the rich ever richer, supported the legal rights of big corporations and left the middle class with a lot less money and power. Incomes that did not come close to matching inflation, and home values that too often are more anchors than balloons have beset 2015’s strivers.
It will take more than philanthropic foundations and a few standout generous donors to rebuild America’s middle class. It will take policies that provide more (more safety nets, more health care, more education, more pension protection, more job protections and more political power) for those in the middle, and give them economic advantages today offered only wealthier Americans.
Let us hope that in 2016 we see a re-awakening of the need to undertake such rebuilding by policymakers, corporate leaders and the 1%. Let us hope this Christmas for a stronger, more robust, healthier and disparate, shared economy “for each and every one.”
“As goes GM, so goes the Nation” is attributed to Charles Wilson, CEO of GM, in Congressional hearings 1953. His viewpoint was that GM was so big, and so important, that the country’s economic fortunes were inherently dependent on a robust General Motors.
And this was not so far fetched in the Industrial era. 1940s-1960s America was a manufacturing king. Following WWII industrial products dominated the economy, and post-war U.S. manufacturers made products sold around the world as other economies rebuilt and recovered, or just started emerging. With manufacturing the jobs and economic value creator, and GM the largest manufacturer and non-government employer of its time, what was good for GM was generally good for America.
But that tie has clearly broken. GM filed bankruptcy in the summer of 2009. From 2007 to 2009 American employment fell from 121.5M to just over 110M. Last month jobs rose by 271,000, pushing employment to a fully recovered 122M jobs. However, GM and its manufacturing partners have struggled to recover, as this economic expansion has largely left them behind.
We’ve seen a wild shift in the country’s economic base. In 1900 America was an agrarian economy. Over half the population lived on farms. Fully 9 out of 10 working people had a job related to agriculture and food production. But automation changed this dramatically. By 2010, fewer than 1 in 100 people worked in farming or agriculture. Farm incomes are at a 9 year low, and the future direction is downward. Rural towns have disappeared as people moved to cities, concentrating over half the nation’s wealth in just its 20 largest cities.
WWII marked the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy for America. It was the industrial economy that pulled America out of the1930s Great Depression. The industrial revolution ushered in all kinds of mechanical automation, and it was applied to doing everything as labor shortages forced innovation to meet rising defense challenges. And it was the industrial economy that pushed America to the top. It was the industrial economy which trained most of today’s business leaders.
But we’re no longer an industrial economy. Just as the agrarian economy vanished, so too is the manufacturing economy. Manufacturing jobs have been declining since 1970, and by 2010 they represent only 13% of workers and 15% of the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product).
By 2000 we had started the shift from an industrial to an information economy. Digital bits replaced machines as the source of wealth creation. By 2010 it was services, and the huge growth in digital services, that caused the jobs recovery. Services now represent 84% of all jobs, and 82% of the economy. (Economic statistics from FTPress division of Pearson Publishing.)
Today the 3 most valuable companies in America are Apple, Google and Microsoft. Number 6 is Facebook. Their value (and in the case of Apple, Google and Facebook rather rapid value explosion) has been due to understanding how to maximize the value of information. They don’t so much “make things” as they make life better through products which are purely ethereal – rather than something tangible.
Today’s #1 valued retailer is Amazon, now worth more than Wal-mart. Amazon is largely a technology company, building its revenues by knowing more about the customer and what she wants, then matching that with the right products. All in a virtual shopping arena. No stores, salespeople and often no inventory needed. Its technology skills became so good the company has become the #1 provider of cloud services.
Tesla has done something everyone thought impossible. It has created a new auto company where many others failed (recall the DeLorean used in “Back to the Future”? Or the Bricklin?) But Tesla did this by building an entirely different car, one that is based on all new electric technology, that has far fewer moving parts, needs far less service, has better operating performance and actually bears little resemblance to the autos – or auto companies – of the past. Tesla is far more a technology company, designed for the information era, than what we would think of as a “car company.”
The ramifications of this are dramatic. Working class middle age white people are dying faster than any other demographic in America. Their death rates are up 22%, and continuing to increase precipitously. Cause: suicide, drugs and alcohol. This is the group that once found good paying jobs working machines in manufacturing. Now, untrained for the information era, they are unable to find work – even though demand for trained labor is outstripping supply.
Today’s growth companies, those powering the American economic engine, are filled with intellectual assets rather than physical assets. Apple, Google and Facebook (et.al.) are creating intellectual capital, and they need employees able to add to that capital base. it is not enough for job candidates to have a college degree any longer. Today’s job hunter has to be information savvy, digital savvy, tech savvy.
In the 1960s the gap widened dramatically between those in manufacturing and those in farming. By the 1970s farms were closing by the hundreds as value shifted out of agrarian production to industrial production. It was devastating to farm communities and farm families.
Today the gap is widening between those skilled in manufacturing or general knowledge and those with information-based skills. The former are seeing their dreams slip away, while the latter are making incomes at a young age that are hard to fathom. Cities like Detroit are crumbling, while San Francisco cannot supply enough housing for its workers. The shift to an information economy is fully in force, and change is accelerating. For those who make the shift much is to be gained, for those who do not there is much to lose.
Wal-Mart market value took a huge drop on Wednesday. In fact, the worst valuation decline in its history. That decline continued on Thursday. Since the beginning of 2015 Wal-Mart has lost 1/3 of its value. That is an enormous ouch.
But, if you were surprised, you should not have been. The telltale signs that this was going to happen have been there for years. Like most stock market moves, this one just happened really fast. The “herd behavior” of investors means that most people don’t move until some event happens, and then everyone moves at once carrying out the implications of a sea change in thinking about a company’s future.
All the way back in October, 2010 I wrote about “The Wal-Mart Disease.” This is the disease of constantly focusing on improving your “core” business, while market shifts around you increasingly make that “core” less relevant, and less valuable. In the case of Wal-Mart I pointed out that an absolute maniacal focus on retail stores and low-cost operations, in an effort to be the low price retailer, was being made obsolete by on-line retailers who had costs that are a fraction of Wal-Mart’s expensive real estate and armies of employees.
At that time WMT was about $54/share. I recommended nobody own the stock.
In May, 2011 I reiterated this problem at Wal-Mart in a column that paralleled the retailer with software giant Microsoft, and pointed out that because of financial machinations not all earnings are equal. I continued to say that this disease would cripple Wal-Mart. Six months had passed, and the stock was about $55.
By February, 2012 I pointed out that the big reorganization at Wal-Mart was akin to re-arranging deck chairs on a sinking ship and said nobody should own the stock. It was up, however, trading at $61.
At the end of April, 2012 the Wal-Mart Mexican bribery scandal made the press, and I warned investors that this was a telltale sign of a company scrambling to make its numbers – and pushing the ethical (if not legal) envelope in trying to defend and extend its worn out success formula. The stock was $59.
Then in July, 2014 a lawsuit was filed after an overworked Wal-Mart truck driver ran into a car killing James McNair and seriously injuring comedian Tracy Morgan. Again, I pointed out that this was a telltale sign of an organization stretching to try and make money out of a business model that was losing its ability to sustain profits. Market shifts were making it ever harder to keep up with emerging on-line competitors, and accidents like this were visible cracks in the business model. But the stock was now $77. Most investors focused on short-term numbers rather than the telltale signs of distress.
In January, 2015 I pointed out that retail sales were actually down 1% for December, 2014. But Amazon.com had grown considerably. The telltale indication of a rotting traditional retail brick-and-mortar approach was showing itself clearly. Wal-Mart was hitting all time highs of around $87, but I reiterated my recommendation that investors escape the stock.
By July, 2015 we learned that the market cap of Amazon now exceeded that of Wal-Mart. Traditional retail struggles were apparent on several fronts, while on-line growth remained strong. Bigger was not better in the case of Wal-Mart vs. Amazon, because bigger blinded Wal-Mart to the absolute necessity for changing its business model. The stock had fallen back to $72.
Now Wal-Mart is back to $60/share. Where it was in January, 2012 and only 10% higher than when I first said to avoid the stock in 2010. Five years up, then down the roller coaster.
From October of 2010 through January, 2015 I looked dead wrong on Wal-Mart. And the folks who commented on my columns here at this journal and on my web site, or emailed me, were profuse in pointing out that my warnings seemed misguided. Wal-Mart was huge, it was strong and it would dominate was the feedback.
But I kept reiterating the point that long-term investors must look beyond short-term reported sales and earnings. Those numbers are subject to considerable manipulation by management. Further, short-term operating actions, like shorter hours, lower pay, reduced benefits, layoffs and gouging suppliers can all prop up short-term financials at the expense of recognizing the devaluation of the company’s long-term strategy.
Investors buy and hold. They hold until they see telltale signs of a company not adjusting to market shifts. Short-term traders will say you could have bought in 2010, or 2012, and held into 2014, and then jumped out and made a profit. But, who really can do that with forethought? Market timing is a fools game. The herd will always stay too long, then run out too late. Timers get trampled in the stampede more often than book gains.
In this week’s announcement Wal-Mart executives provided more telltale signs of their problems, and the fact that they don’t know how to fix them, and therefore won’t.
- Wal-Mart is going to spend $20B to buy back stock in order to prop up the price. This is the most obvious sign of a company that doesn’t know how to keep up its valuation by growing profits.
- Wal-Mart will spend $11B on sprucing up and opening stores. Really. The demand for retail space has been declining at 4-6%/year for a decade, and retail business growth is all on-line, yet Wal-Mart is still massively investing in its old “core” business.
- Wal-Mart will spend $1.1B on e-commerce. That is the proverbial “drop in the competitors bucket.” Amazon.com alone spent $8.9B in 2014 growing its on-line business.
- Wal-Mart admits profits will decline in the next year. It is planning for a growth stall. Yet, we know that statistically only 7% of companies that have a growth stall ever go on to maintain a consistent growth rate of a mere 2%. In other words, Wal-Mart is projecting the classic “hockey stick” forecast. And investors are to believe it?
The telltale signs of an obsolete business model have been present at Wal-Mart for years, and continue.
In 2003 Sears Holdings was $25/share. In 2004 Sears bought K-Mart, and the stock was $40. I said don’t go near it, as all the signs were bad and the merger was ill-conceived. Despite revenue declines, consistent losses, a revolving door at the executive offices and no sign of any plan to transform the battered, outdated retail giant against growing on-line competition investors believed in CEO Ed Lampert and bid the stock up to $77 in early 2011. (I consistently pointed out the telltale signs of trouble and recommended selling the stock.)
By the end of 2012 it was clear Sears was irrelevant to holiday shoppers, and the stock was trading again at $40. Now, SHLD is $25 – where it was 12 years ago when Mr. Lampert started his machinations. Again, only a market timer could have made money in this company. For long-term investors, the signs were all there that this was not a place to put your money if you want to have capital growth for retirement.
There will be plenty who will call Wal-Mart a “value” stock and recommend investors “buy on weakness.” But Wal-Mart is no value. It is becoming obsolete, irrelevant – increasingly looking like Sears. The likelihood of Wal-Mart falling to $20 (where it was at the beginning of 1998 before it made an 18 month run to $50 more than doubling its value) is far higher than ever trading anywhere near its 2015 highs.
Most analysts, and especially “chartists,” put a lot of emphasis on earnings per share (EPS) and stock price movements when determining whether to buy a stock. Unfortunately, these are not good predictors of company performance, and investors should beware.
Most analysts are focused on short-term, meaning quarter-to-quarter, performance. Their idea of long-term is looking back 1 year, comparing this quarter to same quarter last year. As a result, they fixate on how EPS has done, and will talk about whether improvements in EPS will cause the “multiple” (meaning stock price divided by EPS) will “expand.” They forecast stock price based upon future EPS times the industry multiple. If EPS is growing, they expect the stock to trade at the industry multple, or possibly somewhat better. Grow EPS, hope to grow the multiple, and project a higher valuation.
Analysts will also discuss the “momentum” (meaning direction and volume) of a stock. They look at charts, usually less than one year, and if price is going up they will say the momentum is good for a higher price. They determine the “strength of momentum” by looking at trading volume. Movements up or down on high volume are considered more meaningful than on low volume.
But, unfortunately, these indicators are purely short-term, and are easily manipulated so that they do not reflect the actual performance of the company.
At any given time, a CEO can decide to sell assets and use that cash to buy shares. For example, McDonald’s sold Chipotle and Boston Market. Then leadership took a big chunk of that money and repurchased company shares. That meant McDonalds took its two fastest growing, and highest value, assets and sold them for short-term cash. They traded growth for cash. Then leadership spent that cash to buy shares, rather than invest in in another growth vehicle.
This is where short-term manipulation happens. Say a company is earning $1,000 and has 1,000 shares outstanding, so its EPS is $1. The industry multiple is 10, so the share price is $10. The company sells assets for $1,000 (for purposes of this exercise, let’s assume the book value on those assets is $1,000 so there is no gain, no earnings impact and no tax impact.)
Company leadership says its shares are undervalued, so to help out shareholders it will “return the money to shareholders via a share repurchase” (note, it is not giving money to shareholders, just buying shares. $1,000 buys 100 shares. The number of shares outstanding now falls to 900. Earnings are still $1,000 (flat, no gain,) but dividing $1,000 by 900 now creates an EPS of $1.11 – a greater than 10% gain! Using the same industry multiple, the analysts now say the stock is worth $1.11 x 10 = $11.10!
Even though the company is smaller, and has weaker growth prospects, somehow this “refocusing” of the company on its “core” business and cutting extraneous noise (and growth opportunities) has led to a price increase.
Worse, the company hires a very good investment banker to manage this share repurchase. The investment banker watches stock buys and sells, and any time he sees the stock starting to soften he jumps in and buys some shares, so that momentum remains strong. As time goes by, and the repurchase program is not completed, selectively he will make large purchases on light trading days, thus adding to the stock’s price momentum.
The analysts look at these momentum indicators, now driven by the share repurchase program, and deem the momentum to be strong. “Investors love the stock” the analysts say (even though the marginal investors making the momentum strong are really company management) and start recommending to investors they should anticipate this company achieving a multiple of 11 based on earnings and stock momentum. The price now goes to $1.11 x 11 = $12.21.
Yet the underlying company is no stronger. In fact one could make the case it is weaker. But, due to the higher EPS, better multiple and higher share price the CEO and her team are rewarded with outsized multi-million dollar bonuses.
But, companies the last several years did not even have to sell assets to undertake this kind of manipulation. They could just spend cash from earnings. Earnings have been at record highs, and growing, for several years. Yet most company leaders have not reinvested those earnings in plant, equipment or even people to drive further growth. Instead they have built huge cash hoards, and then spent that cash on share buybacks – creating the EPS/Multiple expansion – and higher valuations – described above.
This has been so successful that in the last quarter untethered corporations have spent $238B on buybacks, while earning only $228B. The short-term benefits are like corporate crack, and companies are spending all the money they have on buybacks rather than reinvesting in growth.
Where does the extra money originate? Many companies have borrowed money to undertake buybacks. Corporate interest rates have been at generational (if not multi-generational) lows for several years. Interest rates were kept low by the Federal Reserve hoping to spur borrowing and reinvestment in new products, plant, etc to drive economic growth, more jobs and higher wages. The goal was to encourage companies to take on more debt, and its associated risk, in order to generate higher future revenues.
Many companies have chosen to borrow money, but rather than investing in growth projects they have bought shares. They borrow money at 2-3%, then buy shares – which can have a much higher immediate impact on valuation – and drive up executive compensation.
This has been wildly prevalent. Since the Fed started its low-interest policy it has added $2.37trillion in cash to the economy. Corporate buybacks have totaled $2.41trillion.
This is why a company can actually have a crummy business, and look ill-positioned for the future, yet have growing EPS and stock price. For example, McDonald’s has gone through rounds of store closures since 2005, sold major assets, now has more stores closing than opening, and has its largest franchisees despondent over future prospects. Yet, the stock has tripled since 2005! Leadership has greatly weakened the company, put it into a growth stall (since 2012,) and yet its value has gone up!
Microsoft has seen its “core” PC market shrink, had terrible new product launches of Vista and Windows 8, wholly failed to succeed with a successful mobile device, written off billions in failed acquisitions, and consistently lost money in its gaming division. Yet, in the last 10 years it has seen EPS grow and its share price double through the power of share buybacks from its enormous cash hoard and ability to grow debt. While it is undoubtedly true that 10 years ago Microsoft was far stronger, as a PC monopolist, than it is today – its value today is now higher.
Share buybacks can go on for several years. Especially in big companies. But they add no value to a company, and if not exceeded by re-investments in growth markets they weaken the company. Long term a company’s value will relate to its ability to grow revenues, and real profits. If a company does not have a viable, competitive business model with real revenue growth prospects, it cannot survive.
Look no further than HP, which has had massive buybacks but is today worth only what it was worth 10 years ago as it prepares to split. Or Sears Holdings which is now worth 15% of its value a decade ago. Short term manipulative actions can fool any investor, and actually artificially keep stock prices high, so make sure you understand the long-term revenue trends, and prospects, of any investment. Regardless of analyst recommendations.