Does the valuation of a high ROIC company matter? If Q1 companies have typically outperformed, is there any benefit to also selecting cheaper companies, or should we simply remain agnostic to stock valuation?
According to Investec experts, they prefer to use free cash flow (FCF) yield as their valuation metric as it captures the cash-generating power of the business, rather than the income statement profits, which are based on accrual accounting and are more vulnerable to manipulation by management. Moreover, the FCF yield better reflects the available cash that can be reinvested into a business for future growth, or returned to investors.
The next graph prepared by Investec shows that valuation does matter, and is more important for companies with low ROIC (those in Q4). The highest return at the individual stock level appears to be achieved by investing in companies with a high ROIC and FCF yield. Historically, investing in these companies has provided outperformance of 3.8% per annum. Meanwhile, investing in the most expensive companies with a Q1 ROIC has typically resulted in modest underperformance of 1.2%. Importantly, this analysis takes no account of the final ROIC of the company like the prior charts, and does not, therefore, assess the sustainability of high returns.
"We believe in exercising caution when operating in these areas of the market. A combination of high ROIC and seemingly cheap valuation can imply the market is anticipating a structural problem with the company’s business model, often meaning that returns have a high probability of fading fast. In this scenario you need a fundamental understanding of the inner workings of the company’s business model to properly assess the sustainability of returns. In our experience, we rarely find such an opportunity that is attractive on a risk-adjusted basis over a long-term investment horizon," says Investec.
Alternatively, they suggest, to purchase a stock with a Q4 FCF yield, "we require the business model to be impeccable with structural trends that mean we are compensated with above average growth and limited uncertainty. Again, these types of opportunities tend to be few and far between. Lofty valuations are often caused by market over-exuberance around future growth, resulting in long-term underperformance. Consequently, we select moderately valued companies with a high ROIC that we believe can be maintained over the long term."
Implications for portfolio construction
To generate outperformance they aim to construct a portfolio for their Investec Global Franchise Strategy that, in aggregate, maintains a Q1 ROIC. Figure 7 tracks the Investec Global Franchise Strategy’s ROICs against the median quartiles for the market and shows that this aim has been met for almost the entire lifespan of the strategy. "We believe this is a positive indicator for its future performance, as we have confidence that the companies that make up this portfolio have competitive advantages to maintain their current high returns. Crucially, this confidence is based on our detailed bottom-up analysis of these companies and an assessment that their ROICs are sustainable over the long term."
"Valuation plays an important role in our investment process. Although we believe that quality companies deserve a premium valuation, we are not willing to include overpriced stocks in our portfolios. For us, investing in high-quality companies only makes economic sense if FCF yields are superior to long-term bond yields. This comparison comes from the stable and consistent cashflow generation of these companies, many of which have bond-like characteristics," they conclude.