Rats get a bad rap for fleeing sinking ships. After all, given that survival is the strongest evolutionary impulse and that rats are not high up in the food chain, why would they not? That idiom, unfortunately, is what came to mind as I took another look at Valeant, the vessel in my investment portfolio that most closely resembles a sinking ship. This is a stock that I had little interest in, during its glory days as the ultimate value investing play, but that I took first a look at, after its precipitous fall from grace in November 2015. While I stayed away from it then, I bought it in May 2016 after it had dropped another 60% and I found it cheap enough to add to my portfolio. I then compounded my losses when I doubled my holding in October 2016, arguing that while it was, at best, an indifferently managed company in a poor business, it was under priced at $14 . With the stock trading at less than $12 (and down to $10.50, as I write this post) and its biggest investor/promoter abandoning it, there is no way that I can avert my eyes any longer from this train wreck. So, here I go!
Valeant: A Short (and Personal) History
I won’t bore you by repeating (for a third time) the story of Valeant’s fall from investment grace, which happened with stunning speed in 2015, as it went from value investing favorite to untouchable, in the matter of months. My first post, from November 2015, examined the company in the aftermath of the fall, as it was touted as a contrarian bet, trading at close to $90, down more than 50% in a few months. My belief then was that the company’s business model, built on acquisitions, debt and drug repricing was broken and that the company, if it became a more conventional drug business company, with low growth driven by R&D, was worth $73 per share. I revisited Valeant in April 2016, after the company had gone through a series of additional setbacks, with many of its wounds self inflicted and reflecting either accounting or management misplays. At the time, with the updated information I had and staying with my story of Valeant transitioning to a boring drug company, with less attractive margins, I estimated a value per share of $44, above the stock price of $33 at the time. I bought my first batch of shares. In the months that followed, Valeant’s woes continued, both in terms of operations and stock price. After it announced a revenue drop and a decline in income in an earnings report in November 2016, the stock hit $14 and I had no choice but to revisit it, with a fresh valuation. Adjusting the valuation for the new numbers (and a more pessimistic take on how long it would take for the company to make its way back to being a conventional, R&D-driven pharmaceutical company, I valued the shares at $32.50. That may have been hopeful thinking but I added to my holdings at around $14/share.
Valeant: Updating the Numbers
Since that valuation, not much has gone well for the company and its most recent earnings report suggests that its transition back to health is still hitting roadblocks. While talk of imminent default seems to have subsided, there seems to be overwhelming pessimism on the company’s operating prospects, at least in the near term. In its most recent earnings report, Valeant reported further deterioration in key numbers:
|2016 10K||2015 10K||% Change|
|Operating income or EBIT||$3,105.46||$4,550.38||-31.75%|
|Book value of equity||$3,258.00||$6,029.00||-45.96%|
|Book value of debt||$29,852.00||$31,104.00||-4.03%|
Much as I would like to believe that this decline is short term and that the stock will come back, there is now a real chance that my story for Valeant, not an optimistic and uplifting story to begin with, is now broken. The company’s growth strategy of acquiring other companies, using huge amounts of debt, raising prices on “under priced” drugs and paying as little in taxes as possible were perhaps legally defensible but they were ethically questionable and may have damaged its reputation and credibility so thoroughly that it is now unable to get back to normalcy. This can explain why the company has had so much trouble not only in getting its operations back on track but also why it has been unable to pivot to being a more traditional drug company. If researchers are leery about working in your R&D department, if every price increase you try to make faces scrutiny and push back and your credibility with markets is rock bottom, making the transition will be tough to do. It can also indirectly explain why Valeant may be having trouble selling some of its most lucrative assets, as potential buyers seem wary of the corporate taint and perhaps have lingering doubts about whether they can trust Valeant’s numbers.
In fact, the one silver lining that may emerge from this experience is that I now have the perfect example to illustrate why being a business entity that violates the norms of good corporate behavior (even if their actions legal) can destroy value. At least in sectors like health care, where the government is a leading customer and predatory pricing can lead to more than just public shaming, the Valeant story should be a cautionary note for others in the sector who may be embarking on similar paths.
The Ackman Effect
You may find it strange that I would spend this much time talking about Valeant without mentioning what may seem to be the big story about the stock, which is that Bill Ackman, long the company’s biggest investor and cheerleader and for much of the last two years, a powerful board member, has admitted defeat, selling the shares that Pershing Square (his investment vehicle) has held in Valeant for about $11 per share, representing a staggering loss of almost 90% on his investment. The reasons for my lack of response are similar to the ones that I voiced in this post, when I remained an Apple stockholders as Carl Icahn sold Apple and Warren Buffett bought the stock in April 2016. As an investor, I have to make my own judgments on whether a stock fits in my portfolio and following others (no matter how much regard I have for them) is me-too-ism, destined for failure.
Don’t get me wrong! I think Bill Ackman, notwithstanding his Valeant setbacks, is an accomplished investor whose wins outnumber his losses and when he takes a position (long or short) in a stock, I will check it out. That said, I did not buy Valeant because Ackman owned the stock and I am not selling, just because he sold. In fact, and this may seem like a stretch, it is possible that Ackman’s presence in the company and the potential veto power that he might have been exercising over big decisions may have become more of an impediment than a help as the company tries to untangle itself from its past. I am not sure how well-sourced these stories are, but there are some that suggest that it was Ackman who was the obstacle to a Salix sale last year.
Valeant: Three Outcomes
As I see it, there