Wall Street glorifies companies that beat quarterly estimates by arguing that the long-term comprises a lot of short-terms. But beating earnings estimates for a few consecutive quarters doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term greatness. It assumes that significant changes to the business are visible in the reported numbers.
This is likely what General Electric executives rationalized as they destroyed the company’s protective shareholder “moat” and its respected corporate culture. Their short-term thinking focused on “beating earnings” on a quarterly basis, thereby insuring seemingly endless analyst upgrades. Except GE’s short-term success that was seen by the market came at the expense of unseen damage to its moat, balance sheet, and corporate culture.
Conversely, consider Apple reporting what analysts considered “disappointing” numbers for eight sequential quarters (three lifetimes on Wall Street) leading up to 2007. During that time, Apple is pouring every ounce of its resources into R&D and coming up with the iPhone. It cannot hire the right engineers fast enough and thus must pull in engineers who had been working on the Macintosh (then Apple’s bread and butter), which results in delaying the introduction of new computers by a few quarters (this did happen). Did those negative short-term results subtract from the value of the company, or were they instrumental in adding trillions of dollars of revenue to Apple?
Quarterly misses and beats show only what is seen, but true investors are able to see the unseen.
With the luxury of hindsight, I picked two examples, GE and Apple, that seem to prove that earnings misses are great and beats are bad — but they are neither. They are part of the vocabulary of the semi-staged reality game show on business TV — which I choose not to participate in. Facebook for example, was recently accused of using casino gaming psychology to get their users to keep coming back to see if their posts or family pictures were “liked.” Quarterly “beats” and “misses” are not much different; they add casino excitement to investing and turn unsuspecting investors into gamblers.
This doesn’t mean that an investor should completely ignore what happens in the short run, but quarterly earnings should be always looked in the right context — the context of the long run.
Long-term thinking should be deeply embedded in your stock analysis. A discounted cash flow (DCF) analysis model forces you to value a company the way you’d value a private business, bringing cash flows that lie decades in the future into the present.
But DCF analysis, though grounding, is a crude model that is most useful at the extremes of a company’s valuation, when a company is wildly overvalued or undervalued. This is why it makes sense to estimate a company’s value based on earnings multiples. In my process, I look at a company’s expected earnings three- to five years out and then discount it back (convert to today’s dollars). This is the key: By looking at a company’s earnings this far out, you muffle the noise of quarterly earnings — the “what have you done for me lately?” hysteria — and focus on the future.
Vitaliy N. Katsenelson, CFA is the Chief Investment Officer of Investment Management Associates, Inc. which is anything but your average investment firm. He is the author of “The Little Book Of Sideways Markets.” Follow him on Twitter and Subscribe to his emails.