I spend about 10-15% of my time crunching data. That sounds tedious but I actually enjoy this task. It forces me to pay attention to details, checking any irregularity I see in the numbers and trying to tell a story out of the numbers. My recent work on Commerce Bancshares (CBSH) led me to ponder the relationship between ROIC and long-term return.
Over the last 25 years, Commerce Bancshares averaged about a 13-14% after-tax ROE, and grew deposits by about 5.6% annually. Over the period, share count declined by about 1.9% annually, and dividend yield was about 2-2.5%. Assuming no change in multiple, a shareholder who bought and held Commerce throughout the period would receive a total return of about 9.5-10%, which is lower than its ROE. Why is that?
Chuck Akre once talked about this topic:
“Mr. Akre: What I’ve concluded is that a good investment is an investment in a company who can grow the real economic value per unit. I looked at (what) the average return on all classes of assets are and then I (discovered) that over 75-100 years that the average return on common stock is around 10%. Of course this is not the case for the past decade but over the past 75-100 years, 10% has been the average return of common stocks. But why is that?
Audience A: Reinvestment of earnings.
Audience B: GDP plus inflation.
Audience C: Growing population.
Audience D: GDP plus inflation plus dividend yield.
Audience E: Wealth creation.
Audience F: Continuity of business.
Akre: …what I concluded many years ago, which I still believe today, is that it correlates to the real return on owner’s capital. The average return on businesses has been around low double digits or high single digits. This is why common stocks have been returning around 10% because it relates to the return on owner’s capital. My conclusion is that (the) return on common stocks will be close to the ROE of the business, absent any distributions and given a constant valuation. Let’s work through an example. Say a company’s stock is selling at $10 per share, book value is $5 per share, ROE is 20%, which means earnings will be a dollar and P/E is 10 and P/B of 2. If we add the $1 earning to book value, the new book value per share is $6, keeping the valuation constant and assuming no distributions, with 20% ROE, new earnings are $1.2 per share, stock at $12, up 20% from $10, which is consistent with the 20% ROE. This calculation is simple and not perfect, but it has been helpful in terms of thinking about returns on investment. So we spend our time trying to identify businesses which have above average returns on owner’s capital.”
The restriction in Akre’s explanation is “absent any distributions.” In general, there are two sides of total return: the management side, and the investor side. Management can affect total return through ROIC, reinvestment, and acquisitions. Investors can affect total return through the price they pay and the return they can achieve on cash distributions.
The Problem of Free Cash Flow
Reinvestment into the business usually has the highest return (this post discusses only high quality businesses that have high ROIC). Problems arise when there’s free cash flow. Management must choose either to return cash to shareholders or to invest the cash themselves. Both options tend to have lower return than ROIC.
Cash distributions don’t seem to give investors a great return. Stocks often trade above 10x earnings so distributions give lower than 10% yield. In my example, Commerce Bancshares wasn’t able to reinvest all of its earnings. It retained about 40% of earnings to support 5.6% growth and returned 60% of earnings in the form of dividends and share buyback. The stock usually trades at about a 15x P/E, which is equivalent to a 6.67% yield. The retained earnings had good return, but the cash distributions had low underlying yield. The average return was just about 10%.
Unfortunately, many times returning cash to shareholders is the best choice. Hoarding cash without a true plan on using it destroys value. Expanding into an unrelated business for the sake of fully reinvesting doesn’t make sense. Similarly, acquisitions often don’t create a good return.
The problem with acquisitions is that they’re usually made at a premium so the underlying yield is likely lower than the yield that would result from share buybacks. The lower underlying yield can be offset by either sales growth or cost synergies. Studies show that assumptions about cost synergies are quite reliable while sales growth usually fails to justify the acquisition premium. To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at 3 of the biggest marketing services providers: WPP, Omnicom, and Publicis.
Omnicom is a cautious acquirer. It spends less and makes smaller acquisitions than peers. Its average acquisition size is about $25 million. Over the last 10 years, Omnicom spent only 16% of its cash flow in acquisitions while WPP and Publicis spent about 44% of their cash flow in acquisitions. Publicis is a stupid acquirer. It makes big acquisitions and usually pays 14-17x EBITDA. WPP is a smart acquirer. Like Omnicom, it prefers small acquisitions. When it did make big acquisitions, it paid a low P/S and took advantage of cost synergies. For example, it paid $1.75 billion or a 1.2x P/S ratio for Grey Global in 2005. That was a fair price as WPP was able to integrate Grey and achieve WPP’s normal EBIT margin of about 14%.
To compare value creation of these companies over the last 15 years, I looked at return on retained earnings, a measure of how much intrinsic value per share growth created by each percent of retained earnings. As these advertising companies have stable margins, sales per share is a good measure of intrinsic value. Retained earnings in this case is cash used for acquisitions and share buyback, but not for dividends.
As expected, Publicis created the least value:
It’s interesting that the smart acquirer WPP didn’t create more value than Omnicom. That’s understandable because acquisitions aren’t always available at good prices. So, it’s very difficult for management to generate a great return on free cash flow. Therefore, the value of a high-ROIC business is limited by the capacity to reinvest organically. Free cash flow tends to drag down total return to low double-digit or single-digit return.
The Investor Side of Total Return
It’s very difficult to make a high-teen return by simply relying on management. The capacity to reinvest will dissipate over time and free cash flow will drag total return down to single digit. However, there are two ways investors can improve total return.
First, investors can shrewdly invest cash distributions. When looking at capital allocation, I usually calculate the weighted average return. For example, if a company invests 1/3 of earnings in organic growth with 20% ROIC and 1/3 in acquisitions with 7% return on investment, and returns 1/3 to shareholders, how much is the total return? It depends on how well shareholders reinvest the money. If we shareholders can reinvest our dividends for a 15% return, the weighted average return is 20% * 1/3 + 7% * 1/3 + 15% * 1/3 = 14%. This number approximates the rate at which we and the management “together” can grow earnings (actually if payout rate is high, combined earnings growth will over time converge to our investment return on cash distributions.)
Second, an investor can buy stocks at a low multiple. The benefit of buying at a low multiple is twofold. It can help improve yield of earnings on the initial purchase price. It also creates chance of capital gains from selling at a higher multiple in the future.
Warren Buffett managed to make 20% annual return for decades because he was able to buy great businesses at great prices and then profitably reinvest cash flow of these businesses.
Small investors can mimic Buffett’s strategy as long as the stock they buy distributes all excess cash. They can reinvest dividends for a great return. In the case of share buybacks, they can take and reinvest the cash distribution by selling their shares proportionately to their ownership. That’s how Artal Group monetizes Weight Watchers (WTW).
Share Repurchase at Whatever Price
This discussion leads us to the topic of share repurchases. I think many investors overestimate the importance of share buyback timing. It’s nice if management buys back shares at 10x P/E instead of 20x P/E. But what if share prices are high for several years? Would investors want management to wait for years – effectively hoarding cash – to buy back stock at a low price?
Good share buyback timing can help build a good record of EPS growth but EPS growth doesn’t tell everything about value creation. It’s just one side of total return. What investors do with cash distributions is as important. So, I think management should focus more on running and making wise investments in the business and care less about how to return excess cash. I would prefer them to repurchase shares at whatever price.
By doing so, management effectively shares with investors some of the responsibilities to maximize total return. Share buyback gives investors more options. Investors must automatically pay tax on dividends but they can delay paying tax by not selling any shares at all. If they want to get some dividends, they can sell some shares and pay tax only on the capital gain from selling these shares instead of on the whole amount of dividends. Or they can simply sell all their shares and put all the proceeds into better investments if they think the stock is expensive.
I do not believe in buying a good business at a fair price. If the management does the right things, holding a good business at a fair price can give us 10% long-term return. But great investment returns require a good job of capital allocation on the investor’s part: buying at good prices and reinvesting cash distributions wisely.