Tag: investing concepts

Are earnings accretive acquisitions good?

Are earnings accretive acquisitions good?

Often, management justifies huge mergers and acquisitions (M&A) with accretive earnings. That earnings per share (EPS) would increase post-M&A.

Are accretive earnings a good measure of shareholder value?

After all, it seems to be the only thing analyst focuses on when evaluating corporate deals.

One of the best ways to probe whether you can trust the advice that a theory is offering you is to look for anomalies—something that the theory cannot explain.

Earnings accretive?

It does not matter whether earnings are accretive post-acquisition. In other words, whether the EPS does up, down, or sideways in the short-term does not matter.

Consider this, if management puts $1 billion into fixed deposit earning 3% in interest. Generating $30 million in interest income immediately, an earnings accretive move.

But was it the best use of capital?

Bootstrapping

When a company with a higher P/E ratio acquires companies with lower P/E ratio using shares. This will increase the EPS of the combined business post-acquisition.

This practice is called bootstrapping. It is done to boost share prices without creating any real value to the business.

Let’s look at a simplified example to understand the concept:

In this scenario, the acquirer will have to pay $3,000,000 for the target company (market capitalization).

With the acquirer’s current share price of $100, it will have to issue 30,000 shares. Derived by taking the $3,000,000 price tag divided by the current share price of $100.

Post-merger, the acquirer will have 130,000 shares outstanding. The combined entity’s net profit will be $600,000, with an EPS of $4.60.

An increase in EPS from $3 to $4.60!

As the acquirer have a higher P/E of 33 when compared to the target’s P/E of 10, it only had to issue 30,000 shares. As opposed to issuing an additional 100,000 shares.

The increase in EPS is due to financial engineering and synergies are not guaranteed. With rare exceptions, most M&A fails.

Companies that pursue growth through M&A to boost short-term earnings eventually have to face the music.

General Electric’s Shopping Spree

General Electric stock decline GE
Image taken from CNN.com

When Jack Welch took over General Electric (GE) in 1981, his goal was to become “the world’s most valuable company.” Welch turned his focus to the company’s share price.

He had an uncanny knack for beating analysts’ earnings estimates by a penny every quarter. Which is near impossible for a conglomerate the size of GE.

Welch grew GE into a super-conglomerate with acquisitions. With the shopping spree masking many problems. Which blew up after he left.

After Immelt took over, he continued to grow GE with the same playbook, with M&A. Both Welch and Immelt justified deals after deals with earnings accretion. Stretching the company’s balance sheet and cash flow.

Immelt has since left, and GE is shedding businesses. Its share price has fallen from a peak of $60 in 2000 to $10 today.

Aswath Damodaran, a finance professor at the Stern School of Business, blamed Immelt for not moving more quickly and aggressively to shrink a maturing GE.

“Accept the fact you’re aging. Don’t fight it with acquisitions,” said Damodaran. “That’s like a 75-year-old doing a facelift. You can’t look good for long because gravity will work its magic sooner or later.”

Traits of good acquisitions

In Warren Buffett’s 1981 letter, he highlights the traits of good acquisitions:

The first involves companies that, through design or accident, have purchased only businesses that are particularly well adapted to an inflationary environment. Such favored business must have two characteristics:

(1) an ability to increase prices rather easily (even when product demand is flat and capacity is not fully utilized) without fear of significant loss of either market share or unit volume, and

(2) an ability to accommodate large dollar volume increases in business (often produced more by inflation than by real growth) with only minor additional investment of capital.

Buffett refers to high-quality compounders.

The first group are companies with strong brand equity such as Disney, Ferrari, or Hermès are able to raise prices without losing their market share to competitors.

Raising prices is powerful as revenue without an increase in cost. It doesn’t demand a proportionate increase in raw materials, working capital, or require you to build new factories.

The second group are companies that are able to scale with little incremental capital investment. Think of Google, what is the additional cost for listing another ad on its search engine? Or Mastercard, what is the additional cost for handling another transaction?

Almost next to nothing!

The second category involves the managerial superstars—men who can recognize that rare prince who is disguised as a toad, and who have managerial abilities that enable them to peel away the disguise.

Here, Buffett talks about talented CEOs who are able to recognize good underpriced acquisitions. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg gets a lot of bad press, but he has been phenomenal in acquiring Instagram at only $1 billion in 2012 when it has no revenue. Its valuation has grown to $100 billion by 2018 according to a Bloomberg Intelligence report, becoming a 100-bagger investment for the firm.

Conclusion

Evaluating management’s M&A decisions is both an art and a science. It helps by first identifying what does not matter:

  • Whether the transaction increases or dilutes EPS
  • The P/E of the acquirer relative to the target’s P/E

Most acquisitions are earnings accretive but destroy shareholder value. For investors, go beyond focusing on short-term earnings and understand the rationale for management’s decision.

If management is not allocating capital soundly, reconsider your ownership in the business.

Terry Smith on Accelerated Share Repurchases

Terry Smith on Accelerated Share Repurchases

Spent my week reading Terry Smith’s new book: Investing For Growth. Terry is the chief executive & CIO for Fundsmith Equity Fund.

I have been a fan of Terry’s presentations and writing because of his wittiness, humor, and candidness.

One of the fund managers who keep it real.

Before I jump into what Terry has to say, it’s important to first start off with knowledge passed down by Warren Buffett on share buybacks.

Buffett on share buybacks

In Buffett’s 1999 letter, he highlights: “There is only one combination of facts that makes it advisable for a company to repurchase its shares: First, the company has available funds — cash plus sensible borrowing capacity — beyond the near-term needs of the business and, second, finds its stock selling in the market below its intrinsic value, conservatively-calculated.

Capital must always be first deployed for business needs. This comes in twofold.

First, expenditures that must be made to maintain its competitive position (e.g. remodeling of Starbuck’s stores).

Second, reinvesting for growth when the management expects will produce more than a dollar of value for each dollar spent (e.g. opening more Starbuck’s stores in China).

In other words, where return on invested capital exceeds cost of capital.

After ensuring that the business needs are taken care of, share buybacks create value for shareholders only when the current market price is below its intrinsic value, conservatively estimated.

Let’s illustrate this with numbers!

How buybacks increase or destroy value

Imagine you are own ABC Corp with 2 other friends, Joe and Julie. Let’s say ABC Corp’s intrinsic value is conservatively estimated at $3,000.

The 3 of you own an equal share of ABC Corp, at $1,000 each.

For some reason, Julie decided to sell her stake back to ABC Corp, intrinsically worth $1,000.

Scenario 1: ABC Corp buyback at 20% discount

If ABC Corp buybacks Julie’s stake at $800. ABC Corp’s intrinsic value would now be $2,200 ($3,000 – $800) after the transaction.

This means that Joe and yourself now own 50% each of ABC Corp, an increase from 33%.

The value of your ownership increased from $1,000 to $1,100 (50% X $2,200).

Share buybacks has created value for existing shareholders.

Scenario 2: ABC Corp buyback at 20% premium

If ABC Corp buybacks Julie’s stake at $1,200.

ABC Corp’s intrinsic value would now be $1,800 ($3,000 – $1,200) after the transaction.

Similar to scenario 1, Joe and yourself would now own 50% of ABC Corp.

But, the value of your ownership would have decreased from $1,000 to $900 ($1,800 X 50%).

Share buybacks destroyed value for existing shareholders.

Scenario 3: ABC Corp buyback at fair value

If ABC Corp buybacks Julie’s stake at $1,000, its intrinsic value would now be $2,000.

Both Joe and yourself would own $1,000 of ABC Corp. No change from before.

In this case, share buybacks does nothing for existing shareholders.

Terry Smith on Accelerated Share Repurchases

Ordinarily, share buybacks are usually done over weeks or months with multiple transactions. The amount of buyback done each day during this period depends on the volume of shares traded.

Hopefully, the share prices remain depressed during this period as the company buyback shares.

In accelerated share repurchases (ASR), the company does a significant share buyback programme in a single transaction with an investment bank or a small group of banks.

The investment bank(s) will make a short sale to the company by borrowing the shares from the market.

Thereafter, the investment bank will purchase shares to cover its short position. And of course, fees are involved in this.

A huge share buyback programme like an ASR is bound to generate share price rises at least in the short-term. No sane company would short shares knowing that they would need to cover up their position by buying at higher prices.

But this is exactly what ASR does. The investment bank would short shares at X dollars and buyback the shares at greater than X dollars. Of course the investment bank will not bear the losses of this short position.

On top of charging a hefty fee for providing this service, the losses it incur by covering its short position will be passed on to the company.

This is exactly what IBM did in May 2007. In a 118.8m share ASR, it paid an initial price of $105.18 per share for shares purchased from the investments bank’s short sales totaling $12.5b, and then another $2.95 per share or a total of $351m to cover the high price of $108.13 at which the banks eventually closed their shorts.

They have effectively agreed to write a blank cheque to the investment bank to cover the cost of short-selling its shares. When it comes to short-selling, the potential of loss could be ‘unlimited’.

Who knows how far the share prices will shoot up when the market knows that the company started an ASR?

Study management’s remuneration

Generally, when the management is overzealous in buying back shares in good times and in bad, we can trace the reasoning back to how managements’ bread are buttered

Many of them are filling up their pockets rather than shareholders’.

Two companies we are familiar with — Domino’s and Starbucks, have loaded up their balance sheet with debt to repurchase shares.

Today, let’s take a look at Starbuck’s leadership compensation plan.

Taken from Starbuck’s proxy statement

You will notice that management is paid based on largely 2 short-term factors (over 3 years): (1) Earnings Per Share (EPS) and (2) How Starbucks share price performs against the market.

Share buybacks would help to financially engineer EPS by reducing the number of outstanding shares. Also, continuously buying back shares will likely prop up the share prices due to increase buying demand.

Starbuck’s management unleashed a huge share buyback programme. Back in 2019, it committed to return $25b on an $80b market cap.

It financed this by loading up its balance sheet with $5b worth of debt and by selling to Nestle the rights to sell Starbucks consumer package goods in grocery stores (e.g. coffee capsules and bottled coffee) for $7.15b (fantastic deal for Starbucks in my opinion).

Here, we can see from long-term debt swell up on its balance sheet:

And the cash that came in from the Nestle deal (recorded as deferred revenue back then because Nestle made an upfront payment):

Some argue that the management did the right thing by taking on debt to buy back shares because of the record low-interest rates.

Of course in 2019, when all was going well, Starbucks had more than enough cash flow to cover interest payments.

But this put the company in a precarious position. In my opinion, there’s is no need to accelerate returns by taking on debt. Especially when it makes the company more fragile to black swan events.

This is akin to what Buffett said, “it’s insane to risk what you have for something you don’t need.” With its strong cash flow and proceeds from the Nestle deal, Starbucks was in a strong position to buyback shares. There’s no need to be that aggressive and take on debt.

And true enough, 2020 gave us the biggest of black swan in the form of COVID-19.

Not gonna lie, when Starbucks stores were shutting down early this year, the debt on their balance sheet made me sweat. I began stress-testing the company to find out how long can the company survive without revenue.

You can read more about it here.

Conclusion

Share buybacks increases value only if it is done below intrinsic value. Problem arises when management are incentivized based on short-term metrics such EPS and share price performance. Management could engineer the results by misallocating capital (share buybacks or worse, ASRs) at the expense of shareholders.


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Lessons from The Psychology of Money

Lessons from The Psychology of Money

The Psychology of Money is one of the most highly anticipated books for finance enthusiasts in 2020. Morgan Housel has a knack for writing beautifully and a flair for capturing abstract concepts onto paper. This is not at all common for writings on the topic of finance.

Reading this book made me reflect a lot and helped fine-tune my thinking. It also made me think a lot about the problems many of my friends shared with me—keeping up with the Joneses, staying in a job that’s costing their health for the high paycheck, and worrying about stock market volatility.

I had a tough time choosing the key lessons from this book because it’s filled with great insights. After much deliberation, the following are my key takeaways which would be helpful both for my friends and I.

The price of success

Investing is simple, but not easy.

By simply investing in the S&P 500 index over a 20 year period, we could generate a return of 8% to 11% with dividends reinvested.

The S&P 500 increased 119-fold in the 50 years ending 2018. All you had to do was sit back and let your money compound. But, of course, successful investing looks easy when you’re not the one doing it.

Sounds simple?

In his book, Morgan presented the chart below where the shaded lines indicate at least a 5% decline below its previous all-time high.

Chart taken from The Psychology of Money

Since 1928, the S&P 500 has declined by 10% or more 91 times. Twenty-percent declines have occurred 22 times. It has declined more than 30% once every decade with more than 40% decline once every few decades.

Amidst the long backdrop of growth is drawdowns of multiple magnitudes. To enjoy the growth, investors must be able to stomach the sharp drawdowns which come every now and then.

To enjoy the reward, you need to pay the price — volatility.

Sensible optimism is a belief that odds are in your favor, and over time things will balance out to a good outcome even if what happens in between is filled with misery.

Between the start and the end, know that it will be filled with misery. Be optimistic that the long-term growth trajectory is up but the route to the prize is a tough one.

Beyond spreadsheets

Most people will agree that buying lottery is a mathematically unsound decision. It perplexes me when people I know routinely purchase lottery tickets 3 times a week. Especially when they are tight on cash.

Oftentimes the reasoning is “有买有希望希望,没买没希望。” Translated, this means “I’m buying hope, there’s no hope if I don’t buy.”

Few people make financial decisions purely with a spreadsheet. They make them at the dinner table, or in a company meeting. Places where personal history, your own unique view of the world, ego, pride, marketing, and odd incentives are scrambled together into a narrative that works for you.

Everyone has their own experience of how the world works. What I experienced is likely vastly different from what my parents experienced. All of us go through life anchored to our perception about how money works that vary widely from person to person.

Buying the lottery seems crazy to me but it made sense for others.

I’m certain that you and I have some version of ‘craziness’ ourselves, anchored by perceptions formed from our experiences. Strive to continuously read books, especially from authors with differing opinions and consider their propositions in totality.

Beware of learning solely from social media sites e.g. Youtube or Facebook/ Instagram posts. The algorithms works to reinforce your existing anchored views.

Tails drive everything

At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have . . . enough.”

The case of Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) is an interesting one. They had 16 experienced professionals, including two Nobel prize winners. Collectively, the team probably had more than 350 years of experience in the investing business. They had an incredible amount of intellect and they invested most of their net worth into LTCM.

And then they went broke.

As Buffett says: “But to make money they didn’t have and didn’t need, they risked what they did have and did need. That is foolish. That is just plain foolish. It doesn’t make any difference what your IQ is. If you risk something that is important to you for something that is unimportant to you it just does not make any sense.

There is no reason to risk what you have and need for what you don’t have and don’t need.

Bloomberg Article on retail investors taking loans to invest

Many take on leverage to invest in stocks, given that interest rates are at historical lows. As tempting as it is, I have abstained from doing so out of a respect for tail-end risks.

Long tails—the farthest ends of a distribution of outcomes—have tremendous influence in finance, where a small number of events can account for the majority of outcomes.

Graphic from safalniveshak.com

What will wipe most leveraged investors out is when the market swing 3 standard deviations to the left (the yellow zone).

Is it likely to happen? Rarely.

But if it does, leverage increase the probability of being wiped clean.

Charlie Munger says: “The first rule of compounding is to never interrupt it unnecessarily.”

Even if the odds looks favorable, the key to success in building up wealth is in avoiding ruin. Even with a 95% success rate, the 5% odds of being wrong means that we will certainly experience downside at some point. And if the cost of the downside is ruin, no amount of reward is worth the risk.

Article from Bloomberg on 24 Mar 2020 at the market bottom

As we look at what happened during the market bottom in March 2020, highly leveraged investors are more likely to cave in to volatility. When the market is soaring, risk appetite increases and leveraging up feels great.

During sharp drawdowns, your cash flows may be affected. Your emotions may viral out of control as you look at your family and your bills.

Over-leveraging, not having at least 6-months worth of emergency cash, and adequate insurance coverage all raises the probability of ruin—the risk of liquidating your positions at the worst possible time because you need to repay the money.

On the flip side, Peter Lynch’s famous quote “In this business, if you’re good, you’re right six times out of ten.” reflects the other spectrum of long tails. Where a handful of winners will propel bulk of your portfolio’s returns.

The Russell 3000 has increased more than 73-fold since 1980. That is a specular return. That is success. Forty percent of the companies in the index were effectively failures. But the 7% of components that performed extremely well were more than enough to offset the duds.”

Housel went on further to cite that not only do a few companies account for most of the market’s return, but within these companies are even more tail events.

In 2018, Amazon alone drove 6% of the S&P 500’s returns. And Amazon’s advancement was largely due to Prime and Amazon Web Services (AWS). Which itself are tail events whereby the company has experimented and failed hundreds of products (e.g. Fire Phone) before striking gold.

“It’s not whether you’re right or wrong that’s important,” George Soros once said, “but how much money you make when you’re right and how much you lose when you’re wrong.” You can be wrong half the time and still make a fortune.

Tail drives everything—don’t over-leverage your positions and appreciate that a handful of companies you own will deliver an outsize return for your portfolio, hold onto them.

The ultimate goal

Being able to wake up one morning and change what you’re doing, on your own terms, whenever you’re ready, seems like the grandmother of all financial goals. Independence, to me, doesn’t mean you’ll stop working. It means you only do the work you like with people you like at the times you want for as long as you want.

This is it.

Money’s greatest value is its ability to give you control of your time.

Plenty of studies have shown that splurging money provides only temporary relief. Life is miserable when we take up jobs we hate to sustain a lifestyle we do not need.

As Naval Ravikrant puts it “Looking forward to holidays takes the joy out of every day.”

What’s more important is having control over our lives. Independence means that your family is taken care of. That you are able to take controlled risks and pursue your dreams with a greater peace of mind.

Money in and of itself will not make you happy. But having the liberty to pursue your desired life might.

Independence, regardless of income bracket, is determined by how much you can save. Avoid lifestyle inflation upon landing your first job or from your promotion.

Most importantly, don’t fall into the trap of buying things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.

The hedonic treadmill

The hardest financial skill is getting the goalpost to stop moving. Modern capitalism is a pro at two things: generating wealth and generating envy… Wanting to surpass your peers can be the fuel of hard work. But life isn’t any fun without a sense of enough. Happiness, as it’s said, is just results minus expectations.

As I reflect on the paragraph above, I’m reminded of a few of my close friends. They bring home a big paycheck but are never satisfied. Great earning power sometimes inflict a curse called the “hedonic treadmill.”

It continuously shift the goalpost of your financial dreams, extinguishing the joy you thought you would get from having more wealth, once you achieve it.

From observations, this is extremely pervasive in the sales industry. Where luxurious cars, condominiums and branded bags are deemed a ‘necessity’ for success.

“Someone will always be getting richer faster than you. This is not a tragedy.” says Munger.

Social comparison is the problem. In our minds, wealth is always relative and not absolute. You could be within the top 20% income bracket but if plagued by envy for your peers’ wealth, you’ll never be happy.

As Benjamin Franklin puts it “It is the eyes of others and not our own eyes that ruin us. If all the world were blind except myself I should not care for fine clothes or furniture.”

The role of luck

Investing, as with life, is like a game of poker, not chess. A novice chess player would stand no chance against Garry Kasparov.

In life, and investing, you can make all the right decisions and still end up losing.

Likewise, you can make all the wrong decisions and still come up a winner.

The cover of Forbes magazine does not celebrate poor investors who made good decisions but happened to experience the unfortunate side of risk. But it almost certainly celebrates rich investors who made OK or even reckless decisions and happened to get lucky.

The worrying part about this is that many of us try to study and emulate rich investors who made reckless decisions and got lucky.

Forbes article on Bitcoin during the speculative period

Be careful who you praise and admire. Be careful who you look down upon and wish to avoid becoming.

Realize that not all success is due to good decisions made or hard work, and not all poverty is due to poor decisions or laziness.

You’ll get closer to actionable takeaways by looking for broad patterns of success and failure. The more common the pattern, the more applicable it might be to your life.

Conclusion

Money is a relatively new tool and it is a subject that is very undertaught. Not understanding it caused many to bury themself in debt, sell at market bottoms, or become a tool for money. To better understand money, I strongly recommend The Psychology of Money, Dollars and Sense, and I Will Teach You to Be Rich.

For readers in Singapore, I would recommend you to follow Seedly.


Thank you for taking the time to read my blog.

In my next post, I will be back to writing on investment topics!

If you’re enjoying the content so far, I’m sure you’ll find 3 Bullet Sunday helpful. As an extension to the regular posts, I send out weekly newsletters sharing timeless ideas on life and finance.

I do not share these content elsewhere.

Join others and subscribe to our newsletter today to receive a free investment checklist!

Operating leverage – how it caused Gamestop (GME) to plunge into the red

Operating leverage – how it caused Gamestop (GME) to plunge into the red

From the earlier post, we learned that not all growth is value-adding. Today, we are going to discuss an equally important concept – operating leverage. Not all sales growth has the same effect on profitability.

With these 2 articles, I wish to highlight to readers that sales growth, profit growth, and value creation are distinct. Growth in sales creates value only when a company earns a rate of return greater than its cost of capital. Furthermore, the percentage increase in profits may be vastly different than the increase in sales growth and vice versa as a result of operating leverage.

Operating leverage is a measurement of how an additional dollar of sales translates into operating profit. A 10% increase in sales may result in a 30% increase in net profits. Likewise, a 10% decline in sales may send a company’s share price earnings into oblivion. As we will see in Gamestop’s case study later.

How does operating leverage work?

Operating leverage is the most common in businesses which require a large amount of fixed assets investments. Theme parks are an example of a business with high operating leverage. Approximately 75% of their costs are fixed, with labor being the largest component. This means that if visitor numbers decline (i.e. sales), their operating profit will decline at a much larger magnitude.

Fixed costs are costs that a company must bear regardless of the sales level. For example, Starbucks must continue paying its rent, labor, and utilities regardless of the amount of coffee sold per store.

Variable costs are costs that are linked to the sales level. For Starbucks, this would be their coffee beans, whipped cream, etc. The more Frappuccinos they sell, the higher the amount of cost they would incur for the raw materials (i.e. coffee beans, etc).

The chart below from Credit Suisse illustrates nicely the impact on operating profit margin based on revenue changes and cost structure (fixed vs variable).

The concept of operating leverage is best explained with an example. ABC is a company with a higher operating leverage, 75% fixed expenses and 25% variable expenses. XYZ is a company with a lower operating leverage, 25% fixed expenses and 75% variable expenses.

Both of them are having sales of $10,000,000 and $8,000,000 in expenses. Giving them a profit of $2,000,000.

Assuming a 20% increase in sales from $10 million to $12 million would result in a proportional rise in variable expenses.

For ABC, variable cost would increase from $2 million to $2.4 million. And for XYZ, from $6 million to $7.2 million.

The fixed cost for ABC and XYZ would remain fixed at $6 million and $2 million respectively.

Net profits for ABC jumped 80% while XYZ’s increased by only 40%! This is operating leverage at work. For ABC, a larger proportion of their expenses are fixed. When expenses don’t grow as fast as sales, net profit will grow at a much higher rate.

Operating leverage cuts both ways. For a company with high operating leverage, a decline in sales would cause net profits to decline at a much larger magnitude as well.

When revenue declines by 20% to $8 million, variable cost would decline to $1.6 million and $4.8 million for ABC and XYZ respectively.

Net profits for ABC declined a whopping 80% while XYZ suffered a 40% decline. Fixed expenses still must be incurred when sales decline. When expenses do not decline as fast as sales, net profit will tumble at a much larger rate.

Case Study: GameStop Corp (NYSE: GME)

Errors in analyst forecasts tend to be larger in businesses that have high operating leverage. Likewise, investors are often caught by surprise when investing in businesses undergoing a secular decline that have high operating leverage. As the decline in sales inevitably resulted in a much larger decline in earnings (and share prices).

Briefly, GameStop (GME) is a video game retailer largely in the USA. With the internet, sales have plummeted as Amazon took up its market share and platforms such as Playstation and Xbox began selling digital games directly. Skipping a third-party retailer like GME altogether.

GME began to attract a lot of attention as ‘Big Short’ legend, Michael Burry, took a sizable stake in the company. The popular thesis was that the company has a ton of cash and a lot of value could be unlocked by GME repurchasing their shares. Creating a short squeeze on the short sellers (the stock was heavily shorted).

Many investors focused on the potential upside as Burry took a position. But many missed the important fact that a company in secular decline coupled with high operating leverage could be disastrous to earnings.

GameStop AR 2019

From their annual report, sales declined by 24%. However, it’s selling, general and administrative (SGA) expenses declined only 5%. This tells us that most of GME’s SGA expenses are fixed as reduced sales did not allow GME to save on SGA expenses. It still has to pay its employees and rent to run the business despite having fewer sales.

Adjusting for impairments, we are able to observe that operating earnings declined by a whopping 103%. From $453m to an operating loss of $14m. Despite only a 24% decline in revenue.

Likewise, investors who bought in 2017 at $25 were caught off guard with the sharp decline in earnings. The stock tumbled 80% as it lingers around $5 today.

GameStop Corp (GME) Stock Price Chart

Key lessons

Here I will summarize the key learning points I hope you can takeaway:

  • Operating leverage by itself is neither bad nor good.
  • It works both ways, a company with rising revenue could potentially see a much bigger increase in earnings and vice versa.
  • Companies with both high operating leverage and financial leverage will see greater swings in earnings.
  • Companies with high operating leverage and financial leverage are often the biggest gainers off a market bottom.
  • In the long run, all expenses are variable expenses.

I publish frequently at https://steadycompounding.com/

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Focus on total returns, not income investing

Focus on total returns, not income investing

This is a sequel to Getting Hurt Chasing Yields – Part 1. Apart from investing in instruments and companies that are unable to sustainably pay out interest and dividends based on their operating cash flow, investors are committing a mistake by solely focusing on investing for income.

Income investing means building a portfolio of interest or dividend-paying common stocks, preferred stocks, and bonds in an effort to generate sufficient income to maintain their desired lifestyle.

Investors should not be fixated on chasing yields. Rather, they should focus on the maximum total return they can derive from their investments. Total return includes both income and capital gains.

“The best way to approach this is to invest for the highest total return you can achieve and sell whatever shares or units you need to provide cash. However, I realise that for many investors, the idea of realising part of their capital to provide income is anathema.”

Terry Smith, CEO of Fundsmith

When investors focus on income-producing stocks, most are focused on stocks that have a high dividend yield. Generally, this would be limited to companies that pay out most of its earnings as dividends such as REITs or mature companies such as Singtel and Comfortdelgro.

These companies do not retain most of their earnings for reinvestment. Largely because they are unable to reinvest at high returns. Cash generated by the business will have to be deployed at other places (e.g. acquisitions) or returned to owners (e.g. via dividends or share buybacks).

Investors focusing on dividend yield alone would miss out on the great compounders – companies that are able to reinvest at a high rate of returns. Instead of paying out a dividend, they would retain most of their earnings for reinvestment. Growing the intrinsic value of their businesses.

Let’s look at an example comparing two businesses and understand which yield a higher total return. The first company, Compounding Corporation. It has the ability to reinvest all of its retained earnings at high returns due to its strong reinvestment moat. As a company that grows at a high ROIC, the market assigns it a higher multiple, at 20x earnings.

The second company, Dividend Corporation. It is a mature and steady business that pays out good dividend yield and trades at 10x earnings.

Assume that, over time, both companies will be valued approximately in line with the market, at 15x earnings. In this case, Compounding Corporation will suffer a multiple derating, while Dividend Corporation will enjoy a multiple expansion.

Let’s observe which company would provide shareholders with higher total returns:

By focusing on companies that provide a high dividend yield, investors would miss out on companies like Compounding Corporation. Although income investing would provide a decent result. The opportunity cost of doing so is huge (total returns of ~700% against ~300%).

The desperate search for yield has led to a number of people choosing to invest in income funds, or in mature companies providing a high dividend yield. On the surface, it might sound sensible, but it is erroneous. It may lead to investors underestimating the risk of investing in high yield instruments. Moreover, what is less obvious is the opportunity cost of focusing on yield only, as opposed to the total returns of a company that is able to compound at a high clip.

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