Blind Stock Valuation #2: Wal-Mart (WMT) – 1981

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Jun 04, 2012
Back on May 16, I posted a blind stock valuation. That’s where I give you financial data without a company name. You then try to value the business purely on the financials.

I told you I also lied about a single, identifying characteristic of the stock.

Based on the title of this article, you’ve probably already guessed that the company I had you valuing “blind” was Wal-Mart (WMT, Financial). And that the single identifying detail I lied about was time. I gave you financials that I said were for the years 2001 through 2011. That was a lie. They were for 1971 through 1981. If you had known that, you would’ve known the stock was Wal-Mart.

In the emails people sent me no one guessed I had lied about the years and no one guessed this was Wal-Mart. So, the email responders really were valuing the stock blind.

By far the most common intrinsic value estimate for the stock was $30 to $35 a share – at least two-thirds of the responses I got fell almost exactly into this narrow range.

Which was a big disappointment.

This is a value investing site. So I should expect that kind of valuation approach. But it’s also a Guru site – some place where folks who adore Warren Buffett come – and I doubt Warren Buffett would’ve valued Wal-Mart as cheaply as you guys did. He might not have paid $30 or $35 a share for the stock. But in many of the blind stock valuations I was sent – neither would you. Many people responded that they would value this unknown stock – which we now know is Wal-Mart of the early 1980s – at 15 times earnings and would want to buy it around 10 times earnings.

I admire the frugality of those responses. And perhaps – if you buy few enough stocks (say, one a year) – there is no problem with never being willing to pay a double-digit P/E ratio yourself. But there is something very wrong with believing that a stock – whatever you may be willing to pay for it – is actually never worth more than 15 times earnings.

Now, of course, nobody said a stock is never worth more than 15 times earnings. People talked about how – if this growth rate was sustained – mathematically you could argue the stock was worth 30 times earnings.

Sure. But that’s the least interesting thing you can say about the stock. There is one point about growth where I think Warren Buffett and Ben Graham are largely in agreement:

Growth is best viewed as a qualitative rather than a quantitative factor.

I’ve talked a little about this in the past with Warren Buffett and especially Coca-Cola (KO).

I said what Warren Buffett – and Charlie Munger – have said many times. That where Coca-Cola had been introduced in countless different countries on several different continents, it had seen increases in per capita consumption. This was not a secret. Coca-Cola has shown decade by decade consumption per capita data for various countries in the past.

In recent years, you’ve seen this trend top out in some very highly developed countries that have had Coke for a long, long time.

Buffett has also said – and even made a point of saying that other people keep ignoring this fact – that Coke is a cola. And cola has no taste memory. You can drink a lot of it. Without getting sick of it.

Buffett should know. Before buying stock in Coca-Cola, he had been a long-time drinker of large amounts of Pepsi. Probably something like 6 cans a day. And he didn’t get sick of it.

The key to Buffett’s investment in Coca-Cola – his margin of safety – was repeatability. You didn’t have to sell people again on Coke. If they drank it yesterday they would drink it today. And if historically it had been true that wherever you introduced Coca-Cola, whether it was the U.S., Mexico, Italy, Malta, or any other country – people were drinking more and more of it, then you could count on growth. It was inevitable. Coca-Cola didn’t have to break into new countries. It wanted to. And Buffett hoped it would. All it had to do was sell more Coke per capita. And Buffett was sure Coke could do that. And that Coke’s margins on those customers were stable. In other words, there would be reliable growth and it would be profitable growth.

I’ve actually talked to a few people who don’t believe this explanation. There must have been more to Buffett’s Coca-Cola investment.

Sure. There were 2 other things:

· They sold non-core assets (they re-focused)

· They were buying back stock

Anytime you’ve got:

· A repeatable formula for success

· Focus

· And share buybacks

You’re going to get Warren’s attention.

The key to Buffett’s investment in Coca-Cola was that he knew there would be reliable growth and it would be profitable, reliable growth.

At 9 out of 10 companies this is not true. Most companies can’t rely on growth. And those that can rely on growth certainly can’t rely on profitable growth.

I’ve talked about the TV business before. Everybody knew TV was going to take off after World War 2. In a couple decades it had done so in the most amazing way. And by the 1970s, almost anyone who had been involved in the TV business – even those who had been the leaders – were looking for someplace to hide. Some niche of growth and profits away from the commodity product.

Now that might sound like a cautionary tale of how growth plays out and how you have to scoot fast when it does. In 1950, TVs are exciting. The industry grows. By 1970, you have to get out of the business. Well, at least it was nice while it lasted.

Except it wasn’t nice.

Not for most of the players. It’s not like 40 different companies are going to make a lot of money on TV sets even if the market is growing from almost 0% of the population to almost 100% in a couple decades.

It’s still going to be the case that only a few players will make any money. It’s not unusual in any market for the top 2 or 3 companies alone to share all of the economic profits. Some other guys may make their cost of capital. But I can’t think of many businesses with direct competition between the players where more than 3 of them are earning more than their cost of capital and still growing.

Some industries look that way. But they are usually a bit of a mirage. I’ve mentioned advertising agencies before. They – like other client based businesses – can sometimes have very different economics between existing and potential customers. It’s one thing to say more than 3 advertising agencies can co-exist with all of them earning their cost of capital and growing – at the same pace as their existing clients’ advertising spending. That’s entirely believable. When you get into winning new business – I wonder if the economics are anything like the company wide returns on capital we see.

In any business where you have high retention rates, the economics of keeping current clients may support a lot more than 3 companies in the same industry growing at the same speed as GDP or faster while earning their cost of capital.

But those kinds of markets are pretty rare. And even in those markets, there was often delayed direct competition between some of the players – they were able to mature in different places and only came into direct competition later after their period of fastest growth.

What does this have to do with Wal-Mart in 1981?

Seeing 10 years of financial data tells you a lot more than seeing just one year of earnings data. And yet most estimates were no different than if I had shown you just Wal-Mart’s earnings from last year.

The first thing to do when you’re given a growth rate is not geometry. It’s biology. How is this happening? How can a company grow 43% a year over 10 years?

Now, yes – this was a high inflation environment. But we are still talking about at least a 30% compound rate of real sales growth over 10 years. That’s unbelievable.

You would think it was some hit product or something – maybe technological. But it’s obvious from the mystery stock’s margins that isn’t true. It can’t be something like that.

Let’s look at Wal-Mart’s gross margins from 1971-1981 and Apple’s gross margins over the last 10 years:

Wal-Mart (Then) Apple (Now)
Year 1 26% 28%
Year 2 25% 28%
Year 3 25% 27%
Year 4 26% 29%
Year 5 25% 34%
Year 6 26% 34%
Year 7 26% 40%
Year 8 26% 39%
Year 9 26% 41%
Year 10 26% 47%

Wal-Mart did the same thing year after year. Apple did something different. It’s not just a matter of the technology involved. It’s a matter of the competitive environment.

Wal-Mart earned very good returns on capital growing very quickly in the 1970s. It did it without changes in the gross margin. The demand situation for the company’s business really didn’t change. The company controlled its own destiny and moved out from one local market to the next – dominating the competition. It was just a superior predator hopping from island to island and upsetting the locals – causing extinctions.

Apple is a phenomenon. You don’t even need to know anything about either business – and certainly you don’t need to see their names – to see how different these two operations are. Not just today. But even when Wal-Mart was in its fastest growth phase – it was qualitatively a totally different kind of growth than Apple has experienced over the past 10 years.

Is boiling growth down from 10-year data that shows the richness of a whole business system into just a single compound rate really a good idea.

That’s why I say it’s more about growth in biological terms rather than geometric terms.

If I had shown you a blind stock valuation of Apple – and you came back with the kind of response many people gave for Wal-Mart, that would’ve made more sense to me. Because the business that emerges at the end of Apple’s last 10 year run has zero resemblance to the business that began that 10-year run.

But the blind stock valuation of Wal-Mart actually shows how remarkably similar the business is over 10 years. It’s just repeating this pattern of insanely fast growth. But that isn’t fundamentally changing the business. Many of the ratios you would expect to be thrown completely out of whack in a period of fast growth – actually stay pretty stable through Wal-Mart’s run. It’s like the company is doing the same thing over and over and over.

You can see that in the blind stock valuation. You don’t need the company’s name. The numbers tell you that. The stability over 10 years – with every number growing like bacteria – tells you this is a business based on some sort of reliable replication.

Now, sure, something might come in and disrupt the business. Every business faces that risk.

There used to be cougars across all of what is today the United States. At that time, their biggest competitor was probably the wolf. Well, suddenly some folks from Europe came over – reproduced like rabbits – and spread out across the continent killing those cougars off pretty bad and their biggest enemy – the wolf – off even worse.

That happens. And I’m not asking anyone to have the amazing predictive powers required to short Cougars while The Mayflower is still in transit. You wouldn’t know what questions to ask. You’d say “Will there be more wolves or fewer wolves in 400 years?”

And I’d say: “Hardly any. A couple tiny dots on the map. Isolated. Nothing to worry about.”

And you’d think it looked pretty good for cougars. Because you couldn’t see any other threats on the horizon and I just told you a big competitor would be almost entirely eliminated.

That stuff is too hard to guess. You can’t be expected to predict European colonization before it happens. Big changes like that are outside our view. And we’re always going to be blindsided by them.

Likewise, some complications are hard to figure out. A lot of times something changes in ways that both helps and hurts one of the players – in a bunch of different ways all at once that will trigger chains of events that are just about impossible to understand until you can watch them play out for a while.

In the cougar, wolf, human example in North America – deer are the ones that would be really hard to figure out.

It’s way too hard to guess if deer are going to be a bigger or smaller population in the U.S. as the human population exploded because while people eat deer they fear the things that eat deer.

So, yes, we know cougars and wolves will be completely removed from some places. But do we know if people will hunt deer there to extinction. Or will they leave some be. And if they do, won’t those deer have a lot less to worry about.

You can try to figure these things out. But it’s usually too hard. When you’ve got that much change – analysis is going to be impotent. The place where analysis is most powerful is where you have a lack of change – where both the historical record and your understanding of the reasons for that record support a clear view of the future looking a lot like the past.

No one can guess the fall out from a lot of change ahead of time. No one is saying you have to foresee what Amazon (AMZN, Financial) would become to understand Wal-Mart. All you have to do is recognize changes after they’ve happened. Not predict them ahead of time.

No one is even saying you had to foresee what Sam Walton would build. I only asked for a blind stock valuation of Wal-Mart after it had been a public company for a full decade. After it had $1.6 billion in sales. It was hardly a start up at that point.

The important thing is not to fixate on a couple numbers in isolation. I don’t really want you to do future projections using the past growth rate. Nothing is going to grow in the future as it did in the past.

But something that grew over 30% a year over the last 10 years – while earning a decent return on assets – and having a gross margin that barely budged in any year, is something strange. It is nothing like Apple. It is clearly something that is repeating the same maneuver over and over again.

Yes, you need to see what that maneuver is. Maybe if it’s a for profit education stock – maybe you think it’s not a sustainable maneuver. That’s fine. And I wouldn’t fault anyone for saying you need to really investigate the durability of this company’s competitive advantage.

But there’s no doubt this company had a competitive advantage. And there’s no doubt it endured for 10 years. You can’t post the kind of results Wal-Mart did through the 1970s while switching strategies. You have to have one thing going for you. And it had to be the same thing for the whole decade.

Now, some people did a wonderful job with this blind stock valuation. I got several emails from folks who immediately recognized this had to be a retailer. The gross margins were obviously a huge tip-off. They were low. And they were unbelievably steady. And yet the company was growing super fast. It’s hard to imagine anything other than a retailer that could be doing that.

Thanks to everyone who sent in an intrinsic value estimate. And especially to people who emailed me their analysis of the stock.

The one thing I’d like to stress for everyone – is that you can do more to learn about competitive advantages just from the financial statements. You don’t just read financial statements to find out what earnings, book value, and EBITDA is so you can slap a multiple on that.

With 10 years of financial data, you should be able to learn a lot more about the business.

Warren Buffett has said that he used to do all the Phil Fisher type scuttlebutt work on competitive advantages when he was younger. But now he mostly gets it all from reading. Especially from reading the SEC reports.

He does that by letting numbers tell him a lot more than just growth rates and earnings multiples. He looks at things like the 10-year record of gross margins. He looks at things like how cheaply Wells Fargo is getting its deposits. These things are right there in the reports.

Financial statements tell a story.

Accounting is the language of business. And a lot of the description of a company and its competitive advantages isn’t in magazine articles and CEO interviews and business descriptions – its right in the balance sheet, income statement, and statement of cash flows.

Especially when you can line up 10 years’ worth of those statements and see how they relate to each other – there’s a lot of business description in the financial data.

Usually, a good analysis of a competitive position depends on combining what you see in those statements with some stuff that isn’t in the statements. But it rarely comes just from stuff that isn’t in the statements.

So even when you get a 10 year financial summary without a company name, industry, etc. – you can still start by looking at it like a business analyst not just a stock analyst.

By the way, here are Wal-Mart’s annual reports for the last 40 years.


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