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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Comparing the Valuations Behind Amazon and Apple Shares

And people wonder why it’s hard to understand the stock market.

Take a consumer sitting at home buying stuff on Amazon.com with his iPhone. To him, Apple’s product is a clear leader in the market, while Amazon is the retailer he uses most. Amazon’s shares are up nearly 40 percent over the last 12 months, while Apple’s are down nearly 30 percent over the same period. So why have their stock prices diverged so much when both companies appear to be at the top of their game?

Growth is the most common answer you’ll hear. When a company convinces investors that its earnings can keep going up, an enthusiasm grows around the shares, and they tend to perform well. Wall Street analysts expect Amazon’s earnings next year to be 66 percent higher than the forecast for 2013. They project a 10 percent uptick for Apple.

But there’s another conversation you need to have.

It revolves around whether the market has already factored the hoped-for growth into the stock price. It is possible to pay too much for excellence.

There are all sorts of ways to gauge how much credibility investors ascribe to a company’s “growth story.” One is to look at what investors are paying now for a company’s free cash flows, or the hard dollars it takes in from profits (minus the spending it does on plant and equipment). The results are stark. Apple’s stock market value is nine times last year’s free cash flows. On this metric, Amazon is at over 300 times. Sane investors would never touch a stock with such a dear valuation unless they felt cash flows were going to soar in the future.

And this brings us to the part of investing that usually separates winners from losers: guessing whether companies will actually do what we expect them to.

Amazon’s believers don’t mind that it’s spending such huge amounts on setting up new operations for its retail and data businesses. At some point, hopefully in the not too distant future, that spending will fall as the expansion reaches its limits. In that case, Amazon will be churning out much bigger cash flows as it enjoys near unassailable dominance.

Sure, but how wondrous will those cash flows be? Amazon’s operations produced $4.2 billion of cash flows last year. Let’s generously assume 10 percent annual growth for them, which would take them to $5.1 billion by the end of 2014.

Let’s be kind again and assume that capital expenditures fall a lot, to, say, $1 billion a year, from last year’s $3.8 billion. Free cash flows in 2014 would therefore total $4.1 billion.

Now, remember, at this future point, Amazon’s growth in free cash flow will have slowed a lot. Investors will probably decide to attach a lower valuation to the company. Being generous, let’s assume they value those hypothetical 2014 free cash flows at 21 times, Google’s multiple today. That would give Amazon a market worth of about $86 billion. That’s 30 percent lower than today.

Of course, the stock market believes what it wants to believe. It may well decide to remain starry-eyed about Amazon and give it a much higher valuation for years to come. But Apple’s recent drubbing suggests even the strongest runs can end nastily.