Friday, February 8, 2019

January 2019 Data Update 8: Dividends and Buybacks - Fact and Fiction

In my series of data posts, I had always planned to get to dividends and buybacks, the two mechanisms that companies have for returning cash to stockholders, at this point, but an op ed on buybacks by Senators Schumer and Sanders this week, in the New York Times, will undoubtedly make this post seem reactive. The senators argue that the hundreds of billions of dollars that US companies have expended buying back their own shares could have been put to better use, if it had been reinvested back in their businesses or used to increase wages for their employees, and offer a preview of legislation that they plan to introduce to counter the menace. Like the senators, I am concerned about the declining manufacturing base and income inequality in the US, but I believe that their legislative proposal is built on premises that are at war with the data, and has the potential for making things worse, not better.

The Buyback Effect: Benign Phenomenon, Managerial Short-termism or Corporate Malignancy?
'The very mention of buybacks often creates heated debate, because people seem to have very different views on its causes and consequences. All too often, at the end of debate, each side walks away with its views of buybacks intact, completely unpersuaded by the arguments of the other. The reason, I believe is that our views on buybacks are a function of how we think companies act, what the motives of managers are and what it is that investors price into stocks.

a. Buybacks are benign
If companies are run sensibly, the cash that they return to shareholders should reflect a residual cash flow, making the cash return decision, in terms of sequence, the final step in the process. 

If companies follow this process, buybacks are just another way of returning cash to stockholders, benign in their impact, because they are not coming at the expense of good investments, at least with good defined as investments that generate more than their hurdle rates. In fact, putting restrictions on how much cash companies can return, can harm not only stockholders (by depriving them of their claim on residual  cash flows) but also the economy, because capital will now be tied up in businesses that don't need them, rather than find its way to good ones.

b. Buybacks are short term
The benign view of stock buybacks is built on the presumption that managers make decisions at publicly traded companies with an eye on maximizing value, and since value is a function of expected cash flows over the life of the company, that they have a long term perspective. That view is at odds with evidence that managers often put short term gains ahead of long term value, and if investors are also short term, in pricing stocks, you can get a different picture of what drives buybacks and the consequences:

In effect, managers buy back stock, often with borrowed money, because it reduces share count and increases earnings per shares, and markets reward the company with a higher stock price, because investors don't consider the impact of lost growth and/or the risk of more debt. The argument that buybacks are driven by short term interests is strengthened if management compensation takes the form of equity in the company (options or restricted stock), because managers will be personally rewarded then for buybacks that, while damaging to the company's value (which reflects the long term), push up stock prices in the short term. With this view of the world, buybacks can create damage, especially at companies with good long term projects, run by managers who feel the need to meet short term earnings per share targets.

c. Buybacks are malignant
There is a third view of buybacks, where buybacks are not just motivated by the desire to push up earnings per share and stock prices, but become the central purpose of the firm. With this view, companies try to do whatever they can to generate more cash for buybacks, including crimping on worker wages, turning away good investments and borrowing more, even if that borrowing can put their survival at risk.

This picture captures almost all of the arguments that detractors of buybacks have used, including the ones that Senators Schumer and Sanders present in their article. If buybacks are the drivers of all other corporate actions, instead of being a residual cash flow, the “buyback binge” can be held responsible for a trifecta of America's most pressing economic problems: stagnant wages for workers, the drop in capital expenditures at US companies and the rise in debt on balance sheets. If this buyback shift is being driven by activist shareholders and a subset of "short term" institutional investors, as many argue that it is, you have a populist dream cast of good (workers, small stockholders, consumers) and evil (activists, wealthy shareholders and bankers). If you buy into this description of corporate and investor behavior, and it is not an implausible picture, it stands to reason that restricting or even stopping companies from buying back stock should alleviate and even solve the resulting problems. 

Picking a perspective
The reason debates about buybacks very quickly bog down is because proponents not only come in very different perspectives of corporate behavior, but they use anecdotal evidence, where they point to a specific company that behaves in a way that backs their perspective, and say "I told you so". The truth is that the real world is a messy place, with some companies buying back stocks for the right reasons (i.e., because they have no good investments and their stockholders prefer cash returns in this form), some companies buying back stock for short term price gains (to take advantage of markets which are myopic) and some companies focusing on buying back stock at the expense of their employees, lenders and own long term interests. 

Moneyball with Buybacks
The question of which side of this debate you will come down on, will depend on which of the perspectives outlined above comes closest to describing how companies and markets actually behave. Since that is an empirical question, not a political, idealogical or a theoretical one, I think it makes sense to look at the numbers on dividends and buybacks, not just in the US, but across the world, and I will do so with a series of data-driven statements.

1. More companies are buying back stock, and more cash is being returned in buybacks
Are US companies returning more and more cash in the form of buybacks? Yes, they are, and it represents a trend that saw its beginnings, not ten years ago, but in the 1980s. In the graph below, I look at the aggregate dividends and buybacks from firms in the S&P 500 since 1986, and also report on the percentage of cash returned that takes the form of buybacks, each year:

Starting at a base in the early 1980s, where buybacks were uncommon and dividends represented almost all cash return, you can see buybacks climb through the 1980s and 1990s, both in dollar value terms and as a percentage of overall cash return. That trend has only accelerated in this century, with the 2008 crisis putting a brief crimp on it. In 2018, more than 60% of the cash returned by S&P 500 companies was in the form of buybacks, amounting to almost $700 billion.

2. Cash Returns are rising as a percent of earnings, and it looks like companies are reinvesting less back into their own businesses
If you look at the graph above, you can see that the rise in buybacks has been accompanied by a stagnation in dividends, with growth rates in dividends substantially falling short of growth in buybacks. This shift has had consequences for two widely used measures of cash return, dividend yield, which looks at dividends as a percent of market capitalization or stock prices and the dividend payout ratio, a measure of the proportion of earnings as dividends. The declining role of dividends, as a form of cash return, has meant that a more relevant measure of cash return has to incorporate stock buybacks, resulting in a broader definition of cash yield and cash payout ratio measures:
  • Cash Yield = (Dividends + Buybacks) / Market Capitalization
  • Cash Payout Ratio = (Dividends + Buybacks)/ Net Income
The push back that you will get from dividend devotees that while dividends go to all shareholders, buybacks put cash only in the pockets of those stockholder who sell back, but that argument ignores the reality that the it is still shareholders who are getting the cash from buybacks. (As a thought experiment, imaging that you own all of the shares in a company and consider whether you notice a difference between dividends and buybacks, other than for tax purposes.) Calculating both dividend and cash measures of yield and payout over time, we observe the following for the companies in the S&P 500:
S&P 500: Dividends, Buybacks, Mkt Cap and Net Income
This table reinforces the message from the previous graph, which is that both dividends and buybacks have to be considered in any assessment of cash return. That is why I think that the handwringing over how low dividend yields have become over the last two decades misses the point. The cash yield for US companies, which includes both dividends and buybacks, is much more indicative of what companies are returning to shareholders and that  number has remained relatively stable over time. Using the same logic that I used to argue that cash yields were better indicators of cash returned to shareholders than dividend yields, I computed cash payout ratios, by adding buybacks to dividends, before dividing by net income in the table in the last section, and it does show a disquieting pattern. In fundamental analysis, analysts give weight to the payout ratio and its twin measure, the retention ratio (1- payout ratio) as a measure of how much a company is reinvesting into its own business, in order to grow.  The cash returned to shareholders exceeded net income in 2015 and 2016, and remains high, at 92.12% of net income, and that statistic seems to support the proposition that US companies are reinvesting less.

3. The drop in reinvestment may be real, but it could also be a reflection of accounting inconsistencies and failure to see the full picture on cash return
It is true that companies are returning more of their net income, as measured by accountants, to stockholders in dividends and buybacks, with the latter accounting for the lion's share of the return. Before we conclude that this is proof that companies are reinvesting less, there are two flaws in the numbers that need fixing:
  1. Stock Issuances: If we count stock buybacks as returning cash to shareholders, we should also be counting stock issuances as cash being invested by these same shareholders. Thus, the more relevant measure of cash return would net out stock issuances from stock buybacks, before adding dividends. While this is a lesser issue with the S&P 500 companies, which tend to be larger and more mature companies, less dependent of stock issuances, it can be a larger one for the entire market, where initial public offerings can augment seasoned equity issues, especially for smaller, higher growth companies.
  2. Accounting Inconsistencies: Over the last few decades, the percentage of S&P 500 companies that are in technology and health care has risen, and that rise has laid bare an accounting inconsistency on capital expenditures. If a key characteristic of capital expenditures is that money spent on them provide benefits for many years, accounting does a reasonable job in categorizing capital expenditures in manufacturing firms, where it takes the form of plant and equipment, but it does a woeful job of doing the same at firms that derive the bulk of their value from intangible assets. In particular, it treats R&D, the primary capital expenditure for technology and health care firms, brand name advertising, a key investment for the long term for consumer product companies, and customer acquisition costs, central for growth in subscriber/user driven companies as operating expenses, depressing earnings and rendering book value meaningless. In effect, companies on the S&P 500 are having their earnings measured using different rules, with the earnings for GM and 3M reflecting the correct recognition that money spent on investments designed to create benefits over many years should not be expensed, but the earnings for Microsoft and Apple being calculated after netting those same types of investments. As with the treatment of leases, I refuse to wait for accountants to come to their senses on this question, and I have been capitalizing R&D for all companies and adjusting their earnings accordingly. 
In the table below, I bring in stock issues and R&D into the picture, looking across all US stocks, not just the S&P 500:
All US publicly traded companies; S&P Capital IQ
While the trend towards buybacks is still visible, bringing in new stock issuances tempers some of the most extreme findings. In 2018, for instance, the net cash return (with issuances netted out from dividends and buybacks) represented about 46% of adjusted net profit (with R&D added back), well below the gross cash return.  In fact, there is no discernible decline in reinvestment over time, barring 2008 and 2009, the years around the last crisis. Capital expenditures have grown slowly, but an increasing percentage of reinvestment, especially in the last 5 years, has taken the form of R&D and acquisitions. 

4. Buybacks cut across sectors, size classes and growth categories, but the biggest cash returners are larger, more mature companies.
Before we decide that buybacks are ravaging the economy and should be restricted or even banned, it is also worth taking a look at what types of companies are buying back the most stock.  Staying with US stocks, I looked at buybacks and dividends of companies, broken  down by industry grouping. The full table is at the end of this post, but based upon the dollar value of buybacks, the ten industries that bought back the least stock and the ten that bought back the most are highlighted below:
Dividends and Buybacks: By Industry for US
It should come as no surprise that the industries where you see buybacks used the least tend to be industries which have a history of large dividend payments, with utilities, metals and mining and real estate making the list. Looking at the industries that are the biggest buyers of their own stock, the list is dominated by companies that derive their value from intangible assets, with technology and pharmaceuticals accounting for seven of the ten top spots. While that may surprise some, since these are viewed as high growth businesses, some of the biggest players in both technology and pharmaceuticals are now middle aged or older, using my corporate life cycle structure.

Given that there are often wide differences in size and growth, within each industry grouping, I also broke companies down by market cap size, to see if smaller companies behave differently than larger ones, when it comes to buybacks:
Market capitalization, as of 12/31/18
It is not surprising that the largest companies account for the bulk of buybacks, but you can also see that they return far more in buybacks, as a percent of their market capitalizations, then smaller firms do. 

Finally, I categorized companies based upon expected growth in the future, to see if companies that expect high growth behave differently from ones that expect low growth.
Expected revenue growth in the next two years
While companies in every growth class have jumped on the buyback bandwagon, the biggest buybacks in absolute and relative terms are for companies that have the lowest expected growth in revenues, returning 4-5% of their market capitalization in buybacks each year. Companies in the highest growth class, in contrast, return only 0.95% of their buybacks. That said, there are companies in higher growth classes that are buying back stock, when they should not be, perhaps for short term pricing reasons, but they represent only a small portion of the market, accounting collectively for only 10.56% of overall market capitalization.

I may be guilty of letting my priors guide my reading of these tables, but as I see it, the buyback boom in the United States is being driven by large non-manufacturing firms, with low growth prospects. If you restrict buybacks, expecting that this to unleash a new era of manufacturing growth and factory jobs, I am afraid that you will be disappointed. The workers at the firms that buy back the most stock, tend to be already among the better paid in the economy, and tying buybacks to higher wages for these workers will not help those who are at the bottom of the pay scale.

5. Investing back into businesses is not always better than returning cash to shareholders, when it comes to jobs, economic growth and prosperity.
Implicit in the Schumer-Sanders proposal to restrict buy backs is the belief that while shareholders may benefit from buybacks, the economy overall will be more prosperous, and workers will be better served, if the cash that is returned to shareholders is invested back in the businesses instead. Incidentally, this seems to be a shared delusion for both ends of the political spectrum, since one of the biggest sales pitches for the tax reform act, passed in 2017, was that the cash trapped overseas by bad US tax law, would, once released, be invested into new factories and manufacturing capacity in the US. I believe that both sides are operating from a false premise, since investing money back into bad businesses can make both economies and workers worse off. In a prior post, I defined a bad business as one where it is difficult to generate a return that is higher than the risk adjusted rate that you need to make to break even on your investment. 
Data Update 6 on excess returns
Using the return on capital, a flawed but still useful measure, as a measure of return and the cost of capital, with all of the caveats about measurement error, I found that approximately 60% of companies, both globally and in the US, earn less than their cost of capital. Forcing these companies to reinvest their earnings, rather than letting them pay it out, will only put more more money into bad businesses and create what I call "walking dead" companies, tying up capital that could be used more productively, if it were paid out to shareholders, who then can find better businesses to invest in. 

6. Some companies may be funding buybacks with debt, but the bulk of buybacks are still funded with equity cash flows
The narrative about stock buybacks that its detractors tell is that US companies have borrowed money and used that debt to fund buybacks, creating, at least in the narrative, sky-high debt ratios and  rising default risk. While there is certainly anecdotal evidence that you can offer for this proposition, there is evidence that we have looked at already that should lead you to question this narrative. Looking across sectors, we noted that the technology and pharmaceutical companies are on the list of biggest buyers of their own stock, and neither group is in the top ten or even twenty, when it comes to debt ratios.

Taking the naysayers at their word, I broke US companies down, based upon their debt loads, using Debt/EBITDA as the measure, from lowest to highest, to see if there is a relationship between buybacks and debt loads:
Debt to EBITDA at the end of 2018
The bulk of the buybacks are coming from firms with low to moderate debt ratios, falling in the second and third quintiles of debt ratios.  It is true that the firms with the highest debt load, buy back the most stock, at least as a percent of their market capitalization. As with the growth data, you can view this as evidence of either short-term thinking or worse, but note that the second and third quintiles together account for 61% of overall market capitalization, suggesting that if buybacks are skewing debt upwards at some firms, it is more at the margins than at the center of the market. 

7. Buybacks are now a global phenomenon
It is true that stock buybacks, at least in the form that you see them today, as cash return to stockholders, had their origins in the United States in the 1980s and it is also true that for a long time after that, much of the rest of the world either stayed with dividends and many countries had severe constraints on the use of buybacks. In the last decade, though, the dam seems to have broken and stock buybacks can now be seen in every part of the world, as can be seen in the table below:

US companies still lead the world in buybacks, but Canadian companies are playing catch up and you are seeing buybacks pick up in Europe. Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America remain holdouts, though it is unclear how much of the reluctance to buy back stock is due to poor corporate governance. 

The Follow Up
I agree that wage stagnation and an unwillingness to invest into the industrial base are significant problems for US companies, but I think that buybacks are more a symptom of global economic changes, than a cause. In particular, globalization has made it more difficult for companies to generate sustained returns on investments,  and has made earnings more volatile for all businesses.  The lower returns on investments has led to more cash being returned, and the fear of earnings volatility has tilted companies away from dividends, which are viewed as more difficult to back out of, to buybacks. In conjunction, a shift from an Industrial Age economy to the economies of today has meant that our biggest businesses are less capital intensive and more dependent on investments in intangible assets, a trend that accounting has not been able to keep up with.  You can ban or restrict buybacks, but that will not make investment projects more lucrative and earnings more predictable, and it certainly is not going to create a new industrial age.

If you came into this article with a strong bias against buybacks it is unlikely that I will be able to convince you that buybacks are benign, and it is very likely that you will be in favor, like Senators Schumer and Sanders, on restricting not just buybacks, but cash returns (including dividends), in general. Playing devil’s advocate, let’s assume that you succeed and play out what the effects of these restrictions will be on how much companies invest collectively and employee wages.
  • On the investment front, it is true that companies that used to buy back large numbers of their own shares will now have more cash to invest, but in what? It could be in more internal investments or projects, but given that many of these companies were buying back stock because they could not find good projects in the first place, it would have to be in projects that don’t earn a high enough returns to cover their hurdle rates. Perhaps, it will be in acquisitions, and while that will make M&A deal makers happy, the corporate track record is woeful. In either case, you will have more reinvestment in the wrong segments of the economy, at the expense of investments in the segments that need them more.
  • On the wage front, the consequences will be even messier. It is possible that tying buybacks to employee wages, as Senators Schumer and Sanders propose, will cause some companies to raise wages for existing employees, but with what consequences? Since they will now be paying much higher wages than their competitors, my guess is that these same companies will  be quicker to shift to automation and will have smaller workforces in the future, and that those at the low end of the pay scale will be most hurt by this substitution. 
Illustrating my point about anecdotal evidence, the senators use Walmart and Harley Davidson to make their case, arguing that both companies should not have expended the money that they did on buybacks, and taken investments or raised wages instead. 
  • Assuming that Walmart had followed their advice and not bought back stock and invested instead, it is unlikely that Walmart would have opened more stores in the United States, a saturated market, but would have opened them instead in other countries, and I don’t believe that the senators would view more stores being built in Indonesia or India as the outcome they were hoping for. As for Harley Davidson, a company that serves a loyal, but niche market, building another factory may have created more jobs for the moment, but it is not at all clear that the demand exists for the bikes that would roll out.
  • Would Walmart have raised wages, if they had not bought back stock? In a retail landscape, where Amazon lays waste to any competitor with a higher cost structure, that would have been suicidal, and accelerated the flow of customers to Amazon, allowing that company to become even more dominant. In a world where people complain about how the FANG stocks are taking over the world, you would be playing into their hands, by handcuffing their brick and mortar competitors, with buyback legislation.
In short, restricting buybacks may lead to more reinvestment, but much of it will be in bad businesses, acquisitions of existing entities and often in other countries. Tying buybacks to employee wage levels may boost the pay for existing employees, but will lead to fewer new hires, increasing automation and smaller workforces over time. In short, the ills that the Schumer-Sanders bill tries to cure will get worse, as a result of their efforts, rather than better.

I believe that the shift to buybacks reflects fundamental shifts in competition and earnings risk, but I don't wear rose colored glasses, when looking at the phenomenon. There are clearly some firms that are buying back stock, when they clearly should not be, paying out cash that could be better used on paying down debt, especially in the aftermath of the reduction of tax benefits of debt, or taking investments that can generate returns that exceed their hurdle rates. You may consider me naive, but I believe that the market, while it may be fooled for the moment, will catch on and punish these firms. Also, the data suggests that these bad players are more the exception than the rule, and banning all buybacks or writing in restrictions on buybacks for all companies strikes me as overkill, especially since the promised benefits of higher capital investment and wages are likely to be illusory or transitory. If you are tempted to back these restrictions, because you believe they are well intentioned, it is worth remembering that history is full of well intentioned legislation delivering perverse results. 

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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

January 2019 Data Update 7: Debt, neither poison nor nectar!

Debt is a hot button issue, viewed as destructive to businesses by some at one end of the spectrum and an easy value creator by some at the other. The truth, as is usually the case, falls in the middle. In this post, I will look not only at how debt loads vary across companies, regions and industries, but also at how they have changed over the last year. That is because last year should have been a consequential one for financial leverage, especially for US companies, since the corporate tax rate was reduced from close to 40% to approximately 25%. I will also put leases under the microscope, converting lease commitments to debt, as I have been doing for close to two decades, and look at the effect on  profit margins and returns, offering a precursor to changes in 2019, when both IFRS and GAAP will finally do the right thing, and start treating leases as debt.

The Debt Trade Off
Debt is neither an unmixed good nor an unmitigated disaster. In fact, there are good and bad reasons for companies to borrow money, to fund operations, and in this section, I will look at the trade off, and look at the implications for what types of businesses should be the biggest users of debt, and which ones, the smallest.

The Pluses and Minuses
There are only two ways you can raise capital to fund a business. One is to use owner funds, which can of course range from personal savings in a small start up to issuing shares to the market, for a public company. The other is to borrow money, again ranging from a loan from a family member or friend to bank debt to corporate bonds. The debt equity trade off then boils down to what debt brings to the process, relative to equity, in both good and bad ways.

The two big elements driving whether a company should borrow money are the tax code, and how heavily it is tilted towards debt, on the good side and the increased exposure to default and distress, that it also creates, on the bad side. Simply put, companies with stable and predictable earnings streams operating in countries, with high corporate tax rates should borrow more money than companies with unstable earnings or which operate in countries that either have low tax rates or do not allow for interest tax deductions. For financial service firms, the decision on debt is more complex, since debt is less source of capital and more raw material to a bank. As a consequence, I will look at only non-financial service firms in this post, but I plan to do a post dedicate to just financial service firms.

US Tax Reform - Effect on Debt
If one of the key drivers of how much you borrow is the corporate tax code, last year was an opportunity to see this force in action, at least in the US. At the start of 2018, the US tax code was changed in two ways that should have affected the tax benefits of debt:
  1. The federal corporate tax rate was lowered from 35% to 21%. Adding state and local taxes to this, the overall corporate tax rate dropped from close to 40% to about 25%.
  2. Restrictions were put on the deductibility of interest expenses, with amounts exceeding 30% of taxable income no longer receiving the tax benefit.
Since there were no significant changes to bankruptcy laws or costs, these tax code changes make debt less attractive, relative to equity, for all US companies. In fact, as I argued in this post at the start of 2018, if US companies are weighing the pros and cons correctly, they should have reduced their debt exposure during the course of 2018.

While I have data only through through the end of the third quarter of 2018, I look at the change in total debt, both gross and net, at non-financial service US companies, over the year (by comparing to the debt at the end of the third quarter of 2017).
Download debt change, by industry
In the aggregate, US non-financial service companies did not reduce debt, but instead added $434 billion to their debt load, increasing their total debt from $6,931 billion to $7,365 billion between September 2017 and September 2018. That represented only a 6.26% increase over the year, and was accompanied by a decline in debt as a percent of market capitalization, but that increase is still surprising, given the drop in the marginal tax rate and the ensuing loss of tax benefits from borrowing. There are three possible explanations:
  1. Inertia: One of the strongest forces in corporate finance is inertia, where companies continue to do what they have always done, even when the reasons for doing so have long since disappeared. It is possible that it will be years before companies wake up to the changed tax environment and start borrowing less.
  2. Uncertainty about future tax rates: It is also possible that companies view the current tax code as a temporary phase and that the drop in corporate tax rates will be reversed by future administrations.
  3. Illusory and Transient Benefits: Many companies perceive benefits in debt that I term illusory, because they create value, only if you ignore the full consequences of borrowing. I have captured these illusory benefits in the table below: Put simply, the notion that debt will lower your cost of capital, just because it is lower than your cost of equity, is widely held, but just not true, and while using debt will generally increase your return on equity, it will also proportionately increase your cost of equity.
I will continue tracking debt levels through the coming years, and assuming no bounce back in corporate tax rates, we should get confirmation as to whether the tax hypothesis holds.

Debt: Definition
The tax law changed the dynamics of the debt/equity tradeoff, but there is an accounting change coming this year, which will have a significant impact on the debt that you see reported on corporate balance sheets around the world, and since this is the debt that most companies and data services use in measuring financial leverage. Specifically, accountants and their rule writers are finally going to come to their senses and plan to start treating lease commitments as debt, plugging what I have always believed is the biggest source of off balance sheet debt.

Debt: Definition
In my financing construct for a business, I argue that there are two ways that a business, debt (bank loans, corporate bonds) and equity (owner's funds), but to get a sense of how the two sources of capital vary, I looked at the differences:

Specifically, there are two characteristics that set debt apart from equity. The first is that debt creates a contractual or fixed claim that the firm is obligated to meet, in good and bad times, whereas equity gives rise to a residual claim, where the firm has the flexibility not to make any payments, in bad times. The second is that with debt, a failure to meet a contractual commitment, will lead to a loss of control of the firm and perhaps default, whereas with equity, a failure to meet an expected commitment (like paying dividends) can lead to a drop in market value but not to distress. Finally, in liquidation, debt holders get first claim on the assets and equity gets whatever, if any, is left over. Using this definition of debt, we can navigate through a balance sheet and work out what should be included in debt and what should not. If the defining features for debt are contractual commitments, with a loss of control and default flowing from a failure to meet them, it follows that all interest bearing debt, short term as well as long term, bank loans and corporate bonds, are debt. Staying on the balance sheet, though, there are items that fall in a gray area:
  1. Accounts Payable and Supplier Credit:  There can be no denying that a company has to pay back supplier credit and honor its accounts payable, to be a continuing business, but these liabilities often have no explicit interest costs. That said, the notion that they are free is misplaced, since they come with an implicit cost. To make use of supplier credit, for instance, you have to give up discounts that you could have obtained if you paid on delivery. The bottom line in valuation and corporate finance is simple. If you can estimate these implicit expenses (discounts lost) and treat them as actual interest expenses, thus altering your operating income and net income, you can treat these items as debt. If you find that task impossible or onerous, since it is often difficult to back out of financial reports, you should not consider these items debt, but instead include them as working capital (which affects cash flows).
  2. Underfunded Pension and Health Care Obligations: Accounting rules around the world have moved towards requiring companies to report whether their defined-benefit pension plans or health care obligations are underfunded, and to show that underfunding as a liability on balance sheets. In some countries, this disclosure comes with legal consequences, where the company has to set aside funds to cover these obligations, akin to debt payments, and if this is the case, they should be treated as debt. In much of the world, including the United States, the disclosure is more for informational purposes and while companies are encouraged to cover them, there is no legal obligation that follows. In these cases, you should not consider these underfunded obligations to be debt, though you may still net them out of firm value to get to equity value.
The table below provides the breakdown of debt for non-financial service companies around the world.
Debt Details, by Industry (US)
As you browse this table, please keep in mind that disclosure on the details of debt varies widely across companies, and this table cannot plug in holes created by non-disclosure. To the extent that company disclosures are complete, you can see that there are differences in debt type across regions, with a greater reliance on short term debt in Asia, a higher percent of unsecured and fixed rate debt in Japan and more variable rate, secured debt in Africa, India and Latin America than in Europe or the US. You can get the debt details, by industry, for regional breakdowns at the link at the end of this post.

Debt Load: Balance Sheet Debt
Using all interest bearing debt as debt in looking at companies, we can raise and answer fundamental questions about leverage at companies. Broadly speaking, the debt load at a company can be scaled to either the value of the company or to its earnings and cash flows. Both measures are useful, though they measure different aspects of debt load:

a. Debt and Value
Earlier, I noted that there are two ways you can fund a business, debt and equity, and a logical measure of financial leverage that follows is to look at how much debt a firm uses, relative to its equity. That said, there are two competing measures of value, and especially for equity, the divergence can be wide.
  • The first is the book value, which is the accountant's estimate of how much a business and its equity are worth. While value investors attach significant weight to this number, it reflects all of the weaknesses that accounting brings to the table, a failure to adjust for time value of money, an unwillingness to consider the value for current market conditions and an inability to deal with investments in intangible assets. 
  • The second is market value, which is the market's estimate, with all of the pluses and minuses that go with that value. It is updated constantly, with no artificial lines drawn between tangible and intangible assets, but it is also volatile, and reflects the pricing game that sometimes can lead prices away from intrinsic value.
In the graph below, I look at debt as a percent of capital, first using book values for debt and equity, and next using market value.
Debt ratios, by industry (US)
In the table below, I break out debt as a percent of overall value (debt + equity) using both book value and market value numbers, and look at the distribution of these ratios globally:

Embedded in the chart is a regional breakdown of debt ratios, and even with these simple measures of debt loads, you can see how someone with a strong  prior point of view on debt, pro or con, can find a number to back that view. Thus, if you want to argue as some have that the Fed (which is blamed for almost everything that happens under the sun), low interest rates and stock buybacks have led US companies to become over levered, you will undoubtedly point to book debt ratios to make your case. In contrast, if you have a more sanguine view of financial leverage in the US, you will point to market debt ratios and perhaps to the earnings and cash flow ratios that I will report in the next section. On this debate, at least, I think that those who use book value ratios to make their case hold a weak hand, since book values, at least in the US and for almost every sector other than financial, have lost relevance as measures of anything, other than accounting ineptitude.

b. Debt and Earnings/Cashflows
Debt creates contractual obligations in the form of interest and principal payments, and these payments have to be covered by earnings and cash flows. Thus, it is sensible to measure how much buffer, or how little, a firm has by scaling debt payments to earnings and cash flows, and here are two measures:
  • Debt to EBITDA: It is true that EBITDA is an intermediate cash flow, not a final one, since you still have to pay taxes and invest in growth, before you get a residual cash flow. That said, it is a proxy for how much cash flow is being generated by existing investments, and dividing the total debt by EBITDA is a measure of overall debt load, with lower numbers translating into less onerous loads.
  • Interest Coverage Ratio: Dividing the operating income (EBIT) by interest expenses, gives us a different measure of safety, one that is more immediately tied to default risk and cost of debt than debt to EBITDA. Firms that generate substantial operating income, relative to interest expenses, are safer, other things remaining equal, than firms that operate with lower interest coverage ratios. 
In the table below, I look at the distributions of both these numbers, again broken down by region of the world:
Debt ratios, by industry (US)
Again, the story you tell can be very different, based upon which number you look at. Chinese companies have the most debt in the world, if you define debt as gross debt, but look close to average, when you look at net debt. Indian companies look lightly levered, if you look at Debt to EBITDA multiples, but have the most exposure to debt, if you use interest coverage ratios to measure debt load.

Operating Leases: The Accounting Netherworld
Going back to the definition of debt as financing that comes with contractually set obligations, where failure to meet these obligations can lead to loss of control and default, it is clear that focusing on only the balance sheet (as we have so far) is dangerous, since there are other claims that companies create that meet these conditions. Consider lease agreements, where a retailer or a restaurant business enters into a multi-year agreement to make lease payments, in return for using a store front or building. The lease payments are clearly set out by contract, and failing to make these payments will lead to loss of that site, and the income from it. You can argue that leases providing more flexibility that a bank loan and that defaulting on a lease is less onerous, because the claims are against a specific location and not the business, but those are arguments about whether leases are more like unsecured debt than secured debt, and not whether leases should be treated as debt. For much of accounting history, though, accountants have followed a different path, treating only a small subset of leases as debt and bringing them on to the balance sheet as capital leases, while allowing the bulk of lease expenses as operating expenses and ignoring future lease commitments on balance sheets. The only consolation prize is that both IFRS and GAAP have required companies to show these lease commitments as footnotes to balance sheets.

In my experience, waiting for accountants to do the right thing will leave you twisting in the wind, since it seems to take decades for common sense to prevail. Consequently, I have been treating leases as debt for more than three decades in valuation, and the process for doing so is neither complicated nor novel. In fact, it is the same process that accountants use right now with capital leases and it involves the following steps:
  1. Estimate a current cost of borrowing or pre-tax cost of debt for the company today, given its default risk and current interest rates (and default spreads).
  2. Starting with the lease commitment table that is included in the footnotes today, discount each lease commitment back to today, using the pre-tax cost of debt as your discount rate (since the lease commitments are pre-tax). Most companies provide only a lump-sum value for commitments after year 5, and while you can act as if this entire amount will come due in year 6, it makes more sense to convert it into an annuity, before discounting.
  3. The sum total of the present value of lease commitments will be the lease debt that will now show up on your balance sheet, but to keep the balance sheet balanced, you will have to create a counter asset. 
  4. To the extent that the accounting has treated the current year's lease expense as an operating expense, you have to recompute the operating income, reflecting your treatment of leases as debt:
Adjusted Operating Income = Stated Operating Income + Current year's lease expense - Depreciation on the leased asset

Capitalizing leases will have large consequences for not just debt ratios at companies (pushing them for companies with significant lease commitments) but also for operating profitability measures (like operating margin) and returns on invested capital (since both operating income and invested capital will be changed). The effects on net margin and return on equity should either be much smaller or non-existent, because equity income is after both operating and capital expenses, and moving leases from one grouping to another has muted consequences. In the table below, I report on debt ratio, operating margin and return on capital. before and after the lease adjustment :
Lease Effect, by Industry, for US
You can download the effects, by industry, for different regions, by using the links at the bottom of this post.  Keep in mind, though, that there are parts of the world where lease commitments, though they exist, are not disclosed in financial statements, and as a consequence, I will understate the else effect, While the effect is modest across all companies, the lease effect is larger in sectors that use leases liberally in operations, and to see which sectors are most and least affected, I looked at the ten   sectors, among US companies, and not counting financial service firms, that saw the biggest percentage increases in debt ratios and the ten sectors that saw the smallest in the table below:
Lease Effect, by Industry, for US
Note that there are a large number of retail groupings that rank among the most affected sectors, though a few technology companies also make the cut. As I noted at the start of this post, this year will be a consequential one, since both GAAP and IFRS will start requiring companies to capitalize leases and showing them as debt. While I applaud the dawning of sanity, there are many investors (and equity research analysts) who are convinced that this step will be catastrophic for companies in lease-heavy sectors, since it will be uncover how levered they are. I am less concerned, because markets, unlike accountants, have not been in denial for decades and market prices, for the most part and for most companies, already reflect the reality that leases are debt. 

Debt: Final Thoughts
One of the biggest impediments to any rational discussion of debt's place in capital is the emotional baggage that we bring to that discussion. Debt is neither poison, as some detractors claim it to be, nor is a nectar, as its biggest promoters describe it. It is a source of capital that comes with fixed commitments and the risk of default, good for some companies and bad for others, and when it does create value, it is because the tax code it tilted towards it. It is true that some companies and investors, especially those playing the leverage game, over estimate its benefits and under estimate its side costs, but they will learn their lessons the hard way. It is also true that other companies and investors, in the name of prudence, think that less debt is always better than more debt, and no debt is optimal, and they too are leaving money on the table, by being too conservative.

YouTube Video

  1. Debt Change, by Industry Group for US companies, in 2019
  2. Debt Details, by Industry Group in 2019 for US, Europe, Emerging Markets, Japan, Australia & Canada, India and China
  3. Debt Ratios, by Industry Group in 2019 for USEuropeEmerging MarketsJapanAustralia & CanadaIndia and China
  4. Lease Capitalization Effects, by Industry Group in 2019 for USEuropeEmerging MarketsJapanAustralia & CanadaIndia and China

Sunday, January 27, 2019

January 2019 Data Update 6: Profitability and Value Creation!

In my last post, I looked at hurdle rates for companies, across industries and across regions, and argued that these hurdle rates represent benchmarks that companies have to beat, to create value. That said, many companies measure success using lower thresholds, with some arguing that making money (having positive profits) is good enough and others positing that being more profitable than competitors in the same business makes you a good company. In this post, I will look at all three measures of success, starting with the minimal (making money), moving on to relative judgments (and how best to compare profitability across companies of different scales) and ending with the most rigorous one of whether the profits are sufficient to create value.

Measuring Financial Success
You may start a business with the intent of meeting a customer need or a societal shortfall but your financial success will ultimately determine your longevity. Put bluntly, a socially responsible company with an incredible product may reap good press and have case studies written about it, but if it cannot establish a pathway to profitability, it will not survive. But how do you measure financial success? In this portion of the post, I will start with the simplest measure of financial viability, which is whether the company is making money, usually from an accounting perspective, then move the goal posts to see if the company is more or less profitable than its competitors, and end with the toughest test, which is whether it is generating enough profits on the capital invested in it, to be a value creator.

Profit Measures
Before I present multiple measures of profitability, it is useful to step back and think about how profits should be measured. I will use the financial balance sheet construct that I used in my last post to explain how you can choose the measure of profitability that is right for your analysis:

Just as hurdle rates can vary, depending on whether you take the perspective of equity investors (cost of equity) or the entire business (cost of capital), the profit measures that you use will also be different, depending on perspective. If looked at through the eyes of equity investors, profits should be measured after all other claim holders (like debt) and have been paid their dues (interest expenses), whereas using the perspective of the entire firm, profits should be estimated prior to debt payments. In the table below, I have highlighted the various measures of profits and cash flows, depending on claim holder perspective:
The key, no matter which claim holder perspective you adopt, is to stay internally consistent. Thus, you can discount cash flows to equity (firm) at the cost of equity (capital) or compare the return on equity (capital) to the cost of equity (capital), but you cannot mix and match.

The Minimal Test: Making money?
The lowest threshold for success in business is to generate positive profits, perhaps the reason why accountants create measures like breakeven, to determine when that will happen. In my post on measuring risk, I looked at the percentages of firms that meet this threshold on net income (for equity claim holders), an operating income (for all claim holders) and EBITDA (a very rough measure of operating cash flow for all claim holders). Using that statistic for the income over the last twelve month, a significant percentage of publicly traded firms are profitable:
Data, by country
The push back, even on this simplistic measure, is that just as one swallow does not a summer make, one year of profitability is not a measure of continuing profitability. Thus, you could expand this measure to not just look at average income over a longer period (say 5 to 10 years) and even add criteria to measure sustained profitability (number of consecutive profitable years). No matter which approach you use, you still will have two problems. The first is that because this measure is either on (profitable) or off (money losing), it cannot be used to rank or grade firms, once they have become profitable. The other is that making money is only the first step towards establishing viability, since the capital invested in the firm could have been invested elsewhere and made more money. It is absurd to argue that a company with $10 billion in capital invested in it is successful if it generates $100 in profits, since that capital invested even in treasury bills could have generated vastly more money.

The Relative Test: Scaled Profitability
Once a company starts making money, it is obvious that higher profits are better than  lower ones, but unless these profits are scaled to the size of the firm, comparing dollar profits will bias you towards larger firms. The simplest scaling measure is revenues, a data item available for all but financial service firms, and one that is least likely to be affected by accounting choices, and profits scaled to revenues yields profit margins. In a data update post from a year ago, I provided a picture of different margin measures and why they might provide different information about business profitability:

As I noted in my section on claimholders above, you would use net margins to measure profitability to equity investors and operating margins (before or after taxes) to measure profitability to the entire firm. Gross and EBITDA margins are intermediate stops that can be used to assess other aspects of profitability, with gross margins measuring profitability after production costs (but before selling and G&A costs) and EBITDA margins providing a crude measure of operating cash flows.

In the graph below, I look at the distribution of pre-tax operating margins and net margins globally, and provide regional medians for the margin measures:

The regional comparisons of margins are difficult to analyze because they reflect the fact that different industries dominate different regions, and margins vary across industries. You can get the different margin measures broken down by industry, in January 2019, for US firms by clicking here. You can download the regional averages using the links at the end of this post.

The Value Test: Beating the Hurdle Rate
As a business, making money is easier than creating value, since to create value, you have to not just make money, but more money than you could have if you had invested your capital elsewhere. This innocuous statement lies at the heart of value, and it is in fleshing out the details that we run into practical problems on the three components that go into it:
  1. Profits: The profit measures we have for companies reflect their past, not the future, and even the past measures vary over time, and for different proxies for profitability. You could look at net income in the most recent twelve months or average net income over the last ten years, and you  could do the same with operating income. Since value is driven by expectations of future profits, it remains an open question whether any of these past measures are good predictors.
  2. Invested Capital: You would think that a company would keep a running tab of all the money that is invested in its projects/assets, and in a sense, that is what the book value is supposed to do. However, since this capital gets invested over time, the question of how to adjust capital invested for inflation has remained a thorny one. If you add to that the reality that the invested capital will change as companies take restructuring charges or buy back stock, and that not all capital expenses finds their way on to the balance sheet, the book value of capital may no longer be a good measure of capital invested in existing investments.
  3. Opportunity Cost: Since I spent my last post entirely on this question, I will not belabor the estimation challenges that you face in estimating a hurdle rate for a company that is reflective of the risk of its investments.
In a perfect world, you would scale your expected cashflows in future years, adjusted for time value of money, to the correct amount of capital invested in the business and compare it to a hurdle rate that reflects both your claim holder choice (equity or the business) but also the risk of the business. In fact, that is exactly what you are trying to do in a good intrinsic or DCF valuation. 

Since it is impossible to do this for 42000 plus companies, on a company-by-company basis, I used blunt instrument measures of each component, measuring profits with last year's operating income after taxes, using book value of capital (book value of debt + book value of equity - cash) as invested capital:

Similarly, to estimate cost of capital, I used short cuts I would not use, if I were called up to analyze a single company: 

Comparing the return on capital to the cost of capital allows me to estimate excess returns for each of my firms, as the difference between the return on invested capital and the cost of capital. The distribution of this excess return measure globally is in the graph below:
I am aware of the limitations of this comparison. First, I am using the trailing twelve month operating income as profits, and it is possible that some of the firms that measure up well and badly just had a really good (bad) year. It is also biased against young and growing firms, where future income will be much higher than the trailing 12-month value. Second, operating income is an accounting measure, and are affected not just by accounting choices, but are also affected by the accounting mis-categorization of lease and R&D expenses. Third, using book value of capital as a proxy for invested capital can be undercut by not only whether accounting capitalizes expenses correctly but also by well motivated attempts by accountants to write off past mistakes (which create charges that lower invested capital and make return on capital look better than it should). In fact, the litany of corrections that have to be made to return on capital to make it usable and listed in this long and very boring paper of mine. Notwithstanding these critiques, the numbers in this graph tell a depressing story, and one that investors should keep in mind, before they fall for the siren song of growth and still more growth that so many corporate management teams sing. Globally, approximately 60% of all firms globally earn less than their cost of capital, about 12% earn roughly their cost of capital and only 28% earn more than their cost of capital. There is no region of the world that is immune from this problem, with value destroyers outnumbering value creators in every region.

From a corporate finance perspective, there are lessons to be learned from the cross section of excess returns, and here are two immediate ones:
  1. Growth is a mixed blessing: In 60% of companies, it looks like it destroys value, does not add to it. While that proportion may be inflated by the presence of bad years or companies that are early in the life cycle, I am sure that the proportion of companies where value is being destroyed, when new investments are made, is higher than those where value is created.
  2. Value destruction is more the rule than the exception: There are lots of bad companies, if bad is defined as not making your hurdle rate. In some companies, it can be attributed to bad managed that is entrenched and set in its ways. In others, it is because the businesses these companies are in have become bad business, where no matter what management tries, it will be impossible to eke out excess returns.
You can see the variations in excess returns across industries, for US companies, by clicking on this link, but there are clearly lots of bad businesses to be in. The same data is available for other regions in the datasets that are linked at the end of this post.

If there is a consolation prize for investors in this graph, it is that the returns you make on your investment in a company are driven by a different dynamic. If stocks are value driven, the stock price for a company will reflect its investment choices, and companies that invest their money badly will be priced lower than companies that invest their money well. The returns you will make on these companies, though, will depend upon whether the excess returns that they deliver in the future are greater or lower than expectations. Thus, a company that earns a return on capital of 5%, much lower than its cost of capital of 10%, which is priced to continue earning the same return will see if its stock price increase, if it can improve its return on capital to 7%, still lower than the cost of capital, but higher than expected. By the same token, a company that earns a return on capital of 25%, well above its cost of capital of 10%, and priced on the assumption that it can continue on its value generating path, will see its stock price drop, if the returns it generates on capital drop to 20%, well above the cost of capital, but still below expectations. That may explain a graph like the following, where researchers found that investing in bad (unexcellent) companies generated far better returns than investing in good (excellent) companies:
Original Paper: Excellence Revisited, by Michelle Klayman
The paper is dated, but its results are not, and they have been reproduced using other categorizations for good and bad firms. Thus, investing in the most admired firms generates worse returns for investors than investing in the least admired and investing in popular (with investors) firms under performs investing in unpopular ones. While these results may seem perverse, at first sight, that bad (good) companies can be good (bad) investments, it makes sense, once you factor in the expectations game

Finally, on the corporate governance front, I feel that we have lost our way. Corporate governance laws and measures have focused on check boxes on director independence and corporate rules, rather than furthering the end game of better managed companies. From my perspective, corporate governance should give stockholders a chance to change the way companies are run, and if corporate governance works well, you should see more management turnover at companies that don't earn what they need to on capital. The fact that six in ten companies across the globe earned well below their cost of capital in 2018, added to the reality that many of these companies have not only been under performing for years, but are still run by the same management, makes me wonder whether the push towards better corporate governance is more talk than action.

YouTube Video

Data Links
  1. Profit Margins: USGlobalEmerging MarketsEuropeJapanIndiaChinaAus & Canada
  2. Excess Returns to Equity and Capital: USGlobalEmerging MarketsEuropeJapanIndiaChinaAus & Canada