This week, I was at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, talking about the difference between price and value. I built the presentation around two points that I have made in my posts before. The first is that there are two different processes at work in markets. There is the pricing process, where the price of an asset (stock, bond or real estate) is set by demand and supply, with all the factors (rational, irrational or just behavioral) that go with this process. The other is the value process where we attempt to attach a value to an asset based upon its fundamentals: cash flows, growth and risk. For shorthand, I will call those who play the pricing game “traders” and those who play the value game “investors”, with no moral judgments attached to either.
The second is that while there is absolutely nothing wrong or shameful about being either an investor (No, you are not a stodgy, boring, stuck-in-the-mud old fogey!!) or a trader (No, you are not a shallow, short term speculator!!), it can be dangerous to think that you can control or even explain how the other side works. When you are wearing your investor cape, you can be mystified by what traders do and react to, and if you are in your trader mode, you are just as likely to be bamboozled by the thought processes of investors. So, at the risk of ending up with a split personality, let me try looking at Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp for $19 billion, with $15 billion coming from Facebook stock and $4 billion from cash, using both perspectives.
The Investor/Value View
There are three pathways to delivering these break-even earnings:
- If the company continues its current business model of allowing people to try the app for free in the first year and charge them a dollar a year after that (99 cents) and has zero operating costs (completely unrealistic, I know), you would need about 2.5 billion people using the app on a continuing basis.
- It is possible that the app is so good that you could charge more per year and not lose customer. At their existing user base of 450 million, that would translate into about $5/year per user, if you have no costs, and more, if you have costs (which you clearly will).
- The value may be in the form of advertising revenues from Whatsapp’s users but that will be tricky. On the home page for the app, here is what the app’s developers say about advertising:
As an investor, the fact that a significant portion of Whatsapp's customer is teenagers is terrifying as a business proposition. While it is unfair to generalize based on anecdotal evidence, as the father of four children, two of whom used to be teenagers and two of whom are in the full throes of the disease (with symptoms ranging from extreme self-centeredness to volatile mood swings), it seems to me that the only group that is less dependable (and predictable) than teenagers is a group of teenagers who text a lot. Rather than take my word for it, you can work with the very simplistic spreadsheet that i
The Trader (Pricing) View
Based on this correlation matrix, here are the conclusions I would draw:
- Number of users is the dominant driver: The key variable in explaining differences in value across companies is the number of users. While the value side of you may be telling you that you cannot pay dividends or buy back stock with users (you need cash flows), remember that the pricing game is not about what you or I think makes sense but what traders care about. This is reinforced by market reactions to earnings announcements, with Zillow seeing its stock price climb 12% when it reported earnings on February 14, 2014, primarily on the news that they added more users than expected and Twitter seeing its stock price drop 25% last week, again primarily on news that the user base grew less than expected.
- User engagement matters: The value per user increases with user engagement. Put different, social media companies that have users who stay on their sites longer are worth more than companies where users don’t spend as much time. While making comparisons across companies is difficult, since each company often has its own "measure" of engagement, there is evidence that markets care about this statistic. For instance, another reason Twitter was punished after its last report was that investors believed that the "timeline views per average user" and the "revenues per 1000 timeline views" reported the company were lower than they had anticipated.
- Predictable revenues are priced higher than more diffuse revenues: Some of the companies on this list derive revenues entirely from advertising, some from a mix of advertising and subscriptions and some from just subscriptions. In fact, some like Zynga make their revenues from retailing (in game purchases). While the sample is too small to draw strong conclusions, the value per user of $577 attached to Netflix's users suggests that the market values predictable subscription revenues more than uncertain advertising or retail revenue.
- Making money is a secondary concern (at least for the moment): Markets (and investors) are not completely off kilter. There is a correlation between how much a company generates in revenues and its value, and even one between how much money it makes (EBITDA, net income) and value. However, they are less related to value than the number of users.
So, what's next?
Following in the footsteps of my favorite baseball general manager, Billy Beane, its time to play some Moneyball, where we let the data drive our actions, rather than our intellects. Here is what I take out of these numbers:
- If you are an investor, stop trying to explain price movements on social media companies, using traditional metrics – revenues, operating margins and risk. You will only drive yourself into a frenzy. More important, don’t assume that your rational analysis will determine where the price is going next and act on it and trade on that assumption. In other words, don’t sell short, expecting market vindication for your valuation skills. It won’t come in the short term, may not come in the long term and you may be bankrupt before you are right.
- If you are a trader, play the pricing game and stop deluding yourself into believing that this is about fundamentals. Rather than tell me stories about future earnings at Facebook/Twitter/Linkedin, make your buy/sell recommendation based on the number of users and their intensity, since yhat it what investors are pricing in right now.
- If you are a company and you want to play the pricing game, I think that the key is to find that "pricing variable" that matters and try to deliver the best results you can on that variable.
Originally posted at http://aswathdamodaran.blogspot.fr/2014/02/faceboo...