When comparing identical assets, we can compare the prices of these assets. Thus, the price of a Tiffany lamp or a Mickey Mantle rookie card can be compared to the price at which an identical item was bought or sold in the market. However, comparing assets that are not exactly similar can be a challenge. If we have to compare the prices of two buildings of different sizes in the same location, the smaller building will look cheaper unless we control for the size difference by computing the price per square foot. Things get even messier when comparing publicly traded stocks across companies. After all, the price per share of a stock is a function both of the value of the equity in a company and the number of shares outstanding in the firm. Thus, a stock split that doubles the number of units will approximately halve the stock price. To compare the values of “similar” firms in the market, we need to standardize the values in some way by scaling them to a common variable. In general, values can be standardized relative to the earnings firms generate, to the book value or replacement value of the firms themselves, to the revenues that firms generate or to measures that are specific to firms in a sector.
One of the more intuitive ways to think of the value of any asset is as a multiple of the earnings that asset generates. When buying a stock, it is common to look at the price paid as a multiple of the earnings per share generated by the company. This price/earnings ratio can be estimated using current earnings per share, yielding a current PE, earnings over the last 4 quarters, resulting in a trailing PE, or an expected earnings per share in the next year, providing a forward PE.
When buying a business, as opposed to just the equity in the business, it is common to examine the value of the firm as a multiple of the operating income or the earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA). While, as a buyer of the equity or the firm, a lower multiple is better than a higher one, these multiples will be affected by the growth potential and risk of the business being acquired.
While financial markets provide one estimate of the value of a business, accountants often provide a very different estimate of value of for the same business. The accounting estimate of book value is determined by accounting rules and is heavily influenced by the original price paid for assets and any accounting adjustments (such as depreciation) made since. Investors often look at the relationship between the price they pay for a stock and the book value of equity (or net worth) as a measure of how over- or undervalued a stock is; the price/book value ratio that emerges can vary widely across industries, depending again upon the growth potential and the quality of the investments in each. When valuing businesses, we estimate this ratio using the value of the firm and the book value of all assets or capital (rather than just the equity). For those who believe that book value is not a good measure of the true value of the assets, an alternative is to use the replacement cost of the assets; the ratio of the value of the firm to replacement cost is called Tobin’s Q.
Both earnings and book value are accounting measures and are determined by accounting rules and principles. An alternative approach, which is far less affected by accounting choices, is to use the ratio of the value of a business to the revenues it generates. For equity investors, this ratio is the price/sales ratio (PS), where the market value of equity is divided by the revenues generated by the firm. For firm value, this ratio can be modified as the enterprise value/to sales ratio (VS), where the numerator becomes the market value of the operating assets of the firm. This ratio, again, varies widely across sectors, largely as a function of the profit margins in each. The advantage of using revenue multiples, however, is that it becomes far easier to compare firms in different markets, with different accounting systems at work, than it is to compare earnings or book value multiples.
While earnings, book value and revenue multiples are multiples that can be computed for firms in any sector and across the entire market, there are some multiples that are specific to a sector. For instance, when internet firms first appeared on the market in the later 1990s, they had negative earnings and negligible revenues and book value. Analysts looking for a multiple to value these firms divided the market value of each of these firms by the number of hits generated by that firm’s web site. Firms with lower market value per customer hit were viewed as under valued. More recently, cable companies have been judged by the market value per cable subscriber, regardless of the longevity and the profitably of having these subscribers.
While there are conditions under which sector-specific multiples can be justified, they are dangerous for two reasons. First, since they cannot be computed for other sectors or for the entire market, sector-specific multiples can result in persistent over or under valuations of sectors relative to the rest of the market. Thus, investors who would never consider paying 80 times revenues for a firm might not have the same qualms about paying $2000 for every page hit (on the web site), largely because they have no sense of what high, low or average is on this measure. Second, it is far more difficult to relate sector specific multiples to fundamentals, which is an essential ingredient to using multiples well. For instance, does a visitor to a company’s web site translate into higher revenues and profits? The answer will not only vary from company to company, but will also be difficult to estimate looking forward.