Are you a value investor? If you said “yes,” how would you feel about buying an $18 stock with a P/E (Price/Earnings) ratio of greater than 100x and a Price/Sales ratio of 14x for a company that three years earlier was started in a garage? This may not sound like a value stock, but had you bought this stock at the initial public offering (IPO), it would have been a screaming bargain – priced at less than 1x P/E ratio, based on this year’s earnings estimates.
You may be surprised to know, this company with a meager $18 IPO share price is now worth $9,192 per share today (if you adjust for three stock splits)! Yes, that’s correct, a +50,900% return. If you are wondering to which stock I’m referring, I am talking about Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN). Incredibly, ever since Amazon went public in 1997, the CEO Jeff Bezos has managed to command the start-up e-commerce company from $31 million in revenues to $121 billion (with a “b”) on an annual basis in 2016 (a +389,000% increase).
Discovering the next IPO that turns into a $363 billion behemoth is easier said than done, and unfortunately these types of companies are a rare breed. Even if you are lucky enough to identify these diamonds-in-the-rough, early in their growth cycle, very few investors have the fortitude and discipline to continually own the stocks through the perpetual volatility (i.e., peaks and valleys).
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The good news is, although you may be unable to find every unicorn out there, you can still apply the same principles and characteristics to any growth stock you invest in. In order to prudently achieve outsized returns, one must identify innovative market leaders that have gained some type of sustainable competitive advantage, which will serve as the profit and cash flow growth engine for the stock over the long-term.
If a company does not have a unique advantage over industry competitors, they will likely be unable to compound earnings growth – the key to becoming a big winner. Albert Einstein, Nobel Prize winner is credited with identifying compounding as the “eighth wonder of the world,” and without compounding there will be no gigantic results.
Amazon may be a rare breed, but there are plenty of other examples of so-called “expensive” stocks that get dismissed or fall through the cracks as they explode in value to the stratosphere. Consider Starbucks Corp. (SBUX), which at the time of its IPO in 1992 was priced at a very rich P/E of 52x. Sound expensive? Actually, this was a greatest offer in a generation. Adjusted for stock splits, the IPO shares were valued at $0.27 – in the most recent trading session Starbucks shares closed at $55.90, a +20,600% increase. Similar to Amazon, had you purchased Starbucks shares at the IPO price, you would have been paying less than a measly, eye-popping 1x P/E ratio based on 2016 earnings.
Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL), formerly Google Inc., is another case of growth stock appearing pricey on the outside, but really a value of a lifetime on the inside. The hype surrounding the Google IPO was so palpable in 2004, the stock priced at a relatively nose-bleed level of 60x P/E level, approximately. The unconventional auction bidding method to buy the initial shares made investors even more skeptical. Suffice it to say, the greater than +1,600% gain has once again shown that investors can reap handsome rewards, if they do thorough enough due diligence and ignore the illusory big ticket IPO prices.
What most investors fail to realize is that P/E ratios are temporary. By purchasing a growth stock, the numerator of the P/E ratio (price) becomes static or fixed. As earnings of a growth company expand, the stock becomes cheaper by the day. More specifically, the numerator of the P/E (price) is flat, while the denominator (earnings) grows, thereby making the P/E ratio smaller (cheaper). And as you can see from the few previous examples I have provided, if you are able to identify winners, and hold them long enough, you will eventually realize the initial hefty price tag at purchase will be considered almost free after all the earnings compounding.
Legendary growth investor Peter Lynch summed it up concisely when he noted, “People concentrate too much on the P, but the E really makes the difference.” Lynch goes on to highlight the importance of patience in growth investing because stocks often go down or move sideways for long periods of time before dramatic increases occur:
“My best stocks performed in the 3rd year, 4th year, 5th year, not in the 3rd week or 4th week.”
I’ve illustrated a few successful examples of meteoric growth stocks, but more importantly the misconception many investors place on the current P/E ratio. There still is no substitute for hard-nosed, detailed fundamental research for finding big growth winners, because true growth stocks bought and held for a long enough period, will become cheaper by the day. If you don’t have the time, discipline, or patience to execute this winning strategy, find and hire an experienced investment manager who understands these concepts.