Cheap vs. Expensive | The Threat to Incumbents

 

“Business is the systematic playing of games.” ― Reid Hoffman

 

We gathered some data on the changes in the make up of S&P 500 Index over time and did some good old fashioned number crunching in MS Excel. In this week’s piece we share some of the analysis and insights from this number crunching, which covers the following:

 

  • Price-to-earnings spread between ‘expensive’ and ‘cheap’ constituents of the S&P 500 Index;
  • Return profile of stocks added to the S&P 500 Index between 31 August 2017 and 30 April 2019; and
  • How the largest US companies, in a rush to return cash to shareholders, may be unwittingly setting themselves up to be disrupted.

 

As a disclaimer, the analysis presented below is neither meant to paint a bullish nor bearish picture. We have, however, on a number of occasions in the last year expressed our constructive view on the market, most recently here and prior to that here.

 

Price-to-Earnings Differential

 

The below chart presents the trailing price-to-earnings ratio spread between the 25th and 75th percentiles for the constituents of the S&P 500 Index ranked by their trailing twelve month price-to-earnings ratio.

 

A rising line implies that the spread between the upper and lower quartiles is expanding or simply put expensive stocks, in terms of trailing price-to-earnings, are getting even more expensive relative to cheaper stocks.

 

Differential Between 25th & 75th Percentiles TTM P/E Ratio of S&P 500 Constituents

PE Differential.png

Source: Bloomberg, S&P Global

 

The dashed lines in the above chart are the levels marking +/- 1 and +/- 2 standard deviations from the average TTM P/E ratio differential between the 25th and 75th percentiles.

 

As can be seen in the above, this is yet another market metric reaching levels last seen during the tech bubble.

 

S&P 500 Index Inclusion: Return Metrics

 

For a stock to be added to the S&P 500 Index is quite a big deal. The sheer amount of passive and non-discretionary assets tracking the S&P 500 Index means that any stock included into the index should see an uptick in its trading volumes and a near perpetual bid from S&P 500 trackers and ETFs.

 

What, however, does inclusion mean in terms of returns for investors holding stocks included in the S&P 500 Index? We try to answer that question by looking at a relatively small sample: stocks included into the index between 31 August 2017 and 30 April 2019. We are aiming, in the next two weeks, to extend the sample set to as far back as 1 January 1990 and also to include the impact on stocks dropped from the index.

 

Post Inclusion Alpha
1 Month 3 Months 6 months 1 Year
Average 0.73% -3.46% -3.12% -7.32%
Median 2.54% -1.42% -5.91% -6.39%

 

Based on the analysis of the limited sample, it suggests that one would be better off, one average, selling a stock that has been included into the S&P 500 Index immediately after its inclusion and buying the S&P 500 Index instead.

 

The data set used for the above calculations can be found here.

 

Research & Development

 

According to alternative assets data provider Preqin, at the end of 2018 the amount of dry powder committed to private capital funds and investment programmes stood at US dollars 2 trillion, of which approximately US dollars 400 to 450 billion was committed to angel investing and venture capital funds. To put that in context, the amount dry powder available to angel and venture capital investors as recently as 2014 was estimated to be in the range of US dollars 100 to 150 billion dollars.

 

An estimated three-fold increase in the amount of capital gives venture capitals a lot of money to throw at a lot of problems.

 

We recently listened to a podcast featuring famed venture capitalist Bill Gurley in which he passingly mentioned something along the lines of incumbents being more at risk of being disrupted today than ever before.

 

This got us to thinking that what if US corporations were prioritising returning capital, through buybacks and dividends, to investors to such a degree that it was coming the expense of the future profitability of the respective businesses?

 

While we do not have an answer to our question, we do have some interesting data to shares.

 

R&D Expense as a Percentage of Net Sales (Average) for S&P 500 Constituents 

RD Exp Sales.png

Source: Bloomberg

 

There appears to have been a structural step down in the amount of money, as a percentage of net sales, that has been invested in research and development following the Global Financial Crisis. There was a spike up recently, we suspect that is due to US tax reform and the repatriation of non-US profits.

 

Year-over-Year Growth in R&D Expenses (Average) of S&P 500 Constituents 

RD Exp Growth.png

Source: Bloomberg

 

Similarly, even in terms of absolute dollar amounts, there has been a slowdown in growth of absolute dollars being invested in research and development by the constituents of the S&P 500 Index. This is all the more surprising given the makeup of the S&P 500 has shifted in favour of healthcare and technology companies over the last decade. Healthcare and technology companies are generally known to be heavy investors in research and development. Businesses operating in the more “old economy” sectors are, it seems, investing even less in research and development.

 

Average Cash and Marketable Securities Balances for S&P 500 Constituents

Cash.png

Lastly, the above chart is of the average cash and marketable securities balances of S&P 500 constituents, excluding major financial services businesses.

 

The largest corporations in the United States are draining their cash in financialisation at a record pace just as their predators in the venture capital industry have been building up their war chests. The picture gets even worse once you exclude the major technology companies with large piles of cash ready to be invested in acquiring and developing up and coming technologies.

 

Low interest rates did not encourage large US corporations to invest, rather they encouraged financialisation. The unintended consequence of which may be the death of the incumbents.

 

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but not guaranteed.