Sunday, August 30, 2009

Commodity companies and commodity dependent markets

My trip to Peru started me thinking about commodity based companies and markets and how best to value them. It is fairly obvious that the value of a commodity company will be a function of the price of the commodity. As oil prices go up and down, the prices of oil companies will vary. Embedded in this obvious relationship, though, are several interesting valuation issues:

a. What is the best way to forecast future commodity prices?
There are two basic approaches. One is to trust price cycles and look at average prices across time. Implicitly, we assume that commodity price cycles are pre-determined and that they will go through the same up and down cycles that they have historically (perhaps adjusted for inflation). The second is to look at the demand and supply of the commodity: arguing that higher demand from the growing Indian and Chinese economies will push up the price of oil is an example. I think there is some value in both approaches and perhaps a melding of the two will yield the most reasonable forecasts.

b. Should you bring commodity price views into the valuation of commodity companies?
Even if you have a view on commodity prices for the future, should you bring those views into the valuation of commodity companies? Put another way, if you believe that oil prices will double over the next 3 years, should you use those predicted prices in valuing oil companies. In my view, you should not. By bringing in macro views into micro valuations, you create composite estimates of value that reflect not only your views of the company being valued but also of the underlying commodity. (If you believe that oil prices will double over the next 2 years, almost every oil company you value will look cheap) As the user of your valuations, I would prefer that you be commodity price neutral when you value companies and offer your commodity views separately. That way I can decide which aspect of your forecasting - the macro or micro part - I think is of higher quality and worth following. What exactly does being price neutral mean? You do not have to assume that oil or gold prices will remain at today's level forever. You can use forward market rates but you cannot super impose your views on top of these.

c. How do you differentiate between commodity companies that hedge against commodity prices from companies that do not?
Some commodity companies hedge against commodity price volatility, and in the process, under cut investors who buy their shares to make a bet on the commodity. In general, I do not favor this type of hedging, with two caveats. If a commodity company is either highly levered or feels that is competitive advantages are at the operating level (finding the right place to explore for a resource... mining efficiencies), it may want to reduce it risk of default and increase the focus on its competitive advantages by hedging against commodity price risk.

In my latest edition of the Dark Side of Valuation, I have a chapter on valuing commodity and cyclical companies. I have modified the chapter to make it a down-loadable paper. If you are interested, you can get the paper by clicking on this link.
Paper on commodity and cyclical companies

Hope you find it useful!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Peru and Brazil

I just got back from my trip to Peru and Brazil. My first stop was Lima, and I had a blast. The people are friendly and hospitable, the weather is balmy and the food is extraordinary. While I have explored only a small sliver of the country, my impression of the Peruvian market is that it is commodity driven. As the price of copper and silver goes, so goes Peru's stock market. As a result, the market resembles a roller coaster. Peru has been among the best performing markets in recent years, as commodity prices have been on an up cycle. While I am not a pessimist by nature, it is inevitable that commodity prices will come down, and when they do, the market will reflect that fall. I hope that the Peruvian economy (and market) can use the surplus from the commodity boom to jump start other businesses - consumer products, technology or food (why not?).

I am more familiar with Brazil, this being my 15th trip to the country, and am always glad to see Rio (Sao Paulo, less so... the traffic drives me bonkers). I talked about the lessons that I have learned from the crisis for corporate finance and valuation. The presentation I used is available online on my website at:
Since this will be the genesis of my next book, your comments will be appreciated.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Emerging Markets... and maturity....

Sorry about the long hiatus between posts but I took family time off to go to California. I am three weeks away from a new semester starting but I am on my way to Peru and Brazil over the next few days to talk about valuation. I have never been to Peru before and am looking forward to seeing Lima for the first time. I have been to Brazil once or twice each year since 1998 and I am looking forward to this trip just as much.

While I will never know as much about Brazil as I would like to, I have had the opportunity to watch the market change over the last decade. While each emerging market is different, I think that some of the changes I have observed in Brazil are common across emerging markets, as they mature:

1. From Macro to Micro: When I did my first valuation seminar in Brazil for the first time in 1998, almost every question that I got during the seminar related to macro variables, with little or no attention paid to individual companies. If fact, we spent more time discussing inflation than we did discount rates, cash flows or terminal value. Coming off the hyperinflation of the previous decade, this focus was understandable and reflected the belief that if you were right about the macro variables, company-specific information mattered little. In recent years, attention has shifted more towards company characteristics, including managerial competence and the quality of investing and financing choices , a healthy development, in my view

2. Foreign to Local Currency: In the late 1990s, spilling over into the first half of the decade, almost every valuation I saw of a Brazilian company and much of the capital budgeting was done in US dollars. Not only was there a profound distrust of the local currency (Brazilian Reais) among analysts, but the Brazilian government and large Brazilian corporations seemed to share that distrust by issuing long term debt only in US dollars. Estimating a risk free rate in Brazilian Reais was an impossible exercise. It is only in the last few years that the resistance has broken down, with the Brazilian government issuing long term Reai bonds and valuations in local currencies.

3. Foreign to Domestic Investors: When I did my first few sessions in Brazil, appealing to foreign investors (especially US institutional investors) seemed to be the key priority for corporate treasurers and Brazilian investment banks. One measure of maturity has been the increasing focus on domestic investors in recent years, with foreign investors being viewed as icing on the cake.

Like any emerging market, there have been political and economic shocks along the way, but the sessions that I do in Brazil in a couple of days will resemble closely the sessions I do in New York or Frankfurt. To me, that is a healthy development. The value of an asset is a function of its cash flows, growth and risk and that lesson should not vary across markets. I will let you know how this Latin American jaunt goes...