Taking Facebook and Twitter Public

September 29, 2009 at 2:00 am 1 comment

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Valuing high growth companies is similar to answering a typical open-ended question posed to me during business school interviews: “Wade, how many ping pong balls can you fit in an empty 747 airplane?” Obviously, the estimation process is not an exact science, but rather an artistic exercise in which various techniques and strategies may be implemented to form a more educated guess. The same estimation principles apply to the tricky challenge of valuing high growth companies like Facebook and Twitter.

Cash is King

Where does one start? Conceptually, one method used to determine a company’s value is by taking the present value of all future cash flows. For growth companies, earnings and cash flows can vary dramatically and small changes in assumptions (i.e., revenue growth rates, profit margins, discount rates, taxes, etc.) can lead to drastically different valuations.  As I have mentioned in the past, cash flow analysis is a great way to value companies across a broad array of industries – excluding financial companies (see previous article on cash flow investing).

Mature companies operating in stable industries may be piling up cash because of limited revenue growth opportunities. Such companies may choose to pay out dividends, buyback stock, or possibly make acquisitions of target competitors. However, for hyper-growth companies earlier in their business life-cycles, (e.g., Facebook and Twitter), discretionary cash flow may be directly reinvested back into the company,  and/or allocated towards numerous growth projects. If these growth companies are not generating a lot of excess free cash flow (cash flow from operations minus capital expenditures), then how does one value such companies? Typically, under a traditional DCF (discounted cash flow model), modest early year cash flows are forecasted  until more substantial cash flows are generated in the future, at which point all cash flows are discounted back to today. This process is philosophically pure, but very imprecise and subject to the manipulation and bias of many inputs.

To combat the multi-year wiggle room of a subjective DCF, I choose to calculate what I call “adjusted free cash flow” (cash flow from operations minus depreciation and amortization). The adjusted free cash flow approach provides a perspective on how much cash a growth company theoretically can generate if it decides to not pursue incremental growth projects in excess of maintenance capital expenditures. In other words, I use depreciation and amortization as a proxy for maintenance CAPEX. I believe cash flow figures are much more reliable in valuing growth companies because such cash-based metrics are less subject to manipulation compared to traditional measures like earnings per share (EPS) and net income from the income statement.

Rationalizing Ratios

Other valuation methods to consider for growth companies*:

  • PE Ratio: The price-earnings ratio indicates how expensive a stock is by comparing its share price to the company’s earnings.
  • PEG Ratio (PE-to-Growth): This metric compares the PE ratio to the earnings growth rate percentage. As a rule of thumb, PEG ratios less than one are considered attractive to some investors, regardless of the absolute PE level.
  • Price-to-Sales: This ratio is less precise in my mind because companies can’t pay investors dividends, buy back stock, or make acquisitions with “sales” – discretionary capital comes from earnings and cash flows.
  • Price-to-Book: Compares the market capitalization (price) of the company with the book value (or equity) component on the balance sheet.
  • EV/EBITDA: Enterprise value (EV) is the total value of the market capitalization plus the value of the debt, divided by EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest Taxes Depreciation and Amortization). Some investors use EBITDA as an income-based surrogate of cash flow.
  • FCF Yield: One of my personal favorites – you can think of this percentage as an inverted PE ratio that substitutes free cash flow for earnings. Rather than a yield on a bond, this ratio effectively provides investors with a discretionary cash yield on a stock.

*All The ratios above should be reviewed both on an absolute basis and relative basis in conjunction with comparable companies in an industry. Faster growing industries, in general, should carry higher ratio metrics.

Taking Facebook and Twitter Public

Before we can even take a stab at some of these growth company valuations, we need to look at the historical financial statements (income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement). In the case of Facebook and Twitter, since these companies are private, there are no publically available financial statements to peruse. Private investors are generally left in the dark, limited to public news related to what other early investors have paid for ownership stakes. For example, in July, a Russian internet company paid $100 million for a stake in Facebook, implying a $6.5 billion valuation for the total company.  Twitter recently obtained a $100 million investment from T. Rowe Price and Insight Venture Partners thereby valuing the total company at $1 billion.

Valuing growth companies is quite different than assessing traditional value companies. Because of the earnings and cash flow volatility in growth companies, the short-term financial results can be distorted. I choose to find market leading franchises that can sustain above average growth for longer periods of time (i.e., companies with “long runways”). For a minority of companies that can grow earnings and cash flows sustainably at above-average rates, I will take advantage of the perception surrounding current short-term “expensive” metrics, because eventually growth will convert valuation perception to “cheap.” Google Inc. (GOOG) is a perfect example – what many investors thought was ridiculously expensive, at the $85 per share Initial Public Offering (IPO) price, ended up skyrocketing to over $700 per share and continues to trade near a very respectable level of $500 per share.

The IPO market is heating up and A123 Systems Inc (AONE) is a fresh example. Often these companies are volatile growth companies that require a deep dive into the financial statements. There is no silver bullet, so different valuation metrics and techniques need to be reviewed in order to come up with more reasonable valuation estimates. Valuation measuring is no cakewalk, but I’ll take this challenge over estimating the number of ping pong balls I can fit in an airplane, any day. Valuing growth companies just requires an understanding of how the essential earnings and cash flow metrics integrate with the fundamental dynamics surrounding a particular company and industry. Now that you have graduated with a degree in Growth Company Valuation 101, you are ready to open your boutique investment bank and advise Facebook and Twitter on their IPO price (the fees can be lucrative if you are not under TARP regulations).

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management and client accounts do not have direct long positions AONE, however some Sidoxia client accounts do hold GOOG securities at the time this article was published. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

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