What’s The Yield On Saudi Prince Alwaleed’s “Strategic” Twitter Investment?

Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has made a $300M “strategic” investment in Twitter, according to Bloomberg.com:

Alwaleed, who leads the 2011 Arab Rich List, and his investment company agreed to buy a “strategic stake” in Twitter, Kingdom Holding said today. A strategic holding means more than 3 percent, Ahmed Halawani, a Kingdom Holding director, said in an interview. That would give the San Francisco-based company a valuation exceeding $10 billion.

Alwaleed is described by Bloomberg as a businessman and an investor. But Alwaleed is a politician, not a businessman– he is a member of the Saudi royal family, and his capital and wealth are continually generated by the Saudi royal family’s political control over Saudi oil fields. Similarly, Alwaleed is an “investor” in businesses like Citi and Twitter in the same sense that the CIA “invested” in Google and Facebook– for information and for control, not for economic or financial profit.

If this is a challenging view to accept, let’s consider just this recent purchase of his Twitter stake from insiders. According to the article, an industry research group recently cut their forecast for Twitter’s 2011 ad revenue from $150M to $139.5M. What kind of value multiplier did Alwaleed “invest” in if he paid $300M for more than 3% of the company which is now valued at over $10B?

Let’s give Alwaleed the benefit of the doubt and say that Twitter’s 2011 ad revenue comes in at $150M. Let’s further assume that Twitter is a highly profitable company and 30% of their revenues drop down to the bottom line and become net profit. That’s $45M of net profit in 2011.

At a $10B market cap, Alwaleed’s investment was made at 66.6x Price-to-Revenues and 222.2x Price-to-Earnings. I should hope I don’t need to do the math for you to show what kind of growth expectations you have to factor into those ratios for them to make sense.

Now, ask yourself, have you ever heard of the “Best Investor In the Universe”, Warren Buffett, investing in companies at these kinds of multiples? Ask yourself, what kind of margin of safety does Alwaleed have here when paying so much for so little. Ask yourself, is it a credible idea that Alwaleed is truly a successful businessman and investor who has managed to grow his personal fortune to $19.6B (according to Wikipedia) since 1979 by investing at such high multiples?

Alwaleed “is a savvy investor and the hot thing in the IT world is social networking,” said Nabil Farhat, a partner at Abu Dhabi-based Al Fajer Securities.

Historically, how do even “savvy investors” fare investing in the latest “hot thing”?

As hinted at earlier, there is a more reasonable explanation for why Alwaleed invested in Twitter, why he has invested in Citi and News Corp., and why he invests in almost anything– Alwaleed is part of a political front and he makes investments as part of a political agenda. Politics is not an economically efficient system, it cares not for scarcity and cost in the economic sense of productive effort and opportunity cost. Political systems get their revenues from coercion, and they use economic resources as but another means to their arbitrary political ends.

Why did Alwaleed invest in Twitter? Because Twitter played an embarrassing role in the recent “Arab Spring” of revolutionary fervor across the Middle East this year and Alwaleed and his sponsors want to be in a position which allows them the knowledge and influence of the insider, of control. This is what is meant by the savvy Mr. Alwaleed’s “strategic” investment in a not-so-profitable social media favorite.

Why did Alwaleed invest in Citi? Because Citi is a centerpiece to the financial chicanery involving the global drug trade controlled by the CIA, the power-politics of world political intrigue and espionage and the dangerous, corrupt game of arms dealing and the financing of imperial military adventurism.

Why did Alwaleed invest in News Corp.? To control the news!

Let us not confuse legitimate businessmen and investors with political operatives and speculators any longer!

Abodeely: Discounting The Value Of Experience

JJ Abodeely, author of the Value Restoration Project blog, writes about a theme that deserves more attention– that experience isn’t always an advantage and may even be a disadvantage, particularly at times like today where there appears to be a paradigm shift underway:

Consider how many firms espouse the experience of their managers as a key selling trait. The idea that experience might actually be detrimental to returns is not one that the investment management industry is willing to promote. However, an intellectually honest assessment of the role of experience in driving investment decision-making and results is in the best interest of advisors, managers and clients alike.

Perhaps even more importantly, relying on experience often means relying on a cloudy, biased recollection where our “memory is not as much a factual recording of events as it is a perception of the physical and emotional experience,” as behavioral finance professor John Nofsinger teaches us. Focusing on exposure, on the other hand, frees us to think beyond what our experience allows for. Perhaps ironically, forsaking experience for exposure may allow for a greater respect for the rhythm of history with a more objective and long-term analysis.

In practical terms, most investors today are impaired by their experiences in the 1980s and 1990s. They lack a historical understanding of secular market cycles and valuation, the closest thing we have to a law of gravity in finance. Similarly, most economists, with their data-heavy analysis, lean almost exclusively on the post-war period when modeling how the economy should behave. Most economists, strategists, analysts and investors have not experienced debt-induced financial crises, de-leveraging global economies or the demographic headwinds we face today. Nor does anybody’s experience include the ways in which today’s world is unique from any other point in history and the ways in which tomorrow’s history is completely unwritten.

Will A Future You Be Glad You Bought Some Stocks?

The anonymous author of Hedge Fund News has put out a rather pessimistic, hopeless sounding post in which he asks, “Why invest in stocks?

  1. The game is largely about front running the Federal Reserve or the ECB or the Bank of Japan. It seems that the way to make money is to buy before central bankers announce quantitative easing or some other scheme to juice asset prices.  However, since I don’t have high level contacts at any of these institutions, I will always be the last one to invest based on the liquidity injections.  Of course, there are people who do have contacts at the FED and thus they can essentially front run monetary policy. The question I ask myself is “if I can’t compete with the big boys, does it make any sense to play?” In any other sport, the answer would be a resounding no in order to avoid injury. I don’t think my investing in the stock market is any less dangerous then taking the field with the New England Patriots for training camp. I can get hurt…real bad.
  2. You also can’t compete with big hedge funds. A major hedge fund might have 100 analysts, key contacts at major brokerages. Paying massive trading commissions has it’s benefits and that benefit is information. The stock market is a game of information and most likely the big hedge fund has vastly superior information to you.
  3. I like founder owned and operated businesses.  I generally find “professional management” is too constipated and far too divorced from the risk taking visionary that usually founded the company.  Talk to a corporate middle manager and then talk to hungry entrepreneur working on his baby. You will quickly feel who you would rather back with your precious capital. By the time most companies reach the public markets, the ownership of the company lies in the hands of facelesss financial institutions that are totally divorced from the passion that built the business.
  4. The markets are run by machines. Insanely powerful computers constitute the majority of trading. Again, the hedge funds have a massive technological edge on the rest of us.
  5. the Warren Buffet stock analysis that favors buy and hold investing has not worked in the last decade that has been driven by Central banks and macroeconomics. Stock picking has been killed by the four reasons above.

I mention this post because I’ve shared the sentiment myself at times, and especially recently.

Stocks are not just forward-looking instruments, they are forward bets. If you buy stocks, you are making the assumption that, at least for the companies’ whose stocks you buy, things will be better in the future and therefore the prices will be higher. In that sense, Warren Buffett’s “bullish on America” rhetoric matches his investment action. He truly believes America as an idea, as a system, as an investment platform, can not fail because it has not failed, so he wants to buy stocks every time most other people are selling him because he believes his long-term prospects for capital appreciation are good.

And so far, that has worked– wonderfully!

But people like Buffett seem to be ignorant of certain economic truths and inevitabilities, especially with regards to the current problems facing investors, and so some of his optimism comes across as willful naivety.

This isn’t an anti-Warren post, however, so back to the point– what if the future is bleak? What if America is Japan? Some have made comparisons (Mish) and some of those comparisons are compelling. What if America isn’t Japan, but something worse and far more complex altogether?

What if we’re looking at an ongoing or a return to severe recession? What if this is followed by more inflationary antics which, by driving up commodity prices, serve to kill margins in many businesses and beat down earnings, even as general price increases rage on? What if stocks don’t even go up in nominal terms for awhile and then, by the time they do, they’ve lost so much in real terms that there’s no point in investing in them?

What if, what if, what if? A lot could go wrong. And knowing this, a value investor seeks a margin of safety in his investments. If he’s concerned about a depression, he tries to calculate what that might look like and price it in, raise his hurdle rate that much higher. Then, if it’s a good business and he can get it at a significant discount to his calculated value even when considering a rather hopeless scenario as a possible outcome, he buys. If it goes down, he buys some more.

If that worst case scenario plays out, and the world looks like it’s ending, if he’s got any more money left he throws it in the pot and then he goes off to war, or he goes fishing, or whatever and he doesn’t think about it anymore.

Right?

Why invest in stocks? Because tomorrow is always another day. Stocks are for the future and there’s always a future, so if you can buy them cheaply, you buy them and you stop worrying about everything else.

The only trouble, the thing that keeps me worrying, is what if the future is going to happen someplace else, not America? A lot of places that were once the future are now the past. It could happen. Invest accordingly.

Review – Value: The Four Cornerstones of Corporate Finance

by Tim Koller, Richard Dobbs and Bill Huyett; published 2011

Part I is about the four cornerstones of value. In a footnote in Chapter 1, authors Koller, Dobbs and Huyett define value as:

the sum of the present values of future expected cash flows– a point-in-time measure. Value creation is the change in value due to company performance… we use the market price of a company’s shares as a proxy for value and total return to shareholders as a proxy for value creation.

Further, they explain that the book explores the “four cornerstones of corporate finance” which are:

  1. companies create value by investing capital from investors to generate future cash flows at rates of return exceeding the cost of capital
    1. the combination of growth and return on invested capital (ROIC) drives value and value creation
    2. for businesses with high returns on capital, improvements in growth create the most value, but for businesses with low returns, improvements in ROIC provide the most value
  2. value is created for shareholders when companies generate higher cash flows, not by rearranging investors’ claims on those cash flows
  3. the expectations treadmill– a company’s performance in the stock market is driven by changes in the stock market’s expectations, not just the company’s actual performance; the higher the stock market’s expectations for a company’s share price become, the better a company has to perform just to keep up
  4. the value of a business depends on who is managing it and what strategy they pursue

For a real-life application of these principles, the authors highlight the recent housing bubble, namely, that the mortgage-securitization model violated the conservation-of-value principle because it rearranged risk without affecting the aggregate cash flows of home loans, while the belief that levering up these types of investments increased their value was similarly erroneous because “leverage doesn’t increase the cash flows from an investment.”

Chapter 2 explores return on invested capital (ROIC) which the authors define in simple terms  in a footnote as:

return on capital is after-tax operating profit divided by invested capital (working capital plus fixed assets)

ROIC and revenue growth “determine how revenues get converted into cash flows.” Mathematically, growth, ROIC and cash flow (represented by the investment rate) look like this:

Investment Rate = Growth / ROIC

However, Growth and ROIC have an uneven relationship:

for any level of growth, value always increases with improvements in ROIC. When all else is equal, higher ROIC is always good.

When ROIC is high, faster growth increases value, but when ROIC is low, faster growth decreases value. The dividing line between whether growth creates or destroys value is when the return on capital equals the cost of capital. When returns are above the cost of capital, faster growth increases value.

The authors advise that “most often, a low ROIC indicates a flawed business model or an unattractive industry structure.” The growth-at-all-costs mentality is flawed.

high-return companies should focus on growth, while low-return companies should focus on improving returns before growing.

In Chapter 3, the authors focus on the conservation of value, namely,

value is conserved when a company shifts the ownership of claims to its cash flows but doesn’t change the total available.

To see how managerial decisions affect the value of the business look for the cash flow impact.

On share buybacks,

when the likelihood of investing cash at low returns is high, share repurchases make sense as a tactic for avoiding value destruction.

Caution, however, because

studies of share repurchases have shown that companies aren’t very good at timing share repurchases, often buying when their share prices are high, not low.

And why should they be any better at timing their purchases than any other market timer?

As far as acquisitions are concerned, they

create value only when the combined cash flows of the two companies increase due to accelerated revenue growth, cost reductions or better use of fixed and working capital.

In Chapter 4, the authors discuss the expectations treadmill, stating that

smart investors often prefer weaker-performing companies because they have more upside potential, as the expectations are easier to beat.

The key seems to be finding companies with a high ROIC and a low P/E ratio.

Chapter 5 discusses the best owner principle. For example, some owners add value:

  • linkages with other activities in their portfolio
  • by replicating such distinctive skills as operational or marketing excellence
  • by providing better governance and incentives for the management team
  • through distinctive relationships they hold with governments, regulators or customers
Further, there is a “best owner lifecycle”, meaning that most owners are only the “best” at a given stage in a business’s development. Some excel at the start-up stage, others the growth, others still the maintenance of empire and finally a group is best at the terminal stage where a business is dismantled and its assets are sold off to other enterprises, each owner finding unique ways to increase cash flows at each stage. The implication of this is that
executives need to continually look for acquisitions of which they could be the best owner; they also need to continually examine opportunities for divesting businesses of which they might no longer be the best owner.

Empirically, “the stock market consistently reacts positively to divestitures, both sales and spin-offs.”

Part II is about the stock market. Chapter 6 explores who the stock market is. There are a lot of different participants with differing aims, skill sets and knowledge levels but the authors conclude that ultimately

professional investors–whether they manage hedge funds, mutual funds, or pension funds– are the real drivers of share prices, accounting for virtually all large trades.

The authors estimate that “intrinsic” investors hold 20% of US assets and contribute 10% of the trading volume in the U.S. market. “Intrinsic investors ultimately drive share price, because when they buy, they buy in much larger quantities.”

intrinsic investors are resources for executives, providing an objective, circumspect view of their companies, industries, and competitors by virtue of their buying and selling decisions.

Chapter 7 is about the stock market and the real economy. Here are some aggregate observations:

  • much of the stock market’s stellar performance between 1983 and 1996 was driven by the decline in interest rates and inflation, and the resultant increase in P/E ratios engineered by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker
  • by 1996, if executives understood what was driving shareholder returns, they would have known returns had to revert to normal levels
  • adjusted for inflation, large U.S. equities have earned returns to shareholders of about 6.5 to 7 percent annually, over the last 100 years
  • this number is derived from the long-term performance of companies in the aggregate, and the relationship between valuation and performance as described by the core-of-value principle
  • over the longer term, shareholder returns are unlikely to deviate much from this number unless there are radical changes in investor risk preferences or radical changes in the performance of the economy
  • long-term GDP growth would have to increase or decrease significantly, or the ratio of corporate profits to GDP would need to change (it has been constant for at least 75 years)
If, as the authors state, “high interest rates increase the nominal cost of capital, while high inflation increases the proportion of earnings that must be invested for growth”, then the implications for the coming period in the markets where we might finally face a high interest rate environment with simultaneously accelerated money printing spells falling P/E ratios across the broad market.
This means that the market as a whole has a more narrow band of longer-term performance than many realize, and that exceptional bull markets will usually be followed by a down market, and vice versa

Chapter 9 deals with earnings management. The authors state that “excessive smoothness raises concerns” that earnings are being actively managed by company leaders. Further, “consensus forecasts aren’t very good” and “analysts’ earnings estimates are not accurate; they tend to be too optimistic, and they almost never identify inflection points.” Importantly, “there is no meaningful relationship between earnings variability and TRS or valuation multiples.”

Part III deals with managing value creation. Chapter 10 is about return on capital.
A company that has a competitive advantage earns a higher ROIC because it either charges a price premium or it produces its products more efficiently (having lower costs or capital per unit) — or both. Price premiums offer the greatest opportunity to achieve an attractive ROIC, but are more difficult to achieve than cost efficiencies.

Low ROIC industries are those with undifferentiated products, high capital intensity and fewer opportunities for innovation.

There are 5 major ways to get a price premium:

  • innovative products
  • quality
  • brand
  • customer lock-on
  • rational price discipline

There are 4 major ways to get cost/capital efficiency:

  • innovative business methods
  • unique resources
  • economies of scale
  • scalability/flexibility
Ultimately, the longer a company can sustain a high ROIC the more value it will create.
ROIC excluding goodwill reflects the underlying economics of an industry or company. ROIC including goodwill reflects whether management has been able to extract value from acquisitions.

Therefore, it might be useful to study both metrics to get a better understanding of management’s competence.

Chapter 11 is about growth.

growth from creating whole new product categories tends to create more value than growth from pricing and promotion tactics to gain market share from peers.

This intuitively makes sense because the former requires the bringing into the production system of previously untapped resources, while the former simply represents the freeing up of existing resources.

There are 4 sources of revenue growth:

  • market-share increase
  • price increase
  • growth in underlying market
  • acquisitions

The limits to the pursuit of growth:

  • sustaining high growth is much more difficult than sustaining high ROIC.
  • history suggests that many mature firms will shrink in real terms
  • U.S. companies have been globalizing, which is responsible for faster sustained growth rates of some U.S. companies than the growth of the economy as a whole
  • portfolio treadmill effect: for each product that matures and declines in revenues, the company needs to find a similar-sized replacement product to stay level in revenues, and even more to keep growing
Chapter 12 examines business portfolios. One study found that “it was better to have a competitive advantage (horse) than to have a good management team (jockey).” Another study found that “companies with a passive portfolio approach underperformed companies with an active portfolio approach.” This means “buy and hold” is a flawed strategy in the long-run, because the value of businesses change according to predictable cycles of birth, growth, flat-lining and death.

The ideal multibusiness company [think, investment portfolio] is one in which each business earns an attractive ROIC with good growth prospects, where the company helps each business achieve its potential, and where executives are continually developing or acquiring similarly high-ROIC businesses and disposing of businesses that are in decline.

To avoid depressed exit prices,

a simple rule of thumb can improve a company’s timing considerably: sell sooner

“When companies do divest, they almost always do so too late, reacting to some kind of pressure.” And a process suggestion for active portfolio management:

hold regular, dedicated business exit review meetings, ensuring in the process that the topic remains on the executive agenda and that each unit receives a date stamp, or estimated time of exit

As far as diversification is concerned:

  • diversification is neither good nor bad; it depends on whether the parent company adds more value to the businesses it owns than any other potential owner could, making it the best owner of those businesses under the circumstances
  • no evidence that diversified companies generate smoother cash flows
  • there is no evidence that investors pay higher prices for less volatile companies
  • diversified companies tend to respond to opportunities more slowly than less diversified companies
  • the business units of diversified companies often don’t perform as well as those of more focused peers, partly because of added complexity and bureaucracy

I noted in the margins that “even for investors, diversification raises transaction costs and provides more opportunities to make errors in decision process.”

Chapter 13 is about M&A. A few points about M&A value creation:

  • strong operators are more successful
  • low transaction premiums are better
  • being the sole bidder helps

Chapter 15 explores capital structure.

large amounts of debt reduce a company’s flexibility to make value-creating investments, including capital expenditures, acquisitions, R&D, and sales and marketing.

Before assuming debt, an investor or business owner needs to ask:

  • what are my expected cash flows?
  • what could go wrong?
  • what unexpected opportunities could arise?
Then, “set your debt level so that you can live through bad times in your industry while having the capacity to take advantage of unexpected opportunities.”
With complex structures and financial engineering, always identify the impact on a company’s operating cash flows and the distribution of cash flows among investors.
Finally, Chapter 17 addresses managing for value.
the only way to continually grow earnings faster than revenues is to cut necessary costs for growing the business, or to not invest in new markets that will have low or negative margins for several years

Great Expectations For Investing

I enjoyed the following two commentaries from value investor blogs I follow.

First, from Rohit Chauhan’s “Intelligent investing”, an absurdist scene in near-future India:

If the market and a lot of investors are correct, I can visualize a scene where I will be sitting in my house without power, gas and connecting roads but with the best plasma TV and all kinds of soaps, detergents and packaged goods.

Rohit comments on the fact that infrastructure companies in India are trading cheaply as if their regulatory burdens will not be removed and not allow them to grow, while consumer goods companies are trading at high valuations as if they are about to strongly grow their sales and expand their margins. But for the latter to happen, the former must be resolved.

Conclusion?

Company specific growth depends on a lot of factors beyond the basic macro opportunity and it is rarely a simple, linear process. If you make simplistic assumptions and pay top valuations for it, then the experience can be bad if those expectations do not materialize.

Speaking of expectations, here is one from the “Margin of Safety” blog, written by an anonymous PM managing a private investment partnership, on the differing assumptions between the “I Know” and the “I Don’t Know” schools of forecasting:

In pointing out our inability to see the future in my letter, my intent was to calm potential investors’ nerves. Many saw markets plummeting and they were converting everything to cash just at the moment when the best investment opportunities were arising. I had hoped that I could get them to stop listening to the many pundits in the media who pretended that they knew the future and who all repeated the mantra that we were doomed. I wanted them to focus on what was knowable like the Net Nets that existed at the time. We went “all in” in March 2009, two days before the market bottomed out, not because we could predict the future better than everyone else, but precisely because we tried not to predict it and instead focused on what was knowable.

There has been a seeming race amongst self-declared value investors over the past couple of weeks of ongoing bloodletting in the financial markets to make a contrarian “buy the panic dip” call. It’s like the moment the S&P 500 went 3% into the negative, everyone ran to their dressers and pulled out that dusty old copy of Warren Buffett’s “Be greedy when others are fearful” and began running around town, trumpeting it out to anyone who would take the time to listen.

In their haste to do so, many seemingly ignored whether things were already cheap, or merely getting cheaper. More importantly, few had any specific suggestions as to which companies were now cheap. Instead, these people seemed in a panic of their own to be the first one to declare that everything was now on sale.

But sometimes garbage is garbage and just because it has sold off a little doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve to, or that it won’t ultimately sell off some more. What kind of macro thesis is betrayed by such urgent calls to get one’s money in while the getting is still good any day there happens to be a broad market selloff?

The anonymous PM’s conclusion:

The pendulum reached its apex and has made a significant move back to the other side. Soon it will again be time to buy all of the babies that will get thrown out with the bath water. Are you prepared to pick off bargains, or are you one of the people in the “I know” school who was fully invested on July 7 and selling indiscriminately today? Can you trust your contrarian instincts when those instincts are supported by hard, knowable data, or will you follow the herd and the prognosticators? Which way you answer often accounts for the difference between investment success and failure.

Better yet, I want to know who was fully invested August 5th, prematurely assuming we’d seen the worst of it and so busy making assumptions they didn’t have time to go out and “know” some true discounts firsthand.