Ever hear someone say that a company has “strong fundamentals”? The phrase is so overused that it’s become somewhat of a cliché. Any analyst can refer to a company’s fundamentals without actually saying anything meaningful. So here we define exactly what fundamentals are, how and why they are analyzed, and why fundamental analysis is often a great starting point to picking good companies.
Doing basic fundamental valuation is quite straightforward; all it takes is a little time and energy. The goal of analyzing a company’s fundamentals is to find a stock’s intrinsic value, a fancy term for what you believe a stock is really worth – as opposed to the value at which it is being traded in the marketplace. If the intrinsic value is more than the current share price, your analysis is showing that the stock is worth more than its price and that it makes sense to buy the stock.
Although there are many different methods of finding the intrinsic value, the premise behind all the strategies is the same: a company is worth the sum of its discounted cash flows. In plain English, this means that a company is worth all of its future profits added together. And these future profits must be discounted to account for the time value of money, that is, the force by which the $1 you receive in a year’s time is worth less than $1 you receive today.
The idea behind intrinsic value equaling future profits makes sense if you think about how a business provides value for its owner(s). If you have a small business, its worth is the money you can take from the company year after year (not the growth of the stock). And you can take something out of the company only if you have something left over after you pay for supplies and salaries, reinvest in new equipment, and so on. A business is all about profits, plain old revenue minus expenses – the basis of intrinsic value.
Greater Fool Theory
One of the assumptions of the discounted cash flow theory is that people are rational, that nobody would buy a business for more than its future discounted cash flows. Since a stock represents ownership in a company, this assumption applies to the stock market. But why, then, do stocks exhibit such volatile movements? It doesn’t make sense for a stock’s price to fluctuate so much when the intrinsic value isn’t changing by the minute.
The fact is that many people do not view stocks as a representation of discounted cash flows, but as trading vehicles. Who cares what the cash flows are if you can sell the stock to somebody else for more than what you paid for it? Cynics of this approach have labeled it the greater fool theory, since the profit on a trade is not determined by a company’s value, but about speculating whether you can sell to some other investor (the fool). On the other hand, a trader would say that investors relying solely on fundamentals are leaving themselves at the mercy of the market instead of observing its trends and tendencies.
This debate demonstrates the general difference between a technical and fundamental investor. A follower of technical analysis is guided not by value, but by the trends in the market often represented in charts. So, which is better: fundamental or technical? The answer is neither. As we mentioned in the introduction, every strategy has its own merits. In general, fundamental is thought of as a long-term strategy, while technical is used more for short-term strategies. (We’ll talk more about technical analysis and how it works in a later section.)
Putting Theory into Practice
The idea of discounting cash flows seems okay in theory, but implementing it in real life is difficult. One of the most obvious challenges is determining how far into the future we should forecast cash flows. It’s hard enough to predict next year’s profits, so how can we predict the course of the next 10 years? What if a company goes out of business? What if a company survives for hundreds of years? All of these uncertainties and possibilities explain why there are many different models devised for discounting cash flows, but none completely escapes the complications posed by the uncertainty of the future.
Let’s look at a sample of a model used to value a company. Because this is a generalized example, don’t worry if some details aren’t clear. The purpose is to demonstrate the bridging between theory and application. Take a look at how valuation based on fundamentals would look:
The problem with projecting far into the future is that we have to account for the different rates at which a company will grow as it enters different phases. To get around this problem, this model has two parts: (1) determining the sum of the discounted future cash flows from each of the next five years (years one to five), and (2) determining ‘residual value’, which is the sum of the future cash flows from the years starting six years from now.
In this particular example, the company is assumed to grow at 15% a year for the first five years and then 5% every year after that (year six and beyond). First, we add together all the first five yearly cash flows – each of which are discounted to year zero, the present – in order to determine the present value (PV). So once the present value of the company for the first five years is calculated, we must, in the second stage of the model, determine the value of the cash flows coming from the sixth year and all the following years, when the company’s growth rate is assumed to be 5%. The cash flows from all these years are discounted back to year five and added together, then discounted to year zero, and finally combined with the PV of the cash flows from years one to five (which we calculated in the first part of the model). And voilà! We have an estimate (given our assumptions) of the intrinsic value of the company. An estimate that is higher than the current market capitalization indicates that it may be a good buy. Below, we have gone through each component of the model with specific notes:
- prior-year cash flow – The theoretical amount, or total profits, that the shareholders could take from the company the previous year.
- Growth rate – The rate at which owner’s earnings are expected to grow for the next five years.
- Cash flow – The theoretical amount that shareholders would get if all the company’s earnings, or profits, were distributed to them.
- Discount factor – The number that brings the future cash flows back to year zero. In other words, the factor used to determine the cash flows’ present value (PV).
- Discount per year – The cash flow multiplied by the discount factor.
- Cash flow in year five – The amount the company could distribute to shareholders in year five.
- Growth rate – The growth rate from year six into perpetuity.
- Cash flow in year six – The amount available in year six to distribute to shareholders.
- Capitalization Rate – The discount rate (the denominator) in the formula for a constantly growing perpetuity.
- Value at the end of year five – The value of the company in five years.
- Discount factor at the end of year five – The discount factor that converts the value of the firm in year five into the present value.
- PV of residual value – The present value of the firm in year five.
So far, we’ve been very general on what a cash flow comprises, and unfortunately, there is no easy way to measure it. The only natural cash flow from a public company to its shareholders is a dividend, and the dividend discount model (DDM) values a company based on its future dividends (see Digging Into The DDM.). However, a company doesn’t pay out all of its profits in dividends, and many profitable companies don’t pay dividends at all.
What happens in these situations? Other valuation options include analyzing net income, free cash flow, EBITDA and a series of other financial measures. There are advantages and disadvantages to using any of these metrics to get a glimpse into a company’s intrinsic value. The point is that what represents cash flow depends on the situation. Regardless of what model is used, the theory behind all of them is the same.
Fundamental analysis has a very wide scope. Valuing a company involves not only crunching numbers and predicting cash flows but also looking at the general, more subjective qualities of a company. Here we will look at how the analysis of qualitative factors is used for picking a stock.
The backbone of any successful company is strong management. The people at the top ultimately make the strategic decisions and therefore serve as a crucial factor determining the fate of the company. To assess the strength of management, investors can simply ask the standard five Ws: who, where, what, when and why?
Do some research, and find out who is running the company. Among other things, you should know who its CEO, CFO, COO and CIO are. Then you can move onto the next question.
You need to find out where these people come from, specifically, their educational and employment backgrounds. Ask yourself if these backgrounds make the people suitable for directing the company in its industry. A management team consisting of people who come from completely unrelated industries should raise questions. If the CEO of a newly-formed mining company previously worked in the industry, ask yourself whether he or she has the necessary qualities to lead a mining company to success.
What and When?
What is the management philosophy? In other words, in what style do these people intend to manage the company? Some managers are more personable, promoting an open, transparent and flexible way of running the business. Other management philosophies are more rigid and less adaptable, valuing policy and established logic above all in the decision-making process. You can discern the style of management by looking at its past actions or by reading the annual report’s management, discussion & analysis (MD&A) section. Ask yourself if you agree with this philosophy, and if it works for the company, given its size and the nature of its business.
Once you know the style of the managers, find out when this team took over the company. Jack Welch, for example, was CEO of General Electric for over 20 years. His long tenure is a good indication that he was a successful and profitable manager; otherwise, the shareholders and the board of directors wouldn’t have kept him around. If a company is doing poorly, one of the first actions taken is management restructuring, which is a nice way of saying “a change in management due to poor results”. If you see a company continually changing managers, it may be a sign to invest elsewhere.
At the same time, although restructuring is often brought on by poor management, it doesn’t automatically mean the company is doomed. For example, Chrysler Corp was on the brink of bankruptcy when Lee Iacocca, the new CEO, came in and installed a new management team that renewed Chrysler’s status as a major player in the auto industry. So, management restructuring may be a positive sign, showing that a struggling company is making efforts to improve its outlook and is about to see a change for the better.
A final factor to investigate is why these people have become managers. Look at the manager’s employment history, and try to see if these reasons are clear. Does this person have the qualities you believe are needed to make someone a good manager for this company? Has s/he been hired because of past successes and achievements, or has s/he acquired the position through questionable means, such as self-appointment after inheriting the company?
Know What a Company Does and How it Makes Money
A second important factor to consider when analyzing a company’s qualitative factors is its product(s) or service(s). How does this company make money? In fancy MBA parlance, the question would be “What is the company’s business model?”
Knowing how a company’s activities will be profitable is fundamental to determining the worth of an investment. Often, people will boast about how profitable they think their new stock will be, but when you ask them what the company does, it seems their vision for the future is a little blurry: “Well, they have this high-tech thingamabob that does something with fiber-optic cables… .” If you aren’t sure how your company will make money, you can’t really be sure that its stock will bring you a return.
One of the biggest lessons taught by the dotcom bust of the late ’90s is that not understanding a business model can have dire consequences. Many people had no idea how the dotcom companies were making money, or why they were trading so high. In fact, these companies weren’t making any money; it’s just that their growth potential was thought to be enormous. This led to overzealous buying based on a herd mentality, which in turn led to a market crash. But not everyone lost money when the bubble burst: Warren Buffett didn’t invest in high-tech primarily because he didn’t understand it. Although he was ostracized for this during the bubble, it saved him billions of dollars in the ensuing dotcom fallout. You need a solid understanding of how a company actually generates revenue in order to evaluate whether management is making the right decisions.
Aside from having a general understanding of what a company does, you should analyze the characteristics of its industry, such as its growth potential. A mediocre company in a great industry can provide a solid return, while a mediocre company in a poor industry will likely take a bite out of your portfolio. Of course, discerning a company’s stage of growth will involve approximation, but common sense can go a long way: it’s not hard to see that the growth prospects of a high-tech industry are greater than those of the railway industry. It’s just a matter of asking yourself if the demand for the industry is growing.
Market share is another important factor. Look at how Microsoft thoroughly dominates the market for operating systems. Anyone trying to enter this market faces huge obstacles because Microsoft can take advantage of economies of scale. This does not mean that a company in a near monopoly situation is guaranteed to remain on top, but investing in a company that tries to take on the “500-pound gorilla” is a risky venture.
Barriers against entry into a market can also give a company a significant qualitative advantage. Compare, for instance, the restaurant industry to the automobile or pharmaceuticals industries. Anybody can open up a restaurant because the skill level and capital required are very low. The automobile and pharmaceuticals industries, on the other hand, have massive barriers to entry: large capital expenditures, exclusive distribution channels, government regulation, patents and so on. The harder it is for competition to enter an industry, the greater the advantage for existing firms.
A valuable brand reflects years of product development and marketing. Take for example the most popular brand name in the world: Coca-Cola. Many estimate that the intangible value of Coke’s brand name is in the billions of dollars! Massive corporations such as Procter & Gamble rely on hundreds of popular brand names like Tide, Pampers and Head & Shoulders. Having a portfolio of brands diversifies risk because the good performance of one brand can compensate for the under performers.
Keep in mind that some stock-pickers steer clear of any company that is branded around one individual. They do so because, if a company is tied too closely to one person, any bad news regarding that person may hinder the company’s share performance even if the news has nothing to do with company operations. A perfect example of this is the troubles faced by Martha Stewart Omnimedia as a result of Stewart’s legal problems in 2004.
You don’t need a PhD in finance to recognize a good company. In his book “One Up on Wall Street”, Peter Lynch discusses a time when his wife drew his attention to a great product with phenomenal marketing. Hanes was test marketing a product called L’eggs: women’s pantyhose packaged in colorful plastic egg shells. Instead of selling these in department or specialty stores, Hanes put the product next to the candy bars, soda and gum at the checkouts of supermarkets – a brilliant idea since research showed that women frequented the supermarket about 12 times more often than the traditional outlets for pantyhose. The product was a huge success and became the second highest-selling consumer product of the 1970s.
Most women at the time would have easily seen the popularity of this product, and Lynch’s wife was one of them. Thanks to her advice, he researched the company a little deeper and turned his investment in Hanes into a solid earner for Fidelity, while most of the male managers on Wall Street missed out. The point is that it’s not only Wall Street analysts who are privy to information about companies; average everyday people can see such wonders too. If you see a local company expanding and doing well, dig a little deeper, ask around. Who knows, it may be the next Hanes.
Assessing a company from a qualitative standpoint and determining whether you should invest in it are as important as looking at sales and earnings. This strategy may be one of the simplest, but it is also one of the most effective ways to evaluate a potential investment.