This is an odd post to write when markets are dropping by the day. However I think that at times like these, it is important to remind ourselves of the basics so that one does not get overwhelmed by the negativity and fear around us.
So coming back to the question – Why do stocks go up? Well it depends on who you ask.
If you ask a day trader, he or she is likely to say that it is due to volumes, the day’s news and finally due to sentiments. If you ask a technical analyst, the reason could range from the ordinary (volumes, patterns etc) to the esoteric (Elliot wave theory, Fibonacci sequence etc). If you ask the lay person, they would usually have no answer for it (as most consider the stock market to be nothing more than a casino).
As a long term investor, I prefer to ask the question in a different way. I am not concerned directly with the stock price, which merely reflects the business value over the long run. I am more concerned with what causes the business value to rise. If the intrinsic value of the business rises, the stock price is bound to follow sooner or later.
What is the difference?
If you agree with my argument that the key question to ask is what increases the intrinsic value, then the focus of analysis changes completely. One is no longer concerned with the market price (which will follow intrinsic value in time), but more concerned with the fundamentals of the business.
A focus on business value means that one is now concerned with the economics of the business, the competitive dynamics of the industry and finally the actions of the management.
The time horizon also changes from the short (price action) to the long term (business value). The reason for this change is also due to the fact that business value does not change much from day to day and usually takes anything from a few quarters to years to change.
What causes the business value to increase?
So let’s come back to the original question and restate it as – what causes the business value to increase?
Let me put a simple hypothesis – The value of a business usually increases if the management is able to invest, incremental capital at high rates of return.
Let me explain – Let’s say a company is earning around 15% on invested capital. If the management can re-invest the profits or borrowed money (incremental capital) at 20-25% on a sustained basis (say 5-8 yrs), intrinsic value is bound to increase and the stock price will follow in due course of time.
In the above example, if the management can re-invest at these high rates through new or existing businesses, then growth (which is what almost everyone is focused on) will follow automatically. Growth thus becomes a derivative of high rates of re-investment.
Examples of the value creators
Let try to understand the implication of the above hypothesis for various types of companies and see if it matches with reality.
Let’s look at the case of a few highly successful companies such as Hero Honda motors (10 yr CAGR = 34%) and HDFC (10 yr CAGR = 29.1%).
HDFC bank has maintained an average ROE in excess of 16% during the last 10 years and has grown its book value (which is a good proxy for intrinsic value) at the rate of 23% during the same period. The overall stock returns have followed this growth in book value, with a small delta coming through an increase in valuations (PE ratio).
The company has re-invested almost 75% of the profits (dividend payout is 25%) at high rates of return and thus increased the intrinsic value of the business
Hero Honda has an effective Return on capital of 100% or higher in its core business. It is very very difficult to re-invest all the profits back into the business at such high rates of return. The company has paid out a dividend of around 65% of its profits and re-invested the rest into the business or held it as cash equivalents on its books.
Any business which can earn such stupendous rates of return on capital and re-invest even part of it at such high rates is likely to increase the intrinsic value of the business.
The value destroyers
The second group of companies are those which have a high return on capital, are not able to re-invest the profits at high returns but have chosen to retain this capital and invest it into low yielding deposits or mutual funds. These type of companies are actually destroying value as they are retaining the excess capital and ‘re-investing’ it at low rates.
The market clearly dislikes these type of companies and tends to give them a low valuation. An example which come to mind is a company like Cheviot Company. These type of companies have above average rates of return in their core business, but choose to hold back majority of the profits on their balance sheet in low yielding deposits. These companies are value traps (in which yours truly has invested in the past)
The final group of companies are those which earn a low rate of return and tend to re- invest all the incremental capital at these low rates of return. This would include most of the commodity companies in sectors such as cement, steel, sugar etc. These companies destroy value as they grow and hence never get decent valuations in the stock market. For example, pickup any sugar company and look at their 5 and 10 year returns. Investors have lost money over a 5 to 10 year period in these companies.
Does the hypothesis help in picking stocks?
The above proposition does not help one in picking the next multi-bagger. Although it is easy to see which company performed well in hindsight, returns come from being able to identify which company will do well in the future and then buy it at a reasonable price.
Inspite of this limitation, the above thought process helps one to avoid a certain set of companies. Not losing money is half the battle in the stock market.
If one has a 3-5 year time horizon, then it is important to avoid companies which are likely to destroy value by re-investing at low rates of return – in the core business or by just holding the cash.