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The Motley Fool Blog Network was abuzz again this past month with a multitude of thought-provoking articles. Here are three reads that you won't want to miss.
A contrarian's view
In the spirit of Chik fil-A founder Truett Cathy, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) has focused on becoming better, which has led to its getting bigger as a result. And as Mathew DiLallo suggests in his article titled "How Apple Got Bigger by Getting Better," the two things that Apple does better than anyone else are maintaining a laser focus on its core products and managing its enormous pot of cash.
Although many have chided Apple for its lack of product diversity as well as its mountain of idle cash languishing on the balance sheet, Mathew sees these as critical advantages that are central to his investment thesis. As he points out in his example with the iPhone, the lack of endless options makes it easier for customers, as they don't have to do a lot of research to figure out which model is appropriate. Contrast this product approach with Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) , which has made its Android operating system available on seemingly countless manufactures. Not only does Apple's laser focus on a single, sleek product platform help to widen margins, but it also contributes to the stickiness of its other products, which drives future sales. Think of how many devout Apple customers who initially joined the Cult of Mac with an iPod or even an iPhone and have since found their iCollections growing with the addition of an iPad or a Mac computer.
Mathew also highlights the Mighty Fruit's steadfast hand at the cash helm by not falling prey to the Wall Street buyback game to simply massage earnings. It's no secret that most tech company buybacks occur at prices well north of intrinsic value, often speaking volumes about the real motives behind such purchases. Nor has Apple spent vast sums on mega-acquisitions, which often tend to be another value-sapping strategy. Instead, it keeps a calm hand over the cash deployment switch, which enables it to invest where and when appropriate.
The $64,000 question
While many investors and analysts alike ponder the what-ifs surrounding Facebook (Nasdaq: FB ) , Daniel Ferry argues against speculating on the unknown and instead turns to the value that we can decipher today in its current operations. In his article "Where's the Bottom for Facebook? ," Daniel attempts to place a price tag on Facebook shares and in so doing delivers a valuable message that touches on the wisdom from some of the greatest value investors of our time. It's akin to the idea from Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett that involves concentrating your energy on finding 1-foot hurdles to step over rather than attempting to develop the ability to clear 7-footers -- invaluable advice that applies not only to investment choices, but also to the way we conduct our analysis.
In true value-investor fashion, Daniel runs Facebook through a good old-fashioned discounted cash flow analysis based on assumptions derived from what's currently known about the business. What's enlightening about this article is neither the $19 price tag that Daniel assigns to the stock nor the assumptions used, but rather the idea that shareholder value is ultimately borne of free cash flow and not of aspiration. Whether or not you agree with Daniel's assumptions, or, even more fundamentally, whether you believe DCF is a valid tool for a young innovator, the one thing we can all agree on is that by joining other insightful investors and examining complex problems from myriad angles, we will broaden our collective understanding, which will lead to smarter decisions. Offering that kind of reader enrichment is the very essence of what a blog should be.
Where theory and reality diverge
Since even before the infamous pricing blunder from last summer, Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) has embarked on a strategy to shift its business into the rapidly evolving world of streaming video content. The benefits seem obvious, for this is the wave of the future that was theorized to carry the company to a virtual paradise of rapidly expanding revenues and wider margins. However, things haven't really quite turned out that way, as Phil Cutujar vividly illustrates in his article "Curtains for Netflix." While streaming revenues are on the rise, profit margins are dreadfully lagging those of the company's physical-DVD business.
Furthermore, the company's international growth strategy, considered to be a focal point for creating shareholder value, seems instead to be giving the bottom line a bad case of jet lag, as international subscribers cost more than twice as much as their domestic counterparts -- yet another reason value investors may want to sit this one out.
Meanwhile, content-acquisition costs seem not only to be plaguing the income and cash-flow statements but are also wreaking havoc on the balance sheet, with the company's long-term debt ballooning. Sprinkle in a healthy serving of fierce competition from the likes of Wal-Mart, Amazon.com, and Hulu, and it may indeed be curtains for Reed Hastings' company.