Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Value and Pricing of Cash: Why low interest rates & large cash balances skew PE ratios

For an asset that should be easy to value and analyze, cash has been in the news a lot in the last few months, both when it has been returned (in buybacks especially) and also when it has been accumulated either domestically or offshore. Since companies have always returned cash and held cash balances, you may wonder why these stories are news worthy but I think that the cash is under the spotlight because of a convergence of factors, including the rise of technology companies in the market cap ranks, a tax law in the US that is increasingly a global outlier, and low interest rates.

Accounting for, Valuing, and Pricing Cash
I start my valuation class with a simple exercise. I hold up an envelope with a $20 bill in it (which everyone in the class has seen me put into the envelope) and ask people how much they would pay for the envelope.  While some find this exercise to be absurd, it does bring home a very simple rule, which is that valuing cash should not require complicated valuation models or the use of multiples. Unfortunately, I see this rule broken on a daily basis as investors mishandle cash in companies, both in intrinsic valuation and pricing models.

To illustrate the divide between risky assets and cash, assume that you are trying to value a software company, with a cash balance (which is invested in liquid, riskless or close-to-riskless investments) of $200 million. Let's assume that the accounting income statement & balance sheet for the company looks as follows:

If you believe the accounting balance sheet, this company is half software and half cash but that is misleading for two reasons. The first is that assets on accounting balance sheets are not marked to market and can remain at low values, even as their earnings power rises. The second is that accounting rules (absurdly) treat R&D, the biggest capital expenditure at technology firms, as operating expenses, which then results in those assets never showing up on the balance sheet. The ripple effects of understating the book value of equity can be seen in the high returns on equity that I report for the firm.

Having established that book-value cash ratios will be skewed by the changing composition of the market, let's turn to the question of valuing this company. For simplicity, let's assume that the cost of equity for investing in the software business is 10% and that the expected growth in income from software is 2% in perpetuity. If we assume that the company can maintain its existing return on equity of 36% on its new investments in perpetuity, the value of the software business is:

  • Expected net income from software = $72 million
  • Expected reinvestment to generate growth = 2%/36% = 5.56%
  • Value of Software business = 72 (1-.0556)/ (.10-.02) = $850 million
The cash is invested in liquid, riskless investments earning 2% (pre-tax). The fact that cash earns a low rate of return does not make it a bad investment, because that low rate of return is what you should expect to make on a short-term, riskfree investment. If you decide to do an intrinsic valuation of the income from cash, you should discount the income at the risk free rate:
  • Expected pre-tax income from cash = $ 200 (.02) = $4 million
  • Cost of equity = Riskfree rate = 2%
  • Value of equity = 4/.02 = $200 million
The intrinsic value balance sheet for this company is shown below:
Note that the software business is now worth a lot more than it was in the accounting balance sheet but that cash value remains unchanged. The value of equity on the balance sheet is an intrinsic equity value.

In pricing, the tool used in comparisons is usually a multiple and the most commonly used multiple is the PE ratio. To set the table for that discussion, I have restated the intrinsic value balance sheet in the form of PE ratios for the software business, cash and equity overall.

The PE ratios for software and cash are computed by dividing the intrinsic values of each one by the after income generated by each. The PE ratio for cash can be simplified and stated as a function of the risk free rate and tax rate:
The PE ratio for cash is much higher than the PE for software (11.81) and it is pushing up the PE ratio for equity in the company to 14.11. Put differently, if the stock is priced based on its intrinsic value, it should trade at a PE ratio of 14.11.

How will bringing in debt into this process change the game? Let's assume that you borrowed $300 million and bought back stock in this company, while leaving the existing cash balance unchanged. Reducing your market cap by roughly $300 million will augment the effect of cash on PE and make the non-cash PE ratio even lower.

Cash Balances and PE: Determinants
In the market, we observe the PE ratios for equity in companies, and those PE ratios will be affected by both how much cash the company holds and the interest rate it earns on that cash.  To the extent that cash balances (as a percent of value) vary across time, across sectors and across companies, the conclusions we draw from looking at PE ratios can be skewed by these variations. To observe how much of an impact the cash holdings have on the observed PE ratio for a company, I varied the cash balance in my software company from 0% to 50% of the intrinsic value of the company; at 50%, the cash balance is $850 million and is equal to the value of the software business. The PE ratio for equity in the company is shown in the graph below, with the cash effect on PE highlighted:

The effect of holding cash is accentuated when the interest rate earned on cash, which should be a short term risk free (or close to risk free) rate, is low relative to the cost of equity. In the table below, I highlight the interest rate effect, by holding the cost of equity fixed at 8% and varying the risk free rate from 1% to 5%:
Thus, a cash balance that amounts to 20% of firm value will push PE ratios from 15.38, when the short-term, risk free rate is 1% and to only 14.08, when it is 5%.

It is true that companies with global operations are accumulating some of their cash overseas to avoid US taxes. Bringing in trapped cash into this process is easy to do and requires you to separate cash balances into domestic and trapped cash; the biggest problem that you face is getting that information, since most companies are not explicit about the division. While the domestic cash balance is its stated value, the trapped cash will see its value reduced by the expected tax liability that will be incurred when the cash is repatriated (which will require assumptions about when that will be and what the differential tax rate paid on repatriation will amount to.)

The US Market: PE and Cash
At this point in this discourse, you may be wondering why we should care, since companies in the US have always held cash and had to earn close to a short-term risk free rate on that cash. That is true but we live in uncommon times, where risk free rates have dropped and corporate cash holdings are high, as is evidenced in this graph that looks at cash as a percent of firm value (market value of equity+ total debt) for US companies, in the aggregate, from 1962 to 2015 and the one-year treasury bill rate (as a proxy for short term, risk free rates):
Data from Compustat & FRED: Computed across all money-making companies
With short-term risk free rates hovering around zero and cash balances close to historical highs, you would expect the cash effect on PE to be more pronounced now than in the past. To measure this effect, I computed PE ratios and non-cash PE ratios each year for US companies, using the following equations:

The interest income from cash was estimated using the average cash balance during the course of the year and average one-year T.Bill rate for that year. In the graph below, I look at the paths of both measures of PE from 1962 through 2014. Note that while while both series move in the same direction, the divergence has become larger since 2008; in 2014, the non-cash PE was almost 30% lower than the conventional PE.

Update: The PE effect is large, especially in the last five years. It is perhaps being exaggerated by the inclusion of financial service firms in the sample, since cash and short term investments at these firms can be huge and are really not comparable to cash holdings at other companies. If you remove them from the sample, the cash effect does get smaller. Rather than pick and choose which data I will report, I have included the year-by-year averages for the US for four sets of data: all companies, only non-financial service companies, all money-making companies and all non-financial money-making companies in this link

I know that the talk of a bubble gets louder each day, and while there may be legitimate reasons to worry about the level of stock prices, those who base their bubble arguments entirely on PE ratios (normalized, adjusted, current) may need to revisit their numbers. All of the versions of the PE will be "pushed up" by the cash holdings of US companies and the low interest rate environment that we live in.

Sector Differences in Cash and PE
Cash balances have varied not only across time but they are also different across sectors and within sectors, across companies. Consequently, comparing PE across sectors or even across companies within a sector, without adjusting for cash, can be dangerous, biasing you away from companies with large cash balances (which will look expensive on an unadjusted PE) and especially so during periods of low interest rates.

In the first part of the analysis, I estimated cash as a percent of firm value, PE ratios and non-cash PE for each sector in 2014. (I eliminated financial service companies from my sample, since I am not sure that I can categorize cash as a non-operating asset for these companies). While all of the industry averages can be downloaded at the link below, the sectors where the cash effect on PE was greatest are listed below:

In the second part of the analysis, I computed the cash effect on PE for individual companies and then looked at the distribution of this cash effect across all companies:

It delivers the message that there is no simple rule of thumb that will work across all companies or even across companies within a sector.

Perhaps, the best way to check out the effect of cash on PE is to pick a company and take it through the cleansing process, a very simple one that requires relatively few inputs. Use this spreadsheet to try it on your favorite (or not-so-favorite) company.

Rules for dealing with cash
In an investing world full of complications, simple measures like PE retain their hold because they are easy to compute and easy to work with. However, there is a price that we sometimes pay for this simplicity, and in periods like this one, where interest rates are at historic lows, we may need to reassess how we use these measures to compare companies. In particular, I think we have to separate companies into their cash and operating parts, and deal with the two separately, because they are so different in terms of risk and earnings power. Thus, it we are using multiples, enterprise value multiples will work better than equity multiples, and with equity multiples, non-cash versions (where the cash is stripped from market capitalization and net income is cleansed of the cash effect) will be more reliable than cash versions. This will also mean that the time honored way of estimating PE, i.e., dividing the market price today by the earnings per share, will have to be replaced by an approach where we use use aggregated market value, cash and earnings, rather than per share numbers. 


  1. Intrinsic value of cash and operating assets (to back up example in post)
  2. PE Cleanser (to compute non-cash PE for a company)


  1. Cash and non-cash PE ratios by year: All US companies
  2. Cash and non-cash PE ratios by sector in 2014

Monday, May 25, 2015

No Light at the end of the Tunnel: Investing in Bad Businesses

I am a cynic when it comes to both CEOs and equity research analysts. I think that many CEOs are political animals, bereft of vision and masters at using strategic double-speak to say absolutely nothing. I also believe that many equity research analysts are creatures of mood and momentum, more market followers than leaders. Once in while, though, my cynicism is upended by a thoughtful CEO or a well-done equity research report and even more infrequently by both happening at the same time, as was the case in this recent interplay between Sergio Marchionne, Fiat Chrysler's CEO, and Max Warburton, the auto analyst at Sanford Bernstein.

The CEO/Analyst Exchange on Fiat Chrysler
Sergio Marchionne is an unusual chief executive, a man who is not afraid to talk the language of investors and is open about the problems confronting not only his company, but also the entire automobile business. While he has been arguing that case for a while, sometimes in public and sometimes with other auto company executives, he crystallized it in a presentation he made in an analyst conference call, titled "Confessions of a Capital Junkie". In the presentation, he argues that the auto business has not generated its return on capital over its last cycle and that without significant structural changes, it will continue to under perform. He then diagnoses the reason for the under performance as over investment in R&D and capital costs, with companies duplicating each other's efforts. He concludes with the remedy of consolidation, where with mergers and joint ventures, companies could co-operate and reduce their capital costs, and asks analysts and investors in auto companies to apply pressure for change. Mr. Marchionne's pitch was unusual was two reasons.  First, how many CEOs admit that their businesses have gone bad and that fundamental change is needed in how they are run? Second, it is unusual for a CEO to ask investors to become more activist and push for change, since most CEOs prefer a pliant and forgiving shareholder base.

Max Warburton, Bernstein's auto analyst who was at the conference, responded by asking "“Do you think the German [car manufacturers] have any interest in what we say?', arguing that investors and analysts were powerless to push for change. In an extended analyst report, Mr. Warburton went further, making the point that shareholders are way down the list of priorities for the typical auto company, and especially so in Europe and Asia. 

As I said at the start, this is the type of exchange between CEOs and analysts that you hope to see more of, and I agree with both Mr. Marchionne and Mr. Warburton on some aspects and disagree on others. I agree with both men that the auto business has been in trouble for a while and I made this point earlier in my post on GM buybacks. However, I don't think that the problem is one of duplication of expenses and that the answer is the consolidation of companies, as argued by Mr. Marchionne, and here is why. For consolidation to generate higher profits at auto companies, they will have to ensure that they don't  pass the cost savings on to customers by cutting car prices, and nothing in the behavior of the auto industry in the last decade leads me to believe that they are capable of this concerted action. I agree with Mr. Warburton that the auto business is not shareholder-focused and that institutional forces (governments, unions) will make it difficult for investors to be heard. While there are investors in the market who will continue to supply capital at favorable terms to this business, sensible investors are under no obligation to play this game. Abandoning the auto business is not feasible if you are the auto analyst at Sanford Bernstein, but it is a viable option for the rest of us, at least until prices reflect the quality of these businesses. This debate also raises interesting fundamental questions that I hope to examine in the rest of the post, including how we categorize businesses into good and bad ones, why businesses become bad, why companies continue to operate and sometime expand in bad businesses and why investors may still seek to put their money in these companies.

What is a bad business?
If Mr. Marchionne's point is that the automobile business is a bad one, it is worth starting this discussion with the question of what it is that make a business a bad one. At an extremely simplistic level, you can argue that a bad business is one where many or most companies lose money, but that definition would encompass young sectors (social media, biotechnology) that tend to lose money early in the life cycle. It also would imply that any sector that collectively makes profits is a good one, which would not make sense, if the sector has huge amounts of capital invested in it. Thus, any good definition of business quality has to look at not only how much money a company makes but how much it needs to make, given its risk and the capital invested in that business. In corporate finance, we try, to capture this by looking at both sides of the equation:

While there are some business (banks, investment banks and other financial service companies), where the equity comparison is more useful, in most businesses, it is the comparison on a overall capital basis that carries more weight. If you accept the proposition that the return on invested capital measures the quality of a company’s investment and the cost of capital is the hurdle rate that you need to earn, given its risk, the spread between the two becomes a snapshot of the capacity of the company to generate value.

Why a snapshot? If the return on invested capital is estimated, as it usually is, using the operating income that the company generated in the most recent time period and the cost of capital reflects the expected return, given the risk free rate and equity risk premium in that period, it is also possible that looking at a single period can give you a misleading sense of whether the company in question is generating value. With cyclical and commodity companies, in particular, where earnings tend to move through cycles, a good case can be made that we should be looking at earnings over a cycle and not just the most recent year. Finally, the return on invested capital is an accounting number and is hence handicapped by all the limitations of accounting principles & rules, a point I made in this long, torturous examination of accounting returnsIf you bring the two strands of discussion together, there are two levels at which a sector has to fail to be called a “bad” business.
  1. Collective, weighted under performance: Most companies in the sector should be earning returns on their invested capital that are less than the cost of capital, not just a few, and the aggregate return on capital earned by a sector has to lag the cost of capital.
  2. Consistent under performance: These excess returns (return on capital minus cost of capital) should be negative over many time periods.
  3. No delayed payoff: There are some infrastructure businesses that require extended periods of large investment and negative excess returns, before they pay off in profitability.
In my post on GM, I made the case that the automobile business was a bad one, using these two metrics. Collectively, the distribution of returns on capital across global automobile companies in 2014 looked as follows:

If you look at the return on capital across time for the auto industry, you see the same phenomenon play out.

It should come as no surprise that I agree with Mr. Marchionne that the auto business is a bad one and with Mr. Warburton that the companies in this business are in denial. The bad news for investors is that the auto business is not alone in this hall of shame. I computed returns on capital, costs of capital and excess returns for all non-financial US companies, by year from 2005 to 2014, and then looked for the sectors that delivered a negative excess return on average during the decade, while also generating in excess returns in at least 5 of the 10 years:
Raw data from Capital IQ with my estimates of costs of capital by year
Some of the businesses on this list have a good reason for being on the list and perhaps can be cut some slack. For instance, the green and renewable energy business has delivered negative excess returns both in the aggregate and in every year for the last decade, but in its defense, it may be a business that needs time to mature. The real estate sector is well represented on this list, with REITs, homebuilding, building materials and real estate operations & development all making the list with negative excess returns. An optimist may argue that the last decade created the perfect storm for real estate, unlikely to be repeated in the near future, and that these businesses will return to adding value in the future. There are some surprises, with entertainment software, wireless telecom and broadcasting all making the list, suggesting that you can have bad businesses that are growing. Finally, there were 169 companies that were classified as diversified, and their excess returns were negative every year for the entire decade, making a strong argument that many of these companies would be better off broken up into constituent parts. It is true that the returns on capital in this table were computed using standard accounting measures of operating income and debt, and I recomputed them, with leases capitalized as debt to derive the following table:
Operating Income and Invested Capital, adjusted for leases treated as debt
The list looks almost identical to the unadjusted excess return rankings, though the excess returns for restaurants, retailers and other larger lessees became much smaller with the adjustment and airlines make the worst business list, once you consider leases as debt.

How do businesses go bad?
So, why do businesses go bad? There are a number of reasons that can be pointed to, some rooted in sector aging, some in competition, some in business disruption and some in delusions about growth and profitability.
  1. The Life Cycle: I have used the corporate life cycle repeatedly in my posts as an anchor in trying to explains shifts in capital structure, dividend policy and valuation challenges. It is a useful device for explaining why some sectors fail to deliver returns that meet their costs of capital. In particular, as sectors age, their returns seem to drift down and if the sector goes into decline, with revenues stagnant or falling, companies are hard pressed to generate their costs of capital. At the other end of the life cycle, young sectors that require large infrastructure investments often deliver extended periods of negative excess returns.
  2. Competitive Changes: A business can be changed fundamentally if the competitive landscape changes. This can happen in many ways. A legal barrier to competition (patents, exclusive licenses) can be removed, opening up existing companies to price competition and lower margins. Globalization has played a role as well, as companies that used to generate excess returns with little effort in protected domestic markets find themselves at a disadvantage, relative to foreign competitors. 
  3. Disruption: Disruption is the catchword in strategy and in Silicon Valley, and while it is often hyped and over used, technology has disrupted established businesses. Uber and its counterparts are laying to waste the taxi business in many cities and Amazon has changed the retail business beyond recognition, driving many of its brick and mortar competitors out of business.
  4. Macro Delusion: While all of the above can be used to explain why an old business can become a bad one, there are new businesses that sometimes never make it off the ground, even though they are launched in markets with significant growth potential. One reason is what I have termed the macro delusion, where the sum of the dreams and forecasts of individual companies
Why do companies stay in bad businesses?
If you are a company that finds itself in a  bad business, there are four options to consider. The first is to exit the business, extracting as much of your capital you can to invest in other businesses or return to the suppliers of capital. While this may seem like the most logical choice (at least from a capital allocation standpoint), there is a catch. It is unlikely that you will be able to get your original capital back on exit, because buyers will have reassessed the value of your assets, based on their diminished earnings power. Consider, for instance, a company that generates a 3% return on capital on invested capital of $1 billion and assume that its cost of capital is 6%. If a sale of the assets or business will deliver less than $500 million, the best option for the company is to continue to operate in the bad business. The second is to retrench or shrink the business, by not reinvesting back into the business and returning cash from operations back to stockholders (as dividends or buybacks). That was the rationale that I used in supporting the GM buyback. The third is to continue to run the business the way you used to when the business was a good one, hoping (and praying) that things turn around. That seems to be the response of most in the auto business and explains the cold shoulder that they gave to Mr. Marchionne's prescription (of consolidation). The last is to aggressively attack a bad business, with the intent of changing its characteristics, to make it a good one. This is a strategy, with the potential for high returns if you do succeed, but with low odds of success. Not surprisingly, it is the strategy that appeals the most to CEOs who want to burnish their reputations and it one reason that I posited that my returns on my Yahoo! investment would be inversely proportional to Marissa Mayer's ambitions.

Of the four strategies, the one that is least defensible is to the third one (doing nothing), but that seems to be most common strategy adopted by companies in bad businesses and I can think of four reasons why it continues to dominate. The first is inertia, where managers are unwilling or unable to change their learned behavior, with the resistance become greater, if they have long tenure in the business. The second is poor corporate governance, where those who run firms view shareholders as just another stakeholder group and view costs of capital as abstractions rather than as opportunity costs. The third are institutional factors which can conspire to preserve the status quo, because there are benefits derived by others (labor unions, governments) from that status quo.  The final factor is behavioral, where the easiest path for managers, when faced with fundamental changes in their businesses, is to do nothing and hope that the problem resolves itself. 

Why do investors invest in these companies?
If it is difficult to explain why companies choose to stay and sometimes grow in bad businesses, it is far easier to explain why investors may invest in these companies. At the right price, any company, no matter how bad its business, is a good investment, just as at the wrong price, any company, no matter how good its business, is a bad investment. To decide whether to invest in a company in a bad business, investors have to value these companies and there are challenges. The first is that with these companies, growth is almost always more likely to destroy value than to increase it. Consequently, the value of these companies is maximized as they minimize reinvestment, shrink their businesses and liquidate themselves over time. The second problem is that while designing a valuation model that allows for a shrinking company is easy enough to do, the value that you get is operational only if management in the company does not undercut you, by aggressively seeking out growth with expensive reinvestment. I present responses to these problems in this paper.

As a passive investor, you have to accept your powerlessness over management and build, into your expectations, what you believe that the management will do in terms of investment, financing and dividend policy, no matter how irrational or value destroying those actions may be. As an activist investor, though, you may be able to force managers to reassess the way they run the company. It should come as no surprise that the classic targets of activist investors tend to be companies in bad business that are run by managers in denial. Finally, while the debate about corporate governance has atrophied into one about director independence, corporate governance scores and CEO pay, the real costs of poor corporate governance are felt most intensely in companies that operate in bad businesses, where without the threat of shareholder activism, managers often behave in irrational, value-destructive ways.

Closing Thoughts
As I look at the excess returns generated by companies in different sectors, I am struck by how little margin for error there seem to in many businesses, with excess returns hovering around zero. If we attach large values to the disruptors of existing businesses, consistency requires us to reassess the values of the disrupted companies. Thus, if we are bidding up the values of Tesla,  Uber and Google (driverless cars) because they might disrupt the automotive business, does it not stand to reason that we should be bidding down (at least collectively) the values of Volkswagen, Ford and Toyota? More generally, we seem to be more willing to anoint the winners from disruption than we are in identifying and repricing the losers.

  1. Industry averages excess returns, by year: 2005-2014
  2. Industry average costs of capital: US
  3. Industry average cost of capital: Global