Fundamental analysis may offer excellent insights, but it can be extraordinarily time-consuming. Time-consuming models often produce valuations that are contradictory to the current price prevailing on Wall Street. When this happens, the analyst basically claims that the whole street has got it wrong. This is not to say that there are not misunderstood companies out there, but it seems quite brash to imply that the market price, and hence Wall Street, is wrong.
Valuation techniques vary depending on the industry group and specifics of each company. For this reason, a different technique and model is required for different industries and different companies. This can get quite time-consuming, which can limit the amount of research that can be performed. A subscription-based model may work great for an Internet Service Provider (ISP), but is not likely to be the best model to value an oil company.
Fair value is based on assumptions. Any changes to growth or multiplier assumptions can greatly alter the ultimate valuation. Fundamental analysts are generally aware of this and use sensitivity analysis to present a base-case valuation, an average-case valuation, and a worst-case valuation. However, even on a worst-case valuation, most models are almost always bullish, the only question is how much so. The chart below shows how stubbornly bullish many fundamental analysts can be.
The majority of the information that goes into the analysis comes from the company itself. Companies employ investor relations managers specifically to handle the analyst community and release information. As Mark Twain said, “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” When it comes to massaging the data or spinning the announcement, CFOs and investor relations managers are professionals. Only buy-side analysts tend to venture past the company statistics. Buy-side analysts work for mutual funds and money managers. They read the reports written by the sell-side analysts who work for the big brokers (CIBC, Merrill Lynch, Robertson Stephens, CS First Boston, Paine Weber, DLJ to name a few). These brokers are also involved in underwriting and investment banking for the companies. Even though there are restrictions in place to prevent a conflict of interest, brokers have an ongoing relationship with the company under analysis. When reading these reports, it is important to take into consideration any biases a sell-side analyst may have. The buy-side analyst, on the other hand, is analyzing the company purely from an investment standpoint for a portfolio manager. If there is a relationship with the company, it is usually on different terms. In some cases, this may be as a large shareholder.
Definition of Fair Value
When market valuations extend beyond historical norms, there is pressure to adjust growth and multiplier assumptions to compensate. If Wall Street values a stock at 50 times earnings and the current assumption is 30 times, the analyst would be pressured to revise this assumption higher. There is an old Wall Street adage: the value of any asset (stock) is only what someone is willing to pay for it (current price). Just as stock prices fluctuate, so too do growth and multiplier assumptions. Are we to believe Wall Street and the stock price or the analyst and market assumptions?
It used to be that free cash flow or earnings were used with a multiplier to arrive at a fair value. In 1999, the S&P 500 typically sold for 28 times free cash flow. However, because so many companies were and are losing money, it has become popular to value a business as a multiple of its revenues. This would seem to be OK, except that the multiple was higher than the PE of many stocks! Some companies were considered bargains at 30 times revenues.