The earnings season is upon us once again, the quarterly rite of passage where companies report their earnings results, the numbers get measured up against expectations, expectations get reset and prices adjust. As an investor, I sometimes find the process unsettling, but as a market observer, I cannot think of a better Petri dish to illustrate both the magic of markets and the vagaries of human behavior. This earnings season has been among the violent, in terms of market reaction, in quite a few years, as tens of billions of dollars in market capitalization have been wiped out overnight in some high flyers. In order to get perspective during these volatile times, it helps me to go back to a contrast that I have drawn before between the pricing and value games and how they play out, especially around earnings reports.
Price versus Value: The Information Effect
In finance, we use the words price and value, as if they were interchangeable and I have sometimes been guilty of this sin. It is worth noting that price and value not only come from different processes and are determined by different variables, but can also yield different numbers for the same asset at the same point in time. I try to capture the difference in a picture:
The essence of value is that it comes from a company's fundamentals, i.e., its capacity to generate and grow cash flows; you can attempt to estimate that value using accounting numbers (book value) or intrinsic valuation (discounted cash flow). Fundamental information causes changes in a company's cash flows, growth or risk and by extension, will change its value. Pricing is a market process, where demand and supply intersect to produce a price. While that demand may be affected by fundamentals, it is more immediately a function of market mood/sentiment and incremental information about the company, sometimes about fundamentals and sometimes not.
In an earlier post, I drew a distinction between investors and traders, arguing that investing is about making judgments on value and letting the price process correct itself, and trading is about making judgments on future price movements, with value not being in play. While the line between fundamental and incremental information is where the biggest battles between investors and traders are fought, it is not an easy one to draw, partly because it is subjective and partly because there are wide variations within each group on making that assessment. For instance, consider Apple, a company followed closely by dozens of analysts, and its earnings report on January 26, 2016. The company beat earnings expectations, delivering the most profitable quarterly earnings in corporate history, but also sold fewer iPhones than expected; the company lost almost $30 billion in market capitalization in the immediate aftermath. An investor valuing the company based on dividends would conclude that it was an overreaction, since not only are dividends not under immediate threat but the cash balance of $200 billion plus should allow the company to maintain those dividends in the long term. A different investor whose valuation of the company was based on its operating cash flows might have viewed the same information as more consequential, especially since 65-70% of Apple's cash flows come from iPhones. A trader whose pricing of Apple is based on iPhone units sold would have drastically lowered the price for the stock, if his expectations for sales were unmet, but another trader whose pricing is based on earnings per share, would have been unaffected.
Earnings Reports: The Pricing and Value Reaction
While almost any story (rumor, corporate announcement) can be incremental information, it is quarterly earnings reports that keep the incremental information engine running, as revelations about what happened to a company in the most recent three-month period become the basis for reassessments of price and value.
Earnings Reports: The Pricing Game
The way traders react to earnings reports is, at least on the surface, uncomplicated. Investors form expectations about what an earnings report will contain, with analysts putting numbers on their expectations. The actual report is then measured up against expectations, and prices should rise if the actuals beat expectations and fall if they do not. The picture below captures this process, with potential complications thrown in.
While the game is about actual numbers and expectations, it remains an unpredictable one for three reasons. The first is that the price catalyst in the earnings report, i.e, whether the market reacts to surprises on management guidance, revenues, operating income or earnings per share, can not only vary across companies but across time for the same company. The second is that while analyst expectations are what we focus on and get reported, the market's expectations can be different. The third is that the effect on stock prices, for a given surprise (positive or negative) can be different for different companies and in different time periods.
- Price Catalyst: It is easy enough to say that if the actual numbers beat expectations, it is good news, but actual numbers on what? While earnings reports two decades ago might have been focused almost entirely on earnings per share, the range of variables that companies choose to report, and investors react to, has expanded to not only include items up the income statement, such as revenues and operating income, but also revenue drivers which can include units sold, number of users and subscribers, depending on the company in question. In the last decade, companies have also increasingly turned to providing guidance about key operating numbers in future quarters, which also get measured against expectations. Not surprisingly, therefore, most earnings reports yield a mixed bag, with some numbers beating expectations and some not. Thus, Apple's earnings report on January 26, 2016, delivered an earnings per share that was higher than expected but revenue and iPhone unit numbers that were lower than anticipated.
- Whose expectations? News stories about earnings reports, like this one, almost always conflate analyst estimates with market estimates, but that may not always be correct. It is true that analysts spend a great deal of their time working on, finessing and updating their forecasts for the next earnings report, but it is also true that most analysts bring very little new information into their forecasts, are overly dependent on companies for their news and are more followers than leaders. To the extent that companies play the earnings game well and are able to beat analyst forecasts most or even in all quarters, the market seems to build this behavior into a "whispered earnings" number, which incorporates that behavior.
- Effect of surprise: The market reaction to a surprise is also unpredictable, passing through what I call the market carnival or magic mirror, which can distort, expand or shrink effects, and three factors come into play in determining that image. The first is the company's history on on delivering expected earnings and providing guidance. Companies that have consistently delivered promised numbers and provided credible guidance tend to be cut more slack by markets that those that have a history of volatile numbers or stretching the truth. The second is the investor base acquired by the firm, with the mix of investors and traders determining the price response. On a pricing stock, it is traders who dominate the action and the market response is therefore usually more volatile, whereas on a value stock, it is investors who drive a more muted market reaction. The third has less to do with the company and more to do with the market mood. In a month like the last one, when fear is the dominant emotion, good news is oft overlooked or ignored, bad news is highlighted and magnified and the price reaction will tilt negative.
Earnings Reports: The Value Game
It is difficult to characterize the value game, precisely because it is played so differently by its many proponents. Some old-time value investors' concept of value is tied to dividends and other value investors are more open to expanding their measures of cash flows. To me, the one area where there should be agreement across investors is that every good intrinsic valuation should be backed by a narrative that not only provides structure to the numbers in the valuation, but also provides them with credibility. As I noted in this post from August 2014, it is this framework that I find most useful, when looking at earnings reports and I capture the "value" effect of earnings reports in this picture:
If you accept the notion that value changes when your narrative changes, the following propositions follow:
- An earnings report can cause big change in value: For an earnings report to significantly affect value, a key part or parts of the narrative have to be changed by an earnings report. This could be news that a company has entered and is growing strongly in a market that you had not expected it to be successful in or on the flip side, news that the market that you see it is in is smaller and/or growing less than anticipated.
- Big value changes are more likely in young companies: These significant shifts in value are more likely to occur with young companies than where business models are still in flux than with more established firms. Consequently, you should not be too quick in classifying a big price move on an earnings report as a market overreaction, especially with young firms like GoPro and Linkedin.
- There is more to an earnings report than the earnings per share: The relentless focus on earnings per share can sometimes distract investors from the real news in the earnings report which can be embedded in less publicized numbers on product breakdown, geographical growth or cost patterns.
If you believe, like I do, that investing requires you to constantly revisit and revalue the companies that you have or wish you to have in your portfolio, new earnings reports from these companies provide timely reminders that no valuation is timeless and no corporate narrative lasts forever.
The Rest of the Story
This post has gone on long enough, but it will be the first in a series that I hope to do around earnings reports, built around four topics.
- Make it real: In the first set of posts, I will be looking at a few companies that I have valued before. I will start by looking at two companies, dueling for the honor of being the largest market cap company in the world, Alphabet (Google) and Apple, seemingly on different trajectories at the moment. I will follow up with Amazon and Netflix, two firms that are revolutionizing the entertainment business and were among the very best stocks to invest in last year. In the third post, I will turn my attention to two social media mainstays, one of which (Facebook) has unlocked the profit potential of its user base and the other (Twitter) that has (at least so far) frittered away its advantages. In the final post, I plan to pay heed to two high flyers, GoPro and Linkedin, that have hit rough patches and lost large portions of their value, after recent earnings reports.
- The Players: In the second set of posts, I will first focus on investors and traders and how they might be able to play the earnings game to their advantage, often using the other side as foil. I will then examine how corporations can adapt to the earnings game and look at different strategies that they use for playing the game, with the pluses and minuses of each.
- The Government/Regulators/Society: In the final post, I will play a role that I am uncomfortable with, that of market regulator, and examine whether as regulator, there is a societal or economic benefit to trying to manage how and what companies report in their earnings reports and the investor reaction to these reports. In the process, I will look at the debate on whether the focus on delivering quarterly earnings diverts companies from a long term focus on value and how altering the rules of the game (with investor restrictions and tax laws) may make a difference.
Blog posts in this series
- A Violent Earnings Season: The Pricing and Value Games
- Race to the top: The Duel between Alphabet and Apple!
- The Disruptive Duo: Amazon and Netflix
- Management Matters: Facebook and Twitter
- Lazarus Rising or Icarus Falling? The GoPro and LinkedIn Question!
- Investor or Trader? Finding your place in the Value/Price Game! (Later this year)
- The Perfect Investor Base? Corporation and the Value/Price Game (Later this year)
- Taming the Market? Rules, Regulations and Restrictions (Later this year)