Illiquidity and Bubbles in Private Share Markets: Testing Mark Cuban's thesis!

It looks like Alibaba is investing $200 million in Snapchat, translating (at least according to deal watchers) into a value of $15 billion for Snapchat,  a mind-boggling number for a company that has been struggling to find ways to convert its popularity with some users (like my daughter) into revenues. While we can debate whether extrapolating from a small VC investment to a total value for a company make sense, there are two trends that are incontestable. The first is that estimated values have been climbing at exponential rates for companies like Uber, Airbnb and Snapchat. In venture capital lingo, the number of unicorns is climbing to the point where the name (which suggests unique or unusual) no longer fits. The second is that these companies seem to be in no hurry to go public, leaving the trading in the private sharemarket space. These rising valuations in private markets led Mark Cuban to declare last week that this "tech bubble" was worse (and will end much more badly) than the last one (with dot-com stocks).

In the article, Cuban makes four assertions: (1) There is a tech bubble; (2) A large portion of the tech bubble is in the private share market which is less liquid than the public markets; (3) The bubble will be larger and burst more violently because of the absence of liquidity; and (4) This bubble is worse than the dot-com bubble, though it not clear on what dimension and from whose perspective. In his trademark fashion, Cuban ends his article with a provocative questions,  "If stock in a company is worth what somebody will pay for it, what is the stock of a company worth when there is no place to sell it ?" I like Mark Cuban but I think that he is wrong on all four counts.

The Aging of the Tech Sector: The Pricing Divergence of Young and Old Tech Companies

As the NASDAQ approaches historic highs, Apple’s market cap exceeds that of the Bovespa (the Brazilian equity index) and young social media companies like Snapchat have nosebleed valuations, there is talk of a tech bubble again. It is human nature to group or classify individuals or entities and assign common characteristics to the group and we tend to do the same, when investing. Specifically, we categorize stocks into sectors or groups and assume that many or most stocks in each group share commonalities. Thus, we assume that utility stocks have little growth and pay large dividends and commodity and cyclical stocks have volatile earnings largely because of macroeconomic factors. With “tech” stocks, the common characteristics that come to mind for many investors are high growth, high risk and low cash payout. While that would have been true for the typical tech stock in the 1980s, is it still true? More specifically, what does the typical tech company look like, how is it priced and is its pricing put it in a bubble? As I hope to argue in the section below, the answers depend upon which segment of the tech sector you look at.

DCF Myth 1: If you have a D(discount rate) and a CF (cash flow), you have a DCF!

Earlier this year, I started my series on discounted cash flow valuations (DCF) with a post that listed ten common myths in DCF and promised to do a post on each one over the course of the year. This is the first of that series and I will use it to challenge the widely held misconception that all you need to arrive at a DCF value is a D(iscount rate) and expected C(ash)F(lows). In this post, I will take a tour of what I would term twisted DCFs, where you have the appearance of a discounted cash flow valuation, without any of the consistency or philosophy.

The Consistency Tests for DCF




In my initial post on discounted cash flow valuation, I set up the single equation that underlies all of discounted cash flow valuation:

How low can you go? Doing the Petrobras Limbo!

A few months ago, I suggested that investors venture where it is darkest, the nether regions of the corporate world where country risk, commodity risk and company risk all collide to create investing quicksand. I still own the two companies that I highlighted in that post, Vale and Lukoil, and have no regrets, even though I have lost money on both. At the time of the post, I was asked why I had not picked Brazil’s other commodity colossus, Petrobras, as my company to value (and invest in) and I dodged the question. The news from the last few days provides a partial answer, but I think that the Petrobras experience, painful though it might have been for some investors, provides an illustration of the costs and benefits of political patronage.

Petrobras: A Short History

Petrobras was founded in 1953 as the Brazilian government oil company, and for the first few decades of its life, it was run as a government-owned company from its headquarters in Rio De Janeiro. Until 1997, it had a legal monopoly on oil production and distribution in Brazil, when the domestic market was opened up to foreign oil producers. Petrobras was listed as a public company in 1997 on the Sao Paulo exchange and as a depository receipt on the New York Stock Exchange soon after. The arc of fortunes for the company can be traced in the changes in its market capitalization over time, reported in US dollars in the figure below:

Tag: 

Discounted Cashflow Valuations (DCF): Academic Exercise, Sales Pitch or Investor Tool?

In my last post, I noted that I will be teaching my valuation class, starting tomorrow (February 2, 2015). While the class looks at the whole range of valuation approaches, it is built around intrinsic valuation, reflecting my biases and investment philosophy.

The X Factor in Value: Excess Returns in Theory and Practice

Mod Note (Andy): This was originally posted on 1/17/15 on his blog

There are lots of reasons why we try to start and run businesses. Some of them are emotional but the financial rationale for starting and staying in business is a simple one. It is to not just to make money, but to make more than what you would have made elsewhere with the capital (human and financial) invested in the business. Of course, your competitors, the government and sometimes the entire world seems to conspire against you (or at least it seems that way) to prevent you from making these “excess” returns. 

The Search for and Scarcity of Excess Returns

An ERP Retrospective: Looking back (2014) and Looking forward (2015)

Mod Note: This was originally posted on 1/2/15 on his blog "Musings on Markets"

At the beginning of 2014, the expectation was that government bond rates that had been kept low, at least according to the market mythology, by central banks and quantitative easing, would rise and that this would put downward pressure on stocks, which were already richly priced. Perhaps to spite the forecasters, stocks continued to rise in 2014, delivering handsome returns to investors, and government bond rates continued to fall in the US and Europe, notwithstanding the slowing down of quantitative easing. Commodity prices dropped dramatically, with oil plunging by almost 50%, Europe remained the global economic weak link, scaling up growth became more difficult for China and the US economy showed signs of perking up. Now, the sages are back, telling us what is going to happen to markets in 2015 and we continue to give them megaphones, notwithstanding their  forecasting history. Rather than do a standard recap, I decided to use my favored device for assessing overall markets, the equity risk premium (ERP), to take a quick trip down memory lane and set up for the year to come.

Up, up and away! A crowd-valuation of Uber!

In June 2014, I tried to value Uber and arrived at an estimated value for the firm of $6 billion, an impressive number for a young firm, but well below the VC estimates of value of $17-$18 billion at the time of my post. Much of the reaction was predictable, with readers whose priors were confirmed by my assessment of value liking it and those whose priors were different disagreeing,and sometimes vehemently. Disagreement and debate don't bother me in the least, since they can only advance the valuation narrative, but I do think that putting my narrative and valuation front and center undercut my objective in two ways. First, it made for passive analysis, where you could pick and choose which one of my valuation inputs you agreed with and which ones that you found erroneous, the justifying your prior biases. Second, some who disagreed took the easy way out, arguing that it was my use of an intrinsic value (DCF) model that had led me down the wrong path and that it was therefore unfixable. 

Tag: 

Go where it is darkest: When company, country, currency and commodity risk collide!

You learn valuation (and find out how much you don't know) by valuing businesses and companies, not by talking, reading or ruminating about doing valuation. That said, it is natural to want to value companies with profit-making histories and a well-established business models in mature markets. You will have an easier time building valuation models and you will arrive at more precise estimates of value, but not only will you learn little about valuation in the process, it is also unlikely that you will find immense bargains, because the same qualities that made this company easy to value for you also make it easier to value for others, and more importantly, easier to price.

I believe that your biggest payoff is in valuing companies where there is uncertainty about the future, because that is where people are most likely to abandon valuation first principles and go with the herd. So, if you are a long-term investor interested in finding bargains, my advice to you is to go where it is darkest, where micro and macro uncertainty swirl around every input and where every estimate seems like a stab in the dark. I will not claim that this is easy or comes naturally to anyone, but I have a few coping mechanisms that work for me, which I describe in this paper

Twitter's Bar Mitzvah! Is Social Media coming of age?

Life's transitions, from single to married, from renter to homeowner, and from employed to retired, just to name a few, are never easy, since the rules change, as do the measures of success and failure and that is perhaps the reason that they are accompanied by ceremonies (weddings, housewarming, retirement parties). The life of a business is also full of transitions, and not only are they just as difficult for investors, traders and managers, but they often occur without ceremony, and can go unnoticed. In the last three years, social media companies have claimed center place in market conversations, first when they went public at prices that old-time value investors found inconceivable, and then as their ups and downs became part of market lore.

In the last few weeks, we have seen this fascination with social media companies play out again, first in the market reaction to Mark Zuckerberg's post earnings statements about Facebook's future investment needs and then in Twitter’s struggles to reclaim its narrative at its analyst meeting last week. I get a sense that we are on the cusp of a transition, where the time for pure story telling (and its metrics) is ending and more traditional metrics (revenues, profitability) will come to the fore. That does not presage, as some are suggesting, the end of the social media party and a collapse of social media market capitalizations, but it does mean that investors, traders and managers have to recalibrate to a different game, where they will be judged not on pure sector momentum but on their capacity to cull winners from losers and find the right metrics for making those judgments.

Tag: 

Pages