As a value investor, I find the overemphasis on growth to be rather unsettling; it is very common to see analysts place a target price based almost entirely on earnings growth, eking out an unremarkable 5 to 10 percent capital yield gain as a call to buy a particular stock. I am currently reading a book – Value Investing: From Graham to Buffett and Beyond and it raised a very interesting point that growth may not even be necessarily beneficial for shareholders.
Excerpts from the book
Earnings Power Value
The traditional Graham and Dodd earnings assumptions are (1) that current earnings, properly adjusted, correspond to sustainable levels of cash flow and (2) that this earnings level remains constant for the indefinite future. Under these assumptions, the equation for the earnings power value (EPV) of a company is EPV = Adjusted Earnings x 1/R where R is the current cost of capital.
More importantly, there is an important and close connection between the EPV of a firm and its strategic situation, and the line of connection runs through the reproduction cost of the assets. The relation between earnings, and hence growth, and the reproduction cost of assets is an aspect not commonly examined by investors.
Three Scenarios of Growth
When we consider economically viable industries, there are three possible scenarios.
In the first, the firm’s EPV may fall substantially below the reproduction value of its assets. In this case, the management is not using the assets to produce the level of earnings that it should. The cure is to make changes in what the management is doing.
In the second, the EPV and the asset value are more or less equal. This is the situation we would expect to see in industries where there are no competitive advantages. The return these companies earn on the capital invested in them just equals the cost of acquiring that capital, and there is nothing left over for the previous investors. Thus, the EPV that equals the asset value defines the intrinsic value of the company, regardless of its growth rate in the future.
In the third situation, if the EPV is significantly higher than reproduction costs of the assets, then we are looking at an industry setting in which there must be strong barriers to entry. Firms within the barriers will earn more on their assets than will firms exposed to the entrant of new competitors in their industries. For the EPV to hold up, the barriers to entry must be sustainable at the current elvel for the indefinite future.
Difference between EPV and Asset Value
The difference between the EPV and the asset value is the value of the franchise enjoyed by the company in question. Competitive advantages enjoyed by incumbent firms constitute barriers to entry that protect the incumbents from profit-eroding competition. These advantages and barriers are responsible for the firm’s franchise. The defining character of a franchise is that it enables a firm to earn more than it needs to pay for the investments that fund its asset. The EPV is greater than the asset value; the difference between the two, as we said, is the value of the franchise. Therefore, the intrinsic value of a firm is either the reproduction costs of the assets, which should equal the EPV, or those assets plus the competitive advantages of the firm that underlie its franchise.
So when is growth bad?
Under many commonly encountered strategic situations, growth in sales and even growth in earnings add nothing to a firm’s intrinsic value. As we explained earlier, growth on a level economic playing field creates no value.
Growth in sales that finds its way to net income would seem to imply that there is more money available to investors. But growth generally has to be supported by additional assets, more receivables, more inventories, more plant and equipment. These extra assets that are not offset by higher spontaneous liabilities have to be funded by extra investment, whether from retained earnings, new borrowings, or sales of additional shares. That cuts into the amount of cash that can be distributed and thereby reduces the value of the firm. For firms that are not protected by barriers to entry, the new investment produces returns that are just enough to offset the cost of the net investment, resulting in zero net gain.
When EPV is equal to the replacement value of assets, a $1 million investment for example, should produce an additional $1 million in adjusted earnings. Nothing has been value-added to the amount and as a result, intrinsic value does not increase because it is as good as changing a dollar bill for another dollar bill. For firms operating at a competitive disadvantage, additional growth will actually destroy value (think of it as paying a dollar for fifty cents).
My 2 cents – what does this mean to an investor?
Whenever I read a book, the chief question that hangs in my mind will inevitably be – how do I apply this to my analysis? To me, a mix of practicality and theory would provide the best value for fundamental analysis (contrast this with the concept of beta). While determination of the replacement value of assets requires several adjustments and calculations which I have yet to cover in my reading, I am apprehensive of the degree of knowledge that us retail investors can gather for an estimate of replacement value.
Nevertheless, the insight put forth by the book does seem valid to me and an alternative method that I am I considering would be to compare the 5-year CAGR of CAPEX/Operating Cash Flow (OCF) against 5-year CAGR of OCF. Capital expenditure is essentially the amount of reinvestment made into the business by the company; when CAPEX/OCF growth exceeds OCF growth it means that every additional of reinvestment is generating less than a dollar of additional cash. The idea here is that if CAPEX/OCF growth significantly exceeds OCF growth, it may be a cause for concern. Be it due to diseconomies of scales or what not, under such a scenario, shareholders would be better off receiving the additional CAPEX as dividends.
In employing such a method, one should also be aware of its limitations in order to make a sound judgement. Firstly, there is might be a time lag between capital expenditure and the benefits of it depending on the nature of capital expenditure. You don’t have to be an Einstein to know that it takes a few years for a factory to be built and using a 5-year CAGR is meant to reduce the impact of timeliness. Secondly, CAPEX only increases supply-side potential. The underlying assumption of using the 5-year CAGR of OCF is that there is sufficient demand in market to meet the increased supply. When there is insufficient demand, it would be difficult to conclude strictly that a dollar of CAPEX yields less than a dollar in cash. Of course, the nature of the lack of demand – cyclical or non-cyclical is important for your judgement. Cyclical falls beyond management control may be short term and do not imply that growth is bad. Non-cyclical ones indicate poor management and more cash should be returned to investors rather than be used for expansion.
To conclude, this episode reminds us that as fundamental analysts, there are boundless opportunities for critical thinking and evaluation, for even something so typified as the quintessential quality of stocks can have another side to it. Who knows what else we have left out?