Friday, October 11, 2019

IPO Lessons for Public Market Investors

This year, I have found myself returning repeatedly to the IPO well, as high profile companies have chosen to go public, and like a moth to a flame, I have been drawn to value them. There was much enthusiasm at the start of 2019 that this would be a blockbuster year for IPOs, not just for the companies going public, but also for public market investors who would now get a chance to own pieces of companies which had made venture capitalists and private market investors rich, at least on paper. While many of these companies, with the exception of WeWork, have gone public and raised large amounts of capital, many of the new listings have disappointed in the after market. The WeWork fiasco, while creating vast collateral damage, has also created healthy discussions about how venture capitalists price private companies and whether public market investors should base their pricing of the latest VC rounds, whether the IPO process itself is in need of a change, what the share count that we should be using in computing market capitalization at these young companies and whether investors should even enter this space, where uncertainty abounds and cash burn is more the rule than the exception.

An 2019 IPO Pricing Retrospective
It is estimated that nearly 200 companies will go public this year, an increase of about 5% over last year's 190 IPOs, but still well below the 547 companies that went public in 1999. The first half of the year was a good one for investors in these IPOs, but investors have soured on these companies in the last few months. One way to measure the performance of these young companies in the after market is to look at how the Renaissance IPO ETF, a fund that tracks larger initial public offerings and weights them based upon free float, has done over the course of the year:

Since the fund tracks IPOs for 500 trading days after the listing date, it is not quite a clean measure of this year's IPOs, but it is a good proxy. Notwithstanding all of the negative press you may have read about IPOs in the last few weeks, and third quarter damage, the Renaissance ETF IPO has outperformed the market over the course of this year.

To take a closer look at a subset of these IPOs, I focused on seven of the offerings this year - Uber, Lyft, Pinterest, Slack, Levi Strauss, Peloton and Beyond Meat - and looked the performance of each of these stocks since the opening trade on the offering date:

To compare the performance of these offerings, I standardized performance by looking at how much $100 invested in each stock at the open price on the first trading day would have done, in periods ranging from a day to the year to date:

I have tracked the returns that investors would have earned if they had invested at the offer price and at the open price on the first trading day. Note first that five of the seven stocks registered a jump in excess of 20%, comparing the open price to the offer price, when they started trading. Looking at the returns in the year to date, the outlier is Beyond Meat, on an almost unbelievable run from its offer price, but of the remaining six stocks, only Pinterest has gone up, relative to it first trade price. Uber, Lyft and Slack have been awful investments, though if you had received Slack shares at the offer price, the pain would be more bearable. Even Levi Strauss, not a young or a tech company, has seen rough going in the months since its initial public offering. Peloton has been listed only ten trading days, but it has to hope that the worst is behind it.  What does this all mean? First, in spite of recent setbacks, investors in IPOs collectively have done reasonably well over the course of the year, but only if they spread their bets. Second, in the midst of this good news, some of the most hyped IPOs have had difficulty gaining traction, and since these companies attract the most attention from investors and the financial press, they are contributing to the perception that investing in IPOs has been a loser's game this year.
   IPO Lessons for Public Market Investors
In my post on the Peloton IPO, I opined on how venture capitalists price companies and how the pressures that they have put on companies to scale up quickly, often without paying heed to building good business models, is playing out. In this one, I would like to look at the public market side of the IPO process, again looking for common threads.

1. It stays a pricing game
At the risk of repeating myself, the price of an asset and its value are determined by different forces and estimated using different tools. and while they may be good estimates of each other in an efficient market, they can diverge, creating both opportunities and dangers for investors:

It is not just venture capitalists that play the pricing game. Most public market investors do as well, and this is particularly true when companies first go public for three reasons:
  1. The IPO process: The IPO process is one of gauging demand and supply and setting a price based on that assessment, not estimating the value of businesses. It is the job of the bankers managing the process is to make this judgment, usually based upon the responses they get from their investor clientele. Thus, it should be not surprising that the bulk of the backing for an offering price comes from finding a pricing metric (revenue multiple, user value etc.) and relevant comparable firms (a subjectively judgment). 
  2. Self Selection: The players who get drawn into the IPO game tend to be those with shorter time horizons who feel that their strength is in riding momentum, when it exists, and detecting shifts, before the rest of the market does. In short, the IPO market is built for traders, not investors.
  3. Type of companies: Most initial public offerings tend to be of firms that are younger and often  less formed than their more seasoned public counterparts. Consequently, more of their value lies in the future and there is more uncertainty in assessing numbers, leading investors to abandon these stocks, claiming that there is too much uncertainty, giving pricing almost all of the stage.
So what if the IPO market is a pricing game? First, trying to use value tools (like DCF) or fundamentals to explain IPO pricing, and what causes these prices to move on a day-to-day basis in the after market is a recipe for frustration. The nature of the pricing game is that mood and momentum can not only cause these companies to be priced at numbers very different from value, but also cause price movements on trivial, perhaps even irrelevant, news stories. Second, playing the momentum game is akin to riding on the back of a tiger, with the danger being that you will be consumed, if the game shifts. Take a look at Beyond Meat's price movements over the course of this year, since its IPO, and you can see how quickly momentum can shift in a stock, and the decisive effects it has on pricing.

2. On a shaky base
In the pricing game, you estimate how much to pay for a company by looking at how similar companies are being priced by the market, usually scaling price to a common metric like earnings, book value or revenues, as well as its own pricing history. With initial public offerings, this process gets more difficult for two reasons:
  1. Peer Group Framing: With most public companies, a combination of the company's operating history and market learning leads to a consensus on what its peer group should be, for pricing purposes. Thus, when pricing Coca Cola or Adobe, investors tend to agree more than they disagree about what companies to put into the peer group for comparison. For many IPOs, especially built around new business models and practices, there is much more confusion about what grouping to put the company into. Not surprisingly, the IPOs try to influence this choice by framing themselves as being in businesses that will deliver a higher pricing, explaining why almost every one of them likes to use the word "tech" in its description.
  2. Past Pricing History: Unlike publicly traded companies, where there is a market price history, the only price history that you have with IPOs is from prior VC rounds. To understand this may be problematic, let me focus on the seven IPOs I highlighted in the last section and provide information on the private investor funding of each, leading into the IPO:
    Note three problems with using this information as a basis for public market pricing. First, in most cases, the pricing for the company is extrapolated from a small VC investment. With Lyft, for instance, the estimated pricing of $14.5 billion from the most recent round was extrapolated from an investment of $600 million for the company for a 4.1% share of the company. Second, this problem is worsened by the fact that VC investors can and usually do negotiate for post-investment protections, when they invest. For instance, ratchets allow VCs to adjust their ownership stake in a company upwards, if a subsequent funding round is based upon a lower pricing for the company. In effect, VCs are being provided with options, and as I noted in this post on unicorns, the presence of these additional features makes simplistic extrapolation to pricing from a VC investment almost impossible to do. Third, even if the pricing is correctly extrapolated from the last VC investment, all you need is one over optimistic venture capitalist to push the pricing beyond reasonable bounds. In the case of WeWork, it can be argued that much of the surge in pricing in the company came from Softbank's continued investments in the company and not a reflection of consensus among venture capitalists.
In the traditional IPO model, where investment bankers form a syndicate to sell the shares at a pre-set offer price, it can be argued that the primary service that bankers provide, if they do their job well, is to use their access to public investors to fine tune the pricing. This year's experiences with Peloton and Uber, where the stock price dropped on the offer day, and with WeWork, where the pricing estimates imploded to the point of imperiling the public offering, has led some founders and venture capitalists to question whether it is worth hiring bankers in the first place. 

3. With an unstable share count
We all know the process for estimating market capitalization for a firm, and it involves taking the stock price and multiplying by the number of shares outstanding. For most publicly listed firms, that calculation should yield a value fairly close to the truth, but IPOs are different for two reasons. First, an overwhelming number in recent years have had two classes of shares (sometimes three) with different voting rights and being sloppy and missing an entire share class will cause devastating errors in computation. Second, most of these companies are young and cash-poor, and they have chosen to compensate employees with equity, either in the form of restricted shares and options. The way in which investors and analysts deal with these employee equity claims ranges from the abysmal to the barely acceptable, again with significant consequences. Let's take the Peloton case, where the company in its final prospectus listed itself as having 41.8 million class A shares, with lower voting rights, and 235.9 million class B shares, with higher voting rights, after its IPO, yielding a total share count of 277.7 million shares. That is the share count that has been used by journalists in writing about the offering and by most of the data services since, in estimating the implied pricing of $8.1 billion for the company, at the offer price of $29. That is patently untrue, and the reason is in the same prospectus, where Peloton states that "the number of shares..... does not include:
  • 64,602,124 shares of our Class B common stock issuable upon the exercise of options to purchase shares of our Class B common stock  outstanding as of June 30, 2019, with a weighted-average exercise price of $6.71 per share; 
  • 883,550 shares of our Class B common stock issuable upon the exercise of options to purchase shares of our Class B common stock  granted between June 30, 2019 and September 10, 2019 with a weighted-average exercise price of $23.40 per share; 
  • 240,000 shares of our Class B common stock issuable upon the exercise of a warrant to purchase Class B common stock outstanding as  of June 30, 2019, with an exercise price of $0.19 per share;"
Focus on just the first bullet, where Peloton admits that there 64.6 million options, with an exercise price of $6.71. Given that the offer price was $29/share and the open price was $27, is there any doubt that at some point in time, sooner rather than later, these options will get exercised and become shares? In fact, in what universe can you ignore these options in estimating market capitalization? The reason this practice can lead to dangerous mis-pricing is simple. Let's assume that the Peloton bankers came to the conclusion that $8.1 billion was a reasonable value to attach to its equity, based upon past VC rounds and peer group pricing. To get to an offer price, they cannot divide that number by just the shares outstanding (277.7 million), since that will treat the options as worthless. In my valuation of Peloton, I did what I think should always be done, which is to value the options as options, which allows me to include at-the-money and out-of-the-money options, as well as time value, net that option value from my equity value and then divide by the 277.7 million shares.  If you find option pricing models too opaque, here is a simpler way to get to value per share from the estimated equity value:
Thus, if the Reuters story quoted above is correct in its judgment that the bankers wanted to price Peloton at $8.1 billion, the estimated offer price per share, counting only the 64.6 million additional options would have been:
Alternatively, it is possible that this was a journalistic error in extrapolation and that the bankers took options into account and meant to price it at $29/share, in which case the implied market capitalization for Peloton at the $29 offer price, using the exercise proceeds short cut, would have been:
Implied Market Cap at $29/share = 277.7 * $29 + 64.6* ($29 - 6.71) = $9.5 billion
To see why this matters, any enterprise value or pricing multiple that you compute for Peloton should be based upon the $9.5 billion estimate, not the $8.1 billion, if the stock was trading at $29. I think that we are generally sloppy in market capitalization calculations, but that sloppiness has much bigger consequences with IPOs. So, as investors, we should follow the Russian adage of "trust, but verify", when it comes to share count.

4. And a Bar Mitzvah Moment waiting!
At this stage, I don't blame you if you are puzzled by how I approach IPOs. As soon as an IPO is announced, I use the prospectus to value the company, but I just confessed earlier that the IPO market, at listing and in the periods afterwards, is a pricing game, not a value game. So, why bother with a DCF in the first place?
  • If your intent is to trade IPOs, you should not care about value, but mine is different. I consider myself an investor, not a trader, not because it is a more noble calling but because I am a terrible trader. 
  • As an investor, I have faith that when investing in equity in a business, there will eventually a reckoning, where price converges on value. I use the word "faith" because there is no mechanism that guarantees this convergence.
Young companies that go public are often adept at playing the pricing game, delivering more users, subscribers or revenues, if that is what the pricing gods want, and their stock prices often continue to rise, even though their fundamentals don't merit it. It is my belief that each of these companies will face what I call a "Bar Mitzvah" moment, where the market, hitherto focused on magical metrics, asks the company about its pathway to profitability. As I look back over time, the very best of these companies, and I would include Facebook, Google and Amazon in this grouping, are ready for this moment, since they have been building viable business models, even as they delivered on market metrics. Many of these young companies, though, seem unready for this question, and the market punishes them, as was the case with Twitter in 2014.

Go where it is darkest!
Even if you accept my proposition that price eventually converges to value, if you subscribe to old time value investing, you are probably wondering why I would want to try to put my money at risk, investing in these young companies, when it is so much easier to value mature companies like Philip Morris and Coca Cola. I don't disagree with you on your premise that there is a great deal more uncertainty in valuing Uber than in valuing Coca Cola, but I believe that the payoff to imprecisely valuing Uber is greater than the payoff to precisely valuing Coca Cola. After all, what made Coca Cola easy for you to value also makes it easy for other investors to do as well, and the uncertainty that scares you with Uber is scaring most investors away from even trying. It is for that reason that I value companies at the time of their public offerings, and repeatedly thereafter, hoping that I am able to get in at the right price. Here are my estimates of value for the companies on my list at the time of the IPO, with updates on both value and price as trading has continued:

Levi StraussLyftPinterestBeyond MeatUberSlackPeloton
IPO Value $24.23 $58.78 $25.08 $46.88 $32.91 $20.59 $19.35
IPO Offer Price$17.00 $72.00 $19.00 $25.00 $45.00 $26.00 $29.00
IPO Open Price$22.22 $87.33 $23.75 $46.00 $42.00 $38.50 $27.17
% Difference-8.30%48.57%-5.30%-1.88%27.62%86.98%40.41%

Updated Value$26.59 $54.38 $26.17 $47.41 $35.42 $23.95$19.35
Price on 8/10/19$18.96 $38.66 $25.63 $142.73 $29.28 $25.70 $23.21
% Difference-28.69%-28.91%-2.06%201.05%-17.33%5.59%19.95%
SpreadsheetDownload Download Download Download Download Download Download 

At the time of the offering, relative to the open price, only Levi Strauss looked mildly under valued, Beyond Meat was at close to fair value and the other companies all looked over valued. Since the offering, each of these companies has released earnings reports and I updated the treasury bond rates and equity risk premiums in all of the valuations. With Uber and Lyft, the added perturbation comes from legislation passed by the state of California, requiring that drivers be treated as employees, an assumption that I had already built into my valuation, but one that seemed to catch the market by surprise. Incorporating the price changes at all of the companies, and reflecting my updated valuation stories for the companies, Levi Strauss has become more under valued, Uber and Lyft have moved from being over to under valued, Slack and Peloton have converged on value and Beyond Meat has become significantly overvalued. 
  1. Levi Strauss's most recent earnings report was not well received by the market, with the stock dropping 1.1% to $18.96. I see its fundamentals justifying a higher value and I bought shares at $18.96.
  2. I have gone back and forth on whether to buy Uber, Lyft or both. Lyft looks more under valued, but Uber offers more upside, given its global ambitions. In addition, I prefer Uber's single class of shares to Lyft's multiple voting right classes, and these factors tilted me to buying the latter at $30/share. 
  3. Slack and Pinterest are getting close to fair value as their prices have drifted down and Peloton has become less over valued but still has room to fall. For the moment, I will add these companies to my watch list, and track their pricing.
  4. With my story for Beyond Meat, I find the price almost unreachable with any story that I craft, and while this was the same conclusion that I drew a few months ago, this time, I tried shorting the stock at $142, but was unable to get my trade through. I fell back on buying put options at a 120 strike price, expiring on December 20, 2019, paying a mind-bending time premium for a two-month option. While the stock has been resistant to the laws of gravity (or value) for must of its listed life, I believe that there are two things that have changed that make this a good time to make this short term intrinsic value bet. One is the listing of Impossible Foods gives investors not just another way of making a macro bet on veganism, but also an easy comparison on pricing. The other is the decision by Beyond Meat to issue 3.25 million shares a few weeks ago, with 3 million shares coming from insiders, suggests that the firm itself may think its stock is over priced.
Some of my bets will go wrong, and if they do, I am also sure that some of you will point them out to me, and I am okay with that. That said, I hope that you make your own judgments on these companies, and you are welcome to use my spreadsheets (linked both above and below) and change the inputs that you disagree with, if that helps.

YouTube Video

Valuation Spreadsheets

  1. Levi Strauss (October 8, 2019)
  2. Lyft (October 8, 2019)
  3. Pinterest (October 8, 2019)
  4. Beyond Meat (October 8, 2019)
  5. Uber (October 8, 2019)
  6. Slack (October 8, 2019)
  7. Peloton (September 28, 2019)

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

US Equities: Resilient Force or Case Study in Denial?

As readers of this blog know, I don't write much about whether stocks collectively are over or under priced, other than my usual start of the year posts about markets or in response to market crisis. There are two reasons. The first is that there is nothing new or insightful that I can bring to overall market analysis, and I generally find most market punditry, including my own, to be more a hindrance than a help, when it comes to investing. The second is that I am a terrible market timer, and having learned that lesson, try as best as I can to steer away from prognosticating about future market direction. That said, as markets test their highs, talk of market bubbles has moved back to the front pages, and I think it is time that we have this debate again, though I have a sense that we are revisiting old arguments.

Who are you going to believe?
One reason that investors are conflicted and confused about what is coming next is because there is are clearly political and economic storms that are on the horizon, and there seems to be no consensus on what those storms will mean for markets. The US equity market itself has been resilient, taking bad macroeconomic and political news in stride, and a bad day, week or month seems to be followed by a strong one, often leaving the market unchanged but investors wrung out. Investors themselves seem to be split down the middle, with the optimists winning out in one period and the pessimists in the next one. One measure of investor skittishness is stock price variability, most easily measured with the VIX, a forward-looking estimate of market volatility:

Here again, the market's message seems to be at odds with the stories that we read about investor uncertainty, with the VIX levels, at least on average, unchanged from prior years. If you follow the market and macroeconomic experts either in print or on the screen, they seem for the most part either terrified or befuddled, with many seeing darkness wherever they look. As in the Christmas Carol, the ghosts of market gurus from past crises have risen, convinced that their skill in calling the last correction provides special insight on this market. In the process, many of them are showing that their success in  market timing was more luck than skill, often revealing astonishing levels of ignorance about instruments and markets. (At the risk of upsetting those of you who believe these gurus, GE is not Enron and index funds are not responsible for creating market bubbles...)

Stock Market - Bubble or not a bubble? Point and Counter Point!
Why do so many people, some of whom have solid market pedigrees and even Nobel prizes, believe that markets are in a bubble? The two most common explanations, in my view, reflect a trust in mean reversion, i.e., that markets revert back to historic norms. The third one is a more subtle one about winners and losers in today's economy, and requires a more serious debate about how economies and markets are evolving. The final argument requires that you believe that powerful rate-setting central bankers and market co-conspirators have artificially propped up stock and bond prices. With each argument, though, there are solid counter arguments and in presenting both sides, I am not trying to dodge the question, but I am interested in looking at the facts.

Bubble argument 1: Markets have gone up too much, in too short a period, and a correction is due
The simplest argument for a correction is that US equity markets have been going up for so long and have gone up so much that it seems inevitable that a correction has to be near. It is true that the last decade has been a very good one for stocks, as the S&P 500 has more than tripled from its lows after the 2008 crisis. While there have been setbacks and a bad period or two in the midst, staying fully invested in stocks would have outperformed any market timing strategy over this period.

Is it true that over long time periods, stocks tend to reverse themselves? Yes, but when and by how much is not just debatable, but the answers could have a very large impact on anyone who decides to cash out prematurely. The easy push back on this strategy is that without considering what happens to earnings or dividends over the period, no matter what stock prices have done, you cannot make a judgment on markets being over or under priced.

Counter Argument 1: It is not just stock prices that have gone up...
If stock prices had jumped 230% over a period, as they did over the last decade, and nothing else had changed, it would be easy to make the case that stocks are over priced, but that is not the case. The same crisis that decimated stock prices in 2008 also demolished earnings and investor cash flows, and as prices have recovered, so have earnings and cash flows:

Notice that while stocks have climbed 230% in the ten-year period since January 1, 2009, earnings have risen 212% over the same period, and cash flows have almost kept track, rising 188%. Since September 2014, cash flows have risen faster than earnings or stock prices. It is possible that earnings and cash flows are due for a fall, and that this will bring stock prices down, but it requires far more ammunition to be credible.

Bubble Argument 2: Stocks are over priced, relative to history, and mean reversion works
The second argument that the market is in a bubble is more sophisticated and data-based, at least on the surface. In short, it accepts the argument that stocks should increase as earnings go up, and that looking at the multiple of earnings that stocks trade at is a better indicator of market timing. In the graph below, I graph the PE ratio for the S&P 500 going back to 1969, in conjunction with two alternative estimates, one of which divides the index level by the average earnings over the prior ten years (to normalize earnings across cycles) and the other of which divides the index level by the inflation-adjusted earnings over the prior ten years.
Download raw data on PE ratios
Note that on October 1, 2019, all three measures of the PE ratios for the S&P 500 are higher than they have been historically, if you compare them to the median levels, with the PE at the 75th percentile of values over the 50-year period, and normalized PE and CAPE above the 75th percentile. Proponents then complete the story using one of two follow up arguments. One is that mean reversion in markets is strong and that the values should converge towards the median, which if it occurs quickly, would translate into a significant drop in stock prices (35%-40% decline). The other is to correlate the l PE ratio (in any form) with stock returns in subsequent periods, and show that higher PE ratios are followed by weaker market returns in subsequent periods. 

Counter Argument 2: Stocks are richly priced, relative to history, but not relative to alternative investments today
If you are convinced by one of the arguments above that stocks are over priced and choose to sell, you face a question of where to invest that cash. After all, within the financial market, if you don't own stocks, you have to own bonds, and this is where the ground has shifted the most against those using the mean reversion argument with PE ratios. Specifically, if you consider bonds to be your alternative to stocks, the drop in treasury rates over the last decade has made the bond alternative less attractive. In the graph below, I compare earnings yields on US stocks to T.Bond rates, and include dividend and cash yields in my comparison:

Download raw data on yields and interest rates
In short, if your complaint is that earnings yields are low, relative to their historic norms, you are right, but they are high relative to treasury rates today. To those who would look to real estate, a reality check is that securitization of real estate has made its behavior much closer to financial markets than has been historically true, as can be seen when you graph capitalization rates (a measure of required return for real estate equity) against equity and bond rates. 

Bubble Argument 3: The market is up, but the gains have come from a few big companies
In a version of the glass half-empty argument, there are some who argue that while US stock market indices have been up strongly over the last decade, the gains have not been evenly spread. Specifically, a few companies, primarily in the technology space, have accounted for a big chunk of the gain in market capitalization over the period. There is some truth to this argument, as can be seen in the graph below, where I look at the FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google/Alphabet) stocks and the S&P 500, in terms of total market capitalization:
As you can see, the last decade has seen a phenomenal surge in the market capitalizations of the FAANG stocks, with the $3.15 trillion increase in their market capitalizations alone explaining more than one-sixth of the increase in market capitalization of the S&P 500. In the eyes of pessimists, that gives rise to two concerns, one relating to the past and one to the future. Looking back, they argue that many investors have been largely left out of the market rally, especially if their portfolios did not include any of the FAANG stocks. Looking forward, they posit that any weakness in the FAANG stocks, which they argue is largely overdue, as they face pressure on legal and regulatory fronts, will translate into weakness in the market.

Counter Argument 3: The market reflects changes in how markets and economies work 
The concentration of market gains in the hands of a few companies, at least at first sight, is troublesome but it is not new. There have been very few bull markets, where companies have shared equally in the gains, and it is more common than not for market gains to be concentrated in a small percentage of companies. That said, the degree of concentration is perhaps greater in this last bull run (from 2009 to 2019), but that concentration represents forces that are reshaping economies and markets. Each of the companies in the FAANG has disrupted existing businesses and grabbed market share from long-standing players in these businesses, and the nature of their offerings has given them networking benefits, i.e., the capacity to use their rising market share to grow even faster, rather than slower. It is this trend that has drawn the attention of regulators and governments, and it is possible, maybe even likely, that we will see anti-trust laws rewritten to restrain these companies from growing more or even breaking them up. While that would be bad news for investors in these companies, those rules are also likely to enrich some of the competition and push up their earnings and value. In short, a pullback in the FAANG stocks, driven by regulatory restrictions, is likely to have unpredictable effects on overall stock prices.

Bubble Argument 4: Central banks, around the world, have conspired to keep interest rates low and push up the price of financial assets (artificially) 
As you can see in the earlier graph comparing earnings to price rates to treasury bond rates, interest rates on government bonds have dropped to historic lows in the last decade. That is true not just in the US, but across developed markets, with 10-year Euro, Swiss franc and Japanese Yen bond rates crossing the zero threshold to become negative.
If you buy into the proposition that central banks set these rates, it is easy to then continue down this road and argue that what we have seen in the last decade is a central banking conspiracy to keep rates low, partly to bring moribund economies back to life, but more to prop up stock and bond prices. The end game in this story is that central banks eventually will be forced to face reality, interest rates will rise to normal levels and stock prices will collapse. 

Counter Argument 4: Interest rates are low, but central bankers have had only a secondary role
Conspiracy theories are always difficult to confront, but at the heart of this one is the belief that central banks set interest rates, not just influence them at the margin. But is that true? To answer that question, I will fall back on a simple measure of what I call an intrinsic risk free rate, constructed by adding the inflation rate to the real growth rate, drawing on the belief that interest rates should reflect expected inflation (rising with inflation) and real interest rates (related directly to real growth).
Download raw data on interest rates, inflation and growth
Looking back over the last decade, it is low inflation and anemic economic growth that have been driving interest rates lower, not a central banking cabal. It is true that at the start of October 2019, the gap between the ten-year treasury bond rate and the intrinsic risk free rate is higher than it has been in a long time, suggesting that either Jerome Powell is a more powerful central banker than his predecessors or, more likely, that the bond market is building in expectations of lower inflation and growth.

Implied Equity Risk Premiums: A Composite Indicator
Did you think I would have an entire post on stock markets, without taking a dive into implied equity risk premiums? Unlike PE ratios that focus just on stock prices or treasury bond rates that focus just on the alternative to stocks, the implied equity risk premium is a composite number that is a function of how stocks are priced, given cash flows and expected growth in earnings, as well as treasury bond rates. In my monthly updates for the S&P 500, I compute and report this number and as of October 1, 2019, here is what it looked like:
Download spreadsheet

The equity risk premium for the S&P 500 on October 1, 2019, was 5.55%, and by itself, you may not know what to do with this number, but the graph below shows how this number has changed between 2009 and 2019:
Download historical ERP
There are two uses for this number. First, it becomes the price of equity risk in my company valuations, allowing me to maintain market neutrality when valuing WeWork, Tesla or Kraft-Heinz. In fact, the valuations that I will do in October 2019 will use an equity risk premium of 5.55% (the implied premium on October 1, 2019, for the S&P 500) as my mature market premium. Second, though I have confessed to being a terrible market timer, the implied ERP has become my divining rod for overall market pricing. An unduly low number, like the 2% that I computed at the end of 1999 for the S&P 500, would represent market over-pricing and a really high number, such as the 6.5% that you saw at the start of 2009, would be a sign of market under-pricing. At 5.55%, I am at the high end of the range, not the low end, and that backs up the case that given treasury rates, earnings and cash flows today, stock prices are not unduly high.

My Market View (or non-view)
I am neither bullish nor bearish, just market-neutral. In other words, my investment philosophy is built on valuing individual companies, not taking a view on the market, and I will take the market as a given in my valuation.  Does this mean that I am sanguine about the future prospects of equities? Not in the least! With equities, it is worth remembering that the coast is never clear, and that the reason we get the equity risk premiums that I estimated in the last section is because the future can deliver unpleasant surprises. I can see at least two ways in which a large market correction an unfold.

An Implosion in Fundamentals
Note that my comfort with equities stems from the equity risk premium being 5.55%, but that number is built on solid cash flows, a very low but still positive growth in earnings and low interest rates. While the number is robust enough to withstand a shock to one of these inputs, a combination that puts all three inputs at risk would cause the implied ERP to collapse and stock pricing red flags to show up. In this scenario, you would need all of the following to fall into place:
  1. Slow or negative global economic growth: The global economic slowdown picks up speed, spreads to the US and become a full-fledged recession.
  2. Cash flow pullback: This recession in conjunction causes earnings at companies to drop and companies to drastically reduce stock buybacks, as their confidence about the future is shaken.
  3. T. Bond rates start to move back up towards normal levels: Higher inflation and less credible central banks cause rates to move back up from historic lows to more "normal" levels.
I can make an argument for one, perhaps even two of these developments, occurring together, but a scenario where all three things happen is implausible. In short, if economic growth collapses, I see it as unlikely that interest rates will rise.

A Global Crisis with systemic after shocks
There is no denying that there are multiple potential crises unfolding around the world, and one of these crises may be large enough, in terms of global and cross sector consequences, to cause a major market pull back. It is unclear what exactly equity markets are pricing in right now, but the triggering mechanism for the meltdown will be an "unexpected" crisis development, leading equity risk premiums to jump to higher levels, as investors reassess market-wide risk. For the crisis to have sustained consequences, it has to then feed into economic growth, perhaps through a drop in consumer and business confidence, and also into earnings and cash flows. After a decade of false alarms, investors are jaded, but the crisis calendar is full for the next two months, as Brexit, impeachment, Middle East turmoil and the trade war will all play out, almost on a daily basis.

Bottom Line
I am not a macroeconomic forecaster, and I am going to pass on market timing, accept the fact that the markets of today are globally interconnected and more volatile than the markets of the last century, and stick to picking stocks. I hope that my choice of companies will provide at least partial protection in a market correction, but I know that if the market is down strongly, my stocks will be, as well. I know that some of you will disagree strongly with my market views, and I will not try to talk you out of them, since it is your money that you are investing, not mine, and your skills at market/macro forecasting may be much stronger than mine. If you are a master macroeconomic forecaster who believes that a perfect storm is coming where there is a global recession with a drop in earnings and a loss or corporate confidence (leading to a pull back on buybacks), perhaps accompanied by high inflation and high interest rates, you definitely should cash out, though I cannot think of a place for that cash to go, right now.

YouTube Video

Linked Datasets
  1. PE ratios for the S&P 500
  2. Stock Yields and Interest Rates: US
  3. Intrinsic Riskfree versus 10-year T.Bond Rate 
  4. Historical Implied Equity Risk Premiums: US

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Insights on VC Pricing: Lessons from Uber, WeWork and Peloton!

As a confession, I started this post intending to write about Peloton, the next big new offering hitting markets, but I got distracted along the way. As I read the Peloton prospectus, with the descriptions of its business, its measure of total market size and its success at scaling up revenues accompanied by large losses, I had a feeling of déjà vu, since other prospectuses that I had read this year from Lyft, Uber, Slack, Pinterest and, most recently, WeWorks, not only shared many of the same characteristics, but also used much of the same language. I briefly considered the possibility that these companies were using a common prospectus app, where given a bare bones description, a 250-page prospectus would be generated, complete with the requisite buzz words and corporate governance details. Setting aside that cynical thought, I think it is far more likely that these companies are emphasizing those features that allowed them to get to where they are today, and that examining these shared features should give us insight into how venture capitalists price companies, and the dangers of basing what you  pay on VC pricing. To keep my write up from becoming too long (and I don't think I succeeded), I will use only Uber, WeWork and Peloton to illustrate what I see as the commonalities in their investment pitches, when I could have spread my net wider to include all IPOs this year.

1. Unbounded Potential Markets
It is natural that companies, especially early in their lives, puff up their business descriptions and inflate their potential markets, but the companies that have gone public this year seem to have taken it to an art form. Lyft, which went public before Uber, described themselves as a transportation company, a little over-the-top for a car service company, but Uber topped this easily, with their identification as a personal mobility company. WeWork, in its prospectus, steers clear of ever describing itself as being in real estate, framing itself instead as a community company, whatever that means. Peloton, in perhaps the widest stretch of all, calls itself a technology, media, software, product, experience, fitness, design, retail, apparel and logistics company, and names itself Peloton Interactive for emphasis.   In conjunction with these grandiose business descriptions, each of the company's IPOs also lists a total addressable or accessible market (TAM) that it is targeting. While this is a measure, initiated with good sense , it has become a buzzword that means close to nothing for these young companies. In the picture below, I have taken the total market descriptions given in the Uber, WeWork and Peloton prospectuses:

If you believe these companies, Uber's TAM is $5.71 trillion spread across 175 countries, and obtained by adding together all passenger vehicle and public transport spending, WeWork is looking at $3 trillion in office space opportunities and Peloton believes that it can sell its expensive exercise bikes and subscriptions to 45 million people in the US and 67 million globally.  

It is no secret that my initial valuation of Uber used far too cramped a definition of its total market, and Bill Gurley rightly pointed to the potential that these companies have to expand markets, but defining the market as broadly as these companies makes a mockery of the concept. In fact, I will draw on a 3P test that I developed in the context of converting stories to numbers, to put these TAM claims to the test;
With Uber, for instance, my initial estimate of the car service market in June 2014, while defining the magnitude of the car services market then, was a constrained TAM and, in hindsight, it proved far too limited, as Uber's pricing and convenience drew new customers into the market, expanding the market significantly. It is a lesson that I have taken to heart, and I do try to give disruptive companies the benefit of the doubt in estimating TAM, erring more towards the expanded TAM definition.  That said, the total market claims that I see outlined in the prospectuses of the companies that have gone public this year, while perhaps meeting the possible test, fail the plausible and probable tests. That TAM overreach makes the cases for these companies weaker, rather than stronger, by making them less credible.

2. All about Scaling (in dollars and units)
All of the companies that have gone, or are planning to go, public this year are telling scaling up stories, with explosive growth in revenues and talk of acceleration in that growth. On this count, the companies are entitled to crow, since they have grown revenues at unprecedented rates coming into their public offerings. 
In short periods, these companies have grown from nothing to becoming among the largest players in their markets, at least in terms of revenues. While this focus on revenue growth is not surprising, since it is at the heart of their stories, it is revealing that all of the companies spend as much, if not, more time talking about growth in their revenue units (Uber riders, WeWork members and Peloton subscribers). 
In fact, each of these companies, in addition to providing user/subscriber members, also provide other eye-popping numbers on relevant units, Uber on drivers and rides taken, WeWork on cities and locations and Peloton on bikes sold. I understand the allure of user numbers, since the platform that they inhabit can be used to generate more revenues. That is implicitly the message that all these companies are sending, and I did estimate a lifetime value of an Uber rider at close to $500 and I could use the model (described in this paper) to derive values for a WeWork member or a  Peloton subscriber. After all, the most successful user-based companies, such as Facebook and Amazon Prime, have shown how having a large user base can provide a foundation for new products and profits. However, there are companies that focus just on adding users, using badly constructed business models and pricing products/services much too cheaply, hoping to raise prices once the users are acquired. MoviePass is an extreme example of user pursuit gone berserk, but it  had no trouble attracting venture capital money, and I fear that there are far more young user-based companies following the MoviePass script than the Facebook one.

3. Blurry Business Models and Flaky Earnings Measures
Most of the companies that have gone public this year have entered the public markets with large losses, even after you correct for what they spend to acquire new users or subscribers. For some investors, this, by itself, is sufficient to turn away from these companies, but since these are young companies, pursuing ambitious growth targets, neither the negative earnings, nor the negative cash flows, is enough to scare me away. However, there are two characteristics that these companies share that I find off putting:
  • Pathways to Profitability: As money losing companies, I had hoped that Uber, WeWork and Peloton would all spend more time talking, in their investor pitches, about their existing business models, current weaknesses in these models and how they planned to reduce their vulnerabilities. With Uber and Lyft, the question of how the companies planned to deal with the transition of drivers from independent contractors to employees should have been dealt with front and center (in their prospectuses), rather than be viewed as a surprise that no one saw coming, a few months later. With WeWork, their vulnerability, stemming from a duration mismatch, begged for a response, and plan, from the company in its prospectus, but none was provided. In fact, Peloton may have done the best job, of the three companies, of positioning themselves on this front, with an (implicit) argument that as subscriptions rise, with higher contribution margins, profits would show up.
  • Earnings Adjustments: As has become standard practice across many publicly traded companies, these IPOs do the adjusted EBITDA dance, adding back stock-based compensation and a variety of other expenses. I have made my case against adding back stock-based compensation here and here, but I would state a more general proposition that adding back any expense that will persist as part of regular operations is bad practice. That is why WeWork's attempt to add back most of its operating expenses, arguing that they were community related, to get to community EBITDA did not pass the smell test.
In summary, it is not the losses that these companies made in the most recent year that are the primary concern, it is that there seems to be no tangible plan, other than growth and hand waving on economies of scale, to put these companies into the plus column on profits.

4. Founder Worship and Corporate Dictatorships
Some time in the last two decades, newly public companies and many of their institutional investors seem to have lost faith in the quid quo pro that has characterized public companies over much of their history, where in return for providing capital, public market investors are at least given the semblance of a say in how the company is run, voting at annual meetings for board directors and substantive changes to the corporate charter. The most charitable characterization of the corporate governance arrangement at most newly minted public companies is that they are benevolent dictatorships, with a founder/CEO at the helm, controlling their destiny, and with no threat of loss of power, largely through super-voting right shares. In fact, most of the IPO companies this year have had:
  • Shares with different voting classes: With the exception of Uber, every high profile IPO that has hit the market has had multiple classes of shares, with the low-voting right shares being the ones offered to the market in the public offering and the high voting right shares held by insiders and the founder/CEO. It is also revealing that Uber was also one of the few companies in the mix where the founder was not the CEO at the time of the IPO, after the board, pressured by large VC investors, removed Travis Kalanick from atop the company in June 2017, in the aftermath of personal and corporate scandals. 
  • Captive boards of directors: I am sure that the directors on the boards of newly public companies are there to represent the interests of  investors in the company and and that many are well qualified, but they seem to do the bidding of the founder/CEO. The WeWork board seems to have been particularly lacking in its oversight of Adam Neumann, especially leading up to the IPO, but it is probably not an outlier.
  • Complex ownership and corporate structures: When private companies go public, there is a transition period where shares of one class are being converted to another, some options have forced exercises and there are restricted share offerings that ripen, all of which make it difficult to estimate value per share. It does not help when the company going public takes this confusion and adds to it, as WeWork did, with additional layers of complex organizational structure.
In many of the companies that have gone public this year, it is quite clear that the company's current owners (founder and VCs) view the public equity market as a place to raise capital but not one to defend or debate how their companies should be run. Put simply, if you are public market investor, these companies want your money but they don't want your input. When faced with that choice with Alibaba, I characterized this as Jack Ma charging me five-star hotel prices, when I check in as an investor in his company, but then directing me to stay in the outhouse,  because I was not one of the insiders.

Reverse Engineering the VC Game
Every company that has come down the IPO pipeline this year has been able to raise ample capital from venture capitalists on its journey, with contributions coming from some public investor names (Fidelity and T.Rowe Price, to name just two). The fact that almost every company that went public this year framed its total market as implausibly big, emphasized how quickly it has scaled itself up, both in terms of revenues and users/subscribers, glossed over the flaws and weaknesses in its business model, and had shares with different voting rights suggests to me that this is behavior that was learned,  because venture capitalists encouraged and rewarded it. Bluntly put, the pricing offered by venture capitalists for private companies must place scaling success over sound business models, over-the-top total addressable markets over plausible ones and founder entrenchment over good corporate governance.

In almost every IPO this year, the basis for at least the initial estimate of what the company would get from the market was the pricing at the most recent VC round, about $66 billion for Uber, $47 billion for WeWorks on the Softbank investment and about $4.2 billion at Peloton. The strongest sales pitch that the company and its bankers seem to be making is that venture capitalists are smart people who know a great deal about the company, and that you should be willing to base your pricing on theirs. This is not very persuasive, because, as I noted in this post, VCs price companies, they don't value them, and the pricing ladder, while it can lead price up, up and away, can also bring price down, when the momentum shifts.  

This is not meant to be a broadside against all of venture capital. As with other investor groups, I am sure that there are venture capitalists who are sensible and unwilling to go along with these bad practices. Unfortunately, though, they risk being priced out of this market, as a version of Gresham's law kicks in, where bad players drive out good ones. In fact, since VC pricing takes its cues from public markets, it will interesting to see if the WeWork fiasco works its way through the VC price chain, leading to a repricing of companies that emphasize revenue scaling over all else. 

A Peloton Valuation
Since I started this post intending to value Peloton, I might as sell include my valuation of the company, especially since the company has released an updated prospectus with an estimated offering price of $26 to $30 per share. The company posits that there will 277.76 million shares outstanding (across voting share classes), but it also very clearly states that this does not include the 64.6 million options outstanding.

Business Model and Accessible Market
The Peloton product offerings started with an upscale exercise bike, but has since expanded to include an even more expensive treadmill; the bike currently sells for about $2,250 and the treadmill for more than $4,000. In fact, if that is all that the company sold, it would have been competing in  a constrained fitness product market with other exercise equipment manufacturers (Nautilus, Bowflex, NordicTrack, Life, Precor etc.). The company's innovation is two fold, first focusing on the upper end of the market with a very limited product offering and then offering a monthly subscription to those who bought, where you can take online classes and access other fitness-related services, with a monthly subscription fee of $40/month. In 2018, Peloton expanded its subscription service to non-Peloton fitness product owners, charging about $20 a month, with a membership count of 100,000 in 2018. The growth in the subscription portion of the business can be seen in the graphs below:

The fitness market that Peloton is going after is large, but splintered, currently with gyms, both local and franchised, and fitness product companies all competing for the pie. In 2019, it was estimated that the total market for fitness products was $30 billion in the United States and close to $90 billion globally.  That said, harking back to our discussion of probable and plausible markets, Peloton is trying to draw people into this market who may otherwise have stayed away and getting existing customers to pay more, hoping to expand the market further. 

Valuation Story and Numbers
I am way too cheap to own a Peloton, but my conversations with Peloton owners/subscribers suggests to me that they have created a loyal customer base, perhaps unfairly likened to a cult. They rave about the online classes and how they keep them motivated to exercise, and while I take their praise with a grain of salt, it is quite clear that the company's online presence is not only polished but looks amazing on the high resolution TV screens that are built into their bikes and treadmills. In my story, I assume that the total accessible market will grow as Peloton and other new entrants into the subscription model draw in new customers, and that Peloton's allure will last, allowing it to grow its revenues over time to make it one of the bigger players in the fitness game. In my base case valuation, I see Peloton's subscription model as their ticket for future growth, pushing revenues by year 10 for the company to just above $10 billion, a lofty goal, given that the largest US fitness companies (gyms and equipment makers) have revenues of $2-$3 billion. I also believe that the shift towards subscriptions will continue, allowing for higher margins and lower capital investment than at the typical fitness company. My valuation is pictured below:
Download spreadsheet
My equity value is $6.65 billion, but in computing value per share, I have to consider the overhang of past option issuances at the company; there are 64.6 million options, with an average strike price of $6.71, outstanding in addition to the 277.76 million shares that the company puts forward as its share count. Valuing the options and netting them out yields a value per share of $19.35, about 20% below the low end of the IPO offering. That does bring me closer to the initial offering price than I got with either my Uber or WeWork valuations, though that is damning Peloton with faint praise. The magnitude of options outstanding at Peloton make it an outlier, even among the IPO companies, and I would caution investors to take these options into account, when computing market capitalizations or per share numbers. For instance, this Wall Street Journal report this morning, after the offering price was set at $26-$29/share, used the actual share count of 277.76 million shares to extrapolate to a market capitalization of $8 billion, at the upper end of the pricing range. That is not true. In fact, if you pay $29/share, you are valuing the equity in this company at more $9.5-$10 billion, with the options counted in.

Is there a great deal of uncertainty embedded in this valuation? Of course! While some argue that this is reason enough to either not invest in the company, or to not do a discounted cash flow valuation, I disagree. 
  • First, at the right price, you should be willing to expose yourself to uncertainty, and while I would not buy Peloton at $26/share, I certainly would be interested at a price lower than $19.35. 
  • Second, the notion that the value of a business is a function of its capacity to generate cash flows is not repealed, just because you have a young, high growth company. If your critique is that my assumptions could be very wrong, I completely agree, but I can still estimate value, facing up to that uncertainty. In fact, that is what I have done in the simulation below:

In terms of base numbers, the simulation does not change my view of Peloton. My median value is $18.30, with the tenth percentile at close to zero and the ninetieth percentile at $38.42, making it still over valued, if it is priced at $26/share. The long tail on the positive end of the distribution implies that I would buy Peloton with a smaller margin of safety than a more mature company, because of the potential of significant upside. (I have a limit buy, at $15/share. Given the offering price of $26-$29, there is little chance that it will execute soon, but I can play the long game).

A Requiem
The flood of companies going public, and their diverse businesses, has made for interesting valuations, but there are also more general lessons to be learned, even for those not interested in investing in these companies. First, our experiences with these IPOs should make it clear that it is the pricing game that dominates how numbers get attached to companies, and that is especially true for IPOs, not just on the offering day, but in the VC rounds leading up to the offering, and in the post-offering trading. Second, to the extent that the pricing game becomes centered on intermediate metrics, say revenue growth or on users or subscribers, it can lead companies astray, as they strive to deliver on those metrics, often at the expense of creating viable business models, and the pricing players (VCs and public investors) can get blindsided when the game changes. As I noted in my long-ago post on Twitter, these companies will face their bar mitzvah moments, when markets shift, often abruptly, from the intermediate users to the end game of profits, and many of these companies will be found wanting.


  1. Valuation of Peloton (September 16, 2019)
Posts on IPOs this year
Posts on Venture Capital

  1. Venture Capital: It is a pricing, not a value, game!

Monday, September 9, 2019

Runaway Story or Meltdown in Motion? The Unraveling of the WeWork IPO

In a year full of high-profile IPOs, WeWork takes center stage as it moves towards its offering date, offering a fascinating insight into corporate narratives, how and why they acquire credibility (and value) and how quickly they can lose them, if markets lose faith. When the WeWork IPO was first rumored, there was talk of the company being priced at $60 billion or more, but the longer investors have had a chance to look at the prospectus, the less enthusiastic they seem to have become about the company, with a news story today reporting that the company was looking at a drastically discounted value of $20 billion, which would make Softbank, the biggest (and most recent) VC investor in WeWork, a big loser on the IPO. Before I set my thoughts down on WeWork, I will confess that I have never liked the company, partly because I don't trust CEOs who seem more intent on delivering life lessons for the rest of us, than on talking about the businesses they run, and partly because of the trail it has left of obfuscation and opaqueness. That said, I don't believe in writing hit pieces on companies and I will bend over backwards to give WeWork the benefit of the doubt, as I wrestle not only with its basic business model but also with converting that model into a story and numbers.

The WeWork Business Model: A Leveraged Bet on Flexibility
The WeWork business model is neither new, nor particularly unique in its basic form, though access to capital and scaling ambitions have put that model on steroids. That said, most traditional real estate companies that have tried the WeWork business model historically have abandoned it, for micro and macro reasons, and the test of the WeWork model is whether the advantages it brings to the table, and it does bring some, can help it succeed, where others have not.

The Business Model
Most businesses need office space and the way in which that office space is created and provided has followed a standard script for decades. The owner of an office building, who has generally acquired the building with significant debt, rents the building to businesses that need office space, and uses the rent payments received to cover interest expenses on the debt, as well as the expenses of operating the building. As economies weaken, the demand for office space contracts, and the resulting drop in occupancy rates in office buildings exposes the owner to risk. Prudent real estate operators try to buy buildings when real estate prices are low, and sign up credit worthy tenants with long term leases when rental rates are high, thus building a profitability buffer to protect themselves against downturns, when they do come. Even with added prudence, commercial real estate has always been a boom and bust business and even the most successful real estate developers have been both billionaires and bankrupt (at least on paper), at different points of their lives.

The WeWork business model puts a twist on traditional real estate. Like the conventional model, it starts by identifying an attractive office property, usually in a city where office space is tight and young businesses are plentiful. Rather than buying the building, WeWork leases the building with a long term lease, and having leased it, it spends significant amounts upgrading the building to make it a desirable office space for the Gen-X and Gen-Y workers, brought up to believe in the tech company prototype of a cool office space. Having renovated the building, WeWork then offers office space in small units (you can rent just one desk or a few) and on short term contracts (as short as a month). For a given property, if things go according to plan, as the building gets occupied, the excess of rental income (over the lease payment) is used to cover the renovation costs, and once those costs get covered, the economies of scale kick in, generating profits for the company. The steps in the WeWork business model are captured in the picture below:
If you buy into the company’s spin, as presented in its prospectus, the strengths it brings to each stage in the process are what sets it apart, allowing it to win, where others have failed before. In fact, the company is explicitly laying the foundations for this argument with two graphs in its prospectus, one of which maps out its time frame from signing to filling a location and the other which presents a picture, albeit a little skewed, of the profitability of each location, once stable.
Prospectus: Pages 
Note that all we have is the company's word on the timing and its definition of contribution margin plays fast and loose with operating expenses. To illustrate how the WeWorks model works, consider 600 B Street in San Diego, which is an office building that WeWork acquired, renovated and opened in 2017:

In 2019, WeWork claimed that the building was mostly occupied, which should mean that the renovation costs are being recouped, but since the company does not reveal per-building numbers, it is impossible to tell what the company's financials are just on this building. 

The Model Trade off
The model's allure is built on three factors. The first is the WeWork look, with open work spaces, cool lighting and lots of extras, that the company has worked on building over its lifetime and presumably is able to duplicate in a new building, with cost savings and quickly. The second is the WeWork community, where the company supplements its cosmetic features with add-on services that range from business networking to consulting services and seminars. The third is its offer of flexibility to businesses, especially valuable at young companies that face uncertain futures but increasing becoming so even at established companies that are experimenting with alternate work structures. Presumably, these businesses will be willing to pay extra for the flexibility and WeWork can capture the surplus. The model's weakness lies in a mismatch that is at the heart of the business model, where WeWork has locked itself into making the renovation costs up front and the lease payments for many years into the future, but its rental revenues will ebb and flow, depending upon the state of the economy. In fact, the numbers in WeWork’s own prospectus give away the extent of this mismatch, with lease commitments showing an average duration in excess of 10 years, whereas its renters are locked into contracts that average about a year in duration, which I obtained by dividing the revenue backlog by the revenue run rate. This mismatch is not unique to WeWork. You can argue that hotels have always faced this problem, as do the owners of apartment buildings, but WeWork is particularly exposed for four reasons:
  1. Own versus lease: There is an argument to be made that owning a property and leasing it is less risky than leasing the property and then sub-leasing it, and it is not because buying a property does not give rise to fixed costs. It does, in the form of the debt that you take on, when you buy the property, but borrowing & buying comes with two advantages over leasing. First, when buying a property, you can decide the proportion of value that comes from equity, allowing you to reduce your financial leverage, if you feel over exposed. Second, if the property value of a building rises after you have bought it, the equity component of value builds up implicitly, reducing effective leverage, though if property values drop, the reverse will occur.
  2. Explosive growth: As we will see in the next section, WeWork does not just have a mismatched model, it is one that has scaled up at a rate that has never been seen in the real estate business, going from one property in 2010 to more than 500 locations in 2019, adding more than 100,000 square feet of office space each month. This global growth has given rise to gigantic lease commitments, which combined with its operating losses in 2018, make it particularly exposed.
  3. Tenant Self-selection: By specifically targeting young companies and businesses that value flexibility, the company has created a selection bias, where its customers are the ones most likely to pull back on their office rentals, if there is a downturn.
  4. Lack of cost discipline: Companies that have historically been exposed to the mismatch problem have learned that, to survive, they need to have cost discipline, keeping fixed cost commitments low and adjusting quickly to changes in the environment. While it is possible that WeWork is secretly following these practices, their prospectus seems to suggest that they are oblivious to their risk exposure.
It is worth noting that the WeWork business model has been tried in real estate before, with calamitous results. As Sam Zell, a billionaire with deep roots in real estate, noted on CNBC, on September 4, 2019, not only did he lose money investing in a business model like this one in 1956, but every company in the office space subletting space that existed then went out of business.

The Back Story
To understand where WeWork stands today, I started with the prospectus that the company filed on August 14. While this filing may be updated, it provides a basis for any story telling or valuation of the company.

1. Operations
The financials reported in a company clearly paint a picture of growth in the company, as can be seen on almost every operating dimension (cities, locations, tenants, revenues).

While the growth represents the good news part of the story, there is bad news. Accompanying the growth in locations and revenues are losses that have grown to staggeringly large amounts by 2018.
EBITR= EBIT + Lease Expense, EBITR&PO = EBITR + Non-lease pre-opening expenses
One argument that the company may make for its losses is that they are after operating lease expenses (which are financial expenses, i.e., debt) and pre-opening location expenses (which are capital expenses). Adjusting for these expenses make the losses smaller, but they still remain daunting.

2. Leverage: The Leasing Machine
The WeWork business model is built on leasing properties, often for large amounts, with a long-period commitment, and not surprisingly, the results are manifested in lease commitments that represent a mountain of claims that the company has to cover before it can generate income for equity investors. The graph below captures the lease commitments that WeWork has contractually committed itself to for future years, and how much these commitments represent in equivalent debt:
Brought down to basics, WeWork is a company that had $2.6 billion in revenues in the twelve months ending in June 2019, with an operating loss of more than $2 billion during the period, and debt outstanding, if you include the conventional debt, of close to $24 billion. Note that this leverage is built into the business model and will only grow, as the company grows. The hope is that as the company matures, and its leaseholds age, they will turn profitable, but this is a model built on a knife’s edge that, by design, will be sensitive to the smallest economic perturbations.

3. Issuance Details
To value an initial public offering, you need three additional details and at the moment, information on at least two of the three details is not fully disclosed, though it will be made public before the offering.
  • Magnitude of Proceeds: While the company has not been explicit about how much cash it plans to raise in the IPO, rumors as recently as last week suggested that it was planning to raise about $3.5 billion from the offering. Of course, that was premised on a belief that the market would price their equity at about $45-$50 billion and that may change, now that there are indications that it may have to settle for a lower pricing.
  • Use of Proceeds: In the prospectus (page 56), the company says that it intends to use the net proceeds for general corporate purposes, including working capital and capital expenditures. In effect, there seem to be no plans, at least currently, for any of the existing equity owners of the firm to cash out of the firm, using the proceeds. 
  • Dilution: There will be additional shares issued to raise the planned proceeds, and the offering price will determine the share count. There will be circularity involved, because the proceeds, since they will stay in the firm, will increase the value of the firm (and equity) by roughly the amount raised, and thus the value per share, but the value per share itself will determine how many additional shares will be issued and thus the share count.
I will do my initial valuation with the rumored $3.5 billion proceeds amount and use the estimated value per share to adjust share count, but these numbers will need to be revisited, once there is more concrete information.

4. Corporate Governance: Founder Worship and Complexity
In keeping with what has become almost standard practice for companies going public in the last decade, WeWork has muddied the corporate governance waters by creating both a complex holding structure and share classes with different voting rights. Let's start with the holding structure for the company:
Prospectus: Page
In particular, note the carve out of a separate company (ARK) which will presumably buy real estate and lease it back to We and the region-specific joint ventures, where the company collects management fees. I am not quite sure what to make of the partnership triangle at the center, where it looks like the company will be partnering with it's own managers (with the founder/CEO presumably leading the way) to run WeWork Company. I have to compliment the company's owners and bankers, and it is a back-handed compliment, for managing to create more complexity in a couple of years than most companies can create in decades. Some of this complexity is probably due to tax reasons, in which case the company is behaving like other real estate ventures in putting tax considerations high up on its list of decision-drivers. Some of the complexity is to protect itself from the downside of its own lease-fueled growth, where the company can maintain the argument that since its leases are at the property-level, and the properties are structured as nominally stand-alone subsidiaries, it is less exposed to distress. That is fiction because a global economic showdown will lead to failures on dozens, perhaps hundreds, of lease commitments at the same time, and there is no protective cloak for the company against that contingency. A great deal of the complexity, though, has to do with the founder(s) desire for control and potential conflicts of interests, and investors will have to take that into account when valuing/pricing the company.

On the governance front, the company’s voting structure continues the deplorable practice of entrenching founders, by creating three classes of shares, with the class A shares that will be offering in the IPO having one twentieth the voting rights of the class B and class C shares, leaving control of the company in the hands of Adam Neumann. In fact, the prospectus is brutally direct on this front, stating that “Adam’s voting control will limit the ability of other stockholders to influence corporate activities and, as a result, we may take actions that stockholders other than Adam do not view as beneficial” and that his ownership stake will result in WeWork being categorized as a controlled company, relieving it of the requirement to have independent directors on its compensation and nominating committees.

Valuing WeWork
As I mentioned at the top of this post, I fundamentally mistrust the company, but I am not willing to dismiss its potential, without giving it a shot at delivering. In creating this narrative, I am buying into parts of the company’s own narrative and here are the components of my story:
  • WeWork meets an unmet and large need for flexible office space: The demand comes both younger, smaller companies, still unsure about their future needs, and established companies, experimenting with new work arrangements. There is a big market, potentially close to the $900 billion that the company estimates.
  • With a branded product & economies of scale: The WeWork Office is differentiated enough to allow them to have pricing power, and higher margins.
  • And continued access to capital, allowing the company to both fund growth and potentially live through mild economic shocks. That access, though, will be insufficient to tide them through deeper recessions, where their debt load will leave them exposed to distress.
This story translates into three key operating inputs:
  1. Revenue Growth: I will assume that revenues will grow at 60% a year, for the next five years, scaling down to stable growth (set equal to the riskfree rate of 1.6%) after year 10. If this seems conservative, given their triple digit growth in the most recent year, using this growth rate results in revenues of approximately $80 billion in 2029.
  2. Target Operating Margin: Over the next decade, I expect the company’s operating margins to improve to 12.50% by year 10. That is much higher than the average operating margin for real estate operating companies and higher than 11.04%, the average operating margin from 2014-2018 earned by IWG, the company considered to be closest to WeWork in terms of operating model. For those of you persuaded by the company’s argument that its locations make a 25% contribution margin, note that that measure of profitability is before corporate expenses, stock-based compensation and capital maintenance expenditures.
  3. Reinvestment Needs: The business will stay capital intensive, economies of scale notwithstanding, requiring significant investments in new properties and substantial ones in aging properties to preserve their earning power. I will assume that each dollar of additional capital invested into the business will generate $1.68 in additional revenues, again drawing on industry averages. (Currently, WeWork generates only 11 cents in revenues for every dollar invested, but in its defense, many of its locations are either just starting to fill or are not occupied yet.)
From my perspective, this seems like an optimistic story, where WeWork generates pre-tax operating income of 10.07 billion on revenues of $80.5 billion in 2029, generating a 26.61% return on capital on intermediate capital investments. Allowing for a starting cost of capital of about 8%, the resulting value for the operating assets is about $29.5 billion, but before you decide to put all your money in WeWork, there are two barriers to overcome:
  1. Possibility of failure: The debt load that WeWork carries makes its susceptible to economic downturns and shocks in the real estate market, and the cost of capital, a going concern measure of risk, is incapable of capturing the risk of failure embedded in the business model. I will assume a 20% chance of failure in my valuation, and if it does occur, that the firm will have to sell its holdings for 60% of fair value.
  2. Debt load: As I noted in the last section, the company has accumulated a debt load, including lease commitments, of $23.8 billion. 
Adjusting for these, the resulting value of equity is $13.75 billion, and with my preliminary assessment of shares outstanding, translates into a value per share of about $26/share.
Download spreadsheet
I am sure that I will get pushback from both directions, with optimists arguing that the unmet demand for flexible office space in conjunction with the WeWork brand will lead to higher revenue growth and margins, and pessimists positing that both numbers are overstated. In response, here is what I can offer:
If you are puzzled as to why the equity value changes so much, as growth and margins change, the answer lies in the super-charged leverage model that WeWork has created. To the question of whether WeWork could be worth $40 billion, $50 billion or more, the answer is that it is possible but only if the company can deliver well-above average margins, while maintaining sky-high growth. That would make those values improbable, but what should terrify investors is that even the $15 or $20 billion equity values require stretching the assumptions to breaking point, and that there are a whole host of plausible scenarios where the equity is worth nothing. In fact, there is an argument to be made that if you invest in WeWork equity, you are investing less in an ongoing business, and more in an out-of-the-money option, with plausible pathways to a boom but just as many or even more pathways to a bust.

Storytelling's Dark Side: The Meltdown of Runaway Stories
Valuation is a bridge between stories and numbers, and for young companies, it is the story that drives the numbers, rather than the other way around. This is neither good nor bad, but a reflection of a reality which is that bulk of value at these companies comes from what they will do in the future, rather than what they have done in the past. That said, there is a danger when stories rule, and especially so if the numbers become props or are ignored, that the pricing that is attached to a company can lose its tether to value. In 2015, I used the notion of a runaway story to explain why VC investors pushed up the price of Theranos to $9 billion, without any tangible evidence that the revolutionary blood testing, that was at the basis of that value, actually worked. In particular, I suggested that there are three ingredients to a runaway story:
With Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes was the story teller, arguing that her nanotainers would upend the (big) blood testing business and in the process, make it accessible to people around the world who could not afford it. Investors, Walgreens and the Cleveland Clinic all swooned, and no one asked questions about the blood tests themselves, afraid, perhaps, of being viewed as being against making the world a healthier place. For much of its life, WeWork has had many of the same ingredients, a visionary founder, Adam Neumann, who seems to view the company less as a business and more as a mission to make the business world a little more equal by giving the underdogs (young start-ups, entrepreneurs and small companies) a base, at least in terms of office space and community support, to fend off bigger competitors. It is no surprise, therefore, that the company describes its clients as community and members and that the word "We" carries significance beyond the company name. Along the way, the company was able to get venture capitalists to buy in, and the pricing of the company reflects its rise:
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The list of investors includes some big names in the VC and money management space, indicating that the runaway story’s allure is not restricted to the naïve and the uninitiated. Note also that one of the last entrants into the capital game was Softbank, providing a capital infusion of $2 billion in January 2019, translating into a pricing of $47 billion for the company's equity. In sum, Softbank’s holdings give it 29% of the equity in the company, larger even than Adam Neumann’s share.

As we saw with Theranos, in its rapid fall from grace, there is a dark side to story companies and it stems from the fact that value is built on a personality, rather than a business, and when the personality stumbles or acts in a way viewed as untrustworthy, the runaway story can quickly morph into a meltdown story, where the ingredients curdle:
Once investors lose faith in the narrator, the same story that evoked awe and sky-high pricing in the runaway model starts to come apart, as the flaws in the model and its disconnect with the numbers take center stage. With WeWork, the shift seems to have occurred in record time, partly because of bad market timing, with the macro indicators indicating that a global economic showdown may be coming sooner rather than later, and partly because of its own arrogance. In fact, if you were mapping out a plan for self-destruction, the company has delivered in spades with:
  1. CEO arrogance: For someone who is likely to be a multi-billionaire in a few weeks, Adam Neumann has been remarkably short sighted, starting with his sale of almost $800 million in shares leading into the IPO, continuing with his receipt (which he reversed, by only after significant blowback) of $6 million for giving the company the right to use the name “We”, and the conflicts of interest that he seems to have sowed all over the corporate structure. 
  2. Accounting Game playing: WeWork’s continued description, with more than a 100 mentions in its prospectus, of itself as a tech company is at odds with its real estate business model, but investors would perhaps have been willing to overlook that if the company had not also indulged in accounting game playing in the past. This is after all the company that coined Community EBITDA (, an almost comically bad measure of earnings, where almost all expenses are added back to derive arrive at earnings. 
  3. Denial: Since even a casual observer can see the mismatch that lies at the heart of the WeWork business model, it behooves the company to confront that problem directly. Instead, through 220 pages of a prospectus, the company bobs and weaves, leaving the question unanswered.
While these are all long standing features of the company, I think that if pricing is a game of mood and momentum, the mood has darkened during this period, and it came as no surprise when rumors started a couple of days ago that the company was considering slashing its pricing to $20 billion a lower. That is an astounding mark down from the initial pricing estimate, but it suggests that the company and its bankers are running into investor resistance.

What is the end game?
As WeWork stumbles its way to an IPO, with the very real chance that it could be pulled by its biggest stockholders (Neumann and Softbank) from a public offering, the question of what to do next depends upon whose perspective you tak.
  1. If you are a VC/equity owner in WeWorks, your choice is a tough one. On the one hand, you may want to pull the IPO and wait for a better moment. On the other, your moment may have passed and to survive as a private company, WeWork will need more capital (from you).
  2. As an investor, whether you invest or not will depend on what you think is a plausible/probable narrative for the company, and the resulting value. I would not invest in the company, even at the more modest pricing levels ($15-$20 billion), but if the price collapsed to the single digits, I would buy it for its optionality.
  3. If you are a trader, this stock, if it goes public, will be a pure pricing game, going up and down based upon momentum. If you are good at sending momentum shifts, you could take advantage. 
  4. If you are a founder/CEO of a company, the lesson to be learned from this IPO is that no matter how disruptive you may perceive your company to be, in a business, there are lessons to be learned from looking at how that business has been run in the past. 
The saying that those who do not know their history are destined to repeat it seems apt not just in politics and public policy, but also in markets, as companies rediscover old ways to make money, and then find anew the flaws that put an end to those ways.

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