My Vale missteps illuminated for me some of the risks of going where it is darkest, but I will not let them stop me from trying again. This time, my focus is Volkswagen, a company that has, over the course of a month, gone from being just another mature company in a bad business (automobiles) to one beset on all sides by governments, lawyers and investors. In this case, though, unlike Vale and Lukoil, much of the uncertainty comes from self-inflicted wounds and as its stock price drops, it is worth looking at whether the market reaction has been overdone.

The setting

For the last decade, Volkswagen has worked hard to make itself a global automobile giant. Last year, the company was the leading auto company in the world, in terms of revenues, and second only to Toyota in units sold. In the US, it has a much lower profile, with a market share in the low single digits.

Volkswagen

The company has been able to weather the 2008 crisis well, and has seen revenues and earnings climb, albeit at the moderate levels that befit a mature automobile company.

Volkswagen
Source: S&P Capital IQ, Data

[drizzle]The company’s operating margin of 6.07% in the last twelve months (ending June 30, 2015) was higher than its historical average margin of 4.21%. During the period, the Volkswagen auto offerings have expanded to include not only Audi and Skoda but also luxury brands including Bentley, Lamborghini, Porsche and Bugatti.

The Scandal, The Stock Price and Knee Jerk Contrarianism

In the last few weeks, the wheels have come off the Volkswagen bus. The trigger was a revelation that VW had designed the computer software on its diesel automobiles to fool the EPA, when it was testing for emissions; this BBC story explains it well. Once the story became public, Volkswagen admitted that it had screwed up big time, its CEO resigned, a whole host of top managers lost their jobs and Volkswagen’s stock price collapsed, losing almost 40% of its value in the last month.

Volkswagen

While both the ordinary and preferred shares have collapsed, the preferred shares seem to have taken more of a beating; the ordinary shares that used to trade at par with the preferred now trade at a premium of about 8% (and I will take more about this later in this post)

There is no doubt that this is more than a tempest in a  teapot, and that that there will be consequences, but are the consequences dire enough to cause a loss of more than 30 billion Euros in market capitalization? That remains the key question, as investors who are attracted to beaten up stocks look at Volkswagen. A knee jerk contrarian strategy may argue that history and empirical evidence is on your side and push for investment in Volkswagen now, but I am wary of using average returns from past studies, often based upon large samples of companies, to justify investing in one company that meets the criteria.

The Costs

In the aftermath of Volkwagen’s revelations, the news media have turned their full attention to the company’s foibles, real and made up, with a skew towards putting the worst possible spin on the company’s actions. Thus, the fact that the company has close ties to German lawmakers is viewed as a sign of the company’s moral turpitude, as if other auto makers do not have their own stables of legislators pushing for preferential treatment.  Thus, the first step in assessing the impact of this scandal on Volkswagen is separating the wheat from the chaff, or in Nate Silver’s words, the signal from the noise. It is quite clear that this scandal is going to cost Volkswagen, in many different arenas, starting with penalties being imposed by governments and regulators for the deception, continuing with the costs of recalling and fixing the cars and expanding to cover lost sales, as potential customers switch to competing car companies.

  1. The Legal Penalties: There is no question that there are legal penalties coming, with Volkswagen already setting aside $7.3 billion (6.5 billion Euros) to cover the fines/penalties it will face, and the EPA’s potential fines could expand to $18 billion. There is talk in Europe of similar penalties being meted out by European governments, which will add to the cost.
  2. Auto Recall Costs/ Legal Costs: It is estimated that Volkswagen has about 11 million vehicles that it might have to recall and refit, and that will be costly. Not surprisingly, talk of lawsuits fill the air, with both European and American shareholders considering suing the company for damages; even if the company wins all of these suits, it will be paying hefty legal fees along the way.
  3. Lost Sales/Operating Income: There is also talk of lost trust and tarnished brand names, but these remain PR buzzwords until they start showing up in lost sales/profits. Unlike the BP or GM scandals, where lives were lost, the impact of this scandal is more diffuse, though the New York Times segued into this argument (a little far fetched) that the cheating could have cost lives.

At the moment, the magnitude of these costs is still murky, but waiting for them to be clearer, as some investors seem to be doing, is an investment cop out. The market is already imputing a cost , and investors who want to invest in Volkswagen have no choice but to make their own judgments on whether the market imputed cost is too high (in which case Volkswagen becomes a buy), just right or too low (Volkswagen will be over valued).

I know that the cases are dissimilar, but to get a measure of what a scandal can cost an auto company, I looked at Toyota’s experiences in 2010 with faulty gas pedals, the press coverage and controversy and the subsequent costs to the company.

Toyota Volkswagen
The Scandal Gas pedals stuck, causing acceleration & accidents. Computer software fooled EPA on emissions tests, reporting emissions at lower than actual level.
Deaths/Fatalities 37* (NHSTA) None
Number of cars affected 9 million 11 million
EPA fines/ Government Penalties $1.2 billion VW set aside $7.3 billion
EPA maximum fine $18 billion
Auto Recall Costs & Car Owner lawsuits $1.1 billion If proportional to number of cars, $1.34 billion.
Shareholder lawsuits $25.5 million Lawsuits being considering in both US and Europe.
Effect on Revenues/Operations Revenues dropped from $19.1 billion in 2009 to $17.8 billion in 2010 and stayed about that level through 2011 and 2012, before rebounding to $21 billion in 2013. Not known yet
Effect on stock price Market Cap dropped 20% between 2009 and 2012, but rebounded in 2013. Market capitalization down 40% in month since story broke

The Valuation

To evaluate how this scandal affects Volkswagen’s value as a company, I will adopt a two-step process. In the first, I will go back a month and value Volkswagen before the revelations, but to isolate the effect of the scandal, I will assume that the market capitalization a month ago (on August 31) was right and back out the operating income that the market was imputing in the stock price. In the second, I will make judgments on the extent of the costs, with a

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