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Course 404
Aggressive-Growth Stocks


Aggressive-growth companies are the thoroughbreds of the equities universe. They have expanded both their sales and their earnings at more than four times the rate of the general economy. Unlike speculative-growth companies (those firms with blistering sales growth but mediocre, or negative, earnings growth), aggressive-growth companies have excelled at both the top and bottom lines. Because most of their value typically derives from potential profits many years in the future, these companies usually trade at rich earnings multiples. How rich? Between 40 and 100 times earnings is pretty common. In analyzing aggressive-growth companies, we must therefore focus on the confidence we have that a company can actually match the market's lofty expectations. The greater the confidence, the more palatable the valuations. Let's use Starbucks SBUX as an example. Starbucks is one of the standouts in the aggressive-growth group. By opening hundreds of premium-coffee shops in each of the past several years and addicting an ever-growing clientele to latte, cappuccino, and other concoctions, Starbucks has expanded even faster than the average aggressive-growth company. Both its one-year and three-year growth rates (through the end of 1999) easily exceeded the norm, even after a slight slowdown.

Is Cash Flow in Line with Earnings?

Aggressive accounting methods can make a company's growth appear much better than it really is. Some firms might recognize revenues before receiving cash proceeds, for example, while others might capitalize expenses instead of charging them against earnings. Starbucks' profits, on the other hand, are real. A comparison of the company's net income with its total cash flows (both of which can be found in the Financials section of a stock's Morningstar Quicktake Report) shows that the two have been pretty much in line in each of the past three years. In fact, the company's cash flows have been about twice its net earnings. Starbucks is really making money.

Has Growth Hurt the Balance Sheet?

Funding rapid growth by piling on debt is the riskiest way to expand. All growth companies hit bumps sooner or later, and it's important they maintain the financial muscle to absorb the shocks. Starbucks boasts this muscle, keeping its balance sheet in good shape despite its aggressive expansion. The firm reduced its financial leverage from 1.6 in 1997 to 1.3 in 1999, and shareholders' equity has increased 20% annually over the past three years (as opposed to 13% for the S&P 500).

What Are the Trends in Growth Rates?

Growth rates over a long period (like three or five years) can hide important year-to-year trends. Growth may be extremely erratic, or it may be slowing down. Indeed, Starbucks is not expanding as rapidly as it was a few years ago. The company's annual sales growth peaked at 71% in 1993, clocked in at 50% in 1996, and was less than 30% in 1999. From the company's annual report, we learn one reason for the slowdown: Same-store sales growth has dropped from almost 20% in the early 1990s to less than 10% recently. Ten percent is still pretty good, but the downward trend is not.

How Consistent Is the Company's Growth?

Just as Starbucks' sales-growth rate masks a downward trend, the company's earnings-growth rate masks wildly fluctuating profit growth. Starbucks' annual earnings growth has been highly erratic, bouncing between 21% and 112%. The company's annual report gives some of the reasons for the unpredictability. Profit growth in 1995--the firm's best year, when it posted the 112% gain in earnings--came partly from rising coffee prices. Starbucks raised prices at its stores, but because the firm uses the first-in, first-out method of inventory valuation, its costs failed to fully reflect the rising raw-material prices. In fiscal 1996, the rising coffee prices began to filter through to the income statement. After answering these four questions, we can conclude, on the one hand, that Starbucks is not using smoke and mirrors. The company's earnings are backed up by real cash flows, and growth has come without debilitating debt leverage. On the other hand, sales growth has trended downward, which could signal that Starbucks is maturing and that future sales growth won't match that of the past. Also, the firm's wildly fluctuating earnings growth makes predicting future profits extremely tough. More than its growth, it is Starbucks' profitability that really highlights the risks involved in betting on the company's future success. At one end of the aggressive-growth spectrum are relatively mature, highly profitable companies. They fund their speedy growth largely through reinvested profits, and their cash flows cover their capital spending. At the other, riskier end of the spectrum are companies in the earlier stages of their life cycles--firms that aren't very profitable yet and whose cash flows typically fall far short of their capital expenditures. They rely heavily on outside capital, rather than reinvested profits, to drive their growth. To see which category Starbucks belongs to, we need to answer some more questions.

Are Free Cash Flows Positive or Negative?

Ideally, we'd like to see positive free cash flow (cash flow minus capital spending). But Starbucks plows all of its available cash flow into expansion, and then some. The company's free cash flow has been sharply negative, though it did become less negative in 1998 and 1999. To bridge the gap between cash flow and spending, Starbucks burns through external capital at a rapid clip, repeatedly issuing stock and taking on debt.

How Much Does the Company Earn on Its Capital?

If a company earns high returns on its capital, negative free cash flow makes a lot of sense--the more spent the better. The company is investing lots of money in the business, but it's earning a high return on that investment. Starbucks' historical returns on equity (ROEs), however, fall well below the averages for both the S&P 500 and the aggressive-growth group. These low ROEs result mainly from Starbucks' thin net margins, which are a fraction of the S&P 500's--Starbucks earns just $0.06 for every dollar of revenues. These low returns on capital show that Starbucks is still something of an unproven commodity. It's funneling large sums into new stores, but has yet to show that these investments can earn a good return.

How Has the Stock Performed?

Of course, there's a good chance the company will earn solid returns once it enters a more mature phase and the costs of expansion become less burdensome. That's exactly what the market expected of Starbucks until recently: Its shares outperformed the S&P 500 every year between 1993 and 1998, compounding at an annual rate of 35% over that time span. But an aggressive-growth stock can get hammered if it doesn't meet lofty expectations. That's what happened to Starbucks in mid-1999, when the company announced that its growth would be slowing and that it would start concentrating more on the Internet rather than on selling coffee. Its stock tanked and finished the year down 14%.

How Expensive Is It?

The high hopes harbored for Starbucks show up in its valuations. Even after falling from their highs, the company's shares still traded at 45 times earnings as of January 2000, above the average for the S&P 500. Of course, a company growing as rapidly as Starbucks may deserve to trade at above-average valuations. But comparing Starbucks with the broader market puts its valuations in perspective. The average aggressive-growth stock has a price/earnings ratio (P/E) nearly twice Starbucks' (as of January 2000), so Starbucks doesn't look like too bad a value.

How Does the PEG Ratio Compare with Those of Similar Firms?

What investors are really paying for when they buy shares of Starbucks is future growth. The PEG ratio, or a stock's forward P/E divided by the firm's projected earnings-growth rate, is a good way to compare the price of growth across firms. Starbucks' PEG ratio of 1.8 (as of January 2000) meant that its P/E exceeds its estimated five-year growth rate by 80%. But the average aggressive-growth stock had a PEG of 2.9, so again, Starbucks doesn't look so expensive.

Conclusion: Knowing the Odds

Starbucks must continue to grow very rapidly--and for a long time--to justify its valuations. Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. We do know that the company's sales growth has slowed, its earnings growth is highly unpredictable, and that it has earned low returns on its capital thus far--all factors that lower the odds of success. Because Starbucks' rapid growth in the 1990s has come at a time of economic prosperity, one also wonders how well the company will do in the next recession. After all, premium coffee is not one of life's necessities. The correct conclusion is not that Starbucks is a "sell," as the parlance goes on Wall Street. After examining the pros and cons, you might feel comfortable with the risks and decide to go ahead and invest. Just realize that capitalizing on the premium-coffee craze through Starbucks is a high-stakes game.

Quiz 404
There is only one correct answer to each question.

1 Aggressive-growth companies exhibit:
a. Top- and bottom-line growth four times greater than the general economy.
b. Low P/E ratios.
c. Less profitability than speculative-growth companies.
2 The relationship between earnings and cash flows is especially important for aggressive-growth companies because:
a. Wall Street tends to value these companies based on cash flows.
b. Some companies may use aggressive accounting methods to boost revenue and earnings growth.
c. Cash flows should be at least double net income.
3 Which of the following is <em>not</em> a desirable characteristic of a company's growth?
a. The growth rate should be no faster than twice that of the general economy.
b. The growth rate should have an upward trend.
c. The growth rate should be reasonably consistent from year to year.
4 When is negative free cash flow most acceptable?
a. When a company's revenue is growing quickly.
b. When a company is in start-up mode.
c. When a company is earning a high return on equity.
5 Why are aggressive-growth companies typically considered to be risky investments?
a. They have lower margins than most companies.
b. Most of their value is based on expectation of future profits.
c. They are usually heavily in debt.
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