Thursday, November 17, 2005

What Price Growth

It goes without saying that the next Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX), Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) or Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO) is staring us in the face today and we just don’t know it. These companies, among others, turned out to be the penultimate growth stocks of the past two decades. Should a value investor invest in growth stocks? Or is it senseless to apply the Margin of Safety principal to these companies? A true Grahamite might cringe at the thought, but as Berkshire’s Buffett and Legg Mason’s Miller have shown, Growth at a Reasonable Price is value investing at its best.
This week, Morningstar (Nasdaq: MORN) published an update on a study of 50 stocks, examining what would have been a reasonable price to pay for Cisco, for example, back in 1995. Their methodology is simple and yet extremely creative. In this case, Morningstar chose the S&P 500’s performance over the past 10 years as the benchmark. They then calculated what the maximum price an investor could have paid for the stock back in 1995 in order to just match the index’s performance. This means if the stock was trading below this theoretical maximum, the stock effectively had a built in Margin of Safety and would have outperformed the index. In Cisco’s case, the stock was trading at $1.95 with a P/E of 27. Even if an investor had paid $6, implying a P/E of about 80, he would have matched the S&P 500 toe to toe. Also on the list are Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN), Ebay (Nasdaq: EBAY), Yahoo (Nasdaq: YHOO) and XM Satellite (Nasdaq: XMSR). No doubt we will one day look back at these and others as the next generation of growth stocks.
Morningstar’s conclusion is that assuming you have identified a true high quality growth story, you should not be afraid of paying up for that growth as long as you have determined a Margin of Safety exists. The P/E may be high, but in the end, what matters is the company’s ability to generate free cash flow and to invest that cash to earn superior returns above its cost of capital.
Morningstar's recipe to find the next set of growth stocks is to look for companies with these characteristics:
  1. An emerging economic moat (a term used by Buffett and Munger meaning sustainable competitive advantage).
  2. Ability to thrive in good and bad times, fulfilling unmet needs or providing superior products.
  3. A motivated and growth-oriented management team with personal skin in the game.

Some stocks that may fit the bill are Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) (yes, even at these prices), Teva (Nasdaq: TEVA) (the undisputed generic biopharmaceutical champion) and Morningstar (the well respected financial information and independent research firm which I believe is on its way to becoming an asset management powerhouse). Too bad the folks at Morningstar don’t rate their own stock – a wide moat and a five star rating anyone?

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