Friday, March 23, 2012

Equity Risk Premiums: The 2012 Edition

As many of you who have been reading this blog for a while know, one of my obsessions is the equity risk premium. To me, it is the "number" that drives everything we do, while investing, and two events precipitated this post. The first was an article in the Economist on the topic, arguing that investors are expecting misreading the past and expecting higher returns from equities than they should. The second was the culmination of what has now become an annual ritual for me, which is updating my paper on equity risk premiums for the fifth year (I started in September 2008). You can download the paper by clicking here. For those of you who have no time for reading long tomes, I am going to try to summarize the paper in this post.

What is the equity risk premium? 
While it is always foolhardy to talk about "one" number encapsulating the stock market, I think the equity risk premium comes closest to meeting the requirements for such a number. The equity risk premium is the "extra return" that investors collectively demand for investing their money in stocks instead of holding it in a risk less or close to risk less investment. As a consequence, it reflects both their hopes and fears about stocks, rising as the fear factor increases.

Why does the equity risk premium matter?
The equity risk premium is used by almost everyone in finance, though it is often either taken as a given or used implicitly. Thus, a portfolio manager who decides to pull out of the stock market because she feels are stocks are over priced is telling you that she thinks that equity risk premiums will increase in the future. Investors who estimate the intrinsic value of assets or stocks are making explicit judgments about the equity risk premium (when they use DCF models) or implicit judgments (when they use book value or multiples). The costs of equity and capital that firms use to decide whether to invest in a project are built on equity risk premiums, as is all discounted cash flow valuation. Legislators and pension administrators decide how much to set aside to meet future pension obligations, based upon assessments of equity risk premiums.

What determines the equity risk premium?
Since the equity risk premium (ERP is a number for the entire stock market, it is determined by the overall characteristics of the investor population and macroeconomic factors. In particular:
a. The ERP should increase as investors become more risk averse and/or prefer current consumption more.
b. As uncertainty about economic growth, inflation and other macroeconomic variables increases, the ERP will rise.
c. Since investors are dependent upon the flow of information from firms (accounting or other), the ERP will rise as information becomes less reliable or less available.
d. The fear of catastrophe always hangs over equity investments and as that fear rises, the ERP will go up as well.
Since all of these factors can change over time, you should expect the equity risk premium to vary across time as well.

How do you measure the equity risk premium?
There are three broad approaches to estimating the equity risk premium and they can yield very different values:

  1. Surveys: You can ask investors or analysts what they think stocks will generate as returns in the future and net out the risk free rate from this value to get to a equity risk premium. For instance, Merrill Lynch surveys global portfolio managers and reports a survey premium of 4.08% in early 2012, i.e., portfolio managers expect stocks to earn 4.08% more than the risk free rate. A survey of CFOs by Harvey and Graham yields a 3.50% equity risk premium but another one by Fernandez yields higher numbers (5-5.5% for the US and higher values for emerging markets). I distrust survey premiums because they often represent hopes (more than expectations) and are more reflective of the past than the future.
  2. Historical premium: You can look at the past and estimate the premium you would have earned investing in stocks over a risk free investment. Thus, if you look at the 1928-2011 time period for the US, you would have earned an annual compounded return of 9.23% if you had invested in stocks, over this period, but an annual return of only 5.13%, investing in treasury bonds. The difference (4.10%) would be your historical risk premium. Even with historical data, you can get different numbers using different time periods, treasury bills instead of bonds as your risk free investment, and computing an arithmetic average instead of a compounded average. The values, for the US markets, range from 7.55% (arithmetic average premium for stocks over T.Bills from 1928-2011) to -3.61% (geometric average premiums for stocks versus T.Bonds from 2002-2011). Given the volatility in stock returns, you should be wary of equity risk premiums computed with less than 40 or 50 years of data (almost always the case with emerging markets) and be skeptical even when longer periods are used (the standard error, even with the 1928-2011 data, is about 2.36%). Implicitly, no matter which of these numbers you decide to use, you are assuming that the equity risk premium for the US market has not changed in any material fashion over the last century and that they will revert back to historical norms sooner or later.  If I had to use a historical risk premium, I would go with the 4.10%, since it is long term, a compounded average and over a long term risk free rate. However, I am much more uncomfortable with the assumption of mean reversion in the US market than I used to be. since, in my view, the structural shifts that have come out of globalization have changed the rules of the game. As a consequence, I no longer use historical premiums in either valuation or corporate finance.
  3. Implied premium: Just as you can compute a yield to maturity (a forward looking value) for a bond, based upon the price you pay and the expected cash flows on the bond (coupons and face value), you can compute an expected return on stocks, based upon the price you pay and the expected cash flows on stocks (dividends and buybacks). On January 1, 2012, for instance, with the S&P 500 at 1257.60, I estimated an expected return on stocks of about 7.88%, which yielded an equity risk premium of 6.01% over the treasury bond rate of 1.87% on that day. It is true that this premium is a function of my assumptions about expected cash flows in the future, but there are two reasons why I trust it more than the historical premium. First, it is forward looking since it is based upon expected cash flows in the future. Second, there is real money backing up this number, since it is based on what investors are paying for stocks today (rather than what they are saying). Third, the error on your estimate (arising from your errors on expected cash flows) will be far lower than the standard error on a historical risk premium. Given the dynamic and shifting price of risk that characterizes markets today, I think it makes sense to compute and use an updated implied equity risk premium in valuation and corporate finance.
The range of estimates we obtain for the equity risk premium from the different approaches is large but they should be judged based upon how well they perform in forecasting the future (both of equity risk premiums and actual stock returns)

Looking at the correlations, the implied equity risk premium performs best, yielding the best predictor of not only next year's equity risk premium but also of actual returns on stocks over the next decade. The historical premium performs worst, often moving in the wrong direction.

How is the equity risk premium related to risk premiums in other markets (bonds and real estate, for instance)? 
In the corporate bond market, the price of risk is measured with the default spread, i.e., the difference between the yield to maturity on a risky bond and the risk free rate at the time. Even in the real estate market, the capitalization rate operates as a measure of expected return and the difference between that rate and the risk free rate is a measure of the risk premium in real estate. In the figure below, we graph all three numbers (the implied equity risk premium, the default spread on a Baa rated bond and the cap rate premium for the US from 1980 to 2011.

Note that real estate behaves like a very different asset class in the 1980s, with the cap rate premium often in negative territory. This was the basis for the advice that many of us got in that period that investing in a house or real estate provided diversification benefits, especially if the bulk of our wealth was tied up in financial assets. Starting in the 1990s, real estate has begun to look more like a financial asset, a finding that hit home with many in the last few years, as housing prices collapsed just as stock prices and corporate bond prices declined. If these trend lines continue to hold, we may need to find a new asset class to get the benefits of diversification in the future.

It is also worth noting that when the risk premiums in the three asset classes diverge, it is a sign that one market or the other is in a bubble. Note that in early 2000, the equity risk premium dropped to almost the level of the Baa default spread, reflecting the dot com bubble. In the 2004-207 period, default spreads and the cap rat premium plummeted, relative to the ERP, reflecting the housing and credit market bubble in that period.

What is the "right" equity risk premium to use in corporate finance and valuation?
So, what is the risk risk premium to use in today's markets? The answer depends upon what you are trying to do.
  1. If you are making a judgment on asset allocation, i.e., the percent of your wealth that you want to invest in equities, bonds, real estate or other asset classes, you can bring your point of view into play. Thus, if you feel that the current implied premium of 6% is too high (low) and will thus come down (go up), you should invest more (less) in equities than you normally would (given your age, cash flow needs and risk aversion).
  2. If you are valuing companies or assets, you generally should stick close to the current implied premium, notwithstanding your views in the asset allocation component. The reason is simple. Using an equity risk premium that is significantly different from the current implied premium brings in a market view into your valuation and thus confounds your final conclusion. To illustrate, if you use a 4% equity risk premium to value a stock in January 2012, you are effectively assuming that the S&P 500 is undervalued by about 25%. As a consequence, if you find your stock to be cheap, based on the 4% ERP, it is not clear whether you did so because the stock is in fact cheap or because of your market views.
  3. If you are a business, using the ERP to estimate your costs of equity and capital, you have a little more leeway. You can use an average implied equity risk premium over time (it has been about 5% over the last decade) in your estimation, built on the premise that there is mean reversion even in implied premiums and that your projects are long term.
  4. If you are a legislator or pension fund administrator, you also have some leeway. If you do not want your contributions to the fund to be volatile, you should use the average implied equity risk premium as well.
Back to the Economist
I like the Economist, as a news magazine and as a commentator on financial issues, but I think that this article does not quite hold together. First, it starts with a premise that I investors who look at historical data are getting an estimate of the premium that is too high and that a sustainable long term expected return on stocks should be a sum of the dividend yield and the expected long term growth in dividends (which would yield a lower value). Fundamentally, I don't disagree with that notion but I think that the use of the dividend yield is far too narrow a measure of cash flow. Incorporating the additional cash that firms are generating into the yield (either by adding in buybacks or computing a potential dividend) does provide a much higher expected return for stocks. Second, it implies that using a high risk premium is an aggressive assumption, i.e., it leads to investors paying more for stocks than they should, but the opposite is true. If you demand a higher return on stocks, you will pay less for them today, thus pushing down stock prices, making it the conservative assumption to use. In fact, if we take the article's suggestion and build in a lower equity risk premium, you would be be pushing up stock prices today dramatically. 

As a general rule, I find that discussions about the equity risk premium are rife with misunderstanding about what it is, why it changes over time and how it affects investing/valuation. It would be far healthier for all concerned if analysts and investors were more explicit about why they use the equity risk premiums they do and what market views are at their basis. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Greg Smith on Goldman: An indictment of investment banking?

Greg Smith, the Goldman VP who resigned with a searing indictment of Goldman Sachs in the New York Times, has created quite a commotion. Predictably, the responses, which are understandably heated, have fallen into two extremes. On the one side are those who are predisposed to believe the worst about investment bankers and view this as vindication for their view that investment bankers are shallow, self serving and greedy. On the other are defenders of investment banking, who argue that this article states the obvious (that investment bankers are focused on making money) and that Greg Smith is a failed, middle level banker, having a midlife crisis.

I think I have the credentials to be on either side. On the one hand, many of my best and brightest students work at investment banks (including Goldman) and I teach training programs for both incoming analysts and associates at many of the investment banks. On the other hand, I have never been shy about critiquing investment banks for creating and marketing products that add little value or for providing self serving advice to some of their clients. In fact, I begin my corporate finance class with a clear statement that the class is not an "investment banking" corporate finance class but one that is structured around how businesses (who are the potential clients of investment banks) should make decisions. And I end the class, imploring students who do go into investment banking to preserve their options to abandon, if they find themselves unhappy with the grind or uncomfortable with the consequences of their actions.

Given that I have skin on both sides of the game, I want to look at the most troubling contention in Smith's piece, which is that Goldman Sachs bankers cared little about their clients and spoke about them with contempt. (To be honest, I am not sure what to make of "muppets" as an insult... I have always liked Kermit and have nothing but respect for Miss Piggy's self reliance...) After all, it is one thing to be cast as a ruthless money machine (a critique that has often been leveled at Goldman) and an entirely different one to be accused of ripping off your clients.

Do investment banks put their interests over the interests of their clients? I would not be surprised if they do, but before you are overcome by moral indignation, I would hasten to point out the following:
  1. The typical client of an investment bank is more likely to be a corporation, hedge fund or institutional investor than an individual. So what? These entities are not exactly shy about promoting their self interests and I will wager that, given a chance, they would not only exploit mistakes made by investment banks but also mistakes made by their own clients.
  2. The relationship between investment banks and their clients strikes me as mutually exploitative, and neither side can exist without the other's acquiescence. Let me use one example of the disfunction that is created as a consequence. There is strong evidence that many large M&A deals are value destructive for acquiring company's stockholders. While it is true the valuations from investment banks grease the wheels for these deals, it is also true that the managers of the acquiring firms are just as much to blame as investment bankers. Intent on spending stockholder money to gratify egos and build their corporate empires, these managers are less interested in honest advice from investment banks and more so in their deal-making prowess. In fact, I think that many corporations use investment banks as shields against having to take responsibility for bad decisions, with "It was not our fault, since the investment bank told us it was okay" becoming the post-failure refrain. 
Has this always been true? It was perhaps less so, four decades ago, when investment banks were almost all partnerships and catered to clients who did not shop around and stayed with their in-house banks. Before you become too nostalgic for the old times, remember that this was just as ruthless a world, where new competition was squashed quickly and becoming an investment banker was difficult to do, if you were not born into the right family, had the right connections or went to the right school.  The "old rich" were just as greedy as the "new rich" but they did do a better job of maintaining appearances. 

Rather than invoke the past or rail against the present, I would like to pinpoint at least three reasons why investment banks have become less client focused over time:

  1. Deal shopping: As Goldman gets excoriated for not being client focused, it is worth remembering that loyalty is a two-way street. In a world where clients play investment bankers off against each other, hoping to get the best deal for themselves, these same clients cannot point fingers at investment banks for playing the same game with them.
  2. Specialization: I do think that finance has become too specialized in both academia and practice, with experts and traders who know everything there is to know about narrower and narrower slices of finance or securitization. As a result, the people designing and trading new financial products/services have little sense of where these products fit into the larger scheme of things, and, as a consequence, when it makes sense to use them (or not use them).
  3. Compensation: I do not begrudge investment bankers their income or wealth, but I do think that investment banks have tied compensation too closely to deal making and trading success. By doing so, they have encouraged their employees to get the deal or trade done, often at a cost not only to clients but also to the investment banks in the longer term.
So, in case investment banks are interested in my advice on how to be more client focused, here is what I would suggest:

a. Hiring: Investment banks have always focused on hiring the best and the brightest and they should continue to do so. Some people, though, are better at seeing the big picture than others (think Magic Johnson on the basketball court or Joe Montana on the football field) and investment banks need to find more of these generalists to balance the specialists.

b. Incentives/ Compensation: Tie incentives and compensation more closely to maintaining long term client relationships and getting good deals/trades done. I know that this will be more difficult to do than the existing system, but it will healthier.

c. Clients/Customers: This may perhaps be the hardest part of the process, but investment bankers may need to be more picky about their customers, saying no to some, even at the expense of substantial profits. 

Not practical, you say! Well, someone has to start the ball rolling and that someone has to profitable and powerful enough to set the trend. Wait! I do have a nominee! How about Goldman Sachs? This may be the perfect time for the firm to announce a revamp of hiring and compensation structures and see if others follow. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Apple: Thoughts on bias, value, excess cash and dividends

Apple is hitting or is close to hitting two significant landmarks. Its market cap exceeded $ 500 billion yesterday (2/29) and its cash balance is at $ 100 billion. The twin news stories seem to have set investors, analysts and journalists on a feeding frenzy.  I think it is ironic that a company doing as well as Apple is right now, in terms of operations and stock price performance, is receiving this much unsolicited advice (split the stock, pay a dividend, buy back stock, do an acquisition, borrow money) on how it should fix itself. As we look at these prescriptions being offered to one of the healthiest companies in the market today, we should heed the Hippocratic oath, which is to do no harm.

I am biased
I have to start with a confession. It is impossible for me to be objective in my analysis of Apple and it is not just because the stock has done so well for me over the last decade. My first computer was a Mac 128K that I bought in the early 1980s and I have bought every Apple model since (even the ill fated Lisa and the not-so-great Powerbook Duo). Why should you care? One reason that the debate on Apple is so heated is that people have strong preconceptions about the company and those preconceptions drive their suggestions about what the company should do. As you read the rest of this assessment, you should recognize that my substantial positive bias towards Apple does affect my analysis. To structure my thoughts about what Apple should do, here is how I see the choices for the company:

Is Apple's cash hurting its stockholders?
The first and most critical question is whether Apple's cash holdings are doing harm to the stockholders. Let's dispense with the reasons that don't hold up to scrutiny:
1. Cash earns a low rate of return: It is true that Apple's cash balance earns a very low rate of return. It is, after all, invested in treasury bills, commercial paper and other investments that are liquid and close to risk less. It earns less than 1% but that is all it should earn, given the nature of the investments made. Put differently, cash is a neutral investment that neither helps nor hurts investors.
2. If that cash were paid out, investors in Apple could generate higher returns elsewhere: Perhaps, but only by investing in higher risk investments. Investors in Apple, who were concerned that Apple was investing so much in low return, low risk cash could have eliminated the problem, by buying the stock on margin. Borrowing roughly 20% of the stock price to buy Apple stock would have neutralized the cash balance effect and would have been a vastly more profitable strategy over the last decade than taking the cash out of Apple and searching for alternative investments.

So, what could be defensible reasons for worrying about cash? Here are a few:
1. The "low leverage" discount: The tax laws are tilted towards debt and Apple by accumulating $ 100 billion in cash, with no debt, is not utilizing debt's tax benefits.  In fact, the gargantuan cash balance gets in the way of even talking about the use of debt at the company; after all, why would you even consider borrowing at 2 or 3% interest rates, when you have that cash balance on hand?
My assessment: By my computation, Apple's optimal debt ratio is about 40-50% (download the spreadsheet to check it out yourself) and its current net debt ratio is -20% (using the cash balance of $ 100 billion as negative net debt). Given the risk of the business that Apple operates in, I would not let the debt ratio go higher than 20-30%. Their cost of capital currently is about 9.5% and it could drop to about 9% with the use of debt. That would translate into a value increase of $20-25 billion for the company, not insignificant but that is about a 5% value increase.

2. The naiveté discount: It is undeniable that legions of investors still use the short hand of a PE ratio, often estimated by looking at an industry average, applied to current or forward earnings to get a measure of whether a stock is cheap or expensive. In the process, they can significantly under value companies that have disproportionate amounts of cash. To see why, assume that the average trailing PE ratio for electronics/computer companies is 14 and that the average company in the sector has no cash. If you apply that PE ratio to Apple's net income or earnings per share, you are in effect applying it not only to the earnings from its operating assets (where it is merited) but also to its earnings from its cash balance (where you should be using a much higher PE ratio). Thus, you will come up with too low a value for Apple.
My assessment: I would be more inclined to go along with this argument if Apple's stock price had dropped 50% over the last few years. I find it difficult to believe that after the run up that you have seen in Apple's stock price, stockholders are under valuing the company. The counter, of course, is that the PE ratio for Apple, at 16 times trailing earnings or 13-14 times forward earnings, seems low and may reflect a naiveté discount.

3. The stupidity discount: In a post on Apple more than a year ago, I referred to what I called the stupidity discount, where stockholders discount cash in the hands of some companies because they worry about what the company might do with the cash. If investors are worried that the managers of a company will find a way to waste the cash (by taking bad investments, i.e., investments that earn less than the risk adjusted rate of return they should make), they will discount the cash.
My assessment: My personal assessment in January 2011 was that, as an Apple stockholder (which I have been for more than a decade), the company had earned my trust and that I was okay with them holding my cash. I am open to a reassessment and I think any disagreement boil down to the answer to the following question: Do you believe that Apple's success and strategy over the last decade was attributable to Steve Jobs or Apple's management? If you believe it was Steve Jobs, you are now in uncharted territory, with Tim Cook, a capable man no doubt, but capable men (and women) have wasted cash at other high profile companies. If you believe that Apple's management team was responsible for its success over the period, your argument is that nothing has really changed and that you see no need to change your views on the cash.

What if there is no discount?
If the cash balance is not hurting Apple's stockholders right now, the pressure to return the cash immediately is relieved. However, you still have a follow up question to answer. Does Apple see a possibility that it could find productive uses for the cash? While Jobs never broached that question and preserved plausible deniability, I am afraid that Tim Cook has conceded on this issue, when he said last week that Apple had more "cash than we need to run the company".

Bottom line: I am inclined to believe that Apple is not being punished right now for holding on to $100 billion in cash. However, I am more concerned than I was a year ago. While I had the conviction that Steve Jobs could never be pressured (by investors, portfolio managers or investment banks) to do something he did not want to do, I am not as sure about Tim Cook. Having seen how quickly markets can turn on high flying companies (Microsoft and Intel in the early part of the last decade come to mind), in the face of disappointment or a misstep, I am worried that Apple may be one misstep away from a discount being attached to cash. Given that even Tim Cook does not think that Apple needs this big a cash balance, I think that it is time that we ask the follow up question: what should Apple do with all this cash?

What should Apple do with the cash?
In the broadest sense, Apple can either invest the cash or return it to stockholders and it seems that even Apple does not believe in the first option. Investing the cash internally in more products and projects sounds like a great idea, given Apple's track record over the last decade. In 2011, for instance, the company generated a return on equity of 42% on its investments; if you net the cash out of book equity, the return on equity exceeds 100%. If Apple could invest the $100 billion in cash at 42%, that cash would be worth $350 billion, but put those dreams on hold, because it is not going to happen. First, that high return on equity can be traced back to the blockbuster products that Apple introduced in the last decade, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, and those are not easily replicable. Second, there are other constraints (people, technology, marketing, distribution, production) that essentially limit the number of internal projects that Apple can take.

How about a few acquisitions? I am sure that there are willing and eager bankers who will find target companies for Apple. The sorry history of value destruction that has historically accompanied acquisitions of large publicly traded companies leads me to believe that this path of action will provide justification for those who attached a stupidity discount in the first place. So, to those who are counseling Apple to buy Yahoo!, Pandora, Linkedin or go bigger, please go away!

If Apple cannot find internal projects of this magnitude and the odds are against value creation from acquisitions, the company has to return the cash to investors and there are three ways it can do this: initiate a regular dividend and tweak it over time, pay a large special dividend or buy back stock. In my view, there are four factors that come into play in making this choice:
  1. Urgency: A company with a large cash balance that has been targeted by an acquirer or activist investors has to return cash quickly, cutting out the regular dividend option. Apple's large market cap protects it from hostile takeovers and its stock price performance and profitability give it immunity from activist investors.
  2. Stockholder composition: When a company that has never paid a regular dividend initiates dividend payments, it attracts new investors, i.e., investors who need or like dividends, into the company. While this "investor expansion" has been used as an argument for regular dividends, I think it should actually be an argument against regular dividends. While some of my best friends are "dividend investors", I think that they are temperamentally and financially a bad fit for Apple, a immensely profitable company that also operates in a shifting, risky landscape. If Apple initiates a dividend, the demands for increases in those dividends in future years will come and the company will find itself locked into a dividend policy that it may or may not be able to afford. 
  3. Tax effects (for investors): The choice between dividends and stock buybacks is also affected by how investors in the company will be taxed as a result of the transaction. While both dividends and capital gains are still taxed at the same rate, that will change on January 1, 2013, when the tax rate on dividends reverts back to the ordinary tax rate (which could be 40% or higher). If Apple drags its feet into 2013, the choice becomes a simple one: buy back stock.
  4. Valuation of stock: Finally, there is the question of whether the stock in the company is under or over valued. A company, whose stock is over valued, should pay a special dividend since buying back  shares at the inflated price hurts the stockholders who remain after the buyback. While I am normally skeptical of the capacity of management to make judgments about the "fair" value of the stock, I decided to take my best shot at valuing Apple using an intrinsic valuation model. Using what I thought were reasonable assumptions (8% revenue growth for 5 years and a 30% target margin, both significantly lower than the numbers from recent years), I estimated a value of $716 $710 per share for Apple. You can download the spreadsheet that I used to make your own judgment. Once you have made your own estimates, please enter them in this shared Google spreadsheet. A buyback at the current price would provide a double whammy: a reduction in a "too large" cash balance and a buyback at a price lower than value. (Update: As many of you have rightly pointed out, a significant portion of the cash is trapped overseas and Apple will have to pay the differential tax rate (between the US marginal tax rate and the foreign tax rate already paid) when the cash is repatriated. I have added the trapped cash input into the excel spreadsheet and factored in the additional taxes.)
Closing thoughts
Apple should announce a substantial buy back, but it should use it do so on its terms. First, the buyback should leave Apple with enough of a cash balance (my guess is about $15-$20 billion) to invest in new businesses of products, should they open up. For the moment, I would avoid the debt route, even though Apple has debt capacity. Second, Apple should follow the Berkshire Hathaway rule book and set a cap on the buyback price. While Berkshire Hathaway's cap is set in terms of book value (less than 110% of book value), Apple should set its maximum as a function of earnings or cash flows (say, 16 times earnings). Third, Tim Cook should stop talking about whether Apple has too much cash and get back to business. Make the iPad 3 a success and lets see an iTV, an iAirline, a iUniversity and an iAutomobile (think of any product you use now that is badly designed or a  business that is badly run and think of how much better Apple could do...). Apple did not get to be the largest market cap company in the world by finessing its capital structure or optimizing dividend policy. It did so by taking great investments.