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别迷信财务报表 (转载自ft中文网)

(2011-01-18 12:15:53)
标签:

杂谈

分类: 行业展望

    在分析企业时,投资者和企业家往往把注意力放在“错误的”财务数据和比率上。他们过分关注最近一年的税前利润或者税后利润。但这些数据可能经常受到操纵,或者只具短期意义。更重要的数据其实是潜在销售收入、较高的毛利率和自由现金流。我们对若干年的这些数据进行研究,以判定一家企业是否真的拥有坚实的经营优势。

    如果一家企业的销售收入与所用资本之比持续坚挺,而且毛利率较高,那么从理论上说,它应该拥有可观的利润和诱人的投资回报率。我所说的较高的毛利率,是指60%以上。拥有如此之高的利润率、并将固定成本控制在合理范围的企业,应该会兴旺发达。

    当然,成本利润率高的企业更容易被折扣店抢走生意。但企业在起步阶段毛利高总是好过毛利低。在我参与PizzaExpress和Strada的业务时,我了解到,比萨业的利润率高得惊人,在餐饮业中可谓独占鳌头。从菜单上餐品价格的无情上涨来看,大型连锁店在比萨上的毛利率肯定至少达到80%,也就是400%的成本利润率。但令人意外的是,没有人加入这一行当、提供质量类似、售价只有其一半的产品,来抢走它们的生意。

    近几年在英国出现的更加令人吃惊的零售业现象之一是,衬衣专卖店突然爆发式增长。一家大型经营商向我解释了原因:衬衣的磨损率远高于西服;而且衬衣的毛利率可达到80%——尽管它们的单价仅为30英镑左右。

    同理,电子产品零售店之所以逐渐消失,一定程度上也是因为它们的毛利率只有20%甚至更低。尽管单价很高,但租金、物业税、薪资和其它成本正在扼杀这种模式。同样,尽管市场不断萎缩,但大多数贺卡零售店却生存了下来,因为它们的毛利率可高达90%。而软件企业之所以变得这么有钱,软件初创企业之所以获得这么多风险资本,部分原因也在于它们的毛利率近乎100%(如果不考虑研发成本的话)。

    几十年前,人们用股价与税后利润的比(即市盈率)来对企业估值。最近,收购者采用了私人股本的估值模式,使用EV/EBITDA。EV是指企业价值,EBITDA是指未计利息、税项、折旧及摊销前盈利。这与资产价格的通胀环境相适应,尽管现在这两种估值标准经常被混为一谈——有时是无意的,有时则并非如此。

    但使用EBITDA衡量盈利能力的根本问题在于,折旧通常而言属于真实成本。一家企业短期之内日子或许过得比较舒服,但终有一天要进行大量的“补课性”支出。厂房必须重建,设备必须升级,破旧的大楼必须翻新。因此,更好的衡量方法是评判经维护、资本支出和营运资本调整后的可持续税后利润。由此得到的这一“净”指标可被称为自由现金流,它们是可用于支付利息、股息或收购款项的流动资金。

    有相当比例的企业实际上从未给出真正的自由现金回报——对其员工和客户来说,它们实质上是做慈善。我过去就曾这样看待夜总会业:尽管你可能大赚特赚了几年,但每隔三年左右的时间你就需要从头到尾重新装修(更新灯光、音响等设备)一遍,以与新进者竞争。这笔投资通常相当于三年的利润——忙活了半天,实际上只是回到起点。我担心这一行最近变得更艰难了。

    因此我的建议是,找出至少可以斩获60%毛利率的行业。在研究企业账目时,把重点放在经资金成本调整后的真实现金流上,不要放在利润或EBITDA等虚幻的数据上。

    本文作者管理着私人股本公司Risk Capital Partners,同时担任英国皇家艺术学会(Royal Society of Arts)主席

 

 

Don’t be fooled by illusory numbers
 
 

So often investors and entrepreneurs look at the wrong financial numbers and ratios when analysing companies. They focus obsessively on the latest year’s pre-tax profits, or perhaps post-tax earnings. But these can often be manipulated, or temporary. What matters much more are underlying sales, strong gross margins and free cash flow. Study these numbers over several years to see if a business really owns a solid franchise.

When an enterprise enjoys consistently solid sales as a percentage of capital employed, and high gross margins, then it should by rights make a decent bottom line and an attractive return on investment. And by high gross margins, I mean 60 per cent or more. Companies that enjoy this scale of margins – and keep their fixed costs within reasonable boundaries – should prosper.

Of course, companies with huge mark-ups over their raw costs are more vulnerable to being undercut by discounters. But it is always better to start with a lot of margin than a low gross margin. When I was involved with PizzaExpress and Strada, I learnt that the pizza business offers spectacular margins, better than anything else in the restaurant trade. Given the way menu prices have risen relentlessly, the major chains must enjoy gross margins of at least 80 per cent on their pizza, or a mark-up of 400 per cent over cost. Yet surprisingly, no one has come in to undercut them and offer a comparable product at half the price. 

One of the more astonishing retail phenomena in Britain in recent years has been the sudden explosion of specialist shirt retailers. A large operator explained to me why: shirts wear out rather faster than say, suits; and shirts can achieve an 80 per cent gross margin – even if they are sold at only £30 or so.

By the same token, part of the reason electronics retailers are disappearing is that their gross margins are 20 per cent or even less. Even with big ticket unit prices, rents, property taxes, wages and other costs are killing the model. Similarly, most greetings card retailers have survived, despite the steady decline in their market, because their gross margins can be as high as 90 per cent. And part of the reason software companies have grown so rich, and software start-ups receive so much venture capital is their almost 100 per cent gross margins, if research and development are discounted.

Decades ago, shares were valued on a multiple of post-tax earnings – a P/E ratio. More recently, acquirers have adopted the private equity model using the ratio of enterprise value to earnings before interest depreciation and amortisation (EV/ebitda). This suited the inflationary environment for asset prices. Even now the two yardsticks are often conflated – sometimes accidentally, sometimes not.

But the fundamental problem with using ebitda as a gauge of profitability is that deprecation is typically a real cost. A business might be able to take a brief holiday, but eventually there will be a lot of catch-up spending to do. A plant has to be replaced, equipment upgraded, worn out buildings renewed. A better method is to judge sustainable post-tax profits after maintenance, capital expenditure and working capital adjustments. This net figure might be called free cash flow. They are the liquid funds available for interest, dividends or acquisitions.

A surprising proportion of companies never really shows a genuine free cash return – they are essentially a charity for their staff and customers. I used to feel that about the nightclub business: even though you could make juicy profits for a few years, there needed to be a complete reinvention every three years or so – new lighting, sound and so on – just to compete with newcomers. That investment typically represented three years’ profits. Effectively the whole undertaking just stood still. I fear the industry has become even tougher in recent times.

So my advice is to search out industries where you can capture at least a 60 per cent gross margin. And when examining a company’s accounts, focus on actual cash flow after cash costs, rather than illusory numbers such as earnings or ebitda.

The writer runs Risk Capital Partners, a private equity firm, and is chairman of the Royal Society of Arts

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