Many experts agree to say that the current economic environment is something we have never witnessed before. Despite negative interest rates – $10tn in total, now including some high-quality corporate securities – global growth is expected to remain limited – only 2.4% forecast in 2016 according to the latest World Bank report – as well as inflation – for 2016 the OECD forecasts 0.06% in France, 0.43% for Great Britain and 1.07% for the USA despite encouraging unemployment figures. This environment makes the hunt for growth significantly more challenging than in the past and has thus favoured the emergence of behaviours that, taken together, may well threaten the stability of the economy in the medium-term. Although the reader may find many more, I have taken 5 examples which have particularly struck me over the last few months.
- Stock markets reaching all-time highs despite weak macro indicators
The weak growth prospects expressed in my introduction have not deterred investors from massively buying stocks. Last week the S&P500 reached a level only 0.5% below its all-time high, lifted by a slight recovery in oil prices and the increased likelihood of a Fed Reserve rate ‘status-quo’ in June. This has come on top of the second longest bull run in the S&P’s history – the longest lasted from 1987 to 2000. And yet it is difficult to identify the ‘hard facts’ that investors base their bullish assessment on.
“If you look at U.S. stocks on a global perspective, to be touching or near that high is pretty phenomenal. “Yet when we look forward, we’re struggling to find that next source of growth. Maybe the drag has passed, but where is the growth going to come from?” (Gina Martin Adams, Wells Fargo Securities LLC)
As Benjamin Graham, the famous value investor, claims in his book The Intelligent Investor, we may have switched from an investment strategy, where people believe in the true intrinsic capabilities of the firm they invest in, to a speculative strategy, where people believe that they will be able to sell their shares to someone who puts a higher valuation on them, irrespective of the company’s performance. The former is characteristic of a potential bubble.
2. Unicorns and unicorpses: party like it is 2000
For those unaware, ‘unicorns’ are companies which have managed to raise equity with an implied valuation exceeding $1bn. Not so long ago, the ‘unicorn’ club was made of a handful of companies with (i) proven business models, (ii) established profitability and (iii) huge opportunities for global growth. Today, the ‘club’ has grown to 150 members or so, all of which cannot claim to tick the three boxes mentioned above.
First, entrepreneurs have realised that being labelled a ‘unicorn’ could turn out to be a real marketing tool and business booster. Some of them decided to enter through the service door by actually raising a relatively limited amount of equity (let us say in the single-digit millions) for an even smaller share of the capital (let us say 0.1%). As a consequence, the firm manages to qualify for the ‘unicorn’ label, even if clearly no investor would be willing to pay close to $1bn for the entirety of the company.
Furthermore, to make up for the lack of revenues, entrepreneurs have come back to the non financial-related KPIs made famous in the late 1990s to support what ended up being the ‘dot-com bubble’: number of users, number of clicks, number of hours of videos uploaded on website etc. Growth is not about top line or EBITDA anymore as taught in corporate finance classes but measured by the notion of ‘increased engagement’ and ‘scale’ instead. Spotify, for example, managed to raise equity last year based on a $8.4bn valuation despite not having made a profit yet. This is easier than in the 2000s given that, as rightly pointed out by Terence Fung, the new ‘Web 2.0’ is mainly about B2C applications rather than B2B software which contributed to the ‘dot-com’ firms’ reputation.
Finally, some startups benefit from potentially inflated growth prospects. Slack has managed to raise $200m of equity based on a $3.6bn valuation in April. The company is nonetheless far from shaking the industry at the moment. It offers a simple chat app and is currently used by 2.7m daily active workplace users, only 800k of which are paying at present. Each paying customer is therefore implicitly valued at $4,500.
2015 witnessed soaring unicorn valuations but 2016 and 2017 may bring those valuations down to earth, a forecast trend that has given birth to the term ‘Unicorpse‘.
[To be continued on Thursday…]