Buffett Sells IBM, Jumps On Apple Bandwagon – Blessing Or Curse?

Warren Buffett’s decision to invest a large sum in Apple (AAPL) in recent quarters was so surprising because he once regarded tech companies to be outside his so-called “circle of competence.” Then six years ago he started buying IBM (IBM) shares, which only served to confirm that the legendary investor indeed should probably steer clear of the sector and focus on the areas of the economy he knows best.

In recent days we have learned that Buffett has begun selling off his IBM position (about 1/3 thus far), but his new tech favorite is clearly Apple, which he has been accumulating so much that it now represents his second largest single stock investment in dollar terms behind Wells Fargo (WFC).

His timing with Apple appears to have been quite good, although I suspect that is more due to luck than anything. For the last year or so, Apple bulls (other than Buffett) have been touting the idea that the company is not actually a hardware company, but rather a software and services company with valuable recurring revenue. It should follow, they say, that Apple stock deserves a much higher earnings multiple than it traditionally has received (below the S&P 500 due to the perceived fickle nature of technology products, especially on the hardware side of the business).

I am not convinced that this argument makes sense, at least yet. Every quarter we hear investors tripping over themselves about Apple’s service revenue growth, and yet whenever I look at the numbers I still see a hardware company. Consider the first half of Apple’s current fiscal year (which ends September 30th). Service revenue made up 11% of Apple’s total sales, versus 67% for the iPhone, 10% for the Mac, 7% for the iPad, and 5% everything else. Clearly, Apple is not a software company.

Now I know that services have higher margins, so although they represent 11% of sales, they contribute more than that to profits, which is a good thing. But in order for software and services to really become a large contributor to Apple’s bottom line, the revenue contribution has to rise materially, in my view. And that is where I think the “Apple is a services juggernaut” thesis gets shaky.

Over the last six months, services made up 11% of total revenue. Okay, so clearly that number must be accelerating pretty quickly given how bullish certain shareholders are about Apple’s earnings multiple expansion potential, right? Well, in fiscal 2016 the figure was also 11%. In fiscal 2014 it was 10%. In fiscal 2013 it was 9%. Services thus far are not growing much faster than hardware, which actually makes sense when you think about the Apple ecosystem.

If you want more people to buy the services, they have to buy the hardware first. So maybe the two go hand in hand. Put another way, if many iPhone owners have not subscribed to Apple’s services yet, why would they suddenly begin to adopt them at higher rates in the future? At least, that is the argument for why services might not become 20 or 30% of sales over the next few years.

Interestingly, since Buffett started buying more Apple, the earnings multiple has increased. Much of that likely has to do with the prospect for corporate tax reform and the potential for the company to repatriate their large cash hoard ($30 per share net of debt) back home at a low tax rate, but some probably is linked to the idea that services are about to explode to the upside. Color me skeptical on that front.

Year-to-date Apple shares have rallied from ~$116 to ~$152 each. On a free cash flow basis, the multiple on fiscal 2016 results has risen from 12x to nearly 16x. As a holder of the stock, I am certainly happy about that, but I wonder how much more room the multiple has to rise. And will it turn back the other way if services growth disappoints or if tax reform is less aggressive than hoped? Perhaps.

If that happens, the stock price could very much depend more on Apple’s future product lineup than anything. On that front, I am nervous about the company. In recent months I have come to the conclusion that Amazon (AMZN) might be the “new Apple” in terms of tech innovation. Not too long ago it was Apple that would be first to market (the iPad, the iPhone, etc), and then everyone else would copy them (and fail). Lately it seems that Amazon has taken over that role and Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), and Apple then copy them.

I am thinking about Amazon Echo, which Google quickly copied and rumors are that Apple is not far behind in doing the same. With Amazon’s announcement this week about Echo Show I had the same thought. Dash buttons – same thing. Drone delivery – same thing. Apple is reportedly funding original TV shows and movies now (years behind the curve). The Apple Watch wasn’t first to market, etc. Oh, and the attempt to build an electric car in Cupertino? The perfect example of mimicry.

If that is the case, then Apple’s hardware growth, which has been halted, may be difficult to accelerate. And if services need to pick up the slack, there is a lot of work left there as they seem to be stuck as a percentage of total sales.

While I am not bearish on Apple as an investment – their ability to generate cash remains more than formidable – with the recent earnings multiple expansion I am starting to think about where future upside will come from. If the most exuberant bulls are right and the stock can garner a multiple a la Coca Cola (KO) or McDonalds (MCD) (20-25x earnings), that is definitely the answer. I am just not sure sure that makes sense, at this point anyway.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Apple and Amazon at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Wynn Resorts Coming Up Aces For Investors

It has been about 18 months since Steve Wynn purchased more than 1 million shares of his own company’s stock, Wynn Resorts (WYNN), at prices in the low to mid 60’s. While he had better timing than I did (I initially started buying earlier in 2015 at higher prices), which would be expected, his insider purchase has been immensely profitable.

WYNN shares surged this week after the company reported strong earnings, breaking through the $125 level for the first time in more than two years. Bargains hunters like me who bought at multiple times on the way down have had to be patient, but buying great companies at discounted prices often works out very well for those who are willing to wait.

Now that Wynn’s second Macau resort has opened (last August) and is ramping up nicely, I thought it was a good time to revisit the investment. My thesis since 2015 has been that with the addition of two more resorts (the aforementioned Wynn Palace and the forthcoming Wynn Boston, set to open in mid 2019), WYNN’s free cash flow would move materially higher and justify a stock price of at least $150 per share (a relatively conservative 15x multiple on $1 billion of annual free cash flow).

Wynn’s recent results do nothing to shake my confidence in that investment thesis. In fact, it may very well turn out to be too conservative. Based on recent numbers for the company’s Macau properties, it is entirely possible that WYNN could be looking at reaching that cash flow goal before their Boston property opens.

Considering that the company could reasonably expect a 10-15% return on both its $2.4 billion investment in Boston, as well as the recently announced Las Vegas expansion (a golf course that earns $3 million of profit per year is being replaced by a $500 million development project that could earn $50-$75M per year), there appears to be nice upside potential to my price objective. For instance, an incremental $350 million of EBITDA at a 12x multiple would equate to $4.2 billion of added value, compared with estimated construction costs of just $2.9 billion. Tacking on $1.3 billion to Wynn’s valuation would equate to roughly $13 per share, making a stock price of over $160 distinctly possible by 2019.

As an investment manager position sizing is always a consideration, but that aside, I remain intrigued by Wynn stock even after its recent rise. As they say at the tables, I am likely going to “let it ride” for quite a while longer.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Wynn Resorts at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time.

Will Anybody Step Up And Buy Whole Foods Market?

Activist hedge fund Jana Partners has amassed an 8% stake in Whole Foods Market (WFM) and is urging them to work harder harnessing strategies to maximize operational efficiencies and also test the waters in terms of possible takeover interest. I have been a fan of the company for a long time, and of the stock ever since it cratered into the 30’s several years back. The original investment thesis hinged on long-term square footage growth (8-10% annually) but the company has now decided to slow new location development. As a result, we are now left with more of a cash cow business with minimal growth (same store sales have been falling 2-3% for over a year).

The stock recently traded in the high 20’s (too low for even a slower growth outlook) and Jana seems to have timed their purchases very well during February, March, and April at prices of between $28 and $32 each. Even without a buyout I believe WFM stock would be fairly valued in the low 40’s (far lower than I would have said when they had a stated objective of reaching 1,200 stores (versus less than 500 today). Wall Street does not agree, as even with the Jana-related bump the stock fetches $34 per share.

The easiest way for WFM to realize a more fair price would be to find a buyer, but the company would be a big target ($11 billion market value at current prices). As a shareholder, I would not be thrilled with anything less than a $13.5 billion acquisition price. But who would acquire WFM?

The press reports that Amazon contemplated an offer last year seems odd. They simply prefer to build businesses internally. With no track record of large M&A deals, the odds that Jeff Bezos would all of the sudden offer eleven figures for WFM seems remote.

The second possibility would be a strategic buyer, as in one of WFM’s grocery store competitors such as Kroger or Albertson’s. One could make the argument either way on this line of thinking. The traditional stores have been successful recently copying the WFM product offering, which has resulted in negative comps for the organic pioneer, so they really don’t need to buy WFM. On the other hand, one less competitor means less pricing pressure industry-wide, which could be attractive in such a cut throat market like grocery retailing. I could understand both sides of the coin very easily.

The last option in my view would be a private equity buyer. This makes the most sense from a financial point of view, as PE could use debt to fund much of the acquisition cost without endangering the company (WFM’s balance sheet is pristine). Other grocery store chains have far more leverage which limits their ability to borrow more money. I suspect banks would allow a near-term leverage ratio of up to 5x for a Whole Foods leveraged buyout, which would equate to roughly $6 billion of debt financing and $7 billion of equity capital (assuming a purchase price of $13 billion).

The biggest hurdle for private equity is that $7 billion equity requirement. That is a very large deal for one company to take on alone. More likely a consortium of PE firms could get together and pitch in $2-3 billion each. I have no doubt that many firms are taking a look at this type of option.

All in all, a buyout of WFM is possible, but not probable, in my view. The price tag would be high in absolute terms and there is enough concern about the company’s competitive position that pulling the trigger on a deal might be tough for most of the parties that do in fact kick the tires. If I were setting the odds, I would say there is a 60% chance WFM stays public, a 25% chance private equity makes a play, a 15% chance another chain bulks up its store base, and a <1% chance Amazon is serious about a deal.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Whole Foods Market and Amazon at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Valuing Software Companies Getting Tougher As Firms Trade Short-Term Profits for Growth

There is little doubt that the technology sector is so dynamic today that investors trying to identify the big winners of the next decade or two are probably correct to be engaging in such an exercise. The proliferation of software-driven innovation is truly staggering, as are the number of new companies trying to capitalize. The IPO market is bringing new software companies to the public exchanges, ensuring there is no shortage of investment candidates.

So while there is enormous potential with these companies as we look over the next 10 years or more, it is also getting more difficult to analyze these stocks from a valuation perspective. There are hundreds of examples of investors who buy the right company – just for the wrong price – and wind up being disappointed with their return.

I say it is getting harder to determine what a fair price is for these small, high-growth companies because they have adopted what I call the “Amazon model.” The Amazon model is simply the idea that you should sacrifice short-term profitability for growth, especially in nascent industries where the first mover can oftentimes distance themselves from the competition.

Before Amazon came along very few companies were willing to have public shareholders and purposely avoid making material profits. The consensus view was that once you IPO, profits matter. And while Amazon bears tried to debunk their model for many, many years, the company’s success has proved that it can work. Simply put, if you grow fast enough and come to dominate a particular market, investors will eventually assign a fair value to the franchise you have built. If Amazon’s stock price performance in recent years does not reinforce that view, I don’t know what could.

Not surprisingly, tech companies are now copying the Amazon model and investors are okay with it. There are dozens of public tech stocks today that are growing at 20% plus annually (some much faster) and are losing money or simply breaking even. Maybe they are marginally profitable if you wave your magic wand and pretend that stock-based compensation is not a real expense (some firms have positive cash flow but if you then subtract stock-based compensation you realize they really aren’t profitable).

Valuation conscious investors who look at the financial statements of these companies cannot help but scratch their heads when trying to understand the Wall Street valuations. After all, it is hard to explain why a money-losing software company is worth 10 times forward-looking revenue.

A closer look at the income statement reveals that in addition to stock-based compensation there is another line item that is impacting profitability to a huge degree; obscene sales and marketing expenses. Why is this number so high? Because according to the Amazon model growth and market share are crucial in the short-term. As a result, the amount of money these companies are spending on sales and marketing dwarf anything we have really seen before.

Consider some of the largest, more mature software firms. Below is a list of several, along with what percentage of sales each spends on sales and marketing:

Google 12%
Microsoft 17%
Oracle 21%
Intuit 27%
Adobe 33%

Given how high the margins are on software itself (especially now that it can be downloaded rather than boxed and sold at retail), these kinds of numbers (sales and marketing costs of no more than one-third of revenue) make it relatively easy for companies to earn net profit margins of 10-20% or higher. And once investors can see those profits it is easier to assign a fair value to share prices.

The tricky part is what we see with today’s newer companies.  Below is a list of smaller, higher growth public software companies,. along with their sales and marketing expenses as a percentage of revenue:

Workday 37%
Zillow 45%
Salesforce.com 47%
Zendesk 54%
Palo Alto Networks 56%
Splunk 69%

I don’t care how cheap it is to make your software or how high of a price you charge for it, if you are spending 50% of your revenue on sales and marketing, you aren’t going to be able to make a profit. And that does not even account for the fact that these same companies are paying out a ton of stock as compensation (instead of cash) in order to be able to cover the cost of sales and marketing.

As long as investors are willing to give these companies a pass (which is likely as long as revenue growth continues), there is nothing wrong with spending money in this fashion. The bigger problem for investors comes when they try and figure out how much to pay for the stock of a company they want to invest in. In order to do you need to have some idea of how profitable the business model is. And with this much money being spent on sales and marketing, in order to maximize growth, there is no way to really know what a “normalized” level of profitability will be when the business matures and most of the market share has been divided up. Some firms might be able to earn 25% margins at that point, whereas maybe others will be 10%. There is just no way to know.

So what happens when you find a small company and love the story but look at the financial statements and see that they are losing money and then you look at the stock price and it trades for 10 times annual sales? Do you close your eyes and buy, or cross your fingers that they miss  a quarter or two and the stock falls to 5 times annual sales?

For me, it is hard to justify the former option. Amazon and Apple trade for 3x forward sales. Google and Microsoft: 5.5x. Facebook and Netflix: 11x.

For something to be worth 10x sales it really needs to be the second-coming of these tech giants. Sure, there will be a handful that make it into that exclusive group, but will most of them? How hard is it to pick and choose correctly? It is a very tough task.

So what should value-oriented investors do? Well, try and find companies that trade closer to 3-5x sales. If they will fetch a similar multiple once the businesses mature, and you think they have a lot of growth ahead of them, the growth itself will boost the stock (in the absence of multiple compression). Also look for companies that are growing quickly but maybe are only needing to spend 20-30% of revenue on sales and marketing. That could indicate they are more efficient with their spending, or perhaps they have fewer competitors (and therefore less need to hundreds of salespeople hunting down prospective customers).

Those are some ways you can reduce your risk with high multiple stocks.


Freshii: Can This Recent Restaurant IPO Deliver Despite High Expectations?

Just when I thought the restaurant sector was dead on Wall Street, we see that fast casual, Canadian-born Freshii (FRII.TO) has pulled off an impressive IPO, offering shares recently at $11.50 each (CAD). With the stock near $14, Freshii’s market value is approaching $430 million (CAD). Adjusting these figures into a U.S. dollar equivalent, FRII stock fetches around $10.25 with a total equity value of $320 million.

Today the company reported 2016 revenue of $16.1 million and EBITDA of $3.7 million (both in USD). Based on those numbers, it would appear that Freshii shares are quite overvalued, but there are reasons that many investors are impressed with the company.

When I reviewed the IPO prospectus, what jumped out at me was the extraordinarily low unit build-out cost ($260,000). For a 99%-franchised fast casual chain, such a low initial investment requirement will make it relatively easy for the company to grow quickly. While average unit sales in 2016 were only $468,000 per location, a reasonable 10% margin would net franchisees a mid teens return on investment (including the initial franchise fee).

I recently visited the lone Freshii location here in Seattle and I was impressed with the food offerings. The average entree price point is pretty much in-line with the fast casual industry ($7.50) and seems especially reasonable given the quality and healthy nature of the food.

On the surface, the Freshii concept appears to be well suited for rapid growth, especially in younger, more health conscious urban areas. But when we look at the stock, it already reflects very high expectations. Freshii collects a 6% royalty on gross sales and system-wide revenue in 2016 was $96 million. If we assume that the company can earn industry-leading margins due to its high franchise percentage, EBITDA at maturity could rise to the mid 40’s in percentage of revenue terms.

Freshii predicts total units will surpass 800 by the end of 2019, which would bring in upwards of $25 million in annual recurring royalty revenue, and possibly ~$11 million of EBITDA. Accordingly, based on expected 2019 profits, Freshii stock currently trades at roughly 30x EBITDA. Yikes.

In addition to valuation, a big concern for investors should be Freshii’s limited operating history coupled with a lightning fast expansion plan. Just three years ago Freshii had 70 locations globally. Today that figure is around 300, with more than 150 new opening planned for 2017. To reach the company’s 2019 goal, new units would need to accelerate to around 200 per year in both 2018 and 2019.

Can a small company like this grow that quickly without running into any roadblocks? Will the next 500 units perform as well as the first 300 locations? These are risks that are real and should not be ignored.

Of course, if Freshii becomes the next Subway investors stand to do very well. It will be interesting to see how well the company can deliver against the hype (the founder and CEO, Matthew Corrin, is only 35 years old).

I have not figured out if there is a certain price at which point I would be interested in initiating a position in the company. What I do know is that the current price is a little bizarre (~$1 million per opened location, despite the fact that the build-out cost is just $260,000 and Freshii doesn’t actually own the location).

I will probably want to see how new units perform for a little while before I nail down a possible entry point. After all, the company is set to increase its unit base by 150% between 2015 and 2017. Moving at that rate could very well give investors buying opportunities (read: volatility) along the way. Regardless, Freshii is one fresh restaurant idea to watch.

Does Buffett’s Big Buy Signal A Top In Apple?

For decades legendary investor Warren Buffett refused to buy technology stocks. He missed the huge bull market in the mid to late 1990’s and people repeatedly questioned his decision in light of the obvious tech revolution. After the dot-com bubble burst he looked brilliant, for a while at least. Interestingly, Buffett avoided tech stocks not due to some core issue such as high valuation, but instead because he simply did not understand the industry. As someone who popularized the term “circle of competence,” his lack of deep understanding of the sector meant that he did not feel like he could analyze these companies well enough to make an investment.

Then in 2011 something changed. Buffett started to amass a huge stake in his first technology investment; IBM. Close followers of the Oracle of Omaha, especially those who knew a decent amount about the tech sector, were doubly shocked at hearing this news. Not only had Buffett violated his decades old rule, but he had chosen for his first tech investment a giant that was widely seen within the industry as being a symbol of “old tech” – one that was only going to be marginalized by newer companies and technologies.

Fast forward six years and Berkshire Hathaway’s 2016 annual report shows that Buffett’s firm owns a staggering 81.2 million shares of IBM. Since purchasing 63.9 million in 2011, he has increased his position by another 27% in subsequent years. That stake was worth $13.5 billion as of year-end 2016. The annual report also discloses his total cost basis in IBM; $13.8 billion. Given a cumulative loss since the initial purchase in 2011, it is hard to argue that Buffett should have ventured into an industry he admittedly knew little about.

While the IBM story is old news for Buffett watchers, I think it is noteworthy given his recent comments on CNBC two weeks ago that during the month of January he acquired 76 million shares of Apple. Buffett admitted in the interview that he did not have an iPhone and that he queried his young family members to see how they like Apple products.

Apple shares have been on a tear in 2017, in part due to news that Buffett was buying.

I have to wonder if this second step into the tech world will share any of the same characteristics of the IBM investment.

Perhaps the bigger point is this idea of one’s circle of competence when it comes to investing. When I look back at my own career managing money it is obvious that my batting average is far higher within industries I am more familiar, and vice versa. There are multiple instances where I have lost money on energy exploration stocks and early stage biotech stocks, to name a couple of areas outside my circle. While I have never instituted a rule that prohibits me from buying stocks in certain sectors, over the years I have definitely allocated more capital to sectors I know best.

That decision does not always help me, especially when investment managers are compared with very diversified indexes. For instance, since the election of President Trump, companies focused on manufacturing, construction, and infrastructure have performed very well. I own very few of these types of names, and in some cases none at all. That lack of exposure to a strongly performing group has materially impacted my short term performance.

My hope is that my clients would rather me avoid sectors I don’t understand well (even if that means poor relative short-term results), as opposed to feeling like I need to have exposure to a little bit of everything in case sectors outside my circle of competence happen to perform well for a while. If I am going to be judged on mt ability to pick individual securities, I may as well stack the odds more in my favor, right?

Regardless, I can’t help but believe that such a strategy makes the most sense, even if it does not always pay off in spades. And if I had to guess, that probably goes for most other (both professional and amateur) investors too.

As for Apple stock, while I continue to hold some both personally and on behalf of clients, the recent run-up to $140 per share probably means that future returns will be more muted, as the stock now trades for roughly 15 times annual free cash flow per share.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Apple at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

U.S. Stocks Reach Valuations Rarely Seen, Making Material Earnings Growth A Requirement For Strong Future Returns

In the face of the current highly ebullient stock market, close watchers of valuation metrics are frequently dismissed as ignoring the prospect for accelerating GDP growth and lower corporate tax expense, but I will step onto that turf anyway. It may make me look foolish, as Warren Buffett recently played down concerns about the market’s valuation, even though his often-preferred metric in years past (total stock market value relative to annual GDP) is dangerously high, but that’s okay.

Here is a look at my preferred valuation metric; a variant of the P/E ratio that uses “peak earnings” (the highest level of corporate profits ever produced in a 12 month period) instead of trailing 12 month earnings (impacted solely by the current economic environment) or forward earnings estimates (usually overly optimistic). We’ll go back more than 50 years, not only to get an idea of historical trends, but also because that is the data I have.

When people ask me about my view of the market, I tend to give a tempered response because it is hard to argue that we should really get any earnings multiple expansion. After all, we now sit above 20 times “peak earnings” and that has only happened once in the last 55 years. As you can see, that one time (the dot-com bubble of the late 1990’s) is not exactly a time we probably want to emulate this time around.

It is important to note that high valuations do not guarantee poor future returns. There is a high correlation, but you can map out mathematical scenarios whereby P/E ratios mean-revert and stock prices don’t crater. Simply put, it requires extraordinary earnings growth that can more than offset a decline in P/E ratios (which we should expect if interest rates continue to increase). Right now the U.S. market is banking on this outcome, so earnings and interest rates are probably the most important things to watch in coming quarters and years when trying to gauge where the market might go from here.

Author’s note: The use of “peak earnings” is not common, so it is worth offering a brief explanation for why I prefer that metric. Essentially, it adjusts for recessions, which are temporary events. If investors use depressed earnings figures when they value the market, they might conclude stocks are not undervalued even if prices have declined materially. This is because they inherently assume that earnings will stay low, even though recessions typically last only 6-12 months and end fairly abruptly.

As an example, let’s consider the 2008 recession. The S&P 500 fell 38% that year, from 1468 to 903. S&P earnings fell by 40%, from ~$82 to ~$50. If we simply use trailing 12-month earnings, we see that the P/E multiple on the index was 18x at the beginning of 2008, and was also 18x at the end of the year. So were stocks no more attractively priced after a near 40% fall? Of course they were, but using traditional P/E ratios didn’t make that evident.

If we instead used “peak earnings” (which were attained in 2006 at ~$88), we would have determined that the market was trading at ~17x at the outset of 2008 and had fallen to just 10x by the end of the year. By that metric, investors would have realized that stocks were a screaming buy when the S&P traded below 1,000.


First It Was Bricks and Mortar Clothing Stores, But Now The Manufacturers Are Dying Too?

Put me in the camp that thinks the death of bricks and mortar retail stores is being greatly exaggerated. It is true that e-commerce is here to stay, but people seem to forget that most of the online clothing and accessories shopping is done on store sites that have a physical presence. The notion that Amazon private label clothes are going to render great American brands useless seems a bit far-fetched to me. So yes, there are retail stocks out there that look mispriced to me, but today I want to point out something else going on in the market that seems odd to me; clothing manufacturers are falling in sympathy because their goods are stocked in the stores that investors feel will be closed.

So let me get this straight… we aren’t going to buy shirts, pants, shoes, and underwear in an actual store, in fact, we aren’t going to buy them at all?! Is the Internet going to make it such that we never leave the house and therefore won’t require clothing? We’ll just order a pizza from Domino’s by tweeting and chill on the couch watching Netflix?

When I see the stocks of companies like Ralph Lauren, PVH, UnderArmour, and VFC Corp trading at multi-year lows it makes me think that Wall Street is getting this all wrong. Some of these names are less well known; PVH sells Van Heusen, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Izod, and Speedo, while VF owns North Face, Lee, Wrangler, Timberland, and Vans, among others, but let’s be honest, these companies might see their distribution channels evolve but they aren’t going away.

Below are some charts of the names I am digging into. Long-term I bet there are some great investments in the sector.


Full Disclosure: Long RL and UA at the time of writing but positions may change at any time

The Downward Spiral of the Tech Hardware IPO: Are Acquisitions on the Horizon?

We see this happen so many times. A hot brand new technology hardware company with a cool new product decides to cash in via an IPO. All is good for a little while and then Wall Street’s expectations for growth become too ambitious as competition grows and the need to constant upgrade one’s device wanes. The company misses financial targets for a few quarters in a row and the stock goes from darling to laughingstock in short order. I think we can all agree that fitness band maker Fitbit (FIT) fits the bill. Here is the stock’s chart since the IPO in mid 2015:

Another obvious poster child for this phenomenon is GoPro (GPRO):

To me, it seems the only logical play is for these companies to be acquired by larger technology companies who can best harness the value and loyalty behind these solid brands to maximize their profit potential.

So why should a bigger tech player swoop in and take Fitbit and GoPro out of their misery? Quite simply, the public markets become broken for these young disappointments very quickly. Given the competitive landscape, it will be very hard for either of them to reaccelerate its business to the level that would be required for investors to warm back up to the story. As a result, the stocks are being valued extremely cheaply if you consider the value of the brand and the current user base. As a result, it should be a no-brainer for the big guys to snap up the small fries. This becomes especially true if we consider that the IPO markets have allowed these smaller players to amass large cash hoards.

Take Fitbit, for instance. At less than $6 per share, FIT current equity value is a meager $1.4 billion. The company’s finances are actually is very solid shape, with no debt and a projected $700 million of cash onhand as of year-end 2016. Net of cash, Wall Street is valuing the Fitbit brand and the more than $2 billion annual revenue base (2016 figure) that it brings are just $700 million. For a strategic acquirer, that price should be mouth-watering. Even offering a big premium of 50-100% to persuade current shareholders to sell would not impede value-creation from the deal. Offer $11 per share/$2.7 billion for FIT ($2 billion for the operating business plus cash onhand) and it is unlikely a company like Apple or Google would regret it.

GoPro would be an even cheaper purchase. At the current $8.75 share price, Wall Street thinks the company is worth just $1 billion (net of $200 million cash, no debt). Could Apple not add value to its company by paying $2 billion for GoPro, innovating the product line further, and integrating it into their existing user base around the globe?

So why have these deals not really happened? In some cases, large tech companies firmly believe they are superior to the upstarts. As a result, they prefer to challenge them with internal product development (me-too copycats) instead of merging and taking out one of their competitors. Apple is probably the most prominent company in this category, as they refuse to acquire any meaningful competitor. And yet, it is almost assured that their competitive positions would be stronger today has they bought companies like Netflix, Spotify, Pandora, etc. Instead, we read stories like the one recently that said that Apple is planning to go into the original content business. All I can do is roll my eyes.

The second hurdle for these combinations is seller willingness to merge. From an emotional perspective, the board of GoPro would not have an easy time agreeing to sell the company for $15 or $20 when the stock price was $100 in 2014 and $60 in 2015. If they just come out with one more hit product the sky could be the limit! Same thing with Fitbit; we went public at $20 in 2015, how can we sell out for $10?

To me the playbook is obvious. Wall Street is telling you that your hyper growth days are over. The big guys have more resources and will slowly take your customers. For some reason, nobody realizes that combining forces is probably the best move for both sides in the long run. I will be interested to see if Fitbit and GoPro are public companies a year from now. Heck, maybe Steve Ballmer comes back to Microsoft and sees synergies with a Nokia/Surface/Fitbit/GoPro/X-Box product lineup (kidding, of course).


Cannibalization, Intense Competition Both Enormous Roadblocks for Chipotle Recovery

Shares of fast casual chain Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) are holding above $400 per share recently as investors cling to hopes that a full recovery is taking shape after e coli outbreaks halted the company’s impressive growth trajectory. Unfortunately for CMG bulls, the numbers do not seem to support that thesis.

Same-store sales have gotten back into positive territory in 2017, as the initial health issues from late 2015 are being lapped on the calendar, but overall sales volumes have not seen any improvement. Below are charts showing same-store sales (promising) and average unit volumes (illuminating) for CMG:


Even though same-store sales improved in Q4 2016 vs Q4 2015, total sales volumes continue to decline both year-over-year and sequentially. The year-over-year drops will likely continue for at least the first half of 2017, whereas the sequential declines will likely end very soon. The problem is that CMG is still planning to grow total units at a healthy clip (nearly 10% annually) and new units are only bringing in roughly $1.5 million each in annual revenue (~75% of mature units). This is most likely due to cannibalization from existing units, which limits volumes from new locations (proximity between units shrinks as more are opened).

Chipotle’s stock was a huge winner before the e coli issues due to lower build-out costs, high unit volumes, and profit margins that were the envy of peers. As the company continues to grow, the numbers will work against them and make it very difficult to regain their former financial glory ($2.5 million in average unit sales and four-wall margins of 27% at their peak). Without those kinds of metrics, the stock price looks richly priced at current levels with an equity market value well north of two times annual revenue. Buyer beware.

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