Amazon Shares Look Expensive, Long Term Future Returns Appear Limited

In November of 2004 I wrote a piece entitled “Sleepless in Seattle” which postulated that shares of Starbucks (SBUX) were trading at such a high valuation (forward P/E of 48) that even if the company grew handsomely over the following few years, the stock’s performance was likely to be unimpressive. I projected an aggressive three-year average annual earnings growth rate of 20% and a P/E of 40 by 2007. I warned investors that even if those aggressive assumptions were attained, Starbucks stock would only gain 6% per year over that three year period.

The analysis proved quite accurate. Starbucks continued to grow its profits nicely, but the stock’s valuation came back down to earth. After three years had passed, Starbucks stock was actually trading 12% lower than it was when I wrote the original piece.

Today, shares of online retailer Amazon.com (AMZN) remind me of Starbucks back in 2004. Despite a cratering stock market and weak retail market, Amazon stock has been quite resilient. After a strong fourth quarter earnings report (released yesterday after the close of trading), the stock is up $7 today to $57 per share. Profits at Amazon for 2008 came in at $1.49 per share, which gives the stock a P/E of 38, which is very high, even for a strong franchise like Amazon.

I decided to do the same exercise with Amazon. I wanted to make assumptions that were both reasonable but also fairly aggressive. I decided that an average earnings growth rate of 15% over the next five years fits that mold. Projecting the P/E in January of 2014 is not easy, but given that Amazon’s growth rate should slow as the company gets larger, I think a 20 P/E ratio is reasonable given where other retailers trade (less than 15x). By 2014, Amazon’s growth rate should be more in-line with other retailers similar in size, so I chose 20 to be higher than average, but not in nosebleed territory like the current 38 P/E.

After some simple number crunching, we can determine that Amazon would earn $3 per share in 2013 in this scenario. Twenty times that figure gets us a share price of $60, versus today’s quote of $57. Even if the company hits these assumptions, shareholders will make a total return of 5% (only 1% per year!) over the next five years. I would be willing to bet the S&P 500 index far outpaces that rate over that time.

Obviously these assumptions could prove inaccurate, but I think this exercise is helpful in illustrating how hard it is for stocks that trade at lofty valuations to generate strong returns over the long term.

There is one interesting thing about Amazon’s business that I think is worth pointing out. You may recall that one of the bullish arguments for an online retailer like Amazon was that they could have a lower cost structure by eliminating the expenses associated with renting and operating large brick and mortar storefronts. Having a 100% online presence was supposed to result in higher profit margins, and therefore investors could justify paying more for Amazon’s stock.

It seems that argument has not been realized. Amazon’s operating margins in 2008 were 4.3%. If we look at brick and mortar retailers that are similar in business line and/or size, we find that Amazon’s margins are actually lower than their offline competitors. Here is a sample list: Kohls (KSS) 9.9%, JC Penney (JCP) 7.6%, Macy’s (M) 7.2%, Target (TGT) 7.8%, and Best Buy (BBY) 4.6%.

Maybe online retailers have to spend more on research and development and call center staff than offline stores do, thereby cutting into the margin advantage. Amazon also offers free shipping on orders of $25 or more, which many say they could eliminate to boost profits. Maybe so, but sales would be affected to some degree if they did that, not to mention customer loyalty.

Nonetheless, to me these statistics help make the case that a 38 P/E for Amazon is way too high. As a result, returns to Amazon shareholders over the next several years could very well be unimpressive, just as was the case with Starbucks five years ago.

Full Disclosure: Peridot Capital was long Best Buy and Target at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Obama Team Discussing Bad Asset Purchase Program, But It May Be Too Late

I have written here previously that I didn’t understand why former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson abandoned the original plan for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP); buying troubled assets from banks to free them up to have more lending flexibility. CNBC reported Tuesday evening that the Obama economic team is preparing a plan to do just that. While it is the better idea, it is also a shame that we have already plowed through $350 billion in preferred stock investments in the banking sector.

The preferred capital injection idea was doomed from the start because it did two things that hampered the banks. First, the preferred stock carried interest rates of 5%-10%. A bank taking $10 billion from TARP might have to pay out $1 billion in annual interest to the government. Sure, that helps the government get its money back sooner, but it requires the banks to hoard capital to ensure they can pay out the interest on time. When capital is so scarce, making the banks pay out more in interest is not going to help them.

But the banks can lend out the vast majority of the TARP money they receive, right? Not really, which brings us to the second problem; with the troubled assets still on the banks’ books, they need to hoard capital to cover future losses that will be incurred on those assets. Without helping to relieve the banks of the sub-prime assets that are causing most of their losses, the new capital is just going to be eroded away as further losses mount. If someone comes into the emergency room with a dislocated shoulder, you don’t just give the patient painkillers, you pop it back in place to help relieve the source of the pain!

The first part of TARP simply treated the symptoms of the problem, not the source. As a result, we have blown through $350 billion already and don’t have much to show for it. It is encouraging that the Obama team is trying to find a solution for the troubled assets even though it is a complicated idea, but it just might be too late. We’ll have to see what the plan looks like (if it even comes to fruition), and more importantly, how receptive the nation’s largest banks are to participating in it.

With Consumers Paring Back, Netflix Business Gets Stronger

If people are looking to cut back on discretionary spending, the Netflix (NFLX) mail order DVD service can obviously help. Rather than spending $30 at a theater for a couple to see a movie and order some snacks, a Netflix subscription can cost half that for an entire month. Not surprising, fourth quarter sales and earnings at Netflix (reported last night) were very impressive and the stock is soaring today, trading up near $35 per share.

Despite being relatively recession-proof, Netflix stock at current levels doesn’t get me very excited from a value standpoint. One can certainly justify a 2009 P/E north of 20, as it is today, but as a value investor that is not cheap enough for me to get overly excited, despite the strong business fundamentals. I will, however, continue to make good use of my Netflix subscription, and I highly recommend it.

Full Disclosure: No position in Netflix at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Home Inventories Drop Meaningfully in December, Trend Needs to Continue

Updating our long-running chart of existing home inventories, we see a sharp drop in December. The chart below shows 2007 and 2008. You can see that monthly inventory drops in the past have been temporary, and not the beginning of a new trend. Hopefully this can change going forward.

In order for the economy, our financial system, and the markets to produce real, sustainable stability we need the housing market to halt the price declines. Stable home prices require a reasonable supply-demand balance. The median existing home price in December fell to $175,000 from $207,000 the year before. That price decline brought out some buyers, which reduced inventory to the lowest levels since mid 2007.

Price declines will continue for some time, but if we can get inventories down to 6-7 months supply, those price declines should begin to moderate. A stable housing market would do a lot to support stable prices for mortgage-backed securities, which in turn would ease the pressure on bank balance sheets and boost confidence in our financial system. As a result, we should cross our fingers that the December inventory decline continues in coming months.

Capital One: Book Value Down 3% in 2008, Stock Down 60%

When I construct an equity portfolio, I focus on individual companies rather than sector allocations. My thought process is that if I can pick the winners and avoid the losers in any given sector, I don’t have to predict which sector will do well and which won’t.

Now, I could go out on a limb and avoid all energy stocks, for instance, if I thought demand for oil (and therefore prices) would decline. But what if I was wrong? Energy stocks could soar and I would have no exposure whatsoever. Personally, I find it far easier to identify strong energy companies than to predict where energy prices will go.

If the energy stocks I choose to invest in are better than average, then the energy portion of the portfolio will outperform the S&P 500. If I can replicate that in more sectors than not over the long term, then I can outperform the benchmark index. In a nutshell, that is how I try to beat the market over the long term.

It sounds simple enough, but in unique times (such as today) rationality completely goes out the window, and that makes my job as a long term investment manager very difficult. I will use Capital One (COF) as an example. If you believe in efficient markets, this will serve as some evidence against that hypothesis.

I have followed Capital One for a long time and have written about it extensively on this blog over the years. In my view, it is one of the best managed and financially strong banking companies around. As a result, when faced with a choice of paying 10 times earnings for Citigroup (C) or the same price for COF, I chose COF.

My analysis has been mostly correct. Capital One has avoided huge losses on packaged securities of sub-prime loans and purchased various deposit banks before the credit crisis hit, which allowed it to maintain appropriate capital levels without begging the government for cash. As a result, the company’s tangible book value per share in 2008 dropped from $29.00 to $28.24, a loss of 2.6% in a year when many banks went out of business or were bailed out by the government and larger competitors.

As you can see from the chart below, however, Capital One’s stock price has fared far worse than their book value deterioration would suggest. It has dropped 60%, from over $50 to under $20 as of this morning. Fundamental analysis has gone completely out the window lately.

Sellers of Capital One will tell you that as the unemployment rate rises, Capital One’s loan losses will increase throughout 2009 and their earnings will decline, if not turn negative. I completely agree! Everybody knows this, including the company (management is forecasting $8.6 billion of loan losses in 2009, a dramatic increase from 2008).

Still, that does not justify a 60% drop in share price coinciding with a 2.6% drop in tangible book value. Let’s say book value falls 10% in 2009 (nearly four times the 2008 rate), reflecting an even worse year. At the same rate (20% decline in stock price for each 1% loss in book value), COF shares would drop 200% in 2009. Fortunately, a stock can’t go down more than 100%!

The market is behaving as if larger loan losses and a temporary disappearance of earnings threatens the survival of Capital One, although the company has a very strong balance sheet and can withstand these recession-related shocks, unlike many of their weaker competitors. Because such an assumption is off base, it makes very little sense for a long term investor to shun strong bank stocks in the current market environment.

Capital One may trade at two-thirds of book value today (how that figure is justified, I don’t know), but when the recession ends and the unemployment rate begins to drop, the odds are very good that the stock trades at two times tangible book value or more, which means the stock could triple in value, even ignoring any increases in book value which would certainly result as time went on.

Until then, the market will continue to only focus on the short term and conclude that a bad 2009 means companies like Capital One somehow have bad business models or are broken in some way. In actuality, they are simply riding the economic cycle. Finance companies make good money when times are good and do poorly when they aren’t. Fortunately, the good times far outlast the bad times.

Full Disclosure: Peridot Capital was long shares of Capital One at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Pfizer Might Finally Move to Help Cushion Lipitor Blow

The relatively new CEO at drug giant Pfizer (PFE) has been focusing on cost cutting, not major acquisitions, since he arrived but investors have wanted more. The company’s blockbuster cholesterol treatment, Lipitor, represents 25% of Pfizer’s $48 billion in annual sales, but the drug faces patent expiration in 2011. Fears over how the company would replace such a loss has been hampering its share price for a long time. Despite a dividend yield north of 7%, investors have been uninspired, as the stock only fetches 7 times 2008 expected earnings.

We now hear that Pfizer is in talks to acquire Wyeth (WYE) for about $60 billion. While most large deals are met with initial skepticism (Pfizer shares are down in pre-market trading to $16 and change) a large deal is very important for an industry facing large scale patent losses and limited R&D pipelines. If this deal does come to fruition, it shows that Pfizer management actually did have a plan, they just weren’t going to be rushed into it by Wall Street. With a P/E of 7 and a dividend yield of 7.5%, Pfizer shares are very cheap and at the very least have limited downside. If the Wyeth deal happens and works well, the announcement of the deal could easily mark the bottom in the stock.

Full Disclosure: Peridot Capital had a long position in Pfizer at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Two Suggestions for Apple’s Board of Directors

As an Apple (AAPL) shareholder, the recent handling of disclosures regarding the health of CEO Steve Jobs has me upset like most other investors. For some reason, Apple’s board of directors believes that a CEO facing a potentially fatal cancer is not “material” piece of news.

They didn’t tell us right away when Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer several years ago, despite a five year survival rate of less than 50%, and they have refused to update us on his health. Now we have to rely on tech-related blog sources to update us and when finally forced to give more details, the Apple board said he was fine, only to announce his six month leave of absence days later.

As if this is not difficult enough for shareholders, the company is currently sitting on $28 billion of cash in the bank. Apple’s cash hoard would rank it the 55th most valuable company in the S&P 500 even if it had no operations whatsoever. Why on earth is Apple keeping this much cash on its books?

They will tell you they want to keep money available to make strategic acquisitions and to weather economic downturns. Has Apple ever made a large acquisition? Did they not just announce better than expected earnings for the fourth quarter despite this severe recession? There is simply no reason for them to have $28 billion just sitting there.

I have two suggestions for Apple’s board of directors. Not only will both moves boost Apple’s share price, but more importantly it would simply show some desire on their part to be fair to their shareholders, the same people who pay their salaries.

1) Announce a Management Succession Plan

How hard is this, really? Apple has plenty of competent managers. All the board has to do is announce what the management hierarchy would look like if Jobs left the company for personal reasons. With that knowledge in hand, he can stay as long as he wants as far as I’m concerned! The board knows this is a crucial issue (the stock plummets each time the health issue appears troubling), but simply ignores it for some reason.

Personally, I do not believe that a Jobs-less Apple would be in trouble. The idea that he is the entire brains behind the company and its products, and not the other 35,000 employees is pretty silly. Jobs is certainly a very good CEO, but the idea that Apple lacks the talent to innovate without him seems far fetched to me.

2) Announce a Stock Buyback Plan and Repurchase 20% of the Company

At current prices they could retire 20% of the company’s outstanding shares and still have $12 billion of cash in the bank (and that number would grow every quarter from there). Can anyone really make the argument that Apple needs more than $10 billion of cash? I guess if you think they are going to buy Dell for cash or something than you could, but large tech acquisitions rarely are successful and more importantly, Apple has no history of even attempting them. A large buyback would be significantly accretive to earnings per share and could get the stock rolling again after the latest Jobs-related hiccups.

Neither of these moves would hamper the future outlook for Apple whatsoever. They would simply show that the board of directors is actually doing their job; working for the shareholders of the company.

Full Disclosure: Peridot Capital was long shares of AAPL at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

The Market Now Believes All Banks Are The Same

For months I have been in the camp of investors arguing that there are distinctions between U.S. banks. The comparisons have been made for a long time. JPMorgan Chase (JPM) is better than Citigroup (C). Wells Fargo (WFC) is better than Wachovia. The market seemed to agree with this premise until recently, and Tuesday’s market action in the banking sector was startling. Once again we have fierce and indiscriminate selling of all banks.

The drops in these stocks in recent days signals than many market players believe that all of these banks are in serious trouble, regardless of whether they have or have not done things such as loaned to sub-prime borrowers, accumulated lots of structured products on their balance sheets, maintained strong underwriting standards, or focused more on businesses rather than consumers.

The fear now is that the stronger banks who bought up the troubled institutions for pennies on the dollar actually did not get a good deal. Instead, the bad assets they took on will cripple them. The government will be forced to bail them out, common stock dividends will be eliminated, equity holders diluted, share price values decimated, and the companies eventually nationalized.

While this may be true in certain instances, I still do not believe that every large U.S. bank is on the brink. The market though, disagrees right now. After all, people thought State Street (STT) was safe because its main business was not lending, but rather back office and custodian services. And yet somehow they have managed to amass an $80 billion investment portfolio with $6 billion of unrealized mark-to-market losses so far. Maybe it isn’t safer.

Fourth quarter earnings reports released in coming days and weeks will shed more light on whether banks that have been able to post relatively better financial results this far in the cycle can continue that trend. Maybe all of the number-crunching people like me have done in recent quarters, trying to identify the better banks, was a worthless endeavor. I sure hope not.

If last quarter marks the end of that relative out-performance, there might not be a single bank stock that qualifies as quality. That would be a sad day, but the market is losing patience and is spooked by that possibility, as Tuesday’s trading brought with it 20, 30, even 40 percent losses for some banks on relatively little or no news.

One of the better banks in the eyes of many, U.S. Bancorp (USB), released earnings today and recorded a fourth quarter profit of $330 million. The market has greeted the news by sending the stock down 12% today, bringing the year-to-date loss to -46 percent. The culprits appear to be worries over increasing credit losses and the possibility of a dividend cut.

These two issues are interesting because many of us believe that increasing credit losses and dividend cuts are to be expected. As the economy worsens, credit losses rise and in order to cover those losses and reserve for future ones, earnings will drop below dividend rates and dividends will be cut. These things should be obvious by now.

For a company like U.S. Bancorp though, it appears manageable and investors should not own the stock just for the dividend. USB is an excellent franchise and the long-term earnings power of the company is what should drive the share price. As a shareholder, I don’t mind if USB has to cut or eliminate their dividend for a year or two in order to cover credit losses from loans made during the boom.

Looking at USB’s losses and reserves, I don’t see a reason to be panicky. Charged off loans in Q4 were $632 million. The company covered those, set aside another $635 million for future losses, and still earned a profit of $330 million for the quarter. Total allowance set aside for future credit losses sits at more than $3.6 billion. USB’s gross earnings (before credit losses) was $1.66 billion for Q4, so between that and the $3.6 billion already set aside, the bank has plenty of capital to cover increased losses throughout 2009.

While there are no banks, strong or weak, that are going to be able to avoid increased credit losses over the course of 2009, there are certainly banks that are better positioned to withstand the losses than others. Although the market is no longer giving them credit for being one of the stronger institutions, companies like U.S. Bancorp are the favorites to survive the current economic downturn and be stronger on the other side of it with fewer competitors. Investors looking at bank stocks need to take that kind of longer term view. If you are looking to make a killing over the next three or six months, bank stocks are not the place to look.

Full Disclosure: Peridot was long USB at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time.