Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Uber's bad week: Doomsday Scenario or Business Reset?

Uber just cannot seem to help itself, finding a way to get in the news, and often in ways that leave its image in tatters. You could see this pattern in full display last week, where Travis Kalanick, its founder and CEO took a leave of absence to reinvent himself as Travis 2.0, and David Bonderman, founding partner at TPG and Uber director, had to step down after making a sexist remark at a meeting with Uber employees about countering sexism. Today, Travis made his departure permanent, throwing the company into chaos as the board searches for a replacement. As someone who has been collecting stories almost obsessively about the company since June 2014, this is just the latest in a long string of news events, where Uber has been portrayed as a bad corporate citizen. As with prior episodes, there are many who are writing the company’s epitaph but I would not be in too much of a hurry. This is a company that built itself by breaking rules, and while I believe that the latest controversies will damage Uber, they will not disable it.

Uber: Retracing history
If you are just starting to pay attention to Uber, after the last week, let me start by bringing you up to date with the company. Founded in 2009, by Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, in San Francisco as UberCab, and going into operation in 2010, the company has redefined the car service business, making the taxi cab a relic, at least for some segments of the population. Uber’s initial business model, which became the template for the ride sharing business, was a simple one. The company entered the car service business, and did so without buying any cars or hiring any drivers, essentially letting independent contractors use their own cars and operating as match-maker (with customers). That low capital intensity model has allowed the company to grow at an astronomical rate, with almost no large infrastructure or capital investments through much of its life.

My first brush with Uber was in June 2014, when I tried to value the company. While many have since reminded me how wrong I was in my judgment, I have no qualms about repeating the story that I said about Uber at the time and the resulting valuation. Framing Uber as an urban, car-service company with local networking benefits and a low capital intensity model, I valued the company at about $6 billion. In fact, Bill Gurley, a partner at Benchmark Capital and an early investor in Uber, took me to task for the narrowness of my story, arguing that I was missing how much Uber would change the logistics market with his offerings.

Bill was right, I was wrong, and I did underestimate Uber’s growth potential, both in terms of geography and in attracting new users into the car service business. In October 2015, I revisited my Uber valuation and told a more expansive story of the company, incorporating its global reach and the influx of new users, while also noting that the pathway to profitability now faced far more roadblocks (as Didi Chuxing, Ola and GrabTaxi all found investors with open pockets and ramped up the competition). That resulted in a much higher revenue forecast, combined with more subdued operating margins, to yield a value of about $23 billion for the company.

In August 2016, I took another look at Uber, after it exited the Chinese market (the largest potential ridesharing market in the world) ceding the market to Didi Chuxing in return for Uber getting a 20% stake in Didi. I argued that this was a good development, since China had become a money pit for the company, sucking up more than a billion dollars in cash in the prior year. While there was some positive movement on some of my assumptions (slightly smaller losses and continued revenue growth), they were offset by some negative movement in other assumptions, leaving my value at about $28 billion, with almost all of the change in value from the prior year coming from the Didi stake that Uber got in exchange for leaving the China market. These are, of course, my stories about Uber and valuations and they matter little in how Uber is perceived by the market. In fact, there is clear evidence that notwithstanding all of the negativity around the company, investors have consistently pushed up its pricing from $ 60 million in 2011 to $3.5 billion in 2013 to $17 billion in June 2014 to almost $70 billion in the most recent capital round.

Uber: An Operations Update
The problem with Uber is that as a private business, albeit one with a high profile, its financial statements are not public. For much of its life, the only numbers that have been made public about the company have been leaked and my valuations have been based on this leaked information. Early this year, Uber finally departed from the script, partly with the intent of drawing attention away from negative stories about the company, and revealed selected financials for 2016. In particular, it reported that it generated more than $20 billion in gross billings in 2016, doubling its 2015 numbers, and that its share of these billings was $6.5 billion (which represents its net revenues). The latter number is puzzling since the company's stated share of the billings is only 20% (which would have meant only $4 billion in revenues) but part of the difference can be explained by the fact that Uber reported its gross billings from UberPool, its car pooling service, as revenues. The revenue growth has been dazzling but the losses continued to mount as well. Uber reported a loss of $2.8 billion for 2016, but that number would have been worse (closer to $3.8 billion) if losses in its defunct China operations had been counted. Overall, though, like all of its financial disclosures, leaked or otherwise, the number paint a mixed picture of Uber. On the plus side, they show a company growing explosively, adding cities, drivers and gross billings as it goes along. On the minus side, you are not seeing the rapid improvements in margins that you would expect to see as a company scales up, if it has economies of scale. 

One reason why losses at Uber have continued to mount, even as revenues rise, is that the competition has not cooperated in Uber's quest for world domination. Rather than be intimidated by the Uber presence and capital advantage, some competitors (like Lyft) have adapted and narrowed their focus to markets, where they can compete. In fact, it is ironic that Lyft, which has long been viewed as the weaker competitor, reported an increase in market share in the US ride sharing market in 2016 and may be first to turn a profit in this business. Others, like Didi Chuxing, have attacked Uber's strength with strength, showing the capacity to raise capital and burn through it just as fast and recklessly as Uber has. Still others, like Ola, have played to local advantages to establish a beachhead against Uber. If Uber's original intent was to use shock and awe to wipe out its competition and emerge as the only player standing, it will have to rethink its plans.

The final leaked reports from the first quarter of 2017 seem to offer some glimmers of hope for Uber, as net revenues continued to increase (rising 18% from the prior quarter's numbers to 3.4 billion) and losses shrunk to $708 million from the $991 million in the prior quarter. Uber optimists found reasons to celebrate in these numbers, arguing that the much awaited margin improvement is now observable, but I would hold off until we not only get fuller financials but also are able to see how much the company paid out in stock based compensation. Using the same indefensible practice that other technology companies have adopted, Uber reports its profits (or in its case, its losses) before stock based compensation.

Uber: The Extracurricular Activity
With Uber, it has never just been about the numbers, because the company finds a myriad of ways to get in the news. Early on its life, some of this was by design, especially when the news stories were about the company evading rules and regulations to offer service in a city, since it burnished the company's reputation for getting things done first and worrying about the rules afterwards. In the last few months, it looks like the news cycle has spun out of Uber's control and that the stories have the potential, at least, to do real damage.
  1. The Google/Waymo Legal Tangle: Uber has not been shy about its desires to one day have self driving cars be its vehicles of choice, increasing investment needs in the business and potentially profit margins. The problem with this strategy it that it has brought Uber head to head against Google, a player with not only a head start in this business but also pockets so deep that it make's Uber's access to capital look paltry. That is perhaps why Uber announced with fanfare that it had hired Anthony Levandowski, a key player on the Google Waymo team, to lead its self driving car project. Any positive payoff from this announcement has been more than erased by subsequent developments, starting with Google accusing Mr. Levandowski of stealing proprietary information and suing Uber for being complicit in the deception,  and with Uber folding, by firing Mr. Levandowski. I am not sure how far this has set Uber back in the driverless car business, but it certainly could not have helped.
  2. Travis YouTube Meltdown: You would think that someone with Travis Kalanick's tech savvy would know better, but his public confrontation with an Uber driver about whether Uber was squeezing drivers was recorded and went public. While this was a small misstep, relative to Uber's much bigger public relations fiascos, the incident reinforced the view among some that Kalanick was too impetuous and immature to be the CEO of a high profile company.
  3. Sexism and Boorishness: The stories about boorish behavior at Uber have been around a long time, and for a while, the company seemed to not just ignore these stories but feed off them. In the last few months, the stories acquired a darker edge with Susan Fowler, an ex-Uber engineer, writing about sexual harassment during her tenure at the company and the unwillingness of the company to do anything about it.  Susan Fowler's chronicling of sexism at Uber had consequences, since the company hired Eric Holder and Tammy Albaran  to look at corporate behavior and culture. Their report not only contained a listing of Uber's cultural problems but also included forty seven recommendations on how Uber could create an inclusive workplace, leading off with the one that Uber's board of directors "should evaluate the extent to which some of the responsibilities that Mr.Kalanick has historically possessed should be shared or given outright to other members of senior management".
The Covington report could not be ignored and the last week was consequential. Travis Kalanick announced that he was taking a break from his role as CEO "to work on Travis 2.0 to become the leader that this company needs and that you deserve". It was in a follow-up meeting with Uber employees that Arianna Huffington chaired, with the intent of making Uber a more welcoming environment for women, that David Bonderman quipped about how having more women as directors would make it "much more likely there’ll be more talking" at meetings. Talk about being stone deaf!

What now?
In a post from long ago, I talked about how news events can alter valuations by affecting the stories that you tell about companies and classified these story alterations into three groups:
  • In a story break, you learn something about a company that renders your story moot and makes your valuation irrelevant (perhaps making it zero). This is the take that some have taken with Uber, when they have argued that the most recent news stories have doomed the company by breaking its story.
  • In a story change, the news that you acquire can lead to you significantly expanding or contracting the story that you were telling about the company, with the former increasing value and the latter reducing it. My story for Uber dramatically expanded from the urban, car service company, with a value of $6 billion in June 2014, to a global logistics company facing challenges in turning revenues to profits, with a value of $23 billion, in September 2015.
  • In a story shift, your basic story stays unchanged but with shifted contours. With Uber, that is what transpired, at least for me, between September 2015 and September 2016, where notwithstanding all of the news about the company, the story remained mostly unchanged, with perhaps higher revenue growth and lower profitability offsetting each other to leave value unchanged at about $25 billion.
So, are the events of the last few months at Uber a story break (which would be catastrophic for its business and value), a story change (where Uber will continue to operate but with much more restraint in going for growth) or just a story shift (where after a few bumps and bruises, the company will continue on its current path)? To answer this question, you have to look how the different constituent groups, that are key to the company's pathway to profits, will react to these latest news stories. On the operations side, there are the regulators, who set the entry and operating rules in the cities that Uber operates in, the drivers who provide the life blood for the ride sharing operations and the customers, who choose to uber rather than use their own cars, mass transit or cabs. On the business side, there are the managers, from the top levels down to middle management, who will chart the future growth map for the company, and the engineers and technical staff, who make it a functional company. On the financing side, there are the venture capitalists who provided the initial capital for the company to go from start up to operations and the public equity investors (mutual funds and sovereign funds). Each of these groups has the potential to alter the Uber story and thus its value:
The doomsday scenario is embedded in this picture. For this crisis to take Uber down, millions of Uber customers will have to delete their apps, droves of Uber drivers will quit, regulators will rescind permissions already granted to operate in cities, Uber managers will be paralyzed, engineers will refuse to work for the company and investors (both venture capital and public equity) will not only cut off access to fresh capital and mark down their existing investments. Could these events unfold? It is possible, but unlikely, because each of these groups, I think, has too much to lose, if Uber implodes:
  • Customers use Uber because it is cheap, convenient and quick and I seriously doubt that the corporate culture makes it even to the top ten list of considerations for most customers. Remember that the much publicized #DeleteUber movement a few months ago resulted in about 200,000 people deleting the app, about 0.5% of Uber's 40 million users. When moral arguments conflict with basic economics, economics almost always wins, and I seriously doubt that Uber will face much of a customer backlash.
  • Without its drivers, there would be no Uber but of all of the constituent groups, drivers are likely to have the fewest delusions about the company, since they have been at the receiving end of its ruthless competitiveness. Given their need to make an income, it is both unfair and unrealistic to expect a significant number of drivers to stop driving for Uber just because of recent news stories, especially since most of these stories reaffirm what the drivers have always believed about the company.
  • It is true that Uber has handed regulators another cudgel to beat them with and perhaps use as an excuse for crimping their operations, but given how ineffective regulators have been in slowing the company down, especially in the fact of backlash from Uber customers, I don't see the recent news changing the dynamics by enough to make a difference.
  • On the managerial front, several news stories over the last week suggest that while Travis Kalanick was away on his reinvention mission, the company would be run by a committee of thirteen lieutenants (the people reporting to Kalanick), not a good development, especially when you have to make decisions quickly, but since these are people who were all hand picked by Kalanick, and are therefore more likely to think alike than disagree, it may work. This morning's news story that Kalanick had quit as CEO does create some uncertainty about future direction, which will not be resolved until a new CEO is hired.
  • Susan Fowler, the author of the blog post that led Uber to their current woes, was an engineer at Uber and she indicates that Uber's actions resulted in female engineers fleeing the company, dropping from 25% to less than 3% of the engineering workforce.  There is the danger that Uber's environment is viewed as so toxic that engineers will refuse to work for the company and that could be devastating for the company. While I think that this will weigh, at least in the near term, on Uber's capacity to attract investors, there will be enough engineers who will still be swayed by the company's resources and the excitement of working on the next big thing in sharing economy.
  • The investors (venture capitalists and public investors) who seeded this company clearly have the most to lose (in potential profits) from the company imploding and the desire to preserve capital will lead them to do whatever needs to be done to save the company. Consequently, it is extremely unlikely that they will abandon their investments, just because of public outrage, or stop providing more capital to the firm, if the failure to do so is a complete loss in value. In fact, I believe that Kalanick's resignation today was prompted by investor pressure to move on; they have too much money at stake for them for them to let personal friendship or loyalty get in the way. That said, these investors play the pricing game and much of how investors will react will depend on what the pricing is for the next round of financing. If that happens at a price greater than the most recent round, all will be forgiven and investors will view this episode as a bump in the road to one of the most lucrative IPOs of all time. If not, and this is the biggest risk that Uber faces, you can see a shrinking story (and value) for the company.

The bottom line is that I don't see the events as story breaks. There is the possibility that it is a story change, but that new story cannot be told until we find out who will head the company. For the moment, my story for Uber is mostly unchanged from September 2016 with two shifts: there is now a change, albeit a small one (5%), that the company could fail and I believe that these events have increased the likelihood that Uber will have to follow a more conventional business path of treating drivers as employees (lowering target operating margins). The resulting valuation is below:
Download spreadsheet
The value that I attach to the operating assets stays at the $25 billion that I estimated in September 2015 and 2016, with the additional value of close to $11 billion coming from cash on hand and the Didi Chuxing stake.  Could the new CEO affect this value? Yes, and here is why. Uber's value requires that the company continue to be audacious in its reach for new markets, aggressive in challenging competition and willing to be dependent on new capital for growth. If, as some news stories suggest, Uber's directors are thinking of playing it safe and hiring a corporatist and a rule follower, you may need to reassess the story to a safer, smaller one, delivering less value. This is still a company that needs a visionary CEO, but one with a little more self-restraint than Travis Kalanick.  Good luck with that!

In Closing
My conclusion is that the Uber's value, notwithstanding the sturm und drang of the last week, is intact but at a number that is far lower than investors have priced it at recently. The effect of the last week may be to bring the pricers back to earth, by reminding investors that there is a long way to go for Uber to convert potential to profits. Prior to these news stories, Uber was a rule breaking company with a business model that delivered revenue growth but offered a very narrow path to profitability. After these news stories, the story remains the same but Uber has just made its narrow path even narrower and much rests on who will head the company on this path.

YouTube video

Blog Posts on Uber
  1. A Disruptive Cab Ride to Riches (June 2014)
  2. Possible, Plausible and Probable: Big Markets and Networking Effects (July 2014)
  3. Up, Up and Away: A Crowd Valuation of Uber (December 2014)
  4. On the Uber Rollercoaster: Narrative Tweaks, Twists and Turns (October 2015)
  5. The Ride Sharing Business: Is a Bar Mitzvah moment coming? (August 2016)
Uber valuation spreadsheets
  1. Uber valuation (June 2014)
  2. Uber valuation (September 2015)
  3. Uber valuation (August 2016)
  4. Uber valuation (June 2017)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Tale of Two Markets: Politics and Investing!

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.” That Charles Dickens opening to The Tale of Two Cities is an apt description of financial markets today. While disagreement among market participants has always been a feature of markets, seldom has there been such a divide between those who believe that we are on the verge of a massive correction and those who equally vehemently feel that this is the cusp of a new bull market, and between those who see unprecedented economic and policy uncertainty and market indicators that suggest the exact opposite. Is one side right and the other wrong? Is it possible that both sides are right? Or that both sides are wrong?

The Divergence
The investor divide is visible, and sometimes dramatically so, in almost every aspect of markets, from risk indicators to fund flows to consumer behavior.

1. Risk on? Risk off?
Do we live in risky or safe times? It depends on who you ask and what indicator to look at. Over the last two decades, the VIX (Volatility Index) has become a proxy for how much risk investors see in  equity markets and the graph below captures the movement of the index (and a similarly constructed index for European stocks) over much of that period:
VIX: S&P 500, Euro VIX: Euro Stoxx 50
Last year, the volatility measures in both the US and Europe not only took Brexit and the Trump election in stride but they have, in the months since the US presidential elections, continued their downward move, ending May 2017 at close to historic lows.
Lest you believe that this drop in volatility is restricted to stocks, you see similar patterns in other measures of risk including treasury yield volatility (shown in the graph) and in corporate bond volatility. This volatility swoon is also not restricted to the US, since measures of global volatility have also leveled off or decreased over the last few months. In fact, the volatility in currency movements has also dropped close to all-time lows. 

In sum, the market seems to be signaling a period of unusual stability. That is at odds with what we are reading about economic policies, where there is talk of major changes to the US tax code and trade policies, signaling a period of high volatility for global economies. The economic policy uncertainty index, is an index constructed by looking at news stories, CBO lists of temporary tax code provisions and disagreement among economic forecasters, has been sending a very different signal to the market than the market volatility indices:

In the months since the election, the indices have spiked multiple times, breaking through records set during the 2008 crisis. In short, we are either on the cusp of unprecedented stability (at least as measured with the market volatility indices) or explosive change (according to the economic policy indices).

2. Funds in? Funds out?
The ultimate measure of how comfortable investors feel about risk is whether they are putting money into stocks or taking them out and fund flows have historically been a good measure of that comfort. Put simply, if investors are wary and risk averse about an asset class or market, you should expect to see money flow out of that market and if they are sanguine, you should see money flow in. In the graph below, we look at fund flows into equity, bond and commodity funds, by month, from the start of 2016 to the April 2017:
Source: Investment Company Institute
More money has flowed into both equity and bond funds, on a monthly basis, since November 2016 than in the first ten months of 2016.  While the fund flow picture is consistent with the drop in volatility that you see across the market-based risk measures, there are discordant notes here as well. First, and perhaps least surprisingly, the perennial market bears have become even more bearish, with concerns about macroeconomic risk augmenting their long-standing concerns about stocks trading at high PE ratios. Second, there are big name investors who are cautioning that a market correction is around the corner, with Jeff Gundlach being the latest to argue that it is time to sell the S&P 500 and buy emerging market stocks. Finally, there is some evidence that money is leaving US stocks, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that money going into US stocks is at a 9-year low, while inflows into European stocks hit a five-year high.

3. Corporate and Business Behavior
Ultimately, risk does not come from market perceptions or newsletters but is reflected in consumer spending and business investment. On these dimensions as well, there is enough ammunition for both sides to see what they want to see. With consumer confidence, the trend lines are clear cut, with consumers becoming increasingly confident about both their current and future prospects:

That confidence, though, is not carrying through into consumer spending, where the numbers indicate more uncertainty about the future:

While consumer spending has increased since November, the rate of change has not accelerated from growth in prior years. You can see similar divergences between confidence and spending numbers at the business level, with business confidence up strongly since November 2016 but business investment not showing any significant acceleration.  In short, both consumers and businesses seem to be feeling better about future prospects but they don't seem willing to back up that confidence with spending.

The Diagnostics
So, how do we go about explaining these stark differences between different indicators? Has risk gone up or has it gone down in the last few months? Is money coming into stocks or is it leaving stocks? Why, if consumers and businesses are feeling better about the future, are they not spending and investing more? There are four possible explanations and they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe that all four contribute to the dichotomy.
  1. Markets have become inured to crises: The last decade has been one filled with crises, in different regions and with different origins, with each one described as the one that is going to tip markets into collapse. Each time, after the debris has cleared, markets have emerged resilient and sometimes stronger than they went in. It is possible that investors have learned to take these market shocks in stride. Like the boy who cried wolf, it is possible that market pundits are viewed by investors as prone to hysteria, and are being ignored.
  2. Disagreement about economic policy changes/effects: It is also possible that economic pundits and investors are parting ways on both the likelihood of economic policy shocks and/or the consequences. On economic policy changes, the skepticism on the part of investors can be explained by the fact that governments across the globe seem to be more interested in talking about making big changes than they are in making those changes. On the effects of changes, the logic that policy uncertainty leads to economic uncertainty which, in turn, causes market uncertainty is being put to the test as governments and central banks are discovering that policy changes, on everything from interest rates to tax rates, are having a much smaller impact on both economic growth and investor behavior than they used to, perhaps because of globalization. 
  3. Macro to Micro Risk: One of the residual effects of the 2008 crisis was an increase in correlation across stocks, with the proportion of risk attributable to market risk in individual stocks rising, relative to firm-specific risk, with that effect persisting into 2016.  Since November 2016, the correlation across stocks has dropped, as investors try to assess how new policies on taxes and infrastructure will help or hurt individual stocks.and this may explain the drop in the VIX, even as individual stocks are perhaps getting riskier.
  4. Politics first, analysis later: It is no secret that we live in partisan times, where almost every news story is viewed through political lens. Why should financial markets be immune from political partisanship? I have seen no research to back this up, but my very limited sampling of investor views (on politics and markets) indicates a convergence of the two in recent months. Put simply, Trump supporters are more likely to be bullish on stocks and confident about the future of the economy, and Trump opponents are more likely to be bearish about both stocks and the economy. Both sides see what they want to see in news stories and data releases and ignore that which does not advance their theses.
So, who is right here? I think that both sides have reasonable cases to make and both have their blind spots. On crisis weariness, it is true that market watchers have been guilty of hyping every crisis over the last decade, but it is also true that not all crises are benign and that one of them may very well be the next "big one". On economic policy changes and effects, I am inclined to side with those who feel that the powers of governments and central banks to guide economies is overstated but I also know that both entities can cause serious damage, if they pursue ill-thought through policies. On the political front, I won't tip my hand on my political affiliations but I believe that viewing economics and markets through political lens can be deadly for my portfolio. 

My Sanity Check:  Equity Risk Premiums
As you can see, it is easy to talk yourself on to the cliff or off the cliff but after all the talking is done, it remains just that, talk. So, I will fall back on a calculation that lets the numbers do the talking (rather than my biases) and that is my computation of the implied equity risk premium for US stocks. On June 1, 2017, as I have at the start of every month since September 2008 and every year going back to 1990, I backed out the rate of return that investors can expect to make on the S&P 500, given where it was trading at on that day (2411.8) and expected cash flows from dividends and buybacks on the index in the future (estimated from the cash flows in the most recent twelve months and consensus estimates of earnings growth over the next five years in earnings). Given the index level and cash flows on June 1, 2017, the expected annual return on stocks (the IRR of the cash flows) is 7.50%. Netting out the 10-year treasury bond rate (2.21%) on June 1 yields an implied equity risk premium of 5.29%.
Download spreadsheet
To put this in perspective, I have graphed out the implied equity risk premiums for the S&P 500, by year, going back to 1960.
Download historical data
To the extent that the equity risk premium is higher than median values over values over the 1960-2017 time period, you should feel comforted, but the market's weakest links are visible in this graphs as well. Much of the expansion in equity risk premiums in the last decade has been sustained by two forces.
  1. Low interest rates: If the US treasury bond rate was at its 2007 level of 4.5%, the implied equity risk premium on June 1, 2017, would have been 3%, dangerously close to all time lows. 
  2. High cash return: US companies have been returning immense amounts of cash in the form of buybacks over the last decade and it is the surge in the collective cash flow that pushes premiums up. As earnings at S&P 500 companies flattened and dropped in 2015 and 2016, you can argue that the current rate of cash return is not just unsustainable but also incompatible with the infrastructure-investment driven growth stories told by some market bulls.
The first half of 2017 delivered some good news and some bad news on this front. The good news is that notwithstanding rumors of Fed tightening, treasury bond rates dropped from 2.45% on January 1, 2017 to 2.21% on June 1, 2017, and S&P 500 companies reported much stronger earnings for the first quarter, up almost 17% from the first quarter of 2016. The bad news is that it seems a near certainty that Fed will hike the Fed Funds rate soon (though its impact on longer term rates is debatable) and that there is preliminary evidence that companies have slowed the pace of stock buybacks.  The bottom line, and this may disappoint those of you who were expecting a decisive market timing forecast, is that stocks are richly priced, relative to history, but not relative to alternative investments today. Paraphrasing Dickens, we could be on the verge of a sharp surge in stock prices or a sharp correction, entering an extended bull market or on the brink of a bear market, at the cusp of an economic boom or on the precipice of a bust. I will leave it to others who are much better than me at market timing to make these calls and continue to muddle along with my stock picking.

YouTube Video


  1. Implied Equity Risk Premium for S&P 500 - June 2017
  2. Historical ERP for S&P 500: 1961-2017

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A Valeant Update: Damaged Goods or Deeply Discounted Drug Company?

Rats get a bad rap for fleeing sinking ships. After all, given that survival is the strongest evolutionary impulse and that rats are not high up in the food chain, why would they not? That idiom, unfortunately, is what came to mind as I took another look at Valeant, the vessel in my investment portfolio that most closely resembles a sinking ship. This is a stock that I had little interest in, during its glory days as the ultimate value investing play, but that I took first a look at, after its precipitous fall from grace in November 2015. While I stayed away from it then, I bought it in May 2016 after it had dropped another 60% and I found it cheap enough to add to my portfolio. I then compounded my losses when I doubled my holding in October 2016, arguing that while it was, at best, an indifferently managed company in a poor business, it was under priced at $14 . With the stock trading at less than $12 (and down to $10.50, as I write this post) and its biggest investor/promoter abandoning it, there is no way that I can avert my eyes any longer from this train wreck. So, here I go!

Valeant: A Short (and Personal) History
I won't bore you by repeating (for a third time) the story of Valeant's fall from investment grace, which happened with stunning speed in 2015, as it went from value investing favorite to untouchable, in the matter of months. My first post, from November 2015, examined the company in the aftermath of the fall, as it was touted as a contrarian bet, trading at close to $90, down more than 50% in a few months. My belief then was that the company's business model, built on acquisitions, debt and drug repricing was broken and that the company, if it became a more conventional drug business company, with low growth driven by R&D, was worth $73 per share. I revisited Valeant in April 2016, after the company had gone through a series of additional setbacks, with many of its wounds self inflicted and reflecting either accounting or management misplays. At the time, with the updated information I had and staying with my story of Valeant transitioning to a boring drug company, with less attractive margins, I estimated a value per share of $44, above the stock price of $33 at the time. I bought my first batch of shares. In the months that followed, Valeant's woes continued, both in terms of operations and stock price. After it announced a revenue drop and a decline in income in an earnings report in November 2016, the stock hit $14 and I had no choice but to revisit it, with a fresh valuation. Adjusting the valuation for the new numbers (and a more pessimistic take on how long it would take for the company to make its way back to being a conventional, R&D-driven pharmaceutical company, I valued the shares at $32.50. That may have been hopeful thinking but I added to my holdings at around $14/share.

Valeant: Updating the Numbers
Since that valuation, not much has gone well for the company and its most recent earnings report suggests that its transition back to health is still hitting roadblocks. While talk of imminent default seems to have subsided, there seems to be overwhelming pessimism on the company's operating  prospects, at least in the near term. In its most recent earnings report, Valeant reported further deterioration in key numbers:
2016 10K2015 10K% Change
Revenues$9,674.00 $10,442.00 -7.35%
Operating income or EBIT$3,105.46 $4,550.38 -31.75%
Interest expense$1,836.00 $1,563.00 17.47%
Book value of equity$3,258.00 $6,029.00 -45.96%
Book value of debt$29,852.00 $31,104.00 -4.03%
Much as I would like to believe that this decline is short term and that the stock will come back, there is now a real chance that my story for Valeant, not an optimistic and uplifting story to begin with, is now broken. The company's growth strategy of acquiring other companies, using huge amounts of debt, raising prices on "under priced" drugs and paying as little in taxes as possible were perhaps legally defensible but they were ethically questionable and may have damaged its reputation and credibility so thoroughly that it is now unable to get back to normalcy. This can explain why the company has had so much trouble not only in getting its operations back on track but also why it has been unable to pivot to being a more traditional drug company. If researchers are leery about working in your R&D department, if every price increase you try to make faces scrutiny and push back and your credibility with markets is rock bottom, making the transition will be tough to do. It can also indirectly explain why Valeant may be having trouble selling some of its most lucrative assets, as potential buyers seem wary of the corporate taint and perhaps have lingering doubts about whether they can trust Valeant's numbers.

In fact, the one silver lining that may emerge from this experience is that I now have the perfect example to illustrate why being a business entity that violates the norms of good corporate behavior (even if their actions legal) can destroy value. At least in sectors like health care, where the government is a leading customer and predatory pricing can lead to more than just public shaming, the Valeant story should be a cautionary note for others in the sector who may be embarking on similar paths.

The Ackman Effect
You may find it strange that I would spend this much time talking about Valeant without mentioning what may seem to be the big story about the stock, which is that Bill Ackman, long the company's biggest investor and cheerleader and for much of the last two years, a powerful board member, has admitted defeat, selling the shares that Pershing Square (his investment vehicle) has held in Valeant for about $11 per share, representing a staggering loss of almost 90% on his investment. The reasons for my lack of response are similar to the ones that I voiced in this post, when I remained an Apple stockholders as Carl Icahn sold Apple and Warren Buffett bought the stock in April 2016. As an investor, I have to make my own judgments on whether a stock fits in my portfolio and following others (no matter how much regard I have for them) is me-too-ism, destined for failure.  

Don't get me wrong! I think Bill Ackman, notwithstanding his Valeant setbacks, is an accomplished investor whose wins outnumber his losses and when he takes a position (long or short) in a stock, I will check it out. That said, I did not buy Valeant because Ackman owned the stock and I am not selling, just because he sold. In fact, and this may seem like a stretch, it is possible that Ackman's presence in the company and the potential veto power that he might have been exercising over big decisions may have become more of an impediment than a help as the company tries to untangle itself from its past. I am not sure how well-sourced these stories are, but there are some that suggest that it was Ackman who was the obstacle to a Salix sale last year.

Valeant: Three Outcomes
As I see it, there are three paths that Valeant can take, going forward.
1. Going Concern: To value Valeant as a going concern, I revisited my valuation from November 2016 and made its pathway to stable drug company more rocky by assuming that revenues would continue to drop 2% a year and margins will stay depressed at 2016 levels for the next 5 years and that revenue growth will stay anemic (3% a year) after that, with a moderate improvement in margins. With those changes put in and leaving the likelihood that the company will not make it at 10% (since the company has made some headway in reducing debt), the value per share that I get is $13.68. 
To illustrate the uncertainty associated with this value estimate, I ran a simulation with my estimated distributions for revenue growth, margins and cost of capital and arrived at the following distribution of values.

The simulation confirms the base case intrinsic valuation, insofar as the median value of $13.31 is close to the price at the time of the valuation ($12) but it provides more information that may or may not tilt the investment decision. There is a clear chance that the equity could go to zero (about 12%), if the value dips below the outstanding debt ($29 billion). At the same time, there is significant upside, if the company can find a way to alter its trajectory and become a boring, low growth drug company.
2. Acquisition Target: It is a sign of desperation when as an investor, your best hope is that someone else will acquire your company and pay a premium for it. I am afraid that the Valeant taint so strong and its structure so opaque and complex that very few acquirers will want to buy the entire company. I see little chance of this bailing me out.
3. Sum of its parts, liquidated: It is true that Valeant has some valuable pieces in it, with Bausch & Lomb and Salix being the biggest prices. While neither business has attracted as much attention as Valeant had hoped, there are two reasons why. The first is that Ackman, with significant losses on the stock and a seat on the board, may have exercised some veto power over any potential sales. The second is that potential buyers may be scared away by Valeant's history. One solution, now that Ackman is no longer at the company, is for Valeant to open its books to potential acquirers and sell its assets individually to the best possible buyers. Note that this liquidation value will have to exceed $29 billion, the outstanding debt, for equity investors to generate any remaining cash.

There is one other macro concern that may make Valeant's future more thorny. As a company that pays a low effective tax rate and borrows lots of money, the proposed changes to the tax law (where the marginal tax rate is likely to be reduced and the tax savings from interest expenses curbed), Valeant will probably have to pay a much higher effective tax rate going forward, one reason why I have shifted to a 30% tax rate for the future.

The Bottom Line
Let's start with the easy judgment. This was not an investment that I should have made and much as I would like to blame macro forces, the company's management and Bill Ackman for my losses, this was my mistake. I was right in my initial post in concluding that the company's old business model (of acquiring growth with borrowed money and repricing drugs) was broken but I clearly underestimated how much damage that model has done to the company's reputation and how much work it will take for it to become a boring, drug company. In fact, it is possible that the damage is so severe, the company will not be able to make the adjustments necessary to survive as a going concern. 

So, now what? I cannot reverse the consequences of my original sin (of buying Valeant at $32) in April 2017 and the secondary sin (of doubling down, when Valeant was trading at $14) by selling now. The question then becomes a simple one. Would I buy Valeant at today's price? If the answer is yes, I should hold and if the answer is no, I should fold. My intrinsic value per share has dropped to just above where the stock is trading at now, and at this stage, my judgment is that, valued as a going concern, it would be trading slightly under value. In a strange way, Bill Ackman's exit is what tipped the scales for me, since it will give Valeant's management, if they are so inclined, the capacity to make the decisions that they may have been constrained from making before. In particular, if they recognize that this may be a clear case where the company is worth more as the sum of its liquidated parts than as a going concern, there is still a chance that I could reduce my losses on this investment. Note, though, that based on my numbers, I don't expect to make my original investment (which averages out to $21/share) back. I am not happy about that but sunk costs are sunk!

As I continue to hold Valeant, I am also aware that I might be committing one of investing's biggest sins, which is an aversion to admitting mistakes by selling losers. My discounted cash flow valuations may be an after-the-fact rationalizing of something that I don't want to do, i.e., sell a big loser. To counter this, I briefly considering selling the shares and rebuying them back immediately; that makes me admit my mistake and take my losses while restarting the investment process with a new buy, but the "wash sales" rule is an impediment to this cleansing exercise. The bottom line is that if I am holding on to Valeant, not for intrinsic value reasons (as I am trying to convince myself) but because I have an investing blind spot, I will be last one to know!

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Previous Posts on Valeant
  1. Checkmate or Stalemate: Valeant's Fall from Investing Grace (November 2015)
  2. Valeant: Information Vacuums, Management Credibility and Investment Value (April 2016)
  3. Faith, Feedback and Fear: The Valeant Test (November 2016)
  1. Valeant Valuation: March 2017