Thursday, May 5, 2016

Valuing Stocks in a World Gone Mad

An abundant supply of capital sloshing around the global markets in search of return. The idea has been discussed extensively over the past few years. The argument was first made that excesses found their way into mortgages and mortgage backed securities, then US and Japanese bonds and ultimately, US and foreign equities. In times of bubbles or "irrational exuberance" as Fed Chairman Greenspan was fond of saying, investors tend to find rationales that fit otherwise irrational investment decisions, thus allowing bubbles to form. This may be true of stock valuation metrics, as well.

What prompts me to get into this topic was an episode from earlier in the week of Mad Money, where TV persona Jim Cramer, ever the bull, argued that the drop in stock prices over the last few days was a "blip" presenting a trading opportunity for smart investors. His choice sector for the next rotation of our sloshing mound of capital: consumer staple stocks. This on a day, most interestingly, when leading hedge fund manager Stan Druckenmiller advised investors at the Sohn Conference to sell stocks and head into gold. Given Druckenmiller's stellar investment performance, it's a notion we can hardly dismiss.

But let's look at a few names Cramer threw out as investment ideas, raising the much larger question of how and when the metrics for stock valuation had changed so dramatically. The first name Cramer offered was Clorox (CLX). Clorox trades at a trailing price/earnings multiple of 25.33x. Higher than the broad market multiple, and significantly greater than the historical trading average of the S&P, but not stratospheric. But at $129, Clorox is trading above its five year average multiple, of a still aggressive 21x.  If Clorox were to simply trade at its historic multiple, the price would drop to around $111.

Let's take another example. Colgate Palmolive (CL) at $71.88 is trading at 47.5x trailing 12 month earnings, well above its lofty 5-year average of nearly 26x.  Proponents of the stock, however, will make two arguments. First with interest rates as low as they are, they would argue, stocks "deserve" a higher multiple (as if companies have an inherent right to the higher stock price). Hmm. They will also point to the far more reasonable forward p/e projection to justify the price - and this is the fundamental point to be made here.  

The forward multiple for Colgate is now just under 26x, wholly in line with the company's historic 5-year multiple. But here's the point. To roughly halve the multiple on a forward basis (i.e., from from 47.5 to 26) requires earnings to grow over the next 12 months at roughly double the level of the past 12 months, or by 100%. More specifically to Colgate, for the company's annual earnings to align with a 26 p/e at the current stock price would require earnings to climb from the roughly $1.3 billion they made in 2015 to $2.6 b in 2016!

Now, here's the rub. That basic math would be true, but only if the share count outstanding remained fixed. But Colgate, as true of many consumer staple and industrial companies in this environment, is buying back shares, reducing the number of shares outstanding by some 15 million per year. They've done this at the expense of adding leverage, or debt, to the balance sheet, but we'll leave that issue aside for now.

But even with the adjustment, or on a constant share basis, Colgate would need to grow its earnings by 80% in 2016 to achieve a 26x multiple at the current stock price. All this, for a company whose net income has declined sequentially in each of the past five years. I can't help feeling that Druckenmiller might be right.  With these kind of metrics, how will we ever get the toothpaste back in the tube?