In my post from a couple of days ago, I valued Aramco at about $1.65 trillion, but I qualified that valuation by noting that this was the value before adjusting for regime change concerns. That comment seems to have been lost in the reading, and it is perhaps because (a) I made it at the end of the valuation and (b) because the adjustment I made for it seemed completely arbitrary, knocking off about 10% off the value. Since this is a issue that is increasingly relevant in a world, where political disruptions seem to be the order of the day in many parts of the world, I thought that a post dedicated to just regime changes and how they affect value might be in order, and Aramco would offer an exceptionally good lab experiment.
Going Concern and Truncation Risks
Risk is part and parcel of investing. That said, risk came come from many sources and not all risk is created equal, to investors. In fact, modern finance was born from the insight that for a diversified investor, it is only risk that you cannot diversify away, i.e., macroeconomic risk exposure, that affects value. In this section, I want to examine another stratification of risk into going concern and truncation risk that is talked about much less, but could matter even more to value.
DCF Valuation: A Going Concern Judgment
The intrinsic value of a company has always been a function of its expected cash flows, its growth and how risky the cash flows are, but in recent decades a combination of access to data and baby steps in bringing economic models into valuation has resulted in the development of discounted cashflow valuation as a tool to estimate intrinsic value. Put simply, the discounted cash flow value of an asset is:
Extended to a publicly traded company, with a potential life in perpetuity, this value can be written as:
If you are a reader of my posts, it should come as no mystery to you that I not only use DCF models to value companies, but that I believe that people under estimate how adaptable it is, usable in valuing everything from start ups to infrastructure projects. There is, however, one significant limitation with DCF models that neither its proponents nor its critics seem be aware of, and it needs to be addressed. Specifically, a DCF is an approach for valuing going concerns, and every aspect of it is built around that presumption. Thus, you estimate expected cash flows each year for the firm, as a going concern, and your discount rate reflects the risk that you see in the company as a going concern. In fact, it is this going concern assumption that allows us to assume that cash flows continue for the long term, sometimes forever, and attach a terminal value to these cash flows.
If you accept the premise that a DCF is a going concern value, you are probably wondering what other risks there may be in investing that are being missed in a DCF valuation. The risks that I believe are either ignored or incorrectly incorporated into value are truncation risks. The simplest way of illustrating the difference between going concern and truncation risks is by picking a year in your cash flow estimation, say year 3. With going concern risk, you are worried about the actual cash flows in year 3 being different from your expectations, but with truncation risk, you are worried about whether there will be a year 3 for your company.
So, what types of risk will fall into the truncation risk category? Looking at the corporate life cycle, you will see truncation risk become not just significant, but is perhaps the dominant risk that you worry about, age both ends of the life cycle. With start ups and young companies, it is survival risk that is front and center, given that approximately two thirds of start ups never make it to becoming viable businesses. With declining and aging companies, especially laden with debt, it is distress risk, where the company unable to meet its contractual obligations, shutters its doors and liquidates it assets. Looking at political risk, truncation risk can come in many forms, starting with nationalization risk, where a government takes over your business and pays you nothing in some cases and less than fair value in the rest, but extending to other expropriation risks, where you still are allowed to hold equity, but in a much less valuable concern.
Since truncation risk is more the rule than the exception, and it is the dominant risk in some companies, you would think that investors and analysts valuing these companies will have devised sensible ways of incorporating the risk, but you would be wrong.
- The most common approach to dealing with truncation risk is for analysts to hike up the discount rate, using the alluring argument that if there is more risk, you would demand a higher return. The problem, though, is that this higher discount rate still goes into a DCF where expected cash flows continue in perpetuity, creating an internal contradiction, where you increase the discount rate for truncation risk but you do nothing to the cash flows. In addition, the discount rate that these analysts use are made up, higher just for the sake of being higher, with no rationale for the adjustment. With venture capitalists, this shows up as absurdly high target rates of 40%, 50% or 60%, fiction in a world where these VCs actually deliver returns closer to 15-20%. Discount rates are blunt instruments and are incapable of carrying the burden of truncation risk, and should not be made to do so.
- Some analysts take the more sensible approach of scenario analysis, allowing for good and bad scenarios (including failure or nationalization) but never close the loop by attaching probabilities to the scenarios. Instead, they leave behind ranges for the value that are so wide as to be useless for decision making purposes.
Since you have probabilities for each outcome, you can compute an expected value. If you do this, you should expect to see discount rates for companies prone to failure (young start ups and declining firms) be drawn from the same distribution as that for healthy companies, but the adjustment for failure will be in the post-DCF adjustments. Put more simply, you should see 12-15% as costs of capital for even the riskiest start-ups, in a DCF, never 40-50%, but your post value adjustments for failure and its consequences will still take their toll.
The Aramco Valuation: Bringing in Truncation Risk
In my last post, I valued Aramco in a DCF, using three measures of cash flows from dividends to potential dividends to free cash flows to the firm and arrived at values that were surprisingly close to each other, centered around $1.65 trillion, for the equity. Note, though, that these are going concern values, and reflect the expectation that while there may be year to year changes in cash flows, as oil prices changes, management recalibrate and the government tweaks tax and royalty rates, the company will be a going concern and that it will not suffer catastrophic damage to its core asset of low-cost oil reserves. For many investors in Aramco, the prime concern may be less on these fronts and more on whether the House of Saud, as the backer of the promises that Aramco is making its investors, will survive intact for the next few decades.
DCF Valuation: Going Concern Risk
Reviewing my discounted cash flow valuations of Aramco, you will notice that I began with a risk free rate in US dollars, because my currency choice was that currency. I then adjusted for risk, using a beta for Aramco, based upon REITs/royalty trusts for the promised dividend model and integrated oil companies for the potential dividends/free cash flow models, and an equity risk premium for Saudi Arabia of only 6.23%, with a country risk premium of 0.79% estimated for the country added to the mature market premium estimated for the US. The end result is that I had costs of equity ranging from 4.82% for promised dividends to 8.15% for cash flows.
The biggest push back I have had on my valuations is that the cost of equity seems low for a country like Saudi Arabia, and my response is that you are right, if you consider all of the risk in investing in a Saudi equity. However, much of the risk that you are contemplating in Saudi Arabia is political risk, or put more bluntly, the risk of regime change in the country, that could have dramatic effects on value. In fact, if you remove that risk from consideration and look at the remaining risk, Aramco is a remarkably safe investment, with the safety coming from its access to huge oil reserves and mind-boggling profits and cash flows. The DCF values that I have estimated, centered around $1.65 trillion, are therefore values before adjusting for the risk of regime change.
Regime Change Concerns
If you invest in Aramco, you clearly have an interests in who rules and runs the country, since every aspect of your valuation is dependent on that assumption. If the House of Saud continues to rule, I believe that the company will be the cash cow that I project it to be in my DCF and the values that I estimated hold. If the Arab spring comes to Riyadh and there is a regime change, the foundations of my value can either crack or be completely swept away, with cash flows, growth and risk all up for re-estimation. In fact, to complete my valuation, I need to bring both the probability of regime change and the consequences into my final valuation:
Consider the most extreme case. If you believe that regime change in imminent and certain, and that the change will be extreme (with equity being expropriated and Aramco being brought back entirely into the hands of the state), my expected value for equity becomes zero:
If at the other extreme, you either believe that regime change will never happen, or even if it does, the new regime will not want to hurt the goose that lays the golden eggs and leaves existing terms in place, the value effect of considering regime change will be zero. The truth lies between the extremes, though where it lies is open for debate. I believe that there remains a non-trivial chance (perhaps as high as 20%) that there will be a regime change over the long term and that if there is one, there will be changes that reduce, but not extinguish, my claim, as an equity investor, on the cash flows.
That, in an entirely subjective nutshell, is why I think Aramco's equity value is closer to $1.5 trillion than $1.7 trillion. As with all my other valuations, I understand that your judgments on Aramco will be different from mine, but I think that the disagreements we have are not so much on the going concern estimates of cash flows and risk but on the likelihood and consequences of regime change.
Democracies versus Autocracies
I am not a political scientist, but I have always been fascinated by the question of how political structure and economic value are intertwined. Specifically, would you attach more value to a company or project operating in a democracy or in an autocracy? The approach that I have described in this post to deal with going concern and regime change risk allows me one way of trying too answer the question.
- Democracies are messy institutions, where governments change and policies morph, because voters change their minds. Put simply, a democracy generally cannot offer any business iron clad guarantees about regulations not changing or tax rates remaining stable, because the government that offers those promises first has to get them approved by legislatures, often can be checked by legal institutions and, most critically, can be voted out of office. Consequently, companies operating in democracies will always complain more about the rules constantly changing, and how those changing rules affect cash flows, growth and risk.
- Autocracies offer more stability, since autocrats don't have to get policies approved by legislators, often are unchecked by legal institutions and don't have to worry about how their decision poll with voters. Companies operating in autocracies can be promise rules that are fixed, regulations that don't change and tax rates that will stay constant. The catch, though, is that autocracies seldom transition smoothly, and when change comes, it is often unexpected and wrenching.
In valuation terms, democracies create more going concern risk and autocracies create more worries about regime change. The former will show up as higher discount rates in a DCF valuation and the latter as post-DCF adjustments. While I prefer democracies to autocracies, there is no way, a priori, that you can argue that democracies are always better than autocracies or vice versa, at least when it comes to value, and here is why:
- The going concern risk that is added by being in a democracy will depend on how the democracy works. If you have a democracy, where the opposing parties tend to agree on basic economic principles and disagree on the margins, the going concern risk added will be small. In the United States, in the second half of the last century, both parties (Republicans and Democrats) agreed on the fundamentals of the economy, though one party may have been more favorable on some issues, for business, and less favorable on other issues. In contrast, if you have a democracy, where governments are unstable and the opposing parties have widely different views on the very fundamentals of how an economy should be structured, the effect on going concern risk will be much higher.
- The regime change risk in an autocracy will vary in how the autocracy is structured and how transitions happen. Autocracies structured around a person are inherently more unstable than autocracies built around a party or ideology, and transitions are more likely to be violent if the military is involved in regime change, in either direction. In addition, violent regime changes feed on themselves, with memories of past violent meted out to a group driving the violence that it metes out, when its turn comes.
In summary, when you are trying to decide on whether a business is worth more in a democracy than in a dictatorship, you are being asked to trade off more continuous, going concern risk in the former for the more stable environment of the latter, but with more discontinuous risk. I have deliberately stayed away from using specific country examples in this section, because this argument is more emotion than intellect, but you can fill your own contrasts of countries, and make your own judgments.
I have often described valuation as a craft, where mastery is an elusive goal and the key to getting better is working at doing more valuation. I am glad that I valued Aramco, because it is an unconventional investment, a company where I have to worry more about political risks than economic ones. The techniques I develop on Aramco will serve me well, not only when I value Latin American companies, as that continent seems to be entering one of its phases of disquiet, but when I value developed market companies, as Europe and the US seem to be developing emerging market traits.