The Next Ultimate Growth Stock

It's late August 2004, and you have a dilemma. You have $5,000 to invest, and you can't decide between two stocks: One is a growth stock, and the other is a value play. The growth stock is Google, a leader in search engines that everyone is talking about. You can buy in at $100 a share. No one seems to have a clue regarding the value of this company, and you don't really know anything about search engines, except that you can look up old high school buddies on Friday afternoons at work.

The value pick is Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) , one of the most recognized brands in the nation. Several analysts have crunched the numbers on this one and determined that the share price is significantly undervalued at $43. And doesn't Peter Lynch recommend that you buy what you know? You may not know search engines, but you know soda (or pop or whatever you want to call it). Folks always like a Coke, and with new beverages coming out, this might be an attractive company to invest in. In the end, you convince yourself to buy $5,000 of Coke. Google is just too darn risky.

Today, Coca-Cola trades at about $45 a share, and including dividends that amounts to about a 16% return over the past 50 months. That beats out the S&P by almost 30 percentage points, but it's hardly a handsome return. Google now trades at $369 -- it has yielded a 269% return over the same period. The $5,000 you invested in Coca-Cola is now worth $5,800; the $5,000 you might have invested in Google would be worth $18,400. Should you consider the difference between the two investments ($18,400-$5,800 = $12,600) the opportunity cost of choosing the safer investment?

Perhaps not. But this admittedly simplistic illustration suggests there might be a price to be paid for ignoring high-growth sectors such as biotechnology, the Internet, and nanotechnology. At Motley Fool Rule Breakers, we respect the tenets of fundamental analysis, but we also know that sometimes you have to look beyond traditional valuation techniques to find the next ultimate growth stock.

The method to our madness
Let's imagine fictitious biotech start-up "Cure-All" is trading at $5 a share and has 10 million shares outstanding. The company will be spending $10 million a year developing a late-stage drug for the next four years. The new drug goes onto the market in the fifth year and will return $100 million a year thereafter. For this company, we might use a discount rate of 15%. (Think of the discount rate as the rate of return you would require on your investment, given a particular level of risk.)

To value any company, we must first add the present value of all future cash flows. The terminal value (year five and beyond) is determined by dividing the $100 million cash flow by the discount rate. We would then need to determine the present value of that figure. The numbers would look like this:

 

Year 1

Year 2

Year 3

Year 4

Year 5+

Cash Flows

($10 million)

($10 million)

($10 million)

($10 million)

$100 million/0.15 = $667 million

Then it's just a matter of taking the present value of each of the cash flows:

(-10/1.15) + (-10/1.152) + (-10/1.153) + (-10/1.154) + (667/1.155) = $303.3 million

We would then divide the $303.3 million by 10 million shares, which would yield an intrinsic value of $30.33 per share for this company.

In other words, you can buy a stock worth $30.33 for a mere $5 a share. Even a value investor would see this as a good deal, right? Not so fast -- there's one more thing to consider. Let's say that there is a significant possibility that the drug would not be approved. In our simple example, such a scenario would lead to a valuation of zero for the company. Still interested? At this point, many investors would walk away.

But Rule Breakers analysts would dig deeper. Next, they would subject Cure-All to a probability analysis. If the odds of the drug being approved are 50%, then your expected return is very attractive. If the drug is approved, your $5 share is worth $30.33, resulting in a profit of $25.33. If the drug is rejected, your $5 share is worth nothing, resulting in a loss of $5. Overall, your expected return is $10.17 [0.5 ($25.33) + 0.5 (-5)].

To accurately determine the probabilities, we would need to consider how similar drugs have fared in the past and examine the track record of the company's management. At some point, our analysts would decide whether to invest in Cure-All. Traditional valuation methods would affect the decision, but other qualitative factors would also come into play.

This hypothetical example illustrates a few lessons for everybody. First, it might be wise to invest in companies with a positive expected return -- even if there is a possibility of losing everything. With diversification, you will benefit over the long term. Second, growth investing demands patience and fortitude. It can take several years for your investment to pay off. Sometimes, the investment might not pay off at all. Finally, the illustration shows that there is an art and a science to growth investing.

The vision thing
One of the most difficult tasks in valuing any company is trying to predict future cash flows. Obviously, this task is easier with established companies such as Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) ,Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE: CL  ) , andLowe's (NYSE: LOW  ) , all of which have steady cash flows and relatively even growth rates. With growth stocks, it's somewhat different.

When David Gardner, the lead analyst for Rule Breakers, first invested in AOL (now a division ofTime Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) ) back in 1994, he had to look beyond classical valuation techniques and envision the opportunities for a company in this industry. That long-term vision has rewarded David handsomely -- AOL's stock has delivered an annual return of approximately 30% since then. Today, we're using these same techniques in looking at hard-to-evaluate companies like LDK Solar (NYSE: LDK  ) and ValueClick (Nasdaq: VCLK  ) .

There are, however, considerable risks with this strategy. One of our biotech stock selections was down almost 60% before we withdrew our recommendation. When you swing for the fences, there will be strikeouts along the way. We recommend that investors allocate anywhere from 5% to 30% of their portfolios to growth stocks, depending on their time horizon and risk tolerance.

Nothing to fear but fear itself
To find the next ultimate growth stocks, you must use traditional analytical techniques as well as more qualitative approaches. In the end, respect the numbers but refuse to be enslaved by them.

That's the tack we take at Rule Breakers. One of our recommendations, a leading provider of advanced medical devices named Intuitive Surgical, is up 275% since it was first selected in 2005.

If you'd like to join our growing community of investors in this ongoing search for the next ultimate growth stock, why not take a 30-day free trial? You'll have full access to the current issue and the entire catalog of our back issues, which includes write-ups on more than 50 past recommendations.

This article was originally published on May 13, 2005. It has been updated.

John Reeves does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned above. Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Intuitive Surgical and Google are Rule Breakers picks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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