Checkmate Or Stalemate? Valeant’s Fall from Investing Grace by Aswath Damodaran, Musings on Markets
In my last post, I looked at how the pharmaceutical and biotechnology businesses have diverged, especially in the last decade, and the implications for earnings, R&D and market pricing of these companies. The pharmaceutical business, in particular, faces a new landscape with many companies still stuck with a business model that does not work in delivering value, as growth eases and margins come under pressure. It is no surprise therefore that investors are looking for a drug company with a new business model, and that may explain the meteoric rise of Valeant over the five years, making its recent collapse all the more shocking.
Valeant: The Rise
The best way to illustrate Valeant’s rise in the drug business is trace its history in numbers. The graph below looks at the time line of revenues, operating income and net income from 1993 to the the last twelve months ending in September 2015:
As you can see, the inflection point is in 2010, when Valeant went from a company with small, slow-growing revenues into hyper speed, increasing revenues almost ten fold between 2010 and 2015. That increase in revenues was accompanied by increases in operating income and net income, albeit smaller in proportional terms. The story of how Valeant was able to accelerate its growth has been widely told, but the numbers again tell it better.
The growth has been driven almost entirely by acquisitions, totaling $26.4 billion since 2010. Looking closer at the 23 acquisitions that Valeant has made since 2013, the company has bought more private businesses (18 out of the 23) than public, though a very large proportion of the total cost can be accounted for with two acquisitions, one of a public company (Salix for $12.5 billion) and one of a private business (Bausch and Lomb for $8.7 billion. Valeant seems to have also paid for almost all of these acquisitions with cash, which raises the interesting follow up question of where they came up with the cash. Again, the answer is in the numbers, with the chart below providing a breakdown of funding sources during the period from 2011-2015, the peak period for Valeant’s acquisitions:
At least during this period, the market liked the Valeant business model of growth through acquisitions, and delivered its verdict by pushing up Valeant’s market capitalization and pricing multiples.
Valeant: The Fall
It is perhaps because Valeant rose so quickly from its mid-cap status to become a star that its precipitous fall has been so shocking. The decline started with a report, on October 19, on a court filing in California and picked up steam when it was highlighted on October 21 by Citron, an outfit that has long been critical of Valeant’s accounting and operating practices. That report claimed that Valeant had hidden a relationship with shadowy pharmacy entities and that it had used that relationship to cook its books. While some were quick to dismiss the report as motivated by Citron’s short position in Valeant, the report triggered scrutiny and Valeant’s initial explanations satisfied no one and the market reacted accordingly:
Recognizing that it faced a major market calamity, Valeant called a press conference on October 26, where they tried to clear the air, succeeding only in making it murkier by the time they were done. In the days since, the piling on has begun with even long time investors in the company finding aspects of the company that they had never liked. The stock price dropped below $80 per share on November 5, down more than 60% from its peak in August. In fact, things have gotten so bad that the CEO of Valeant, Michael Pearson, was forced to sell $100 million of his shares in the company to cover a margin call.
Valeant’s Business Model
The formula that Valeant used to grow exponentially, i.e., acquiring smaller companies and bringing them under one corporate umbrella, is not new, and given the mixed track record of companies that have tried it, it is not generally greeted with the rapturous response that Valeant received. To add to the puzzle, many of the investors who were drawn to the stock were from the old-time value investing crowd, with the Sequoia Fund and Bill Ackman among its biggest cheerleaders. So, what is it that attracted these presumably hard-headed investors to the Valeant business model?
- Buy low, sell high: I believe that value investors were attracted to Valeant because it seemed to adapt an old-time value investing maxim of buying “cheap and selling expensive” to the drug market. At the risk of over simplifying Valeant’s strategy, a central focus of its acquisition strategy was buying companies that owned the rights to “under priced” drugs and repricing to what the market would bear.
- Use debt capacity: One of the enduring mysteries of the drug business, where mature companies have large and stable cash flows from developed drugs, is why these companies do not borrow more to take advantage of the tax code’s tilt towards debt. As you can see from the funding pie chart above, Valeant seemed to have no qualms about using its borrowing capacity to fund its acquisitions.
- R&D is not sacred: In my last post on the drug business, I noted the reduced payoff (in growth) to R&D expenditures at pharmaceutical companies and the unwillingness on the part of these companies to draw back their R&D expenditures. Again, Valeant seemed to be one of the few companies in the business that viewed R&D like any other capital investment and scaled it back, as the payoff decreased.
- Quick conversion into earnings: Many acquisitive companies fail at converting great sounding stories into earnings, but Valeant seemed to be exception. Its acquisitions seemed to translate quickly into revenues and operating income, vindicating their strategy, though you had to take the company’s word that its acquisition-related expenses were transitional and one-time charges. As an added bonus, Valeant used its acquisition-related expenses to keep its tax bill low, getting tax credits from 2011 to 2013 and keeping its effective tax rate below 10% in the most recent twelve months.
The collapse of Valeant’s stock price has created more than the usual second guessing and rewriting of history, with some glee mixed in, given the pedigree of the investors who have lost money on the company. While my deep seated skepticism about acquisitions has meant that I was never tempted to buy Valeant, even in the good times, I understand its appeal to investors. In a business (pharmaceuticals), where inertia and denial seem to drive management decisions at most companies, Valeant looked like an outlier with a business template that worked.
I have argued in prior posts that big shifts in intrinsic value don’t come from earnings surprises or market panics, but from big changes in narrative. The question that investors (both current and potential have to ask about Valeant is whether the company narrative has been altered enough by the news stories that we are reading for it