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Absurd valuations; growth at any price

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

One of my favourite stock market quotes is from Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems. In April 2002, in a Bloomberg interview, he said:

“At 10 times revenues, to give you a 10-year payback, I have to pay you 100% of revenues for 10 straight years in dividends. That assumes I can get that by my shareholders. That assumes I have zero cost of goods sold, which is very hard for a computer company. That assumes zero expenses, which is really hard with 39,000 employees. That assumes I pay no taxes, which is very hard. And that assumes you pay no taxes on your dividends, which is kind of illegal. And that assumes with zero R&D for the next 10 years, I can maintain the current revenue run rate. Now, having done that, would any of you like to buy my stock at $64? Do you realize how ridiculous those basic assumptions are? You don’t need any transparency. You don’t need any footnotes. What were you thinking?”

I remember thinking after the tech bubble burst in 2000 that I would never again witness another market bubble of that magnitude. I was wrong.

The catalyst for this research note is two recent takeover announcements. In early August, Square (SQ US) announced that Afterpay (APT AU) would be acquired by Square (SQ US) for approximately $US29 billion, the largest takeover in Australia’s history. The Fund had a short position in Afterpay at the time of the announcement. Two months earlier, Australian software company Altium (ALU AU) received a $3.9 billion takeover bid from Autodesk (ADSK US). At the time of this announcement, the Fund also had a short position in Altium.

In deference to Scott McNealy, it’s interesting looking at the Price to Sales ratios for Afterpay and Altium: 22.4 and 16.5 respectively (based on market capitalisations on August 4 and the one year forward revenue forecasts). It makes 10 times revenue look cheap!

From a valuation perspective, the big difference between capital intensive companies and companies like Afterpay and Altium is the degree of operating leverage. This particularly applies to “software as a service” companies. The marginal cost of onboarding a new customer is low and hence these companies tend to have a high return on equity and gross profit margin.

The same cannot be said for the automobile industry. It’s a capital intensive business with high fixed and marginal costs. It’s interesting, therefore, to look at valuation metrics for automobile stocks in the Fund’s universe. Some Chinese electric vehicle companies look particularly expensive based on numerous valuation ratios.

Valuation Ratios for Chinese Electric Vehicle Companies (4 August 2021)

source: Bloomberg, OQFM

As these companies specialise in electric vehicles, they potentially have much stronger growth profiles than companies which have traditionally focused on internal combustion engines. Nevertheless, the harsh reality is that companies with “blue sky” growth outlooks often don’t live up to expectations. This is the reason why forecast earnings growth tends to be a contrarian indicator. With all major car companies focusing on electric vehicles, competition will intensify and growth projections will likely prove to be optimistic.

The title of this research note refers to “absurd valuations”. At OQ Funds Management, we analyse a broad range of valuation factors that compare a company’s share price with various items on its profit & loss, balance sheet and cashflow statements. In aggregate, these valuation factors tell an interesting story. For simplicity, we focus below on simple valuation ratios:

· Over 40% of stocks have a one year forward PE of more than 20.

· Almost 30% of stocks have a one year forward dividend yield of less than 1%.

· Almost 25% of stocks have a last reported price to book of more than 5.

For some of the companies highlighted in this research note, it’s also interesting to look at some obscure valuation measures which aren’t in our dataset:

Altium From their website (5 August 2021): “53% of total revenue is subscription-based, with over 31,000 subscribers globally”. The current market cap is approximately $US3.4b. This equates to $US110,000 per subscriber!

Afterpay From Bloomberg (2 August 2021): “The deal should also help boost Cash App’s total user base by adding Afterpay’s 16 million users to Cash App’s existing user base of 70 million annual users”. This implies Square paid over $US1,600 per customer … for a factoring company!

NIO From Statistica (4 August 2021): “Global sales of automobiles are forecast to fall to just under 70 million units in 2021, down from a peak of almost 80 million units in 2017.” Based on NIO’s current market capitalisations this equates to approximately US$1,050 for every car that will be produced globally in 2021! NIO is currently the seventh ranked automobile company globally based on market capitalisation yet it manufactured less than 44,000 cars in 2020, equating to a market share of less than 0.07%!

These valuation metrics can only be justified using a NPV model with extremely aggressive growth forecasts and an indefinitely low discount rate. This in turn assumes that the normal competitive forces that drive down profit margins are not valid and that interest rates will always be ultra-low. Neither assumption is valid. The only appropriate word to describe the valuation of these companies is “absurd”.

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