Friday, December 21, 2007

Earnings and Equity Returns

Wall Street is fixated on the earnings number of a business. In the short run, stock prices are very sensitive to a company’s earning achievements.

Earnings Are Not Alone

While profits are essential, understanding how they fit into the value creation process is critical. This is where return on equity comes into play.

An initial yet meaningful way of looking at return on equity is similar to a coupon on a bond. A bond that earns a higher coupon yield than the prevailing rate of interest will trade at a premium, or above its par issued price. A bond that is issued paying ten percent a year will be worth more in the future if future rates on interest have declined. The reason is simple economics: no investor will pay the same price for an eight percent bond if he or she can buy a ten percent bond for the same price. So the price of the existing ten percent bonds will increase until its new market price represents an approximate eight percent effective yield. So if the bond had a face value of $1000 and initially paid $100 a year, its new price would be $1250 because at an annual payment of $100, the return is 8 percent.

Similar to a bond in a fundamental sense, businesses with sustained high returns on equity are usually followed by appreciating stock prices, but not for the same specific reasons as a bond. In the real world, of course, investors in stocks don't just buy and hold.


In the long-run, the rate of return of a stock should equal its return on equity. Consider Microsoft. Microsoft continues to deliver unbelievable returns on equity of over 40 percent and has done so for decades. Yet for years, Microsoft shares have not followed suit.

The times are different. In the beginning Microsoft had lots of space in the software market to deploy its capital. So when Microsoft was generating a ROE of say 40 percent, back then it was able to continue investing that excess capital and generate a similar rate of return. What this means is that Microsoft could take a million dollars, invest it in its operations, and earn $400,000. Microsoft could then take the excess capital and still earn that same 40 percent. Microsoft was able to do this with billions of dollars and this was happening years before the Internet boom.

It is no surprise then, that Microsoft stock rocketed for many years after its IPO and why early investors, Gates, and employees got so fantastically rich off the stock. The company was compounding existing and excess capital at a phenomenal clip. Anytime you can do this for a sustained amount of time, the intrinsic value of a business mushrooms and eventually so will the stock price.

Now What?

Microsoft still generates returns on equity of over 40 percent, yet the stock price sits still. Microsoft is so huge and has so much cash, that it is now only able to generate those returns only the capital needed to run he business. It can no longer take the excess capital and redeploy it at such a high rate of return. This is why it paid that huge dividend a few years back. It made more sense payout some of that excess capital to shareholders than to reinvest back in the business.

Concentrate Your Bets

Anytime you locate a company that offers the talent and ability to redeploy its existing and excess capital at above market rates of return for any sustainable period of time, odds are the stock price will follow suit. An ability to earn excess returns on equity signals that the company offers certain competitive advantages not easily reproduced by its competitors.

In the 1980's Warren Buffett bet over 20 percent of Berkshire’s book value on the Coca Cola Company. Buffett noticed, among other things, that Coke was earning excellent returns on its equity and deploy the excess capital into other infant markets. Berkshire Hathaway itself is a huge capital deployment vehicle. It takes the float from its insurance company and any excess cash from its operating subsidiaries and invests the excess capital very successfully. Berkshire has risen an amazing 7,000-fold since Buffett took control of the company in 1965.

Profits and earnings growth are vital. But what businesses are able to d0 to with those profits sets apart great businesses from good ones.

In 1978, Warren Buffett wrote an article for Fortune Magazine titled "How Inflation Swindles the Equity Investor" In it he noted that there are only five ways to improve return on equity:

1. Higher turnover, i.e. sales
2. Cheaper Leverage
3. More leverage
4. Lower taxes
5. Wider margins on sales

Companies have the least control over tax levels, although management can certainly use creative accounting to temporarily alter the tax rate. An investor is better suited to focus on the others, as the ability to spot improved sales, prudent use of leverage, or cost cutting initiatives can lead one to excellent businesses.


All else equal, sales increase should create an increase in profits. Of course the quality of sales should be carefully examined. As sales increase, accounts receivable level should naturally follow suit. However, if receivables are demonstrating a trend of growing much faster than sales future troubles may lie ahead when it’s time to collect. Additionally, inventory management is important. The application of LIFO or FIFO will affect the profit statement differently during inflationary or deflationary periods.


When used prudently and wisely the use of leverage can increase returns on equity. Similarly, if a business can lower its cost of debt, the corresponding effect is a higher return on equity. Today we are seeing exactly how the mismanagement of leverage has affected those businesses participating in the credit markets. The painful lesson is similar to buying stocks on margin. If you are levered five to one, a ten percent return on the levered portfolio equals a return on equity of 50 percent. The same corresponding loss occurs with negative returns. Unfortunately, most businesses (1) fail to use leverage appropriately and opportunistically; and (2) employ leverage at alarming multiples to equity. The results, as we can clearly see, have been disastrous.

Wider margins are created in one of two ways: increasing prices or decreasing costs. Very few companies can raise prices at will without incurring competition or meaningful declines in volume. Again, this is why Buffett bet so big on Coke. For decades Coke has been steadily increasing the price of its famous syrup with no meaningful loss in market share as a result. As Buffett once quipped, "Who's going to risk saving a nickel over a product they put in their mouth?" Wrigley's chewing gum offers a similar example.

Profits count, but it's what you can do with those profits over time that really matters.

1 comment:

Sriram said...

Hi Sham

It is a nice article and an important one. You put your finger on an important topic. That is, over long run, ROE throws light on effectiveness of capital allocation decisions of management and possibly also health of business.

As Warren once said, it is the ROIC (return on incremental capital) that matters. That is, returns on capital the management commits to business. But past ROE provides a glimpse of both mgmt and business.

I personally use ROA of greater than 10% for past 5 years as a way to get a short list of companies. Of course this will eliminate banks and insurance business. So need another filter to catch them.

Happy value investing...