The easiest way to justify a high PE stock is to say that it has a moat or in other words a sustainable competitive advantage. Once these magic words are uttered, no further analysis or thinking is needed. If there is a moat, it does not matter if the stock sells at a PE of 30 or 70. It is all the same.
On seeing this type of analysis I am reminded of the following the quote from warren buffett
“What the wise do in the beginning, fools do in the end.”
Moat =high PE, but high PE is not always = Moat
A company with a moat may be justified to have a high PE, but a high PE does not mean the mean presence of a moat.
Even if the company supposedly has a moat, it is important to judge the depth and durability of this moat. In addition , the company should also have the opportunity to re-invest future cash flows into the business at high rates of return to create further value.
Lets explore some of these aspects in further detail
More than knee deep
The depth of the moat is simply the excess returns a company can make over its cost of capital. If a company can earn 30% return on capital, we can clearly see that the moat is deep (18% excess return).
This aspect of the moat is the easiest to figure out – Just pick the financials of the company for the last 10 years and check the return on capital of the company. If the average returns are higher than the cost of capital , then we can safely assume that the company had a moat in the past (the future is a different issue).
I personally use 15% return on capital as a threshold. Any company which has earned 15% or higher over an entire business cycle (roughly 3-5 years) is a good candidate for the presence of a moat in the past. Its important not to consider a single year in the analysis as several cyclical companies show a sudden spurt in profitability, before sliding into mediocrity.
The durability factor
The presence of a moat in the past, is only the starting point of analysis.
The key questions to ask are
- Is the moat durable - will the moat survive in the future ?
- How long will the moat survive ?
- Will the moat deepen (Return on capital improve), remain same or reduce.
All these factor are very important in the valuation of a business. Let try to quantify them. I will be using the discounted flow analysis (without doing the math here) and will also be making some simplifying assumptions
- EPS = 10 Rs
- Return on capital (ROC) = 22%
- Growth in profits = 15 %
- Company is able to maintain this return on capital and growth for 10 years. After that the ROC drops to 12% and growth to 8% (leading to a terminal PE of around 12)
If you input the above numbers into a DCF model, the fair value comes to around 230 (PE = 23)
Lets play with these numbers now – Lets assume we underestimated the durability of the moat. The actual life of the moat turns out to be 20 years and not the 10 years when we first analysed the company. If that is the case, the fair value comes to around 430 (PE=43)
I just described the case of several companies such as HDFC bank, Asian paints, Nestle etc. In case of these companies, the markets assumed a certain excess return period, which turned to be too conservative. Anyone who bought the stock at a high looking PE, was actually buying the stock cheap.
The above point has been explained far better by prof. sanjay bakshi in this lecture.
Lets look at a few more happy cases. Lets assume that the company actually ends up earning an ROC of 50% with a growth of 20%. If you plug in these numbers, the fair value turns out to be around 440 (PE=44). I may have just described what has happened to page industries since 2008.
So what are the key points?
So what are the key points?
The market when valuing a company is making an implicit assumption on the future return on capital, growth and the period for which both these factors will last (after which they regress to the averages).
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