Big Blue: singing the blues?

IBM has seen better days. Lately, it’s been the poster-child for old technology: not growing, seemingly threatened by technological obsolescence, and failing in the cloud and mobile. (full disclosure: my clients and I own shares of IBM)

I think this view misses a few things. IBM has very deep relationships with its customers, who tend to be large organizations that need or want IBM’s help with information technology. IBM also dominates mainframes, and has a very strong position in middleware. IBM is a very high return on investment business, with lots of opportunities to reinvest for future high returns.

I believe IBM’s key strength is its relationship with customers. IBM is deeply embedded with large organizations who use its hardware, software and services. These customers prefer to “not get fired” because they buy from IBM, but they also have legacy systems that are very difficult to replace. IBM is there to hold their hand when it comes to information technology, and that is why many, if not most of them, will continue working with IBM. They trust IBM to help them with their information technology decisions and implementations.

Part of the reason IBM is so embedded is that many large organizations still use IBM’s mainframes: 92 of the top 100 banks, 10 of the 10 largest insurers, 6 of the 10 largest retailers, 23 of the 25 largest airlines. Most of these organizations started using mainframes decades ago, and have legacy code that would be very expensive and difficult to move off IBM’s mainframes. Feature-wise, mainframes are very reliable (reboot time in years, not weeks), high security, and extremely fast (especially for the type of processing such organizations do). IBM is dominant in mainframes (~90% market share) and that’s unlikely to change soon.

IBM has the highest market share in middleware at present, too. This is the software that links software components or enterprise applications with each other. IBM’s middleware allows other programs to work together, and that connection is extremely important to IBM’s customers. Gartner’s most recent report showed IBM with 29% market share, far ahead of Oracle’s 14%. This position is likely sustainable because of how integral middleware is to large organizations. Software is 28% of IBM’s revenue, but 48% of their pre-tax profits. Software really matters for IBM and its customers.

IBM generates very high returns on its investments. It doesn’t take a lot of capital to provide IBM’s hardware design, services or software. By my calculations, IBM generates 35% returns on net assets, 42% returns on capital, and 84% on net tangible assets. Although these numbers have been trending down recently, the decline is not precipitous and they demonstrate the high return nature of IBM’s business. I believe these opportunities will continue into the future because the nature of IBM’s business and its underlying stability hasn’t fundamentally changed (many disagree with me on this–seeing tech obsolescence as IBM’s key problem; I have more to say on this below).

And, that’s an important key to understanding IBM: the nature of its business. IBM is first and foremost an enterprise information technology company. It is not trying to dominate all markets, just the markets where IBM has value to add and the returns are high. Much of IBM’s business is service-oriented. That work is usually based on long term contracts that allow for predictable allocation of assets and returns on investment.

Importantly, IBM seems to have institutionalized high productivity innovation and financial discipline. IBM has led the world in patents for 20 years, which just shows how important innovation is at IBM. Not all of those patents are productive or successful returns-wise, but it does show how even a large organization can put innovation at the center of its culture. This culture does not make it omnipotent, but it does lead to high value products and services–in other words, many high return, future investments.

When IBM does miss a technological change it views as important to enterprise information technology, it doesn’t tend to suffer from not-invented-here. Instead, it acquires the technology it lacks, and does it with financial discipline. By this, I mean IBM doesn’t pay a price it can’t get a good return on. It prefers to buy smaller companies that haven’t expanded internationally, such that IBM can recoup its investment by putting its global sales force to work selling the technology just acquired.

IBM’s financial discipline is on display with its returns on capital and acquisitions, but also with its capital allocation between reinvesting in the business, paying dividends, issuing/repaying debt, and buying back stock. IBM has been justly criticized for buying back stock up to 43% above its current price level, but I think this misses IBM’s attitude toward reinvesting in the business that focuses on investment returns (I judge the organization on their process and discipline as well as their successful implementation–no one gets it right 100% of the time). That focus and discipline is rare, especially for a technology company.

The cloud is where IBM has felt the most criticism, recently. The story is that IBM missed the transition to the cloud, and that it can’t catch up to new businesses native to the cloud, or further ahead in cloud implementation. But, I think this misses the nature of IBM’s business and its customers. I don’t think a top 10 bank will jump to a cloud database solution any time soon. They want IBM’s legacy mainframe system paired with the cloud in a hybrid configuration (as much to maintain security and regulatory requirements as to prevent having to recode their systems of record). Many or most of IBM’s current customers are in similar situations with similar concerns. IBM is very likely to be a trusted partner showing them the way.

IBM’s numbers have looked weak or even terrible over the last couple of years. Part of the reason is due to currency: much of IBM’s top line comes from outside the U.S. (66%) and the U.S. dollar has appreciated over 20% over the last year. IBM has also been aggressively selling off lower return on capital businesses: retail store solutions in 2012, customer care, showcase reporting, ACG and Cognos ADT in 2013, and microelectronics, industry standard servers, solidDB, Cognos Finance, IMS Tools Suite, Sterling Transportation Management Systems, ILOG JViews, Ilixir Visualization, Focal Point and Purify Plus in 2014. These divestitures have hurt both the top and bottom line, but have also raised profit margins. Adjusted for these divestitures and currency moves, IBM’s numbers look much better, though not wonderful, either.

And, I think this is the heart of the investment argument for IBM. There is little doubt that revenues haven’t been growing, but is that already factored into the price? It seems to me that it is.

IBM’s last 4 quarter sales per share were around $87. The adjusted net margin (adjusted for discontinued operations and a few other small items) over the last 12 months were around 17.5%.

My base case assumptions are 0% sales growth, 1.5% net margin growth, and 2.5% share buybacks. Hanging a 12.5x multiple on that (4% earnings per share growth) I come up with a price of around $190.

My below base case scenario sees -2% sales growth, 1% margin growth and 2% share buybacks (the low end of management’s expected range). Hanging a 9x multiple on that (1% earnings per share growth) looks like a $137 price.

My above base case scenario envisions 2% sales growth (the low single digit number management claims they can achieve), 2% margin growth (going from 17.5% net margin to 18.5% over the next 3 years based on moves to higher margin hardware/software and services) and 3% buybacks (the top end of management’s expected range). Hanging a 16x multiple (7% earnings per share growth) gives a $244 price.

If I give a 25% chance to the poor outcome, a 50% chance to the base case, and a 25% chance to the better outcome, that looks like a mid-teen return (I assume dividends grow at the same rate as earnings per share). That looks pretty interesting considering that the S&P 500 looks like a mid-single digit return from here. IBM’s price seems to factor in the key issues a bit too harshly.

Looking at Wall Street’s estimates, other analysts seem to be in the same ballpark with my assessment for earnings, which seems to indicate that the multiple and growth are where our opinions differ. I think a 10x multiple is too low for a business like IBM, but Wall Street seems to think it will stay there. If IBM executes as I believe it will, mostly because of its relationships with customers and embedded products and services, I think other investors will end up agreeing with me and rewarding IBM with a higher multiple.

As for growth, I don’t think IBM needs top line growth to grow value per share. Growing margins and executing buybacks at smarter prices–two things IBM has done well in the past (although not every time)– should lead to low to mid-single digit growth in earnings per share. That, too, would indicate a higher multiple.

I have deliberately stayed away from describing IBM’s upside. Watson could prove a solid money maker and revolutionize computing. So could IBM’s specialization in analytics, growth in hybrid cloud, or efforts in security and engagement. I don’t think IBM needs these things to go right to win, but if it does, it provides more upside.

What could go wrong for IBM? Technological obsolescence: the cloud could evolve to provide the same level of speed, reliability and security as mainframes but at lower cost or with greater convenience. Or, IBM’s relationships with customers could be sundered by competitors or substitutes able to best IBM’s services. I don’t think either threat is imminent or very likely, but either could make inroads over time that could build into bigger competitive difficulties for IBM. I am watching IBM’s numbers closely to see if this has or is happening.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Big Blue: singing the blues?

No Joy for Joy Global

Because the coal market is tanking, it’s an interesting place to look for investments.

I must admit, I’m not very interested in the coal producers themselves because I see no sustainable competitive advantages. The businesses that serve the coal market, however, do interest me, because I can find companies that possess such advantages. I believe Joy Global (JOY) might be one of them (neither my clients nor I own any shares of Joy Global at present, although this could change at any time).

Joy Global makes some of the huge equipment used for mining. This includes both surface and underground mining equipment, like conveyors, breakers, long wall shearers, roof supports, drills, shovels, draglines, loaders, etc. Joy’s website gives all the fascinating details.

Joy’s equipment is highly specialized, and that means it is highly integrated into mining production companies. Joy’s equipment is also highly productive, which means that mining businesses focused on costs and long run efficiency can benefit from owning Joy’s products.

Most importantly, Joy’s mining equipment is difficult to optimally operate and maintain over the long run without support from Joy, which means that one of Joy’s most important businesses is parts and service. To keep this type of equipment is good working condition, it is beneficial to engage the services of Joy Global.

Joy gets almost 55% of its business from coal miners. That is because Joy has specialized in the type of equipment used for mining coal, both underground and surface. Everyone knows that the coal industry is severely depressed right now with low coal prices due to too much supply and low demand. Coal suffers, too, from competition from alternatives like natural gas at very low prices, as well as oil, nuclear, wind and solar. Significantly, coal is also facing severe political pressure because it is considered such a dirty energy source. Many of the governments of the world, particularly in the U.S. and Europe, are working hard to eliminate coal as a source of energy.

What may not be as well understood is how fundamental coal is both as an energy source (thermal coal) and as an input to making steel (met-coal). Even if everyone agreed that coal is a terrible energy source, it would take decades to completely switch from coal to other energy sources (even here in the U.S.). Coal is also a major energy source in places like China, India and Indonesia (the 1st, 2nd and 4th most populous countries). In China, switching from coal will take a very long time, even assuming the Chinese government agrees to curtail its use. India and Indonesia, in contrast, are trying to figure out how to produce more coal to meet their growing energy needs. Coal may be hated, but it’s not going away any time soon, and perhaps not ever.

In addition to coal, Joy does business with mining companies focused mostly on iron ore and copper, but also gold, oil sands, and potash/salt. None of these businesses are doing that well now, either, because of too much supply and not enough demand. In other words, it is not just the coal market that has Joy down.

Although down, I don’t think Joy is out. Even in it’s depressed state, it is still generating over $3 billion a year in revenue, 75% of which is the more consistent service business I referred to above. And, Joy is still quite profitable. Profit margins are down from a high of over 14% (trailing twelve months) in 2011 to 8% now, but that is still quite respectable. Over the last 4 quarters, Joy still earned $2.69 per share. Not bad.

As investors know, it is the future, not the past that determines a security’s price. For Joy, the short to intermediate term looks pretty unclear. I think it is prudent to assume that the commodities boom of the last 15 years is over. That means looking at Joy’s past 15 years of financials doesn’t necessarily help a lot in figuring out the nearer term future.

I do believe that Joy’s service business is a good place to start in assessing value, though. Joy’s service business has generated an average of $565 million in revenue a quarter over the last three quarters. As a base, that is a bit over $2.2 billion a year in revenue. Unfortunately for Joy, that service business has been declining, too, as miners have been putting off maintenance and overhauls to try to make ends meet.

Assuming Joy’s service business continues to decline, I still think that Joy will remain profitable and able to pay interest payments and dividends. I think Joy’s service business, even without any original equipment sales, could see a further decline of around 25% and still be able to pay interest and dividends. The service business could decline 25% from here, or more, but maintaining a level that low seems unlikely. I believe creditors and bankruptcy judges will agree that maintaining equipment in good working order at the mining companies is in everyone’s long term interests.

As a base case, I’m assuming Joy can do $500 million in revenue a quarter just from service (down 11.5% from the last 3 quarters). Using a 6.5% net margin (lower due to continued fixed costs) on that gives you around $1.28 in earnings per share.  Hang an 8x multiple (which assumes 0% growth), and you get a $10.24 price. I think that is a pretty negative scenario: assuming service declines 11.5%, and no original equipment sales.

Could things be worse? Of course. Assuming services declines 25% and gets only a 5% net margin (even bigger hit from fixed costs), you end up with $0.74 in e.p.s., which would be below Joy’s dividend rate of $0.80 per year. Hang my no-growth multiple of 8x on that and you get a $5.90 price. I think that is an extremely negative scenario, but one that must be considered.

Assuming the coal market eventually stabilizes and Joy gets back to its current level and mix of services and original equipment (75%/25%), then you get back up to $3 billion of sales, an 8% net margin, so $2.37 in e.p.s., and an 11.5x multiple (3% growth), and Joy would be back up to $25 to $30 in price. That would be a nice return from here.

If I assume a 25% chance of my worse case price, $5.90, 50% chance of my base case, $10.24, and 25% chance of my stabilization case, $27.28, I come up with an assessed value of $13.42. With that, you can see why I haven’t bought, yet, but I am getting close to doing so.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

No Joy for Joy Global

China is slowing because the world economy is slowing

Sometimes I read what others think and just smack my head in amazement–why didn’t I think of that!

I had that feeling this last week in reading about a brief interview with Wells Fargo’s former CEO, Dick Kovacevich. Mr. Kovacevich said Tuesday that China’s economy has slowed because the rest of the world has decelerated.

This view is in contrast to what many are saying and thinking: that the world economy is slowing because China is slowing. When you think about it, Mr. Kovacevich’s interpretation makes more sense.

China’s economy has mostly been serving as the world’s workshop. Goods are manufactured there and sent to the rest of the world. The inputs that China uses to build all those products come from both inside and outside of China, but mostly outside (iron ore, coal, oil, copper, etc.).

If world growth slowed, that would cause China to slow down production in reaction, which would lead to a lower demand for inputs, which would cause commodity prices to tank–just what we’ve been seeing over the last year.

China isn’t driving demand or creating growth, it is reacting to growth outside China. Of course!

So, why then is the world economy slowing? The quick answer is bad policy. If you look at the Middle East or Russia over the last several years, you see gross government overreach leading to military incursion, loss of lives, destruction of property, misallocation of capital, etc. If you look, too, at places like Brazil, where a massive oil and gas find turned into massive government corruption, you see more bad policy (government ownership/control of oil/gas fields) leading to economic troubles. Then, if you look at Japan, Europe and the U.S., you see central banks trying to create economic growth by fiddling with interest rates and money supply. As Dr. Phil would as, “How’s that working for you?”

The world economy has slowed in reaction to bad policy, and that has turned, first, into significant declines in input prices (commodities), and then, second, into slowing and economic upheaval in China.

A reversal will require either a change from bad policy to good policy (through elections or changed policies due to the threat of elections/being ousted), or for the power free markets to overcome the dead weight of bad policy. Either solution will take time, though, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see markets continue their recent instability.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

China is slowing because the world economy is slowing

The Federal Reserve plays chicken with markets…and swerves

Most people think the Federal Reserve proactively sets economic policy. I believe the opposite is the case: that the Fed follows markets.

Proof for my view occurred yesterday. After years of preparing markets for a rise in interest rates and making it clear that September was the expected liftoff, the Fed decided not to raise interest rates on Thursday. Why? Because, I think, the Fed was reacting to market prices.

Of course, the Fed had their excuses all lined up: China’s volatile markets, Europe’s problematic economy, crashing commodity prices, etc. Yes, those were reasonable concerns, but I don’t think that was the Fed’s real reason.

You see, markets had already decided the Fed wasn’t going to raise rates. Market participants had looked at the data and come to the conclusion that the economy was too soft to raise rates. You can see this clearly in the remarks of savvy investors like Jeffrey Gundlach and banking executives like Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein.

Markets had priced in no raise, and the Fed then caved to that reality. It was a game of chicken between markets and the Fed, and the Fed swerved into the ditch. If the Fed had pressed on with raising rates, markets would have reacted violently–having priced in no raise. Then, the Fed would have been on the hook for explaining why they caused markets to tumble.

You can see the Catch 22 the Fed finds itself in. On the one hand, they are supposed to “take away the punch bowl” when the economic party gets too crazy. On the other hand, if market participants don’t factor that removed punch bowl into market prices, then market crashes can be blamed on the Fed.

Under my way of thinking, the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates when markets expect it and have factored that into prices. If the Fed acts before then, they can and will be blamed for market volatility, a position no set of bureaucrats wants to find themselves in.

So, sit back and watch the Fed’s goings on with amusement. This circus is for the crowd, but it’s not important.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

The Federal Reserve plays chicken with markets…and swerves

New location at WordPress

After 8 1/2 years on Blogger, I moved to WordPress.

I will continue to post here on markets, the economy, financial planning and all things investing-related.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

New location at WordPress

Falling prices are good, unless you are an imminent seller

When the stock market is tanking, like it has been recently, I find many people are scared to talk to me about it. They seem to think that declining stock prices are like a death in the family–a reason to offer condolences.

But, why is that? I don’t fret if I go to the grocery store and find prices have fallen 20%. When I go to buy gas, I’m quite happy to find prices have fallen. Why is this so different with stock prices?

After all, I’m a net buyer of investments. Only if I had some imminent plan to sell my stocks because I needed the money very soon would falling prices be a bad thing.

I think most people think I’m putting on a brave face or bucking myself up when I say I’m happy to see stock prices falling. They can’t seem to conceive that falling prices are good for buyers of stocks just as it is good for buyers of groceries, gas, cars or even houses.

I think that is because people too closely associate themselves with their current net worth. Instead of conceiving of their net worth as something in flux, that goes up and down like everything in the economy, they feel their current net worth indicates how much they can pull over time.

But, current net worth is a snapshot, not life itself. Just as a picture cannot capture a life, neither can current net worth define your lifetime cash flow.

Even for those close to or in retirement, stock market fluctuations need not be of major concern. If you have money you need to spend next month or next year in the stock market, you are indeed at risk. But you need not bear that risk unless you choose to. Your cash needs for the next three or so years should be in a stable value position, like a bank or money market account, not in the stock market. 

Most people who fret over stock market returns don’t need that money soon, either. They know they will need it in time, but they don’t need it today. 

Market volatility and declines are a benefit to the calm investor who knows that current net worth is just a snapshot. Thought of in this way, stock market drops can lead to higher net worth over time and increased cash flows. That is why I’m happy to see the stock market decline, and I think others should be, too.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Falling prices are good, unless you are an imminent seller

What is diversification worth?

In the investing world, diversification has the feel of holy writ. No one conventional will ever question it.

The reality, however, is that diversification is frequently taken out of context and misunderstood.

For example, many investors are sold on the idea that diversification will prevent their portfolios from tanking when markets go haywire. But, this is seldom the case. Perhaps one’s portfolio goes down 40% instead of 50%, but that’s the best-case scenario at the absolute worst part of a market downturn. How many people are really happy about being momentarily down a little less than the overall market?

I’ve seen presentations that show much less “reduced volatility”–down 10% instead of 11%–pitched as the holy grail, but I’ve never heard a client say, “Boy, am I glad I was diversified,” with such small differentiation.

As with all things in life, there is a cost to diversification: usually lower returns. The sales pitch is that you give up some return in exchange for lower volatility. That’s great, but it must be thoroughly understood that giving up return means less money in retirement. I think many investors would prefer higher volatility and a better retirement, and they should make that choice with a clear idea of what they are choosing. I would happily take 10% more volatility and 10% more income in retirement, and my guess is that I’m not alone.

Diversification is a benefit, but that benefit has limits. A portfolio of 100 stocks should probably be replaced with a low cost index fund. A portfolio that is 80% in your employer’s stock is not very smart. Somewhere in between those two extremes is diversification that works for most people.

Diversification works because it removes the consequences of not being omniscient. No one, not even Warren Buffett, knows the future with precision, so that type of diversification is prudent. 

That does not mean buy a little of everything and the more the merrier. Over-diversification has huge penalties, too, and that comes in the form of lousy returns.

The benefits and drawbacks of diversification seem clearer after the market has tanked and rebounded like it has over the last week and a half. There was little benefit to being investing in one stock versus another, because they almost all went down and back up together. 

The things that did do well, perhaps gold and U.S. Treasuries, either have been or will be terrible investments over 5 to 10 year periods. To gain their benefit in somewhat reduced volatility is to lose future returns that may be worth much more. Perhaps that’s not what everyone wants or needs.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

What is diversification worth?