Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Uber: Aswath Damodaran Puts On His Finance Prof. Hat and Rolls Up His Sleeves

As said in our intro to last week's piece, "Professor Damodaran on Uber":
Not one of the good professor's most insightful blogposts but interesting because he puts the odds of Uber failing at only 5%.
And because you can feel his "I need numbers dammit" pain....
Here he schools me with this 3000-level update:
(that sounded arrogently snotty which was definitely not the intent) 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017
User/Subscriber Economics: An Alternative View of Uber's Value
In the week since I posted my Uber valuation, I have received many suggestions on what I should have done differently in the valuation, with many of you arguing that I was being a over optimistic in my forecasts of total market, market share and margin improvements and some of you positing that I was too pessimistic. I don't claim to have any certitude about these numbers but the spreadsheet that I used to value Uber is an open one, and you are welcome to convert your suggestions into valuation inputs and make the valuation your own. In just the last few days, though, I have been watching an argument unfold among people that I respect. about whether the reason for my low valuation for Uber is that I am using a DCF model, with the critics making the case that valuing a company based upon its expected cash flows is an old economy framework that will not yield a reasonable estimate of value for new economy companies, driven less by infrastructure investments and returns on those investments, and more by user and subscriber economics.  I have long argued that DCF models are much more flexible than most people give them credit for, and that they can be modified to reflect other frameworks. So, rather than deflect the criticism, I will try to build a user based model to value Uber and contrast with my conventional valuation.

Aggregated versus Disaggregated Valuation
If you are doing an intrinsic valuation, the principle that the value of a business is the present value of the expected cash flows from that business, with the discount rate adjusted for risk, cannot be contested. That is true for any business, manufacturing or service, small or large, old economy or new economy. Since that is what a discounted cash flow valuation is designed to do, I have to believe that what critics find objectionable in my Uber DCF model is not with the model itself but in how I estimated the cash flows for Uber, and adjusted for risk. I followed the aggregated model for discounted cash flow valuation where I estimated the cash flows to Uber as a company, starting with its revenues and working through the consolidated expenses and total reinvestment each year and discounted these cash flows at a cost of capital that I estimated for the entire company. Along the way, I had to make assumptions about a total market that Uber would go after, the market share that I expect the company to get in that market and the operating margins in steady state. 
Disaggregated Valuation
Value is additive and you can value any company on a disaggregated basis, breaking it down into different divisions/businesses, geographical areas or by units:
  • Business Units: In a sum of the parts valuation (SOTP), you can break a multi-business company into its individual business units and value each unit separately.  I have a paper where I describe the process of doing a SOTP valuation, using United Technologies, a conglomerate, as my example. If that SOTP valuation is much higher than the value that the market attaches to the company, you may very well find an activist investor targeting the company for a break up. 
  • Geographical Groupings: When valuing a multinational, you can break the company's operations down geographically and value each geographical grouping (Asia, Latin America, North America, Europe) separately, not only using different assumptions about growth and risk in region but even different currencies for each region. 
  • Unit-based Valuation: More generally, when valuing any company, you can try to value it on a unit-basis, building up to its value by valuing each unit separately and then aggregating across units. Thus, a pharmaceutical company can be valued by taking each of the drugs that are in its portfolio, including those in the pipeline, and valuing that drug based upon its cash flows and risk and then adding up the values across the entire portfolio. A retail business can be valued by valuing individual stores and adding up the store values and a subscription-based company can be valuing by valuing a subscription and multiplying by the number of subscriptions, current and forecasted.
I may be misreading the critics of my Uber valuation but it seems to me that some of them, at least are making the argument it is better to value Uber, by valuing an individual Uber user first, and then scaling the value up to reflect not just the number of users that Uber has today (existing users) but also new users it expects to add in the future. 
Aggregated versus Disaggregated Valuations: Weighing the Trade offs
Valuation on a disaggregated basis allows you to be much more flexible in your assumptions, allowing them to vary across each grouping but there are four reasons why you seldom see them practiced (or at least practiced well) in company valuation.
  1. Law of large numbers: As companies get larger and more diverse, there is an argument to be made that you are better off estimating on an aggregated basis rather than a disaggregated one. The reason is statistical. To the extent that your estimation errors on a unit basis are uncorrelated or lightly correlated, your estimates on an aggregated level will be more precise than the unit-based estimates. For example, you will have a much better chance of estimating the aggregate revenues for Pfizer correctly than you do of estimating the revenues of each of its dozens of drugs.
  2. Information Vacuums: Information on a disaggregated basis is difficult to get for individual businesses, geographies, products or users, if you are an investor looking at a company from the outside. If you are doing your valuation from inside the company (as an owner or venture capitalist), you may be able to get this information, but as you will see with my Uber user valuation, even insiders will face limits.
  3. Missing Value Pieces: When valuing a company on a disaggregated business, it is easy to overlook some items that are consequential for value. In sum of the parts valuation, for instance, analysts are so caught up in estimating the values of individual businesses that they sometimes forget to value "corporate costs", which can be a multi-billion drag on value.  
  4. Corporate Structure: There are some items that are easier to deal with at the aggregate level, because that is where they affect the business. Thus, you can model when taxes come due and the effect of losses easier when you are valuing an aggregated business than when you are valuing it on a disaggregated level. Similarly, if you are concerned about legal penalties or corporate governance, these are better addressed at the aggregated level.
It is true that aggregation comes with costs, starting with the blurring of differences across disaggregated units (business, geographies, products, users) as well as the missing of competitive advantages that apply only to some units of the business and not to others. It is also true that using an aggregated valuation can result in a process that is disconnected from how the owners and managers at user-based companies think about their companies and thus cannot help them in managing these companies or valuing them better....MUCH MORE