July 26th, 2021 | Fundamental Analysis in the Times of Digital Transformation
The Birth of Fundamental Analysis
By definition, Fundamental Analysis is the analysis of the company’s condition (or, health) as well as the market potential with respect to the evolution of the market and the activity of its competitors. In the classic formulation by Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing, fundamental analysis was based on the in-depth analysis of the company’s assets and the ratio between the recent profits and the overall company’s market valuation.
Until this day, “The Intelligent Investor” by Graham (1949, re-edited until the fourth edition in 1973) remains the bible for all value investors out there. Value investors still look into the company’s books and analyze the overall situation in the market including the political situation, interest rates, employment, the housing situation, or income per capita while making investment decisions.
However, is this formulation optimal when it comes to evaluating businesses in times of Digital Transformation? Especially, online businesses based on software rather than manufacturing and protected Intellectual Property such as patents? Let’s take a closer look.
Borrow From The Future
But what about new companies operating in the field of new technologies, such as quantum computing, blockchains, or telehealth? Investing in this area is often referred to as “speculative” about the fact that the prices of assets and companies operating in these markets are explosive and don’t follow the same dynamics as the more “traditional” companies based on manufacturing, construction, engineering, trade, or services involving human factor such as consulting or education.
Indeed, the valuation of these new ventures varies a lot which is mainly because they are hard to value. This is because, in times of digital transformation, the fundamental analysis following the traditional measures such as the price-to-earnings ratio (also known as P/E) is simply impossible. These new businesses are often community-driven, running on the enthusiasm of their developers, and designed to grow for a long time before they will eventually generate any earnings. Or, before the service they provide will get adopted by businesses and individuals.
To be real, in most cases the price-to-earnings ratio of these companies is flat zero. That’s why the valuation of these businesses is based on the prediction of future potential rather than on the current state of affairs. Since these predictions follow the current sentiment in the market, and the crowd’s group fearful or greedy reactions potentiate the price fluctuations on top of that, the prices jump up and down like crazy.
But does it mean that the new businesses created in the times of digital transformation have no intrinsic value at all? Of course not. It just means that the approach to the Fundamental Analysis should get adjusted to this new reality.
How To Do Fundamental Analysis in Times of Digital Transformation?
As mentioned before, since the new projects often have no physical assets and no patents (as they are based on software) and their value is conditioned of the future, the rules of the classic fundamental analysis don’t apply. In this situation, the following three factors become the grounds for the fundamental analysis.
1. The Assessment of the Potential of the Whole Market Sector
The first fundament is the potential of the whole sector. History knows examples of the heavily overvalued markets, the most famous being the tulip mania in the Dutch Golden Age. During this frenzy, the bulbs of rare and fashionable tulips could cost as much as a house or even a ship. As it soon turned out when the bubble popped, the value of the whole tulip industry was flat zero. When the crowd stepped away from tulips as a store of value, their price rapidly dropped toward zero.
Hence, the first question should be: does the whole market have potential? What is the scope of the possible applications? Is this another revolution such as the Internet thirty years ago, or is it yet another bunch of tulips?
2. The Relative Novelty of the Project
The second aspect is the value of the project compared to other projects in the same space. Is the difference quantitative or qualitative? As Peter Thiel likes to say, successful companies don’t compete; they innovate and become leaders of their own niche. Therefore, the question is: what is the added value of the project? What new functionalities does if offer? Are these functionalities easy to copy or reproduce? This sounds trivial but in practice, there are lots of similar projects that go forward head to head despite that clearly, there is only space for one player in the market.
The last important aspect is the credentials of the people involved. This one is tricky too! Even the best idea will remain an idea without the proper execution. Yet, people who become authorities in a certain area, often enjoy the aureola effect and proceed to launch new ventures and sign them with their name despite the lack of proper credentials. As a result, projects with a few famous people on board can still fail.
On Bubbles and Corrections
And sometimes, it so happens that despite the great potential in the long run, a given market is overvalued at the moment, as due to the novel nature of the services that it offers, it hosts lots of new, random projects with no intrinsic market value. The famous DotCom bubble could be a good example here. After the early enthusiasm between 1995-2000, the whole market had to crash in 2001 and then recuperate. It was necessary for the market to maturate and improve the quality of the projects. Did it mean that the whole market was worthless? As history shows – not at all. It just showed that all new markets need corrections to maturate and develop.
Conclusion: How To Conduct Fundamental Analysis Today? Is It Still Possible?
To my mind, it is possible, but on different grounds than it used to be in the XXth century. Instead of assessing assets, financial records, and the current geopolitical situation, one needs to look into the future potential of the whole sector, the novelty of the project, and the team behind it.
One also needs to remember that today, virality also plays a role when valuing projects. Namely, today, innovation has a global reach. A project can potentially grow from a tiny startup to a unicorn almost overnight when it finds the right product-market fit, or when a famous individual mentions the project in public. This makes Fundamental Analysis even more challenging, but also, so much more exciting!
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