Valeant Pharmaceuticals: From Star To Cash Cow To Dog – Damodaran by Aswath Damodaran, Musings on Markets

As an investor, would you buy shares in a company that is at the center of a political and legal firestorm? What if this company has a CEO who has lost the faith of his board and an ex-CFO who is being accused of shady financial practices? And would you pull  the buy trigger if the company has delayed its scheduled annual filing by more than two months, and by doing so is running the risk of violating debt covenants and being pushed into default? And to top it all off, would you be a little worried  if the largest investor in the stock, a well known activist with his reputation and wealth on the line, is now calling the shots? No way, you say! At the right price, I would, and that is the reason that I decided to revisit my Valeant valuation last week, six months after I valued it for the first time, in the aftermath of a crisis born of hubris and happenstance. In structuring this post, I will draw on an old-time consulting matrix, where companies were classified into stars, cash cows, dogs and question marks, to illustrate the transience of these classifications, since Valeant has cycled through the entire matrix in a year.

Valeant, the Star

Valeant’s rise from an obscure Canadian drug company to pharmaceutical star has been well chronicled and rather than drown you in prose, I think it is best captured in this picture, which shows the increase in market value (market cap and enterprise value) and operating numbers (revenues and operating income), especially between 2009 and 2015:

Valeant Pharmaceuticals

Source: S&P Capital IQ
[drizzle]During a period when other pharmaceutical companies were struggling with revenue growth and profit margins, Valeant outstripped them on both counts, growing revenues at almost 43% a year while posting higher operating profit margins than the rest of the sector. At least on the surface, the company seemed to be delivering the best of all combinations: high growth with high profitability.

So, how did Valeant pull of this feat? In an earlier post on the company, in November 2015, I argued that the Valeant business model was a stool with three legs: growth from acquisitions, with the acquisitions funded primarily with debt, followed by a strategy of increasing prices on “under priced” drugs.

Valeant Pharmaceuticals

The unique combination of growth and profitability made the company a target for value investors, making it a favored stop for investors as diverse as Bill Ackman, the activist investor, and the Sequoia Fund, a storied mutual fund, and a dominant part of their portfolios. In their defense, not only were these investors transparent about their big bets on Valeant, but at least until September 2015, their concentration was viewed as a strength rather than a weakness. In fact, when I posted on why diversification is a necessary component of even a value investing strategy, it was these two investors that were held up as a counters to my argument.

To see the allure of Valeant to value investors, let me go back to mid-year last year, when the company’s business model was going strong, its stock price was higher than $200/share and its enterprise value exceeded $100 billion. If the intrinsic value of a company is driven by cash flows from existing assets, value-creating growth and low risk, Valeant looked attractive on almost every dimension:

Valeant Pharmaceuticals

Valeant was not only delivering the value trifecta, high revenue growth in conjunction with high operating profit margins and generous excess returns, but was doing so on steroids (taking the form of low taxes and high debt). One note of caution even then, though, was that the business model was built on an architecture of acquisitions, with acquisition accounting playing a large role in pushing up operating profitability and lowering taxes.  If you were unfazed by the acquisition accounting effect and assumed that the company could continue to deliver this combination going forward, the value per share that you would have been obtained for the company would have been more than $200/share.

Valeant Pharmaceuticals Download spreadsheet
In estimating the value, I did lower the compounded revenue growth for Valeant to 12% for the next ten years, but that translates into revenues more than tripling over the decade.

From Star to Cash Cow

While many trace Valeant’s fall to September and October of 2015, when short sellers launched an assault on its links to Philidor, an online pharmacy, the business model was already under pressure in the months prior, a victim of its own financial success. The model was designed, in my view, to operate under the radar, since key parts of it (the drug pricing and acquisition accounting) would wither under exposure. While much of what Valeant did in 2010 and 2011, when the company was not a household name, went unnoticed, its actions in 2015, when it was a higher profile company, drew attention from unwelcome sources. The company’s acquisition of Salix increased the scrutiny, both because of it’s size and partly because the Salix drugs that Valeant acquired (and repriced) affected more people (and drew more complaints). The Philidor revelations pushed these concerns into hyperdrive and the stock lost almost 55% of its value in September and October, dropping from $180/share to $80/share.

In my November post, I rehashed much of this story and argued that even if Valeant were able to survive legal and regulatory scrutiny, the company would never be able to return to its old business model. In effect, even in the absence of more bad news, Valeant would have to be run like other pharmaceutical companies, reliant on R&D, rather than acquisitions, for (more anemic) growth. Removing the debt-funded acquisitions and the drug repricing  from the business model yielded a company with lower revenue growth (3% a year, rather than 12%), lower margins (a pre-tax operating margin of 43.66%, instead of 49.82%) and higher taxes (with an effective tax rate of 20% replacing 16.51%).

Valeant Pharmaceuticals

Download spreadsheet
Note that these numbers were reflective of more conventional drug companies and reflect a profitable, albeit slow-growth business. With these numbers, though, the value per share that I obtained for Valeant was about $77, down substantially from its star status, but the market price, at $82, was higher.

From Cash Cow to Dog?

If there were dark clouds on the horizon for Valeant in November 2015, the months since have only made them darker for four reasons:

  1. Information blackout: In November 2015, when I valued Valeant, I used the most recent financial filings of the company, from October 2015,  to update my numbers. Almost six months later, there have been no financial filings since, and the 10K that was expected to be filing in February 2016 was delayed, ostensibly because the company was still gathering information, and that delay has extended into April.
  2. Managerial Double talk: In
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