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Consider This Before Betting the Farm on Deere

August 17, 2014 | About:

It's hardly a secret for anyone. Since Deere has fallen to about 10 times forward earnings, it has become a darling in the value investors' community. The business generates tremendous returns on shareholder's equity, they boast industry-leading margins, they constantly spit out generous cash flows, the dividend is great, they were in business before John Rockefeller was even born, the brand is everywhere, the stock trades at 9x TTM earnings and to top it all off, they buy back their shares massively.

An investor's dream, isn't it?

That's what I also thought at first glance. It's obvious that the stock was beaten down by the poor prospect in the commodities market. Crops yields are at record high and farmers need to cut their costs to survive through abnormally low grain prices. But that's just cyclical, as the common rational says, and over the long term, it will not matter anymore. Deere will keep sailing above its competitors.

What really struck me is how Deere is trading at about the same earning multiple as AGCO. Deere is double the size of AGCO, it has better margins, generates way higher returns on equity, enjoys economies of scale, has a better brand recognition, makes better trucks, etc.

That's when I thought I had spotted a mispricing. My first reasoning was that Deere should be trading a P/E ratio higher than AGCO's, since the two companies face the same poor macroeconomics prospects but one is better than the other for the reasons I mentionned above.

But I ran into a solid wall.

While trying to asses Deere's earning power, I ended up with a negative number. I went over the metrics all over again to make sure I hadn't made any mistake. Unfortunately, I could adjust every inputs, earning power would still be worth nothing.

How could that be? Deere definitely has a high reproduction value. A competitor would have a pretty hard time trying to replicate its distribution network and its brand recognition.

But Deere, a value destroyer? I could not believe it.

I should have, because the numbers were right (it's interesting how you never get to trust numbers completely when they tell you something that prove your intuition wrong).

Basic finance theory says that a company that cannot earn enough on it's capital to cover the cost of financing is destroying shareholders' value. Sadly, whatever brand power Deere has, it is effectively slowly destroying it's value.

Look at the ROIC.

Something should have struck you by now. Deere's return on equity is undeniably appealing for an investor. But the company cannot generate decent returns on the total capital invested in the business. Debt is the main culprit. Deere is highly leveraged when compared to AGCO (precisely 11.3x more leveraged).

Now let's compare Deere's 10 years median ROIC to it's cost of capital. Depending on the technique we use, our result would fall between 6% and 10%. I happen to think that the real figure is closer to 10% since the markets tend to be demanding towards cyclical stocks.

So we have a median ROIC of 6.3% and a COIC of about 9 to 10%. Now we know why Deere's earning power is worth nothing to investors. If a typical investor demands at least 9% to invest in the stock market, common sense would tell him to not invest in Deere since the company can only generate about 6 to 7% on an investor's capital.

Unless this investor is an equity investor. Thanks to it's massive debt load and since equity represents only a tiny part of Deere's total capital, the company can transform it's ROIC of 6.3% into a ROE of 33.5%. If Deere was to repay all of the debt it holds, it's return on shareholder's equity would fall pretty much to the same level as the ROIC.

Running a Dupont analysis will confirm our thoughts.

Except for 2009 (which we don't take into account since it was a highly unusual year), the return on equity is purely driven by the equity multiplier (a.k.a. leverage). Both the asset turnover and the profit margins don't seem to have a huge effect on ROE.

It is kind of counterintuitive to think that Deere is an attractive investment because it is highly indebted. If you take off the debt, the investment becomes suddenly way less attractive. (I am certainly not the only one, but my mom always told me that debt was bad).

I am not saying that one should not invest in Deere. But if we do, we need to be aware that the major part of the upside does not stem from the wonderful nature of the business. Leverage is what makes the potential move attractive. If everything goes well for Deere in the upcoming years, an investor could be handsomely rewarded. But the opposite is also true. If the slump in the commodities market turns out even worse than it is right now and Deere runs into more serious trouble, investors could get pinched.

If you are looking for a value generator in the agricultural industry without the volatility of leverage, take a look into AGCO. They may be low profile, but the firm generates better returns on capital than Deere and it outpaces its own cost of capital.

Now we know that a strong brand recognition does not rhyme with value creation.

Note (On October 7th, 2014): After reflexion. I now realize how wrong I was in my analysis. I deeply failed to fundamentally understand Deere & Co. I should have asked myself more questions about what was happening behind the numbers. I should have dug deeper.

A big part of Deere is effectively a financial company. It is impossible to analyze the manufacturing business and the financial business together. They need to be looked at separately because their inner working are completely different.

About the author:

Investor, student, analyst at Desjardins Securities.

Rating: 3.0/5 (11 votes)



Cdvan - 3 years ago    Report SPAM

DE does not destroy value you fail to recognize some major considerations. First DE is an operating company + financial services. As such they have a much lower cost of capital as they are a psuedo bank with A credit rating, WACC would be much closer to 6% than 10%.

Finanly break out each segment individually and do the math to examine their merits (2013 numbers).

Operations (29.8b assets, 19.6 liabilities, 10.2677 equity) Sales 35.6B EBIT 5.11 B Net Income 2.9736 B. This means an ROE of 29%, ROA of 10%, and a ROIC of 23.5% based upon Invested Capital of 21.78B. Also Net income margin of 8.3% and op margin of ~13%. That doesn't sound to bad to me.

Financing (38.646 B assets, 34.2882 B liabilities, 4.357 B equity) Sales 2.5689B, EBIT 1.36 B, and NI of .5639 B. Op margin ~33.8% and NI of 21.9%. ROE of 12.95%, ROA of 1.46%, and an equity/assets ratio of 11.27%.

Those numbers are not the sign of a struggling company or one that destroys shareholder value. It is quite the opposite if you ask me as it is a decent bank that is well capitalized and an operations that is to die for. Debt adds significant value in this situation.

Charlesmatte - 3 years ago    Report SPAM

I agree that Deere is far from being a struggling company. Your are completely right. The point of the article was to show that Deere is not the company it appears to be at first glance. Like you said, it looks more like a bank than a machinery company like AGCO. They're two different beasts.

It is leveraged, and that's the nature of Deere's shareholder's return.

I wouldn't say that debt adds value in this situation. Debt never adds value. It enhances the return on capital. Deere (as its the case with almost every financial institution) benefits form the stable nature of the cost of debt, so they can afford to earn a tight spred between the ROIC and the COC. Because it's levered it translates into a high ROE.

Cdvan - 3 years ago    Report SPAM

Leverage provides tremendous value and this case and point. If I can borrow capital at say 6-8% and invest it into my business at 23.5% ROIC then you should take as much money as you can to invest at that rate. To your other point debt does not boost return on capital and in many cases it lowers your ROIC as you have more cash to invest at potentially lower returns as you have used up your low hanging fruit. It doesn't matter if the dollar comes from equity or liabilities that does not change ROIC. ROE becomes levered not ROIC. Even at the bottom of the reccession their financing company made money, now if you ask me when a highly levered financial can make money during a reccession that ain't to bad.

Finally look at the margin difference between AGCO and DE. NI is in the lower 5% range for AGCO and DE operations is over 8% currently (closer to peak than trough margins for both). Finally look at ROIC which for AGCO is actually pretty decent and is in mid teens %. which is better than a lot of companies. I am not saying AGCO is a poor investment by any means I am just pointing out the value of low cost debt in a high ROIC company.

Cdvan - 3 years ago    Report SPAM

Should also point out the ROE of operations in 2009 was 14% and ROIC about 10% when NI margin was 3.2%. Now it is 29% ROE and 8.35% NI margin and ROIC 23.5%. Margin does help drive roe as is evident much like any other company.

Finacing likewise went from an ROE/ROA of ~6.2%/~.75% to ~12.95%/~1.45%.

Arbuge - 3 years ago    Report SPAM

The author fundamentally misunderstands Deere. The high debt load is due solely to the financing business attached to Deere, and is not related otherwise to the their normal business operations. Going after Deere for its high debt load would be akin to going after Bank of America (or any bank) for its high leverage. In Deere's case that debt is pretty safe too, since by definition it's collateralized by the stuff that Deere sells.

Lala123 - 3 years ago    Report SPAM

As has been made perfectly clear by now, the author has made the mistake of not separating out the financial services division.

One slight addition to the point would be that AGCO does indeed have a funding arm like Deere's financial services division however it is in the form of a jv with Rabobank which they own 49% of. Therefore they do not have to consolidate it. As such the second mistake is that the two are not comparable if looking at group consolidated financials.

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