What Drives Operating Metrics? Simple Things I Forget (#investing, #finance)

A few weeks ago I was looking over the Morningstar.com tearsheets for about forty different mid-to-large-cap companies on a small assignment for an acquaintance. The project involved looking at the major financial metrics for a number of companies as provided on these tear sheets and trying to develop a quick, summary opinion of their business performance over the last decade.

On the one hand, it was just a bunch of series of numbers, going up, going down, sometimes not going much of anywhere at all. Depending on the metric being examined, this might be good, bad or ugly. But, if you looked a little closer, you might realize that even these simple numbers could tell a larger story about the business and what was happening to it or with it over time. You see, every financial metric I looked at was merely the result of the interplay of two, three, four or more other numbers “beneath” it. As one or some of these numbers changed, so, too, did the “top level” metric I was looking at on the tearsheet.

I spent a considerable amount of time, specifically, looking at the income and cash flow metrics, the reason being that most of these were large, stable and often growing enterprises– the balance sheet is always useful but with these kinds of companies what happens to income and cash flows over time can be an even more exciting and compelling story.

When analyzing an income statement, there are three key profit measures that investors like to look at: gross, operating and net profits. Additionally, when examining the balance sheet for the cash generating abilities of the business, there are two key measures investors focus on: operating and free cash flows.

If you’re like me, you sometimes forget the simple relationships these metrics have with other financial statement figures in terms of how one number drives another. Or maybe you’re new to studying financial statements and are looking for a handy reference. Either way, the following information may be helpful for you.

Let’s start with the income statement metrics:

  • Gross Profit, equal to total revenues minus the costs of goods sold; because of this, higher gross profits are arrived at by either increasing the price at which goods are sold (making revenues larger) or decreasing the costs of the goods sold (making COGS smaller)
  • Operating Profit, equal to gross profit minus the expenses incurred in running the business, such as paying sales costs (marketing, advertising, commissions), employees salaries and bonuses and corporate administration (SG&A), using PP&E and incurring depreciation or amortization expense and any costs related to the development of new products and services (R&D); because of this, higher operating profits can be achieved by lowering R&D expenses, lowering SG&A expenses, lowering D&A expense or raising gross profits by one of the methods discussed previously
  • Net Profit, equal to operating profit minus interest expense and tax liability; because of this, higher net profits can be achieved by minimizing tax expenses, reducing financial leverage and the interest burden that comes with it (or by refinancing existing debt at a lower rate), or raising operating profit by one of the methods discussed previously

If you are examining a series of income results for a company over a period of years and notice a variance in any of these primary profit metrics, look to the component drivers of those metrics to help explain the reason for the variance.

Now let’s take a look at the two cash flow items:

  • Operating Cash Flow, equal to net income plus the addition of all non-cash expenses (such as depreciation and amortization) and the net change in working capital; increases in operating liabilities increase operating cash flow, increases in operating assets decrease operating cash flow, higher D&A charges increase operating cash flow and of course, a higher starting net income increases ultimate operating cash flow
  • Free Cash Flow, equal to operating cash flow minus total capital expenditures; the less the company invests in maintenance and growth expenditures of capital now, the higher free cash flow will be, but if not enough is spent to protect the business’s earnings power and market position, long-term free cash flow generation abilities may become impaired

The operating cash flow metric is important to look at because it tells you whether the company actually generates a positive cash return on its investments from its main business activities. Companies that can’t generate cash from their operations over time are destined to financial and economic failure. Changes in operating cash flow when compared to changes in net earnings can give a window into how the company is generating profit– through business and market management, or through accounting manipulation and trickery.

The free cash flow metric is valuable because it shows the resources the company generates, beyond those needed to grow and maintain its current capital investments, which can be used to reduce indebtedness or reward shareholders with buybacks and dividends. Companies with relatively high and sustainable free cash flow-generating characteristics can be rewarding investments over long periods of time if they can be bought at low multiples to their normalized free cash flow.

There is a lot more to financial analysis than this. There are hundreds of ratios, metrics and other financial data you can use to measure the operating efficiency and management talent of companies you are interested in. This is not meant to be a comprehensive review. It’s possible I even missed a few items of note with regards to the metrics I singled out.

But sometimes I forget these simple truths when trying to think deeply about businesses I am analyzing, so I wanted to leave this little note for myself in case I ever get stuck and forget the obvious again. With any luck, this information will help someone else out in a similar fix, or else it will prove to be a stepping stone for a beginner making their first inquiry into the world of business analysis.

Notes – Distilled BuffettFAQ.com Investment Wisdom Of Warren Buffett (#buffett, #valueinvesting)

All quotes were originally collected and compiled at the outstanding BuffettFAQ.com

On Learning Businesses

Now I did a lot of work in the earlier years just getting familiar with businesses and the way I would do that is use what Phil Fisher would call, the “Scuttlebutt Approach.” I would go out and talk to customers, suppliers, and maybe ex-employees in some cases. Everybody. Everytime I was interested in an industry, say it was coal, I would go around and see every coal company. I would ask every CEO, “If you could only buy stock in one coal company that was not your own, which one would it be and why? You piece those things together, you learn about the business after awhile.

Funny, you get very similar answers as long as you ask about competitors. If you had a silver bullet and you could put it through the head of one competitor, which competitor and why? You will find who the best guy is in the industry.

On The Research Process

It’s important to read a lot, learn about the industries, get background information, etc. on the companies in those piles. Read a lot of 10Ks and Qs, etc. Read about the competitors. I don’t want to know the price of the stock prior to my analysis. I want to do the work and estimate a value for the stock and then compare that to the current offering price. If I know the price in advance it may influence my analysis.

Pick out five to ten companies in which you understand their products, get annual reports, get every news piece on it. Ask what do I not know that I need to know. Talk to competitors and employees. Essentially be a reporter, ask questions like: If you had a silver bullet and could put it into a competitor who would it be and why. In the end you want to write the story, XYZ is worth this much because…

Narrowing the Investment Universe

They ought to think about what he or she understands. Let’s just say they were going to put their whole family’s net worth in a single business. Would that be a business they would consider? Or would they say, “Gee, I don’t know enough about that business to go into it?” If so, they should go on to something else. It’s buying a piece of a business. If they were going to buy into a local service station or convenience store, what would they think about? They would think about the competition, the competitive position both of the industry and the specific location, the person they have running it and all that. There are all kinds of businesses that Charlie and I don’t understand, but that doesn’t cause us to stay up at night. It just means we go on to the next one, and that’s what the individual investor should do.

Q: So if they’re walking through the mall and they see a store they like, or if they happen to like Nike shoes for example, these would be great places to start? Instead of doing a computer screen and narrowing it down?

A computer screen doesn’t tell you anything. It might tell you about P/Es or something like that, but in the end you have to understand the business. If there are certain businesses in that mall they think they understand and they’re public companies, and they can learn more and more about them…. We used to talk to competitors. To understand Coca-Cola, I have to understand Pepsi, RC, Dr. Pepper.

The place to look when you’re young is the inefficient markets.

Investment Process

  • Read lots of K’s and Q’s – there are no good substitutes for these – Read every page
  • Ask business managers the following question: “If you could buy the stock of one of your competitors, which one would you buy? If you could short, which one would you short?”
  • Always read source (primary) data rather than secondary data
  • If you are interested in one company, get reports for competitors. “You must act like you are actually going into that business, and if you were, you’d want to know what your competitors were doing.”

Four Investment Filters

Filter #1 – Can we understand the business? What will it look like in 10-20 years? Take Intel vs. chewing gum or toilet paper. We invest within our circle of competence. Jacob’s Pharmacy created Coke in 1886. Coke has increased per capita consumption every year it has been in existence. It’s because there is no taste memory with soda. You don’t get sick of it. It’s just as good the 5th time of the day as it was the 1st time of the day.

Filter #2 – Does the business have a durable competitive advantage? This is why I won’t buy into a hula-hoop, pet rock, or a Rubik’s cube company. I will buy soft drinks and chewing gum. This is why I bought Gillette and Coke.

Filter #3 – Does it have management I can trust?

Filter #4 – Does the price make sense?

Finding Bargains

The world isn’t going to tell you about great deals. You have to find them yourself. And that takes a fair amount of time. So if you are not going to do that, if you are just going to be a passive investor, then I just advise an index fund more consistently over a long period of time. The one thing I will tell you is the worst investment you can have is cash. Everybody is talking about cash being king and all that sort of thing. Most of you don’t look like you are overburdened with cash anyway. Cash is going to become worth less over time. But good businesses are going to become worth more over time. And you don’t want to pay too much for them so you have to have some discipline about what you pay. But the thing to do is find a good business and stick with it.

Don’t pass up something that’s attractive today because you think you will find something way more attractive tomorrow.

Defining Risk

We think first in terms of business risk. The key to Graham’s approach to investing is not thinking of stocks as stocks or part of the stock market. Stocks are part of a business. People in this room own a piece of a business. If the business does well, they’re going to do all right as long as long as they don’t pay way too much to join in to that business. So we’re thinking about business risk. Business risk can arise in various ways. It can arise from the capital structure. When somebody sticks a ton of debt into a business, if there’s a hiccup in the business, then the lenders foreclose. It can come about by their nature–there are just certain businesses that are very risky. Back when there were more commercial aircraft manufacturers, Charlie and I would think of making a commercial  airplane as a sort of bet-your-company risk because you would shell out hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars before you really had customers, and then if you had a problem with the plane, the company could go. There are certain businesses that inherently, because of long lead time, because of heavy capital investment, basically have a lot of risk. Commodity businesses have a lot of risk unless you’re a low-cost producer, because the low-cost producer can put you out of business. Our textile business was not the low-cost producer. We had fine management, everybody worked hard, we had cooperative unions, all kinds of things. But we weren’t the low-cost producers so it was a risky business. The guy who could sell it cheaper than we could made it risky for us. We tend to go into businesses that are inherently low risk and are capitalized in a way that that low risk of the business is transformed into a low risk for the enterprise. The risk beyond that is that even though you identify such businesses, you pay too much for them. That risk is usually a risk of time rather than principal, unless you get into a really extravagant situation. Then the risk becomes the risk of you yourself–whether you can retain your belief in the real fundamentals of the business and not get too concerned about the stock market. The stock market is there to serve you and not to instruct you. That’s a key to owning a good business and getting rid of the risk that would otherwise exist in the market.

Valuation Metrics

The appropriate multiple for a business compared to the S&P 500 depends on its return on equity and return on incremental invested capital. I wouldn’t look at a single valuation metric like relative P/E ratio. I don’t think price-to-earnings, price-to-book or price-to-sales ratios tell you very much. People want a formula, but it’s not that easy. To value something, you simply have to take its free cash flows from now until kingdom come and then discount them back to the present using an appropriate discount rate. All cash is equal. You just need to evaluate a business’s economic characteristics.

[Highly qualitative, descriptive and verbal, has little to do with the numbers in justifying an investment]

The Ideal Business

WB: The ideal business is one that generates very high returns on capital and can invest that capital back into the business at equally high rates. Imagine a $100 million business that earns 20% in one year, reinvests the $20 million profit and in the next year earns 20% of $120 million and so forth. But there are very very few businesses like this. Coke has high returns on capital, but incremental capital doesn’t earn anything like its current returns. We love businesses that can earn high rates on even more capital than it earns. Most of our businesses generate lots of money, but can’t generate high returns on incremental capital — for example, See’s and Buffalo News. We look for them [areas to wisely reinvest capital], but they don’t exist.

So, what we do is take money and move it around into other businesses. The newspaper business earned great returns but not on incremental capital. But the people in the industry only knew how to reinvest it [so they squandered a lot of capital]. But our structure allows us to take excess capital and invest it elsewhere, wherever it makes the most sense. It’s an enormous advantage.

See’s has produced $1 billion pre-tax for us over time. If we’d deployed that in the candy business, the returns would have been terrible, but instead we took the money out of the business and redeployed it elsewhere. Look at the results!

CM: There are two kinds of businesses: The first earns 12%, and you can take it out at the end of the year. The second earns 12%, but all the excess cash must be reinvested — there’s never any cash. It reminds me of the guy who looks at all of his equipment and says, “There’s all of my profit.” We hate that kind of business.

Making Mistakes In Investments

We bought it because it was an attractive security. But it was not in an attractive industry. I did the same thing in Salomon. I bought an attractive security in a business I wouldn’t have bought the equity in. So you could say that is one form of mistake. Buying something because you like the terms, but you don’t like the business that well.

The Market and Its Price

The NYSE is one big supermarket of companies. And you are going to be buying stocks, what you want to have happen? You want to have those stocks go down, way down; you will make better buys then. Later on twenty or thirty years from now when you are in a period when you are dis-saving, or when your heirs dis-save for you, then you may care about higher prices. There is Chapter 8 in Graham’s Intelligent Investor about the attitude toward stock market fluctuations, that and Chapter 20 on the Margin of Safety are the two most important essays ever written on investing as far as I am concerned. Because when I read Chapter 8 when I was 19, I figured out what I just said but it is obvious, but I didn’t figure it out myself. It was explained to me. I probably would have gone another 100 years and still thought it was good when my stocks were going up. We want things to go down, but I have no idea what the stock market is going to do. I never do and I never will. It is not something I think about at all.

Forecasting

People have always had this craving to have someone tell them the future. Long ago, kings would hire people to read sheep guts. There’s always been a market for people who pretend to know the future. Listening to today’s forecasters is just as crazy as when the king hired the guy to look at the sheep guts. It happens over and over and over.

What’s going to happen tomorrow, huh? Let me give you an illustration. I bought my first stock in 1942. I was 11. I had been dillydallying up until then. I got serious. What do you think the best year for the market has been since 1942? Best calendar year from 1942 to the present time. Well, there’s no reason for you to know the answer. The answer is 1954. In 1954, the Dow … dividends was up 50%. Now if you look at 1954, we were in a recession a good bit of that time. The recession started in July of ’53. Unemployment peaked in September of ’54. So until November of ’54 you hadn’t seen an uptick in the employment figure. And the unemployment figure more than doubled during that period. It was the best year there was for the market. So it’s a terrible mistake to look at what’s going on in the economy today and then decide whether to buy or sell stocks based on it. You should decide whether to buy or sell stocks based on how much you’re getting for your money, long-term value you’re getting for your money at any given time. And next week doesn’t make any difference because next week, next week is going to be a week further away. And the important thing is to have the right long-term outlook, evaluate the businesses you are buying. And then a terrible market or a terrible economy is your friend. I don’t care, in making a purchase of the Burlington Northern, I don’t care whether next week, or next month or even next year there is a big revival in car loadings or any of that sort of thing. A period like this gives me a chance to do things. It’s silly to wait. I wrote an article. If you wait until you see the robin, spring will be over.

Managers Should Be Investors

Charlie makes a good point. Managers should learn about investing. I have friends who are CEOs and they outsource their investing to a financial advisor because they don’t feel comfortable analyzing Coke and Gillette and picking one stock vs. the other. Yet when an investment banker shows up with fancy slides and a slick presentation, an hour later the CEO is willing to do a $3 billion acquisition. It’s extraordinary the willingness of corporate CEOs to make decisions about buying companies for billions of dollars when they aren’t willing to make an investment for $10,000 in their personal account. It’s basically the same thing.

The Value of Accounting

I had a great experience at Nebraska. Probably the best teacher I had was Ray Dein in accounting. I think everybody in business school should really know accounting; it is the language of business. If you are not comfortable with the lan- guage, you can’ t be comfortable in the country. You just have to get it into your spinal cord. It is so valuable in business.

Staying Rational

One thing that could help would be to write down the reason you are buying a stock before your purchase. Write down “I am buying Microsoft @ $300B because…” Force yourself to write this down. It clarifies your mind and discipline. This exercise makes you more rational.