Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Apple's Crown Jewel: Valuing the iPhone Franchise

If you are a stockholder in Apple, it is time to celebrate again! The last week has been an eventful one for the company. In addition to claiming the title of "largest market cap" ever, when its market value hit $623.5 billion on August 20, the company also won its lawsuit against Samsung on "patent infringement" charges. Samsung will not only be required to pay $ 1 billion in damages but may also have to remove some of it products from the US market as a consequence. To add to the mix, the iPhone 5 will shortly be arriving on the shelves and there is talk again of Apple becoming the first trillion dollar company ever.

As with my last two posts, I want to set the record straight on my posts on Apple in the last couple of years. In January 2011, I posted on Apple's immense cash balance (of $50-$60 billion at the time). and argued that, as a long-term investor in the company, it has earned my trust after an unmatched decade of success, both in terms of profitability and stock returns, and that I was okay with them holding on to the cash. In March 2012, I returned to the question partly in response to news stories that suggested that Apple may initiate a dividend. Noting that dividends would attract a very different group of stockholders into the company and put them on collision course with the existing stockholder base, I posted that if Apple was intent on returning the cash (as Tim Cook seemed to be), it should do a large stock buyback. I also valued the company at about $710/share (the stock price was about $550 at the time). In April 2012, the stock hit $600 and I bid my farewell to the company as an investment, with much regret and gratitude. I justified my decision to sell not on valuation (since I found the stock to be worth $700+) but on two counts. First, I argued that the company had become a momentum play and that the pricing process had lost its connection to the valuation process. Second, I also felt uncomfortable with the mix of dividend, growth and momentum stockholders, with differing expectations about the company and differing demands of it. Even though Apple’s stock price has gone up about 10% since I sold it, I have no regrets about selling. Since my original case for selling the shares was predicated on a fickle investor base with conflicting views, I believe that the stock price gyrations over the last six months supports that thesis. The stock price dropped as low as $530 and now risen to its high for the year without any dramatic news announcements for the most part driving the price (until the last week). My intrinsic valuation has not changed much in that period and remains over $700, with the updated numbers through the end of last quarter. 

No matter what your views (bullish or bearish) are on Apple, I think that there can be little disagreement on the proposition that Apple's market value rides more on one product, the iPhone than ever before and that it is worth taking a closer look at the underpinnings of that value. Looking at the numbers, here are three key points worth making about the iPhone franchise (and its value to Apple):
  1. The iPhone is a money machine: In the most recent twelve months, the iPhone generated about $100 billion in revenues and approximately $21 billion in after-tax profits for Apple.
  2. The iPhone is a dominant player in a growing market: The smartphone market grew about 40% last year,  primarily as cell phone users switch to smart phones. During the year,  more than 150 million smart phones were sold, with Apple accounting for about 20% of the units sold. However, with its heftier price tag on the iPhones, Apple had a 43% share of the market, if it is defined in dollar revenues. 
  3. The iPhone has a short life cycle: One of the reasons for Apple's disappointing earnings in the most recent quarter is that customers stopped buying the iPhone 4S, waiting for the iPhone 5 to arrive. Since the iPhone 4 came out in June 2010 and the iPhone 4S was introduced in October 2011, that puts about a two-year life cycle on the product.  So what? Companies like P&G or Coca Cola produce products that have very long life cycles; diapers and sodas have not only not changed much over the last few decades but are unlikely to change by much over the next few. Protected by strong brand names, they can be expected to generate earnings for long periods, with relatively little investment or innovation by the companies in question. With a short product life cycle, a company is faced with two challenges. First, it has to come up with innovations to its product to retain its customers when the cycle is renewed, and that will require investment, especially during the later parts of each cycle. Second, even with these innovations, there will be customers who switch to competitors' products (either because they are cheaper or because their innovations are more attractive) and for a company to maintain it's market share, it has to get more of it's competitors' customers to switch to its products. 
Given the iPhone's profitability and dominance in the growing smartphone market, I tried to value the iPhone franchise, incorporating the effect of the short life cycle. In assessing the value, I made the following assumptions.
  1. Profitability: Apple will be able to maintain its current after-tax operating margin of 21% on future iPhone sales. 
  2. Smartphone market: The smart phone market will continue to grow at a 6% compounded rate for the next 10 years, with growth tapering down towards the growth rate of the economy in the long term. 
  3. Product life cycle: The life cycle for a new iPhone will continue to be two years and Apple will have to reinvest half its after-tax operating income in the second year of each cycle (this 50% also incorporate the lost sales in the second year, as each iPhone ages and customers wait for the next version).
  4. Switching assumptions: iPhone customers are assumed to be loyal, with only 5% switching to competitors' products at the end of each life cycle. Apple will be more successful at attracting competitors' customers, with 10% switching into iPhones. 
  5. Risk: Needless to say, there is substantial risk in this process and the cost of capital of 11% (at the 90th percentile for US companies) reflects that risk.

The value that I estimate for the iPhone franchise is $307 billion, working out to a multiple of 3.39 times revenues and about 16.17 times net income on the iPhone. You can download the spreadsheet that I used and change the assumptions, if you so desire. In fact, as with my Groupon and Facebook valuations, I have opened a shared Google spreadsheet for you to enter your estimates of value for the iPhone franchise.

Here is the larger point, though. About 55% of Apple's business value comes from its iPhone franchise and there are three pressure points that will test this value.

  • The first is Apple's capacity to maintain pricing power and earn its current margins; there isn't a competitor within shouting distance of Apple, when it comes to margins. If the after-tax margin drops to 15% from its current 21%, the value of the franchise drops to $219 billion.
  • The second is that Apple will be able to prevent the life cycle from speeding up further and that it can continue to innovate at a reasonable cost (with this cost in conjunction with the loss in earnings during the second part of the cycle not exceeding 50% of the after-tax earnings during the period). Reducing the life cycle to one year from two almost halves the value of the franchise.
  • The third is that Apple is able to maintain a net positive switching ratio (more of the competitors' customers switch to Apple than vice versa), allowing it to increase in market share in dollar value terms. Assuming a neutral switching ratio (customers switching in = customers switching out), reduces the value of the franchise to $255 billion. 
There is an internal tension between these three variables, since keeping iPhone prices high (preserving the high margins) and spending less on innovation (reducing the cost of innovation) may increase the risk that more customers will switch away than into the iPhone. Using the "life cycle" model also provides some perspective on why the lawsuit victory against Samsung may have a bigger effect on the value of the iPhone franchise than how the iPhone 5 fares with customers in a few weeks. Samsung's loss will have a deterrent effect on competitors planning an assault on the iPhone kingdom, thus increasing Apple's pricing power (preserving margins) and improving its odds of holding on to its customers (improving its switching ratio).

With the iPod, iPhone and iPad, the company has been able to count on the unmatched loyalty of its customers, while both attracting customers of less innovative competitors and increasing overall market size. The question that investors face right now is whether Apple can continue its winning streak. The high valuations attached to the company assume that the company can keep doing what it is right now, that the iPhone 5 will not only launch successfully, but be followed by the iPad Mini and the iPhone 6 and so on. The risk that investors have to take into account when investing in Apple is that somewhere along the way, the winning streak may will be broken. Unlike other large market cap companies with long product life cycles or diversified product portfolios, Apple’s value rests on being a Phoenix, constantly reinventing itself every few years.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Groupon Gloom: Deal of the day or Death Spiral?

In keeping with this week's theme of revisiting ghosts of valuations past, I decided to take a look at another fallen angel, Groupon. The stock has collapsed to $4.44 from its post-IPO high of $29 and investors and employees seem to be fleeing from the exits. If you are a contrarian with a strong stomach, it would like the stars are aligned for some bottom fishing but is Groupon a buy, even at this discounted price?

To make this assessment, I decided to take a look at my posts on Groupon from last year:

  1. In my very first post on Groupon in June 2011, I looked at their attempt to move customer acquisition costs from the operating expense to capital expenditures column. While I was sympathetic to the general argument that operating expenses that create benefits over many years (such as R&D, exploration costs and even customer acquisition expenses) should be treated as capital expenditures, I was skeptical in Groupon's case since there was little evidence that Groupon's acquired customers stayed on for long periods and also because Groupon did not follow through fully and treat customers as assets (and amortize or depreciate these assets over time). 
  2. In my second post in October 2011, I looked at Groupon (as well as Google and Green Mountain) with an eye towards potential growth, using four tests: the feasibility of the growth given the overall market served by each company, the capacity to scale up growth (i.e., maintain growth as the companies get bigger), the value created by that growth and the effect of management credibility on how the market perceives that growth.  
  3. In my third post on November 2, 2011, I valued Groupon at the time of the acquisition. Using  "aggressive" assumptions on revenue growth (50% annually for first 5 years, scaling down to mature growth by year 10) and pre-tax operating margin (23%), I estimated a value of $14.62 per share, below the $16-$20 range that investment bankers were touting.
  4. The stock did go public on November 3, 2011, at $20/share, and jumped to $28 by the end of the day. My fourth post on Groupon, on November 4, 2011, looked at the company in the context of a discussion of the value of growth. For growth to add value, I argued that it has to be accompanied by "excess returns", which, in turn, require competitive advantages or barriers to entry. Looking at Groupon's business model, I could not think of any significant barriers to competition that would prevent others from entering the market and eating away at Groupon's margins. Using a simulation, I estimated the following distribution for value/share for Groupon in November 2011 and argued that the stock was more likely to be worth less than $10/share than it was to be be worth $30:

A year later, it is clear that I under estimated how quickly any competitive advantages that Groupon's first mover status gave them would be eroded. This is clear not only from perusing my email box every morning (and removing the dozen emails from different deal-of-the-day purveyors) but also in Groupon's financial results. As the most recent earnings report makes clear, revenue growth has slowed, profitability has lagged and the stock price collapse is in reaction these changes.

As I revisited my valuation, as with Facebook, I had to caution myself not to overreact, but the news, as I see it, is far more dire for Groupon than it is for Facebook. While Facebook's results were disappointing in terms of converting potential to profits quickly, the potential (from their vast user base and the information they have on these users) still remains. In Groupon's case, where the business model was clearer at the time of the IPO, the business model has collapsed and it is difficult to see what the company can do to set itself apart from the competition and make money at the same time. As a result, the changes I made in my Groupon valuation are more dramatic than the changes I made in my Facebook valuation. My base year numbers reflect their most recent quarterly filing, with trailing 12-month revenues of $1.965 billion and operating income of $71 million. My forecasted revenue growth rate is 25% (leading to revenues in 2022 of $10.3 billion, as contrasted with my earlier forecast of $25.4 billion), my target margin is 12% (down from my year-ago estimate of 23%) and my sales/capital ratio is now down to 1.25 (from a year-ago estimate of 2.00). The end result is a value per share of $4.07, which makes the stock, at best, a fairly priced stock. In fact, if you bring in the likelihood that the firm may not make it through its growth pains in the spreadsheet, the value per share drops even further. As with the Facebook valuation, you can download my spreadsheet and put your own estimates in... I have a shared Google spreadsheet for those of you who want to share your numbers...

There are two broader point that are worth making here.
  1. A dramatic stock price drop is not always a buying opportunity: Most young growth stocks are subject to gyrations and it is not uncommon to see growth stocks plummet, when they don't meet the lofty expectations that investors have for them, and we have seen this happen to both Facebook and Groupon. In some cases, investors over react and push the price down far more than they should and that is the basis for my pitch I made for friending Facebook in my last post. In some cases, though, the stock price collapse is well-deserved and that is my rationale for avoiding Groupon. 
  2. Intrinsic valuations can (and should) change over time: There is deeply held belief, at least in some quarters, that intrinsic valuations are stable and don't change over time. While that may be true in many companies and most time periods, there are three exceptions. The first is a dramatic change in the macro environment. My intrinsic valuations for almost all companies changed between August 2008 and October 2008, as the market price of risk (in the form of equity risk premiums and default spreads) increased dramatically in the aftermath of the banking crisis. The second is when accounting fraud is uncovered and key numbers have to be restated. The third is with young growth companies where the premise on which the value of growth is based - that it is scalable, defensible and valuable - is called into question. It is the third exception that applies to Groupon and I feel comfortable lowering the value per share from $14.82 a year ago to $4.07 today. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Facebook face plant: Time to friend the company?

Facebook returned to the headlines on Friday, after it's stock price dropped below $20. At it's closing pricing of $19 on August 17, Facebook was trading at roughly half it's IPO offering price. Investors, analysts and journalists are all looking for the reason for the collapse and some at least seem to have found a ready target: the price drop, they argue, is the result of the "unlocking" of restrictions on insiders selling shares. The problem with this explanation is that it has never been a secret that insiders in Facebook would be able to sell shares starting August 16 and I would wager that no one would have even noticed the end of the lockup period, if the IPO had gone well and the stock were trading at $ 55/share. So, what is going on with Facebook? Why has its stock price plunged over the last few weeks? And is the stock cheap at $19?

The story so far...
As we look back at 2012, it is quite clear that Facebook has held us in its thrall (and not always in a good way) through much of the year and my posts over the year on the company reflect that fascination. Rather than cover up my paper trail, let me draw attention to it (warts and all):
  1. S1 Filing (February 2012): In my first post on Facebook this year, right after Facebook filed its financials (S1) with the SEC, I valued Facebook at $28/share (or $70 billion). I based this valuation on the company's immense potential (its vast user base and the information it had about these users), but was concerned about the absence of a clear business plan (to convert users to revenues), the overhang from insiders stockholdings/options (yes, you could see the lock up period ending in February) and the abysmal corporate governance. 
  2. Playing the IPO pop game (February 2012): In response to a wave of articles that seemed to suggest that investing in the Facebook IPO (at the offering price) would be a sure road to profit, I tried to provide some history on the IPO game in my second post on Facebook, noting that while it was was true that investing in the average IPO does generate a pop for investors, this pop is not guaranteed and that the IPO game can be a loser's game. 
  3. The day before the IPO (May 2012): On the day before the IPO, I posted on what I saw as the hubris of those involved in the IPO process - the investment bankers, the company (Facebook) itself and the institutional investors, who all seemed to think that they could lead the market by to wherever they wanted to go. I updated my valuation of Facebook to about $27 a share and contended that the stock would open with a relatively small pop (that the bankers would get the pricing right) but that the stock was overvalued for longer term investors.
  4. The post-IPO assessment (May 2012): The stock opened (late because of the NASDAQ technical problems) at about $42 and very quickly lost ground over the day to end the day at below the offering price.  I posted my rationale for the momentum shift and argued that a great deal of the blame could be laid at the feet of the company and its bankers, who essentially took momentum for granted. I also ended the post by arguing that the switch in momentum could very well lead take the stock in the other direction, from over valued to under valued.
An updated valuation
If Facebook was over valued at $38, relative to the estimated value of $27/share, is it under valued at $19? To address this question, I revisited my Facebook valuation from May and looked at what I have learned about the company (for the better or worse) since. Has there been enough information that has come out about the firm that could have caused the intrinsic value (at least as I measure it) to drop below $19? The biggest piece of financial information that has emerged on Facebook has been one quarterly earnings report a few weeks ago and it seems to me that not much has changed on either side of the ledger since February. The earnings report was a disappointment to markets, revealing less revenue growth than anticipated and an operating loss, largely as a result of share compensation expenses that were recognized when restricted stock units owned by employees were recognized at the time of the IPO. Facebook remains a company with vast potential (their user base has not shrunk), no clear business plan (is it going to be advertising, product sales or something else) and poor corporate governance. I had not expected any of these issues to be resolved in the one quarterly report and they were not. I did make some adjustments to my valuation: (a) lowering my revenue growth (with my 2022 revenue estimates dropping by about 10%, relative to my May estimates, (b) reducing the operating margin from 35% to 32% to reflect the higher expenses and (c) reducing my sales to capital ratio from 1.50 to 1.20 to incorporate the higher cost of acquisition driven growth. With these changes,  my intrinsic value for Facebook with the updated information is $23.94, a drop of just over 10% from my May 2012 estimate.

So, why did the price drop so much? There are several possible reasons. The first is that my estimate of intrinsic value is completely wrong, that the true value for the company has always been in the low teens and that the market is correcting its initial mistake. The second is that most investors in Facebook don't know what the value of the company is and don't care a hoot about it. Instead, they are pricing (rather than valuing) the stock, reacting to the "surprise" in each news story and to how other investors in the market are responding to that story. This, after all, is the nature of momentum investing, with positive surprises getting magnified by the crowd into unrealistic price jumps and the negative surprises into catastrophic drops. I know that analysts have turned bearish on the stock but since many of these analysts assured me that Facebook was a steal at $38/share, I am not inclined to put much weight on their prognostications. In fact, they very fact that they are turning against the stock may be a positive indicator.

Time to buy?
Now that the stock is at $19, about $5 below my estimate of intrinsic value, would I buy? To make that judgment, I considered three factors.

1. My value could be over stated: I understand that this is a risky investment and that my estimate of value could be hopelessly wrong. In fact, I followed up my intrinsic valuation with a simulation, where I looked at the distribution of intrinsic value, allowing revenue growth, margins and cost of capital to vary. 

Based on my assumptions, there is an 80% chance that the stock is under valued at $19 a share and an almost 85% chance that it is under valued at $18 a share.

2. Management is not going to change: The corporate governance issue is the one that I have the most trouble overcoming. The structure of the voting rights in the company ensure that there is little that stockholders can do to influence how this company is run and that can be a potential problem if it locks itself into a self-destructive path. Calling for Mark Zuckerberg to step down or share power, as an article in the Los Angeles times did, are completely unrealistic. The Russians have a better shot at getting rid of Vlad Putin than Facebook stockholders have of displacing Zuckerberg. For some, this may be a deal breaker, and it came close to being one for me.

3. Vindication, even if I am right, will not come quickly: Markets know no fury to match that of momentum investors scorned, and these investors tend to turn with a vengeance on the companies that disappoint them. Put in stark terms, it is entirely possible that my valuation of Facebook could be right but that the stock price could continue to keep dropping as investors bail out. Eventually, the "intrinsic" truths will emerge, but it may be a long time coming. 

My conclusion is that Facebook is not quite at the threshold of being a buy yet, but it is getting close. I have a limit buy order for the stock at a price of $18. I would be interested in seeing where you stand on the stock and you are welcome to enter your estimate of intrinsic value for the stock and your threshold for buying the stock in the shared Google spreadsheet.