A few days ago, I was mucking around with historical data on Alphabet, the parent company of the internet search engine of our time, Google. I found some interesting data on this company that led to me writing this short but hopefully thought-provoking article.
Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL) was listed in August 2004 and closed its first trading day at a share price of US$50. By 31 January 2005, Alphabet’s share price had risen to US$98, and it carried an astronomical price-to-earnings ratio of 250. On 31 January 2005, Alphabet’s revenue and profit were respectively US$2.67 billion and US$222 million, giving rise to a profit margin of 8.3%.
Today, Alphabet’s share price is US$1,418, which represents an annualised return of 19% from 31 January 2005. Its P/E ratio has shrunk to 29, and the company’s revenue and profit are US$166.7 billion and US$34.5 billion, respectively, which equate to a profit margin of 21%.
Today, many software companies – especially the young ones categorised as software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies – carry really high price-to-sales ratios of 30 or more (let’s call it, 35). Those seem like extreme valuations, especially when we consider that the SaaS companies are mostly loss-making and/or generating negative or meagre free cash flow. If we apply a 10% net profit margin to the SaaS companies, they are trading at an adjusted P/E ratio of 350 (35 / 0.10).
But many of the SaaS companies today – the younger ones especially – have revenues of less than US$2.7 billion, with huge markets to conquer. The mature SaaS companies have even fatter profit margins, relative to Alphabet, of 30% or more today. So, compared to Alphabet’s valuation back then on 31 January 2005, things don’t seem that out-of-whack now for SaaS companies, does it? Of course, the key assumptions here are:
- The young SaaS companies of today can go on to grow at high rates for a long period of time;
- The young SaaS companies can indeed become profitable in the future, with a solid profit margin.
Nobody can guarantee these assumptions to be true. But for me, looking at Alphabet’s history and where young SaaS companies are today provides interesting food for thought.
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Note: An earlier version of this article was published at The Good Investors, a personal blog run by our friends.
Disclosure: Ser Jing owns shares in Alphabet.