FB, AAPL, GOOG – SHAME

The spirit of Henry Singleton cried a little this earnings season. If you don’t know who he is see https://25iq.com/2014/11/08/a-dozen-things-ive-learned-from-henry-singleton-about-value-investing-venture-capital/. In short, he was one of the best capital allocators of all time. He issued shares when Mr. Market loved his company and bought them back when Mr. Market didn’t like his company. Dr. Singleton didn’t care about Mr. Market’s opinion. He used Mr. Market to his advantage.

Today, corporate share buybacks are all over the news. On December 21, 2018 Barron’s ran an article about corporate buybacks setting a record in 2018. https://www.barrons.com/articles/2018-record-stock-buybacks-51545361596. This excerpt was particularly exciting for long term oriented investors:

Why? Because in December there was carnage in the market. Everyone was selling everything indiscriminately. The selling offered up some very interesting opportunities in certain companies. That’s when management teams should pounce.

So what did Facebook, Apple, and Google all do with their cash hoards at that time? Nothing. At least nothing meaningful. And that is a disgraceful outcome given the amount of talent that is at these companies. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that December was not a fundamentally driven sell off. It was fear based (though Apple actually had a meaningful slowdown in China).

Moreover, these companies had internal data that showed they were healthy. The CFOs knew the businesses were not deteriorating like the stock price. That is the exact time a corporate finance department should increase their buying activity. Especially in a cash generative company! Instead, they sat on their hands.

And that lack of action demonstrates why corporations, in aggregate, are not very good at share repurchases. Corporate buybacks decrease share count and shares historically tend to increase in price. So, for the long term investor buybacks at most prices are better than nothing. But, buybacks have immense potential power and even today’s best companies don’t understand how (or are too scared) to use them properly.

In the interest of disclosure, SCG reduced its cash position from 33% in October to just under 20% by the end of December. This isn’t a promotional statement. In fact, it’s way too early to determine whether that was the right long term decision. But, why in the world were the best companies not meaningfully deploying capital when SCG was? The answer lies in the institutional imperative. And that is a sad realization considering who those companies supposedly employ.

CPG and Capital Theory

The book Capital Returns is too good to summarize. The book itself is a summary of Marathon Asset Management’s investor letters from 2002-2015. The intellectual flexibility that firm demonstrates is inspiring.

One key takeaway is analyzing industries through a capital cycle theory lens. The capital cycle can be described as follows:

  • High returns on capital lead to competition entering an industry.
  • The new competition increases the amount of assets chasing the same dollars of profit.
  • More assets fighting over the same profit dollars reduces margins.
  • Reduced margins decentivize entrants, drive out competition, and enable the surviving companies to begin increasing margins.
  • Repeat

Accordingly, firms and sectors with the lowest asset growth tend to outperform. The phenomenon is called the asset-growth anomaly. See https://www.aqr.com/Insights/Research/Journal-Article/Investing-in-the-Asset-Growth-Anomaly-Across-the-Globe for a solid paper on the topic. That theory is a major reason I like the beer industry so much despite the rise of craft entrants. Globally, I still perceive the industry to be very rational and I view brewpubs more as restaurant competition rather than brewer competition. That said, it’s impossible to view more assets chasing beer sales dollars as bullish for Big Beer. But I digress…

A lot of traditional consumer brands discuss disruption. Why? Historically, traditional large brands leaned on retail distribution channels, dominated shelf space everywhere, scaled production and distribution to enhance margins, and pushed their messages out via advertising. See https://www.forbes.com/sites/antoinegara/2018/04/30/jorge-paulo-lemann-says-era-of-disruption-in-consumer-brands-caught-3g-capital-by-surprise/#2607284d1f9b. Today, the internet eliminated traditional advertising and distribution barriers. Therefore, it is easier to have launch a new brand.

Moreover, consumers are willing to trust brands quickly. Therefore, the brand equity that used to serve as a consumer short cut has eroded. That said, social media influencers and internet marketing are not very discerning. Time will tell whether brand equity makes a comeback. Watch the documentaries on the Fyre Festival on Netflix or Hulu to determine whether you think its plausible that consumers begin to crave the certainty of Big Brands again.

Regardless, barriers to entry are clearly lower than they used to be.
The perception of viability attracts assets to the industry. When new assets chase returns faster than industry profit pools grow, total profit declines. Importantly, Mr. Market knows that. So it’s worth looking to see how entities are priced given the facts. Kraft Heinz is a traditional CPG company impacted by these trends; though mostly because of consumer’s willingness to trust private label brands. Its valuation relative to history looks like:

Source: Bloomberg

I’m not extremely excited about those multiples because a 16x EV/EBIT equates to less than a 5% unlevered (EV/NOPAT assuming no interest expense) cash flow yield on a firm that isn’t growing. Moreover, competition remains strong and private label attacking market share is likely to continue. Personally, I’d like to see Kraft Heinz offer a return on equity north of 12% (PE of ~8.3x) before I got excited given the facts as I understand them.

But, I will continue to watch “melting ice cubes” because when facts and/or results change they can offer very attractive risk/rewards. More importantly, no one else likes to own them. Historically speaking, out of favor companies outperform the most loved companies. Though this last “bull run” makes me wonder whether that rule changed. Time will tell.

BUD Investment Summary

SCG recently acquired a minority interest in AB InBev and presented the idea to MOI Global, a group of investment managers. In the future, I will share the presentation in order to show the investment thought process. In the meantime, below is a summary of my thoughts. NOTE – This is not investment advice, all information should be confirmed, much of this is opinion, and AB InBev carries substantial risk.

Volume and Price Trends

Large beer companies’ biggest brands in developed markets are losing volume. Therefore, they’ve driven growth (if any) by increasing prices. In the U.S., growth in the beer category is attributable to craft and imports. While AB InBev has an impressive import portfolio, it needs a brand that resonates with Hispanic consumers (the company owns the rights to Corona and Modelo globally but had to sell the U.S. brand rights because of antitrust concerns).

People often say 3G doesn’t know how to drive organic growth. Is that true?

Yes, that data is stale. But, that chart doesn’t suggest 3G can’t grow organically. Instead, it says the biggest brands within AB InBev’s U.S. portfolio are losing share. But so are the categories those brands compete in. Stella, Michelob, and Rolling Rock are all growing nicely. Moreover, Corona and Modelo, which benefit from 3G’s international marketing are also growing nicely. I’d argue the trends against AB InBev’s larger brands are so strong that volume losses aren’t really management’s fault.

The beer industry responded to the volume trends above by increasing prices:

How far can they push price? That’s to be determined. In the meantime it’s important to look at how coordinated the price increases are. The beer industry benefits from a consolidated market with rational competitors. Craft is taking share and may put a ceiling on future price increases, but the image above shows an extremely desirable competitive industry dynamic. See http://ec.europa.eu/competition/mergers/cases/decisions/m7881_3286_3.pdf and https://www.justice.gov/atr/case/us-v-anheuser-busch-inbev-sanv-and-sabmiller-plc for interesting discussions about the industry.

Global Consolidation

AB InBev primarily competes in consolidated end markets. Moreover, the company has dominant market share in many end markets:

“Market share is often conflated with a competitive advantage, which it’s not…Generally speaking you will have much better economics when you have a relative scale advantage.” Pat Dorsey to Patrick OShaughnessy on the Invest Like the Best podcast, 2/20/2018 @ 30:25-31:34. The chart above is strong evidence of AB InBev’s relative scale advantage. That scale advantage, combined with consolidated end markets is highly desirable and results in eye popping gross and EBIT margins.

Leverage

The biggest risk in this investment is the leverage. While the headline leverage number is very high, it’s important to note that the leverage was incurred to make transformative acquisitions. It’s reasonable to criticize 3G for paying too much for SAB Miller. That said, the acquisition combined the number 1 and 2 players in the market, solidified AB InBev’s relative scale advantage, and gave AB Inbev exposure to growing end markets. Carlos Brito, AB InBev’s CEO, discussed the strategic importance of SAB Miller’s India assets saying:

The Groupo Modelo transaction was also strategically important. Groupo Modelo’s strategy involved gaining market share by keeping price constant. That strategy hurt Big Beer’s ability to raise prices without losing volume. When AB InBev acquired Groupo Modelo the U.S. beer market became more rational and the company acquired fantastic global beer brands. See https://www.justice.gov/atr/case/us-v-anheuser-busch-inbev-sanv-and-grupo-modelo-sab-de-cv for details.

Finally, 3G structured AB InBev’s debt incredibly efficiently. The debt has a weighted average cost below 4.5%, no covenants, and an incredible maturity profile. Recently, they improved the maturity profile even more but did have to issue slightly higher cost debt. See https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/310569/000119312519007051/d691727d424b5.htm for prospectus.

Conclusion

There’s a lot of risk in this investment. People have said there’s no Alpha and AB InBev just offers Beta risk. That is a reasonable argument. But, it’s reasonable Beta risk to take because the company has such a strong competitive position and frequently sells a drug to a diversified consumer base.

The market doesn’t like management right now. But, the market is fickle. At these equity prices the investment can work without heroic assumptions. Below is a back of the envelope model.

In my view, the projected return is reasonable and the model is conservative. While I’d prefer returns far higher than 9%, this entity is an extremely strong competitor with a great management team competing in a consolidated, rational industry. Morever, the entity isn’t likely subject to technological disruption. 9% is reasonable given those facts.

Bears will disagree. That’s what makes markets.

The Merits of Writing

First and foremost, SCG is not an investment advisor and does not recommend buying shares in AB InBev.  The investment discussed below has substantial risk and should only be considered after lengthy due diligence.  That said, I recently purchased shares of AB InBev @ $68.37/sh.  Therefore, readers should presume I am promoting my own position when I am talking about AB InBev going forward. 

I recently presented an investment in AB InBev to a group I belong to, The Manual of Ideas, as my “Best Idea of 2019.”  That was my first presentation to the group.  Thus, I took career/reputation risk discussing this investment.  Moreover, it’s an investment with a credible bear thesis so I have a reasonably high chance of looking “obviously foolish.” As if that weren’t emotionally taxing enough, yesterday I saw some numbers released that created some “fast thinking” panic.  Bud and Bud Light both apparently saw U.S. volume declines in excess of 6%.  See https://adage.com/article/special-report-super-bowl/ab-inbev-reveals-super-bowl-ad-plans/316173/?mod=djemCMOToday.

My first reaction to the story was “Great, it took exactly one day for my ‘Best Idea of 2019’ to blow up.” Then I started to do some math and write. 

To begin, I have a high degree of confidence the cited numbers relate to AB InBev’s U.S. business.  The U.S. market accounts for ~31% of sales attributable to AB InBev (AB InBev only owns ~62% of AmBev but consolidates 100% of the entity’s sales).  In 2016 Bud and Bud Light accounted for ~60% of AB InBev’s U.S. volumes.  Presumably this percentage declined as brands like Stella and Michelob grew their percentage share in AB InBev’s portfolio.  But, let’s assume 60% is the correct number and volume production equates to sales.

If 60% of 31% of sales are fading at 6.6% the result is a 1.2% decline in total sales.  That sales decline doesn’t account for the offset in growing brands such as Stella Artois and Michelob Ultra.  That’s actually not that bad. My projected returns rely on U.S. sales declining at 2% per year.  See below.

Do I wish Bud and Bud Light were growing in the U.S.?  Yes.  But I knew they weren’t.  The 6.6% number scared me emotionally.  But once I got rational and “thought slow” I realized I had accounted for that possibility via a conservative underwriting.  That said, rapid volume declines could put my margin assumptions under pressure but as of now I think those margin assumptions are reasonable.  Time will tell.

Without writing I probably couldn’t be so rational about the results because of how badly I want this idea to work.  The presentation induced emotion that otherwise might not have been there.  Thankfully, writing has me thinking slow.  This investment may not work.  But at least the investment’s success or failure won’t be caused by my emotional reaction.

What Should AB InBev Do About Bud and Bud Light?

The investment thesis in AB InBev is not a U.S. focused thesis. That said, the U.S. business is important for AB InBev’s debt repayment. Therefore, data points such as Bud and Bud Light falling 6+% y-o-y are concerning.

I’d like to see more resources diverted towards the craft beer portfolio, Stella Artois, and Michelob Ultra. Those brands are growing nicely. See https://www.bizjournals.com/birmingham/news/2018/10/01/here-are-the-top-20-best-selling-beer-brands-in.html. The recent repackaging in the “Taste of Belgium” 12 pack (Stella, Leffe, and Hoegarden in one 12 pack) is a good packaging innovation. While Bud Light remains important, I don’t believe marketing will solve the consumption trends in that brand; it’s more about milking the cow rather than driving growth.

Longer term, I’d like to see the company figure out how to activate the craft beer portfolio they’ve acquired. Perhaps they should borrow a page from Starbucks and create the beer equivalent of Starbucks Roasteries. A group of really awesome beer shrines in urban environments could be a decent way to remain corporate but also authentic to beer lovers.

Most importantly, AB InBev should focus on emerging markets. The relative scale advantages AB InBev enjoys matter immensely in those economies. Expanding the beer category and offering consumers a reasonably cheap alcoholic beverage solution offers true growth potential in EM. Furthermore, any and all potential distribution advantages should be solidified over the next 3-5 years. Those investments would generate solid ROIC for years to come.

After paying down debt and widening the emerging market moat AB InBev should probably diversify further away from beer. This would be natural as the company already bottles and distributes Pepsi and Gatorade in LatAm. Whether the diversification efforts lead to non drug related beverages or marijuana related beverages remains to be seen. For the near future, let’s work with the portfolio we have and pay down debt. Acquisitions can wait.

Disclosure: Long AB InBev

The King Has Strong Bishops

Stalking The King continues.  The topic at hand is AB InBev’s craft beer strategy.  Throughout this post I will reference information found in the book Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out by Josh Noel; beer writer for the Chicago Tribune.  It’s a great business book and a must read for beer enthusiasts.  Josh Noel, if you read this, thank you for writing the book.  

AB InBev’s Regional Approach To Quality Acquisitions

AB InBev probably should have entered the craft beer market earlier. However, management suffered from a classic Innovator’s Dilemma because their core brands were so much bigger than any up and coming segment.  Further, they were focused on debt repayment rather than product innovation.  Consequently, they’ve pivoted to an acquisition based craft beer strategy.  Below is a timeline of key acquisitions:

Source: Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out at 335

As I said in my previous post, I believe craft beer is a regional game.  The map below shows how AB InBev’s strategy is consistent with my interpretation of the marketplace.  

Note: AB InBev originally targeted acquiring 10 craft breweries.  This map has some gaps in it.  Therefore, I expect the total number to settle somewhere between 15-20. EDIT: Further acquisitons may be difficult as the DOJ will have to review virtually every acquisition from this point forward. 

The result is a regional portfolio of quality brands, almost all of which are located near a major city.  AB InBev created a formidable beast.  “With eight or ten or twelve of the kinds of breweries it could never create itself, Anheuser-Busch [can] scale up beers from them all—just as it [has] done with Goose Island—and shoot them into national distribution at affordable Big Beer prices. Its distributors [can] walk into any bar, chain restaurant, supermarket, or convenience store as a one-stop shop: A low-alcohol IPA from Los Angeles! A robust IPA from Seattle! A vanilla porter from Colorado! A stout aged in bourbon barrels from Chicago! An easy-drinking lager from Virginia!…No one ever had to [know] that much of the beer was brewed in the same tanks.” Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out at 307.  

Strategically, this makes sense.  AB InBev was never going to be able to out innovate the small craft breweries.  The institutional imperative precludes such thinking.  Therefore, it makes more sense for an incumbent like AB InBev to acquire talent.  Furthermore, its distributors, and their customers, can offer a “diverse” beer selection even though many of the beers trace back to common tanks (which results in efficiencies of scale).  

Why Would Craft Brewers Choose To Partner with AB InBev? 

There are basically three choices craft breweries have: (1) remain independent, (2) sell to private equity, or (3) sell to Big Beer (AB InBev, MillerCoors, Heineken, etc).  Remaining independent, while noble, basically relegates companies to a small geography.  Scaling requires a fair amount of capital investment and large scale distribution relationships are very hard to develop.  AB InBev, for example, has restricted (and may still restrict) the product portfolio its distributors are allowed to carry (distributors can only carry small craft breweries’ products).  Few distributors will choose to upset Big Beer in favor of smaller craft breweries.  Thus, local craft breweries are somewhat limited to local bar and liquor store distribution.  

Selling to private equity is a decent option if a brewery owner wants to get paid.  But, private equity isn’t buying for the long haul.  By definition there are fund lives and decisions are made with an exit plan in mind.  Furthermore, private equity, while well capitalized, can’t compete with Big Beer on product procurement, cost, or production quality/consistency.  Therefore, if a brewery owner (a) wants to scale his/her brand and (b) cares about the long term vision of his/her company, private equity probably isn’t the best exit plan.   

Big Beer, as odd as it may sound, actually provides a fairly good long term exit plan.  Why?  Because a growing brewery must invest in beers that appeal to the masses.  Those products require reliable access to quality hops (raw material), additional capital investment (brewing equipment), and allocation of resources towards the growing products (as opposed to projects of love).  Big Beer offers a solution to these problems as well as distribution relationships to ignite growth.  Therefore, Big Beer can offer premium exit multiples while still creating a win-win. 

Yes, there are downsides to selling a local brewery to Big Beer.  People will threaten to boycott the brand.  Some employees will leave.  Some local craft bar owners will drop the beer from their taps.  But it seems as though the benefits outweigh the costs.  Especially since now AB InBev understands that supporting the “craft” part of the craft beer industry is extremely important.

Goose Island’s Decision to Sell to AB InBev 

Goose Island’s owner, John Hall, was a business man.  He wanted to make money.  But he also loved creating craft beer.  In order to get his brewery to the next level he was going to have to invest substantial time and resources to scale a new beer’s production.  That beer was 312 (the area code for Chicago). 

The 312 ramp up required new equipment, space, inventory investment, hiring resources, etc.  Moreover, every square foot Goose Island dedicated to 312 production took Goose Island’s brewers away from the premium beers they made (like Bourbon County Brand Stout, Sofie, Matilda, Lolita, etc).  John found himself tight on capital, time, and making less of what he loved. 

AB InBev provided the solution when it offered to offload the: (a) burden of figuring out how to scale production, (b) investment requirements needed to scale production, (c) HR headaches of hiring people, (d) establishment of safety measures required for mass production, and (e) top notch raw material procurement.  AB InBev was able to offer this because it already had the processes, procurement strategies, and facilities to brew beer in massive quantities. 

As part of the deal, 312 production was diverted AB InBev’s existing facilities.  Moreover, AB InBev took a fairly “hands-off” approach to Goose Island’s local operations.  They did institute some rules and invest capital, but they allowed Goose Island to operate as its own entity.  To John Hall, and the other breweries that ultimately sold to AB InBev, that value proposition was a win-win.

AB InBev is Committed to Making Quality Product

It’s very important for AB InBev (or any acquirer) to maintain a brand’s reputation after closing an acquisition.  As stated above, an important part of AB InBev’s pitch to craft brewers is the acquisition enables the brewery to focus on craft items and get rid of the headache of mass production.  But can AB InBev ramp production without sacrificing quality?  312’s production increase provides a good case study. 

312 was AB InBev’s first attempt at mass craft beer production.  Predictably, ramping up production of 312 and satisfying Goose Island’s brewers was not easy.  But AB InBev committed to getting the formula right:

“‘[AB InBev] ended up dumping more beer than every frat house in America could have drunk in a single year when we started making 312…We dumped batch after batch after batch after batch after batch.’…Finally, St. Louis became worried. Where was this headed? They had dumped three thousand barrels of 312 Urban Wheat Ale—more beer than most US breweries made in a year.” Id. at 202; Emphasis added; Quotes attributed to Brett Porter. 

Eventually Goose Island and AB InBev got the formula correct.  312 was complete only after the Goose Island team approved the beer’s taste, texture, and appearance.  In my view, this is a crucial example of AB InBev deferring to Goose Island and following through on a commitment to maintain the brand.  AB InBev easily could have settled on a formula that was “close enough.”  Instead they took a long term outlook and developed the right product to maintain brand integrity and fulfill their commitment to John Hall.

But Does AB InBev Know How to Sell Craft Beer?

Despite correctly developing 312, AB InBev made a big mistake marketing Goose Island.  Goose Island’s team told AB InBev to build the Goose Island brand deliberately.  They argued that distributors needed to understand the merits of Goose Island’s beers and brand in order to successfully position the brand against Sierra Nevada and other craft beers. AB InBev thought that idea was quaint and figured they could push Goose Island’s beer through their distribution machine.  The 2014 national roll-out of Goose Island was a  massive failure.   

Source: Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out at 234.

To its credit, AB InBev learned from that mistake.  They acknowledged the initial rollout was mishandled and pivoted when they released Goose Island “4 Star Pils.”  AB InBev marketed 4 Star Pils by taking a local approach to distribution. 4 star Pils, intially Blue Line, was available in Chicago, only on draft,  during the spring of 2015.  National production scaled only after Chicago embraced the beer and the product had momentum.  Id. at 328. 

In its most impressive sign of adaptation, AB InBev released 4 Star Pils even though it directly competed with Budweiser.  The old Anheuser-Busch would never release a beer that directly competed with Budweiser.  Id. at 328.  But, 3G learns and adapts to the market. That adaptability resulted in Goose Island growing sales as follows:

Source: Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out at 325.

Important things to note about the chart above include: 

  • AB InBev grew Goose Island at a ~28% CAGR since it acquired a 100% ownership interest in Goose Island. 
  • Goose Island’s sales don’t even amount to a rounding error compared to AB InBev’s $15.6Bn of 2017 North American sales.  Therefore, Goose Island isn’t going to offset material erosion in AB Inbev’s core portfolio. 
  • Growth slowed in 2017.  Craft beer sales are based on “pull through” demand.  They aren’t easily pushed onto consumers. Therefore, it’s plausible that Goose Island will grow at a much slower rate going forward. 
  • Goose Island is only one of AB InBev’s craft beer portfolio companies.  Assuming all 10 achieve similar results they still won’t be material to AB InBev as it exists today.  But, they could be material to AB InBev’s future strategy and market position.   

Distribution Matters A Lot.  And AB InBev has it in Spades.

Through a series of smart strategic regional acquisitions, AB InBev has accumulated a product portfolio that is both geographically relevant and diverse.  “The big thing to me is, the craft beer industry was built on individuals and their stories…We’re not corporate. We are entrepreneurial and individual…It’s going to be harder and harder to get our voices heard at the wholesale level…It’s hard enough for craft beer in general to get meetings with big chain buyers. Now, AB can go in and pitch [their portfolio].” Id. at 281; Quoting Breckenridge Brewery’s founder, Todd Ursy.  Breckenridge later sold to AB InBev.

Furthermore, AB InBev’s scale enables it to offer kegs at prices no other brewer could reasonably offer.  For instance, when the company wanted to expand its Goose Island IPA product it was able to cut the price to $110/keg.  This compares to a standard-priced keg of Budweiser costing $106.  Therefore, AB InBev can offer bars a premium product at average prices.  That becomes an easy decision for the bar owner. 

AB InBev’s distributional and cost advantage enabled Goose Island IPA to to grow like this:  

Source: Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out at 326

Importantly, AB InBev can offer a portfolio of craft beer styles and geographies.  While it may take time to establish different brands, the power of AB InBev’s competitive position is undeniable. 

Conclusions:

  • Ab InBev has a reasonable strategy that should enable the company to successfully navigate the craft beer trend in the United States.  This is evidenced by (a) the company’s regional acquisition strategy and (b) management’s willingness to learn from failure and pivot marketing strategies.  Furthermore, AB InBev increasingly relies on its acquired craft breweries to perform research and development. This should enable AB InBev to leverage core competencies and benefit from the talent it acquired.
  • 3G has an extraordinary management team.  These people know what they are doing.  They learn from mistakes but also flex their muscle when appropriate (like in distribution).  That’s probably why AB InBev is now the largest craft brewer in the US. https://www.foodandwine.com/news/ab-inbev-high-end-craft-beer-sales-2018
  • I still have a lot to learn about AB InBev’s international markets.  Reading Barrel Aged Stout and Selling Out made me realize how ignorant I was about some of AB InBev’s strategy.  There’s still a lot of work to do.

Remaining Concerns About The Investment Thesis:

The biggest risk to this investment thesis is AB InBev’s leverage.  I don’t believe there is a material chance of bankruptcy, but dilution is a real possibility.  My “model” shows AB InBev generating sufficient cash to meet its debt obligations.  However, that “model” is dependent on emerging market growth.  Emerging market fundamentals negatively impacted AB InBev’s results through this year.  Some emerging market risk can be mitigated via foreign exchange derivatives, but emerging market economic risks are an inherent part of this investment thesis.    

Thus far the debt market seems confident in AB InBev’s ability to satisfy its obligations.  That said, the cost of insuring debt repayment rose over the past year.  My general bias is to look to the credit markets for warning signs.  Thus, the cost of debt insurance increasing is a concern.  

Concerns About Putting Too Much Emphasis on One Book:

Question 1: Which biases might I suffer from while reading this book?

Goose Island was the first local beer I drank when I arrived in Chicago.  312 was my go to choice.  I left the brand when Goose Island sold to AB InBev and haven’t considered their products other than Bourbon Country Brand Stout and Matilda since.  So I had some biases about the brand and its development when I started reading the book. 

I find it difficult not to like the companies I am researching.  Endowment bias creeps in after devoting hours to an idea. Further, the sunken cost fallacy compounds the irrational devotion to an idea as time invested increases.  It’s important to remember that one book is not the end all cure for due diligence.  That said, this book was incredibly good at answering key questions about AB InBev’s craft beer strategy. 

Which brings up the final biases I am concerned with.  Availability, authority, and confirmation biases.  How did this book fall into my lap the week I began to research AB InBev?  How did it answer some of my major concerns about AB InBev’s strategy and management team?  Am I seeing something that doesn’t exist because my brain wants to?  I think I am being rational but I am not certain I’m not answering questions I’ve already predetermined the answers to.  Further, an industry expert wrote the words.  He can’t be wrong, right?  Right?! (Sarcasm font)

Question 2: Which biases might the author suffer from?

Josh Noel is a well known beer writer.  Could he write a hypercritical book about a local beer company and the biggest beer company in the world AND maintain his industry contacts?  I’m not sure. 

I’ve read some of his blog posts to get a sense his biases.  Generally, I think Josh Noel has more incentive to “call it like he sees it” rather than become an AB InBev shill.  After all, he has a pretty awesome job that depends on people trusting his beer knowledge.

That said, he interviewed a lot of people from AB InBev.  Those people are incredible sales people.  Otherwise AB InBev probably wouldn’t have them in jobs where Josh could interview them.  On the other hand, Josh went out of his way throughout the book to present the other side of almost every argument.  So, I suspect he consciously avoided taking one side or the other.  Again, I believe his incentive is to speak his version of truth.

Recommended Reading:

https://www.joshnoel.net/barrel-aged-stout-and-selling-out/

Note: The book is cheaper at Barnes and Noble than it is at Amazon. 

Even Kings Can Be Cheap

The current research project is Anheuser-Busch InBev (“AB InBev”).  I mentioned (on Twitter) that it seemed cheap the other day.  The response was lukewarm.  That’s exciting.  Real deals don’t usually occur when everyone thinks a deal exists.

The most common complaint about AB InBev is it isn’t growing and it is still trading at 22.7x trailing earnings.  An earnings yield of 4.4% with no growth is understandably not exciting.  Especially in an industry that is fighting structural headwinds in the form of craft beer, wine, and sprits, which are  taking market share from AB InBev’s portfolio brands.  

That said, these are not new trends and AB InBev’s equity was priced 34% higher at the start of the year.  Has something fundamentally changed or has Mr. Market presented an opportunity?  Potentially neither.  It’s possible Mr. Market was irrationally excited before and the equity is still over valued! Citing the equity price decline as a basis for interest potentially induces confirmation and anchoring biases.  

Thus far I’ve only spent three full days researching this idea.  The market is in a relatively volatile period (compared to recent history, though historically speaking I’d argue this is a non event) and many “more attractive” names appear reasonably priced.  So why waste time on a no growth heavily indebted company?

Question 1: Do I Understand this Opportunity Enough to Develop and Informed Opinion About AB InBev’s Value?

In my younger and dumber years I waited in line for beer releases.  Therefore, I can appreciate craft beer’s threat to AB InBev.  This perspective also enables me to understand that the available variety of craft beer has become overwhelming.  I could buy a different IPA every week for a year and still not try them all.  It’s my view that craft will probably continue to take market share in the US, but it’s also plausible that the market has reached the shakeout phase.

Regardless of whether the craft market is currently saturated, I suspect regional winners will emerge (or already have emerged).  Some craft brews travel well, but the craft beer market is still a regional market (in my opinion). Over time AB InBev may be able to acquire some regional winners to enhance growth.  The risks to growth through rolling up regional craft beer producers are:

  • The regional winners may not want to sell to AB InBev.  That risk is somewhat mitigated by people’s desire for money.  AB InBev successfully purchased Goose Island, a strong Chicago brand at the time of acquisition.  I recently attended an event where Goose Island spoke highly of AB InBev’s hands off approach to Goose Island’s side projects.  That said, some craft beer producers are artists and  simply don’t want to sell to a large corporation.  If money were the primary driver for all industry participants 3 Floyd’s, The Alchemist, and Russian River would all be much bigger companies.  
  • Valuations could get so stretched that AB InBev won’t be able to make a reasonable return on investment.  This risk is mitigated by 3G’s success creating AB InBev.  This management team has been in the beer industry for a very long time.  They understand (a) rational acquisition multiples and (b) how to create long term value for equity in this industry.
  • Brands lose their craft image when AB InBev purchases them.  This is a serious risk.  Anecdotally, it seems as if fewer Chicagoans purchase Goose Island at bars these days.  But that may also be attributed to the explosion of craft beer options since AB InBev purchased Goose Island.  At a minimum, Chicago men are still excited for Goose Island’s BCBS lineup of beers.  See https://wgntv.com/2018/11/23/long-lines-in-lincoln-park-for-release-of-goose-island-signature-beer/.  Therefore, Ab InBev’s ownership hasn’t totally killed the brand image.
  • The AB InBev portfolio is so large that tuck in acquisitions won’t move the needle.  This is the most valid criticism of AB InBev’s US business’ growth prospects.  But I don’t view AB InBev as a US growth story.   Going forward I expect growth from emerging markets.  Importantly, I view management as capable and rational capital allocators.  Therefore I trust them to reinvest in organic emerging market growth. If the US market fades at less than 2% per annum, this investment can work. 

Question 2:  Are these people I want to align myself with?

3G has a number of portfolio companies.  Of the most prominent, Kraft Heinz draws limited investor excitement, Jim Grant hates Restaurant Brands International, and AB InBev is a “no growth” story.  So, why should I even be interested?  Isn’t this a management team that’s lost touch with where the world is going?  Don’t they cut costs too aggressively and forego the future for the present? 

Generally, I like to look for ideas (a) in places that are glaringly obvious and (b) places where things don’t make any sense (thank you Adam Robinson for this advice; see Tim Ferris’ podcast interview with Adam Robinson).  In my opinion, it makes no sense that 3G is held in such high regard by Buffett and Munger but the market narrative seems so negative.  A cynic would argue Buffett and Munger only care about profit and don’t care how 3G does what they do.  But the way Charlie talked about 3G is too powerful for me to ignore.  Further, Charlie and Warren aren’t short term thinkers.  So they must think 3G is a reasonably competent long term manager and not just cost cutters. 

One of the first things AB Inbev highlights in its corporate filing is: “we are building a company to last, brewing beer and building brands that will continue to bring people together for the next 100 years and beyond.”  It’s not too often you see long term discussions from public management teams.  Too often the focus is on next quarter and guidance.  But, talk is cheap!  So I started to dig into the SEC filings of AB InBev’s subsidiary, AmBev.  This filing (https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1565025/000129281418003434/ambevsa20181030_6k.htm)  is a great clue showing why Buffett and Munger like 3G so much.

The filing is well written, easy to read, addresses stakeholders in the business (rather than just shareholders), separates the CEO and Chairman of the Board roles, and consistently discusses long term compensation and orientation.  That clue, combined with the Berkshire stamp of approval, and my general knoweldge of 3G, makes me believe AB InBev’s stewardship is exemplary (Morningstar agrees, for whatever that is worth).  

Question 3: Why Does This Potential Opportunity Exist

At the present time, a back of the envelope model generates an IRR of ~10%.  I’d argue a 10% IRR on a conservative model with a ~16.7x exit multiple warrants some attention.  So why does this “opportunity” present itself?  

To begin, the US brand portfolio is losing (or has lost) its cache as beer drinkers migrate to craft beer.  According to Statista, craft beer has increased its share of beer production from 7.8% in 2013 to 12.7% in 2017.  The combined effect of consumers drinking more craft beer, craft beer adding assets to the industry (which all else equal will depress profits), and a shrinking beer market (per capita consumption down from 1.23 gallons/capita in 2000 to 1.08 gallons/capita in 2016) depresses the outlook for major US beer makers.  While this concern is real, I believe the risk is somewhat mitigated by AB InBev’s (1) slightly positive U.S. volume growth last year and (2) sales mix (US sales accounted for 27% of AB Inbev’s TTM 6/30/18 sales mix). 

The second criticism is AB InBev is not growing.  I’m not sure I agree with that assessment over the long term

  1. 70% of Ab InBev’s consolidated revenues come from emerging markets.  A little more than half of the company’s Latin America (“Lat Am”) exposure is via AmBev, of which AB InBev owns ~62%.  That entity will probably grow at GDP-like rates (which are volatile in emerging markets). EBIT margins should improve at slightly higher than GDP as the company executes it’s long term value creation plan of raising prices in line with inflation while keeping cost growth below inflation.
  2. AB InBev’s acquisition of SABMiller gave the company a strong presence in Africa.  Again, I suspect this market should grow at approximately GDP with EBIT outpacing GDP for similar reasons to the LatAm region. Any premiumization of the beer category would be accretive to profits.

Both regions above should continue to grow at GDP rates due to historical (and current) birthrates.  Moreover, AB InBev should keep meaningful market share as the competitive landscape in emerging markets appears to be a distribution and cost advantage game.  AB InBev is almost 2.5x larger than its largest global competitor; Heineken (measured by volume).  That scale, combined with regional focus, should enable AB InBev to acquire emerging market customers because AB InBev should have a cost advantage.  Emerging markets consumers are very price sensitive.  To put price importance in perspective, see the graphic below:

Source: Golman Sachs, July 2018 Report

The final reason I believe people don’t like AB InBev right now is a confluence of problems with the equity performance.  AB InBev issued equity to complete the SABMiller deal, and recently (October 2018) cut its dividend in half.  That leads people to wonder whether future cash flows are now looking materially worse than when the acquisition occurred.  Moreover, shares were already underperforming the S&P before the dividend cut.  I suspect equity holders are ready to throw in the towel.

The chart below shows how many dollars of assets (less goodwill) AB InBev has historically needed to generate a dollar of operating income (“EBIT”) since 2008:

I view this measure as a reasonable way to look at the underlying franchise power of the business.  Generally speaking, AB InBev appears to be heading towards its historical franchise earnings power.  I need to dig in deeper to understand commodity pressures, LatAm concerns (which impacted American Airlines this year as well), etc.  But, the trend towards “normal” is encouraging.  (Note the spike in 2016 is a function of the SAB Miller acquisition.  The operating income benefits hadn’t gone through the income statement until 2017.)  That said, the deterioration in franchise earnings power since 2014 is concerning and warrants more attention. 

Conclusion: This Idea Warrants a Deeper Dive

The past is not the future.  My thesis as of today is that management will likely invest heavily in emerging markets, use excess cash flow to reduce leverage, and focus on organic growth.  I don’t expect share repurchases or a large acquisition any time soon.  Nevertheless, I suspect AB InBev’s ROE will improve as emerging market earnings grow. 

In summary, my back of the envelope exit multiple is 16.7x earnings; compared to 20x+ since 3G purchased the company.  The IRR in that scenario still exceeds 10%.  Most importantly, I believe AB InBev’s long term competitive advantage remains in tact, despite difficult US trends.  Thus, I view the distribution of potential returns as fairly tight and my downside as limited.  Therefore, I believe this idea warrants further consideration.

Disclosure:  No position     

Cash Flow is King, But Sometimes it Isn’t

In my younger years I was too focused on hard and fast rules.  Rule 1 was cash flow is king.  Rule 2 was buy cheap.  If a company wasn’t generating meaningful cash it fundamentally wasn’t worth investing in.  I wouldn’t even consider Rule 2.  After all, a company is worth the cash it generates in the future; discounted to today’s values.  Below is a model that illustrates this concept.  Each cash flow has a 10% discount rate applied to it.

*Assumes a 10% required rate of return

You can see how much weight the early cash flows have to the calculation. Which is to say that $100 generated in “Year 1” is worth $90.91 in today’s dollars while the $100 generated in “Year 10” is only worth $38.55 in today’s dollars.  Therefore, the cash flows at the end of a 10 year model need to be substantially larger than the near term cash flows in order to be worth the same amount in today’s dollars.  This impact is exacerbated when near term cash flows are negative.   

That has always been a hurdle for me because I lack the confidence to  accurately foresee cash flows 10 years from now.  Furthermore, the required growth in cash flows caused greater uncertainty and doubt.  A negative consequence of that mental barrier/bias is I almost always missed out on growth companies because they tend to use cash while they grow.  Thus, current cash flows in growth companies are not representative of mature cash flows.  A recent presentation by Aswath Damodoran illustrated this point with this slide:

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c20_S-QgvsA&t=2s

Damodoran highlights the cash needs of companies in different life cycles very well in that slide.  In my experience, a lot of money can be made investing during the high growth part of the life cycle (assuming you pay a reasonable price).  I believe the reason stems from the fact that the future is still uncertain so it’s still possible to have  investing edge (Note: the dispersion of future cash flows in growth companies arguably means there is more risk associated with investing in them). 

Most people can reasonably forecast the future of Coke.  Forecasting LaCroix’ future is more difficult.  Furthermore, Coke’s valuation very driven by existing cash flow rather than future cash flow.  Thus, it’s less likely to be materially mispriced because everyone is looking at the same information in the same way.  This makes buying Coke very cheap very difficult and probably limited to severe market corrections.  Waiting for those opportunities probably isn’t the best investing strategy because holding cash and waiting for a crash can cause behavioral mistakes.

I’ve learned from my mistakes and now try to look at a business or investment at the time of maturity.  I would not summarily dismiss purchasing a building during the construction phase while it was not earning maximum rent and was consuming cash while contractors completed renovations/build out.  Buying a business is no different.  

Making money investing is a difficult pursuit.  Nuance and flexibility are rewarded much more than hard rules and style conviction.  As I’ve let go of my style as a “value” investor looking for cheap cash generation I’ve begun to see opportunity in buying smaller firms at growth inflection points.  The key is determining which part of the life cycle a firm is in and analyzing that particular situation accordingly.     

Facebook: The Ultimate Attention Merchant

The business of attention capture and resale can be traced back many years.  According to Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants, Benjamin Day began the business model of reselling attention when he started The New York Sun.  The New York Sun was the first newspaper to sell for below its cost to produce and rely on advertisers to create profitable revenue streams.  Hence, the beginning of the business model depending on selling user’s eyeballs.  

Once other newspapers caught onto the idea they specialized in certain niches and adopted the business model. According to Wu:

“We’ve already seen the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi: draw attention with apparently free stuff and then resell it. A consequence of that model is a total dependence on gaining and holding attention. This means that under competition,the race will naturally run to the bottom…[to] whatever stimulus…engage[s] what cognitive scientists call our ‘automatic’ attention as opposed to our ‘controlled’ attention…[This]…poses a fundamental, continual dilemma for the attention merchant – just how far will he go to [harvest attention.]”  The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu @ 16. 

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  The obvious difference today is the scale at which the attention capture and advertising distribution changed.  In the past there were regional barriers to distribution.  Today, the only barrier to distribution is a company’s ability to capture the incremental user.

The risk to attention exploitation is customer revolt.  Historically people have lobbied government to step in.  Again, to quote Wu, “when audiences begin to believe that they are being ill-used –  whether overloaded, fooled, tricked, or purposefully manipulated – the reaction can be severe and long-lasting enough to have serious commercial consequences and require a significant reinvention of approach.” Id. @ 21.  Without users there is no attention to merchandize.  As of November 2018 that risk feels particularly heightened with Facebook.

If this risk materializes and customers revolt the business erodes and dies; like My Space and AOL. If the users leave then other users have less incentive to stay because the network shrinks.  In that scenario Facebook’s inventory becomes less valuable to advertisers.  Therefore, the value of Facebook’s platform depends on the user base connecting with each other. 

The most important investment question: Will People Leave?

The key investment question is whether Facebook’s current negative publicity cycle results in users disengaging from the platform.  A recent Pew Research study suggested people were deleting the Facebook App en masse.  Subsequent company released user metrics put that report in doubt.  It’s possible for both things to be true.  Facebook doesn’t report engagement through its app.  Rather, the company reports daily and monthly active users (DAU and MAU, respectively).  Thus, it is possible for someone to continue accessing Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp but not do so through the app. But I disgress…

To begin to answer the sustainability question its important to understand users access Facebook only when they are infront of a screen.  Facebook is an immense beneficiary from smart phones making screens accessible all day.  Moreover, data plans have enabled consumption on the go.  Today, the average person looks at their phone 39 times per day.  Irresistible by Adam Alter @ 14.  People’s screen time addiction is so powerful that the mere presence of a smart phone is disruptive to people’s ability to concentrate. Id @ 16.

How sustainable is this trend?  46% of people say they couldn’t bear to live without their smartphones.  Id. @ 27.  80% of teens check their phone every hour (Snapchat tends to dominate this cohort’s social media usage).  Id at 28, parenthesis added. Only 24% of people spend less than two hours in front of their smartphones every day. Id @ 15.   It seems as though screen usage isn’t going away anytime fast.  That said, a transition to another media consumption medium would be a direct threat to Facebook’s business.

Why Do People Choose Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp?

The next issue is to identify what factors enable Facebook to capture people’s attention when they look at their phone. 

Facebook gives people a platform where they can feel heard and be a part of a group.  Therefore, it can be a good tool to satisfy people’s fundamental needs of friendship, intimacy, family, and sense of connection. An even more utopian view of the Facebook platform could surmise that those feelings lead to fulfilling higher human needs of increased self-esteem, recognition, and status.  A dystopian view is the platform enables spreading hate speech, entering filter bubbles, and elevating trolling.  Regardless of the view point, a key psychological insight driving Facebook’s success is tribalism. 

When Facebook began it was only available at select colleges.  If you’ve ever been to a nightclub (or just thought about your high school days) you may remember not being part of the “cool” kids.  There is an intense desire to be a part of the cool crowd. Please see the movie Mean Girls for an entertaining analysis of this desire.  The exclusivity created a buzz around the product that made it different from a site like My Space.  So as it rolled out around the country students signed up in droves. Finally, college kids everywhere could be in the cool crowd.  Merely being in Facebook was joining a tribe and it signaled that you were part of the “in crowd.”  

As time passed further subtribes emerged as people became “Friends” and joined groups.  The creation of tribal identity is very powerful, especially when combined with Facebook’s like and comment features.  Why?  Because people within a tribe are more likely to “like” each other’s posts (social proof and reciprocation tendencies drive this behavior). And likes are the secret sauce.

As Rameet Chawla said, “[They are] our generation’s crack cocaine. People are addicted.  We experience withdrawls.  We are so driven to get this drug, getting just one hit elicits truly peculiar reactions.  I’m talking about likes.”  – Rameet Chawla, founder of Lovematically, as quoted in Irrestistible @ 128. 

Every time someone logs onto Facebook and sees a red icon indicating that they got likes/comments on their posts their brain releases dopamine.  The dopamine released causes the brain to want, desire, seek out, and search.  It reinforces the impulse to visit Facebook’s properties.  But why do so many people seek the dopamine hit on a daily basis? 

In Irresistible, cited throughout this post, Adam Alter set out to determine that answer.  He found the answer in an odd place.  In 1971, Michael Zeriler, a psychologist, set up an experiment to see how pigeons respond to stimulus.  The experiment required pigeons to press a button in order to receive food.  During his experiment Zeriler altered the amount of times a pigeon had to press a button before receiving food.  Zeriler found that pigeons feverishly pecked the “feed” button when they received a relatively consistent but not guaranteed reward (50-70% of the time).  They were less interested in the button when the reward was guaranteed. See Irresistible from 126-127.

And herein lies the genius of the like button, comments, and notifications.  No one knows whether and how much feedback they are getting on any given Facebook post, Instagram upload, or WhatsApp message string.  The feedback loop is uncertain and has the potential to release dopamine and satisfy base human desires.  Facebook’s properties capture people’s screen time as they feverishly check to see whether people “like” us and whether the world is passing us by. 

A Nod To Charlie Munger

One of the best speeches I’ve ever read is Charlie Munger’s Psychology of Human Misjudgment.  In it he outlines what he believes are the reasons people make poor/irrational decisions.  These are what I believe are the pertinent psychological forces further driving Facebook usage: 

  • Liking/Loving Tendency – Humans care what people think about them and a desire to get more people to like them.  People go to Facebook and Instagram and share their life.  Voila.  Likes galore.  Or they head over to WhatsApp and feel connected to their text chains.  These platforms enable engagement with otherwise tenuous relationships.  Much of the time that affirmation feels great, even if it comes from a tenuous relationship. 
  • Disliking/Hating Tendency – The opposite of the liking tendency is the tendency to seek conflict.  Look at the human races’ history of war.  A more common illustration of the disliking/hating tendency takes place seemingly everyday as politics is difficult to escape.  The need to feel heard in a cultural war drives traffic to Facebook, in my opinion.
  • Envy/Jealousy Tendency – Humans seem unable to avoid situations that leave them envious.  Instagram and Facebook are fantastic places to feel envious.
  • Excessive Self Regard Tendency – Most people suffer from overconfidence.  They assess their ability and prospects too highly.  Facebook and Instagram are the best platforms to showcase how fantastic a person’s life is.   
  • Lollapalooza Tendency – The tendencies above, when together, can create exponential effects.  I’d go add that the issues identified in Irresistible compound the effects even further.  Facebook understands these principles and created its algorithm to exploit them. 

The current narrative is Facebook’s properties are harmful to its users, disintegrate public discourse, and people don’t trust the company.  I have no idea whether the sentiment accusations are accurate (what people say is different from what they do).  Even if they are true, history can offer some clues about how this all may play out.  Did people trust cigarette companies after the 1980s?  Are Coke and Pepsi “good” for you?  No and no. Yet, the companies continued to perform well.

Habit and addiction are very hard to break.  I believe many people are addicted to Facebook and its properties.  Which is why I don’t think Facebook was lying when it reported the following stats:

Source:  https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1326801/000132680118000067/fb-09302018x10q.htm @ page 25.
Source: https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1326801/000132680118000067/fb-09302018x10q.htm @ page 26.

Those stats might be somewhat inflated because of fake accounts.  That said, I believe they are on a like for like basis.  Which is to say I suspect the number of fake accounts randomly fluctuates and the reported numbers convey an accurate trend.  Some people, myself included, were surprised about Facebook’s lack of customer attrition given the negative news cycle.  For the reasons cited above, combined with data that disproved my original thesis, I now suspect Facebook’s customer usage trends continue.  

Which brings me to my final investing point.  Change your mind when the facts change.  And remain open to changing your mind again.  

Recommended Reading:


https://www.amazon.com/Poor-Charlies-Almanack-Charles-Expanded/dp/1578645018/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1542856978&sr=1-1&keywords=poor+charlies+almanack+by+charlie+munger

The Importance Of Entry Price

When is an investor most likely to permanently lose money?  When he/she enters an investment.  Therefore, investors should be extremely cautious before entering an investment.  In theory this sounds nice, but in practice the fear of missing out (FOMO) can cause investors to buy too early.  

Some basic math shows the risk of buying at elevated prices.  I recently looked at Adobe Systems Inc.  I haven’t done enough work on the company to have informed opinion about the success of their recent acquisitions and whether management is capable.  That said, I am used to their Adobe branded products because I use them frequently.  Therefore, I understand Adobe’s core product is fairly integral to a business setting and they are priced on a subscription basis.  

Wall Street loves subscriptions because they tend to reduce churn and increase revenue certainty.  Consumers tend to renew subscriptions (sometimes without even realizing it), tend to not request their money back once billed, and cannot defer purchases because a company simply bills their credit cards.  Therefore the existing revenue streams of subscription companies are very likely to continue.  Furthermore, price increases tend to be easier to pass on to consumers since there is less sticker shock (many consumers don’t even check their subscription bills). 

Another thing Wall Street loves is software companies.  Why?  Because once a software company gets traction with customers there is minimal incremental capital to signing up the next customer.  Therefore, most of the additional revenue becomes cash flow to the business.  Thus, once a software firm achieves a minimum viable scale each additional customer becomes immensely valuable (assuming the cost to acquire that customer is less than the lifetime value of the customer). 

Adobe is subscription based and has hit scale.  Therefore, Wall Street loves it.  I decided to take a look because there has been a sell off in tech stocks lately.  Below is a very simple back of the envelope model I built.

I built the model assuming that Adobe continued trading at roughly 30.2x free cash flow.  I decided to increase Adobe’s buyback ratio over time and allowed for free cash flow growth in excess of GDP growth.  These are reasonable assumptions because Adobe probably won’t need all the cash it generates and should be able to raise prices.   

This seems reasonable so far, but the results rest on the assumption that Adobe will continue to trade at 30.2x free cash flow.  Is that reasonable?  Perhaps.  The current yield on 30 year treasury bonds is roughly 3.4%.  The current yield on Adobe is 3.3% (1/30.2; the inverse of the free cash flow multiple).  So, investors are willing to accept slight less free cash flow yield than risk free bonds today because they deem Adobe’s growth and earning certainty worthy of that bet. It’s important to stress that Adobe currently trades at a lower cash flow yield than risk free assets. 

Interest rates have been depressed for a long time now.  I have no idea whether they will continue to stay at these levels or not.  But, its reasonable to ask what happens if rates revert to their long term average of ~4.5%.  For purposes of this illustration lets assume that happens over the next 3 years.  The investment result is below (assuming Adobe trades at a similar yield to 30 year bonds). 

In the example above the business performs exactly as it does in the first scenario.  However, the multiple contraction decreases a shareholder’s 5 year return from 35.3% to 9.0%.  In that scenario, a shareholder would earn less than 2% per year.  That return is certain to reduce a shareholder’s purchasing power over time.  

Therefore, identifying a business worthy of investment is a necessary but insufficient condition to becoming a good investor.  Tradeoffs must always be made.  Bad businesses will sell at extraordinarily cheap prices at times.  They may be worth buying.  Conversely, good businesses selling at extraordinarily high prices may not be worth the risk of wealth destruction.  Reasonable minds can differ about which companies to buy and sell.  But price and risk must be a critical part of the discussion.  

Thoughts Post Malone

I recently attended Liberty Media Day.  I’ve known about John Malone for a long time, but never saw him in person. A couple things stick out in my mind:

  1.  The importance of a long term mindset
    • Dr. Malone talked about where he sees the media and cable industries going. His vision, as I interpret it, is the cable companies and the wireless companies eventually merging.  In the meantime he believes distribution companies should focus on incorporating Netflix and Amazon’s product offerings into their distribution channels. So, in Malone’s ideal world the cable company would drive traffic to Netflix and Amazon and receive a referral fee.  It’s an interesting concept but Netflix and Amazon aren’t suffering from a customer acquisition problem.  Therefore, I don’t know how receptive they would be to this proposition.  Regardless, Malone turned down an offer for his cable company at a substantially higher value than it trades at today.  He seems unfazed as he believes over the long term Charter will create more value than the offered price.  
    • Malone started his career at a smaller cable operator.  He left McKinsey to take a shot at building a company.  The company was called TCI and the road to success was uncertain at best.  That said, he stayed focused on his goal and thought strategically about the long term despite the short term outlook.  Today he has significant influence over a legitimate media empire that contains SiriusXM, Live Nation, Formula 1, Discovery Communications, Charter Communications, Trip Advisor, The Atlanta Braves, and he is the largest land owner in the US.  Time plus focus can accomplish astonishing things. As Tony Robbins says, “People overestimate what they can accomplish in a year and underestimate what they can accomplish in 10 years.”
  2. Some management teams just win. 
    • Listening to John Malone and his CEO, Greg Maffei, it’s pretty clear they are playing chess and the other guys are playing checkers.  Malone’s control of the entities enables Maffei to take a long term outlook.  Contrast that to AT&T, which has a substantial asset base but also has the pressure of meeting quarterly earnings estimates and worrying about a substantial dividend payout.  The guys at Liberty and their companies have a structural qualitative advantage AND the skill to exploit that advantage.  Those are situations I want to align myself with.  See also Berkshire Hathaway, Markel, Brookfield Asset Management, Constellation Software.
  3. Setting Yourself Up For Success Matters…A LOT
    • Liberty Media issues tracker stocks.  Tracker stocks are derivatives that are used to highlight the business value of the business segment within Liberty Media.  I never understood why people were comfortable owning them.  Now I have a better understanding.  Malone uses tracking stocks because he likes the entities under one umbrella because “there are antitrust and tax benefits on intercorporate dealings.” To begin, its pretty astonishing to hear him say that out loud.  Second, it’s exactly how Buffett thinks about antitrust and tax as well.  But Buffett doesn’t say anything like that publicly.  Tax avoidance is a large part of why Malone is so wealthy.  Lesson: set yourself up for success on the front end in order to take advantage of long term success.

In closing, I didn’t know what to expect from “Liberty Day.” I knew other people loved Malone and Maffei, but I never understood the following.  After watching them for a day I began to understand why people follow them so closely.  I intend to read everything I can get my hands on to better understand how they see the world.