Monday, July 27, 2015

Mature Tech: Valuation and Pricing Lessons

Apple’s large price drop and the Google’s large price jump occurred within days of each other. They highlight how challenging tech valuation and pricing can be in a normal trading context let alone in an M&A setting. I find it useful to distinguish the different stages of tech firms to understand the economic dynamics. My scheme is as follows:

1)     Seed: idea stage with no established business model or revenues; private market valuation set by handful of optimists of questionable reliability.
2)     Early: established business model and revenues -profits hopefully to follow e.g. Square; price based on relative value compared to “peers”.
3)     Mature: great returns/profits but growth leveling off e.g. Apple and Google; key drivers are growth and returns.
4)     Old: declining returns with limited if any growth e.g. Hewlett Packard and IBM; focus on shareholder distributions and breakup asset values.

Recently, Apple and Google experienced large stock price swings. GOOGLE increased by 16%+ or $65B on July 17 while Apple fell 7% or $60B four days later. Ralph correctly notes stock prices are based on expectations not actual results.

Expectations are frequently based on extrapolations-sometimes sophisticated, but still extrapolations based on beliefs not facts. Once a new signal (which could be information or noise) is received, investors revise their prior beliefs regarding future operating performance-Bayesian updating or learning. Tech firms are inherently volatile given short product life cycles and their uncertain operating environment. Relatively small changes in expected growth rates can have a huge valuation impact.

Apple, although it had a great quarter, gave revenue guidance that shook investor growth expectations. Specifically, concerns over iPhone, iPad, iWatch and the next “big thing” caused investors to markdown growth estimates. It is still a great firm but was priced too high based on new growth estimates. This raises another issue-will Apple’s management try regain its growth “mojo” through expensive unfocused new product R&D and acquisitions? Remember they have a huge $200B+ cash pile and could do lots of damage. Hopefully activists like Icahn will keep pressuring them to return more cash to shareholders. Interesting to see how their management reacts. The record of aging tech firms refusing to age gracefully like HP is not a happy one.

Google benefited from a “twofer”. They had a better than expected second quarter. They also provided information on improving growth prospects for mobile ads. Equally important, their new CFO provided comforting words on expense and capital discipline. The problem with maturing tech is the discipline to manage the transition from high growth to more modest growth. Managing the transition has an important impact on expectations. Whether Google’s management can deliver on these raised expectations remains to be seen. If they disappoint then expect a subsequent large downward pricing adjustment.

My take is mature tech firms are fraught with agency cost issues which make them difficult to value. They will try to fight the transition to slower growth and try to manufacture growth through undisciplined capital allocation at the expense of returns and value. New management teams unburdened by legacy culture will be needed to avoid Microsoft-Nokia type M&A misadventures.


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