- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2014

Unscathed after Halloween in Manhattan’s West Village, and starting to make preparations for Thanksgiving, I cannot stop thinking about twinkling Twitter. Are common shares of this 2006 vintage startup delectable candy or spoiled fowl?

While beauty certainly lies in the eye of the beholder, it should be possible to assess publicly available financial information to determine whether Twitter common shares appear undervalued, overvalued or fairly valued.

Management of Twitter is required to make regular public disclosures that, in theory, are “full and fair.”

Analyzing the latest available Twitter filings, we discover that company-generated revenues, principally from advertising, totaled $1.2 billion for the 12 months that ended Sept. 30.

While this is certainly an impressive accomplishment for a business just eight years old, Twitter burned through cash in order to establish itself in a hotly competitive industry. During the latest 12 months, each dollar of revenue cost the company approximately 10 cents in free cash flow (cash from operations less capital expenditures), which is not sustainable without penalty.

Older competitors in the digital marketing space generated much stronger results during the same 12-month period.

Google earned 18 cents of free cash flow on each of its $63.6 billion in revenues, while Facebook earned 31 cents of free cash flow per dollar of revenue on $10.7 billion. Meanwhile, iconic multinational advertising firm Omnicom, established in 1944, eked out 8 cents of free cash flow per dollar on revenues of $15.2 billion.

Entry price for new investors

How do current valuation benchmarks compare for Twitter, Google, Facebook and Omnicom?

At Friday’s closing price, common shares of Twitter, each selling for $41.85, had a combined market value of $26.2 billion. Subtracting the company’s excess cash, Twitter had an enterprise value of $24.0 billion.

Twitter’s enterprise value was 20.6 times the company’s revenues for the 12-month period ended Sept. 30 — a high level for a business that has neither generated profits nor free cash flow since inception.

In contrast, Google traded at 4.7 times the latest 12 months of revenue and Facebook at 17.4 times its revenue. Meanwhile, dividend-paying Omnicom traded at just 1.4 times revenue.

At surface level, Twitter common shares seem richly valued, especially considering carefully more than 19,000 words contained in the “risk factors” section of the company’s 2013 10-K report.

But is the public market for Twitter common shares affected by atypical influences?

Willing suspension of disbelief

One way to tell whether there may be an exceptionally high or low level of trading in common shares of an issuer is to calculate the “trading turnover” ratio for a given time period.

In the case of Twitter, 30.6 million common shares changed hands each day during the most recent three-month trading period. So with 532 million shares available to trade in total, Twitter’s entire “public float” changed hands once every 17 trading days.

Remembering that some portion of the public float is actually held by long-term investors who do not trade much at all, Twitter’s trading action seems to reflect extraordinary speculative interest. So long as key benchmark interest rates remain low, speculators may continue to trade Twitter common shares, but such interest could fade swiftly.

To a corporation that may use its own overvalued securities as acquisition currency, Twitter may eventually hold seductive value.

However, under current market conditions, and given public disclosures, common shares of Twitter seem a case study that powerfully disproves the widely held theory that markets are even remotely “perfect.”

Open your eyes. Do your own homework.

And remember, investors have errantly assumed since 2008 that some things last forever — excessively low benchmark interest rates and easy credit.

Twitter common shares currently are not “treats,” which, anyway, are chiefly for silly rabbits, not vigilant long-term investors.

Charles Ortel serves as managing director of Newport Value Partners (NewportValue.com), which provides economic research to executives and to investment firms.

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