Thursday, April 26, 2018

Amazon: Glimpses of Shoeless Joe?

It was just over two weeks ago that I started my posts on the FANG stocks, starting with Facebook, which I decided to buy, because I felt that notwithstanding its current pariah status, its user base was too valuable to pass by, at the prevailing market price. I then looked at Netflix, a company that has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to the challenges thrown at it, while changing the entertainment business, but is, at least in my view, in a content cost/user cycle that will be difficult to break out of. With Alphabet, the cash cow that is its advertising business is allowing it to invest in the big new markets of tomorrow, and even with low odds and very little substance today, these bets can make or break the investment. That leaves me with the longest listed and perhaps the most intriguing of the four stocks, Amazon, a company whose reach seems to expand into new markets each year. 

Revisiting my Amazon past
I valued Amazon for the first time in 1998, as an online book retailer, and much of what I know about valuing young companies today came from the struggles I went through, modifying what I knew in conventional valuation, for the special challenges of valuing a company with no history, no financials and no peer group. Out of that experience was born a paper on valuing young companies, which is still on my website and the first edition of the Dark Side of Valuation, and if you want to see some horrendously wrong forecasts, at least in hindsight, you can check out my valuation of Amazon in that edition. 

While I had a tough time justifying Amazon’s valuation, in its dot-com days, I always admired the company and the way it was managed. When I was put off balance by an Amazon product, service or corporate announcement, I re-read Jeff Bezos’ letter to Amazon shareholders from 1997, because it helped me understand (though not always agree with) how Amazon views the business world. In that letter, Bezos laid out what I called the Field of Dreams story, telling his stockholders that if Amazon built it (revenues), they (the profits and cash flows) would come. In all my years looking at companies, I have never seen a CEO stay so true to a narrative and act as consistently as Amazon has, and it is, in my view, the biggest reason for its market success.

I have valued Amazon about once a year every year over its existence, and I have bought Amazon four times and sold it four times in that period. That said, there are two confessions that I have to make. The first is that I have not owned Amazon since 2012, and have thus missed out on its bull run since then. Second, through all of this time, I have consistently under estimated not only the innovative genius of this company, but also its (and its investors') patience. In fact, there have been occasions when I have wondered, staying true to my Field of Dreams theme, whether Shoeless Joe would ever make his appearance

Amazon’s Market Cap Rise
Amazon’s rise in market capitalization has had more ups and downs than either Google or Facebook, but it has been just as impressive, partly because the company came back from a near death experience after the dot-com bust in 2001.


The more remarkable feature of Amazon’s rise has been the debris it has left in its wake, first with brick and mortar retail in the United States, but more recently in almost every business it has entered, from grocery retail to logistics. These graphs, excerpted from a New York Times article earlier this year, tells the story:


I know that this picture is probably is too compressed for you to read, but suffice to say that no company, no matter how large or established it is is safe, when Amazon enters it's market. Thus, while you can explain away the implosion of Blue Apron, when Amazon entered the meal delivery business, by pointing to its small size and lack of capital, note that the decline in market value at Kroger, Walmart and Target on the date of the Whole Foods acquisition was vastly greater in dollar value terms, and these firms are large and well capitalized. It is also worth noting that the decline in market cap is not permanent and that firms in some of the sectors see a bounce back in the subsequent time periods but generally not to pre-Amazon entry levels.  If Amazon represents the light side of disruption, the destruction of the status quo and everything associated with it, in the businesses that it enters, is the dark side.

Amazon: Operating History and Model
Rather than provide an involved explanation for why I call Amazon a Field of Dreams company, I will begin with a chart of Amazon's revenues and operating income that will explain it far more succinctly and better:
Amazon has clearly delivered on revenue growth, as its revenues have gone from $1.6 billion in 1999 to $177 billion in 2017, but its margins, after an initial improvement, went through an extended period of decline. In most companies, this would be viewed as a sign of a weak business model, but in the case of Amazon, it is a feature of how they do business, not a bug. In effect, Amazon has extended its revenue growth by expanding into new businesses, often selling its products (Kindle, Fire, Prime) at or below cost.  That, by itself, is not unique to Amazon, but what makes it different is that it has been able to get the market to go along with its "if we build it, they will come" strategy.

The mild uptick in profitability in the last three years has been fueled by Amazon's web services (AWS) business, offering cloud and other internet related services to other businesses, and that can be seen in the graph below, showing revenues and operating profits broken down by segment:
Amazon 10K
Over the last five years. AWS has accounted for an increasing slice of revenues for Amazon, but it is still small, accounting for 10% of all revenues in 2017. On operating income, though, it has had a much bigger impact, accounting for all of Amazon's profitability in 2017, with AWS generating $4,331 million in operating profits and the rest of Amazon, reporting an operating loss of $225 million.

To back up my earlier claim that Amazon's low profits are by design, and not an accident, let's look at two expenses that Amazon has incurred over this period that are treated as operating expenses, and are reducing operating profit for the company, but are clearly designed as investments for the future. The first is in technology and content, which include the investments in technology that are driving the growth in the AWS business and content, for the media business. The second is in net shipping costs, the difference between what Amazon collects in shipping fees from its customers and what it pays out, which can be viewed as the investment is making in building up Amazon Prime.
Amazon 10K
Not only are the technology/content and net shipping costs a large portion of overall expenses, amounting to 18.32% of revenues in 2017, but they have increased over time. The operating margin for Amazon would have been over 20%, if it had not incurred these expenditures, but with those higher, the company would have had far less revenues, no AWS business and no Amazon Prime today. To value Amazon today, I think it makes sense to break it up into at least three parts, with the first being its retail/media business globally, the second its AWS business and finally, Amazon Prime. In the table below, I attempt to deconstruct Amazon's numbers to estimate how much each of these arms is generated as revenues and created in operating expenses in 2017, as a prelude to valuing them.
Note that I had to make some estimates and judgment calls in allocating revenues to Amazon Prime, where I have counted only the incremental revenues from Amazon Prime members, and in allocating content costs. For Amazon Prime, for instance, I have used an assumption that Prime members spend $600 more than non-Prime members, to estimate incremental revenues, and added the $9.7 billion in subscription premiums that Amazon reported in 2017. The net shipping costs have been fully allocated to Amazon Prime and all of the operating expenses that Amazon reported for AWS are assumed to be technology and content. The remaining expenses are allocated across AWS and Amazon Retail/Media, in proportion to their revenues. In my judgment, both Amazon Retail/Media and AWS generated operating profits in 2017, but the latter was much more profitable, with a pre-tax operating margin of 24.81%. Amazon Prime was a money loser in 2017, but its margins are less negative than they used to be, and at 100 million members, it may be poised to turn the corner.

Amazon Business Model
If there are any secrets in Amazon's business model, they are dispensed when you read Amazon's 10K, which is remarkably forthcoming about how the company approaches business. In particular, the company emphasizes three key elements in its business model:
  1. Focus on Free Cash Flow: I tend to be cynical when companies talk about free cash flows, since most use self serving definitions, where they add "stuff" to earnings to make their cash flows look more positive. Amazon does not seem to take the same tack. In fact, it not only nets out capital expenditures and working capital needs, as it should, but it even nets out acquisitions (such as the $13.2 billion it spent on Whole Foods) to get to free cash flow.
  2. Manage working capital investment: Perhaps remembering times as a start-up when mismanaging inventory brought it to its knees, the company is focused on keeping its investment in working capital as low as possible, though that does sometimes involve strong arming suppliers.
  3. Use Operating leverage: Amazon is clearly conscious about its cost structure, recognizing that its revenue growth can give it significant advantages of economies of scale, when it comes to fixed costs.
There are two additional features to the company that I would add, from my years observing the company.
  1. Patience: I have never seen a company show as much patience with its investments as Amazon has, and while there are some who would argue that this is because of it's large size and access to capital, Amazon was willing to wait for long periods, even when it was a small company, facing a capital crunch. I believe that patience is embedded in the company's DNA and that the Bezos letter in 1997 explains why.
  2. Experimentation: In almost every business that Amazon enters, it has been willing to try new things to shake up the status quo, and to abandon experiments that do not work in favor of experiments that do.
There is no scarier vision for a company than news that Amazon has entered its business. If you are in that besieged company, how do you survive the Amazon onslaught? We know what does not work:
  1. Imitation: You cannot out-Amazon Amazon, by trying to sell below cost and wait patiently. Even if you are a company with deep pockets, Amazon can out-wait you, since it is not only how they do business and they have investors who have accepted them on their terms.
  2. Cost Cutting: There are companies, especially in the US brick and mortar retail space, that thought they could cut costs, sell products at Amazon-level prices and survive. By doing so, they speeded their decline, since the poorer service and limited inventory that followed alienated their core customers, who left them for Amazon.
  3. Whining: Companies under the Amazon threat often resort to whining not only about fairness (and how Amazon breaks the rules) but also about how society overall will pay a price for Amazon domination. There are seeds of truth in both argument, but they will neither slow nor stop Amazon from continuing to put them out of business.
While there is no one template for what works, here are some strategies, drawn from looking at companies that have survived Amazon, that improve your odds:
  1. Tilt the game: You can try to get governments and regulators to buy into your warnings of monopoly power and societal demise and to regulate or restrict Amazon in ways that allow you to continue in business. 
  2. Play to your strengths: If you have succeeded as a company before Amazon came into your business, you had competitive advantages and core customers who generated that success. Nourishing your competitive advantages and bringing your core customers even closer to you is key to survival, but that will require that you live through some financial pain (in the form of higher costs).
  3. And to Amazon's weaknesses: Amazon's favored markets have high growth and low capital intensity, and when they get drawn into markets that demand more capital investment, like logistics, it is because they were forced into them. If you can move the terrain to lower growth, higher capital intensity businesses, you can improve your odds of surviving Amazon.
None of these choices will guarantee success or even survival, and there are times where you may have to seek partnerships and joint ventures to make it through, and if all else fails, you can try some witchcraft.


Valuing Amazon
In my prior iterations, I tried to value Amazon as a consolidated company, arguing that it was predominantly a retail company with some media businesses. The growth of AWS and the substantial spending on Amazon Prime has led me to conclude that a more prudent path is to value Amazon in pieces, with Amazon Retail/Media, AWS and Amazon Prime, each considered separately.

1. Amazon Retail/Media
To value the heart of Amazon, which still remains its retail and media business, I used the revenues and operating margin that I estimated based upon my allocation at the end of the last section as my starting point, and assumed that Amazon will be able to continue growing revenues at 15% a year for the next five years, while also improving its operating margin (currently 9.09%, with technology and content costs capitalized) to 12%. The revenue growth assumption is built on Amazon's track record of being able to grow and the improved margin reflect expected economies of scale. The resulting value is shown below:
Download spreadsheet
Based upon my assumptions, the value that I attach to the retail/media business is about $289 billion. The key driver of value is the operating margin improvement, built into the story.

2. AWS
If Amazon's reported numbers are right, this division is the profit machine for the company, generating an operating margin of close to 25%, while revenues grew 42.88% in 2017. While I believe that this business will stay high growth and profitable, it is also one where Amazon faces strong competitors in Microsoft and Google, just to name two, and both revenue growth rates and margins will come under pressure. I assume revenue growth of 25% a year for the next 5 years, with operating margin declining to 20% over that period. The value is shown below:
Download spreadsheet
The value that I estimate for AWS is about $139 billion. The key for value creation is finding a mix of revenue growth and operating margin that keeps value up, since going for higher growth with much lower margins will cause value to dissipate.

3. Amazon Prime
To value Amazon Prime, I use the same technique that I used last year to value it, starting with a value of a Prime member, and building up to the value of Prime, by forecasting growth in Prime membership and corporate costs (mostly content). I updated the Prime membership number to 100 million (from the 85 million that I used last August) and used the 2017 financial statements to get more specific on both content costs and on the cost of capital. The value is shown below:
Download spreadsheet
Based upon the layers of assumptions that I have made, especially on shipping costs growing at a rate lower than membership rolls, the value that I estimate for Amazon Prime is about $73 billion. The key input here is shipping costs, since failing to keep it in control will cause the value to very quickly spiral down to zero.

Amazon, the Company
With all three pieces completed, I bring them together in my valuation of the company, incorporating the total debt outstanding in the company of $42,730 (including capitalized operating leases) and cash of $30.986 million, to arrive at a value per share of $1019.

At $1,460/share, on April 25, the stock is clearly out of my reach right now. Given that I have not been able to justify buying the stock at any time in the last five years, as it rose from $250/share to $1500, my suggestion is that you do you don't take my word, and that you make your own judgment. You can download the spreadsheets that I have for Amazon Retail/Media, AWS and Amazon Prime at the end of this post, and change those assumptions of mine that you think are wrong.

Investment Judgment
The FANG stocks represent great companies, but of the four, I think that Amazon has the most fearsome business model, simply because its platform of disruption and patience can be extended to almost any other business, one reason why every company should view Amazon as a potential competitor. I know that the old value adage is that if you buy quality companies and hold them forever, they will pay for themselves, but I don't believe that! There are good companies that can be bad investments and bad companies that can be terrific investments, as I noted in this post. Amazon has fallen into the first category for much of the last five years and continues to do so, at today's market price. But good things come to those who wait, and I know that there be a time and a price at which it will be back in my portfolio. 

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Data Links

  1. Amazon 10K
  2. Valuation of Amazon Retail/Media
  3. Valuation of AWS
  4. Valuation of Amazon Prime
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Thursday, April 19, 2018

Alphabet Soup: Google is Alpha, but where are the Bets?

In my last two posts, I looked first at the turn in the market against the FANG stocks, largely precipitated by the Facebook user data fiasco and then at the effect of the blowback on Facebook's value. I concluded that notwithstanding the likely negative consequences for the company, which include more muted revenue growth, higher costs (lower margins) and potential fines, Facebook looks like a good investment, with a value about 10% higher than its prevailing price. I argued that changes are coming from both outside (regulators and legislation) and inside (to protect data better), and these changes are unlikely to be just directed at Facebook. It is this perception that has probably led the market to mark down other companies that have built business models around user/subscriber data and in these next posts, I would like to look at the rest of the stocks in the FANG bundle and the consequences for their valuations, starting with Google in this one.

The One Number
The value of a company is driven by a myriad of variables that encompass growth, risk and cash flows, which are the drivers of value. In a typical intrinsic valuation, there are dozens of inputs that drive value but there is one variable, that more than any other, drives value and it is critical to identify that variable early in the valuation process for three reasons:
  1. Information Focus: We live in a world where we drown in data and opinion about companies and unfocused data collection can often leave you more confused about the value of a company, rather than less. Knowing the key value driver allows you to focus your information collection around that variable, rather than get distracted by the other inputs into value.
  2. Management Questions: If you have the opportunity to question management, your questions can then also be directed at the key variable and what management is doing to deliver on that variable. 
  3. Disclosure Tracking: If you are invested in a company and are tracking how it is performing, relative to your expectations, it is again easy in today's markets to get lost in the earnings report frenzy and the voluminous disclosures from companies. Having a focus allows you to zero in on the parts of the earnings report that are most relevant to value.
In short, knowing what you are looking for makes it much more likely that you will find it. But how do you identify the key driver variable? In my template, I look for two characteristics:
  1. Big Value Effects: Changing your key driver variable should have large effects on the value that you estimate for a business. One of the benefits of asking what-if questions about the inputs into a valuation is that it can allow you to gauge this effect. 
  2. Uncertainty about Input: If an input has large effects on value, but you feel confident about it, it is not a driver variable. Conversely, if you have made an estimate of input and are uncertain about that number, because it can change either due to management decisions or because of external forces, it is more likely to be a driver input.
If you accept this characterization, there are two implications that emerge. The first is that the key value driver can and will be different for different companies; a mechanistic focus on the same input variable with every company that you value will lead you astray. The second is that there is a subjective component to your choice, and the key value driver that I identify for a company can be different from the one you choose for the same company, reflecting perhaps the different stories that we may be telling in our valuations. In my just-posted Facebook valuation, I believe that the key variable is the cost that Facebook will face to fix its data privacy problems and it manifests itself in my forecasted operating margin, which I project to fall from almost 58% down to 42%, in the next five years. Note that revenue growth may have a bigger impact on value, but in my judgement, it is the operating margin that I am most uncertain about. I will use this post to value Google and highlight what I believe is the driver variable for the company.

The Alphabet Story
If Facebook is the wunderkind that has shaken up the online advertising business, Google is the original disruptor of this business and is by far the biggest player in that game today. It is ironic that the disruptor has become the status quo, but until there is another disruption, it is Google's targeted advertising model, in world, and its search engine and ad words that dominate this business. Google has had fewer brushes with controversy, with its data, than Facebook, partly because its data collection occurs across multiple platforms and is less visible and partly because it does have a tighter rein on its data. 

1. A Short History
Google has been a rule breaker, right from its beginnings as a publicly traded company. It used a Dutch auction process for its initial public offering, rather than the more conventional bank-backed offer pricing model, and while it has had a few stumbles, its ascent has been steep:

The secrets to its success are neither hard to find, nor unusual. The company has been able to scale up revenues, while preserving its operating margins:

The most impressive feature of Google's operations has been its ability to maintain consistent revenue growth rates and operating margins since 2008, even as the firm more than quadrupled its revenues.

2. The State of the Game
To value Google, we start with the numbers, but in order to build a story we have to assess the landscape that Google faces.
  1. A Duopoly: The advertising business, in general, and the digital advertising business, in particular, are becoming a duopoly. In 2017, the total spent on advertising globally was $584 billion, with digital advertising accounting for $228.4 billion. Google's market share in 2017 was 42.2%, and Facebook's market share was 20.9%. Even more ominously for the rest of their competitors, they got bigger during the year, accounting for almost 84% of the increase in digital advertising during the course of the year.
  2. Google is everywhere: Google's hold on the game starts with its search engine, but has been enriched by its other products, Gmail, with more than a billion users, YouTube, which dominates the online video space and Android, the dominant smart phone operating system. If you add to this Google Maps, Google shared documents and Google Home products, the company is everywhere that you are, and is harvesting information about you at each step. During the last week, a New York Times reporter downloaded the data that Facebook had on him and while what he found disturbed him, both in terms of magnitude and type, he found that Google had far more data on him than Facebook did.
  3. Alphabet is still mostly alpha, very little bet: While Google's decision to rename itself Alphabet was motivated by a desire to let it's non-advertising businesses grow, the numbers, at least so far, indicate limited progress. In fact, if there is growth it has so far come from the apps, cloud and hardware portion of Google, rather than the bets themselves, but Nest (home automation), Waymo (driverless cars), Verily (life sciences) and Google Fiber (broadband internet) are options that may (or may) not pay off big time.

Google 2017 10K
The bottom line is that Google has changed the advertising business  and dominates it, with Facebook representing its only serious competition. It's large market share should act as a check on its growth, but Google has been able to sustain double digit growth by growing the digital portion of the advertising business and claiming the lion's share of that growth, again with Facebook. The wild  card is whether the data privacy restrictions and regulations that are coming will crimp one or both companies in their pursuit of ad revenues. As digital advertising starts to level off, Google will have to look to its other businesses to provide it a boost.

3. The Valuation
As with Facebook, I was a doubter on the scalability of the Google story, but it has proved me wrong, over and over again. In valuing Google, I will assume that it will continue to grow, but I set the revenue growth rate at 12% for the next five years, below the 15% growth rate registered in the last five, for two reasons. The first is that digital advertising's rise has started to slow, simply because it is now such a large part of the overall advertising market. The second is that data privacy restrictions, if restrictive, will take away one of Google's network benefits. I do think that the profitability of Google's businesses will stay intact over time, with operating margins staying at the 27.87% recorded in 2017. With those key assumptions, I value Google at $970, close to the price of $1030 that it was trading at on April 13.
Download spreadsheet
As with my Facebook valuation, each of my key inputs is estimated with error, and capturing that uncertainty in distributions yields the following outcomes:
Crystal Ball used in simulation
No surprises here. The median value is about $957 and at a stock price of $1.030, there is a 65% chance that the stock is over valued. As with Facebook, there is a positive skew in the outcomes, and that skew will get only more positive, if you build in a bigger payoff from one of the bets. 

4. The Value Driver
Google's value is driven by revenue growth and operating margins, and changing one or both inputs has a significant effect on value. 
The shaded cells represent the combinations that deliver values higher than the prevailing stock price of $1,030/share. In my judgment, Alphabet's bigger value driver is revenue growth, not margins, and it is on that input, this valuation will rise of fall. It is my view that while data privacy restrictions will translate into much higher costs for Facebook, partly because it has so little structure currently, it will result in lower growth for Alphabet. If the data privacy restrictions handicap Google so badly that it loses a big part of what has allowed it to dominate digital advertising for the next five years, Google's revenue growth and value will drop dramatically. However, Google is just starting to tap the potential in YouTube, and if it is able to position it as a competitor to Spotify, in music streaming, and Netflix, in video streaming, it could discover a new source of revenue growth, with strong operating margins.

5. The Google Bets
The least substantive part of Alphabet, at least in the numbers, is also its most intriguing from a value standpoint, and that is its investment in the other businesses, comprising the "bet" in Alphabet. Google has spent billions on Waymo, Verily and Nest, three of its higher profile other businesses, and while Waymo and Nest have received considerable public attention, they don't have much in revenues, and lots of losses to show for it. There are three views that one can bring to the Google bets, and which one you adopt will determine in large part, whether you will be tilted towards buy-ing Google:
  1. Founder Playthings: The most cynical view is that the billions invested in these businesses are not meant to make money, but instead were directed by founder interests in electric cars, health care technology and home automation. Those who take this view will likely point to Google Glasses, an expensive and ill-fated experiment that ended badly and to the effusive support from Brin and Page for these businesses. If you buy into this this view, not only will these businesses not add value to Alphabet, they will continue to drain value from the company, because of the spending that goes with them.
  2. Early Life, Big Market Businesses: The second and more optimistic view is that the Google bets should be viewed more as start-ups in potentially big markets, with industry-leading innovation. This is especially the case with Waymo, which if not at the cutting edge of the driverless car business is very close to it, and if successful, could be an entree into not just the driverless car market but also into ride sharing and car service. You could build business models for Waymo, Verily, Nest and Google Fiber that would resemble the models used to value young start-ups, with a bonus of access to Alphabet capital to survive for long periods, and add this value to the advertising business that remains Google's cash cow.
  3. Real Options: The third view, which splits the difference, is that while the bet businesses represent potential, that potential is not only far in the future, but may never materialize, either because of the evolution of technology, regulation or market demand. Thus, driverless cars may never quite make it into the mainstream, either because customers don't trust them or they turn out to be too risky. With this view, you can argue that the Google bets are out-of-the-money options, and since the value of an option is determined by potential revenues and uncertainty about those revenues, they are valuable, even though only one of the bets may pay off and the others will have to be written off.
In my valuation of Alphabet, I have implicitly assumed that the company will continue to spend billions in its bets, by leaving the margin at existing levels; remember that the operating margin of 27.87% is after the company's spending on its bet businesses. By not explicitly giving credit for the revenues that the bet businesses will create, it may seem like I am taking the cynical view of these businesses as playthings, but I am not. Much as I dislike the corporate governance ethos that Brin and Page have brought to Google, and helped to proliferate across the new tech sector with their dicing and slicing of voting rights, I don't see them as individuals who would spend billions on expensive toys. That said, I do think that trying to build business models from scratch, to value Waymo, Verily and Nest is difficult to do right now, given that the markets that they are going after all still in flux. I believe that these investments are options and valuable ones at that, but I will make that claim based upon their underlying characteristics (high variance, big markets) rather than with explicit option pricing models. As an investor, looking at Alphabet, here is how it plays out in my investment decision. My intrinsic valuation for Alphabet is $968, within shouting distance of the company's stock price, and I believe that there is enough option value in the bets, that if the stock is fairly or even under valued at its current price. While I am not yet inclined to buy, I have a limit buy order on the stock, that I had initially set at $950, but have moved up to $1000 after my bet assessment, and I, like many of you, will be watching the market reaction to the Alphabet earnings report on Monday. Perverse though it may sound, I am hoping that there are enough negative surprises in it to cause a price drop that would make my limit buy execute, but if not, it will stay it in place. 

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Monday, April 16, 2018

Netflix: The Future of Entertainment or House of Cards?

For better or worse, Netflix has changed not just the entertainment business, but also the way that we (the audience) watch television. In the process, it has also enriched its investors, as its market capitalization climbed to $139 billion in March 2018 and even after the market correction for the FANG stocks, its value is substantial enough to make it one of the largest entertainment company in the world. Among the FANG stocks, with their gigantic market capitalizations, it remains the smallest company on both market value and operating metrics, but it has almost as big an impact on our daily lives as its larger peers.

The History

This may come as a surprise to some, but Netflix has been publicly listed for longer than Facebook or Google. The difference between Netflix and these companies is that it’s climb to stardom has taken more time.

Don't get me wrong! Netflix was a very good investment between 2003 and 2009, increasing its market capitalization by 33.36% a year and its market capitalization by about $3 billion, during that period. However, it became a superstar investment between 2010 and 2017, adding about $120 billion in value over the period, translating into an annual price appreciation of more than 50% a year.

The fuel that Netflix has used to increase its market capitalization is its subscriber base, as with the other FANG stocks, the company seems to have found the secret to be able to scale up, as it gets larger. That subscriber base, in turn, has allowed the company to increase its revenues over time, as can be seen in the picture below, summarizing Netflix’s operating metrics.

You can accuse me of over analyzing this chart, but it captures to me the essence of the Netflix success story. While Netflix has been able to grow revenues in each of the three consecutive five-year time periods, 2002-2006, 2007-2012 and 2013-2017, that it has been existence, the company has been faced with challenges during each period, and it has adapted.
  1. DVDs in the Mail: In the first five-year period, 2002 through 2006, the company mailed out DVDs and videos to its subscribers, challenging the video rental business, where brick and mortar video rental stores represented the status quo, and Blockbuster was the dominant player. 
  2. The Rise of Streaming: It was between 2007 and 2012, where the company came into its own, as it took advantage of changes in technology and in customer preferences. First, as technology evolved to allow for the streaming of movies, Netflix adapted, with a few rough spots, to the new technology, while its brick and mortar competitors imploded. Second, while Netflix saw a drop in revenue growth that was not unexpected, given its larger base, it also saw its content costs rise at a faster rate than revenues, as content providers (the movie studios) starting charging higher prices for content. 
  3. The Content Maker: In hindsight, the studios probably wish that they had not squeezed Netflix, because the company reacted by taking more control of its own destiny in the 2013-2017 time period, by shifting to original content, first with television series and later with direct-to-streaming movies. The results have upended the entertainment business, but more critically for Netflix, they show up in a critical statistic. For the first time in its existence, Netflix saw content costs rise at a rate slower than its growth in revenues, with operating profit margins, both before and after R&D reflecting this development. 
The State of the Game
We can debate whether Netflix is a good or a bad investment, but there is no argument that the way movies and television get made has been changed by the company’s practices. It is the rest of the entertainment business that is trying to adapt to the Netflix streaming model, as evidenced by Disney’s acquisition of BAM Media and Fox Entertainment. If I were to summarize where Netflix stands right now, here would be my key points:
1. It's a big spender on content: In 2017, Netflix spent billions on the content that it delivers to its subscribers, and the extent of its spending can be seen in its financial statements. The way that Netflix accounts for its content expenditures does complicate the measurement, since it uses two different accounting standards, one for licensed content and one for productions, but it capitalizes and amortizes both, albeit on different schedules, and based upon viewing patterns. The gap between the accrual (or amortized) cost (shown in the income statement) and the cash spent (shown in the statement of cash flows) on content can be seen in the graph below.
Netflix 10K - 2017
In 2017, Netflix spent almost $9.8 billion on content, though it expensed only $7.7 billion in its income statement. If this divergence continues, and there is no reason to believe that it will not, Netflix’s profits will be more positive than their cash flows by a substantial amount. Note that this divergence should not be taken (necessarily) as a sign of deception or accounting game playing. In fact, if Netflix is being reasonable in its amortization judgments, one way to read the difference of $2.14 billion ($9.8 in cash expenses minus $7.66 billion in accrual expenses) is to view it as the equivalent of capital expenditures at Netflix, since it is expense incurred to attract and keep subscribers.
2. An increasing amount of that spending goes to original content: The decision by Netflix to produce some of its own content in 2013 triggered a shift towards original content that has picked up speed since that year. In 2017, the company spent $6.3 billion on original content, putting it among the top spenders in the entertainment business:
Biggest Spenders on Entertainment Content in 2017
The pace is not letting up. In the first quarter of 2018, Netflix introduced 18 new television series and delivered 12 new seasons of existing series, prodigious output by any studio’s standards. There are three reasons for the Netflix move into the content business.
  • The first, referenced in the last section, is to gain more control over content costs and to be less exposed to movie studio price hikes. 
  • The second is that Netflix has been using the data that it has on subscriber tastes not only to direct content at them, but to produce new content that is tailored to viewer demands.
  • The third is that it introduces stickiness into their business model, a key reason why new subscribers come to the company and why existing subscribers are reluctant to abandon it, even if subscription fees go up.
Netflix has moved beyond television shows to making straight-to-streaming movies, spending $90 million on Bright, a movie that notwithstanding its lackluster reviews, signaled the company’s ambitions to be a major player in the movie business.
3. Netflix has been adept at playing the expectations game: One feature that all of the FANG stocks trade is that rather than let equity research analysts frame their stories and measure their success, they have managed to frame their own stories and make investors and analysts play on their terms. Netflix, for instance, has managed to make the expectations game all about subscriber numbers, and every earnings report of the company is framed around these numbers, with less attention paid to content costs, churn rates and negative cash flows. After its most recent earnings report in January, the stock price surged, as the company reported an increase of 8.3 million in subscribers, well above expectations.
4. The company is globalizing: One consequence of making it a numbers game, which is what Netflix has done by keeping the focus on subscribers, is that you have to go where the numbers are, and for better or worse, that has meant that Netflix has had to go global, with Asia being the mother lode.

At the end of 2017, Netflix had more subscribers outside the US than in the US, and it is bringing its free spending ways and its views on content development to other parts of the world, perhaps bringing Bollywood and Hollywood closer, at least in terms of shared problems.

In summary, Netflix has built a business model of spending immense amounts on content, using that content to attract new subscribers, and then using those new subscribers as its pathway to market value. It is clear that investors have bought into the model, but the model is also one that burns through cash at alarming rates, with no smooth or near term escape hatch.

The Valuation
In keeping with the focus on subscriber numbers that is at the center of the Netflix story, I will value Netflix with the subscriber-based approach that I used to value Spotify a few weeks ago and Uber and Amazon Prime last year.

Cost Breakdown
The key to getting a subscriber-based valuation of Netflix is to first break its overall costs down into (a) costs for servicing existing subscribers, (b) the cost of acquiring new subscribers and (c) a corporate cost that cannot be directly related to either servicing existing subscribers or getting new ones. I started with the Netflix 2017 income statement:

Since Netflix does not break its costs down into my preferred components I made subjective judgments in allocating these costs, treating G&A costs as expenses related to servicing existing subscribers and marketing costs as the costs of acquiring new subscribers. With content costs, I started first with the $2,146 million difference between the cash content cost and expensed content cost and treated it also as part of the cost of acquiring new subscribers. With the expensed content cost of $7,600 million, I assumed that only 20% of these costs are directly related to subscribers and treated that portion as part of the cost of servicing existing subscribers and that the remaining 80% would become part of the corporate cost, in conjunction with the investment in technology and development. One key difference between the Netflix and Spotify cost models is that most of the content costs are fixed corporate costs for Netflix but almost all content costsare variable costs for Spotify, since it pays for content based upon how its subscribers listen to it, rather than as a fixed fee.

Value of an Existing Subscribers
My decision to treat most of the content content costs as a corporate cost has predictable consequences. The costs associated with individual subscribers are only the G&A costs and 20% of content costs, and the number is small, relative to the revenues that Netflix generates per subscriber:
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A strength that Netflix has built, perhaps with its original content, is that it has reduced it's churn rate (the loss of existing customers), each year since 2015. In 2017, the annual renewal rate for a Netflix subscription was about 91%, and that number improved even more across the four quarters. In my subscriber-valuation, I have used a 92.5% renewal rate, for the life of a subscriber, assumed to be 15 years. I will assume that Netflix investments in original content will give it the pricing power to increase annual revenue per subscriber (G&A and the 20% of content costs), which was $113.16 in 2017, at 5% a year, while keeping the growth rate in annual expenses per subscriber at the inflation rate of 2%. I estimate after-tax operating income each year, using a global average tax rate of 25%, and discount it back at a 7.95% cost of capital (estimated for Netflix, based upon its business and geographic mix, and debt ratio) to derive a value of $508.89 subscriber and a total value of $59.8 billion for Netflix’s 117.6 million existing subscribers.

Value of New Subscribers
To value a new subscriber, I first estimated the total cost that Netflix spent on adding new subscribers by adding the total marketing costs of $1,278 million to the capitalized portion of the content costs of $2,142 million, and then divided this amount by the gross increase in the number of subscribers (30.84 million) during 2017, to obtain a cost of $111.01 for acquiring a new subscriber. I then net that number out from the value of an existing subscriber to arrive at a value of $397.88/new subscriber right now; I assume that this value will increase at the inflation rate over time.
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I assume that Netflix will continue to add new subscribers, adding 15% to its net subscriber rolls, each year for the first five years, and 10% a year for years 6 through 10, before settling into a steady state growth rate of 1% a year. Discounting the value added by new subscribers at a higher cost of capital of 8.5%, reflecting the greater uncertainty associated with new subscribers, yields a total value of $137.3 billion for new subscribers.

The Corporate Drag
The final piece of the puzzle is to bring in the corporate costs that we assumed could not be directly linked with subscriber count. In the case of Netflix, the  technology & development costs and 80% of the expensed content, that we put into this corporate cost category amounted to $6.13 billion in 2017 and the path that these costs follow in the future will determine the value that we attach to the company.
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I assume that technology & development costs will grow 5% a year, but it is on the content cost component that I struggled the most to estimate a growth rate. I decided that the accelerated spending that Netflix had in 2017 and continued to have in 2018 reflect Netflix’s attempt to acquire standing in the business, and that while it will continue to spend large amounts on content, the growth rate in this portion of the content costs will drop to 3% a year, for the next 10 years. Note that even with that low growth rate, Netflix will be consistently among the top five spenders in the content business, spending more than $100 billion on original content over the next ten years. Discounting back the after-tax corporate expenses back at the 7.95% cost of capital, yields a corporate cost drag of $111.3 billion.

The Netflix Valuation: The One Number
To value Netflix, I bring together the value of existing and new subscribers and net out the corporate cost drag. I also subtract out the $6.5 billion in debt that the company has outstanding and the value of equity options granted over time to its employees.
The value per share of $172.82 that I estimate for Netflix is well below the stock price of $275, as of April 14, 2018. My value reflects the story that I am telling about Netflix, as a company that is able to grow at double digit rates for the next decade, with high value added with new users, while bringing its content costs under control. I am sure that your views on the company will diverge from mine, and you are welcome to use my Netflix subscriber valuation template to come to your own conclusions. 

It is worth taking a pause, and considering the differences between Netflix and Spotify, both subscription-based business models, that draw their value from immense subscriber bases.
  1. By paying for its content, both licensed and original, and using that content to go after subscribers, Netflix has built a more levered business model, where subscribers, both new and existing, have higher marginal value than at Spotify, where content costs are tied to subscribers listening to music. 
  2. The Netflix model, which is increasingly built around original rather than licensed content, provides for a stronger competitive edge, which should show up in higher renewal rates and more pricing power, adding to the value per subscriber, both existing and new. 
  3. The Netflix model will deliver higher value from subscription growth than the Spotify model, but it comes with a greater downside, because a slackening of that growth will leave Netflix much deeper in the hole, with more negative cash flows, than it would Spotify. 
Now that both companies are listed and traded, it will be interesting to see whether this plays out as much larger market reactions to subscription number surprises, both positive and negative, at Netflix than at Spotify.

In my earlier post on Google, I noted that every company has a value driver, one number that more than any of the others determines value. In the case of Netflix, the key value driver, in my view, is content costs. My value per share is premised not just on high growth in subscribers and continued subscriber value, but also on content costs growing at a much lower rate (of 3%) in the future. To illustrate the sensitivity of value per share to this assumption, I varied the growth rate in content costs and calculated value per share:
To illustrate the dangers to Netflix of letting content costs grow at high rates, note that the company’s equity value becomes negative (i.e., the company goes bankrupt), if content costs grow at high rates, relative to revenue growth, with double digit growth rates creating catastrophic effects. If Netflix is able to cap the costs at 2017 levels in perpetuity, the estimated value per share is approximately $216,  at the base case growth rate of 15%, and if it is able to reduce content costs in absolute terms over time, it is worth even more. In my view, investing in Netflix is less a bet on the company being able to deliver subscriber and/or revenue growth in the future and more one on the future path of content costs at the company.

The Decision
There is no doubt that Netflix has changed the way we watch television and the movies, and it is changing the movie/TV business in significant ways. By competing for talent in the content business, it is pushing up costs for its competitors and with its direct-to-streaming model, putting pressure on movie theaters and distribution. That said, the entertainment business remains a daunting one, because the talent is expensive and unpredictable, and egos run rampant. The history of newcomers who have come into this business with open wallets is that they leave with empty ones. For Netflix to escape this fate, it has to show discipline in controlling content costs, and until I see evidence that it is capable of this discipline, I will remain a subscriber, but not an investor in the company.

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  1. Valuation of Netflix - April 2018

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Facebook Feeding Frenzy: Time for a Pause!

In my last post, I noted that the FANG stocks have been in the spotlight, as tech has taken a beating in the market, but it is Facebook that is at the center of the storm. It was the news story on Cambridge Analytica's misuse of Facebook user data,  in mid-March of 2018, that started the ball rolling and in the days since, not only have more unpleasant details emerged about Facebook's culpability, but the rest of the world seems to have decided to unfriend Facebook. More ominously, regulators and politicians have also turned their attention to the company and that attention will be heightened, with Zuckerberg testifying in front of Congress. That is a precipitous fall from grace for a company that only a short while ago epitomized the new economy.

A Personal Odyssey
My interest in Facebook dates back to the year before it went public, when it was already getting attention because of its giant user base and its high private company valuation. In the weeks leading up to its IPO, I valued Facebook at about $29/share, with a story built around it becoming a Google wannabe. If that sounded insulting, it was not meant to be, since having a revenue path and operating margins that mimicked the most successful tech companies in the decade prior is quite a feat.

That initial public offering was among the most mismanaged in recent years and a combination of hubris and poor timing led to an offering day fiasco, where the investment bankers had to step in to support the priced. The first few months after the offering were tough ones for Facebook, with the stock dropping to $19 by September 2012, when I argued that it was time to befriend the company and buy its stock, one of the few times in my life when I have bought a stock at its absolute low.

Much as I would like to tell you that I had the foresight to see Facebook's rise from 2012 through 2017 and that I held on to the stock, I did not, and I sold the stock just as it got to $50, concerned that the advertising business was not big enough to accommodate the players (Google, the social media companies and traditional advertising companies), elbowing for market share. I under estimated how much Google and Facebook would both expand the market and dominate it, but I have no regrets about selling too early. I did what I felt was right, given my assessment and investment philosophy, at the time.

A Numbers Update
To undersand how Facebook became the company that it is today, let's start with its most impressive numbers, which are related to its user base. At the start of 2018, Facebook had more than 2.1 billion users, about 30% of the world's population:

While the user numbers have leveled off in North America, where Facebook already counts 72.5% of the population in its user base, the company continues to grow its user base in the rest of the world, with an added impetus coming from the scaling up of Instagram, Facebook's video arm. These user numbers, while staggering, are made even more so when you consider how much time Facebook users spend on its platforms:
Collectively, users spent more than an hour a day on Facebook platforms, and that usage does not reflect the time spent on WhatsApp, also owned by Facebook, by its 1.5 billion users.

If you are a value investor, it would easy to dismiss Facebook as another user-chasing tech company and deliver a cutting remark that you cannot pay dividends with users, but Facebook is an exception. It has managed to to convert its user base into revenues and more critically, operating profits.

With its operating margin approaching 58%, if you capitalize its technology and content costs, Facebook outshines most of the other companies in the S&P 500, in both growth and profitability:

What makes Facebook's rise even more impressive is that it has been able to deliver these results in a market, where it faces an equally voracious competitor in Google.

In summary, Facebook has had perhaps the most productive opening act in history of any publicly listed company, if you define production in operating results. It promised the moon at the time of its IPO, and has delivered the sun. In my book on connecting stories to value, I pointed to Facebook as a company that seemed to find new ways, with each acquisition, announcement and earning report, to expand and broaden its story, first by conquering mobile and then going global. By the start of 2016, I had changed my story for Facebook from a Google Wannabe to one that would eclipse Google, with added potential from its user base. While the Facebook story has been one of business success, the company, its users and investors have been in denial about central elements in the story. Facebook's users have been trading information on themselves to the company in return for a social media site where they can interact with friends, family and acquaintances, and their complaints about lost privacy ring hollow. Facebook's strengths are built upon using the information that users provide about themselves to better target advertising and generate revenues, but Facebook and its investors have been unwilling to face up to the reality that the company's high margins reflect its use of third parties and outsiders to collect and manage data, a business practice that is profitable but that also creates the potential for data leakages. (Some of you seem to be reading into my words an implication that Facebook sells user data to third parties to generate revenues. It does not. It processes the data to make it information (its first competitive advantage), uses that information to better target advertising and generates revenues, as a consequence.)

A Story Break, Twist or Change?
If the Facebook story so far sounds like a fairy tale, there has to be a dark twist, and while Facebook's troubles are often traced back to the stories in mid-March 2018, when the current user scandal news cycle began, its problems have been simmering for much longer. Put on the defensive, after the 2016 US presidential elections, for being a purveyor of fake news, Facebook announced in January 2018, that it had changed its news feed to emphasize user interaction over passive consumption of public news feeds. That change, which led to a leveling off in user numbers and a loss of advertising revenues was not well received on Wall Street, with the stock price dropping almost 5%.

If Facebook was trying to preempt its critics with this announcement, the Cambridge Analytica story has knocked them off stride. Specifically, a whistle blower at Cambridge Analytica claimed that the company has not only accessed detailed user data on 50 million Facebook users but had used that data to target voters in political campaigns. In the three weeks since, the story has worsened for Facebook both in terms of numbers (with accessed users increasing to 87 million) and culpability (with Facebook's sloppiness in protecting user data highlighted). As politicians, commentators and competitors have jumped in to exploit the breach, financial markets knocked off $81 billion from Facebook's market capitalization. It is unquestionable that Facebook is mired in a mess and that it deserves market punishment, but from an investing perspective, the question becomes whether the loss in value is merited or not. 

The worst case scenario, and some have bought into this, is that the company will lose users, both in numbers and intensity, and that advertisers will pull out. If you add large fines and regulatory restrictions on data usage that may cripple Facebook's capacity to use that data in targeted advertising, you have the makings of a perfect storm, playing out as flat or declining revenues, big increases in operating costs and imploding value. In my view, and I may very well be wrong, I think the effects will be more benign:
  1. User loss, in numbers and intensity, will be muted: It is still early in this news cycle, and there may be more damaging revelations to come, but I don't believe that anything that has come out so far is  egregious enough to cause large numbers of users to flee. We live in cynical times and many users will probably agree with Mark Snyder, a Facebook user whose data had been accessed by Cambridge Analytica, who is quoted as saying in this New York Times article, "If you sign up for anything and it isn’t immediately obvious how they’re making money, they’re making money off of you.” There is some preliminary evidence that can be gleaned from surveys taken right after the stories broke, which indicate that only about 8% of Facebook users are considering leaving and 19% plan significant cutbacks in usage. If this represents the high water mark, the actual damage will be smaller. I will assume that Facebook's push towards more data protections and its larger base will slow growth in revenues down to about 20% a year, for the next 5 years, from the 51.53% growth rate over the last five years.
    Source: Raymond James, reported by Variety
  2. Advertisers will mostly stay on: While a few companies, like Mozilla, Pep Boys and Commerzbank, announced that they were pulling their ads from Facebook, there is little evidence that advertisers are abandoning Facebook in droves, since much of what attracted them to Facebook (its large and intense user base and targeting) still remains in place. Facebook, in an attempt to clean up the platform, may impose restrictions on advertisers that may drive some of them away. For instance, last week, Facebook announced that it would stop accepting political advertisements from anonymous entities and I would not be surprised to see more self-imposed restrictions on advertising. I will assume that there will be more defections in the weeks ahead, mostly from companies that don't feel that their Facebook advertising is effective right now, leading to a loss in revenues of $1.5 billion next year.
  3. Data restrictions are coming, and will be costly: There is no doubt that data restrictions are coming, with the question being about how restrictive they will be and what it will cost Facebook to implement them. Data privacy laws, modeled on the EU's format, will require the company to hire more people to oversee data collection and protection. I will assume that these actions will push up costs and reduce the pre-tax operating margin from 57%, after capitalizing technology and content costs, to 42% over the next 5 years. Pre-capitalization of technology and content, I am expecting the operating margin to drop from 49.7% (current) to about 37-38%,
  4. There will be fines: This is a wild card in this process, with the possibility that the Federal Trade Commission  may impose a fines on the company for violating an agreement reached in 2011, where Facebook agreed to protect user data from unauthorized access. While no one seems to have a clear idea of how much these fines will be, other than that they will be large, there are some who believe that the fines could be as high as a billion dollars. I will assume that the FTC will use Facebook to send a signal to other companies that collect data, by fining it $1 billion.
As I see it, the scandal will lead to lost sales in the near term, slow revenue growth in the coming years and increase costs at the company, making the Facebook story a less attractive one. My estimates of how the story changes will play out in the numbers is shown below:
In summary, the story that I have for Facebook is still an upbeat one, albeit one with lower growth and operating margins. The resulting value is shown below:
Download spreadsheet
The value per share that I obtain, with my story, is abut $181, and on April 3, the date of the valuation, the stock was trading at $155 a share. As always, I am sure that there are inputs where you will disagree with me, and if you do, you can download the spreadsheet and change the numbers that you disagree with. Some of you may be wondering why I have no margin of safety, but as I noted in this post on the topic from a while back, I believe that there are more effective ways of dealing with uncertainty that adopting an arbitrary margin of safety and sitting on the sidelines. In fact, my favored device is to face up to uncertainty frontally in a simulation, shown below:
Simulation run with Crystal Ball, in Excel
This graph reinforces my decision to invest in Facebook. While it is true that there is a 30% chance that the stock is still over valued, there is more upside than downside potential, given my inputs. The median value of $179 is close to my point estimate value, but that should be no surprise since my distributions were centered on my base case assumptions.

Time to Buy?
Every corporate scandal becomes a morality play, and the current one that revolves around Facebook is no exception. Facebook has been sloppy with user data, driven partly by greed (to keep costs down and profits up) and partly by arrogance (that its data protections were sufficient), and is and should be held accountable for its mistakes. That said, I don't see Facebook as a villain, and I don't think that the company should be used as a punching bag for our concerns about politics and society.  I am sure that when Mark Zuckerberg delivers his prepared testimony in a couple of hours, senators from both parties will lecture him on Facebook's sins, blissfully blind to their hypocrisy, since I am sure that many of them have had no qualms about using social media data to target their voters. I hear friends and acquaintances wax eloquent about invasion of privacy and how data is sacred, all too often on their favorite social media platforms, while revealing details about their personal lives that would make Kim Kardashian blush. I am an inactive Facebook user, having posted only once on its platform, but to those who would tar and feather the company for its perceived sins, I will paraphrase Shakespeare, and argue that the fault for our loss of privacy is not in our social media, but in how much we share online. I will invest in Facebook, with neither shame nor apology, because I think it remains a good business that I can buy at a reasonable price.

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  1. Valuation of Facebook - April 2018