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Question Mark Or Cash Cow? What The Growth Share Matrix Teaches Us About Stock Selection

Dani Davis

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People are naturally drawn to stocks that tell an exciting story.

Take Tesla. 

Helmed by CEO Elon Musk, cofounder of PayPal and SpaceX, Tesla runs on idealistic visions and lots of risk. 

Since its founding in 2003, Tesla has traveled a rocky road, once coming within a month of bankruptcy, constantly being jolted by Musk’s unpredictable behavior. 

This history describes a revolutionary company whose chief executive routinely challenges the conventions of “normal” CEOs.

A great story … on the surface.

If you dig a little deeper into the statement of cash flow, you learn about potential hazzards for the long-term success of the company. 

While Tesla posted its first year of net income in 2020, much of that income came from regulatory credits, rather than from selling cars. 

While Tesla is undergoing rapid growth, the company consumes mountains of cash to build factories, produce cars and manufacture batteries. Experts are split over how to evaluate its future.

For now, that makes Tesla a “Question Mark,” one of four categories in the Growth Share Matrix (GSM). First developed by Boston Consulting Group in 1968, the GSM originally evaluated companies according to market share. 

Investors subsequently adopted the model to evaluate companies in terms of earnings growth and cash-flow generation.

The four categories of the GSM:

1. Question Mark

Growth: High

Cash flow: Low/Negative

Recent examples: Tesla, WeWork

Question Marks are companies with high growth, but low or negative cash flow. 

Question Marks are generally exciting because they promise to change our world in some fundamental, necessary way. 

Per its website, Tesla wants to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”

Another recent example was WeWork. 

Cofounder and ex-CEO Adam Neumann conceived WeWork to inject feelings of togetherness and belonging into the modern workplace, going so far as to trademark the word “We.” 

For a few years, WeWork grew at an outrageous pace, but never posted positive earnings. 

WeWork’s story was exciting and its vision inspiring, but at the original IPO offering a few years ago, investors refused to participate.

Question Marks don’t stay Question Marks forever. They can go one of two ways.

Either their cash flow turns positive and they become “Rising Stars,” or their growth slows and they become “Dogs.” Let’s look at the positive scenario first.

2. Rising Star

Growth: High

Cash flow: Positive/High

Recent examples: Apple, Amazon

Rising Stars sit at the extremely favorable intersection of high growth (25%+) and high cash flow.

Of course, a company doesn’t become a Rising Star overnight. 

Companies like Apple and Amazon endured years (decades, in Apple’s case) of dubious cash flow before blossoming into the titans they are today. 

But if Question Marks’ key offerings catch on, they become excellent wealth-creation vehicles.

Investors like Rising Stars and often feature them prominently in their portfolios. 

But Rising Stars don’t stay that way forever. Rapid growth is impossible to sustain in perpetuity. 

Rising Stars can take two possible paths. Either their growth slows, but their cash flow remains positive, making them “Cash Cows,” or both their growth and cash flow dry up and they become “Dogs.” We’ll save Dogs for last.

3. Cash Cows

Growth: Low

Cash flow: High/Positive

Recent examples: Johnson & Johnson, Exxon Mobil

Another favorite of investors, Cash Cows have low growth (~10%) but high cash flow.

They’ve reached a point where it’s difficult to grow at a rapid clip, but where their key offerings have become an instrumental piece of life and/or business. 

Unlike Question Marks and Rising Stars, companies like Exxon Mobil don’t make headlines very much, but they make for extremely solid portfolio foundations.

Like Question Marks and Rising Stars, Cash Cows can go the way of the Dog if their cash flow goes negative.

4. Dogs

Growth: Low

Cash flow: Low/Negative

Recent example: GE

For more than 100 years, GE was the gold standard in blue-chip stocks. 

GE’s share price peaked around $400 in June 2000, but over the next couple of decades things would change.

They sold off their slow-growth businesses, prompting a precipitous decline starting in late 2007.

Down to $75 by early 2009, the share price floundered, dropping as low as $48.56 in July 2020. It currently sits around $108.

Investors don’t like negative-75% returns, and don’t like Dogs. 

But if Question Marks, Rising Stars and Cash Cows can all turn into Dogs, how do investors know which ones to pick? 

How can you avoid the doomed and fill your portfolio with the best?

P/E ratio and meaningful transitions

Investors like me watch out for transitions: the moments companies go from one category to another. 

We rarely invest in Question Marks because there are too many variables — and because most Question Marks run out of money before their fifth anniversary. 

But when Question Marks look poised to become Rising Stars, we grow interested.

My firm only bought into companies like Ebay, Amazon and Priceline in 2002/2003.

Why? 

Because by that time, the dotcom bubble had come and gone. Most of these companies’ competitors had failed, but they had survived. They had begun to gobble up market share and make the transition to Rising Stars.

This transition is signaled by a compression in the companies’ price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio.

The P/E ratio measures a company’s current share price against its earnings per share.

Investors use this to gauge a stock’s value. 

A particularly high P/E ratio either means a stock is overvalued or will produce high earnings in the future. A particularly low P/E ratio either means a stock is undervalued or future earnings will be low.

There’s not one absolutely “good” or “bad” P/E ratio, and it’s not the only factor investors use in analysis. 

A growth company might have a P/E of 25 or higher. A value company might have a P/E between 12 and 20. 

By tracking a company’s P/E ratio over time, you can get a good picture of its overall trajectory, where along the GSM it falls and what role, if any, it should play in your portfolio.

The most important lesson is to dig deeper than news headlines when you make investing decisions. An exciting mission and a dynamic CEO only go so far. Hard-nosed accounting metrics tell investors how safe or how risky an investment can actually be. 

Watch the transitions, either toward greater reliability — Question Marks to Rising Stars — or toward greater uncertainty — Cash Cows to Dogs. 

Numbers tell a much more meaningful story than crusading executives or internet chat rooms.

David Edwards is president and wealth advisor with Heron Wealth based in New York City and advises clients across the U.S. and around the world. Dustin Lowman contributed additional research for this column.


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Kazakh President Fires Rare Criticism At Predecessor After Unrest

Dani Davis

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Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev issued rare criticism of his long-ruling predecessor Tuesday, and said he expected Russian-led forces to leave the troubled Central Asian country in the next 10 days.

The oil-rich country’s descent into chaos has laid bare infighting at the top of a government once dominated by Tokayev’s mentor, 81-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The older man retains the constitutional status of “Leader of the Nation” despite stepping down from the presidency in 2019.

Addressing lawmakers in a video conference broadcast live, Tokayev fired an eyebrow-raising broadside at Nazarbayev as the post-Soviet country reels from unprecedented violence that began with peaceful protests over an energy price hike.

Tokayev, 68, said Nazarbayev’s rule had created “a layer of wealthy people, even by international standards”.

Dozens died in the unrest and 10,000 people have been arrested Photo: AFP / Alexandr BOGDANOV

“The time has come to pay tribute to the people of Kazakhstan and help them on a systematic and regular basis,” Tokayev added, noting that “very profitable companies” would be asked to pay money into a state fund.

“The current system is oriented towards major structures and is based on the principle: ‘everything for friends and laws for everyone else’,” he said.

Both Kazakhstan and Russia have framed last week’s unrest that left dozens dead and almost 10,000 people arrested as a coup attempt assisted by foreign “terrorists”, but have provided little supporting evidence.

Tokayev blamed his predecessor for creating a rich elite Tokayev blamed his predecessor for creating a rich elite Photo: SPUTNIK via AFP / Yevgeny BIYATOV

Following a request from career diplomat Tokayev, the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) deployed troops to bring about order and shore up the authorities.

On Tuesday, Tokayev announced “a phased withdrawal” would begin in two days and take “no more than 10 days”.

“The main mission of the CSTO peacekeeping forces has been successfully completed,” he said.

The CSTO mission of more than 2,000 troops was deployed at the peak of the crisis, after armed clashes between government opponents and security forces and a looting spree trashed parts of the largest city Almaty.

The decision was a first for the CSTO, often touted by Moscow as a NATO equivalent but previously reluctant to interfere in unrest in Central Asia, a region with long historical ties to Russia.

Nursultan Nazarbayev retains the constitutional status of 'Leader of the Nation' Nursultan Nazarbayev retains the constitutional status of ‘Leader of the Nation’ Photo: AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM

Concern has mounted that Moscow could leverage the mission to entrench its influence in Kazakhstan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that “once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave”.

Tokayev appeared to further bolster his position by backing acting prime minister Alikhan Smailov to take on the job permanently on Tuesday — a nomination that won the unanimous support of lawmakers.

Former national security committee chief Karim Masimov — a key Nazarbayev ally viewed as perpetuating the retired president’s influence over the government — was arrested on treason charges Saturday in connection with the unrest.

Even if Nazarbayev — the son of shepherds who rose through the communist party’s ranks — is now being sidelined politically, dislodging his family’s extensive interests in Central Asia’s largest economy may take time.

In a significant move Tuesday, Tokayev announced plans to bring an end to a widely criticised private recycling monopoly linked to Nazarbayev’s youngest daughter, Aliya Nazarbayeva, 41.

“This should be done by a state organisation, like in other countries,” he said of the scheme.

But middle daughter Dinara and her husband Timur Kulibayev control Halyk, the largest commercial bank, and are among the richest people in the country. Kulibayev is moreover a key player in the flagship oil sector.

Oldest daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva’s political career, mainly in the rubber-stamp legislature, has been marked by a series of controversial statements and perceptions of an abrasive style.

The 58-year-old’s reported business interests are also rumoured to be extensive.

Leaks of offshore financial data and a High Court challenge in London have meanwhile revealed the extent of her family’s foreign property holdings — part of a trend of capital leaving that country that Nazarbayev officially discouraged while president.

Many residents of Almaty credited the CSTO as a stabilising force that had helped Tokayev gain control over the situation after spending several days inside as gunfire echoed around the city.

Roza Matayeva, a 45-year-old English teacher, got used to tuning in to her radio during the five-day internet blackout in Kazakhstan’s financial hub that ended briefly Monday morning before the city of 1.8 million went offline again at lunchtime.

News that the Moscow-led bloc had agreed to Tokayev’s request to send a detachment “brought relief and hope that the situation will be decided for the best in the near future,” she told AFP.

“I welcome cooperation with Russia. I think there is no threat to our sovereignty.”


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Here’s How Apple CEO Earned 500% More In 2021

Dani Davis

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KEY POINTS

  • Tim Cook received $98.73 million in total compensation in Apple’s fiscal 2021
  • The sum included $82.35 million in stock awards, a $12 million bonus tied to performance targets and a $3 million base salary
  • He reportedly earned $14.8 million in salary in 2020

Apple CEO Tim Cook’s compensation ballooned to nearly $100 million in 2021, a sixfold increase from the prior year.

The 61-year-old executive, who reportedly earned $14.8 million in 2020, received $98.73 million in total compensation in Apple’s fiscal 2021, according to an SEC filing published Thursday. The company’s fiscal year began in September 2020 and ran through September 2021.

Of this amount, $82.35 million came from stock awards. The sum also included a base salary of $3 million and a $12 million bonus for hitting Apple’s performance targets.

Cook also received $1.39 million in other compensation, including $712,488 in personal air travel, $630,630 in security, a $17,400 contribution to his 401(k) plan, $2,964 in life insurance premiums and $23,077 in vacation cash-out.

Despite the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and supply chain issues, Apple reported 33% revenue growth and more than $365 billion in sales. The increase in annual sales reportedly stemmed from the strong demand over the past two years as consumers working from home splurge on upgrades. 

Cook became CEO of Apple in August 2011 after the company’s late founder Steve Jobs stepped down. Jobs died of pancreatic cancer that October.

In 2021, Apple marked the 10th anniversary of Cook’s leadership as CEO.

In September last year, Cook reportedly received 333,987 restricted stock units, in his first stock grant since 2011 as part of a long-term equity plan. He will be eligible to receive additional units in 2023.

A report by Reuters noted that Cook’s 2021 pay was 1,447 times that of the average Apple employee. 

In 2021, the median pay for employees was $68,254. In 2020, the median pay was $57,783, 256 times Cook’s salary, according to the publication. 

Cook, who has already donated tens of millions of dollars to various charities, previously stated he plans to give away most of his fortune before he dies.

Cook’s net worth was $1.5 billion as of Tuesday, according to a Forbes estimate.

Prior to being named CEO, Cook was Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide operations. At the time, he was earning $500,000 per year. When he became CEO of Apple in 2011, Cook’s salary increased to $900,000 per year. 

Between 2011 and 2020, Cook reportedly received $963.5 million in total compensation.

Apple CEO Tim Cook attends Apple’s “Ted Lasso” season two premiere event red carpet at the Pacific Design Center, in West Hollywood, California, July 15, 2021 Photo: AFP / VALERIE MACON
 


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UN Wants $5 Bn Aid For Afghanistan In 2022

Dani Davis

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The United Nations said Tuesday it needed $5 billion in aid for Afghanistan in 2022 to avert a humanitarian catastrophe and offer the ravaged country a future after 40 years of suffering.

In its biggest-ever single-country appeal, the UN said $4.4 billion (3.9 billion euros) was needed within Afghanistan, while a further $623 million was required to support the millions of Afghans sheltering beyond its borders.

The UN said 22 million people inside Afghanistan and a further 5.7 million displaced Afghans in five neighbouring countries needed vital relief this year.

“A full-blown humanitarian catastrophe looms. My message is urgent: don’t shut the door on the people of Afghanistan,” said UN aid chief Martin Griffiths.

“Help us scale up and stave off wide-spread hunger, disease, malnutrition and ultimately death.”

Since the Taliban hardline Islamist movement seized control of Afghanistan in mid-August, the country has plunged into financial chaos, with inflation and unemployment surging.

Washington has frozen billions of dollars of the country’s assets, while aid supplies have been heavily disrupted.

Afghanistan also suffered its worst drought in decades in 2021.

Without the aid package, “there won’t be a future”, Griffiths told reporters in Geneva.

The Taliban authorities said the aid appeal for suffering Afghans was “very needed”.

“But at the same time I would like to say the need is for all this assistance approved in the past to be delivered during this harsh winter,” senior Taliban leader and the group’s designated UN representative, Suhail Shaheen, told AFP.

He said the inflow of funds would also help in the functioning of the now dilapidated banking system, adding that any cash coming into the country will help rein in the inflation.

The UN said $4.4 billion (3.9 billion euros) was needed within Afghanistan to avert humanitarian disaster Photo: AFP / Mohd RASFAN

“The banks are not working properly so there is also a need to control the inflation and that can be controlled when dollars … hard currency come to Afghanistan,” Shaheen said.

Griffiths said the appeal, if funded, would help aid agencies ramp up the delivery of food and agriculture support, health services, malnutrition treatment, emergency shelters, access to water and sanitation, protection and education.

An estimated 4.7 million people will suffer from acute malnutrition in 2022, including 1.1 million children with severe acute malnutrition.

Griffiths said that without humanitarian aid, distress, deaths, hunger and further mass displacement would follow, “robbing the people of Afghanistan of the hope that their country will be their home and support, now and in the near term”.

However, if international donors come forward, “we will see the opportunity for an Afghanistan which may finally see the fruits of some kind of security.”

Griffiths said the security situation for humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan was probably better now than for many years, adding that the staff in the ministries in Kabul largely remained the same as before the Taliban takeover.

He said the UN Security Council’s move in December to help humanitarian aid reach desperate Afghans, without violating international sanctions aimed at isolating the Taliban, had made the operating environment for donors and humanitarians on the ground much more comfortable.

The money will go to 160 NGOs plus UN agencies delivering aid. Some will be used to pay frontline workers such as healthcare staff — but not via the Taliban administration.

Around eight million children could miss out on their education because teachers largely have not been paid since August, Griffiths said.

UN refugees chief Filippo Grandi said the aid package’s goal was to stabilise the situation within Afghanistan, including for internally displaced people, thereby preventing a further flood of migrants fleeing across the country’s borders.

“That movement of people will be difficult to manage, in the region and beyond, because it will not stop at the region,” he said.

“If those efforts are not successful, we will have to ask for $10 billion next year, not $5 billion.”


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