littlebook The Little Book of Valuation

Characteristics of growth companies

            Growth companies are diverse in size, growth prospects and can be spread out over very different businesses but they share some common characteristics that make an impact on how we value them. In this section, we will look at some of these shared features:

  1. Dynamic financials: Much of the information that we use to value companies comes from their financial statements (income statements, balance sheets and statements of cash flows). One feature shared by growth companies is that the numbers in these statements are in a state of flux. Not only can the numbers for the latest year be very different from numbers in the prior year, but can change dramatically even over shorter time periods. For many smaller, high growth firms, for instance, the revenues and earnings from the most recent four quarters can be dramatically different from the revenues and earnings in the most recent fiscal year (which may have ended only a few months ago).
  2. Private and Public Equity: It is accepted as conventional wisdom that the natural path for a young company that succeeds at the earliest stages is to go public and tap capital markets for new funds. There are three reasons why this transition is neither as orderly nor as predictable in practice. The first is that the private to public transition will vary across different economies, depending upon both institutional considerations and the development of capital markets. Historically, growth companies in the United States have entered public markets earlier in the life cycle than growth companies in Europe, partly because this is the preferred exit path for many venture capitalists in the US. The second is that even within any given market, access to capital markets for new companies can vary across time, as markets ebb and flow. In the United States, for instance, initial public offerings increase in buoyant markets and drop in depressed markets; during the market collapse in the last quarter of 2008, initial public offerings came to a standstill. The third is that the pathway to going public varies across sectors, with companies in some sectors like technology and biotechnology getting access to public markets much earlier in the life cycle than firms in other sectors such as manufacturing or retailing. The net effect is that the growth companies that we cover in chapter will draw on a mix of private equity (venture capital) and public equity for their equity capital. Put another way, some growth companies will be private businesses and some will be publicly traded; many of the latter group will still have venture capitalists and founders as large holders of equity.
  3. Size disconnect: The contrast we drew in chapter 1 between accounting and financial balance sheets, with the former focused primarily on existing investments and the latter incorporating growth assets into the mix is stark in growth companies. The market values of these companies, if they are publicly traded, are often much higher than the accounting (or book) values, since the former incorporate the value of growth assets and the latter often do not. In addition, the market values can seem discordant with the operating numbers for the firm – revenues and earnings. Many growth firms that have market values in the hundreds of millions or even in the billions can have small revenues and negative earnings. Again, the reason lies in the fact that the operating numbers reflect the existing investments of the firm and these investments may represent a very small portion of the overall value of the firm.
  4. Use of debt: While the usage of debt can vary across sectors, the growth firms in any business will tend to carry less debt, relative to their value (intrinsic or market), than more stable firms in the same business, simply because they do not have the cash flows from existing assets to support more debt. In some sectors, such as technology, even more mature growth firms with large positive earnings and cash flows are reluctant to borrow money. In other sectors, such as telecommunications, where debt is a preferred financing mode, growth companies will generally have lower debt ratios than mature companies.
  5. Market history is short and shifting: We are dependent upon market price inputs for several key components of valuation and especially so for estimating risk parameters (such as betas). Even if growth companies are publicly traded, they tend to have short and shifting histories. For example, an analyst looking at Google in early 2009 would have been able to draw on about 4 years of market history (a short period) but even those 4 years of data may not be particularly useful or relevant because the company changed dramatically over that period – from revenues in millions to revenues in billions, operating losses to operating profits and from a small market capitalization to a large one. 

While the degree to which these factors affect growth firms can vary across firms, they are prevalent in almost every growth firm.