Why The P/E Ratio Does Not Always Matter But Cash Flow Is Crucial

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Would you pay a P/E ratio (Price-Earnings) of 1x’s future earnings for a dominant market share leading franchise that is revolutionizing the digital industry and growing earnings at an +83% compounded annual growth rate? Or how about shelling out 3x’s future profits for a company with ambitions of taking over the global internet advertising and commerce industries while expanding earnings at an explosive +51% clip? If you were capable of identifying Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Google Inc. (GOOG) as investment ideas in 2004, you would have made approximately +2,000% and +600%, respectively, over the following six years. I know looking out years into the future can be a lot to ask for in a world of high frequency traders and stock renters, but rather than focusing on daily jobless claims and natural gas inventory numbers, there are actual ways to accumulate massive gains on stocks without fixating on traditional trailing P/E ratios.

At the time in 2004, Apple and Google were trading at what seemed like very expensive mid-30s P/E ratios (currently the S&P 500 index is trading around 15x’s trailing profits) before these stocks made their explosive, multi-hundred-percent upward price moves. What seemingly appeared like expensive rip-offs back then – Apple traded at a 37x P/E ($15/$0.41) and Google 34x P/E ($85/$2.51) – were actually bargains of a lifetime. The fact that Apple’s share price appreciated from $15 to $347 and Google’s $85 to $538, hammers home the point that analyzing trailing P/E ratios alone can be hazardous to your stock-picking health.

Why P/Es Don’t Matter

In William O’Neil’s book, How to Make Money in Stocks he comes to the conclusion that analyzing P/E ratios is worthless:

Our ongoing analysis of the most successful stocks from 1880 to the present show that, contrary to most investors beliefs, P/E ratios were not a relevant factor in price movement and have very little to do with whether a stock should be bought or sold. Much more crucial, we found, was the percentage increase in earnings per share.

Here is what O’Neil’s data shows:

  • From 1953 – 1985 the best performing stocks traded at a P/E ratio of 20x at the early stages of price appreciation versus an average P/E ratio of 15x for the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the same period. The largest winners saw their P/E multiples expand by 125% to 45x.
  • From 1990 – 1995, the leading stocks saw their P/E ratios more than double from an average of 36 to the 80s. Once again, O’Neil explains why you need to pay a premium to play with the market leading stocks.

You Get What You Pay For

When something is dirt cheap, many times that’s because what you are buying is dirt. Or as William O’Neil says,

You can’t buy a Mercedes for the price of a Chevrolet, and you can’t buy oceanfront property for the same price you’d pay for land a couple of miles inland. Everything sells for about what it’s worth at the time based on the law of supply and demand…The very best stocks, like the very best art, usually command a higher price.

Any serious investor has “value trap” scars and horror stories to share about apparently cheap stocks that seemed like bargains, only to later plummet lower in price. O’Neil uses the example of when he purchased Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC) many years ago when it traded at 4x’s earnings, and subsequently watched it fall to a P/E ratio of 2x’s earnings.

Is Your Stock a Teen or a Senior?

A mistake people often make is valuing a teen-ager company like it’s an adult company (see also the Equity Life Cycle article). If you were offered the proposition to pay somebody else an upfront lump-sum payment in exchange for a stream of their lifetime earnings, how would you analyze this proposal? Would you make a higher lump-sum payment for a 21-year-old, Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Harvard University with a 4.0 GPA, or would you pay more for an 85 year old retiree generating a few thousand dollars in monthly Social Security income? As you can imagine, the vast majority of investors would pay more for the youngster’s income because the stream of income over 65-70 years would statistically be expected to be much larger than the stream from the octogenarian. This same net present value profit stream principle applies to stocks – you will pay a higher price or P/E for the investment opportunity that has the best growth prospects.

Price Follows Earnings

At the end of the day, stock prices follow the long-term growth of earnings and cash flows, whether a stock is considered a growth stock, a value stock, or a core stock. Too often investors are myopically focused on the price action of a stock rather than the earnings profile of a company. Or as investment guru Peter Lynch states:

“People may bet on hourly wiggles of the market but it’s the earnings that waggle the wiggle long term.”

“People Concentrate too much on the P (Price), but the E (Earnings) really makes the difference.”

Correctly determining how a company can grow earnings is a more crucial factor than a trailing P/E ratio when evaluating the attractiveness of a stock’s share price.

Valuations Matter

Even if you buy into the premise that trailing P/E ratios do not matter, valuation based on future earnings and cash flows is critical. When calculating the value of a company via a discounted cash flow or net present value analysis, one does not use historical numbers, but rather future earnings and cash flow figures. So when analyzing companies with apparently sky-high valuations based on trailing twelve month P/E ratios, do yourself a favor and take a deep breath before hyperventilating, because if you want to invest in unique growth stocks it will require implementing a unique approach to evaluating P/E ratios.

Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, AAPL, and GOOG, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in NOC, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

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