I remember a time, perhaps not even 2 years ago, when I was looking at Motorola (MOT) as an investment opportunity, and wondered if Nokia (NOK) is the type of company that would never "get cheap." At that time, and even to this day, Motorola was going through serious problems in their mobile phone division. In contrast, Nokia seemed to be sailing smoothly, gaining market share throughout the world.
My, how things have changed. Nokia's shares hit a decade-low this week, after Nokia's guidance came in weaker than expectations. In particular, the market appears to have voted that Nokia is going to lose the smart phone market. Given how smart phones are forecast to be the ubiquitous mobile phones in a decade, this is a big deal for Nokia.
Given the big decline in share price over the last few years, I felt this was a good contrarian opportunity to investigate. Here is my very preliminary, early, look at the company. My goal has been to avoid investing in mega-caps (since upside is smaller and they are correlated too much to the broad market) but I may make an exception here.
Current State of Affairs
Nokia (NOK) as many of you may know, is a mobile phone manufacturer from Finland. It is the largest mobile phone handset company in the world. Living in North America, it's not obvious that Nokia is the most dominant company. This is mainly because Nokia's smart phone penetration is North America is very low. Brands like iPhone and Blackberry have more powerful brands in North America. From limited reading I have done, it appears that Nokia's brand (not necessarily in smart phones) is pretty strong in emerging markets.
I'm not an expert in the mobile phone market but what appears to be happening is that the dominant incumbent, Nokia, which dominated mobile phones in the early 2000's, is having problems adapting to the newer technology, smart phones. Presently Nokia maintains a dominant position with lower-end mobile phones which have low margins but higher volume. One of the reasons the stock sold off last week was because the product mix is appears to shift towards the lower-end products with lower margins.
Share Price Performance
Just because the stock price is down doesn't mean it's cheaper than before. In many cases, the market marks down the price due to changes in the underlying business. This is partly the case here. Nokia used to dominate the mobile handset market and the market awarded it a really high valuation a few years ago. In 2007, it had a market cap of $157 billion, whereas it is now down to $33 billion. The market has been marking down the P/E ratio from the low 20's to low 10's (abnormal earnings in the last year so it's kind of confusing to rely on P/E ratios.)
The question for potential investors is whether the market has marked it down too much. Or another way to think about it, ignoring market prices, is whether you would be satisfied owning a company with the given normalized earnings (I haven't done any work on figuring out the normalized earnings yet.)
Look at 10 Year Financials
I pulled some key 10 year data from a Morningstar report for Nokia below (click for larger pic):
- It's amazing how much the market cap has changed in a decade. From a TMT-bubble peak of around $202 billion; down to trough of $73 billion in 2004; to a near-term high of $157 billion in 2007; and to the current trough of $33 billion. The market cap is still somewhat high—there aren't too many companies out there sporting a cap of $33 billion—and this is one thing I don't like about this stock. The stock will be highly correlated with the broad market. In some of the European indexes, it is probably one of the largest constituents. The question to figure out is if the underlying business will continually deteriorate or not.
- One other nice thing about this company is that their share count has been declining for years. In the last 5 years, share count dropped around 20%. Management obviously bought back shares at prices far higher than the current price (definitely not a good thing) but at least it does show that management is comitted to reducing shares, as opposed to some technology companies that keep issuing new shares. If I'm not mistaken, the company decided last year (?) not to re-new its share re-purchase plan but if the company does turn the corner, it'll likely reduce the share count in the future.
- Another thing to note is that Nokia is one of the few tech companies that pays a dividend. I believe it's set by a formula and is likely to be cut going forward, but at least you'll get paid for waiting—if you can tolerate a few percent per year for typing up your capital.
- In terms of earnings and cash flow, I have to do more work to figure out what normalized numbers are (the is really tough and the key element of investing, especially for a technology company whose product life cycles are short.) The 2009 earnings number is really low and is likely not representative of normal times. My guess is that Nokia should be able to post net income of around $3 billion. In terms of free cash flow, I think it can earn around $3 billion. Given the current market cap of around $33 billion, if Nokia earns FCF of around $3.3 billion, its FCF multiple would be around 10. If earnings was around $3.3 billion, the P/E ratio would be 10 too. I find those numbers highly attractive for a company with a moat (albeit a small and deteriorating moat.) I have to do more homework to figure out how rosy these earnings are. Nokia is also apparently getting hit by the declining Euro—not sure if this is management excuse or is actually a big deal—so there are some confusing currency effects embedded in the earnings as well.
- Given the poor performance in smart phones, which have higher margins, Nokia's margins are weakening. This is obviously not good news. Investors need to figure out how low the margins can be. If margins continuously decline, it may not be worth investing in this company; it can easily go bankrupt or fall off a cliff like Palm, which used to dominate PDAs at one time.
- The P/E ratio has been contracting over the last 10 years. This makes sense given the deteriorating business. When Nokia was growing rapidly and was at the top of the game, it's P/E was 18 to 20. Since it failed to maintain dominance with smart phones, the market has been marking down the P/E ratio, which may be as low as 11 right now based on normalized earnings (hard to say though.) The cash flow multiple has similarly declined to attractive levels.
It is uncommon to find companies like these at low valuations so that's one reason I'm looking at it. I would have no problem investing in Nokia at normalized P/E ratio of around 10 to 12. I need to figure out what normalized earnings are. In particular, there is great risk that earnings can fall off a cliff in 5 or 6 years if Nokia doesn't gain traction in the smart phone market (or if some new futuristic technology replaces mobile phones.)
Nokia spends around $8 bilion on R&D each year—it's one of the biggest R&D spenders in $ terms—so it's bound to stay in the game longer than many smaller companies, even if the battle gets rough. Although R&D is an expense and deducts from earnings, I like to follow Warren Buffett's thinking that it should be considered as an asset (assuming it isn't wasted outright.) Hopefully Nokia is improving its moat and developing some new technology asset that can be used in the future.
The main risk here is the possibility that Nokia may be completely shut out of the smart phone business and not recover. I'm not as concerned with that risk because selling lower-end phones is not a bad business. Sure, you don't get the hype and glory of an Apple, but the vast majority of people can't afford those products. For instance, majority of the citizens in developing countries can't afford a smart phone yet. Nokia can capitalize on the lower cost products in those countries (although there are other problem in those countries such as pirated/fake/clone phones, and the like.) Tags: Nokia (NOK), watch list actions