Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Meatless Future or Vegan Delusions? The Beyond Meat Valuation

In a big year for initial public offerings (IPOs), with Uber, Lyft, Pinterest and Zoom, to name just a few, already having gone public and more companies waiting in the wings, it is ironic that it is not a tech company, but a food company, Beyond Meat, that has managed to deliver the most dazzling post-IPO performance of any of the listings. As the stock increased seven-fold, investors who were able to get into the stock at the offering price have been enriched, but those who jumped on the bandwagon later have also reaped extraordinary returns. The speed and magnitude of the stock price rise has left many wondering whether investors have over reached and whether a correction is around the corner. 

The Meatless Meat Company!
The Company: Let's take a look at what Beyond Meat's products are and the market opening it is exploiting, before diving into a story and valuation for the company. The company, headquartered in Southern California, and founded in 2009, makes makes plant-based (pea protein) products that mimic burgers and ground meat  in taste, texture and aroma. In the prospectus that it filed leading up to its IPO, the company argues that its production process is revolutionary and new, and is responsible for its capacity to replicate animal-based meats. 

The Competitors: While Beyond Meat is a leader right now in the specialized sub-category of meatless meats, it faces a formidable competitor in Impossible Foods, another young start-up producing its own plant-based versions of meat-like products. Since it is very likely, especially after Beyond Meat's explosive market debut, that Impossible Foods will be going public soon, it is inevitable that there will be comparisons between the two companies. While I have done my own taste test, taste is in the mouth of the beholder, and this article perhaps has the most even-handed comparison of the two companies' products. Both companies have also adopted similar strategies of enlisting fast-food companies as product adopters, with Impossible Foods showing up on Burger King (Impossible Whopper) and White Castle menus, and Beyond Meat countering with TGI Friday's, Carl's Jr. and Red Robin. Other companies are taking note, including companies like Amy's Kitchen, a long standing producer of organic and vegan offerings, and companies like Tyson Foods and Perdue that derive the bulk of their revenues from meat, but see opportunity in this new market.

The Drivers: Both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have been helped by a shift away from meat to meatless alternatives, and that trend has been driven by three factors:
  1. Health: While the research on the health consequences of eating meat continues, it has become part of conventional wisdom that meat-based diets (and red meat in particular) are associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. This link provides a fairly balanced account of whether this belief is true, but for better or worse, it has led some meat eaters to cut back and sometimes stop consuming meat. 
  2. Environment: As climate change and environmental concerns rise to the top of concerns for some, they are feeling the pressure to shift away from meat, in general, and beef, in particular, because of its environmental footprint. I am not  an environmental scold, but I don't think that there is any debate that meat-based diets puts a greater pressure on the environment 
  3. Taste: Until recently, shifting away from a meat-based diet also meant giving up the taste and texture of meat, since most meat substitutes did not come close. As companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are showing, plant-based alternatives are getting better at mimicking real meat, and for those who are attached to the texture and taste of meat, that is making a difference in their diet decisions.
None of these three factors are likely to fade away. In fact, I think that we can safely assume that they will only get stronger over time, accelerating the shift from meat to meatless alternatives. 

Market Sizing
All of the talk about the shift to vegan and vegetarian diets can sometimes obscure two basic facts about this market and its underlying trends:
  1. The meatless meat market is still small, relative to the overall meat market: In 2018, the meatless meat market had sales of $1-$5 billion, depending on how broadly you define meatless markets and the geographies that you look at. Defined as meatless meats, i.e., the products that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods offer, it is closer to the lower end of the range, but inclusive of other meat alternatives (tofu, tempeh etc.) is at the upper end. No matter which end of the range you go with, it is small relative to the overall meat market that is in excess of $250 billion, just in the US, and closer to a trillion, if you expand it globally, in 2018. In fact, while the meat market has seen slow growth in the US and Europe, with a shift from beef to chicken, the global meat market has been growing, as increasing affluence in Asia, in general, and China, in particular, has increased meat consumption,  Depending on your perspective on Beyond Meats, that can be bad news or good news, since it can be taken by detractors as a sign that the overall market for meatless meats is not very big and by optimists that there is plenty of room to grow.
  2. It is still a niche market: Meatless meat products have made their deepest inroads in urban and affluent populations and its allure is greatest with former meat-eaters rather than lifelong vegetarians, who don't crave either the taste or texture of meat. The plus is that this market has significant buying power, but the minus is that urban, well-to-do millennials can eat only so much. 
The big question that we face is in estimating how much the shift towards vegan and vegetarian diets will continue, driven by health reasons or environmental concern (or guilt). There is also a question of whether some governments may accelerate the shift away from meat-based diets, with policies and subsidies. Given this uncertainty, it is not surprising that the forecasts for the size of the meatless meat market vary widely across forecasters. While they all agree that the market will grow, they disagree about the end number, with forecasts for 2023 ranging from $5 billion at the low end to $8 billion at the other extreme. Beyond Meat, in its prospectus, uses the expansion of non-dairy milk(soy, flax, almond mild) in the milk market as its basis, to estimate the market for meatless meat to be $35 billion in the long term. 

Beyond Meat: Story and Valuation
History: At the time of its public offering, Beyond Meat had all of the characteristics of a young company, not much separated from its start up days, with revenues of $87.9 million, operating losses of $26.5 million and a common equity of -$121.8 million. Its first earnings report, delivered to a rapturous market response, reported a tripling of revenues and a narrowing of operating losses, but even with it incorporated, the company remains a small, money losing company.

The Story: To value young companies, I first have to put my optimist hat on, and with it firmly in place, my story for Beyond Meat is that it is catching the front end of a significant shift towards vegan and vegetarian-based diets. The key parts of my story are below:
  1. Total market for meatless meats will grow significantly: I see the total market for meatless meats growing from just over $1 billion in 2018 to $12 billion by 2028. While that is less than the $35 billion that Beyond Meat's back-of-the-envelope estimate delivers, it is closer to the upper end of the range of forecasts that you have for this market.
  2. With Beyond Meat capturing a significant market share: As the market grows, the number of players will increase, but I see Beyond Meats capturing a 25% market share of this market, building on its early entry into the market and brand name recognition, partly from its fast food connections.
  3. While delivering operating profits similar to the large US food processing companies: Over the next five years, I see pre-tax operating margins improving towards the 13.22% that US food processing business delivered in 2018, built largely on economies of scale and pricing power. 
  4. And reinvesting a lot less, in delivering that growth: While Beyond Meat generates about a dollar in revenue per dollar in invested capital right now, I will assume that it will be able to use technology as its ally to invest more efficiently in the future. Specifically, I will assume that the company will generate $3 in revenue for every dollar in invested capital, about double what the typical US food processing company is able to generate.
Is there risk in this investment? Absolutely, and you may be surprised that my cost of capital is only 7.46%, but that reflects my assessment of risk in this investment, as a going concern and as part of a diversified portfolio. As a money-losing company that will require about $500 million in capital over the next four years to deliver on its potential, there remains a significant chance of failure, and I estimate the probability of failure to be 15%.

The Valuation: With the story in place, the valuation follows and the picture below captures the ingredients of value:
Download spreadsheet
With my story, which I believe reflects an upbeat story for the company, the value that I obtain for its equity is $3.3 billion, yielding a value per share of about $47. At the end of June 10, when I completed my valuation, the stock price was close to $170, well above my estimated  value. What the stock dropped almost $41 on June 11 to $127/share, it still remained over valued.

What if? As with any young company, the value of Beyond Meat is driven almost entirely by the story you tell about the company, and in this case, that story revolves around two key inputs. The first is the revenue that you believe the company can generate, once mature, and that reflects how big you think the market for meatless meats will get and Beyond Meat's market share of the market. The second   is its profitability at that point, which is a function of how much pricing power you believe the company will have. While I have assumed that Beyond Meat will deliver about $3 billion in revenues in 2028, with an operating  margin of 13.22%, your story for the company can lead you to very different estimates for one or both numbers:
The shaded cells represent break even points, where you could justify buying Beyond Meat at the price ($127) it was trading at on June 11, 2019. Put differently, if your story for the meatless meat market and Beyond Meat's place in it leads you to revenues of $5 billion or higher with an operating margin of 20%, you should be a value investor in the company. 

Macro Bets and Micro Value
As you can see from the what-if analysis on Beyond Meat's value, the value that you obtain for Beyond Meat is determined mostly by how large you believe that market for meatless meats will end up being. In fact, there are some investors whose primary reason for investing in Beyond Meat is as a bet on a macro trend towards vegan and vegetarian diets. That said, it is worth remembering that investors don't get pay offs from making the right macro bets, but from the micro vehicles (individual investments) that they use as proxies for those bets. To get the pay off from a correct macro call, there are two additional assessments that investors have to make:
  1. Industry structure: A growing market may not translate into high value businesses, if it is crowded and intensely competitive. That market will deliver high revenue growth, but with low or no profitability, and no pathway to sustainable profits and value added. In contrast, a growing market where there are significant barriers to entry and a few big winners can result in high-value companies with large market share and unscalable moats. 
  2. Winners and Losers: Assuming that there is potential for value creation in a market, investors have to pick the companies that are most likely to win in that market. That is difficult to do, when you are looking at young companies in a young market, but there is no way around making that judgment. In a post from 2015, I argued that in big (or potentially big) markets, you can expect companies to be collectively over valued early in the game. 
In my Beyond Meat valuation, I have implicitly made assumptions about both these components, by first allowing operating margins to converge on those of large food processing companies and then making Beyond Meat one of the winners in the meatless meat market, by giving it a 25% market share. My defense of these assumptions is simple. I believe that the meatless meat market will evolve like the broader food business, with a few big players dominating, with similar competitive advantages including brand name, economies of scale and access to distribution systems. I also believe that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, as front runners in this market, will use their access to capital to scale up quickly. Their use of fast food chains feeds into this strategy, with bulk sales increasing revenues quickly, allowing for economies of scale, and name-brand offerings (Impossible Whopper at Burger Kind, Beyond Famous Star burger at Carl's Jr.) helping improve brand name recognition. I will undoubtedly have to revisit these assumptions as the market evolves and some of you may disagree with me strongly on one or both assumptions. If so, please do download the spreadsheet and make your best judgments to derive your value for the company.

A Trading Play
Early in a company's life, it is the pricing game that dominates and it is futile to use fundamentals to try to explain a stock price or day-to-day changes. This table, from one of my presentations on corporate life cycles, illustrates how investors and trades view companies as they move through the life cycle.

For a young company like Beyond Meat, making the transition from start-up to young growth, it is all pricing all the time, with stories about market size driving the pricing,. This trading phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that it is one of the few pure plays on a macro trend, i.e., a shift in diets away from meat to plant-based options. That leads me to two conclusions. The first is an unexceptional one and it is that you will see wide swings in the stock price on a day to day basis, for little or no reason. That is a feature of priced stocks, not a bug, as mood and momentum shift for no perceptible reasons. The second is that selling short on a stock like this one (small, with a small float) is a dangerous game, since you are unlikely to have time as your ally, and while you may be right in the long term, you may bankrupt yourself before you are vindicated. 

YouTube Video

Past Posts

Monday, June 3, 2019

Tesla's Travails: Curfew for a Corporate Teenager?

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Tesla is back in the news, though it seems to be for all of the wrong reasons. From Musk's Twitter escapades with the SEC, to talk about electric lawn blowers to concerns about a debt death spiral, the company has managed, yet again, to get in its own way, and this time, it has paid a price in the market, as its stock price tests lows not seen in a couple of years. I would be lying if I said that I do not find the company fascinating, and as has been my pattern for the last six years, it is time for a Tesla valuation update.

Looking Back: My Tesla Posts in 2018
In my last valuation of Tesla, set in June 2018, I considered possible, plausible and probable valuations for the company. In my story, which I admitted was an optimistic one, I mapped out a pathway for the company to deliver $100 billion in revenues in 2028, while pushing pre-tax operating margins to 10% by 2023.  The value that I obtained for the stock was $170-$180 per share, depending on how the very generous option package (20.2 million options) granted to Musk were treated, and is in the picture below:
In that post, I also listed possible, perhaps even plausible, scenarios where Tesla's value per share could be higher than $400/share, but argued that it would require the equivalent of a royal flush for the company to get there, a combination of a ten-fold increase in revenues, an operating margin of 12% and reinvesting more like a technology than an automotive company. Since the stock was trading at close $360 at the time of the valuation, I concluded that it was significantly over valued. True to form, Elon Musk roiled the waters in August 2018 with his now infamous tweet about funding being secured for a $420 buyout of the stock, causing a surge in the stock price, before questions arose about both how secured the funding actually was and whether the $420 price itself was fiction. In my post on the topic, I argued that if you were a private equity investor interested in taking a company private, Tesla would be a poor target, given its need for capital to keep growing, its heavy debt burden and the presence of Elon Musk as CEO. In the months after, both Musk and Tesla paid hefty prices for the indiscreet tweet, with the former in the SEC crosshairs for alleged stock price manipulation and the latter having to fight through the fog to get its story heard.

Catching up with the news
If you are wondering how much can happen in a year, you obviously don't follow Tesla, since the company is a magnet for newsworthy events. Borrowing a movie title to categorize what's happened to the company in the last year, I would break the news down into the good, the bad and what I can only term as gobsmacking, where you whack your head and say "what the heck was that?"

1. The Good
The market momentum has clearly shifted against Tesla, and all the news about the company seems to skew "bad", it is worth noting that there are good things that have happened at the company over the last year:
  1. Revenue Surge: In the drama around production targets and logistical misses, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the Tesla 3 has caused the company to almost double revenues over the course of the last year, while easily winning the race for best selling electric car in the world. 
  2. Improving Profitability: While Musk's tweets about Tesla turning earnings positive may have been premature, the company has moved down the pathway to profitability, reducing operating losses and with R&D capitalized, perhaps even turning the corner on operating profitability. 
In short, the operating base on which I will be building my Tesla valuation in June 2019 will be a more solid one than the one that I was using in 2018.

2. The Bad
With Tesla, good news is always bundled with bad, some of it caused by macro events but much of it the consequence of self inflicted wounds:
  1. Debt load and Distress: When Tesla chose to add to its debt burden by borrowing $5 billion in 2017, I argued that there was no good reason for Tesla to borrow money, since money losing companies gain no tax benefits and debt put growth potential at risk. Tesla has since added to that debt, using the false logic that it needed to borrow money to fund its growth; a much better option would have been to raise equity, the dilution bogeyman notwithstanding. In June 2019, that debt, now close to  $14 billion, is revealing its dark side, as a bond price plunge and ratings downgrades threaten to put Tesla's growth story at risk.
  2. Reinvestment Lags: Growth requires reinvestment, and especially so for automobile companies, where assembly lines and logistical infrastructure need to be put in place for cars to be delivered to customers. It is both frustrating and puzzling that Tesla, a company with a loyal customer base that is willing to wait, has been unwilling to make the investments that it needs to meet the demand. Instead, the company seems to lurch from one production crisis to another one (remember the tents that had to be put up to reach the 5,000 cars/week target) while its CEO muddies the water further by arguing that the company is not just earnings positive but cash flow positive. At the moment, the Fremont plant remains Tesla's major production facility, and while a plant in China is supposedly set for production late in 2019, the US/China trade war and Tesla's own tangled history on operating delays leads to skepticism.
It is also worth noting that a significant part of Tesla's time has been spent extracting itself from another unforced error, its acquisition of Solar City in 2016, with cost cuts and employee layoffs that are incongruent with a company claiming to tell a great growth story.

3. The Gobsmacking
An investor in Tesla should earn a special premium for having to endure news stories about the company that are so unusual that they would be considered fiction at other companies. Just to give a sampling, here are the other items that added to the smoke around the stock:
  1. SEC Oversight: If there has been a recurring story over the past year, it has to do with the aftermath of Elon Musk's "funding secured" tweet, which led to a SEC investigation and a threat of sanctions on the company. While the company came to a settlement wit the SEC, that settlement requires restraint on the part of Musk on future disclosures to the market (especially in the form on tweets), and restrain is not a Musk strong point.
  2. Autonomous Cars: In April 2019, Musk unveiled a plan to roll out autonomous taxis, with Tesla owners being allowed to add to the network, in the near future, with the promise that Tesla's technology on auto driving was well ahead of the competition. There is a debate worth having about autonomous cars and how they will change the ride sharing business, but it is almost certain that this will not happen smoothly or soon.
  3. The Rest: This being Tesla, there were the weekly distractions as Musk muddied the waters with talk of electric leaf blowers and insurance products. 

An Updated Tesla Valuation
For the bulk of its existence, Tesla has been a story stock. That remains true, but as the company ages and acquires substance, you can argue that the story is getting more bounded. In this section, I will update my Tesla story and valuation first, then look at the uncertainty around the valuation and close with a comment on a "valuation" by ARK Invest, one of Tesla's biggest institutional cheerleaders.

1. The Story: Tesla, Corporate Teenager?
Bringing together everything that has happened at Tesla over the last year, I find myself telling the same story that I told about Tesla a year ago, of a company that would find a pathway to revenues of $100 billion in 2028, with strong operating margins, remains intact, with one notable change. The company's debt overhang, already a concern a year ago, has become a clear and present danger to the company. In effect, on an operating basis, the company is in better shape than it was a year ago but on a financial leverage basis, it faces more truncation risk (a chance of failure of 20%). The value per share that I get with both effects built in is about $190/share:
Download spreadsheet
If there is a modification to my story, it would be this. As I watched Musk repeatedly put Tesla's story and value at risk with his distractions, I was reminded of teenagers around the world, with immense potential and intelligence, who risk it all for momentary and often meaningless rushes. In fact, I am tempted to add a corporate teenage phase in my corporate life cycle framework and put Tesla in it, a corporate teenager with immense potential, who repeated puts it all at risk for distractions. 

To provide perspective on why the value per share today is higher, even with a much greater chance of failure, I compared the numbers that I used in my valuation in June 2018 to June 2019:

Note that while my end game on revenues ($100 billion by 2028) and operating margins (10% in 5 years) has not changed, the base numbers make both easier reaches. The rise in failure risk (from 5% in 2018 to 20% in 2019) is at least partially offset by a lower risk free rate and a cost of capital. In truth, the value per share is close enough that I would argue that there really has been little change, but the price per share has dropped by almost 50%, making the stock go from being significantly over valued to close to fairly valued now.

2.  Facing up to Uncertainty
As with every Tesla valuation that I have done over the last six years, this one comes with caveats and uncertainties, and the contrasting views that bulls and bears have about the company are captured in the table below:
As you can see, I borrow from both sides of this debate, and I am sure that Tesla bulls will be disappointed that I don't have higher revenues for the company and Tesla bears will take issue with my reinvestment assumptions and expectations that the company will eventually deliver solid margins. Using a technique that I find useful, when confronted with divergent views, to deal with uncertainties, I computed Tesla's values in a simulation, with the results below:

in summary, the median value across the 100,000 simulations is $180/share, the 10th percentile delivering a $52 value/share and the 90th yielding $380/share. In this simulation, I have assumed that Tesla will remain a stand alone, going concern, and that the equity value could drop to zero, if there is a shock to the value of operating assets, given the debt load. There is talk, however, that Tesla could become an acquisition target, to an automobile company or a tech company (see this rumor about Apple being interested in 2014). While there are some entanglements (such as the one with Panasonic in the battery factories) that will have to be worked out, there have generally been two impediments on this path. One is that Tesla has been an expensive target, especially when its market capitalization exceeded $50 billion. That will become less of a barrier, as the stock price drops, and at a market cap of less than $15 billion, it could be much more affordable. The other is a bigger and more intractable problem. With Elon Musk as part of the package, Tesla has a poison pill that few companies will want to imbibe, and it is likely that the relationship will have to be severed or at least significantly weakened for an acquisition to occur. I remain skeptical on the odds of an acquisition, precisely because I don't see Musk going quietly into the night, but adding an acquisition floor at a $15 billion value for equity (about $60/share) increases the simulated value for the stock by about $10/share.

3. The ARK Tesla Pricing
It is not my role to be an arbiter of other people's valuations, and I generally avoid commenting on them unless they are in the public domain, as was the case with the Tesla/Solar City fairness opinions, or seek public comment. I will make an exception with the ARK "valuation" of Tesla, partly because they are among the stock's strongest boosters and partly because they put their model up for public comments, for which I commend them. In summary, here are the ARK numbers:
Download ARK pricing from Github

  1. This is a pricing, not a valuation: I know that this will strike some as nitpicking but what ARK has produced is a forward pricing for Tesla, not a valuation. An intrinsic valuation requires forecasting cash flows over time, after taxes and reinvestment, and then discounting those cash flows back at a rate that reflects the risk in the investment. A pricing usually involves picking a metric (revenues, earnings, EBITDA), picking a forecast year for the metric and applying a multiple based upon what other companies in the peer group trade at. ARK's basic model forecasts revenues, earnings and other metrics in 2023, and applies a multiple to estimated EBITDAR&D in 2023, making it a forward pricing.
  2. The ARK bear is bullish:  The ARK bear case requires that Tesla will sell 1.7 million cars in 2023, at an average price of $50,000/car and generate an operating margin of 6.1% on those revenues. Each of these assumptions is plausible, and the combination is possible, though to call a seven fold increase in revenues over five years, with a concurrent improvement to industry average profitability, a bear case seems to be stretching the definition of bear.
  3. The weakest link: The model's weakest link is on cash flows, since to sell 1.7 million cars, you have to make them first, and Tesla's production capacity, even if you count the China plant as functional and about the same capacity as the Fremont plant, brings you only about half way to the goal. It will be magical, if adding another $3.7 billion to net PP&E (as ARK seems to be assuming) and $1.2 billion to working capital will allow you to increase revenues by $63.5 billion, but it gets even more stretched, when you assume that Tesla also pays off $14 billion in debt (as ARK seems to) over the five years. In sum, the bear case will require at the very least $25 to $30 billion in cash flows, even with ARK's own assumptions, over the next five years, and since the operating cash flows at the company are still a trickle, this will require equity issuances in massive proportions fairly soon. ARK does allow for an equity capital raise of $10.6 billion which strikes me as too little to fill the gap, but in the absence of a balance sheet or statements of cash flows, I may be missing something (and it has to be very big).
  4. Share count issue: Even for the equity capital raise of $10.6 billion, ARK reduces the impact on share count by assuming a stock price of $360/share (market cap will be $70 billion) at the time of the raise. Since this capital will have to be raised soon, there is an element of wishful thinking here, i.e., that stock prices will double in short order and the capital raise will follow. In addition, if stock prices do climb, as ARK assumes, there will there is an overhang of 20 million options that have been granted to Musk by the board of directors that will become actual shares. In short, for the ARK bear case to unfold, the share count will have to double over the next five years.
  5. There is a time value question: Applying a multiple to EBITDAR&D in 2023 gives you a value in 2023, and to make it comparable to today's stock price, you will have to discount it back to today, at a risk adjusted rate. In fact, if you bring in the probability of failure embedded in Tesla bonds, there will an additional discounting on value.

Even if you take the ARK bear case as realistic, with Tesla projected to sell 1.7 million cars in 2023 and earn operating margins close to the auto sector, the pricing per share that you get will be closer to $250/share, with a more realistic share count and time value adjustments, not the $560 that you see on the ARK spreadsheet. As for the bull case, I will leave it untouched, since it strikes me as more fairy tale than valuation, a world where there will be 7.2 autonomous cars on the road in 2023, with Tesla controlling a 70% market share, and generating $52 billion in annual cash flows. I am willing to accept the argument that Tesla is closer to mastering the autonomous car technology than its competitors, but I see a business that is further in the future than 2023, less dominated by Tesla and much less profitable than ARK is assuming it to be. In short, right now, it is more option than conventional going concern value, and even if I believed it, I would make more money selling short on Uber and Lyft, than buying Tesla.

Bottom Line
I did my first valuation of Tesla in 2013, and undershot the mark, partly because I saw its potential market as luxury cars (smaller), and partly because I under estimated how much it would be able to extract in production from the Fremont plant. Over time, I have compensated for both mistakes, giving Tesla access to a bigger (albeit, still upscale) market and more growth, while reinvesting less than the typical auto company. In spite of these adjustments, I have consistently come up with valuations well below the price, finding the stock to be valued at about half its price only a year ago. This year marks a turning point, as I find Tesla to be under valued, albeit by only a small fraction. Even in the midst of my most negative posts on Tesla, I confessed that I like the company (though not  Elon Musk's antics as CEO and financial choices) and that I would one day own the stock. That day may be here, as I put in a limit buy order at $180/share, knowing fully well that, if I do end up as a shareholder, this company will test my patience and sanity. (Update: My limit buy just executed. As a shareholder my risks would be much lower, if Musk was banned from tweeting...) 

YouTube Video

Spreadsheet links

Monday, April 15, 2019

Uber's Coming out Party: Personal Mobility Pioneer or Car Service on Steroids?

After Lyft’s IPO on March 29, 2019, it was only a matter of time before Uber threw its hat in the public market ring, and on Friday, April 12, 2019, the company filed its prospectus. It is the first time that this company, which has been in the news more frequently in the last few years than almost any publicly traded company, has opened its books for investors, journalists and curiosity seekers. As someone who has valued Uber with the tidbits of information that have hitherto been available about the company, mostly leaked and unofficial, I was interested in seeing how much my perspective would change, when confronted with a fuller accounting of its performance.

Backing up!
To get a sense of where Uber stands now, just ahead of its IPO, I started with the prospectus, which weighing in at 285 pages, not counting appendices, and filled with pages of details, can be daunting. It is a testimonial to how information disclosure requirements have had the perverse consequence of making the disclosures useless, by drowning investors in data and meaningless legalese. I know that there are many who have latched on to the statement that "we may not achieve profitability" that Uber makes in the prospectus (on page 27) as an indication of its worthlessness, but I view it more as evidence that lawyers should never be allowed to write about investing risk.

Uber's Business
Just as Lyft did everything it could, in its prospectus, to relabel itself as a transportation services (not just car services) company, Uber's catchword, repeatedly multiple times in its prospectus, is that it is a personal mobility business, with the tantalizing follow up that its total market could be as large as $2 trillion, if you count the cost of all money spent on transportation (cars, public transit etc.)
Uber Prospectus: Page 11
While the cynic in me pushes me back on this over reach (I am surprised that they did not include the calories burnt by the most common transportation mode on the face of the earth, which is walking from point A to point B, as part of the total market), I understand why both Lyft and Uber have to relabel themselves as more than car service companies. Big market stories generally yield higher valuation and pricing than small market stories!

The Operating History
Uber went through some major restructuring in the three years leading into the IPO, as it exited cash burning investments in China (settling for a 20% stake in Didi), South East Asia (receiving a 23.2% share of Grab) and Russia (with 38% of Yandex Taxi the prize received for that exit). It is thus not surprising that there are large distortions in the financial statements during the last three years, with losses in the billions flowing from these divestitures. In the last few weeks, Uber announced a major acquisition, spending $3.1 billion to acquire Careem, a Middle Eastern ride sharing firm. Taking the company at its word, i.e., that the large divestiture-related losses are truly divestiture-related, let’s start by tracing the growth of Uber in the parts of the world where it had continuing operations in 2016, 2017 and 2018:
Uber Prospectus: Page 21
The numbers in this table are the strongest backing for Uber’s growth story, with gross billings, net revenues, riders and rides all increasing strongly between 2016 and 2018. That good news on growing operations has to be tempered by the recognition that Uber has been unable to make money, as the table below indicates:
Uber Prospectus: Pages 21 & 24
The adjusted EBITDA column contains numbers estimated and reported for the company, with a list of adjustments they made to even bigger losses to arrive at the reported values. I convert this adjusted EBITDA to an operating income (loss) by first netting out depreciation and amortization (for obvious reasons) and then reversing the company’s attempt to add back stock based compensation. The company is clearly a money loser, but if there is anything positive that can be extracted from this table, it is that the losses are decreasing as a percent of sales, over time.

The Rider Numbers
One of Uber’s selling points lies in its non-accounting numbers, as the company reported having 91 million monthly riders (defined as riders who used either Uber or Uber delivery at least once in a month) and completing 5.2 billion rides. To break down those daunting numbers, I focus on the per rider statistics to see the engines driving Uber’s growth over time:
Uber Prospectus: Page 21
There is good and bad news in this table. The good news is that Uber’s annual gross billings per rider rose almost 28% over the three year period, but the sobering companion finding is that the billings/ride are decreasing. Boiled down to basics, it suggests that the growth in overall billings for the company is at least partially driven by existing riders using more of the service, albeit for shorter rides. It could also reflect the fact the new riders for the company are coming from parts of the world (Latin America, for instance), where rides are less expensive.  Finally, I took Uber’s expense breakdown in their income statement, and used it to extract information about what the company is spending money on, and how effectively:
Uber Prospectus: F-4 (income statement in appendix)
I make some assumptions here which will play out in the valuation that you will see below.
  1. User Acquisition costs: Using the assumption that user change over a year can be attributed to selling expenses during the year, I computed the user acquisition cost each year by dividing the selling expenses by the number of riders added during the year.
  2. Operating Expenses for Existing Rides: I have included the cost of revenues (not including depreciation) and operations and support as expenses associated with current riders. 
  3. Corporate Expenses; These are expenses that I assume are general expenses, not directly related to either servicing existing users or acquiring new ones and I include R&D, G&A and depreciation in this grouping.
The good news is that the expenses associated with servicing existing users has been decreasing, as a percent of revenues, indicating that not all of these costs are variable or at least directly linked to more rider usage. Also, corporate expenses are showing evidence of economies of scale, decreasing as a percent of revenues. The bad new is that the cost of acquiring new users has been increasing, at least over this time period, suggesting that the ride sharing market is maturing or that competition is picking up for riders.

More than ride sharing?
Uber is a more complicated company to value than Lyft, for two reasons. The first is that Uber is not a pure ride sharing company, since it derives revenues from its food delivery service (Uber Eats) and an assortment of other smaller bets (like Uber Freight). In the graph below, you can see the evolution of these businesses:
Uber Prospectus: Page 114

It is worth noting this table while suggests that while some of Uber’s more ambitious reaches into logistics have not borne fruit, its foray into food delivery seems to be picking up steam. Uber Eats has expanded from 2.68% of Uber’s net revenues to 13.12%. There is some additional information in another portion of the prospectus, where Uber reports its "adjusted" net revenue and gross Billings by business, and it does look like Uber's net take from Uber Eats is lower than its take from ride sharing:
Uber Prospectus: Pages 102 & 103
While it is clear that Uber's ride sharing customers have been quick to adopt Uber Eats, there are subtle differences in the economics of the two businesses that will play out in future profitability, especially if Uber Eats continues to grow at a disproportionate rate.

Unlike Lyft, which has kept its focus on the US and Canadian markets, Uber's ambitions have been more global, though reality has put a crimp on some of its expansion plans. While Uber's initial plans were to be everywhere in the world, large losses have led Uber to abandon much of Asia, leaving China to Didi and South East Asia to Grab, with India being the one big market where Uber has stayed, fighting Ola for market share and who can lose more money. The fastest growing overseas market for Uber has been Latin America, as you can see in the graph below:

Uber does not provide a breakdown of profitability by geographical region, but the magnitude of the losses that they wrote off when they closed their Chinese and South East Asian operations suggests that the US remains their most lucrative ride sharing market, in terms of profitability. 

The Road Ahead : Crafting a story and value for Uber
1. A Top Down Valuation
In valuing Lyft, I used a top-down approach, starting with US transportation services as my total accessible market and working down through market share, margins and reinvestment to derive a value of $13.9 billion for its operating assets and $16.4 billion with the IPO proceeds counted in. Using a similar approach is trickier for Uber, since its decision to be in multiple parts of the logistics business and its global ambitions require assessment of a global logistics market, a challenge. I did an initial assessment of Uber, using a much larger total market and arrived at a value of $44.4 billion for its operating assets, but adding the portions of Didi, Grab and Yandex Taxi pushed this number up to $55.3 billion. Adding the cash balance on hand as well as the IPO proceeds that will remain in the firm (rumored to be $9 billion), before subtracting out debt yields a value for equity of about $61.7 billion.
The share count is still hazy (as the multiple blank areas in the prospectus indicate) but starting with the 903.6 million shares of common stock that will result from the conversion of redeemable convertible preferred shares at the time of the IPO, and adding in additional shares that will result from option exercises, RSUs (restricted stock units issued to employees) and new shares being issued to raise approximately $10 billion in proceeds, I arrive at a value per share of about $54/share, though  that the updated version of the prospectus, which should come out with the offering price, should allow for more precision on the share count. (Update: Based upon news stories today (4/26/19), it looks like the share count will be closer to 1.8 billion to 2 billion shares, which will result in a value per share closer to $31-$33/share).

2. A Rider-based Valuation
The uncertainty about the total accessible market, though, makes me uneasy with my top down valuation. So, I decided to try another route. In June 2017, I presented a different approach to valuing companies like Uber, that derive their value from users, subcribers or members. In that approach, I began by valuing an existing user (rider), by looking at the revenues and cash flows that Uber would generate over the user’s lifetime and then extended the approach to valuing a new user, where the cost of user acquisition has to be netted out against the user value. I completed the assessment by computing the value drag created by non-rider related costs (like G&A and R&D). In the June 2017 valuation, I had to make do with minimalist detail on expenses but the prospectus provides a much richer break down, allowing me to update my user-based valuation of Uber. The valuation picture is below:
This approach yields a value for the equity of about $58.6 billion for Uber’s equity, which again depending on the share count would translate into a share price of $51/share. (Update: Based upon news stories today (4/26/19), it looks like the share count will be closer to 1.8 billion to 2 billion shares, which will result in a value per share closer to $30/share).

Value Dynamics
The benefits of the rider-based valuation is that it allows us to isolate the variables that will determine whether Uber turns the corner quickly and can make enough money to justify the rumored $100 billion value. The value of existing riders is determined by the growth rate in per-user revenues and the cost of servicing a user, with increases in the former and decreases in the latter driving up user value.  The value of new riders, in the aggregate, is determined by the increase in rider count and the cost of acquiring a new rider. One troubling aspect of the growth in users over the last three years has been the increase in user acquisition costs, perhaps reflecting a more saturated market. In the table below, I estimate the value of Uber's equity, using a range of assumptions for the growth rate in per user revenues and the cost of acquiring a new user:
Download spreadsheet
There are two ways that you can read this table. If you are a trader, deeply suspicious of intrinsic value, you may look at this table as confirmation that intrinsic value models can be used to deliver whatever value you want them to, and your suspicions would be well founded. I am a believer in value and I see this table in a different light.
  • First, I view it as a reminder that my estimate of value is just mine, based on my story and inputs, and that there are others with different stories for the company that may explain why they would pay much more or much less than I would for the company. 
  • Second, this table suggests to me that Uber is a company that is poised on a knife's edge. If it just continues to just add to its rider count, but pushes up its cost of acquiring riders as it goes along, and existing riders do not increase the usage of the service, its value implodes. If it can get riders to significantly increase usage (either in the form of more rides or other add on services), it can find a way to justify a value that exceeds $100 billion. 
  • Third, the table also indicates that if Uber has to pick between spending money on acquiring more riders or getting existing riders to buy more of its services, the latter provides a much bigger bang for the buck than the former. 
Put simply, I hope Dara Khoshrowshahi means it when he says that Uber has to show a pathway to profitability, but I think that is what is more critical is that he acts on those words. In my view, this remains a business, whether you define it to be ride sharing, transportation services or personal mobility, without a business model that can generate sustained profits, precisely because the existing model was designed to deliver exponential growth and little else, and Uber, and the other players in this game), have only a limited window to fix it.

Refreshing the Pricing
Having spent all of this time on Uber's valuation, let me concede to the reality that Uber will be priced by the market, and it will be priced relative to Lyft. That is why Uber has probably been pulling harder than almost any one else in the market for the Lyft IPO to be well received and for its stock to continue to do well in the aftermarket. In the table below, I compare key operating numbers for Uber and Lyft, with Lyft's pricing in the market in place:

In computing the metrics, it is worth remembering that Uber and Lyft use different definitions for basic metrics and I have tried to adjust. For instance, Uber defines riders as those who use the service at least once a month and the closest number that I can get for Lyft is their estimate that they had 18.6 million active quarterly riders. Uber is bigger on every single dimension, including losses, then Lyft. I convert Lyft's current market pricing (on April 12, 2019) into multiples, scaling them to different metrics and applying these metrics to Uber:
Download pricing spreadsheet
In computing Uber's equity value from its enterprise value, I have added the cash ($6.4 billion of cash on hand plus the $9 billion in expected IPO proceeds) $ and Uber's cross holdings ($8.7 billion) to the value and netted out debt ($6.5 billion). To get the value per share, I have used the estimated 1175 million shares that I believe will be outstanding, including options and RSUs, after the offering. Depending on the metric that I can scale it to, you can get values ranging from $47 billion to $124 billion for Uber's equity, though each comes with a catch. If you believe that there are no games that are played with pricing, you should think again! Also, as Lyft's price moves, so will Uber's, and I am sure that there are many at Uber (and its investment banks) who are hoping and praying that Lyft's stock does not have many more days like last Thursday, before the Uber IPO hits the market.

I am sure that there are many who understand the ride sharing business much better than I do, and see obvious limitations and pitfalls in my valuations of both Uber and Lyft.  In fact, I have been wrong before on Uber, as Bill Gurley (who knows more about Uber than I ever will) publicly pointed out,  and I am sure that I will be wrong again.  I hope that even if you disagree with me on my numbers, the spreadsheets that are linked are flexible enough for you to take your stories about these companies to arrive at your value judgments.

YouTube Video

Spreadsheets (for valuation)
  1. Uber Valuation - Top Down
  2. Uber Valuation - User-based
  3. Uber Pricing

Other Links
  1. Uber Prospectus (April 2019)
  2. My first and fatally flawed valuation of Uber (June 2014)
  3. Bill Gurley's take down of my Uber valuation (July 2014)
  4. My post on the future of ride sharing (August 2016)
  5. My first user-based valuation of Uber (June 2017)

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Lyft Off? The First Ride Sharing IPO!

Last week, Lyft became the first of the ride sharing companies to announce plans for an initial public officering, filing its prospectus. It is definitely not going to be the last, but its fate in the market will not only determine when Uber, Didi, Ola and GrabTaxi will test public markets, but what prices they can hope to get. My fascination with ride sharing goes back to June 2014, when I tried to value Uber and failed spectacularly in forecasting how much and how quickly ride sharing would change the face of car service around the world. I have since returned multiple times to the scene of my crime, and while I am not sure that I have learned very much along the way, I have tried to right size my thinking on this business. You can be the judge as bring my experiences to play in my valuation of Lyft, ahead of its IPO pricing.

The Rise of Ride Sharing
The ride sharing business, as we know it, traces its roots back to the Bay Area, with the founding of Uber, Sidecar and Lyft providing the key impetus, and its impact on the car service business has been immense. In a post in 2015, I traced out the growth of ride sharing and the ripple effects it has had on the car service status quo, noting that revenues for ride sharing companies have climbed, the price of a taxi cab medallion in New York city has plummeted by 80-90%. The most impressive statistic, for ride sharing companies, is not just the growth in revenues, which has been explosive, but also how much it has become part of day-to-day life, not just for younger, more tech savvy individuals but for everyone.  While the growth was initially in the United States, ride sharing has taken off at an exponential rate in Asia, with India (Ola), China (Didi) and Malaysia (GrabTaxi) all developing home grown ride sharing companies. The regulatory push back has been strong in Europe, slowing growth, but there are signs that even there, ride sharing is acquiring a foothold.

There are many factors that can explain how and why ride sharing so quickly and decisively disrupted the taxi cab business, but the latter was ripe for the taking for may reasons. First, the taxi business in the 2009 had changed little in decades, refusing to incorporate advance in technology and shifting tastes, secure that it did not have to adapt, because it had a captive market.  Second, in most cities, rules and regulations that were throwbacks in time or lobbied for by special interests handicapped taxi operators and gave ride sharing companies, not bound by the same rules, a decisive advantage. Third, automobiles are underutilized resources for the most part, since most cars sit idle for much of the day, and ride sharing companies took advantage of excess capacity, by letting car owners monetize it. Finally, individuals often under price their time and do not factor in long term costs in their decision making and the ride sharing companies have exploited that irrationality. I think that the MIT study in February 2018 that showed absurdly low hourly wages (less than $4/hour) for Uber and Lyft drivers was flawed, but I also don't buy into the rosy picture that the ride sharing companies paint about the income potential in driving. 

It has not been all good news for ride sharing, as usage has increased. While revenues have come easily, the companies have struggled with profitability, reporting huge losses as they grow. Lyft reported losses of $911 million in 2018, in its prospectus, but Uber's loss was $1.8 billion during 2018, Didi almost matched that with a $1.6 billion loss and the only reason that Ola and GrabTaxi lost less was because they were smaller. Put simply, these company are money losing machines, at least at the moment, and if there are economies of scale kicking in, they are showing up awfully slowly. While some of this can be attributed to growing pains, that will ease as these companies age and grow bigger, a significant portion of the profitability shortfall can be attributed to how these businesses are designed. In my 2015 post, I argued that the low capital intensity (where ride sharing companies don't invest in cars) and the independent contractor model (where drivers are not employees), which made growth so easy, also conspired to make it difficult for these companies to gain economies of scale or stay away from cut throat competition. 

The Playing Field
In 2015, I argued, with tongue only half in cheek, that one possible model for the ride sharing companies to develop sustainable businesses was the Mafia's mostly successful attempt to stop intrafamily warfare in the 1930s by dividing up New York city among five families, giving each family its own fiefdom to exploit. (I prefer The Godfather version.). While that may have seemed like an outlandish comparison in 2015, it is interesting that in the years since, Uber has extricated itself from China, leaving that market to Didi, in return for a 20% stake in the company and then from South East Asia, in return for a share of GrabTaxi. In fact, the United States may be the most competitive ride sharing market in the world, with Uber and Lyft going head-to-head in most cities.

While Uber and Lyft are ride sharing companies, their evolution over the last decade offers a fascinating contrast in business models, for young companies. In a post in 2015, I drew the contrast between the two companies, as a prelude to valuing them. Uber was the "big story" company, telling investors that it wanted to be in all things logistics, expanding into delivery and moving, and all over the world. Lyft was the "focused story" company, setting itself apart from Uber by keeping its business in the United States and staying with car service, as its primary business.  I argued in 2015, that given how the two companies were priced, I would rather be an investor in Lyft than Uber. 

In the four years since the post, we have seen the consequences for both companies. While Uber's bigger story gained it a much higher pricing from investors, it has also brought the company a whole host of troubles, ranging from being a target for regulators to management over reach. Travis Kalanick, its high profile CEO, left the company in a messy and public divorce, and Dara Khosrowshahi, who replaced him, has scaled Uber's ambitions down, first globally by getting out of China and Southeast Asia, where it was burning through cash at an exponential rate, and then within the logistics business, by focusing on Uber Delivery as the key add on to car service. Lyft has stayed true to its US and car service focus, and it has paid off in a higher market share in the market. Both companies have jumped on the bike and scooter craze, with Uber buying Jump and Lime and Lyft acquiring Motivate. From the looks of it, neither company seems willing to concede to the other in the US market, and this fight will be fought on multiple fronts, in the years to come.

The Lyft Valuation
When valuing young companies, it is the story that drives your numbers and valuation, not historical data or current financials. I have stayed true to this perspective, in all of the valuations that I have done on ride sharing companies. In this section, I will lay out my story for Lyft, drawing on past behavior and the clues that are in their current plans, but it would be hubris to argue that I have a monopoly on the truth and a claim on the "right" story. So, feel free to disagree with me and you can use my valuation spreadsheet to reflect your disagreements.

The Story
Reviewing Lyft's (very long) prospectus, I was struck by the repetition of the mantra that it saw its future as a "US transportation" company, suggesting that the focus will remain primarily domestic and focused on transportation. While the cynical part of me argues that Lyft's use of the word "transportation" is intended to draw attention to the size of that market, which is $1.2 trillion, Lyft's history backs up their "focused" story. While I am normally leery of management stories for companies, I will adopt Lyft's story with a few changes:
  1. It will stay a US transportation services company: The total market that I assume for US transportation services is $120 billion at the moment, well over two and a half times larger than the taxi cab market was in 2009. That is, of course, well below the size of the transportation market, but the $1.2 trillion that Lyft provides for that market includes what people spend on acquiring cars and does not reflect that they would pay for just transportation services.
  2. In a growing transportation services market: One of the striking features of the ride sharing revolution is how much it has changed consumer behavior, drawing people who would normally never have used car service into its reach. I will assume that ride sharing will continue to draw new customers, from mass transit users to self-drivers, causing the transportations services market to double over the next ten years.
  3. With strong market-wide networking benefits: In 2014, when I first valued Uber, I argued that ride sharing companies would have local, but not market-wide, networking benefits. In effect, I saw a market where six, eight or even ten ride sharing companies could co-exist, each dominating different local markets. Observing how quickly the ride sharing companies have consolidated, over the last few years, I think that I was wrong and that the networking effects are likely to be market-wide. Ultimately, I see only two or three ride sharing companies dominating the US ride sharing market, in steady state. In my story, I see Lyft as one of the winners, with a 40% market share of the US transportation services market.
  4. A sustained share of Gross Billings: The concentration of the market among two or three ride sharing companies will also give them the power to hold the line on the percentage of gross billings. That percentage, which was (arbitrarily) set at 20% of gross billings, when the ride sharing companies came into being, has morphed and changed with the advent of pooled rides and how the gross billing number is computed. Lyft, for instance, in 2018, reported revenues of $2,156 million on gross billings of $8.054 million, working out to a 26.77% share. I will assume that as Lyft continues to grow and offers new services, this number will revert back to 20%.
  5. And a shift to drivers as employees: Since their inception, the ride sharing companies have been able to maintain the facade that their drivers are independent contractors, not employees, thus providing the company legal cover, when drivers were found to be at fault of everything from driving infractions to serious crimes, as well as shelter from the expenses that the would ensue if drivers were treated as employees. As the number who work for ride sharing companies rises into the millions, states are already starting to push back, and in my view, it is only a matter of time before ride sharing companies are forced to deal with drivers as employees, causing operating margins in steady state to drop to 15%.
There are some aspects of this story that some of you may find too pessimistic, and other aspects that others may find too optimistic. You are welcome to download the spreadsheet and make the story your own,

The Valuation
The story that I have for Lyft already provides the bulk of the inputs that I need to value the company. To complete the valuation, I add four more inputs related to the company:
  1. Cost of capital: Rather than try to break down cost of capital into its constituent parts for a company that is transitioning to being a public company, I will take a short cut and give Lyft the cost of capital of 9.97%, at the 75th percentile of all US companies at the start of 2019, reflecting its status as a young, money-losing company. I will assume that this cost of capital will drift down towards the median of 8.24% for all US companies as Lyft becomes larger and profitable.
  2. Sales to capital: While Lyft will continue to operating with a low capital-intensity model, its need for reinvestment will increase, to build competitive barriers to entry and to preserve market dominance. If autonomous cars become part of the ride sharing landscape, these investment needs will become greater, I will assume revenues of $2.50 for every dollar of capital invested, in keeping with what you would expect from a technology company.
  3. Failure rate: Given that Lyft continues to lose money, with no clear pathway to generating profits, and that it will remain dependent on external capital providers to stay a going concern, I will assume that there is a 10% chance that Lyft will not survive as a going concern
  4. Share Count: Lyft posits that it will have 240.6 million shares outstanding, including both the class A shares that will be offered to the public and the class B shares, with higher voting rights, that will be held by the founders. It also discloses that it did not include in the share count two share overhangs: (1) 6.8 million shares that are subject to option exercise, with a strike price of $4.68, and (2) 31.6 million restricted shares that had already been issued to employees, but have not vested yet. I will include both of these in shares outstanding, the options because they are so deep in the money that they are effectively outstanding shares and the restricted stock because I assume that the employees that have large numbers of RSUs will stay until vesting, to arrive at a total share count is 279.03 million.
Finally, the company has not made explicit how much cash it hopes to raise from the initial public offering, but I have used the rumored value of $2 billion in new proceeds, which will be kept in the firm to cover reinvestment and operating needs, according to the prospectus. With these assumptions in place, my valuation of Lyft is below:
Download spreadsheet
My story for Lyft leads to a value of equity of approximately $16 billion, with the $2 billion in proceeds includes, or $14 billion, prior to the IPO cash infusion. Dividing by the 279 million shares outstanding, computed by adding the restricted shares outstanding to the share count that the company anticipates after the IPO, yields a value per share of about $59. Any story about young companies comes with ifs, ands and buts, and the Lyft story is no exception. I remain troubled by the ride sharing business model and its lack of clear pathways to profitability, but I think Lyft has picked the right strategy of staying focused both geographically (in the US) and in the transportation services business. I also am leery of the special voting rights that the founders have carved out for themselves, but that seems to have now become par for the course, at least with young tech companies. Finally, the possibility that one of the big technology companies or even an automobile company may be tempted to enter the business remains a wild card that could change the business.

The Lyft Pricing
I am a realist and know that when the stock opens for trading on the offering day, it is not value that will determine the opening bid, but pricing. In the pricing game, investors look at what others are paying for similar companies, scaling to some common operating variable. With publicly traded companies in mature sectors, this takes the form of an earnings (PE), cash flow (EV/EBITDA) or book value (Price to Book) multiple that can then be compared across companies. With Lyft, investors will face two challenges.

  • The first is that it is the first ride sharing company to list, and the only pricing that we have for other ride sharing companies is from venture capital rounds that are sometimes dated (from the middle or early last year). 
  • The second is that every company in the ride sharing business is losing money and the book values have no substance (both because the companies are young and don't invest much in physical assets). 
Notwithstanding these limitations, investors will still try, by scaling to any operating number that they can find that is positive, as I have tried to do in the table below:

It is true that there is substantial noise in the VC pricing numbers and that the operating numbers  for some of these companies are rumored or unofficial estimates. That said, desperation will drive investors to scale the VC pricing to one of these numbers with the gross billings, revenues and number of riders being the most likely choices. Uber has the highest pricing/rider and that the metric is lowest for the Asian companies, which have far more riders than their US counterparts; the revenue per rider, though, is also far lower in Asia than in the US. The companies all trade at high multiples of revenues and more moderate multiples of gross billings. In the table below, I have priced Lyft, using Uber's most recent pricing metrics as well as global averages, both simple and weighted:

To the extent that you accept these metrics, the pricing for Lyft can range from $5 billion to $22 billion, depending on your peer comparison (Uber, Global average, Global weighted average) and your scaling variable (Gross Billings, revenues or riders). In fact, if I bring in the rumored pricing of Uber ($120 billion) into the mix, defying circular logic, I can come up with pricing in excess of $30 billion for Lyft.  I think that they are all flawed, but you should not be surprised to see Lyft and its bankers to focus on the comparisons that yield the highest pricing.

Given the way the pricing game is structured, the pricing of the Lyft IPO is going to be watched closely by the rest of the ride sharing companies, since there will be a feedback effect. In fact, I think of pricing as a ladder, where if you move one rung of the ladder, all of the other rungs have to move as well. For instance, if investors price Lyft at $25 billion, about 12 times its revenue in 2018, Uber will be quicker to go public and will expect markets to attach a pricing in excess of $130 billion to it, given that its revenues were more than $11 billion in 2018. The Asian ride sharing companies, where rider numbers are high, relative to revenues, will try to market themselves on rider numbers, though it is not clear that investors will buy that pitch. Conversely, if investors price Lyft at only $12 billion, Uber may be tempted to wait to go public, and continue to tap into private investors, with the caveat being that those investors will also lower their pricing estimates. The pricing ladder can lead prices up, but they can also lead prices down, and timing is the name of the game.

The Waiting Game
It is still early and there is much that we still do not know. While some of the uncertainties will not be resolved in the near future, we will learn more specifics about the offering itself, including the amount that Lyft plans to raise on the offering day, over the next few weeks. Sometime soon, we will also get the a pricing of the company from the bankers that have been given the task of taking the company public, and I use the word "pricing" rather than "valuation" deliberately. The bankers' job is to price the company for the IPO, not value it. Not only should any talk of value from them be discounted, but if you do see a discounted cash flow valuation from a bank for Lyft, you can almost bet that it will be a Kabuki valuation, where they will go through the motions of estimating valuation inputs, when the ending number has been pre-decided.

YouTube Video

  1. Prospectus for Lyft
  2. Lyft Valuation
  3. Lyft Pricing
Posts on Ride Sharing (from 2015)