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投资者为何看低大盘科技股

Kevin Kelleher 2011年06月13日

二十世纪八、九十年代的热门科技股已蜕变为价值型股,而Facebook、LinkedIn之流却大行其道。市场定价是否冷热不均?

    科技股投资者已经晕了头?本月,去年赚20亿美元的Facebook获得了近1,000亿美元的估值,社交网站LinkedIn上市后市值达到营收的17倍,而中国版的Facebook——人人网——上市后市值达到营收的52倍,许多怀疑论者认为,科技股已重新进入非理性繁荣时期。

    但是这次出现了新的动向:投资者们一方面非理性地高估热门的初创网络公司,一方面却又非理性地低估相对冷门、但却成熟的科技巨头。不同于1999年的互联网泡沫,当时微软(Microsoft)、思科系统(Cisco)等巨头的股票估值都一飞冲天; 而到了2011年,大型科技股却集体式微——微软、思科系统以及惠普(HP)、英特尔(Intel)等品牌公司的静态市盈率都不到10倍,低于标准普尔500指数17.3倍的平均市盈率。

    二十世纪八、九十年代时科技板块是成长股的天下。IT支出每年以10%-15%的速度增长,早早进驻微软、英特尔和戴尔(Dell)的投资者们坐享高达50,000%的股价涨幅。但伴随着巨大的成功,企业增速开始放缓。预计今年微软、英特尔的营收和利润增幅仅为10%- 20%。

    通常,增长一般、市盈率低于10倍的公司都被视为价值型投资——即股价已跌破基本面隐含价值,对投资者具有价格吸引力的股票。眼下大型科技股带有很多价值型股的印记。除了低估值,它们还具有强劲的资产负债表和成熟的管理团队,对风险采取保守应对措施。

    理论上,市场会自动修正失衡,令价值型股回到应有价格水平。但在大型科技股身上尚未出现这种现象:尽管经济开始复苏,这些利润增速高于均值的大型科技股票估值仍低于均值。为什么会出现这种现象?假以时日,大型科技股能否反弹?很多分析师都试图破解这个谜团,但迄今仍无人能给出令人信服的答案。

    去年11月,Bernstein Research的分析师托尼•萨康纳吉发布的一份报告引发了一些讨论。萨康纳吉指出,标准普尔500指数中的科技股估值与整体指数一致。这是1991年以来从未出现过的。过去20年里相比大盘其他股票,大市值科技股享有30%的估值溢价。

    2月初,标准普尔(Standard & Poor's)的资深股票分析师斯考特•凯斯勒计算了标准普尔500指数中的科技股市盈率,发现仍比整体指数低25%。凯斯勒认为,这种反常现象说明“许多大市值科技股有相当的投资价值和升值潜力”。从基本面分析角度,这番分析颇有道理,但自那以来时间已过去了3个半月,科技股的表现依然弱于整体标准普尔500指数。

    而且,这并非因为盈利糟糕。彭博(Bloomberg)统计显示,在标准普尔500指数中,信息技术业的营运利润率中值为21.6%,高于能源业的18.1%和金融业的17.6%。信息技术业不仅是标准普尔500指数中利润率最高的行业,而且大多数公司的利润率都在稳步提升。然而市场对它们的定价仍犹如隔夜之鱼。

    为什么会出现这种情况呢?萨康纳吉和其他人已给出了理论分析,但这可能只回答了一部分问题,不能完全解释这个谜团。有一种理论认为,科技巨头一般不基于一般公认会计原则(GAAP)发布业绩,这一原则要求将股票期权保守地计为费用。

    这种理论认为,科技公司的非GAAP利润相对于遵循GAAP的行业人为虚高。但这种观点忽视了两个事实:首先,将非GAAP数据转化为GAAP数据对于大多数分析师和机构投资者而言只是一个简单的数学问题;其次,近期很多估值高得吓人的科技股同样没有遵循GAAP标准。为什么这些科技股却全身而退?

    另一种理论是大型科技公司囤积了太多现金: IBM手头有130亿美元现金,谷歌(Google) 有360亿美元,而微软则有500亿美元。投资者“劫持”这些股票——压低它们的股价(和股票期权价格),迫使公司派息。

    这种理论也站不住脚。这样的股东行动也许会对某一家公司管用,但对整个行业的作用有限。股息向来有竞争力的微软目前市盈率仍低于10倍,而持有290亿美元现金、从未派息的苹果(Apple)市盈率现为17倍。此外,微软、IBM和惠普等公司每年通过回购股票向投资者返还的资金都在100亿美元以上。大型科技公司向投资者返现,但投资者根本就不在意。

    第三种理论是大型科技股缺乏吸引力——它们不仅利润增速放缓,传统市场萎缩,而且它们的品牌也已令投资者厌烦。有些科技巨头的情况确实如此。诺基亚(Nokia)拥有庞大的客户基础,但缺乏智能手机平台来维系客户的忠诚度。而思科则正在与定价较低的交换机和路由器供应商苦苦竞争。

    但其他公司的情况不一定如此。市盈率低于均值的IBM公司和惠普都充满信心地预测,(受益于云计算等新计划),公司的年利润增长率一直到2014年都将维持在11%。两位数的利润增长率可能不如Facebook,但对理性投资者应具有吸引力。

    在后PC时代可能停步不前的台式PC操作系统之王微软也在做出大刀阔斧的改变:Kinect上市头两个月售出800万台,是iPad 上市之初销量的两倍。同时,索尼(Sony) Playstation引发的公关危机也让Xbox系统从中受益。而与诺基亚结盟、收购Skype等大胆的交易也预示了微软在移动网络领域的良好前景。

    因此,尽管不乏有将大型科技股作为互联网故纸堆扔掉的念头,仍有一些价值型投资者相信市场将恢复理智。他们其中就有Legg Mason基金经理比尔•米勒,他在1991-2005年间每年的回报率都优于标准普尔500指数,创造了历史。自那以后,米勒的基金表现得就没那么好了。但必须重申的是,价值投资已经今非昔比。

    近日,米勒在致基金投资者的一份报告中谈到了微软。在痛心似乎无人想要那些“无出色表演、不迎合潮流的低价”股票之后,他将重点转向了微软。米勒指出,虽然过去十年微软的净利润增长率达到稳定的11%,但目前该股估值只是1998年(即网络泡沫进入癫狂前的一年)的一半。基于此,米勒有下述论述:

    “[微软]当前市盈率与辉瑞(Pfizer)相仿,但投资研究机构Value Line预计微软的增长率将达到15%,显著高于辉瑞的3- 4%。微软的权益回报率为44%,每个月产生近20亿美元的自由现金流,其收益率显著高于整体市场;微软最近一次股息上调幅度高达23%,且在过去5年间,其已发行股本缩减了20亿股。微软当前的估值完全是非理性的,但正如凯恩斯(Keynes)所言,在市场回归理性之前,你很可能已经破产了。”

    或许上述统计数据对你毫无意义,但对于一个价值型投资者来说,却是对现实的强烈抗议——是在用数字向凯恩斯祈祷。在历史的上一个非理性繁荣时期,这位经济学家曾以冷静的头脑令疯狂的市场重归理性。但那个时代已过去很久了。眼下,科技股投资者再一次失去了理智。

    换言之,投资者依然在进行计算,只是换成了马克•扎尔伯格的算法。没有人知道需要过多久,股票基本面分析才会重新回归简单的算术。如果真有那么一天,投资大型科技股将成为切实可行的好点子,而不仅仅是停留于理论层面。

    Have technology investors lost their bearings? In a month when Facebook, having made $2 billion last year, is valued near $100 billion; when social-network LinkedIn (LNKD) starts trading at 17 times its revenue and RenRen, the Facebook of China, lists its shares at 52 times revenue, many skeptics believe irrational exuberance has returned to tech.

    But this time there's a twist: If investors are irrationally overvaluing hot young web startups, they also appear to be irrationally undervaluing not-so-hot, aging tech giants. Unlike the dot-com bubble of 1999, when giants like Microsoft (MSFT) and Cisco (CSCO) saw their stock valuations surge upward, big tech is languishing in 2011. These days, Microsoft, Cisco as well as other brand names like HP (HPQ) and Intel (INTC), are all trading below ten times their historical earnings. For the S&P 500, the average P/E is 17.3 times earnings.

    In the 80s and 90s, the tech sector was the province of growth stocks. IT spending was increasing by 10%-15% a year, and investors who got in on the ground floor saw the stocks of Microsoft, Intel and Dell (DELL) rise as high as 50,000% over time. But with success comes slower growth. Microsoft and Intel are expected to see revenue and profit growth between 10% and 20% this year.

    Normally, companies with moderate growth and P/E's below 10 are considered value plays -- stocks that have fallen so far below the value implied by their fundamentals they present investors a tempting bargain. Big tech currently has many hallmarks of value stocks: In addition to low valuations, they offer strong balance sheets and seasoned managers who take a conservative approach to risk.

    In theory, the market will correct the imbalance, returning value stocks to their proper price. But this that hasn't happened with big tech: Since the economy began to recover, their valuations have remained below average despite above-average profit growth. And although many analysts have tried, nobody has come up with a convincing answer to why this is happening, or whether big tech will rebound given time.

    Last September, Bernstein Research analyst Toni Sacconaghi published a report that generated some discussion. Sacconaghi noted that tech stocks in the S&P 500 were trading on par with the broader index. That hadn't happened since 1991. During the interim two decades, large-cap tech traded at a 30% premium to the rest of the market.

    In early February, Scott Kessler, a seasoned stock analyst at Standard & Poor's, calculated that P/E valuations of tech stocks in the S&P 500 still priced them at a 25% discount to the broader index. The aberration presented "considerable value in and appreciation potential for many large-cap technology names," Kessler argued. It made good sense through the lens of fundamental analysis, yet in the three and a half months since then the tech sector has continued to underperform the broader S&P 500 index.

    And it's not because of poor earnings. According to Bloomberg, the S&P 500's information technology sector had a median operating margin of 21.6%, higher than the energy sector's 18.1% margin and the financial sector's 17.6% margin. Not only is infotech the index's most profitable sector, profit margins for most companies have been steadily increasing. Yet the market is pricing them like yesterday's fish.

    Why is this happening? Sacconaghi and others have posited theories, but while they may account for part of the answer, none fully answer the mystery. One theory is that few tech giants report earnings according to GAAP, an accounting standard that takes a conservative approach to how companies record stock options as expenses.

    This theory argues that that non-GAAP earnings of tech companies appear artificially high relative to industries that abide by GAAP. But this argument overlooks two things: First, that translating non-GAAP to GAAP is simple math for most analysts and institutional investors. And second, that many recent tech IPOs with obscenely high valuations also don't follow GAAP. So why not punish them too?

    Another theory is that big tech companies are hoarding too much cash: IBM (IBM) has $13 billion in cash on hand, Google (GOOG) $36 billion, Microsoft $50 billion. Investors are holding these stocks hostage -- weighing down their prices (and the value of those stock options) until they pay a dividend.

    This theory also fails to hold water. Such shareholder activism might work on one company, but it's too lame to take on an entire sector. Microsoft, which has long paid a competitive dividend, still has a P/E below 10; while Apple (AAPL), which has never paid a dividend despite holding $29 billion in cash, has a P/E of 17. What's more, Microsoft, IBM and HP have been returning more than $10 billion a year to investors by buying back shares. Big tech is returning cash to investors, and investors simply don't care.

    A third theory is that big tech is simply uncool -- that not only is profit growth for these companies slowing, not only are their traditional markets are drying up, but their brands repel investors. This is certainly true for some tech giants. Nokia (NOK) has a vast customer base but lacks a smartphone platform to keep them loyal. Cisco is struggling to fight off competitors with lower-priced switches and routers.

    But with other companies, it's not necessarily the case. IBM and HP -- which both struggle with below-average P/E ratios -- are confidently projecting profits to grow 11% a year through 2014, thanks to new initiatives like cloud computing. Double-digit profit growth may not be Facebook-worthy, but it should appeal to rational investors.

    And Microsoft, the king of operating software for desktop PCs, may be stuck in the post-PC age, but it's adapting remarkably well: The Kinect sold 8 million units in its first two months, twice as many units as the iPad sold on its launch. The Xbox stands to benefit from Sony's PR fiasco with the Playstation. And gutsy deals like the Nokia alliance and the Skype purchase suggest Microsoft has a future on the mobile web.

    So while it's tempting to cast off big tech as a bloated footnote to the Internet's history, there remain some value investors who still believe the market will return to its senses. One of them is Bill Miller, the Legg Mason fund manager who made history by beating the S&P 500 every year between 1991 and 2005. Miller's funds haven't performed as well since then. But then again, value investing isn't what it used to be.

    In a recent commentary to his funds investors, Miller had a few words about Microsoft. After lamenting that nobody seems to want stocks "that are not 'performing', that have no momentum, and that are cheap," he turned his focus on Microsoft. Although Microsoft has steadily posted earnings growth of 11% for the past decade, Miller noted, its stock trades at half its level in 1998, a year before the dot-com bubble went truly mad. That observation led to this wonky rant:

    "[Microsoft] now trades at a similar price-to-earnings ratio as Pfizer (PFE), which is expected to grow at 3% to 4% vs. MSFT's 15%, according to Value Line. Microsoft earns 44% on equity, generates almost $2 billion of free cash flow every month, yields significantly more than the market, last raised its dividend 23%, and has reduced shares outstanding by 2 billion in the past 5 years. The current valuation is completely irrational, but as Keynes so correctly noted, the market can stay irrational longer than you can remain solvent."

    Maybe that flurry of statistics means nothing to you, but to a value investor it's a cri de coeur -- a mathematical prayer that culminates in a plea to John Maynard Keynes, the economist whose cool mind in a previous era returned rationality to a mad market. But that era is long gone. And, for now, tech investors have gone mad again.

    That is, math is still here, it's just busy with Mark Zuckerberg's algorithms. No one knows how long it will take for simple math to return to stock fundamentals. When it does return, investing in big tech will seem like a good idea in practice, and not just in theory.

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