The Little Book of Valuation
There are clear differences across mature companies in different businesses, but there are some common characteristics that they share. In this section, we will look at what they have in common, with an eye on the consequences for valuation.
1. Revenue growth is approaching growth rate in economy: In the last section, we noted that there can be a wide divergence between growth rate in revenues and earnings in many companies. While the growth rate for earnings for mature firms can be high, as a result of improved efficiencies, the revenue growth is more difficult to alter. For the most part, mature firms will register growth rates in revenues that, if not equal to, will converge on the nominal growth rate for the economy.
2. Margins are established: Another feature shared by growth companies is that they tend to have stable margins, with the exceptions being commodity and cyclical firms, where margins will vary as a function of the overall economy. While we will return to take a closer look at this sub-group later in the book, event these firms will have stable margins across the economic or commodity price cycle.
3. Competitive advantages? The dimension on which mature firms reveal the most variation is in the competitive advantages that they hold on to, manifested by the excess returns that they generate on their investments. While some mature firms see excess returns go to zero or become negative, with the advent of competition, other mature firms retain significant competitive advantages (and excess returns). Since value is determined by excess returns, the latter will retain higher values, relative to the former, even as growth rates become anemic.
4. Debt capacity: As firms mature, profit margins and earnings improve, reinvestment needs drop off and more cash is available for servicing debt. As a consequence, debt ratios should increase for all mature firms, though there can be big differences in how firms react to this surge in debt capacity. Some will choose not to exploit any or most of the debt capacity and stick with financing policies that they established as growth companies. Others will over react and not just borrow, but borrow more than they can comfortably handle, given current earnings and cash flows. Still others will take a more reasoned middle ground, and borrow money to reflect their improved financial status, while preserving their financial health.
5. Cash build up and return? As earnings improve and reinvestment needs drop off, mature companies will be generating more cash from their operations than they need. If these companies do not alter their debt or dividend policies, cash balances will start accumulating in these firms. The question of whether a company has too much cash, and, if so, how it should return this cash to stock holders becomes a standard one at almost every mature company.
6. Inorganic growth: The transition from a growth company to a mature company is not an easy one for most companies (and the managers involved). As companies get larger and investment opportunities internally do not provide the growth boost that they used to, it should not be surprising that many growth companies look for quick fixes that will allow them to continue to maintain high growth. One option, albeit an expensive one, is to buy growth: acquisitions of other companies can provide boosts to revenues and earnings.
One final point that needs to be made is that not all mature companies are large companies. Many small companies reach their growth ceiling quickly and essentially stay as small, mature firms. A few growth companies have extended periods of growth before they reach stable growth and these companies tend to be the large companies that we find used as illustrations of typical mature companies: Coca Cola, IBM and Verizon are all good examples.