The tech unicorn IPO madness that has engulfed the market for the past two years, finally came to a head recently. WeWork, a preposterously valued startup company, headed by a consummate self-promoter and flim flam man, was finally exposed as all sizzle and no steak. Yet, warning signs abounded: WeWork CEO Adam Neumann, described his company as a, “physical social network” and he repeatedly and earnestly claimed WeWork would, “elevate the world’s consciousness.”
When the company filed its mandatory S-1 registration statement with the SEC, investors, for the first time, were provided with material information about the company not previously disclosed. What was revealed was a labyrinthine corporate structure, insider, non-arms-length contracts and self-dealings with the company.
Many value investors, such as Seth Klarman and Charlie Munger, viewed this latest addition to the “hot” IPO market with a jaundiced eye.
Where did those investors, who almost followed the Pied Piper of WeWork right off the cliff, go wrong?
Rational valuation models were tossed aside
Many of the “tech” unicorn investors believe that because investing in the Brave New World of the 21st tech economy, is unlike all periods that preceded it, fundamental rules underlying all sound and prudent investment decisions could be cast aside. The old rules no longer applied and should be replaced by novel conceptions of value and accounting.
This mindset gave birth to the notion that traditional discounted present value models, for some new “tech” companies had become passé; new-fangled analytical concepts needed to be created or devised to address the latent potential of disruptive companies, that had suffered only losses.
For those easily duped investors and analysts who wondered
when his company might become profitable, CEO, Randall Neumann offered the mystical measure of “contribution margin,” that he claimed would allow investors to “analyze the core operating performance of our locations.”
This accounting technique was so misleading and susceptible of fraud, that Scott Galloway, a New York University professor, questioned whether there was a role for the SEC to step in more aggressively when companies “start trying to contaminate traditional accounting terms.”
WeWork was valued at ten times that of its principal profitable rival, IWG. Nor, was the excessive valuation and eager anticipation due solely to manic, “tech hungry” individual investors. Analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. put We’s valuation around $23 billion, and in an August, note wrote that We’s “business model is sound and the pace of growth phenomenal.”
Historical lessons from Graham & Dodd
When assessing today, whether WeWorks $49 billion valuation was rationally related to the prospects of its underlying business, one is reminded of Graham and Dodd’s description in the 1934 edition of Security Analysis, of the pre and post-WWI manner in which
[/su_spoiler] investors valued stocks. The pre-war method, as the authors recount, was a traditional financial or fundamental analysis-based model. Analysis was confined to a company’s average earnings in relation to the stock price and the stability and trend of that company’s earnings.
In many ways, the pre-war model resembled what we would call value investing today. In 1919, the validity of the pre-war fundamental analysis model was exploded,
This article originally appeared on gurufocus, the value investing site
John Kinsellagh is a freelance writer, former financial adviser and attorney specializing in civil litigation and securities law. He completed the Boston Security Analysts Society course on investment analysis and portfolio management.
He has served as an arbitrator for FINRA for over 25 years resolving disputes within the financial services industry. He writes primarily on financial markets, legal and regulatory issues that impact the investment community, and personal finance.