Growth fixes a multitude of sins.  If you grow revenues enough (you don’t even need profits, as Amazon has proven) investors will look past a lot of things.  With revenue growth high enough, companies can offer employees free meals and massages. Executives and senior managers can fly around in private jets.  Companies can build colossal buildings as testaments to their brand, or pay to have thier names on  public buildings.  R&D budgets can soar, and product launches can fail. Acquisitions are made with no concerns for price. Bonuses can be huge.  All is accepted if revenues grow enough.

Just look at Facebook.  Today Facebook announced today that for the quarter ended March, 2016 revenues jumped to $5.4B from $3.5B a year ago.  Net income tripled to $1.5B from $500M.  And the company is basically making all its revenue – 82% – from 1 product, mobile ads.  In the last few years Facebook paid enormous premiums to buy WhatsApp and Instagram – but who cares when revenues grow this fast.

Anticipating good news, Facebook’s stock was up a touch today. But once the news came out, after-hours traders pumped the stock to over $118//share, a new all time high. That’s a price/earnings (p/e) multiple of something like 84.  With growth like that Facebook’s leadership can do anything it wants.

But, when revenues slide it can become a veritable poop puddle. As Apple found out.

Rumors had swirled that Apple was going to say sales were down.  And the stock had struggled to make gains from lows earlier in 2016. When the company’s CEO announced Tuesday that sales were down 13% versus a year ago the stock cratered after-hours, and opened this morning down 10%.  Breaking a streak of 51 straight quarters of revenue growth (since 2003) really sent investors fleeing.  From trading around $105/share the last 4 days, Apple closed today at ~$97.  $40B of equity value was wiped out in 1 day, and the stock trades at a p/e multiple of 10.

The new iPhone 6se outsold projections, iPads beat expectations.  First year Apple Watch sales exceeded first year iPhone sales.  Mac sales remain much stronger than any other PC manufacturer. Apple iBeacons and Apple Pay continue their march as major technologies in the IoT (Internet of Things) market. And Apple TV keeps growing.  There are about 13M users of Apple’s iMusic.  There are 1.5M apps on the iTunes store.  And the installed base keeps the iTunes store growing.  Share buybacks will grow, and the dividend was increased yet again.  But, none of that mattered when people heard sales growth had stopped.  Now many investors don’t think Apple’s leadership can do anything right.

Growth StallYet, that was just one quarter.  Many companies bounce back from a bad quarter.  There is no statistical evidence that one bad quarter is predictive of the next.  But we do know that if sales decline versus a year ago for 2 consecutive quarters that is a Growth Stall.  And companies that hit a Growth Stall rarely (93% of the time) find a consistent growth path ever again.  Regardless of the explanations, Growth Stalls are remarkable predictors of companies that are developing a gap between their offerings, and the marketplace.

Which leads us to Chipotle.  Chipotle announced that same store sales fell almost 30% in Q1, 2016.  That was after a 15% decline in Q4, 2015. And profits turned to losses for the quarter.  That is a growth stall.  Chipotle shares were $750/share back in early October. Now they are $417 – a drop of over 44%.

Customer illnesses have pointed to a company that grew fast, but apparently didn’t have its act together for safe sourcing of local ingredients, and safe food handling by employees.  What seemed like a tactical problem has plagued the company, as more customers became ill in March.

Whether that is all that’s wrong at Chipotle is less clear, however.  There is a lot more competition in the fast casual segment than 2 years ago when Chipotle seemed unable to do anything wrong.  And although the company stresses healthy food, the calorie count on most portions would add pounds to anyone other than an athlete or construction worker – not exactly in line with current trends toward dieting.  What frequently looks like a single problem when a company’s sales dip often turns out to have multiple origins, and regaining growth is nearly always a lot more difficult than leadership expects.

Growth is magical.  It allows companies to invest in new products and services, and buoy’s a stock’s value enhancing acquisition ability.  It allows for experimentation into new markets, and discovering other growth avenues.  But lack of growth is a vital predictor of future performance.  Companies without growth find themselves cost cutting and taking actions which often cause valuations to decline.

Right now Facebook is in a wonderful position.  Apple has investors rightly concerned.  Will next quarter signal a return to growth, or a Growth Stall?  And Chipotle has investors heading for the exits, as there is now ample reason to question whether the company will recover its luster of yore.

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