Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The CPF Conundrum Explained - Part 2

This is a continuation of the previous post on CPF

In the last post, we spoke about topping up 7k to get tax relief and also earn 4%pa. From an investment perspective, this 7k top up will earn 6-7% guaranteed IRR over time. This is damn good return which why it is capped at only 7k per year. There are also other things that we should do. Here's a recap of the three top ups.

1. We should top up $7,000 in our Special Account every year.
2. We should top up whatever we had withdrawn from our CPF (usually for mortgage) asap.
3. We should top up CPF for our loved ones to the extent possible.

We also explained CPF Life. For the benefit of new readers, let's just recap also. CPF Life is a scheme to make sure that everyone will have enough to draw out because some Singaporeans, unfortunately, actually don't have enough in their CPFs. We do not actually know how many percent, some blogs out there says like 75% of Singaporeans don't have enough while the Government says more than 50% have enough. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between but the impt angle is that whatever money that had been put away in the CPF, do not just disappear, the contributors or their nominees would eventually get them back. It won't be eaten up by the Govt. People go to legal courts to get this back from mistresses or illegitimate sons/daughters or domestic helpers. So no, the Singapore Gahmen, despite the many flaws, does not usurp our CPFs. 

Hence we are not discussing if the Gahmen would give us this money or not. It is a given that it would come back. For our purpose today, we would determine that the returns on the three types CPF top up are actually very lucrative. We have already done that for the first one in the last post.

Back to CPF Life, this is a scheme structured as an annuity that will pay out a fixed amount, usually three or four digits payout per month, until death. The amount that we have contributed will definitely come back to us, just not in one lump sum but over our remaining years. The interest earned does not belong us and this goes into the pool to benefit others. If we outlive our contributions, we benefit and take from the pool. If we do not, the remainder less interest earned goes to our kids, or our nominees. In short, CPF Life is a very sustainable scheme. It is not a way for the government to usurp our monies. 

The whole issue is being made complex bcos CPF is almost always used to buy properties. Trading real estate is a national pastime and huge fortunes had been made and lost. It gets even more complicated bcos whatever that we used from the CPF to buy properties had to be put back, with interest. This rule, while logical, really creates one problem which is also the crux of some of the arguments out there. Hence:

2. We should top up whatever we had withdrawn from our CPF (usually for mortgage) asap.

To put simply, when money is in our CPF, we earn interest on it, this is around 2.5-4% in 2018. But when we use this to buy property, we lose this interest and we have to top it up some day, supposedly. In reality, almost nobody tops this up bcos over time, due to the nature of compound interest, this amount explodes! Just a simple illustration, say we took out $100k to buy a property from CPF. If we have to top it up after 20 years, based on a compound interest of 2.5%, the full amount is $100k principal + $63k in interest! This is $163k. If we took out $200k, it would be around $326k to put back in CPF. These are no small sums. By taking this $100-200k in the first place, we "lost" the opportunity to earn $63-126k of interest. Shit right?

Again, in reality, we might not need to ever "pay" this. Since property bought using CPF can be pledged for many things, including the minimum sum that we talked about and when we hit 55, the government would also not dictate that we pay back this lost interest, since we are legally allowed to withdraw money out of CPF by that age.

So why the fuss of topping up?

Let's review from an investment angle here. When we draw money out of CPF to buy property, we are actually choosing between two alternatives: CPF or mortgage from the bank. The mortgage from the bank will actually cost us interest. In 2018, it is SIBOR at 80bps plus another 70bps which means 1.5%. This is quite low by historical standards but still it's money out of our pockets. CPF, in contrast, is 0%, since it's our money. And when we do need to "top up" back to CPF, it's still our money, so in essence it is a 0% borrow. So between borrowing at 0% or 1.4%. It is then logical to borrow at 0% right? Albeit it's borrowing from ourselves. Taking this one step further, since if money is left in CPF, it would earn 2.5% which is more than the 1.4% borrowing cost, in fact, we should borrow more and keep the CPF money and earn that 0.9% spread! Alas, the banks are not stupid and there is a limit as to how much we can borrow.

This banker and others won't let you borrow w/o emptying your CPF!

So this is the first part. Strike a balance, although somewhat up to the bank discretion, between CPF and mortgage. Then assuming everything goes well. At some point we need to decide between prepaying the mortgage or top up CPF or having cash in our hands. So here's the new decision tree:

i. Prepay mortgage
ii. Top up CPF
iii. Hold cash

To make it more obvious:

i. Prepay mortgage - save 1.4%
ii. Top up CPF - earn 2.5%
iii. Hold cash - earn 0%

Between saving and earning, it's actually the same, so the first option could also be read as "earn" 1.4%. The answer then becomes obvious right? We should top up our CPF! Again, this decision might be frown upon by the banks, so we need to tread carefully. And when the day comes that we are done with our mortgages, then between holding cash and topping up CPF, we should top up CPF. The caveat is of course we always want to have enough cash (around 12 months of expenses) to meet emergency needs. Of course if we have good opportunities to earn more than 2.5%, then we should go for it. But bear in mind that CPF's 2.5% interest is money from the government, we shouldn't waste this opportunity to earn it! In the last post, we also talked about Special Account, which gives 4%, hence all the more we should top up!

As alluded to above, these decisions should also be viewed against other means of allocating money i.e. buying stocks or bonds, but we must understand that investing while almost definitely means more return, usually 5-8% or even more, comes with risks and also less liquidity. We might lose 20% while trying to earn 8%. And once we are invested, like CPF, we cannot take this money out easily. So depending on our age, CPF could be more liquid! Esp for those already in their 40s and 50s.

Having said that, I would give more priority to first clear the mortgage and topping back up CPF as it gives a peace of mind. Sometimes in life, we need to clear some of these literally mind boggling issues to be able to think better and make better decisions. Although that doesn't mean totally not investing. If a good opportunity comes about, money has to be put to work!

3. We should top up CPF for our loved ones to the extent possible.

Finally, on to the last point. Yes we should also top up CPF for our loved ones, usually our parents. This is also limited to $7k per year and also tax-deductible but only to retirees or with some other conditions. Hence the same rules for the previous post applies. The good, or perhaps better thing is that we can also receive the money back in cash from our loved ones if they have enough to spare. 

As mentioned, the risk of doing all this is really regime change, which is a low probability event. The PAP should stay in power for the decade at least given the vote of confidence in 2015 winning almost 70% of the popular vote. Changes to the CPF system while possible would also be gradual and hence the 4% should stay high even if it is changed (maybe 3+%).

So, that's the moral of the story, do think about topping up CPF, especially for 1 and especially for those in the high income tax bracket. For 2 and 3, it should be done for those with spare cash. It will definitely make life easier in the future!

Huat ah!

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The CPF Conundrum Explained - Part 1

CPF had been made into a big political issue in Singapore and confused a great many things for many people. It was first brought up by a certain Roy Ngerng many years back. Then it was brought up in the Noose, starring our beloved Leticia, I mean Michelle Chong! When I think about the whole issue now, over so many years, it really just blurred the whole picture for many. This has been the issue with misinformation. It sometimes takes years to understand the truth. By and large, I think Mr Loo Cheng Chuan who started the 1M65 movement got it right.

If you are young enough to execute Mr Loo's plan pls go ahead. You need to be below 30 years of age. If not, fear not. This post serves to lay down a few action plans that would still help our CPF finances in the future.

Michelle Chong before the Noose

Yeah, she was actually on FHM when she was much younger. But never mind that.

The myth surrounding CPF was that the money put in would never come back to us. There is the minimum sum which is like in six digits, then there is CPF Life which allows you to only take out a few hundred dollars a month, hence the conclusion was that perhaps CPF is just this money sucking machine that usurps 20% of our salaries into government coffers and we would never see them again. As a result, a lot of Singaporeans became very unhappy and would think twice about topping of CPFs.

Okay, but here's what I think we should really do:

1. We should top up $7,000 in our Special Account every year.
2. We should top up whatever we had withdrawn from our CPF (usually for mortgage) asap.
3. We should top up CPF for our loved ones to the extent possible.

WTF? Really? Some readers might be wondering. The following would be detailed explanations for each point and it would take two posts to fully explain. 

1. We should top up $7,000 every year.

This is a scheme that had been put in place for some time, for reasons unclear to me now. Sadly I had not been able to "exploit" this for many years because I too had the notion that money in CPF means gone, so better think twice. Now that I think about it, that was quite stupid. The return on this $7,000 is simply so good that it would make Warren Buffett himself drool and yet a lot of investors in Singapore, I believe, would have failed to exploit this for years. 

The scheme goes like this: top up $7,000 into Special Account (SA) and enjoy tax break on this $7k. On top of that, this $7k stands to earn 4% interest per year compounded! Now for those who are not paying taxes, this might not make too much sense. That's actually like the majority of Singaporeans though, with our Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, ranked higher than US and most EU countries. But for the readers here, I would assume the majority would be income earners and hence paying taxes. So, if your income tax is 10%. You stand to make 10% on this $7k and then 4%pa until 55. Needless to say, if your tax income bracket is at the highest 22%, then you can't wait to put in even more. This is good money right? And what's more, it's guaranteed return. No risk.

Well, there is one risk. The PAP government changes the rules again or collapse all together (then it won't be just CPF we are worried about). Albeit, these can happen. Tomorrow, the Government can say, sorry no more 4%. Only 2%. Or sorry all monies in CPF goes into CPF Life, and you get a few hundred dollars per month until you bye-bye. Yes, these are real risks. But it is also a low probability event. Thanks again, to the political shit stirring some years ago, if the government changes the rules like that, then it would be voted out in the next election, so they would think twice if they want to do something drastically negative. In fact, the 4% on the Special Account had been there for 20 years now despite global interest rates falling to zero and now negative. It is rumoured it might have to change to a floating rate, rather than fixed, but still, it shouldn't be too bad.

Taken from CPF website, SA rate dropped from 5.9% to 4% in 1999 and stayed at 4% ever since

In fact, the story was that in the past, there was no limit as to how much you can put into the Special Account, so some smart aleck put in millions and earned 4% on that! Say, he put in $2m, after cashing out from his condo en-bloc windfall, that's $80k per year, from the government! So, there's a cap now, and it is actually stipulated at *drumrolls* the minimum sum, or what is now renamed as the retirement sum which is $186,000 today. And no prizes on why we can only top up $7,000 per year.

So, is it really as big a risk? And to us or to the Gahmen?

The other big mitigating factor is our age. Based on the age poll some years back, it seemed that most readers here would be in their late 20s, or early 30s. Some, would be in their 40s or 50s. Now if you are in your 50s, this is a no brainer, just top up whatever needs to be top up since you would be getting back in a few years. It's not too different than locking some money into a two or three year fixed deposit. Except, this gives 4%! Whereas fixed deposit is more like 0.5%. Just go dump those cash into CPF! For some of us in our 40s, in a decade plus, we will also get this money back. Yes we can deploy in stocks which could earn more than 4%, but we might also incur losses. So, it really make sense to put 7k into this.

CPF is supposedly guaranteed. This means 4%pa until 55 years old. With the magic of compound interest, the money doubles about every 15 years. So, if you are 40 this year, the 7k put in would be almost 14k when you hit 55. In fact, if you start putting in 7k at the age of 35, you will hit the minimum sum which means whatever excess money can be drawn out when you hit 55. The minimum sum though will stay in CPF to be put into CPF Life. This is the rule of the game now. So, the political shit storm is stirring up that this rule is unfair. Change it. Well, we cannot bet on that right? Even if we vote out PAP, there is no guarantee that WP will change it. So rather than waiting for something unlikely to happen, it's much better to play the game by the current rules well. Trying to change the rule is like arguing against offside with the referee in soccer parlance.

The other trivial point is that it's 7k. Not 100k. 7k can't even buy a car bonnet these days. Putting in 7k for a good 10+% return in the first year and 4% perpetually is good investing (although it's more like 6% IRR from age 40 to 55 though). Hence, the first actionable item is to top up $7k every year. This should be one of the new year resolution!

Next post, we discuss the other top ups.

PS: A short explanatory note on CPF Life. CPF Life is scheme to make sure that everyone will have enough to draw out because some Singaporeans, unfortunately, actually don't have enough in their CPF. Hence CPF Life is structured as an annuity that will pay out a fixed amount (a few hundred dollars per month) until death. The amount that we have contributed will definitely come back to us or our nominees, just not in one lump sum but over our remaining lifetimes. The interest earned does not belong us and this goes into the pool to benefit others. If we outlive our contribution, we benefit and takes from the pool. If we do not, the remainder will go to our kids, or our nominees. CPF Life is a very sustainable scheme.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Thoughts #23: Honesty and Integrity

It is very difficult to hide intent and the truth will always be revealed. This is because we are all sentient beings. We can feel, empathize and understand other sentient beings. That is why even though animals do not speak, we feel for them. Dog owners intuitively know if their dogs are happy or sad, sick or about the face death. 

In many sense, this is very similar to stocks. Truth is intrinsic value. The reason why stocks will always revert to its intrinsic value it because that is the true value. It cannot trade way above or below its intrinsic value forever. If it is way below, someone, someday will take over and benefit from it. Conversely, if it trades above, it will fall. Or in case of an overpaid buyout, someone will suffer. The example that comes to mind is Time Warner overpaying for AOL.

This is the same with lying, dishonesty and doing things without integrity. 

Someone, someday will figure it all out. Well it depends on the scale and atrocity of it all. If you lied about test score and burnt the test paper, maybe your parents will not find out this time. But do it enough, the truth comes out. Good deeds and bad deeds cancel out. You can make amends. Alas, we are just too lazy to do that right? If we got away once, we will do it again. Hence the saying, 

"Don't go down the slippery slope."

There are people who doesn't believe in all this crap. They believe that can forever puff it up and pretend they are something that they are not. Well, after all, Trump did become President and Jack the Ripper did get away. They believe there are ways to be rich, or famous, or powerful, with lies, threats, dishonesty, dis-integrity and Ra-Ra. They believe they can have enjoy the fruits of success without putting in the effort.

Courtesy of Wall Street Club

This is very similar to some stocks that sell some castle-in-the-sky story and skyrocket to the moon. They believe this can go on forever. But sadly when you are judged by the stock market, with millions of intelligent investors, the truth will always come due. You can punch above your weight for a while, but the market will knock you out sooner or later. The Enron story comes to mind (chart above and link below).

That is what I see happen to people who ra-ra too much in real life as well. Other people see the intent and the truth behind the puff, smoke and lies because we are all sentient beings. Trump's debacle is playing out. He will go down in history books as the only US President who got impeached twice. I believe we have not seen his bottom yet. If he doesn't hit bottom that can only mean in his life, he had done enough good things to offset the bad that we don't see. 

So, if we adhere to be true value investors, buying stocks below their intrinsic values maybe we should strive to live a life of honesty and integrity, don't ra-ra, punch our weight right, not above and not below. Strive to promise and deliver (not over-promise and under-deliver). Compound our own intrinsic value the hard way, with discipline and effort.

Huat Ah!

Thursday, February 25, 2021

How to Navigate this Pandemic Bubble?

Bubbles and crises are part and parcel of investing in financial markets. Over the last 40 years, we have seen the following bubbles and crises (well that is the more famous ones):

1. The Japan property and stock market bubble (1989)
2. The Asian Financial Crisis (1997)
3. The Dotcom bubble (2000)
4. China and the Commodity Super Cycle (2005)
5. The Global Financial Crisis (2008)
6. The Pandemic Crisis and now the Pandemic Bubble (2021)

These are times when a lot of money is made and lost. Well, for most people, it's money lost. That is the nature of bubbles. It sucks up a lot of money taken from a lot of people and benefits a few. Bubbles does not create value and since that is the case, more people will lose money than make money. 

It took me a while to understand this. 

It is not easy to make money in a bubble. We think it's easy. In this internet era, we see people publishing how much money they made in a matter of days. We think we can do it too. Well, it doesn't work that way. It's mostly just luck, like winning the lottery. It is not a repeatable process. 

So this is the guy who has made more than twenty million in a matter of days because he bought and held Gamestop. He goes by many names, rollingkitty, deepfuckingvalue or DFV and also Keith Gill. He did it. We think we can be like him. Just follow him. Buy Gamestop. It is going to the moon, Mars or Jupiter. Buy the whole stock market now

This is greed at its best. Greed is the force that creates bubbles and make them bigger. They become so big they are mesmerizing. We just want to be part of it! When we see our neighbour, friend, classmate or simply a random guy on the internet get rich, we think we can do it too. This is not like Olympics, or running a marathon, we just click a button to buy right? 

Yeah right.

As an adult, I have lived through the dotcom bubble and the rise of China and the commodity super cycle. Back then, I did not have the experience nor the funds to make it big. I have been hoping that the next bubble will come and I can then make a ton of money. Well it has arrived. I made some right bets, but overall, it's nothing to shout about. The greed-at-its-best moment is upon me too!

I wished I had more of those multibaggers shown here. But as a student of value investing, their valuations just didn't make sense. This bubble is also complicated by QE Infinity. Traditional valuations no longer work. Stocks with negative earnings and cashflow can go up 700% because money is so cheap. Buyers are also powered by social media idolizing false gods. It can still go bigger, but we simply cannot buy now. We will lose our shirts!

The right thing to do is to continue to practice value investing and to look for value. Buy when price is significantly less than value. The party will come to an end and things will crash. The time to buy is when things overshoot on the downside. It will be a difficult call. Longer term, QE Infinity will cause inflation and asset prices to rise again. So we have to buy at some point. Just not now.  

The saving grace is that I do have enough of the old economy names that have done okay (some of the Dow names above). I will be looking to trim because this party will end. We are dancing near midnight at Cinderella's party but the clock has no hands. It is best to leave early before everything turns into mice and pumpkins.

Meanwhile stay safe! 

Friday, February 12, 2021

Charts #37: QE and Property

Three charts for today.

US property prices keep rising despite COVID-19.

HK property prices not falling despite umbrella riots and COVID-19. This is the power of QE. Do not fight the Fed.

Another chart to drive the point home. Apple's market cap hit 2.34 trillion dollars. We were so excited then it was closing in one trillion just 18 months ago.

Do not fight the Fed.

Happy Chinese New Year! Huat Ah!

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Gamestop War: Trolls vs Wall Street

Gamestop is a game retailer in secular decline which was made worse by the pandemic. Well, it's in decline simply because we buy consoles from Amazon and games itself are now downloaded online so there is no reason to visit Gamestop ever again. But in recent days, Gamestop found itself becoming the epicentre of an epic war. Its stock price rose 1700% as the internet generation wanted to make a statement to Wall Street. 

Gamestop's meteoric rise from $20 to over $300 in days

The statement was made on Reddit. War rallies on social media to save Gamestop from evil Wall Street hedge funds shorting the stock to bankruptcy. Gondor calls for aid. And Rohan will answer. Yes, they were answered. Millions of gamers and internet trolls bought Gamestop and drove the share price up so that short sellers will get hurt. They won the first battle, some hedge funds sold and a few even went bankrupt.

Gamestop on a rollercoaster

Two days ago, on 28 January 2021, Wall Street fought back. Various trading accounts, using share price manipulation as the reason, restricted trading on the name, driving the share price down from $469 to $132, an over 70% drop. The saga did not end, millions of Robinhood account holders complained and the restrictions were lifted. The stock proceeded to rise over 100%! So the fight continues. This is yet another manifestation that we are in this pandemic induced bubble. Irrationality overwhelms and share price volatility explodes.

Meme on reddit

We know this is not going to end well. Gamestop will not be saved (for the simple reason that Gamestop doesn't have an intrinsic value of USD22 billion) and many people will lose their shirts. 

Caveat Emptor!

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Are We In A Bubble?

Well, the answer is yes. 

A slew of reputable investors have come out to say we are in a bubble. When I say reputable, we are not even talking about David Einhorn or Dan Loeb. Here's market veteran Jeremy Grantham who has studied bubbles over 50 years and he is telling us, we are in a bubble and this may become the biggest bubble we have seen.

There are a few characteristics about bubbles. First it is when valuations are inexplicable. Look at Tesla.

Tesla's share price

We discussed this before. This company has never made money for shareholders. It produces less than 500,000 cars and yet it is now bigger than almost all of the global automakers combined. In a bubble, it is easy to just look at the stock price. Nothing else really matters. Dividends, accident and safety record, resale value. Well, who's tracking anyways. People who bought Tesla look like heroes. Most would not have done thorough analysis but who cares. They made a lot of money and Elon Musk is their god. 

The second characteristic is about people. We know we are in a bubble when everyone is crazy about stock markets. In the past, it was when grandmothers ask for stock tips. This time, it is exhibited over the social media. It started a few years with bitcoin. Remember ICOs? Then Robinhood allowed account holders to buy bitcoins. Bitcoin is now back with a vengeance. 

Bitcoin's twin peaks

The other day, my friend asked over social media whether it is a good idea to invest in bitcoin. He had already bought and he was seeking confirmation whether it was the right decision. I did not have the heart to tell him he was playing with fire. Sure, there is money to be made. Who knows if bitcoin can hit $100,000? That will be more than 100% upside from here. But it is impossible to predict. The party could end in a few months and bitcoin could be back at $4,000.

In the earlier bitcoin bubble during 2017-2018 when ICOs became the craze and soon got into issues, it was a similar situation. The same hyperbolic chart (above) and the same likelihood things can go really wrong. It did crash and burn. But few would have seen it coming back in two years and becoming so much bigger. Deja vu at its best!

The last characteristic relates to compounding and hyperbolic charts. Stock markets over time follow compounding charts and not hyperbolic charts. It is very subtle but important. All investors should understand this.  The chart below shows Nasdaq. As with bitcoin, it went hyperbolic in 1999 and it is going hyperbolic now. When that happens, it has to crash. We just don't know when. It can last another year, or two or even three but it cannot go hyperbolic forever.

Nasdaq over 50 years

The next chart shows how healthy compounding looks like. Costco is the best retailer in the world. It gives customers a value proposition by selling things cheap in bulk. This discount is passed on to its customers who pay an annual membership fee. It is said that Costco is simply earning membership fees because it sells products at cost to its members. But because Costco provides such a strong value proposition, it compounds. It has done so over 40 years and will continue to compound healthily. No bubble here.

Costco since 1980s

As you can see, the difference is very subtle. The Costco chart and the Nasdaq chart differs only during 1999 and maybe today. When we stretch out the x-axis over time, the Nasdaq bubble in 1999 does not seem so bubblish. Over time, like 40-50 years, it becomes a blip. But people who rode it up in 1999 and failed to get out lost their shirts. Today feels like 1999. We don't want that to happen to us.

There is a natural order to growth. A bubble grows by sucking everyone to buy in a very short time and money eventually runs out. Costco grows its earnings slowly, providing value proposition to consumers. It will continue to grow steadily until every single household in the world becomes its member and even then, it can continue to increase its product mix, continuing to provide value.

Bubbles are not about providing value, it is feeding on people's fear and greed. The fear of missing out and the greed to make a quick buck. Hence, bubbles always burst. We may be in the biggest one ever. Let's be really careful in 2021. 

In the next post, we will explore a bit more about this pandemic bubble. 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Books #11: The Starbucks Experience

The Starbucks Experience is an interesting quick read that served to remind us what it takes to be the best. We have to think bigger and broader than our competitors and be the best that we can be. Here's two lessons:

1. Great companies (or great individuals for that matter) are always at 100%. Everything matters and no details can be overlooked. We all have our up and down days but to be truly great, we strive to be the best all the time. Great sportsmen, great companies are constantly doing that. That is what it takes to be at the top of the game.

2. Embrace resistance. Nothing in nature grows without facing limiting forces. To work with resistane effectively, one must distinguish between good and bad criticism. We take heed of good criticism while ignoring those that are not true. It is also essential to correct misinformation swiftly. By taking these steps well, we can then grow.

There are only very few retail food chains that has grown so big and sustained for so long. After reading the book, I gained a better understanding why Starbucks is one of them, always trading at very high PER and is currently a USD 120bn company despite its business being brick-and-mortar and being hit badly by the coronavirus.

This is a stock that I would love to own someday. Happy holidays and wising everyone a huat 2021 ahead!

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Fall and Rise of Disney

In March 2020, when the coronavirus hit the US and everyone panicked and bought all the toilet paper off supermarkets, Disney's share price was flushed into the sewers as well. Its theme parks suffered with catastrophic fall in revenue as visitors number collapsed. Its movie business was similarly hit as people stopped going to the cinemas. Share price fell from USD 150 to USD 85. This stock was labelled as the covid-hit name. Avoid it like the plague!

Fast forward to December 2020, its share price hit USD 175, an all time high. Its market cap at USD 318bn is almost 50% bigger than Netflix and also Comcast, owner of Universal Studios. It has beaten Netflix at its own game with the spectacular success of Disney Plus, its newly launch streaming service. Disney now boasts c.100m subscribers across its various streaming services (Disney, ESPN and Hulu). While this is still smaller than Netflix's 195m subs, Disney has far superior content and should catch up in time. 

The Walt Disney Company (its official name) has always been a unique company. Its larger-than-life eponymous founder/creator built the company by creating a mouse, an animated rehash of a fairy tale about a maiden and a poison apple and then dreamed about theme parks where stars are born. They became huge successes and Walt Disney captured people's hearts and minds as one of the most intriguing rag-to-riches stories in modern times.

About 15 years ago, the company made a few spectacular acquisitions under the watch of Bob Iger, a visionary CEO. In 2005, Disney bought Pixar, the hottest 3D animation studio in town from Steve Jobs. Then in 2009, it bought Marvel Studios for USD 4bn. It was lauded as a crazy move because nobody was reading comics and just a few years ago, Sony paid just USD 10m for Spiderman. Back then (and here's the punchline), the most famous superhero wore underpants on the outside and he wasn't even a Marvel character.

Well, as they say, the rest is history. On hindsight, its success was almost inevitable.

To crown it all, in 2012, Disney bought out George Lucas and acquired all the rights to the Star Wars franchise (again for c.USD 4bn). It then launched the last trilogy in the original Skywalker storyline with a disastrous ending. But fans didn't care, they just couldn't get enough of Star Wars. So Disney created all these spinoffs on the various characters (pic above). The current hit, The Mandalorian propelled the franchise back into people's mind during COVID-19 and Disney racked it all in. This is Disney's way.

As the story unfolds, COVID-19 hit its Park, Experience and Products as well as its Studio Entertainment businesses bad, but its Media Network and Direct-to-Consumer (where Disney Plus and other streaming services are housed) will be picking up the slack and bringing the company's profits back (see table below). In terms of cashflow, the company has also shown its operational prowess by diligently cutting cost and preserving cash. It managed to generated USD 3.5bn of free cashflow in the year ending Oct 2020. 

With its current all time high stock price, this is probably not the time to buy the stock. Today's valuation put Disney at 4.5x 2019 price-to-sales which is based on its pre-COVID historical high revenue and 25x 2018 PER. Again, this was the year it has its highest EPS at c.USD 7. In 2018, it also generated its highest ever annual FCF at c.USD 10bn. Off this high FCF base (who knows when it can do FCF of USD 10bn again, it could be 2022 or 2023 or beyond), it is trading at c.3% FCF yield today. It is not crazy internet valuation but it's just not cheap. We value investors need our margin of safety.

COVID-19 however did present the opportunity to better understand Disney. This is a solid compounder like 3M, Starbucks and Diageo. Compounders just bounce back much faster than mediocre, crappy firms. Disney has the best content and the best platforms: theme parks, stores and now streaming networks leveraging on its valuable first-class franchises, creating value simply by telling stories. Like the heroes in its stories, Disney is also bold, innovative and most importantly resilient. Disney doesn't need vaccine, it has immunity!

In future posts, we hope to dissect its various businesses and better understand this solid compounder. 

This is the way!