Saturday, June 24, 2017

Musings: Cash on the Sidelines and the Illusion of Market Cap Calculations

Cash on the Sidelines

I read Zero Hedge regularly. It is not the most reputable publication, but once in a while it bring up interesting topics. Like this article: Destroying The Myth Of 'Cash On The Sidelines'.

Permabulls love to argue there are all these “cash on the sidelines” ready to buy stocks and jack up prices. The article disagrees with the very idea of it. It quotes Cliff Asness:

There are no sidelines. Those saying this seem to envision a seller of stocks moving her money to cash and awaiting a chance to return. But they always ignore that this seller sold to somebody, who presumably moved a precisely equal amount of cash off the sidelines.”

Asness is saying there are no sidelines because buy/sell transactions do not increase overall cash in the system, since for every buyer there’s a seller.

I used to think that, and it’s something clever to say. But it’s wrong.

We all know friends, relatives, or neighbors who, at one point or another, try to put their growing cash piles to work. These people clearly have cash and its growing. Where does that come from?

First, it’s called money creation. As people earn wages and deposit that in their bank account, their “cash on the sideline” grows. So you say, “but the employer who paid them now has less cash, so total cash level don’t change right??” Well, at least some of the employers borrowed money, the act of which is how our financial system expands money supply.

Second, there’s asset class rotation. Asness would be right in a world where it’s just cash and equities, (and no liquidity creation). But you know, there’s such a thing as fixed income and bonds and they get used as cash alternatives. You see all these balance sheets where companies list “cash and marketable securities”? That’s your T-bill/CP’s/notes/bonds…etc.

So to the extent bond prices start going down and people rotate into equities, that’s “cash (and marketable securities) on the sidelines” which can boost equity prices.

The Illusion of Market Caps

The big news last week was Amazon buying Wholefood. As CNBC reported here, Amazon is paying $13.7bn for Wholefood, yet AMZN’s market appreciated by $15.6bn when the news hit.

CNBC wrote: “So, you could argue, they are getting Whole Foods for free, and pocketing $1.9 billion as well.

How could this be? Are investors stupid? One explanation (which is the CNBC editor’s view) is that the market thinks Amazon will get so much synergy that it exceeds the entire cost of acquisition.

Maybe. But there’s another explanation - that the way we calculate market cap renders it a flawed concept.

The CNBC article wrote: “Amazon's stock was up $32 and change mid-morning. There are 478 million shares outstanding, so Amazon's market cap has appreciated by about $15.6 billion today.

The flaw is one of extrapolation. The deal was announced on June 16th, 2017. That day 11.47mm shares of AMZN traded.

That tells us the market was willing to pay $32 more for 11.47mm shares. That’s it. It does not mean the market was willing to pay $32 more for all 478mm shares outstanding. In fact, if all 478mm shares were for sale, I’m sure AMZN stock price would crash!

But that’s what our market cap calculation does. We take the increased price for 11.47mm shares, and then extrapolate that to say every single share, to the tune of 478mm shares, gets the increased valuation. We take one single point in the stock’s demand curve, which tells us there’s demand for x # of shares at y price, and extrapolate that to total shares outstanding.

And we do this all the time. We do this whenever we calculate market cap, which goes into enterprise value, EV/EBIT, EV/sales, and so on. 

It get's dangerous when we apply this false logic to value investing. How many times have you heard this type of argument: "This company had one little bad news, and its market capitalization declined by $7bn! How can the worth of the company change that much!?  It's irrational! Misunderstood! Buy buy buy!"

Again, it's extrapolation. We take one single point on the demand curve and assume all shares will clear at that price. Then we make claims about what the whole company is worth.  

This should make you think twice about using these metrics to make buy/sell decisions! Our “fundamental” valuation isn’t just subjective based on our view of the future - it is fundamentally and precisely wrong!

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