Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Average Earnings Can Be Useless

For various reasons, value investors are encouraged to use an average of several years worth of earnings as an estimate of a company's earnings power. But when a company grows quickly (e.g. through the acquisition of a competitor), average earnings are no longer representative of earnings power. In such cases, other methods of estimating a company's earnings may be more useful.

Consider Canam Group (CAM), a company that went on a bit of a buying spree when the recession began. As competitors have been shutting down units to conserve cash, Canam has been strategically purchasing competitor plants at attractive prices. As many industries are currently at overcapacity, the benefits of these acquisitions won't be seen for years. But the costs of these acquisitions (i.e. the cash used to finance the purchases) are seen immediately. How does one value the fact that future earnings will be higher than past earnings?

One method applicable to manufacturing companies is based on a company's historical return on its fixed assets. If similar assets to the company's current assets have been purchased, the company may be expected to generate the same type of returns on those fixed assets that it generated over the last business cycle. Of course, this exercise only results in a starting point for estimating future earnings. Adjustments may have to be made based on the age of the assets acquired, their quality, and a whole slew of other factors (e.g. geography).

When times are good, companies will often fall over themselves in bidding wars to acquire potential targets or business units. Value investors realize, however, that the best time for companies to acquire such assets is when business conditions are poor (financing in general is hard to come by, there is overcapacity in many industries, and sellers are desperate to raise cash), due to the great price discounts that are available.

This recession has offered many companies with great balance sheets the opportunity for future growth at excellent prices. However, valuing these companies is a challenge. Using past, average earnings (as is often advocated for value investors) would be inadequate, since an acquiring company's earnings power is now greater than its past earnings have shown. Estimating earnings power based on a return-on-fixed-assets measure may provide better accuracy, leading to more profitable investment decisions.

In a similar vein, we have previously discussed using this method when a company has reduced its capacity in this recession, as in this case, average earnings of the past would overestimate the company's earnings power.

Disclosure: Author has a long position in shares of CAM


tscott said...

Great article Saj, everybody seems to forget that cycles are cyclical!

I still like ADF group (CN:DRX) to Canam due to their niche product segment and stronger balance sheet. Although the dual shares are annoying, but management is prudent with their cash and waiting out the storm.

Richard Beddard said...

Hi Saj, I've been thinking about this and something bothers me. Let's say the company uses cash to acquire assets. Shouldn't return on assets increase because it's now in productive assets as opposed to unproductive ones. So past ROA is an imperfect guide to future earnings (although it might be better than past earnings).

Saj Karsan said...

Hi Richard,

Yes I'd agree that in that case, return on assets would increase. But return on FIXED assets (e.g. capital assets) may be a better starting point.