Aswath Damodoran, finance professor at NYU’s Stern school, has some nice words here on two topics which I see as interrelated. Firstly, he looks at the dictatorial tendencies of the Google executive team, then he delves into “Governments and Value”. What interests me is that the new-age ecosystems of Google, Apple and many imitators are philosophically rather like the state systems whose cycle time at the apex seems to be ending. The wwweb is rendering the current business model of today’s state “I will take part of your money in return for part-underwriting your physical safety and some infrastructure to allow you to learn, move and trade. And you get some kind of a policy say in periodic votes” irrelevant at varying tempos across the globe.
So will the new world order – “place your product/app on my shelf and I will take X% (30?) for maintaining a tech. ecosystem in which the value of your app can be accessed and monetized on unimaginable scale” in truth be any different? Better? Worse?
Worth a passing thought, as a corporation like Google has astutely fashioned a bizarrely low tax rate for itself in the US…
Anyway, here first is Aswath’s piece on Google, (with my emphases in bold, and extracted here for the rushed):-
…Stock splits and stock dividends are empty gestures from an intrinsic value standpoint because they change none of the fundamentals of a company…
…I would find it odd that a company that just reported good growth in earnings and dividends would use a stock split as a signal. In fact, I am looking forward to seeing the full filing. Perhaps, there is “bad” news hidden behind the healthy growth that Google does not want me to pay attention to…. shares that will be created in the split will have no voting rights…
…Brin and Page think that you (as stockholders) are too immature to know what’s good for you in the long term, and they want to make these decisions for you…
…In fact, what the stock split signals (to me) is that Google is planning more controversial (and debatable) big decisions in the future and they do not want to either explain these decisions or put them up for a fair vote. …
…karmic view of corporate governance…
…Facebook being the most prominent recent member of the “spit in your stockholder’s face club”…
Google splits its stock and spits on its stockholders
I have talked about Google in prior posts on its voting share structure and the increasing cost it ispaying for maintaining growth. Well, the company had a big news day yesterday, starting with an impressive earnings report (earnings growth of 60% & revenue growth of 24%) and ending with an announcement that they would be splitting their stock, with a twist. I will focus on the stock split but use it to also make a couple of points about corporate control and earnings growth.
Stock splits and stock dividends are empty gestures from an intrinsic value standpoint because they change none of the fundamentals of a company. The value of a business rests on its capacity to generate high returns (and cash flows) from existing investments, its potential for value creating growth and the risk in its operations. Splitting your stock (or its milder version, stock dividends) change the number of units in the company without affecting value. Thus, in a two for one stock split, you, as a stockholder, will end up with twice the number of shares, each trading at half the intrinsic value per share that they used to.
The Google split: Google’s intrinsic value does not change as a result of the stock split. If you are interested, here is my estimate of the intrinsic value per share of Google,, pre-split. At $630/share, the stock look a little over valued (by about 10%). After a two for one stock split, they will still be over valued (by about 10%)...
There are two areas where stock splits or dividends can affect prices, either positively or negatively.
a. Price level effects: By altering the price level, a stock split can affect trading dynamics and costs, and alter your stockholder composition. The “splits are good” argument goes as follows: when a stock trades at a high price (say $800/share), small investors cannot trade the stock easily and your investor base becomes increasingly institutional. By splitting the stock (say ten for one), you reduce the price per share to $80/share and allow more individuals to buy the stock, thus expanding your stockholder base and perhaps increasing trading volume & liquidity. The “splits are bad” argument is based upon transactions costs, with the bid-ask spread incorporated in these costs. At lower stock price levels, the total transactions costs may increase as a percent of the price. The effect has been examined extensively and there is some evidence, albeit contested, that the net effect of splits on liquidity is small but positive.
The Google split: Since the split is a two for one split at a $650 stock price, there is not much ammunition for either side of the price level argument. At $325/share, Google will remain too expensive for some retail investors and the transactions costs and trading volume are unlikely to change much. As one of the largest market cap companies in the market, I don't think liquidity is the biggest problem facing Google stockholders.
b. Perceptions: A stock split may change investor perceptions about future growth potential in both good and bad ways. The “splits are good” school argues that only companies that feel confident about future earnings growth will split their shares, and that stock splits are therefore good news. The “splits are bad” school counters that splits are empty gestures (and costless to imitate) and that companies resort to these distractions only because they have run out of tangible ways of showing growth or value added.
The Google split: I would find it odd that a company that just reported good growth in earnings and dividends would use a stock split as a signal. In fact, I am looking forward to seeing the full filing. Perhaps, there is “bad” news hidden behind the healthy growth that Google does not want me to pay attention to.. Or, Google is looking down the road at the oncoming competition (from Facebook and its social media allies) and does not see good things happening. Or, maybe a split is sometimes just a split (with no information about the future)...
The twist in this stock split, i.e., that the shares that will be created in the split will have no voting rights, is the more intriguing part of the story. In talking about the rationale for the split, here is what Larry Page said:
"We have protected Google from outside pressures and the temptation to sacrifice future opportunities to meet short-term demands." Talk about chutzpah! What outside pressure? And to do what? And what temptation is Page alluding to? Brin and Page think that you (as stockholders) are too immature to know what’s good for you in the long term, and they want to make these decisions for you. I think it is absurd to make the argument that Google would somehow have been stymied in its long term decision making, if it did not have the shareholder structure that it has now. I will wager that there is not a single decision that Google has made over the last decade that they would not have been able to make with a more democratic share voting structure (one share, one vote). The difference is that they would have had to explain these decisions more fully, which is a healthy thing for any management in a publicly traded company to do. In fact, what the stock split signals (to me) is that Google is planning more controversial (and debatable) big decisions in the future and they do not want to either explain these decisions or put them up for a fair vote.
As the Google model for control becomes the rule rather than the exception, at least in the technology sector, here are the three responses you can adopt to the "Googlers":
a. Sit it out: If as a stockholder, you are becoming part owner (and partner to the current owners) of a business, I would not blame you, for refusing to buy stock in Google-like companies, because you are not being treated as a full partner. Consequently, you could decide to avoid being investors in any company that has a dual-class structure for voting. The problem, of course, is that you might end up with no investments in an entire sector (social media and young technology) that is the fastest growing segment of the market.
b. Price it in: The logical response to the loss of control is to price it in, effectively discounting the price you pay for low-vote or no-vote shares, relative to full-vote shares. Conceptually, it is not difficult to do and I have a paper on how you can go about estimating the discount on non-voting shares: you have to build in the expectation and likelihood that managers will misbehave in the future, and that you will not be able to stop them. In practice, though, investors often value low-vote shares based upon recent management performance/behavior, paying too high a price when managers are behaving and performing well and pushing down the price too low, after managers disappoint them.
c. What, me worry? There are investors who argue that owning shares, with or without voting rights, gives you little say in the management or corporate governance of most companies and that the dilution of voting rights should therefore have no effect on what you should pay. My response to this karmic view of corporate governance is two fold. First, the fact that you may not be able to change managers with your shareholding (because it is small) does not necessarily imply that stockholders collectively cannot make a difference; in fact, we know that they often do. Second, if you buy into this view, you have effectively lost the right to complain about your lack of say in decision making. Thus, for those institutional stockholders in Google who were quoted in the news stories yesterday as being disappointed that your counsel was not heard, I have little sympathy for you. Google and all of its imitators in the technology sector (with Facebook being the most prominent recent member of the “spit in your stockholder’s face club) have been clear about where control lies. Buying stock in Google or Facebook and then complaining about the autocratic tendencies of Page/Brin or Zuckerberg is like getting married to one of the Kardashian sisters and then complaining about your in-laws or loss of privacy. (Let's call this the Kardashian rule and codify it....)
And then, just as we watch the sad attempts by SANRAL to impose a ludicrous cost structure on road tolling founder in the face of popular clear thinking, Aswath starts a three-parter on the value impact of governments with this piece on Nationalisation Risk. Quite apposite also as populism may well see the N-word re-emerge toward the next leadership cycle in Mangaung. (And – will a Sanral default impact the cost of capital here? Will nationalization? Why doesn’t Pretoria just give back the fuel levy (which it took long ago from road funding to feed the central beast), and work harder at reducing itself so the people’s lives can accelerate?)
Do we have any hoodlums at the wheel here in SA?
(Bolded emphases extracted again for your convenience):-
…The last five years have been a wake-up call to me that governments can and often do affect value in significant ways and that these effects are not restricted to emerging markets….
…the possibility of government capriciousness into what you pay for shares in a company….
…discount rates are blunt instruments and that the risk and return models are more attuned to capturing the risk that your earnings or cash flow estimates will be volatile than to reflecting discrete risk, i.e., risks like survival risk or nationalization risk that "truncate or end" your investment…
…Value of operating assets = Value of assets from DCF (1 - Probability of nationalization) + Value of assets if nationalized (Probability of nationalization)…
…Since my skill set does not lie in psychoanalysis, I am going to steer away from companies in these countries [Argentina Russia & Venezuela]…
…If you do not control for nationalization risk, companies in countries which are exposed to this risk will often look absurdly cheap on a PE ratio or an EV/EBITDA basis. But looking cheap does not necessarily equate to being cheap ….
…I would operate under the presumption of "fool me once, shame on you... fool me twice, shame on me" and incorporate a higher probability of bankruptcy into the valuation of every Argentine company….
…"I am a head of state, and not a hoodlum". Someone should remind her that the two are not mutual exclusive …
Governments and Value: Part 1 - Nationalization Risk
I have been writing about valuation for a long time and for much of that time period, I chose to ignore the effects, positive or negative, that governments can have on the value of businesses. Implicitly, I was assuming that governments could affect the value of a business only through the tax code and perhaps through regulatory rule changes (if you were a regulated firm), but that a firm's value ultimately rested on its capacity to find a market for its products and generate profits from these products. The last five years have been a wake-up call to me that governments can and often do affect value in significant ways and that these effects are not restricted to emerging markets.
The news story that brought this thought back to the forefront was from Argentina, where Cristina Fernandez, the president, announced that the Argentine government planned to nationalize YPF. The ripple effects were felt across the ocean in Spain, where Repsol, the majority owner of YPF, now stands to lose several billion dollars as a consequence. Not surpringly, the stock price of YPF, already down about 50% this year, plunged another 21% in New York trading. If you own YPF stock, my sympathies to you, but it is too late to reverse that mistake. However, there are general lessons that we can take away from this sorry episode about how best to incorporate the possibility of government capriciousness into what you pay for shares in a company.
1. Intrinsic value and nationalization risk
There are three components to intrinsic value: cash flows (reflecting the profitability of your business), growth (incorporating both the benefits of growth and the costs of delivering that growth) and risk. If you have to value a company in a country where nationalization risk is a clear and present danger, the obvious input that you may think of changing is the risk measure. After all, as investors, you face more risk to your investments in countries with capricious heads of state or governments, than in countries with governments that respect ownership rights (and have legal systems that back it up).
There are three options that you can use to incorporate the effect of this risk on your value:
Option 1- Use a "higher required return or discount rate": If you are using a discounted cash flow valuation, you could try to use a higher discount rate for companies that operate in Argentina, Venezuela or Russia, for instance, to reflect the higher risk that your ownership stake may be taken away from you for less-than-fair compensation. The problem that you will face is that discount rates are blunt instruments and that the risk and return models are more attuned to capturing the risk that your earnings or cash flow estimates will be volatile than to reflecting discrete risk, i.e., risks like survival risk or nationalization risk that "truncate or end" your investment.
Option 2: Reduce your "expected cash flows for risk of nationalization: You can reduce the expected cash flows that you will get from a company incorporated in a "nationalization-prone" market to reflect the risk that those cash flows will be expropriated. While this may be straight forward for the near term cash flows (say the first year or two), they will be much more difficult to do for the cash flows beyond that time period.
Option 3: Deal with the nationalization risk separately from your valuation: Since it is so difficult to adjust discount rates and cash flows for nationalization risk (or any other discrete risk), here is my preferred option.
Step 1: Value the company using conventional discounted cash flow models, with no increment in the discount rate or haircutting of the cash flows. The value that you get from the model will be your "going concern" value.
Step 2: Bring in the concerns you have about nationalization into two numbers: a probability that the firm will be nationalized and the proceeds that you will get if you are nationalized.
Value of operating assets = Value of assets from DCF (1 - Probability of nationalization) + Value of assets if nationalized (Probability of nationalization)
To illustrate, consider Dominguez & Cia, a Venezuelan packaging company, which generated 117 million Venezuelan Bolivar (VEB) in operating income on revenues of 491 million VEB in 2010. A discounted cash flow valuation of the company generates a value of 483 million VEB for the operating assets. Assuming a 20% probability of nationalization and also assuming that the owners will be paid half of fair value, if nationalization occurs, here is what we obtain as the nationalization adjusted value:
Nationalization adjusted value = 483 (.8) + (483*.5) (.2) = 435 million VEB
Subtracting out the debt (291 million) and adding cash (68 million) yields a value for the equity of 212 million VEB. At its traded equity value of 211 million VEB, the stock looks fairly priced. If you download the valuation, you can see that I have incorporated the high operating risk (separate from nationalization risk) in Venezuela with a higher equity risk premium (12%) and the higher inflation/interest rates in Venezuela with a higher risk free rate of 20%. In particular, play with the nationalization probabilities and the consequences of nationalization to see how it plays out in your value per share.
Note, though, that my 20% estimate of the probability of nationalization is a complete guess, in this case. If I were interested in investing in Venezuelan (Russian, Argentine) companies, I would spend more of my time assessing Hugo Chavez's (Vlad Putin's, Cristina Fernandez's) proclivities and persuasions than on generating cash flow estimates for companies. Since my skill set does not lie in psychoanalysis, I am going to steer away from companies in these countries.
2. Relative value and nationalization risk
How would you bring in the concerns about nationalization, if you value companies based upon multiples? One is to use multiples extracted from the country in question, on the assumption that the market would have incorporated (correctly) the risk and cost of nationalization into these multiples. To an extent, this is reasonable and it is true that companies in countries with high nationalization risk trade at lower multiples.
Note that while Russian and Venezuelan companies trade at a discount to their emerging market peers (and my guess is that Argentine companies will join them soon), you have no way of knowing whether the discount is a fair one.
The problem, though, becomes more acute when you are not able to find enough companies in the sector within that country to make your valuation judgment. With Dominguez & Cia, for instance, you have the only publicly traded packaging company operating in Venezuela. If you decide to go out of the market, say look at US packaging companies in 2011, the average EV/Operating income multiple is about 10.51 in January 2012. Applying this multiple to Dominguez's operating income would generate a value of 1230 million VEB, well above the market value of 211 million VEB. However, you have not incorporated the higher operating risk in Venezuela (separate from the nationalization risk) and the risk of nationalization.
The bottom line with multiples is simple. If you do not control for nationalization risk, companies in countries which are exposed to this risk will often look absurdly cheap on a PE ratio or an EV/EBITDA basis. But looking cheap does not necessarily equate to being cheap..
While it is too late to incorporate the risk of nationalization in the value of YPF, you can adjust the estimated values of other Argentine companies. While the government of Argentina may argue that YPF was unique and that they would not extend the nationalization model to other companies, I would operate under the presumption of "fool me once, shame on you... fool me twice, shame on me" and incorporate a higher probability of bankruptcy into the valuation of every Argentine company. The net effect would be a drop in equity values across the board: that is the consequence of government action. There are other repercussions as well. A government that is cavalier about private ownership is likely to be just as cavalier about its financial obligations: no surprise then at the news that the default spreads for Argentina have surged after the YPF news.
While this post is about the "negative" effects of government intervention, it is possible that the potential for government intervention can push up the value of equity in other companies. In particular, the possibility that governments may "bail out" companies that are "too large or important to fail" may increase the value of equities in those companies as will the potential for government subsidies to "worthy" companies. I will come back to these questions in subsequent posts.
Returning again to the Argentina story, Ms. Fernandez was quoted as saying, "I am a head of state, and not a hoodlum". Someone should remind her that the two are not mutual exclusive, and the problem may be that she is both.