For beginners, it can seem like a good idea (and an exciting prospect) to buy a company that tells a good story to investors, even if it completely lacks a track record of revenue and profit. But as Warren Buffett has mused, 'If you've been playing poker for half an hour and you still don't know who the patsy is, you're the patsy.' When they buy such story stocks, investors are all too often the patsy.
In the age of tech-stock blue-sky investing, my choice may seem old fashioned; I still prefer profitable companies like Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG). Now, I'm not saying that the stock is necessarily undervalued today; but I can't shake an appreciation for the profitability of the business itself. Conversely, a loss-making company is yet to prove itself with profit, and eventually the sweet milk of external capital may run sour.
How Quickly Is Intuitive Surgical Increasing Earnings Per Share?
If you believe that markets are even vaguely efficient, then over the long term you'd expect a company's share price to follow its earnings per share (EPS). That means EPS growth is considered a real positive by most successful long-term investors. Impressively, Intuitive Surgical has grown EPS by 22% per year, compound, in the last three years. As a result, we can understand why the stock trades on a high multiple of trailing twelve month earnings.
I like to take a look at earnings before interest and (EBIT) tax margins, as well as revenue growth, to get another take on the quality of the company's growth. While Intuitive Surgical did well to grow revenue over the last year, EBIT margins were dampened at the same time. So it seems the future my hold further growth, especially if EBIT margins can stabilize.
In the chart below, you can see how the company has grown earnings, and revenue, over time. For finer detail, click on the image.
Of course the knack is to find stocks that have their best days in the future, not in the past. You could base your opinion on past performance, of course, but you may also want to check this interactive graph of professional analyst EPS forecasts for Intuitive Surgical.
Are Intuitive Surgical Insiders Aligned With All Shareholders?
Since Intuitive Surgical has a market capitalization of US$67b, we wouldn't expect insiders to hold a large percentage of shares. But we are reassured by the fact they have invested in the company. Indeed, they have a glittering mountain of wealth invested in it, currently valued at US$622m. This suggests to me that leadership will be very mindful of shareholders' interests when making decisions!
It's good to see that insiders are invested in the company, but are remuneration levels reasonable? A brief analysis of the CEO compensation suggests they are. I discovered that the median total compensation for the CEOs of companies like Intuitive Surgical, with market caps over US$8.0b, is about US$11m.
Intuitive Surgical offered total compensation worth US$6.4m to its CEO in the year to December 2018. That seems pretty reasonable, especially given its below the median for similar sized companies. CEO remuneration levels are not the most important metric for investors, but when the pay is modest, that does support enhanced alignment between the CEO and the ordinary shareholders. It can also be a sign of a culture of integrity, in a broader sense.
Does Intuitive Surgical Deserve A Spot On Your Watchlist?
Given my belief that share price follows earnings per share you can easily imagine how I feel about Intuitive Surgical's strong EPS growth. If that's not enough, consider also that the CEO pay is quite reasonable, and insiders are well-invested alongside other shareholders. This may only be a fast rundown, but the takeaway for me is that Intuitive Surgical is worth keeping an eye on. One of Buffett's considerations when discussing businesses is if they are capital light or capital intensive. Generally, a company with a high return on equity is capital light, and can thus fund growth more easily. So you might want to check this graph comparing Intuitive Surgical's ROE with industry peers (and the market at large).
Of course, you can do well (sometimes) buying stocks that are not growing earnings and do not have insiders buying shares. But as a growth investor I always like to check out companies that do have those features. You can access a free list of them here.
Please note the insider transactions discussed in this article refer to reportable transactions in the relevant jurisdiction
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