Rob Cox of Reuters Breakingviews was on CNBC this morning sharing his view that the stock of online travel company Priceline.com (PCLN) appears to be dramatically overvalued with a $30 billion equity valuation (even after today’s drop, it’s actually more like $35 billion). Rob concluded that Priceline probably should not be worth more than all of the airlines combined, plus a few hotel companies. While such a valuation may seem excessive to many, not just Rob, it fails to consider the most important thing that dictates company valuations; cash flow. In this area, Priceline is crushing airlines and hotel companies.
As an avid Priceline user, and someone who has made a lot of money on the stock in the past (it is no longer cheap enough for me to own), I think it is important to understand why Priceline is trading at a $35 billion valuation, and why investors are willing to pay such a price. While I do not think the stock is undervalued at current prices, I do not believe it is dramatically overvalued either, given the immense profitability of the company’s business model.
At first glance, Priceline’s $35 billion valuation, at a rather rich eight times trailing revenue, may seem excessive. However, the company is expected to grow revenue by nearly 30% this year, and earnings by 35%, giving the shares a P/E ratio of just 23 on 2012 profit projections. Relative to its growth rate, this valuation is not out of line.
The really impressive aspect of Priceline’s business is its margins. Priceline booked a 32% operating margin last year, versus just 4% for Southwest, probably the best-run domestic airline. With margins that are running 700% higher than the most efficient air carrier, perhaps it is easier to see how Priceline could be worth more than the entire airline industry.
Going one step further, I believe investors really love Priceline’s business because of the free cash flow it generates. Because Priceline operates a very scalable web site, very little in the way of capital expenditures are required to support more reservations and bids being placed by customers. Over the last three years, in fact, free cash flow at Priceline has grown from $500 million (2009) to $1.3 billion (2011). At 27 times free cash flow, Priceline stock is not cheap, but given its 35% earnings growth rate, it is not the overvalued bubble-type tech stock some might believe.
Full Disclosure: No positions in any of the companies mentioned, but positions may change at any time