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Visual Heads-Up Computer Navigation and Simulations Plus (SLP)

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On April 17, I wrote about using sensitivity analysis and enterprise Enterprise Discounted Cash Flow (eDCF) analysis to identify intrinsic value for any given stock — http://caps.fool.com/Blogs/ViewPost.aspx?bpid=378650&t=01004821517556035447, with the actual description (along with charts and graphs demonstrating the concept) at my personal blog https://rcrawford.wordpress.com/2010/04/17/sensitivity-analysis-for-simulations-plus/ .

As with any presentation of a concept, it is typically necessary to use an example or two, and, in this case, I used Simulations Plus (SLP). Interestingly, I used SLP (a software company whose principal product calculates/predicts the metabolic effectiveness of potential medications in the human body prior to human trials) because the company is so small that is not covered by The MotleyFool. This is, after all, a $35 million company – selling at $2.11 a share. Moreover, last year the stock was selling at just above its delisting price of one dollar (which is roughly where I purchased it). Candidly, I used SLP as the example because the article was written to describe a largely unrecognized approach to valuing stocks, and I didn’t want readers to wrongly conclude that I was advocating its purchase.

That changed yesterday, when the company announced a new product offering – software that will allow the computer user to navigate visually, without a mouse.

Now this may seem like a nifty idea whose time has come (perhaps, even, one that is long overdue) but nothing ground shaking, and that is how I viewed it, as well. I was, however, intrigued enough to consider the changes likely to arrive with the company’s strategic posture and customer demand. As described on a different discussion board, here are my conclusions:

I’m always leery about writing glowing comments about a stock I own, since doing so is so blatantly self-serving, but, in this case, I suspect the news is being underplayed and underappreciated. While I would like to have more information about pricing of the new product, customer demand should be significant. I just looked up the figures for quadriplegia, for example. There are 5000 new quadriplegics for whom this product would be a benefit each year, with a further 1000 in the UK. Add to this the other first world countries (including nearby Canada), and you begin to have a grasp of the degree of potential customer demand. Quadriplegia, of course, is not the only diagnosis for which this product would represent a significant benefit to customers. The lifetime risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome is 10% of the adult population. Add to this the sports injuries which effect arms and hands for, either, an extended period or as persistent/chronic conditions, and this number grows even further. Moreover, think about the extent to which computers represent viable employment options for those suffering from any of these conditions, the support requirements for afflicted workers under OSHA, and the degree to which computer use at home now represents a communications and information necessity, and the question of consumer demand becomes all the more clear.

This, however, represents just the first layer of consideration. As an early entrant, the company will enjoy significant strategic benefits based on the production model described in the announcement article (i.e., outsourcing production) — http://finance.yahoo.com/news/SLP-Subsidiary-Words-Launches-bw-56839333.html?x=0&.v=1. Specifically, if marketed aggressively, it will be easy to acquire significant share of mind in much the same way as Dragon Dictate with voice recognition software. Strategically, this model provides defensive benefits, as well. Based on contractual production, the company will have a clear picture of stepwise unit margins and various production volumes sufficient to defend the space with product positioning and pricing. There is, as well, the barrier to entry associated with research and development – which the company has already expensed. While it will be necessary to maintain the developmental edge, the upfront costs of initial product development are already accounted for in prior financial statements. In other words, the company has already paid to create the product. As sales increase, economies of scale and defensible margins should more prominently materialize, to the benefit of stockholders, customers, and, most pleasantly, society at large.

I may be wrong, but this strikes me as game changing in a way that Word+ (another SLP product) was not (in my view). If true (i.e., this is, in fact, game changing), earlier estimates of this being a $4-$5 stock seem conservative. At minimum, this product addition makes the $4-$5 range less speculative and, all else being equal, makes it more reliable due to cash flow expansion. Even if profit margins remaine stable at around 19%, the increased volume in sales and the resultant growth seem likely to expand return on assets prior to any consideration of the equity multiplier associated with return on equity.

Of course, others may see this differently, and I would be interested in reading the contrarian perspective. At this point, however, I do not see how this can be remotely perceived as a negative for the company, the stock, or consumers.


Written by rcrawford

May 12, 2010 at 4:28 am

Posted in Investments

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Sensitivity Analysis for Simulations Plus

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In the midst of grading season, I don’t have much time to blog or respond to comments, but, as I have in the past, I want to respond to a comment on a discussion board, and use this as an opportunity to do a little teaching.  The discussion board comment questioned whether Simulations Plus (a small pharmaceutical-research software company) has run up too much to still be considered a value stock.  When I first purchased it on October 21, 2008, I bought in at $1.06 and $1.07 a share and estimated that it was selling at more than a 50% discount to intrinsic value.  Today, the closing price was $2.35, and it is natural to wonder whether it is time to sell.

To answer this question, it is important to understand that my shares in SLP are not in a tax-efficient account, and, despite a market that appears to be marginally over-valued, my inclination is to hold stocks until they are demonstrably overvalued when they reside in this account.  Otherwise, the 15% capital gains tax hit reduces my proceeds on the investment by 15%.  Additionally, if selling, I would confront the dilemma of finding a replacement investment about which I am less familiar and, consequently, less comfortable.  So, if SLP is fairly-valued, I’ll hold, and, if it is overvalued, I’ll sell.


Now, it should be understood that the stock hovered for sometime following purchase around the delisting price of $1 and eventually appreciated in value until hitting strong resistance around $1.80.  It meandered for a time at this level and just recently moved up strongly on increased volume, as it began to receive increased press and showed up on technical-analysis screens — where traders identify stocks that are trending higher, based on the stock-price movement and volume.  The catalyst for this appears, in part, to be attributable to the company hiring an investor relations PR firm — a move which was criticized by some on the discussion boards, with the assertion that doing so was tantamount to squandering investor value.  Personally, I take the view that you, either, trust the management or you do not, and, if you do not, then it is time to sell.  At minimum, you can buy US Government Bonds, where management can be trusted to print the money necessary to make good on its obligation to you as the bondholder.

In any event, the recent run-up was based on what seems to have been institutional buying; although, share repurchases may account for some of this move:

So, the question is one of whether recent buyers who began purchasing at an 80% premium above my entry price know a good thing when they see it or have been suckered into the stock at a fair or, for that matter, a rich price.

Weighted Cost of Capital (WACC)

To get at this, lets perform the analysis using a technique not previously covered on this blog.  Due to time constraints, I won’t explain the math, but the intrinsic value of the company can be calculated by multiplying the accumulated equity per share times (ROC-G)/(R-G), where ROC is Return on Capital, G is the growth rate, and R is the cost of capital.  To be conservative, I’ll use Cash Return on Invested Capital (CROIC) in place of ROIC (Return on Invested Capital).  CROIC is calculated as Free_Cash Flow/(Total Equity+Total Liabilities-Total Current Liabilities).

Weighted Average Cost of Capital (WACC) is normally considered the cost of capital, which I have calculated as follows:

Now, let’s look at WACC more closely.  There are two portions to this — a debt portion and an equity portion.  The debt portion takes into account the tax benefits of  debt (from the company’s perspective), but SLP has no debt and hasn’t for some time.  This means the bulk of the 13% WACC is attributable to the equity portion.

Is WACC the Best Measure?

Well, the equity portion of WACC is curious.  The company pays no dividend, so there is no cost to the company related to stock ownership when it comes to financing yearly operations.  The “Opportunity Cost” of the equity is just the investor’s required return, which, in the absence of a dividend, is the stockholder’s expected/desired price appreciation as shares are bought and sold in the market — something management can eventually influence with profits, retained earnings, growth, and increasing equity but, otherwise, management is largely powerless to guarantee a specific level of stock-price appreciation.

This 13%, however, is not a number pulled out of thin air — the air was more thick than that, even if just marginally so.  That 13% is based on the Risk Free Rate of Return (RFRR), which is the current yield on the 10-year bond, plus a buffer that accommodates market risk (8.6% is the number I use, and, by most accounts, it is indefensibly high).

Indeed, for a company with no debt and a nice cash stockpile, 13% or more strikes me as too high, and, for companies with a much weaker balance sheet, 13% strikes me as too low.  Given SLP’s strength, it seems reasonable to substitute the 20-year Single-A corporate bond yield of 6.25%.  Why?  Well, with no debt, ownership of the company is uncontested beyond just us stockholders, in that no creditors, preferred stockholders, and warrant-holders enjoy a senior claim on the company, and this makes the corporate bond yield a more reasonable measure of the true cost of equity capital — especially, since I am not using the lower rates (yields) associated with Triple-A bonds.  This seems (to me, at least) to represent a better balance between the opportunity cost of equity and the negligible effect of equity on the cost-burden faced by the company in its daily operations.

Would Warren Approve?

Now, you may assert that Buffett famously requires a 15% rate, but Mr. Buffett is notorious for allowing common sense to trump general rules of thumb, even when those rules are of his making.  In other words, he does not check his brain at the office door upon arrival each morning.  By his own admission, the purchase of Coke was made at a fair price (rather than a DCF-based cheap price) — allowing the franchise value of the company to serve as his margin of safety.  In the case of SLP, the company is the single producer of its leading product and the government, in addition to many leading pharmaceutical firms, is literally sold on it.  So, I’ll use 6.25% as the cost of capital, and, if you (dear reader) disagree, feel free to substitute any number you prefer.  In fact, that is one of the strengths of performing sensitivity analysis, as will soon be evident.  Sensitivity analysis will allow you to select your own inputs and quickly identify your own estimate of intrinsic value, based on your preferences.  Having settled on a cost of capital figure, we will, however, need to identify ranges for Growth and CROIC.

Returns on Capital and Growth Rates

As for which numbers we will use for return on capital and the growth rate, we want to lower both since this method of estimating intrinsic value seeks to identify the long-term rates.  In the case of growth, we will start with the average rate of inflation over the past decade (3%) and increase that up to Mr. Buffett’s maximum expected rate for the broader-market (6%).  While he hasn’t fully explained why he believes this is the maximum for the broader market, he has implied that this has to do with the US’s current account deficit, and, indeed, some economists expect inflation to rise to 5% due to increased government spending.  If expecting that SLP will earn returns that do nothing more than keep pace with inflation, we can use sensitivity analysis to calculate intrinsic value at different rates of growth, and our span of considered rates will run between 3% and 6%.

As for the return on capital, the yearly figures over the past decade are:

If we calculate the median of the rolling five-year and seven-year medians for CROIC, we get:

So, we will adjust off of 15.59%, and our adjustment will be downward.

This raises the question of just how far down we should adjust.  We know that, over time, the returns on capital will move down to meet the weighted average cost of capital, since the spread between them will attract competition.  While a price war may lower it further, a negative spread will promote industry consolidation in order to increase pricing power and a return to reasonable profitability.  While WACC was not appropriate when calculating the cost of capital (because investor expectations are not relevant to how the company operates daily), WACC is the appropriate measure for estimating the low-end of long-term returns on capital — because rates lower than that will bring on an investor up-rising (in the form of proxy fights, the arrival of activist investors, etc.).  Consequently, we will use 10% as our bottom returns on capital estimate and 15% as the top-end estimate.

Sensitivity Table/Analysis

The final preliminary step is to plug each of these assumptions into our equation for calculating intrinsic value.  Using 6.25% as the cost of capital, our two-way sensitivity table for growth and returns on capital becomes:

So, at 4% growth and 13% returns on capital, the stock is worth $2.49, which is a little above today’s price.  This suggests that recent buyers were not entirely delusional.  They may, in fact, expect a higher rate of inflation-driven growth, which would value the stock at $4.49 if inflation rises to 5% and long-term returns on capital decline to 13%.  With the company’s strong niche servicing the cost-reduction needs of the pharmaceutical industry (in this post-healthcare-reform environment), higher rates for either growth or returns may be warranted, depending on investor opinion about the company, its products, and their prospects in the competitive market.  A more important consideration for the institutional investor is calculating the down-side risk in comparison to the potential for appreciation.  Worst case (using 10% returns and 3% growth) is a price of $1.34 … unless expecting something worse to unfold over the life of the company.

Now, the table above color codes the cells based on whether the projected value is above (green) or below (red) the current stock price.

Down-Side Risk Graph

Raw numbers, however, are often difficult to visualize.  So, think about the graphing possibilities.

Want the ability to consider the down-side risk versus the up-side potential in light of these assumption?  How about:

In this case, the stock prices are listed along the y-axis, returns on capital are along the x-axis, and the diagonal colored lines are the various growth rates.  There are three horizontal lines.  The red-dashed horizontal line is my test assumption, which assumes 14% returns and 5.5% growth.  Do I expect this?  No.  It is just an example of what you can do with this sort of analysis.  The dashed-blue line is set at twice the current stock price.  As a deep-value investor, I tend to demand a 50% margin of safety when first buying a stock, and this line helps me determine the scenarios necessary to produce that margin of safety.  At 11% returns and 5.5% growth, intrinsic value doubles — both strike me as achievable, for the reasons explained earlier, but you may view things differently and this chart informs that consideration.  Lastly, for this chart, the black line is the current price, and, to the degree that the different growth rate lines are below the black line (compared to the degree to which they are above the black line) provides a sense of the down-side risk.  In this case, the upside seems abundantly larger than the down-side, but you may be exceedingly risk-adverse and see it differently … and that is fine.

Jacobi — Charlie Munger’s Hero, and Mine, As Well

Continuing with our graphical analysis, let’s do the Jacobi and invert:

In this case, the price remains along the y-axis, but the growth rate is along the x-axis.  Each of the variously-colored curved lines is the return on capital, and horizontal lines reflect the current price, double the current price, and the estimate — from bottom horizontal line upwards.  Note where the top and bottom lines cross the current price and the degree to which they are above and below it.  Next, do the same with the margin-of-safety price.  And, finally, note the change in slope as growth and returns on capital increase.

With some stocks, the slope becomes parabolic, asymptotic, and down-right exotic … and you never thought a graph could achieve such an alluring level of  sex appeal.  Well, if the graph seems too good to be true, consider the before and after pictures of May West, who was considered the sexiest woman of her era when she was young and became a real porker when the ravages of age struck.  The same is often true of fast-growing companies.  Attractive in youth, they tend to burn-out early through hard-living and, like Mae, unsustainable growth.  [Note:  The general rule is that growth in excess of 30% per year threatens detrimental burnout, but, as always, there are exceptions to this rule.]

Do I Need More Analysis or Am I Just Sensitive?

Another way to analyze this is the following:

Like the earlier table, this one is color coded.  It considers the projected intrinsic-value price in comparison to the current price and calculates the up-side return.  “Fair value” is the current price, and fair value equals 100%.  Below 100% is color coded as red.  The yellow squares range between 100% and 150%, and they are yellow because I consider this to represent an attractive valuation for only exceptional companies — where management walks on water, divides loaves and fishes, births babies, washes windows, and sheers sheep before the rest of us have had breakfast.  If Warren were younger or immortal, I’d buy Berkshire in the yellow zone.  The green boxes (without bolding and lines drawn around them) indicate an intrinsic value that is between 150% and 200% above the current stock price.  This would apply to much of the Fortune 100 in terms of their size, financial strength, market share, etc.  This tier is below my normal deep-discount threshold, and examples of recent purchases that fell into this range are Disney and Wal*Mart.  Lastly, the bolded and boxed-in green squares are 200% or above the current value.

A Final, But Important, Note

For the record, I tend to calculate these figures using several different methods of estimating intrinsic value.  Think of it as Sensitivity-Analysis-Squared.  Here is one of many possible examples, using the SLP data:

Credits and References

Finally, for a more complete explanation of the math behind the equation, read Value Investing:  From Graham to Buffett and Beyond by Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn, Paul Sonkin, and Michael van Biema.

The charts and graphs do not appear in the Greenwald book.  For good or ill, they represent my effort to incrementally improve on Professor Greenwald’s brilliance.

The purpose of this posting, beyond responding to an online comment, was to teach the concept of sensitivity analysis and take it a step beyond earlier efforts that focused on the Ponzio approach to Discounted Cash Flow analysis:

Example of Sensitivity Analysis Using Ponzio DCF Approach and SLP

The original idea for addressing this topic followed from a recent conversation with Bill Ellard.  Bill has written and published for a number of online investing Zines, while the Ponzio approach can be found at FWallStreet.com, where professional money manager Joe Ponzio is the chief cook and bottle-washer.  [Joe also runs Ponzio Capital and is the author of F Wall Street.]


Now for the disclaimers, which have not been approved by any competent legal mind.  First, be an adult and do your own analysis and due diligence before investing.  I am neither perfect nor clairvoyant when it comes to investing, and I’ve made my fair share of errors in the past.   While not intending to fool anyone, I have made mathematical mistakes before (starting in first grade and continuing uninterrupted to the present day).  Consequently, there is no guarantee that the math presented here is perfect (I’ve checked it thrice or more, but I am, both, writer and editor, and, therefore, violate the tenet that no physician should have himself as a patient).  So, do your own thinking and ciphering, make your own decisions, and be adult enough to withstand the consequences of a mercurial market, an imperfect writer, and the potential that the financial Gods just might smote us both, no matter how good looking or worthy of wealth the two of us might be.  Please know that it is my preference that you not invest in any stock used as an example on this blog.  Instead, use the concepts to identify your own investment opportunities and send me a note with your best ideas … but only the ones that make a change of pants or panties necessary … and quantitatively explain your logic.  [Note: Good or bad, I will not post your recommendations.  Sorry, I shill for no one.]


Following publication of this piece, Mike wrote:

Thanks for a great report regarding Simulation Plus,Inc.. You inspired me to due my own due diligence in this company. I am new to investing but here are my results:
ROE over the past three yrs., 8.8%,14.3% & 14.5% ave. 12.5% Would like to see 15% or more;
Growth Rate for yrs 05/06 23.3%, 06/07 51.1%, 07/08 1.2%, and 08/09 1.89% Big drop here could be trouble.
Net Profit Margin is on ave., 15.6% not bad;
Asset Turn 0.76 cents,0,86 cents and 0.75 cents not good;
ROA last three yr. ave is 12.5 % could be better;
FCF 06/ -0.22,07/ +2.33,08/ +1.67 and 09/ +1.77 this seems lumpy;
Cash King Ratio for four yrs. is on ave., 15.11% which is very good;
Cash Conversion Cycle for Simulations is 116.7 days I don’t know if this is good or bad?
Because I am new at this I need your ideas if you still think SLP is still a good investment. Thank you for your time and consideration in this matter.
Respectfully, Mike

First, Mike, thank you for the compliment.  They are always appreciated.

Second, please recognize that I used SLP as an example to demonstrate an analytical approach.  While I own shares in the stock, SLP is a very small holding in a larger portfolio, and this strikes me as appropriate for a small value/growth company with a market cap significantly less than $100 million.  During a significant market down-turn, market liquidity could dry up quickly.  So, while the company is abundantly healthy (no debt, strong cash flows, etc.), don’t deploy your rent money or allocate Granny’s savings toward it.

Morningstar Data.  See Debt/Equity figures.

Third, your calculations differ from the Morningstar figures (marginally, in some cases, more significantly in others):

Now, let’s look at each of the items you mentioned, starting with Net Profit Margin.  At 15%, this is, indeed, healthy.  Next, you note that Asset Turnover is “not good.”  The reason we consider Asset Turnover is that it contributes to Returns on Assets when multiplied by the Profit Margin.  This tells us a great deal about the company’s pricing structure if you think of Asset Turnover as a surrogate for the volume of unit sales.  With a high profit margin product, you can sell a small number of units to achieve the same ROA as a low margin product for which you must sell a great many units.  This is the difference between Porche and bubble gum — one has high margins and low unit sales, while the other has low margins and high unit sales.  This, in fact, is recognized by Investopedia (the online dictionary of investment terms and concepts):


Now, you note that ROA has a three year average of 12.5% (indicating that this “could be better.”)  Recognize that SLP is an early-life-cycle company in its formative years.  Consequently, the numerator (net income) will be depressed due to growth CapEx spending (plowing back into the company a greater portion of operating income to finance future returns), and the denominator of ROA (Total Assets) may be higher-priced (listed as more valuable or expensive) than for a longer-tenured firm.  For example, there is a great deal of uncertainty about the real estate value of Sears Holdings because much of the property was purchased more than 40 years ago, at much lower prices.  Credit Suisse values the real estate holdings at $4.7 billion today, while Sears lists them at $1 billion on the balance sheet.

Next, you note that the three year average ROE is 12.5% (the same as for ROA), and that you would like to see something greater than 15% by this measure.  The difference between ROA and ROE is literally the multiplier effect of debt:


Recall from earlier that SLP has no debt.  Of course, debt can be a good thing or it can be a bad thing.  It is known as leverage for a reason.  It enhances profits and exacerbates losses.  Currently, corporations are stockpiling cash due to economic and tax-rate uncertainties, allowing them to reduce debt, and this is depressing ROE.  So, in this respect, SLP is not alone.  In fact, the company has indicated its interest in making strategic aquisitions, if the right deal comes along, and this explains why cash and short-term equivalents account for nearly 60% of total assets:

More importantly, the company should not take on debt if unable to convert that capital into new sales.  Doing so would depress ROA and ROE, and it would certainly depress any right-thinking investor.

The decline in growth rate is easily explained by the decline in the economy — the worse recession/depression since 1929 — and the uncertainties associated with healthcare reform legislation for SLP’s principle customers (the pharmaceutical and bio-med industries).  The question then becomes whether this represents a short-term condition or a long-term undermining of the company’s strategic position.  While this is largely a judgment call, note that SLP’s principle product significantly reduces R&D costs for its clients and the utility of the product is recognized by the FDA as a suitable surrogate for those R&D steps.  So, the question becomes one of whether you expect pharma and bio-med to cease R&D toward new medical advances — if so, be gentle when you break the news to their stockholders.

Next, you indicate that FCF is lumpy, and it certainly is.  Dive into the statement of cash flows, however, and the reason becomes fairly evident.  Note that the numbers are exceedingly small.  A change of $1 million in cash from investments can have a material impact on FCF, even though that $1 million expense was toward upgrading operating infrastructure, as happened a couple of years ago.  That decline in FCF, however, represented an internal investment toward future growth, for which the company and its owners should reasonably expect a future return on investment.  And, indeed, the new product announcements since then support this view — with one product already generating profits and the other new product just starting to enter the market, following the recently announced sales and distribution partnership agreement.

You note that the Cash King ratio (15.11%) is “very good.”  Candidly, I’m not familiar with this ratio.

As for whether SLP remains a value investment, I am of two minds about that.  At the current price it is fairly valued if expecting 6% annualized growth.  If, however, you anticipate a higher growth rate due to the company’s proven history of innovation, new products (generated internally), and the company’s past history of accretively successful and judicious acquisitions, then the stock is undervalued by 50% or more.  To see this most clearly, look at the Returns on Invested Capital and compare that to any reasonable measure of the company’s cost of capital.  The difference between the two reflects the franchise value of the company (what Buffett calls “The Moat”).

Now, I should offer two warnings to the approach you are using.

First, allow the ratios to help paint a picture of the company as a strategic entity in the market.  In other words, understand the strategic position of the company and its forward prospects and let the ratios support or disprove the mental picture you have of the company.  Because the ratios are backwards-looking (reflecting prior results), they will tell you about how management has positioned the company and whether the company is in financial distress, but they are often poor indicators of future performance.  This is especially true for early-stage firms.

During grad school, we did a case analysis of American Greetings.  The financial results and ratios were little different from one year to the next, and my team’s presentation of the case reached that conclusion.  Our professor (Dr. Doward Dowsma) then asked the key question — “Is American Greetings a stock or is it a bond?”  Well, of course, it is a stock, but its behavior was more akin to a bond — with a steady and predictable revenue stream and dividends.  Dr. Dow then asked whether it was easy or hard to value the company, and, because it behaves like a bond, we said it was easy.  “As investors,” Dr. Dow continued, “is there anything about the stock that you know that other investors do not, since the value is so easily determined?”  We could think of none.  “Is the stock fairly valued today?”  It was, we asserted.  “So, the market knows how to read a set of financials, calculate the ratios, discount the cash flows, and place a fair value on the stock?”  Yes.  “Is American Greetings a buy, sell, or hold?”  We said “hold.”  “Oh, really?” responded Dr. Dow.  “You can’t find a better use for your money than purchasing a fairly valued bond?”

Now, ask yourself, “Is SLP so predictable in its results that it behaves like a bond?”  Then ask, “Do you know something the market does not?”  Personally, I know that the company enjoys significant barriers to entry, that management is earnest and honest, that it occupies an industry that is more resilient to market down-turns than most, has a new product that may revolutionize workplace efficiency for disabled workers, and has consistently posted returns on invested capital that exceed the imputed equity cost of capital (maximally, 8.6%).  I also know that it is a small company that is under-followed by Wall Street analysts.  So, yes, I know something the market doesn’t … and I know the company is so small that it represents a speculative investment.  Consequently, I want exposure to the company, but I don’t want a lot of exposure.  That was my thinking when I bought the stock when it was selling near its delisting price of $1, and that is my thinking today at $2.35.  The difference between then and now is that the company was cheap on a book value basis at $1.

Second, if relying so strongly on ratios and conventional measures for them, you need to consider more than three years worth of data.  Three years is statistically meaningless and, worse, misleading.  Under the central limit theorem, you need 30 data points to determine when a single data point is statistically outside the normal distribution (i.e., to reject the null hypothesis).  Walter Shewhart, in the mid-1920s, demonstrated that you could use as little as five data points if the data was accurately collected and reflected a standardized process.  Well, the distribution of economic results is not captured by 10 years worth of data (the prior decade’s data was unhelpful in predicting the crash of 2007/2008), and it is certainly not captured with 5 years worth of data, and 3 years data is 40% less data than five years data.

This is why Benjamin Graham advocated requiring a significant margin of safety.  That margin of safety can come in different forms.  It can be based on a discount to the company’s balance sheet (Graham’s approach), but this entirely ignores the compounding benefits of future growth.  You can use John Burr William’s DCF to get at the value of growth, but this requires making judgments about growth and discount rates.  You can discount DCF (a la Joe Ponzio and Monish Pabrai), but this provides little protection during economic crashes that exceed 30% (or less, depending on your growth and discount assumptions).  You can do as Buffett does and combine Philip Fisher with Graham and Williams and add a heavy dose of Michael Porter’s “Strategic Forces.”  Or you can modify Buffett with Bruce Greenwald’s methods — adding layer upon layer of safety margins, where the value of each margin of safety is accorded its appropriate weight depending on the strengths of the company — something I’ve barely touched on in this blog, but I’m working on it with the latest series of quality improvement postings (but that won’t be evident until the end, due to the complexity of the theory and philosophy behind it).

In any event, I hope this is helpful.

The key takeaway is not that SLP is or is not a stock you should buy, however.  It is right for my portfolio, because I can accommodate a significant loss from a small and speculative investment, and, having experienced and navigated the crash of 2007/2008, I know with relative precision my tolerance for risk.  As a new investor, your tolerance may be lower (most investors believe their tolerance is high, until the market hits them hard) or your invested capital may be less discretionary.  So, please do not read this as a recommendation to purchase SLP.  That is not my intent, and it was not why I used it as a case study originally.  In fact, I chose SLP as the example because I believed most investors would elect against buying, due to the small market cap, low share volumes, early-life-cycle stage, etc.



Written by rcrawford

April 17, 2010 at 8:58 pm

Casting Blame for Underwater Housing Defaults

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According blame for unsavory circumstances is just human nature.  Blame is the ointment of the psyche — it relieves, if only moderately, the discomfort we feel when things go wrong and we suffer collateral damage as victims.

Even when there is no bleed-over that effects us directly or indirectly, blame is still a common psychological need.  When a surgery goes wrong, juries may compensate victims for medical errors due to nothing more salacious or untoward than simple human error — as though doctors should reasonably pay millions for something as common as human fallibility.

My wife lost her glasses this week, and my son lost his cell phone.  Both asserted that these events were a consequence of human error, and both objected to paying heavy fines for it.

Of course, surgical errors have heavier consequences and warrant higher remuneration, and, indeed, this explains a portion of the high insurance costs paid by doctors … costs which are passed down to institutional payers (insurance) and, eventually, to patients and employers in the form of higher insurance premiums, and, ultimately, to consumers and taxpayers in the cost of goods, services, and taxes.  Human imperfection is expensive.

Yes, blame is a necessary convenience, and, when there is no one else to blame, the victim is always an available target, under the logic of “Well, he should have … (fill in the super-human choice that you would ideally have made under the same circumstances).”  But, in the crisis or pivotal moment when the choice is upon us, it is human nature to make decision errors due to nothing more complex than the lack of complexity in human decision-making.  The logic center of the brain can only hold 7 ideas at a time (on average), and that means we are prone to error, because important decisions require more robust thinking than we are wired to produce.

Blessedly, we are also prone to amnesia when it comes to our errors — quickly forgetting our imperfections, while committing to long-term memory our successes.  If we had equal and vivid recall of our failures, we would avoid any measure of complexity or risk — which means we would not have children, start businesses, get married, turn on the stove, or have left the caves that provided protection to our forebears.

Of course, there are some people and groups who are favored targets for blame.  Mothers-in-Law come immediately to mind, as do lawyers, and bankers.  In fact, anyone who is more successful, good looking, powerful, or incongruously lucky represents a ripe target, because there must be an unsavory explanation for their more favorable position compared to our own.

With mortgage defaults due to underwater loans, this issue of blame is everywhere.  Underwater loan defaults follow from homeowners walking away from houses whose values have declined significantly below the loan amount — rather than due to an inability to pay the note each month.

The problem is large, and it impacts all of us.  High home-loan defaults make bankers leery of lending, and, if lending, increases the interest charged on loans.  Defaults lower the value of homes as resales glut the market and increase supply to the benefit of buyers motivated to purchase at the lowest price.  Reduced home values make consumers more reticent to consume due to a decline in the wealth effect — we are more confident consumers when the value of our investments is high enough to make us feel secure, solvent, and wealthy.  And, of course, lower home values undermine tax receipts to government, which promotes higher taxes.

Given all this fiscal carnage, someone must be to blame, and the candidates are numerous.  Some, for example, have argued that lenders are to blame, due to their lowered lending standards, aggressive marketing efforts, and willingness to lend to borrowers who lacked the necessary income to safely buy homes (financially).  So, the bankers are to blame.

Others maintain that the system which allowed lenders to off-load loans to secondary institutions (Fanny and Freddie, as quasi-government agencies, in particular) promoted lower standards by the original lenders.  So, government is to blame.

Some contend that breaking up large pools of home loans into investment vehicles — CDOs — and, thereafter, into secondary mixtures — CDO-squareds — is the cause.  So, Wall Street is to blame.

Of course, with no one in the financial chain prepared to take responsibility or suffer the losses, those who seek to legally limit the exposure of their clients bear some responsibility, and that, of course, would mean the lawyers are to blame.

Even more nefarious (frightening because it is mysterious, obscured by complexity, and international) are the derivatives, which provide default insurance for some parties and a means of gambling for others.  So, the Third-World Order must be responsible.

And perhaps the favorite target of blame is the homeowner.  If you were so poor you couldn’t afford the water necessary to generate a potty break — much less the pot to hold it –, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize you have no business buying a home … even if the banker will lend you the money and begs you to take the adjustable-rate mortgage.  So, the homeowner is to blame.

Personally, I think all of this is wrong … not because each of these favored targets are without blame, but because those entrusted to prevent it were alseep at the wheel … and I’m not talking about Mothers-in-Laws.

Homes are also real estate, and, regardless of whether they were bought as investments, their value and potential for appreciation or decline make them investments.  They possess sufficient value that we treat them as we do other investment vehicles of substantial value.  At closing, we sign contracts for the property and, unless purchased with cash, the mortgage is a contract that must be signed and witnessed.  Thereafter, we insure the purchase against foreseeable disasters — such as the overflowing toilet in my son’s bathroom a couple of years ago.  In fact, the cost of a home and the property on which it sits represents the single largest investment of capital most of us will every make, and, after the empty nest arrives and retirement arrives, the home-value realized when it is sold constitutes a substantial portion of our retirement savings.  The homeowner is, therefore, right to consider the home as something of significant value and to give it a prominent degree of importance.

The lender, on the other hand, has an interest in making certain the homeowner represents a viable business partner.  Of course, this is less of a concern if the lender plans to offload the loan, but, under normal banking conventions, the lender wants assurance that the borrower can repay the loan and is a low risk of default.  That, however, is just one lender concern, but there are others to which we will turn when next considering the interests of the insurance company.

The insurance company is primarily interested in the value of the property and the risk associated with injury to it.  If the borrower fails to pay on the policy, the insurance company suffers only the loss of revenues, because the lender is under no obligation to cover damages incurred when the account is in arrears.  So, the insurer is primarily concerned with damage and, equally important, fraud.

The threat of fraud includes paying claims when no damage occurred, but it also includes arson arbitrage, where the home is destroyed in an owner-set fire for the insurance proceeds.  The financially solvent owner has little motivation to perpetrate this crime if the amount payed on the claim equals the replacement value of the property — even if there were no threat of incarceration.  Instead, arson arbitrage is only lucrative if the property is insured for a value greatly in excess of its replacement cost.

Consequently, the insurance carrier has an interest in making certain that the home is appropriately and accurately valued, and the banker has the same motivation, as well.  As the lender, the bank has little interest in issuing a loan that exceeds the value of the property.  The higher the loan amount, the higher the interest payments — which increases the threat of default.  This is partly why jumbo loans (covering homes costing more than $400 thousand) require higher interest rates — to compensate for the increased risk of default due to the higher loan amounts.

And the homeowner/investor has an interest in identifying an accurate value for the property.  Overpay for the property, and the returns on investment when the property is sold is greatly diminished and, more importantly, the higher the amount paid in total interest during the life of the loan.  During normal times, the threat of inaccurate valuation threatens the homeowner more than the lender or insurance, because the homeowner cannot diversify this risk across a large number of customers and because this unique purchase constitutes the single largest non-diversified deployment of capital for the party in this transaction with the skimpiest pockets (financially).

In fact, lets compare the purchase of a home with other common investments undertaken by non-institutional investors (you, me, and our neighbors).  Most invest savings in mutual funds —  effectively, hiring professional money managers to allocate capital and perform the valuations for us.  The managers of mutual funds, therefore, are expected to value the stocks and bonds and real estate and precious metals that form the core of their holding-choices.

By contrast, a smaller number of us invest on our own account, and, when we do this, we take responsibility for valuing our purchases.

Now, it must said that most individual investors do a poor job of valuing, primarily because they lack the training.  During the dot.com bubble, thousands of average investors were willing to pay a price for JDS Uniphase that was 120 times the company’s reported earnings.  Clearly, they never learned to sipher — add, subtract, multiply, or, in this case, divide.

Regardless, the competent individual investor values the revenue streams of the bonds they purchase (compared to the price), and, in the case of corporate bonds, consider the default risk of the issuing company and the value of the collateral designed to secure the bond.  If purchasing stocks (equities), the competent individual investor will consider the various reported or readily available ratios, such as PE, PB, PS, P/NAV, or, delving deeper, perform the discounted cash flow analysis to identify the approximate value of the company (on a per-share basis).

With real estate, this is more difficult.  If we were to value a prospective piece of real estate in the same way we would a stock, we would have to discard cash flows from consideration (assuming the property is not revenue generating).  The same holds for price to sales and P/NAV (unless undertaking significant modifications with P/NAV).  Even if valuing it on a price to book basis, the investor needs to be more accurate in the estimation of book value of a home than when doing so with long-established companies, because inflation related to book-value assets provides no margin of safety for the home buyer — as it does for the stock investor.

This means the competent real estate investor needs to value the current price for the building materials and labor, the pricing implications of builder taxes and fees, identify a reasonable ROI for the builder, and factor in the location premium, among other considerations.  In fact, those considerations would include the degree to which the market as a whole is over- , under- , or fairly-valued, in general.  These contributors to the price of a property are not publicly reported in a convenient Securities and Exchange filing, as it is with bonds and equities, and they certainly are not audited by an independent, certified, and bonded auditing firm.  Instead, the home buyer (to say nothing of the lender and insurance firm) would be operating under a system of Caveat Emptor (“Let the Buyer Beware”) if not for home valuation inspectors.

In fact, regardless of the degree to which the system became dysfunctional prior to the real estate crash, it relied on home valuation inspection to prevent the market from becoming an extreme and speculative bubble.  If the values had not represented a disconnect to intrinsic value, lenders would not confront the need to sell properties at such a substantial loss in comparison to the original loan amounts, the CDOs and CDO-Squared’s would not have been so severely undermined.  Instead, defaults would more closely represent an even exchange between the defaulted loan value and the actual value of the property.

In short, the system relied on valuation inspectors to do more than say “the house is sound and worth the price because the same model in the same neighborhood sold for a similar price last month … that will be $350 and I’ll mail you a copy of my report.”  In fact, what home buyer hasn’t thought, “The inspector spent 90-minutes looking at the house and is charging me lawyer’s rates for briefly climbing into the attic and doing a flash-light scan of the craw space … should I change careers?”

Well, the answer is that the fee was for more than just looking at the house and blessing the price, but, instead, included specialized knowledge about the costs of construction and the economics of the housing market.  It was on their independent and expert judgment that the whole of the system relied to serve as the trip-wire alarm if prices so severely exceeded intrinsic value as to make the loans suspect, the insurance invalid, and the buyer the victim of gouging.

And this is why most states passed legislation requiring home valuation prior to purchase.

When prisoners riot, we blame the felons, the guards, the parents, and the warden.  But after prisoners riot, we hire more counselors.  This strikes me as a mistake.  We should fire the counselors and promptly hire their replacements.  Why?  The counselors should have seen it coming.

In the case of Wall Street, it may have been the case that the SEC was understaffed and insufficiently trained.  With home valuation inspectors, the training may have been insufficient and the standards egregiously lax but the prices charged determined staffing, and none of us got what we paid for.

[Note:  I’ve written this piece as a thought response to an article read on an above-average investments discussion board.    The Crawford’s have not lost their home, nor are we in jeopardy of that happening.  Contributions, however, to the Robert Wealth Enhancement Fund are always welcome, as long as they do not trigger gift taxes or IRS suspicions.  If you are a close relative and my wife or I are beneficiaries of our your estate, we would prefer to wait for your donation until after your regretable demise.  If it is true that “to whom much is given, must is espected,” we would prefer to keep expectations low.  I know my limitations, even if my bride has none.]

Written by rcrawford

March 5, 2010 at 12:26 pm

A Better Approach to Valuing Net Income?

with 6 comments

[Note to Readers: Since purchasing BOLT, an explosion, fire, and oil leak on/from a BP platform in the Gulf of Mexico occurred.  As of today, news reports indicate that the resultant leak threatens the coastline of the Florida Panhandle, Mississippi, and Louisiana with the volume of oil exceeding the Exxon Valdez accident.  Regrettably, news reports indicate that it will take some time to drill a relief hole and cap the leak.  Further, as of this writing, efforts to contain the spill before it reaches the coast have been hampered by turbulent waters.  I have, therefore, sold my position in BOLT this morning, taking a 1.88% loss on the stock.

I am not, however, removing this article (which uses BOLT as the example case), because the approach described in it remains relevant to readers interested in undertaking more intelligent investments.  Indeed, even this unfortunate circumstance (which includes loss of life for several working on the BP platform) represents a learning opportunity for investors.  Warren Buffett has long maintained that he sells stocks when they become, either, overvalued or the prospects for the company become fundamentally impaired.  While I remain persuaded that BOLT remains undervalued and that the downside for the stock is likely limited, the informing environment for the industry now confronts significant challenges not previously present.  Indeed, just prior to this accident, the Obama administration announced the opening of a significant portion of the East Coast to drilling – a policy change that has been temporarily rescinded as government investigates the causes and considers regulatory changes.  Even if this is an expeditious process, the potential for news images of blackened Gulf beaches may be sufficient to alter the demand environment for BOLT services.  This change in the underlying environment seems likely to represent a significant strategic shift for the industry, in my judgment.

On a seemingly related note, I took profits in BP Prudhoe Bay (BPT) today, as well.  The reasoning behind that move, however, was not based on the platform accident.  In fact, the accident is likely to increase demand for the products of drilling coming from the oil fields represented by BPT as a petroleum trust.  Instead, the stock had increased by 65% (85% after taking into account dividends accumulated during my holding timeframe), and, in my judgment, the stock had become overvalued.

At present, there are three petroleum stocks that remain in my portfolio — E, PVX, and XOM.]


That is the problem with earnings … the basis on which stocks are regularly valued.  Wall Street clearly cares about earnings, but “knowledgable” investors never use them.  NEVER!

Earnings are flawed as a measure.  They rely on items that can’t be deposited in a bank — such as “GOODWILL” and “AMORTIZATION.” Even their use of depreciation is suspect, as a measure of what should be spent in the way of capital expenditures to maintain plant, property, and equipment.  And this fails to account for actual capital expenditures that may include investments toward future growth, or Catch-Up CapEx designed to make up for delayed expenditures avoided in the past.

So, the earnest investor needs a better way to determine the value of earnings, and this posting addresses that important issue.  In fact, this approach is not one that I’ve seen mentioned in graduate business school classes — which is not to say that some other quant-geek hasn’t done it before, but, if so, I’ve never seen it.

First, earnings (or net income) represents a convenience for investors — a short cut that eliminates the need for more in depth calculations.  This short cut is the denominator in the famed Price-to-Earnings ratio, where stocks below 15 (chose a number) are deemed “cheap” and those above that number are considered “growth” stocks — because the market is evidently willing to pay a premium for that expected growth.  Earnings, however, are considered imprecise, for the reasons identified above (and other real and perceived failings).

To get beyond this litany of problems, many investors use Discounted Cash Flow analysis — the measure created by John Burr Williams.  As modified by my friend Joe Ponzio, the stock analyst considers Free Cash Flows (cash from operations minus depreciation and amortization) for some defined period of time.  Joe, sagely, uses 10 year data provided by Morningstar, and, for the purposes of this demonstration, we will do the same, using Bolt Technologies (BOLT) as our example case.

At this point, it is sufficient to note that Bolt provides services in support of oil drilling, but that is less important than what Joe does does next.  His goal is to identify the free cash flow growth rate over this time, and he does this by calculating the median growth rate during running three- and five-year periods and then calculates the median of this group of medians.

This growth rate moderates the effects of economic cycles and the variances from one year to the next, and it uses medians as a conservative measure of the intrinsic free-cash-flow growth rate for the company.  Joe then reduces this median-of-medians to provide an extra measure of conservative comfort.  Depending on the degree to which he considers the company and stock to be speculative, he may reduce this growth rate by 20 percent or 25 percent for the next three years, followed by further reductions in years four through ten.

The next step is to apply this growth rate in an effort to project free cash flows over the next decade, followed by projections of free cash flows over years 11 through 20 using a 5% growth rate.  These cash flow streams are converted to current dollars using a 15% discount rate.

Add all of these present-value contributions together, plus the net asset value of the company (its accumulated assets minus accumulated liabilities), and you have the total value of the company.  Divide the total value of the company by the number shares outstanding, and you have the per-share value of the company.  Divide this in half, and you have the price you would pay if demanding a 50 percent margin of safety.

In the case of Bolt, the company is worth $280 million (by this measure).  That equates to $35.05 per share.  And the abundantly cautious investor would expect to pay no more than $17.52 per share.  At the stock’s current price of $10.56, the company is selling at discount to intrinsic value of 69.87 percent, and, if the stock price increases to equal fair value over the next year (a big “if”), the potential gain is 331.91 percent.

Using this method, the investor may wonder what the compounded annual growth rate would be at various time-frames in the future.

With years along the x-axis and percent grain up and down the y-axis, we can expect an annualized compounded return of 49.17 percent if our expected holding period is 3 years.

But 20 percent is a very high growth rate, even if the company was able to deliver such exceptional results in the past.  What if the past is not prologue and the future is not as bright as the past?  Well, we can combine DCF with sensitivity analysis to identify the degree to which the stock is under or over valued at various free cash flow growth rates.

So, if you think Bolt will grow at just 5%, the stock is undervalued by 43 percent — being fairly valued at $18.54, with an upside increase of $7.98 and a potential gain of 75.57 percent.  In fact, you can compare the current price to identify the market’s expectations for future growth.  At a current stock price of $10.56, the market evidently expects the company will grow free cash flows at less than -15 percent per year for the next decade, followed by 5% growth for the second decade.  Clearly, the market is not impressed with Bolt, and the savvy investor would be smart to try and determine why.  Perhaps the market expects that oil will go out of fashion or that the management is incompetent and will drive the company into bankruptcy.  If interested in Bolt, that is for you to decide.  Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that Bolt is a buy, but my goal with this posting is not to tout Bolt but to suggest a different (perhaps, new) approach to overcoming the weaknesses of DCF.

DCF, of course, uses past results to predict the future, and this is a weakness.  If the results in the past have been volatile, then using methods designed to value bonds (which have steady income streams) is a poor choice, and DCF seeks to treat stocks as an intelligent investor would treat a bond.  In the case of Bolt, the results have been fairly reliable — as reliable as a company that trends congruently with oil can be.

Warren Buffett, however, uses a different measure from Free Cash Flows to determine the cash contribution generated to the benefit of investors.  Buffett calls his measure Owner’s Earnings — Net Income minus Depreciation and Amortization plus Capital Expenditures.

Clearly, Bolt benefited from $150 oil prior to the market tanking in 2008, and the industry has not recovered along with the market last year.  Despite this, Bolt’s business in 2009 was pretty healthy — four times the owner’s earnings as the prior-era peak in 2002.

Well, we can substitute Owner’s Earnigs for Free Cash Flows and calculate Discounted Owner’s Earnings Flow (DOEF) using the same approach as Joe teaches with DCF.  In fact, we can use an assortment of other measures, such as Replication Value and Earnings Power Value from Columbia Professor Bruce Greenwald, and we can compare these to the current and past stock prices.

So, at $10.56, the stock is selling at 1.22 times its net asset value (NAV) and just above the 50 percent discount to its DCF value (the grey zone).  In fact, the grey zone is below NAV.  The green line is the DCF value, and the purple line indicates fair value by Buffett’s (normally) more  conservative Owner’s Earnings measure.  Replication value ($7.96) is close to NAV ($8.68), and Earnings Power Value (which takes into account the competitive advantages of an established company) is the most optimistic of the measures, at $43.08.

As a quick aside, stocks selling at or near NAV, Replication Value, and/or half their DCF value evidence a stock worthy of consideration.  Further due diligence into the company’s competitive posture, management, and financial strength are necessary, of course.  Poor management in a gang-busters industry represents a poor choice, as does a company overburdened by long-term debt coming due in short order.

As an additional aside, the question of when to sell is often the more difficult challenge confronting value investors.  Stocks at, over, or nearing their full DCF value warrant close consideration for selling.  As taxes increase, that threshold should increase, as the government lays greater claim to your takings when selling.  This would suggest giving greater consideration to the company’s Earning Power Value as a theshold for when to sell.   Buy and hold may be dead today, but it will rise from the dead when given mouth-to-mouth resucitation by higher capital gains tax rates in the near future.

Of course, no measure is perfect and there are problems with each.  We do know that last year’s performance tends to be a predictor of coming year (plus or minus some degree of growth or diminishing of growth — measurable by the second-order derivative for those who took and understood calculus).  Regardless, the informed investor will want a way to measure the return generated last year, if expecting that the current year will produce results worthy of investment.  And this is where my “new” approach comes in.

While earnings, free cash flows, and owner’s earnings may change significantly from one year to the next, shareholder’s equity tends to remain fairly constant — increasing or decreasing, to be sure, but to a lesser degree.  This is especially true of  long-standing companies with significant accumulated equity.  Given this, it makes sense to value shareholder’s equity differently than current contributions to owner’s wealth.  Indeed, of the two, shareholder’s equity is more akin to a bond in its stability, and this warrants segregating the two if seeking to determine the owner’s earnings return on investment.

In the case of Bolt, $8.31 of the $10.56 stock price is abundantly stable in that it represents accumulated per-share equity (ShE) — total assets minus total liabilities.  The remainder is the premium paid by the prospective shareholder, above and beyond a dollar-for-dollar purchase of the company’s equity.

The investor should reasonably expect a return on both accumulated equity and the premium, but the required return would be different, given their different levels of risk.  The equity portion, which behaves more like a bond in its volatility, should be valued accordingly, while the premium possesses all the volatility normally associated with the stock market.  So, let’s tackle the equity portion first.

Here are current and, for various prior periods, earlier corporate bond rates, taken from Yahoo! Finance.

Because I began writing this posting yesterday (February 28, 2010), I have highlighted yesterday’s corporate bond rate of 6.17 percent for the 20-year single-A bond. Out of an abundance of caution,  I have chosen the 20-year single-A because it has the highest interest rate.  If you believe the firm you are considering warrants better treatment (due to its abundant solvency or stability or both), that is fine, and you may want to use a lower and more appropriate yield.

I use this interest rate to determine the single-year rate of return expected for the equity portion of the stock’s price.

This is nothing more than multiplying the equity portion of the stock’s price ($8.31) times the 20-year single-A bond rate (6.17 percent) — producing $0.51 in expected return for the equity portion.

Next, I consider the appropriate return demanded for the premium portion of the stock’s price (in this case $2.25).  This calculation is only marginally more complicated, starting with the 30-year government bond yield (which I take as the Risk Free Cost of Capital).

Again, this is taken from yesterday and is borrowed from Yahoo! Finance (http://finance.yahoo.com/bonds/composite_bond_rates).  The rate for the 30-year US Government bond was 4.55 percent yesterday.

The premium paid portion of the stock price, however, possesses full exposure to the volatility of the stock market.  So, I add to this a premium for market volatility.  While some accord a 6 percent volatility rate with other calculations, the highest rate (based on past data) I have found is 8.6 percent, and, wanting to be conservative at every turn, I use 8.6%.

Now, some investors want to add a measure that accounts for the volatility of the stock price (Beta), and this is where that additional buffer may be added.  Personally, I do not, because I have absolutely no respect for the stock market and how it prices a stock from one day to the next.  In fact, at the risk of offending you, please know that I firmly believe (and assume) that you and the millions of investors that constitute the stock market are, collectively, idiots.  Over the past couple of years, you have valued the Dow at 14,000 and at 6,000, even though both constitute measures of the current value of publicly traded companies plus all of their future cash flow contributions to stockholder wealth.  If you (collectively) were not clueless, the Dow would not have dropped by more than 50 percent in a single year.  I’m sorry, but the market is bi-polar (exuberant one day and searching for razors with which to slice a vein the next), and, as a group, I find this sort of mercurial behavior unworthy of respect.  Nevertheless, if you want to factor the market’s schizophrenia into your assessment, simply plug in Beta, and add the two or three rates together to identify your required return.  For me,  I’ve accorded a beta of one — which means the stock’s volatility is no different than the stock market, in general.

This renders a required return of 13.15 percent.  Warren Buffett, by the way, famously tends to require a 15% rate of return for his DCF discount rate.  Buffett, however, told Bruce Greenwald (mentioned earlier) that this varies based on the risk free cost of capital, and he uses 15% as a lose rule of thumb for his calculations in recent years.

So, we take this 13.15 percent and apply it to the premium paid.

This is calculated as premium ($2.25) times the required rate of return (13.15 percent), and it renders $0.30.

Next, I calculate the portion of the stock price that is most at risk — adding the premium paid plus the required returns on equity and the required return on the premium.

That renders a cost basis of purchase of $3.06.  Now, you may want to increase this by, either, increasing the equity adjustment or increasing the premium-paid adjustment, in order to further account for any perceived risk on shareholder’s equity.  This strikes me as unnecessary because we have already used the highest yield for corporate bonds and, rather than using the 10-year bond as our Risk Free Cost of Capital, have used the 30-year US Government bond.  That, however, is your choice.

Next, I divide the cost basis of purchase into owner’s earnings to identify the effective return.

With owner’s earnings at $1.36 and the cost basis at 3.06, the yield on owner’s earnings is 44.59 percent.  For most companies, this yield is much lower (much, much lower), and that is the magic of this measure.  It allows you to identify stocks generating returns not captured by the PE ratio or DCF.

This measure alone is valuable, but you can take this a step further, by calculating the percentage of owner’s earnings translating into deployable shareholder’s equity — i.e., the year-over-year change in shareholder’s equity plus dividends paid (adjusted for the tax hit, since the company determines whether you, the stockholder, will be exposed to government’s tax bite on your earnings as part owner of the company).

That, however, is beyond the scope of this posting.  For now, you have a different measure that provides an alternative perspective.

PS.  The inquiring reader may wonder why I’ve chosen to use the premium paid in the cost basis figure rather than the actual stock price.  The reasoning goes back to disaggregating the risky/volitile portions of the stock price from the more reliable — treating shareholder’s equity as though it possesses the realiability of a higher-than-average-yielding corporate bond.  This works with most companies, but a small number have evidenced more significant down-side risk in shareholder’s equity, and, for them, the more stringent standard of using the current stock price in place of the premium would make sense.

In the case of Bolt, the results of this more-stringent approach would produce:

The Retained OE (Owner’s Earnings) Yield is that portion owner’s earnings over the past decade that translated to an increase in Shareholder’s Equity (set at the 50th percentile).  This calculation does include dividends paid (adjusted for taxes).  Dividends are included in the calculation because, like shareholder’s equity, they accrue to the benefit of the investor.  In fact, shareholder’s equity per share is typically the floor under which the stock price can be drawn, given the rarity with which stocks sell for less than ShE; otherwise, the market is effectively pricing in some degree of bankruptcy risk, and the investor should closely monitor company’s position in the sector, the debt exposure, and, of course, the Altman-Z Score.

Given my lack of respect for the market’s ability to value companies, however, there should be a tangible basis for making the shift between the two yield calculations.  While the recent market decline moderately undermined shareholder’s equity for many firms, it appears that most are (or soon will) rebound with the improving economy — indicating that, for many, recent reductions in ShE represent temporary or short-term events.  A better measure of the risk for permanent or longer-term harm to ShE value would be the company’s debt exposure and its ability to cover payment on that debt.

In Graham and Dodd’s Security Analysis, they advise such an approach to valuing corporate bonds — going so far as to set the threshold for bonds at depression levels of cash generation.  The Graham and Dodd standard, by the way, is 3 times interest earned interest earned for industrials, with lesser requirements for railroads and utilities (Chapter IX of Security Analysis).  For Bolt, with no debt, this is not a problem, but we needn’t (and shouldn’t) apply this standard to our yield calculation here because the company is not, in fact, using ShE as a debt-financing vehicle.

But this does raise the question of how high should the yield be to warrant investment or consideration of investment.  Clearly, this would vary based on interest rates and the return expectations of individual investors, but, having already factored in the required rates for both portions of the stock price, the remaining yield required by the investor should likely range between 10 percent and 15 percent if the yield is based on the premium paid and between 5 percent and 10 percent if it is based on the full stock price.  Technically, any yield greater than 0.0 percent when calculated using the full stock price renders greater returns than the market rate, but value investors should expect a greedy margin of safety on every investment.  That is certainly the lesson imparted by Graham and Dodd when it comes to bond investing, as well as investments in equities.  As they note in the early chapters, bond defaults during the two market crashes that produced the Great Depression were far more common than the reduced risk normally associated with bonds would imply.  Consequently, they use the same “margin of safety” language regardless of investment class.

Written by rcrawford

March 2, 2010 at 10:12 am

Adverse Selection and the Decision to Sell UNH Today

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It has long been my belief that government could not afford to reform healthcare without the support of health insurance, due to the size of the government debt and the high level of government obligations today (increased military operational tempo, the financial crisis, reduced tax receipts, etc.).  I did, therefore, hold UNH through the market crash of the last several years and bought from $53 down into the $20’s.  With the stock now selling in the low $30s, I was prepared to hold until the market realized its error in judgment — despite a moderate paper profit.

That started to change on the 16th with the Anthem WellPoint decision to increase rates to self-insured customers in California by as much as 39%.  While this move produced ire among state and federal government officials and the company reversed its decision, disgust with the insurance industry played no role in my decision to sell UNH today.  Instead, a small article in the Wall Street Journal indicating that the California state insurance commission had previously approved the hikes pushed me toward selling.  That article indicated that the insurance commission initially approved the requested rate hike due to “adverse selection.”

Adverse selection takes place when high cost customers are desperate to maintain their insurance, cost increases reduce the pool of profitable customers, and the reduction in profits due to this shift prompt subsequent premium increases due to the less favorable distribution of un-profitable-to-profitable customers in the less-diversified pool.  This increase in premiums prompts the next-most price sensitive tier of profitable-but-cost-adverse customers to leave the pool, a further increase in premiums and the “death spiral” continues.  Employers dropping coverage for workers and the young and healthy purchasing high-deductable plans support this scenario and, in fact, worsen the problem.

Candidly, adverse selection had been a concern of mine since teaching a third-party payers class as far back as 2005 (its in the PowerPoints and lecture notes), and, on the 16th, I mentioned this concern to my current students during a health policy discussion, but, despite these concerns, I held off selling the one healthcare insurer in my portfolio — UNH.  With the stock increasing in value, the trend is your friend for a stock which is undervalued based on nearly every backwards-looking measure, and the price held up well despite the Anthem news.  Then Paul Krugman (Nobel Prize winner in economics, Princeton Professor, NY Times columnist, and avowed liberal) published an Op-Ed describing the Anthem situation as the start of the Death Spiral of health insurance.  Since Krugman is politically unpopular among conservatives, I continued to hold the stock — believing the market would ignore the physics of adverse selection, and, indeed, the stock was up nearly 4% yesterday, even though President Obama announced administration desires to have the federal government take over the role of state insurance commissions and regulate premium increases.

For the record, it was the President’s announcement that pushed me over the edge, but not out of partisan political concerns.  Instead, I took the measure of the administration’s grasp of the healthcare market and came to the conclusion that not only are both parties clueless when it comes to healthcare, they are determined to execute the worst possible policies — targeting for cuts those areas of healthcare which government studies indicate contribute little to healthcare inflation while leaving unaddressed those areas constituting the most significant drivers of healthcare inflation, all under the guise of addressing cost inflation that threatens to bankrupt Medicare as soon as 2015.  This is akin to beating one child for the sins of his sibling, hoping the carnage will somehow reform the sinner.

Without going into great detail, patent-protected advances in medical technology is, according to Congressional Budget Office research, the leading driver of healthcare inflation — not doctors, hospitals, insurance, or patient lifestyle issues.  This is borne out by a review of current profit margins for the industry’s sub-sectors (you can find this in Yahoo! Finance).  So, pooling insurance across state borders, requiring every American to buy health insurance, cutting compensation to doctors, increasing taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and all of the other popular “solutions” offered by both parties miss the target if not addressing medical technology as the leading catalyst of healthcare inflation.

This means, as investors, you want to avoid the in-the-cross-hairs subsectors of healthcare (doctors, hospitals, insurance) and wager, instead, on Washington stupidity — which has been an abundant and reliable commodity since Will Rogers amused his depression-era audiences as the keynote act on Broadway in Zigfield’s Follies in the 1930s.  That stupidity includes Bush-administration orders that eliminated patent extensions for novel therapeutics coming out of the pharmaceutical industry, during 43’s first term.  This had the effect of shortening the period of product viability from 8 years down to less than 5 and increased the need to churn new products into the market at a faster pace.  This, in turn, pushed the industry to target blockbuster breakthroughs (rather that spend on research leading to incremental advances), and this strategic constraint promoted the product pipeline withering that now threatens Pfizer and others — leading to industry consolidation.  While I have a small position in PFE, I don’t recommend traditional big-pharma; again, due to bi-partisan ignorance.

So, which areas of healthcare are promising as investments?  Personally, I like generics (TEVA and FRX, with FRX continuing to represent a value play now that TEVA has appreciated in value), and research/efficiency-enhancing companies, such as PPDI and SLP (both continue to be value stocks, despite SLP’s 60% increase over the past year).  JNJ and PG, as anchor holdings, provide exposure to healthcare, quality management, and product and international diversification (Buffett’s recent reduction in JNJ and PG enabled his purchase of BNI and may not represent a loss of support for either stock).  And, with an assortment of patent-protected medications becoming generics over the next several years, CVS and WAG strike me as attractive — especially, WAG, now that CVS has had a nice increase.  Bio-med may be attractive for those who are able to leave the gaming tables of Las Vegas long enough to ante-up on this sector (sorry, but wagers based on phase I or phase II trial results is gambling to someone who seeks to invest based on more reliable measures of wealth generation).  Nevertheless, bio-med products, due to the newness of the sector, make subsequent, FDA-approved products less exposed to formulary constraints when patient and physician rub noses in clinic settings.  Finally, WMT, which sells car batteries, canned goods, and produce with its pharmaceuticals, is moderately undervalued and enjoys great economies of scale and heft — such as the scaly and hefty Sam’s Club worker who refused to let me create a mixed case of wine this past weekend and will, no doubt, be running for elective office in the near future (with an eye toward influencing national health policy).

I should mention that PPDI and SLP are smaller-cap companies and may not be covered by the Fool system.


In a comment/note, SC asked about FCX, and I promised to post the stock price sensitivity tables.

ROC = Return on Capital

G= Growth

Percent chart assumes current price of $31.75.

Written by rcrawford

February 24, 2010 at 9:00 am

Posted in General, Investments

Investments Update — 2/18/2010

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On the 14th and 22nd of January, blog postings here asserted the market was at fair value (neither insanely cheap nor alarmingly expensive) and that this presented a shopping opportunity if inclined to believe the 11 of 13 leading economic indicators and conclude that we are in a sustainable (if not sluggish) recovery.  Having sold significant positions in FCX, PCU, BHP, and HANS for profits and having maintained around a 50% position in cash, I was, both, pleased and disgusted with my behavior during the market crash (buying on the way down, including a short ETF, making a few strategic buys near the bottom, and keeping way too much in cash during the rebound).  As indicated on the 14th and the 22nd, I was shopping, and, while time does not allow me to explain each (or the multiple purchases involved in building each position), to delay listing them any further would deprive regular readers of the opportunity to consider this group.

Before doing so, I should mention that my cash position is now down to 24%, which I’m maintaining due to the market’s uncertainty (soverign debt, roll-over of option-ARM and Alt-A morgages, etc.)  If, like 1933, the market experiences an encore crash (as it did after 1929), it will be easier to quickly throw on a hedge than to sell selectively and expect my wife to hide the sharp objects laying around the house.  Indeed, I am giving serious thought to taking some profits and selling some persistent laggards in order to increase that cash position moderately.

Additionally, I’m noting the amount each position has increased (on a weighted basis) since purchase.  While each new position strikes me as still under-valued, several have witnessed price appreciation that reduces the degree to which they are selling at discounts to intrinsic value.  Consequently, fellow deep-discount value-investors will want to give even greater scrutiny to those that are up significantly in the past several weeks.  This is especially important for the large-caps that are, either, new additions or increases to pre-existing positions, where the required margin-of-saftey is less significant than for the small-caps on the list.  The large-caps serve as stabilizing, core positions, which, due to the abundant analysis given them by the Wall Street professionals, suggests they are less likely to evidence dramatic volatility due to mis-pricing.

Lastly, I am aware that Warren Buffett has decreased positions in JNJ, XOM, and PG as I was adding to each and that we were both adding to DIS and WMT (actually, he was adding while I was starting positions), and I am aware of WMTs “disappointing” earnings announcement today.  Candidly, Warren didn’t consult me and, while I didn’t make the attempt, I doubt he would have taken my call if I had sought to consult him.  More importantly, for the life of me, I don’t understand why he (or the 20+ surrogates which invest on behalf of Berkshire subsidiaries) make many of their buy and sell decisions.  I considered the trash collections stocks recently (trash collection never goes out of style and they often enjoy monopoly status in many locals) and didn’t care for any on a valuation basis.  And then there is that Kraft (KFT) position.  Call me “clueless” because that is as accurate a description as any when it comes to making heads or tails of the Oracle’s decision.  I just don’t see the margin of safety there.

In any event, here is the portfolio (in two graphics).  On a weighted basis (since purchase of each), they are collectively up 7%.  Since the market top in 2007, the portfolio is up 37% (better than the indicies but unlikely to impress the best hedge fund managers).


[As always, consider the source when reviewing this history of my investing life.  It is designed to be a journal of my successes and failures as a non-professional — a candid assessment –, rather than an inducement for others to follow suit and contribute to my cause or enrichment.  This blog has fewer than 100 visitors per day, and many of those come for the articles related to subjects unrelated to investments.  So, there is nothing about this effort that stands a realistic chance of moving the market in my favor.  This blog, in other words, has no bandwaggon effect, unless considering Robert (me) playing a kazoo to constitute a symphony of one.  Equally, important, it is expected that any investment choice made by the reader represents an adult decision (whether consistent with my views or at odds with it), and that the reader is prepared to take responsibility for each when clicking the “execute” button to place a trade.]

Written by rcrawford

February 18, 2010 at 11:49 pm

Posted in General, Investments

Market at Fair Value … Oh, Really?

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Last week, I wrote a piece contending that the market is neither over nor undervalued but, instead, right in the middle.  As you might imagine, I was opposed in this view by more than one person, and this prompts me to make three points that should be helpful.

My original contention that the market was fairly valued last week followed from a comparison of the Wilshire 5000 with US Gross Domestic Product, and this was graphically depicted as follows:

The general rule of thumb is that the Wilshire 5000 market cap should fall somewhere between 70% and 90% of US GDP, and, at 82%, things were in the sweet spot of fair value.  Now for the opposing arguments.

First, one member of a forum group argued that the US economy is too dicey to conclude that the “water is fine, jump in,” and I agree.  As mentioned in the earlier posting, noting that the market is neither over- nor under-valued simply means that value investors should be able to find at least a small number of undervalued stocks.  That, in fact, is what I’ve found over the last several weeks.  In fact, it appears that ADM may be undervalued by as much as 40% to 50%, but I won’t know this until doing further research.  I have, however, recently added new holdings in BOLT, DIS, ISNS, NGA, ORCL, PPDI, and WMT.  Among existing holdings, I consider E, CRDN, EME, JNJ, NUE, PVX, and XOM to be sufficiently undervalued that I am considering increasing my stake in each.  By the same token, a fairly valued market (especially, one that has evidenced an inclination to “correct” after a substantial run up) may represent an opportunity to take profits in positions that are at or near fair value.  And that is precisely what I did today, selling out of FCX, BHP, PCU, and HANS (posting profits of 50.90%, 63.32%, 40.00%, and 37.52%, respectively, on a cost-weighted basis … meaning I bought each as they declined during the 2007/2008 market crash).  So, do not read my earlier posting as a recommendation to buy an index ETF of the S&P 500 or otherwise go “all in” in the market at this point.

The second objection to my earlier post contended that it is unreasonable to use a $14 trillion GDP as the mearure against which to compare the Wilshire 5000.  This forum poster favored using a GDP of $12 trillion.  Personally, I don’t have a problem with this.  Who am I to stand in the way of a depressive personality reveling in his loathing of the economy, the market, the future, etc.?  It is important to recognize, however, that $14 trillion is a known number, while $12 trillion is a gestalt figure — “gestalt” is German for instinct or gut reaction.  Moreover, at $12 trillion, last week’s Wilshire 5000 comes in at 95% of this downward-adjusted GDP estimate, and 95% is not so over-valued that an intrepid value investor can’t locate a small number of value stocks.  Besides, the alternatives to equities are not exactly enticing at the moment.  With the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet doubled from the pre-crash era, inflation makes cash unattractive, due to the heightened risk of inflation.  With interest rates at historic lows and likely rise significantly, bonds are not attractive.  With states and municipalities confronting tax-revenue short-falls, municipal bonds are not a screaming buy.  If truely convinced that we are likely to experience a double-dip recession or worse, corporate bonds are problematic.  Gold and precious metals are self-defeating, in that, if they rise in value, miners will increase extractions and supply, bringing them back into some form of equillibrium — besides, I can’t determine when precious metals are over or undervalued based on some demonstrable measure of valuation … there is no such thing as price-to-NAV with them, and forget about trying to determine their value with Discounted Cash Flow analysis.

The third objection came from an investments banker in New York City during a visit this weekend.  He argued that PE (Price-to-Earnings) are higher than normal, and, indeed, they seem to be.  Prior to my trip up north, the average PE for the non-financial S&P 500 was listed as 22.5, which is above the norm of 18.  My friend explicitly made the PEG argument, which contends that any PE multiple is justifiable as long as the growth rate equals the PE.  “Growth” is the G in PEG, and, if the average PE is 22.5, then economic growth would need to equal or exceed 22.5% for the market to be at fair value.  To contest this argument, I will need to consume some of your (the reader’s) time, but this argument is just too intellectually intriguing to dismiss.

My first response was to note that this PE of 22.5 was based on last year’s results, when the market was depressed and earnings were nearly as depressed.  If the market rebounds over the next year, the earnings portion of PE will improve and lower that figure toward the norm.  Since our conversation, the Conference Board released its leading economic indicators, in which they report:

Released: Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Conference Board Leading Economic Index™ (LEI) for the U.S. increased 1.1 percent in December, following a 1.0 percent gain in November, and a 0.3 percent rise in October.


In other words, the economy is improving.  This doesn’t mean it is time to break out the bubbly and assume a posture of “Laissez le bon temps rouler.” Remember, my argument goes no further than to assert that value stock should be in sufficient supply to warrant looking for them. If the PEG measure fails to reflect an environment of future growth, then it fails as a viable metric — some tautologies are worth asserting because they are so easily overlooked.

Of course, I didn’t have today’s announcement by the Conference Board with me during the conversation last weekend, but I did argue that the economy is improving and earnings were likely to follow suit. The second argument against the PEG model (made this weekend) asserted that, currently, the average PE is skewed toward higher numbers due to a small number of outliers on the high end. Allow me to prove it, even though this will get a little quantitative.

First, it is necessary to understand that companies with negative “earnings” post no PE. If earnings are negative, you confront the problem of dividing by zero. This pushes the average up, because companies not posting profits are not included in average. This is not an unexpected problem when it comes to calculating averages based on results derived during recessions. Companies posting losses last year but benefiting from a rebounding economy (those not declaring bankruptcy, at least) are excluded from consideration when calculating the average PE. This is significant. I did a query of the more than 6,000 stocks in the Yahoo database, limiting the results to companies with a PE greater than zero, and it returned only 2,326. In other words, not only is PE a lagging indicator at a time when the leading indicators suggest a recovering economy, only 39% of stocks quality when determining the average.  How can the average be legitimate when less than half of the stock market contributes to that average?

That, of course, skews the average upward, due to elimination (from consideration) of stocks on the low end. Making matters worse, a similar problem exists on the high end — further skewing the average. Presently, the highest PE is 979.75 [specifically, United States Cellular Corp. (USM)]. USM, while an extreme case, is not alone in disproportionately pulling the average skyward. Here is the distribution:

I’ve highlighted the PEs greater than 139.  Recall from high school (if not later) the effect of scoring a zero on a test.  If you scored 90’s on four tests and a zero on the fifth, the zero brought your average down to a 72.  This same disproportionate influence occurs with all outliers, and it is why statisticians are so concerned with “residuals” — data results that exceed three standard deviations from the mean.  In this case, the results literally skew the data toward the high end:

If you plot the results, the high end contributions are so small in number they aren’t visible, even thought they have a disproportionate influence on the average:

If you limit your consideration to just stocks with PE’s up to 150, the distribution starts to look workable (i.e., we can productively play with this set of data):

In this chart (above), I’ve indicated the outliers that serve to disproportionately pull the average above what would be normal if the data results were evenly distributed above and below the mean.  How does this compare to a normal distribution?

In this chart above, the normal (Bell-Curved) distribution is in purple, and I have drawn a dotted line from the peak down to the X-Axis (PE).  I’ve done the same with the peak of the actual PE results (dotted green line).  With the normal distribution, the dotted purple line indicates the average, but, with the average results, it does not.  Note, as well, that I’ve indicated the data points that have a disproportionate influence under the heading of “Tail Hook” — a statistician’s joke, because we call the extreme results in a distribution the “tails.”

So, lets see if we can identify the proper distribution for the actual results.  To do this, I created a chart that shows the actual, cumulative percentages on the y-axis and compared it with several common distribution types — normal, Poisson, and gamma:

Note that the 50th percentile is indicated as the dotted purple line, extending from left to right.  It crosses the Normal and Poisson (red and green, respectively) at around a PE of 35 (red dotted line).  The Gamma and actual results post 50th percentile results (dotted blue line) between a PE of 14 and 21.5.  When I solve for the 50th percentile using the Gamma distribution, the PE comes in at 19.84.

Of course, we should adjust this figure downward due to the divide-by-zero problem and the Tail Hook problem.  By how much should be adjust?  Well, it doesn’t matter, does it?  All this math may look precise, but the market isn’t so precise that we can measure it with precision to anything approaching two decimal places.  If the actual PE for the broader market is 19, that is close enough to the historic norm of 18 to conclude that value stocks should be available, and that was, after all, the purpose of the original exercise.

Written by rcrawford

January 22, 2010 at 11:33 am

Posted in General, Investments