Is your CEO worth his (her) pay? The Pricing and Valuing of Top Managers!

It is the time of the year when stories about CEO compensation are the news of the day, and investors and onlookers alike get to ask whether a CEO can really be worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars, in annual compensation. Before I join the crowd, it behooves me to list my biases to start, because it will allow you to make a judgment on whether I am letting these biases color my conclusions.

Dealing with Low Interest rates: Investing and Corporate Finance Lessons

A few months ago, I tagged along with my wife and daughter as they went on a tour of the Federal Reserve Building in downtown New York. While the highlight of the tour is that you get to see large stacks of US dollars in the basement of the building, I considered making myself persona non grata with my immediate family by asking the guide (a very nice Fed employee) about the location of the interest rate room. That, of course, is the room where Janet Yellen comes in every morning and sets interest rates. I am sure that you can visualize her pulling the levers that sets T.Bond rates, mortgage rates and corporate rates and the power that comes with that act. If that sounds over the top, that is the impression you are left with, not only from reading news stories about central banks, but also from opinion pieces from some economists and investment advisors. I know that investors, analysts and CFOs are all rendered off balance by low interest rates, but I will argue that the techniques that they use to compensate are more likely to get them in trouble than solve their problems.

The GM Buyback: Beyond the Hysteria!

Here is a script for a movie about the evils of stock buybacks, with the following players. The victim is an well-managed company in a business with significant growth opportunities and profit potential. The company has delivered products that its customers love, while paying its workers top-notch wages & benefits and invested heavily and prudently in its future. The villain is an activist investor, and for added color, let's make him greedy, short term and a speculator. In the story, he forces the  company to redirect money it would have spent on more great investments to buy back stock.

The white knight can be a regulator, the government or a noble investor (make him/her successful, wealthy and socially conscious, i.e., Buffett-like) who rides in and saves the hapless company from the villain and stops the buyback. The story ends happily, with the defeat and humiliation of the activist investor, and the moral  is that stock buybacks are evil (and need to be stopped). As you read some of the over-the-top responses to GM's buyback, such as this one, you would not be alone in thinking that you were reading about the mythical company in the movie. But given GM's history and current standing, do you really want to make it the basis for your case against buybacks?

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:

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.