Now with the S&P back up to near highs, many are calling out Buffett and saying he’s lost his touch. “Maybe he’s too old now” and “maybe he doesn’t care anymore now that he’s approaching 90 and loaded” or “maybe the oracle has lost his touch”.
I don’t really think that’s the case and think the negative sentiment creates an opportunity in Berkshire Hathaway stock. People who argue that Buffett is too old and “lost it” could have easily argued the same thing when he was 65 going on 70, 75 going to 80… Buffett has that itch that can’t be scratched.
I do think some of his methods are too old fashioned. I can’t actually confirm this is true, but he has said he won’t participate in auctions. What board would actually be able to justify selling to him without a second bid? Especially when times are good and they are a good business.
I’m taking Berkshire Hathaway’s current market cap and subtracting the market values of his equity holdings (note, I pulled this from Bloomberg, so it may not be 100% accurate). I then subtracted the cash to arrive at the value the market is ascribing to the “core Berkshire Hathaway” business.
I say core, but in reality there are so many subsidiaries within Berkshire Hathaway. You have GEICO, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, BNSF, Precision Castparts, just to name a few well known ones. If interested, I highly recommend perusing the list of subsidiaries on Wikipedia. I bet there are quite a few you didn’t realize he owned.
At the end of the day, you’re being asked to pay <8x earnings for the collection of businesses that Warren has acquired AND you have free upside from the cash if it is ever deployed.
Frankly, the real upside in the stock may be 5-10 years away when Berkshire Hathaway is broken up and people realize the sum of the parts is worth more than the whole.
Either way, look at the impact of Berkshire going out and deploying cash. Earnings could likely go up 30% from where they currently are and even deploying the cash at a worse multiple than where Berkshire trades today (i.e. dilutive), you’re still paying <9x earnings.
Unfortunately, if you want to read a 10-K to get better at investing or understanding how companies work, you can’t just read a 10-K in a vacuum. You must put the knowledge and information you glean into context.
If you were moving to a new city and needed to purchase a home, would you look at one home and determine you had enough information? Probably not. You’d probably want information on that home as well as several others and weigh the pros and cons of each (how are the schools, how much room am I getting for the price & is it a good trade off, do I need to pay city taxes, etc.).
Same is true for investing in companies. I want to read about this company, understand how it works, determine if I think it is good or not, and then go read about its competition. Is the competition even better? Maybe the customer is actually the better business or its supplier.
As you can probably tell, this creates a web of information you need to understand, but can be worth it in the end.
Also in the context of not reading a 10-K, I almost never open up a 10-K without opening up the company’s latest investor presentation (typically on their investor relations site), and then also typically plan on reading the latest earnings calls as I get more interested.
Ok – let’s dive into what I do when I first open a 10-K.
“How does this business actually make money” – Read the Business Overview Section and Understand How that Flows Through to the Income Statement
Nowadays, there are links upfront in a 10-K that can help you jump to the sections you want. First thing I do is click on the Business Overview section.
From there, I jump ahead to where the company has the opportunity to describe what it does.
I can’t tell you how much I respect companies that really take the time to help investors understand what they do. Sometimes companies leave it ambiguous which is super frustrating. Especially when covering small caps and I also look at private companies, the amount of times I’ve heard investors think an a company does one thing, when in reality they do not actually understand how they make money, is alarming.
As a quick aside, I once had a company describe themselves like this: “[Company’s] performance resins and surface overlays are ubiquitous in products used in residential and commercial applications and are increasingly displacing traditional building material through value-adding attributes. [Company] is a highly profitable, vertically integrated provider of these products.
Very hard to even determine what they were doing. Turned out, they would saturate paper with a formaldehyde-based resin and sell it into various building products. That’s the importance of diligence.
I have to commend Fastenal on how well they describe their business in 7 sentences. It gives some history, what customers they target, how many branches they have, and what their general strategy is.
So right off the bat, I can generally tell how Fastenal makes money. They sell fasteners. Their business description actually continues on for several pages, which I’ll let you read as opposed to pasting here. It’s a good read.
But as soon as I read this description, I start to have questions pop into my head. I’m trying to understand the value chain. Do manufacture themselves or buy from suppliers? What industries do they target? How do they differentiate themselves? The reason why I ask these is because the answers will start to tell me things about the business.
If they manufacture themselves, it’s probably a unique offering that they can charge a higher margin for, but it will be more capital intensive (need machines, plants as well as branches). If they just buy from China and sell in the US, maybe others can do the same so I’d expect their margins to be lower, but not much capital is really needed.
Turns out, Fastenal mostly buys from third-party suppliers, but as you’ll see later, its margins are surprisingly high. Fastenal is a rare company where it actually provides some detail on this. As I said in my competitive strategy series, looking just at the numbers doesn’t tell the whole story. We need to understand why a company may have high margins or not and if that is OK.
To understand a business and get better at investing, you have to know how a business works. If the above snippet doesn’t make a ton of sense to you, then you need to map it out.
Here is a quick snapshot of what I typically do. I first just try to make a made-up model of the company. I just say, “Hey, I understand selling fasteners, widgets, what-have-you, means buying fasteners in inventory and selling them for a profit. Let’s assume I sell 100k fasteners for $5 – how does that look here for Fastenal?” Note, these numbers are made-up, but the margins are about what Fastenal has.
Hopefully from the notes above, you can see I’ve also made attempts on how the cost structure of the business works. Is this a highly variable cost business or not? I would say it is highly variable. If my sales go down, I’m not just going to keep buying fasteners and keep paying bonuses to sales staff (I’m going to incentivize them to get sales up).
Contrast that to an automotive company like Ford or GM. They typically have unionized workforce, so I’m not sure how many people they can actually cut in a downturn. They also have huge manufacturing plants that are hard to just turn off and turn back on without expenses associated with it. Contrast that to Fastenal, whose branches are very basic stores with shelves. That’s one reason why automotive companies and airlines go bankrupt so often. They are highly competitive, highly cyclical, highly fixed cost businesses – demand going down hurts the bottom line a lot more.
I digress. Back to Fastenal.
Let’s now see an impact of what happens with more fasteners being sold – what impact does that have on the bottom line (using EBITDA here for now)?
As you can see, a 4% increase in fastener sales actually leads to a ~7% increase in EBITDA. The main reason is that, while COGS went up by a similar amount to sales, SG&A stayed relatively flat. This is important to understand because you may say, “Ok Fastenal is a mature business. Maybe it should only grow with growth in industrial production, manufacturing, or GDP in the long term. Well if that is 2-3% growth, earnings probably will grow at a faster clip than that, which is important for valuation.
This is a simplistic example and view (for example, more detailed models will have store branches modeled out, how many fasteners each branch sells, what the sales impact and cost impact will be of adding a new branch) but hopefully shows in more detail of how I examine a business and how it makes money.
“Show me the money!” or, uh, Free Cash Flow – Examine the Cash Flow Statement; Understand Drivers
First, the income statement doesn’t capture everything. Net income does not equal free cash flow that we use to value a business. It may capture depreciation which can be used as a proxy for capex in a mature business, but for a fast growing business, capex will likely exceed depreciation. The income statement doesn’t capture the working capital investment needed to grow the business. It also doesn’t tell us where the free cash flow is going (M&A, dividends, share buybacks, debt paydown, just sitting on the balance sheet?).
I also focus on the cash flow statement next because frankly I am trying to find good businesses. If after examining the business overview and parts of the income statement, I see that the cash flow statement is a mess, I may or may not decide whether or not it’s worth my time. Sometimes I like to dig into a messy cash flow statement because people who do simple stock screens will miss opportunities. Other times I’ll decide it’s best to drive on.
To find the cash flow statement, I typically search the document for “Operating activities” which will allow me to jump to “Cash Flow from Operating Activities” part of the cash flow statement. If you don’t know, free cash flow = cash flow from ops minus capital expenditures. This is typically the cash leftover to the business that it can use for other discretionary items.
So I do some quick math and try to determine FCF for Fastenal.
They generated around $600MM of FCF last year, which was a nice jump from $500MM the year before despite what clearly was a big increase in capex. You probably want to figure out why to see if it is sustainably higher. Very quickly, I can see that net income increased (+$39MM), depreciation & amortization increased slightly (+$11MM) which is non-cash so added back, and I have to do some math, but I can see changes in working capital also benefited them in that it looks like they didn’t need to invest as much there, as you can see the increases in inventory and accounts receivable are down a lot Y/Y (total W/C benefit +$141MM Y/Y).
After figuring this out, you need to understand why these occurred. Does the company say anything in its earnings calls about this? Investor presentations? Why is capex up so much? New branches? Is that what drove net income higher? But if they opened new branches, why didn’t working capital increase? Is it a new type of branch that doesn’t require as much of an upfront investment?
After figuring out FCF and whether the past few years look sustainable, I take a look at where the cash is going. It looks like from above Fastenal paid down some debt (as payments are larger than issuance of debt) and paid a big dividend, which has been consistent in size.
However, one red flag I immediately see is that 2019’s dividend is nearly identical to 2018’s FCF… do they have enough FCF to cover the dividend? Yet ANOTHER reason why focusing on net income and payout ratios that are thrown around never makes much sense to me.
Anyway, looking at the cash flow statement provides a lot of clues as to how good the business is. Frankly, I only really need to Income Statement and Cash Flow statement to get an idea if the business generates a good return on capital.
Management’s Discussion & Analysis
This section of the 10-K is when management teams can really explain what drove business results over the past few years. Look at how much detail Fastenal provides in just one section. This doesn’t even really get into cost of goods or operating expenses.
This section really should help an investor with the detective work needed to understand the business. It certainly helps me model companies and think about drivers for the future.
Obviously, there are many more things to study when evaluating an investment, but wanted to share my starting point for how I read a 10-K.
Many know the history behind McDonald’s, but if you don’t I highly recommend the movie The Founder. It details how McDonald’s started as a simple restaurant business, but Ray Kroc took it over to expand the business and eventually takes it over. It also gets into the groundwork for McDonald’s strategy it would use for decades to come.
McDonald’s is not in the restaurant business, per se, it is in the real estate business.
As a reminder, this Competitive Strategy series I am doing is trying to unravel why some businesses do better than others, even in highly competitive industries. This post will be brief and mainly focus on this real estate point – to me, it is a truly differentiated strategic decision from McDonald’s.
Why Does McDonald’s Own or Lease the Real Estate?
Typically, McDonald’s will own or lease a restaurant site and lease or sublease it to a franchisee. McDonald’s return on that real estate investment is derived from a fixed % of sales as rent payment from the franchisee. McDonald’s also earns a royalty fee, but the bulk of earnings is actually tied to this “rent” payment.
As you can imagine, this is a unique relationship between franchiser and franchisee.
Here is a comparison of gross PP&E on a group of restaurants balance sheets compared to the number of locations they have. The only names that come even close are Chipotle, which has no franchisees so isn’t really comparable, and Starbucks, which also is mostly company-operated stores.
Think about if you were a landlord and received rent plus a fixed percent of the tenant’s sales. You want the tenant to do well and may even kick in funds to help them (if you think the returns will be favorable to you).
This is the case with McDonald’s. When a restaurant unit needs to be remodeled or needs new capital investment, McDonald’s will typically share some of the expense, which helps relieve some of the burden on the franchisee, while also allowing the company to cycle through new looks and new menu items. This keeps McDonald’s menu relatively fresh and restaurants looking up-to-date.
McDonald’s also does not allow passive investors. This aligns incentives for the store owner to maximize sales and profits (because that is how they derive most of their income) which in turn boosts McDonald’s profits.
As a result, McDonald’s has posted a powerful financial track record over the past couple decades. As shown below, its same-store sales results are pretty impressive when you think about how mature McDonald’s is as a business.
But doesn’t this make McDonald’s more capital intensive?
Here is a chart of capex as a % of sales for each of the players:
But that actually doesn’t hinder the company much. Look at its return on assets compared to peers. It actually stacks up quite well, which is surprising when you think about how much more in assets the company has.
What could be the driver of that? Profitability. McDonald’s is just much more profitable than most of its peers. Part of this is scale (can leverage corporate fixed costs well with the number of branches), but also part of it is the way the company has established its fees.
I think the bank stocks look cheap, as I highlighted with a few in a recent post. But there are issues with lending right now — and I am not even including the wave of defaults & impairments people expect or forbearance.
In the article in the WSJ titled, The Day Coronavirus Nearly Broke the Financial Markets, there is this scoop on what was going on in the market. Essentially, banks held interest rate hedges on it books and when rates went down, the hedges swung in the banks favor and out of companies favor who decided to hedge.
What is funny is that this was seemingly good thing for banks — they had a gain on their books — but actually restricted their ability to deploy capital:
So when Mr. Rao called senior executives for an explanation on why they wouldn’t trade, they had the same refrain: There was no room to buy bonds and other assets and still remain in compliance with tougher guidelines imposed by regulators after the previous financial crisis. In other words, capital rules intended to make the financial system safer were, at least in this instance, draining liquidity from the markets.
One senior bank executive leveled with him: “We can’t bid on anything that adds to the balance sheet right now.
The Fed stepped in and said that, temporarily, they would ease these restrictions through March 2021:
Liquidity conditions in Treasury markets have deteriorated rapidly, and financial institutions are receiving significant inflows of customer deposits along with increased reserve levels. The regulatory restrictions that accompany this balance sheet growth may constrain the firms’ ability to continue to serve as financial intermediaries and to provide credit to households and businesses. The change to the supplementary leverage ratio will mitigate the effects of those restrictions and better enable firms to support the economy.
This is good and as I showed in my last post on banks, the amount of capital banks hold now is insane compared to what they had going into the Great Financial Crisis. The Fed agrees:
Financial institutions have more than doubled their capital and liquidity levels over the past decade and are encouraged to use that strength to support households and businesses. The Board is providing the temporary exclusion in the interim final rule to allow banking organizations to expand their balance sheets as appropriate to continue to serve as financial intermediaries, rather than to allow banking organizations to increase capital distributions, and will administer the interim final rule accordingly
Why did we tell banks after the GFC that they needed to increase their reserve requirements? So that they would be able to provide support in a crisis, not be a source of weakness. That is what is happening now.
I think we need to go a step further and actually lower the capital requirements for the foreseeable future. When you crimp credit, you crimp the economy. Lowering reserve requirements for some time would unleash significant amounts of capital into the system. So far the Fed has just said certain assets won’t count against the risk-weighted assets. With the rule expiring in 2021, it doesn’t really help banks feel super confident.
Here is the chart again of what banks capital levels look like – exiting 2019 with a median level of 12.8%.
Tier 1 Capital represents core equity capital to risk weighted assets and essentially represents the capital not committed to meeting the banks liabilities. The reason you have excess capital is to prepare for unforeseen events, which is why regulators require a minimum of 4%, but higher (6%) for large banks. Investors typically want to see 150% above the minimum. That foots to 6% and 9% respectively… And the big banks were near 13%. The excess capital allowed banks to invest, conduct share buybacks or dividends.
But its clear to me that banks learned their lesson from the last crisis – they did not want to buy the cause again so they carried significant amounts of capital.
I think the Fed / Govt should lower the reserve requirement to unleash more capital into the system from banks, not just central banks. They clearly have excess capital, they just need to be encouraged to deploy it. Imagine how much capital would be deployed if banks went from 12% or 10% to 6%? We then could say they have to get back to 9% in 5 years.
I’ve been thinking about Google recently… especially as concerns arose around COVID-19 and what it would do to the new era advertising giants. Everyone knows “search” is such a powerful business in advertising and benefits from the scale / platform benefits of everyone “googling” what they need. Though I can’t help but think that Google’s assets are underappreciated.
I think Google should take a page from IAC. For those of you unfamiliar with IAC, they essentially are a publicly traded venture capital firm. However, unlike VC the business is “home grown” and once it matures, they tend to spin-it out and maintain a stake or take a dividend from the business (like they have recently done with Match Group, the owner of Tinder and other dating apps).
IAC’s track record is impeccable. Recognize any of these names?
The point is, IAC understands that sometimes a company is worth more operating outside of a large corporate umbrella and with its own balance sheet, making its own strategic decisions, and having its own separate shareholders.
They also understand that a company may need to have a shareholder early on with a long-term view. I think Google’s assets could benefit from this treatment as many of them are mature at this point.
Imagine Google does the following spin-offs:
Google Nest, Google Home – Hardware play
Google Maps – logistics tolling play in the long run
Waymo – Driverless Cars
Google Cloud Business
Android, Chromebooks, other hardware etc.
Search, YouTube, & G-suite (Google Sheets, Gmail, Google Drive, Google Pay) is the “RemainCo” as the assets really do benefit from being combined.
Do you think the assets of the company are worth more than what Google currently trades at? I do.
I think YouTube and Google probably are worth where Google trades right now.
Facebook has roughly 50% EBITDA margins on its advertising-driven business. Let’s say Google’s is in a similar ballpark. The company disclosed in 2019 that Google and YouTube generated around $135BN in revenue, so applying a 50% EBITDA margin to that implies $67.4BN in EBITDA. At the time of writing, Google’s entire Enterprise Value is $837BN, so that foots to ~12.5x EBITDA for a company that is a secular grower. That doesn’t seem excessive to me.
Next, lets look at Google Cloud, which is growing like a weed and competes with AWS.
Back when AWS was around this size in revenues, it had low 50% EBITDA margins.
Therefore, I can assume again around 50% EBITDA margins for the Google Cloud business, which foots to $4.5BN of EBITDA. This too is a secular grower, an oligopoly business between the tech giants, and likely going to double earnings in a couple years. Therefore, I do not think its is unreasonable to say this is worth $75BN (frankly, if earnings do double in 2 years, that’s only an 8-9x forward multiple).
The point is though that that one segment could add a lot of shareholder value if it operated outside of Google. We haven’t even touched “other bets” Google has, which seems to be a lot of cookey stuff like barges for some reason.
There are so many things within Google that I bet we don’t even know about. This list of acquisitions by Alphabet is insane and as a layperson, I don’t know what many of them do. Its also hard for me to actually see what value they bring to Google or to me as a shareholder — but if Google separated out its businesses, maybe that wouldn’t be the case!