AutoZone Three Months Later: Sentiment Shifts Dramatically Again

We are not quite three months from my last piece on AutoZone (AZO), which back in mid September was in the midst of a nasty stock price decline, and now investors seem to feel a lot better about the company’s business. Of course, this is bizarre because AZO is a very large player ($11 billion of annual revenue) in a very stable industry and should therefore be mostly insulated from stock market volatility and immense shifts in short-term investor sentiment.

Below is the five-year stock price chart of AZO I shared back in September when investors were overwhelmed with negativity:

And here is an updated version that shows the last 12 months:

Why exactly a company of this size, with no material change in its business outlook could trade for as low as $497 on August 15th and as high as $763 on December 5th shows just how much the current bull market has lost a sense of rationality. That is a 53% move, for a $20 billion market cap company, in a matter of months.

So how does this happen? My guess is that the markets today are mostly driven by index funds, exchange traded funds, hedge funds, and computerized algorithms. The fundamental bottom-up investors are dwindling in numbers by the day. It is not uncommon for me to meet people who are struck by the notion that I pick individual stocks. The market has been so strong for the last nine years that indexes are now considered to be the only wise investment. It is amazing how much views shift based on where we are in the market cycle. You didn’t have famous investors extolling the virtues of index funds from 2000-2008 (a nine-year period where the market had negative average annual returns), but now that the following nine years have produced +15% average annual returns, all of the sudden they are a “no-brainer” investment.

As someone who strongly believes in the cyclicality of the economy, financial markets, and investor sentiment, the AutoZone example is evidence that picking individual stocks is not silly and the markets are far from efficient. Moves like those in AZO in recent months make my job much more difficult in periods like this, when individual stock moves often make little or no sense based on fundamental research, but as long as opportunities continue to present themselves, I plan to maintain my role as an active manager of client assets. There will always be a place for index investing (for my clients it is mostly through their work retirement plan), but the ease at which it produces stellar returns will continue to ebb and flow with the market cycle.

As for AZO itself, it is hard to argue the shares are anything but fairly valued today. It will be hard for the company to grow their business (in unit terms) given the maturity of the U.S. economy and online competition, and the stock now trades for roughly 18x my estimate of normalized fee cash flow, versus just 12.5x when the shares fetched $500 each. That sounds about right to me.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of AutoZone at the time of writing (holdings have begun to be reduced recently and those trades will continue into 2018), but positions may change at any time

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