Many investors look to London’s junior AIM market for stocks with millionaire-maker potential. However, despite there being hundreds of companies on AIM, history shows big winners are few and far between.
Often, the growth potential of a stock turns out to have been over-egged, or a case of the emperor’s new clothes, and investors end up with a substantial loss. In these situations, three things we commonly see flaws in are the business, the transparency of its financial reporting, and its market valuation.
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Business: I’ve serious doubts about the long-term viability of online estate agent Purplebricks, due to diminishing revenue returns from increasing marketing spend. In its latest financial year, it eased back modestly on UK marketing in the second half, and saw second-half revenue plunge by £6.5m. It also swung to an operating loss.
Reporting: Purplebricks refuses to disclose the number of its instructions that result in a completed sale. I’ve seen an increase in dissatisfied customers on Trustpilot recently. ‘Bad’ ratings in the last 475 reviews are running at three times the historical rate. I suspect this is a further indication the business is going backwards.
Valuation: At a share price of 110p, Purplebricks is valued at £337m. This is 2.8 times my estimate of trailing revenue of £119m from continuing operations. The rating is far too high, in my view.
Business: New technology is a sector to which investors seeking millionaire-maker stocks are naturally drawn. Companies in the sector can readily fashion impressive-sounding growth stories. A few buzzwords, a collaboration with a tech giant, and talk of multi-billion-dollar addressable markets can do wonders for investor excitement. Fintech and martech specialist First Derivatives is a case in point.
Reporting: The company’s accounts came in for severe criticism last year from renegade City analyst Matt Earl’s ShadowFall outfit. While First Derivatives has been valued as a high-performing software company, ShadowFall reckoned that on a true view of the accounts, it has the characteristics of a low-margin consultancy or recruitment business.
Valuation: When paper profits are questionable, my default valuation measure is free cash flow. First Derivatives generated around £6m last year. Against this, its market valuation of £574m at a share price of 2,150p is far too rich in my book.
Business: Another new technology stock is “global enabler of the Internet of Things” Telit Communications. It sold its automotive solutions division earlier this year, reduced its debt, and reported a net cash position at the half-year end.
Reporting: Back in 2017, I showed how Telit’s accounting enabled it to post impressive paper profits, while generating little or no free cash flow. A few months later, founder and chief executive Oozi Cats and his wife Ruth (apparently on the payroll as an ‘art curator’) were exposed as fugitives from historical fraud indictments, and high-tailed it out of Dodge.
Valuation: Cats remains at large and a major shareholder (dealing in the stock as recently as last month). But with new faces in the boardroom, how should we value the remnants of his empire? At a share price of 155p, the market says £206m. I say, show me the free cash flow to justify it.