There are many religions when it comes to calculating the “right” price for the shares of a publicly traded company. At a basic level, buying a share is an act of faith in the company’s future earnings. The strength of this belief manifests itself in the company’s P/E (Price/Earnings) ratio. The stronger the faith, the higher the P/E, an expectation of increased profit.
Sometimes, an extreme P/E number beggars belief, it invites a deeper look into the thoughts and emotions that drive prices.
One such example is Amazon. On the Nasdaq stock market, AMZN trades at more than 174 times its most recent earnings. By comparison, Google’s P/E hovers around 17, Apple and Walmart are a mere 14, Microsoft is a measly 11.
This is so spectacular that many think it doesn’t make sense, especially when looking at Amazon’s falling profit margin (from this Seeking Alpha post):
Why do traders bid AMZN so high in the face of a declining .5% profit margin?
In his May 5th PandoDaily piece, “Nobody Seems to Understand What Jeff Bezos is Doing. Does He?”, Farhad Manjoo questions Jeff Bezos’s strategy and Amazon’s taste for obfuscating statements:
“Amazon is not merely “willing” to be misunderstood, it often tries to actively sow widespread misunderstanding. This works [to] its advantage; if competitors don’t know what Amazon is up to, if they can’t even figure out where and how it aims to make money, they’ll have a harder time beating it.”
…and he concludes:
“Is Bezos crazy like a fox? Or is he just plain crazy? We have no idea.”
He’s not alone: Year after year, critics have challenged Bezos’ business acumen, criticizing his grandiose views and worrying about the company’s bottom line. But the top line, revenue, keeps rising. See this chart from a Seeking Alpha article by Richard Bloch:
The answer to Farhad’s question, the cold logic behind the seemingly irrational share price is clear: Amazon sacrifices profits in order to gain size and, in the process, kill competitors.
That’s step one.
Step two: After having cleared the field, Amazon will take advantage of what is delicately called “pricing power”. As the Last Man Standing, they will raise prices at will and regain profitability. This isn’t Amazon’s only game. The breadth of their offering, their superior customer service and awesome logistics, make life difficult for poorly managed competitors such as Best Buy, or the undead Circuit City, to name but a few companies whose weaknesses where exposed by Amazon’s superbly efficient machine.
But traders recognize the wink and the nod behind today’s numbers, they are willing to pay a high price for a share of Amazon’s future dominant position.
Apple’s share price sits at the other end of the P/E spectrum. Revenue and profits grow rapidly: + 58% profit year-to-year, + 94% net income. “Normal” companies in their league are supposed to fall to the Law of Large Numbers: High percentage growth becomes well-nigh impossible when a company achieves Apple’s gigantic size. A $100B business needs to dig up $25B in new business to grow 25%. $25B is roughly half the size of Dell. When Apple’s revenue grows 58%, that’s more than one Dell on top of last year’s business.
Apple is the nonpareil of fast-growing, prosperous companies. They’re in a young market: smartphones and tablets. They can easily break the Law. With only 8% of the mobile phone market, the iPhone enjoys considerable headroom. And the iPad’s +151% year/year unit growth shows even greater potential.
So why isn’t Wall Street buying? Why do they think Apple has so much less room to grow than Amazon?
First, a big difference: Apple’s founder is no longer with us while Bezos is very much in command. This is no criticism of Tim Cook, Apple’s new CEO. A long-time Jobs lieutenant, the architect of Apple’s supremely effective Supply Chain, a soberly determined man, well liked, respected and healthily feared inside the company, Tim Cook is eminently credible. But traders are cautious; they want to see if the Cook regime will be as innovative, as uncompromisingly focused on style and substance as before.
Second, the much talked-about iPhone subsidy “problem”. The accepted notion is that Apple has strong-armed carriers into paying “excessive” subsidies for the iPhone, some say as much as $200 more than carriers pay other handset makers. (See “Carriers Whine: We Wuz Robbed!” of March 11, 2012.) Carriers rattle their sabers, they let everyone know they’re looking forward to the day when they will no longer be fleeced by the Cupertino boys.
The numbers are impressive. Take about 150 million iPhones this calendar year (37M units in the last quarter of 2011); assume that 80% of these iPhones are subsidized by carriers…that’s $24B in subsidies. For people who are betting on Apple’s future profits, these are big numbers that could go either way: Straight to Apple’s bottom line as they do today, or back to the carriers’ coffers “where they belong”. For Apple, with today’s P/E of 14, a swing of $24B in profits would result in a change of $336B in market cap. (Today Wall Street pegs AAPL at $525B.)
I’m not saying such a shift is likely, or that it would happen in one fell swoop. I use this admittedly caricatural computation to make a point: Carrier subsidies have a huge impact on Apple’s bottom line, and the perceived uncertainty over their future gives traders pause.
I’ll now take the opposite tack with this Horace Dediu tweet:
In my venture investing experience, it sometimes happens that the top salesperson makes more money than the CEO. In most instances the exec is happy to see big revenue come in and doesn’t begrudge the correspondingly large commissions. But, in the rare case of the CEO turning purple because a lowly peddler makes more money than him (it’s a male problem), we take the gent aside and gently let him know what will happen to him if he does it again.
Carriers sound like the bad CEO complaining about excessive sales commissions racked up by their star revenue maker. Carriers are contractually obligated to keep iPhone figures confidential so we can’t make a direct ARPU comparison — but we have anonymous leaks and research-for-hire firms, they’re curiously silent on the question of actual ARPU by handset. In the absence of a clear case made to the contrary, we’ll have to assume that the iPhone is the carriers’ top revenue generator, and that the subsidies will continue.
This said, if Apple comes out with a mediocre iPhone, or if Samsung produces a distinctly more attractive handset, the salesman’s commission will disappear, Apple’s revenue per iPhone (about $650 in Q1 2012) will drop precipitously, and so will profits.
That’s the scenario that makes traders cautious: Large amounts of profit are at risk, tied to carrier subsidies. They wonder if Apple’s lofty premium is sustainable and, as a result, they assign AAPL a lower P/E.
But “caution” may be too weak a word. In a May 7th 2012 Asymco post, Horace Dediu plots Apple’s share price as a function of cash:
This is troubling. It implies that cash is the only determinant of Apple’s share price.
Put another way, and recalling that share prices are supposed to reflect earnings expectations, it appears Wall Street puts little faith in the future of Apple’s earnings [emphasis mine]:
“Given this disconnect from the income statement, the pricing by balance sheet multiple seems to be a symptom of something deeper. Reasons vary with the seasons, but the company is not perceived to have sustainable growth.”
Fascinating. The collective wisdom of Wall Street is that one of the most successful high-tech companies of all times, with three healthy product lines, strong management, generally happy customers and employees is not perceived to have sustainable growth.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll repeat something I’ve stated here before: I don’t own publicly-traded stocks, Google, Microsoft, Apple or any other. I consider the stock market a dangerous place where, across the table, I see people with bigger brains, bigger computers, and bigger wallets than mine. I can’t win. The casino always does…unless you don’t trade but, instead, invest–that is buy shares and keep them for years, the way Warren Buffet does.)
I’ll wait for the dust of this botched IPO to settle before I try to figure out what Facebook’s share price reflects. I agree with Ronal Barusch in his WSJ blog piece: I’m not convinced that Facebook or its bankers will suffer irreparable damage.
Still, rumors and accusations are flying. Following Nasdaq’s disastrous handling of Facebook’s opening trades, we hear that the New York Stock Exchange is discreetly suggesting that the company move to a more sophisticated trading platform. This is a great opportunity for Facebook to change its FB stock trading symbol and adopt one that more accurately reflects its opinion of Wall Street.
I have a suggestion: FU.