Friday, July 29, 2005

What am I missing?

Canon is currently trading at about $49.50 a share, which is just about what ¥5,560 is worth in dollars. (¥112 buys about $1.) Over the past four quarters Canon has earned $3.73. That works out to a P/E ration of about 13. It holds roughly $8.63 a share in net cash and has raised the interim dividend, which strongly suggests the year-end dividend will be raised too. If you use a discount rate of 11%, the current price implies a growth rate of 1.8%. But earnings have grown 20% a year over the past 10 years. My dicount cash flow model suggests the company is worth $100 or so.

Is Canon cheap because it's a Japanese company that faces greater competition from China? Are investors afraid the Yen will rise (or fall) dramatically? Is there some risk Canon executives are running an Enron-style fraud? I just don't understand.

Update (August 5): A Standard & Poor's stock report has one possible answer.

We recently reduced our opinion on the shares to hold, from strong buy, after the company posted second quarter earnings per ADR of $0.82, lower than our estimate of $0.86. Revenues grew by 7%, but gross margins narrowed by 234 basis points compared to a year earlier. Although CAJ's cost structure has improved relative to competitors, its second half guidance indicates that it is not immune to declining selling prices of printers, copiers, and digital still cameras.

Here's the breakdown of Canon's revenue by segment for Q2, 2005:

Sales by product                Q2, 2005   Q2, 2004  Change (%)

Business machines:
  Office imaging products      ¥ 292,716  ¥ 284,938     +  2.7
  Computer peripherals           285,445    269,890     +  5.8
  Business information products   25,316     28,119     - 10.0
Cameras                          219,241    190,108     + 15.3
Optical and other products        89,755     77,313     + 16.1
-----                          ---------  ---------     ------ 
Total                          ¥ 912,473  ¥ 850,368     +  7.3
=====                          =========  =========     ======

The problem is that the three biggest segments are also becoming lower margin bussinesses according to S&P. For instance, operating profit on Business Machines sunk from 21.3% to 19.7%. Worse, Canon had originally projected an increase to 22.7%. Cameras, meanwhile, earned about 17%. Optical and other products had operating profits in the single digits. So margins are clearly a concern.

The bottom line is that Canon is a premiere company is several tough industries. If they are going to keep up earnings growth, they're going to have to steer costumers to higher margin products (color copiers and printers versus monochrome, and SLR cameras versus point-and-shoot). Also, Canon has to be on the lookout for new products like its flat-screen TV initiative. Canon has benefited from the recent shift from film to digital cameras, but that shift will eventially run out of steam. When it does, I'm confident Canon will be ready for what's next.


The three companies I bought for my IRA share a common tactic—selling at low margin in order to win high-margin sales later on. Select Comfort sold a bunch of discounted beds to Radisson this year. In exchange, Radisson is using the Sleep Number bed to promote its hotels on TV and thousands of its guests will have a chance to try it out. Hopefully this will translate into sales at high margin Select Comfort stores or direct sales as people learn more about the product.

Canon (and other printer manufacturers) sell printers at very low margins in order to gain customers. They make much higher profits by selling "consumables" (paper and ink). While it is possible to buy generic brand consumables, they don't tend to produce the same quality as the name brand and don't really save all that much.

Oracle is quite willing to offer deep discounts on new licenses. (Even as low as free if the rumors are true.) But that's fine, because customers tend to use Oracle's software for many years and pay a steady stream of revenue to continue licensing the software and get support. Essentially the continuing revenue more than makes up for discounts at the front-end. Even better, most applications purchasers will also by Oracle applications servers and databases at a standard price.

In each case, it's best to think of the discounts as an investment rather then a cost. Like grocery stores advertising great deals on strawberries and steak in order to draw customers to the store to buy milk and eggs, these companies discount in order to bring in higher margin business. Ultimately the hope is to use discounts to increase earnings over time.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Busy week for my investments

Select Comfort, Canon and Raytheon all reported earnings this week. I don't have a fundamentally different view of any of the companies, but it seems the market reacted fairly strongly.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Fear of uncertainty

Looks like investors of Select Comfort were nervous about the possibility of an earnings disappointment. It would have been a great time to buy. Meanwhile, Canon also reported earnings last night and it's stock price barely budged.

Monday, July 25, 2005

GE mentality

Joel Spolsky just wrote an article about how software companies make money. Basically, since there is no incremental cost to shipping more software, only the top supplier of a certain type of software can survive. If you aren't number one, you can't sell enough to make back the costs of hiring a bunch of developers to create your product.

That's why it's so encouraging to me that Oracle's Larry Ellison has embraced the GE mentality: "the belief that businesses must be, or become, number one or number two in their marketplaces." Oracle already has the number one possition in database, but they needed to buy PeopleSoft in order to remain or become number two in certain applications.