The last two months have truly been a tale of two different markets. For a five-week period between February 19 and March 23, fear and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic gripped Wall Street and ultimately sent the benchmark S&P 500 lower by 34%. It was the fastest descent into bear market territory for the S&P 500 in history.
In the subsequent five weeks, the S&P 500 has been off to the races, with the broad-based index gaining 31%, through April 29. While stock market returns have been largely hit-and-miss and dependent on an industry or sector, one group that has continued to outperform, as a whole, are the so-called "FAANG stocks."
By FAANG stocks I'm referring to:
- Facebook (NASDAQ:FB)
- Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL)
- Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN)
- Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX)
- Google, which is now a subsidiary of Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL)
These five businesses are absolutely dominant in their respective fields and often on the leading edge of innovation.
But one thing that FAANG stocks aren't is cheap, at least on the basis of traditional fundamentals, such as the price-to-earnings ratio. On a trailing 12-month basis, Amazon and Netflix are currently valued at a respective 103 and 83 times their earnings, as of April 29.
However, the P/E ratio isn't exactly the best indicator of "value" for FAANG stocks given that they tend to reinvest a significant portion of their operating cash flow back into their businesses. Examining operating cash flow multiples now and relative to the future can tell us a lot more about the "attractiveness" of a FAANG stock.
Utilizing the most forward-looking operating cash flow consensus estimate available from Wall Street, here's what the FAANG stocks look like ranked from cheapest to most expensive.
Facebook: 8.1 times 2023's estimated cash flow
Keeping in mind that this multiple is based on social media giant Facebook's closing price just minutes prior to releasing its first-quarter operating results, it looks to be the cheapest of all FAANG stocks at just over 8 times projected operating cash flow per share by 2023.
Social media is all about eyeballs, and there's not a platform out there that even comes close to rivaling Facebook. As of the end of March, Facebook had 2.6 billion monthly active users and 1.73 billion daily active users. Advertisers are going to pay up for their opportunity to get their product or service in front of as many targeted eyeballs as possible.
Furthermore, Facebook is still, arguably, in the relatively early innings of monetizing its platforms. Sure, it's making advertising bank from Facebook and to some degree Instagram, but it's hardly scratched the tip of the iceberg in terms of monetizing WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. We're talking about four of the seven most-visited social platform under Facebook's control, some of which are still nascent revenue producers.
Translation: Big growth still awaits this social media giant.
Alphabet: 10.8 times 2023's estimated cash flow
Behind Facebook, the next-cheapest FAANG stock is Alphabet, which also recently reported its first-quarter operating results. Despite concerns of ad-spending slowing with the proliferation of COVID-19, Alphabet's total revenue increased 15% on a constant currency basis in Q1 2020.
Similar to Facebook, the allure of Alphabet is eyeballs, and advertisers know it. Google was responsible for 92% of all search share in March 2020, according to GlobalStats. Such dominance in the search realm allows Alphabet to command healthy premiums for ad placement, and it should result in a steadying of traffic acquisition costs over the long run.
Just as important, Alphabet's external businesses beyond search are thriving. Google Cloud totaled $2.78 billion in Q1 revenue, which extrapolates out to more than $11 billion in annual sales, while YouTube ad sales jumped by 33% to $4 billion in Q1 2020 from the year-ago period. Though Alphabet may suffer from near-term coronavirus ad softness, it's well-positioned for the future.
Amazon: 11.8 times 2023's estimated cash flow
E-commerce giant Amazon might be pricey when examining its P/E ratio, but it's actually quite cheap when you focus on its operating cash flow per share. Between 2019 and 2023, Wall Street is looking for Amazon's cash flow per share to nearly triple from $76 to $201, pushing its multiple from between 23 and 37 over the past decade to under 12 by 2023.
One obvious reason for Amazon's success is its retail ecosystem. Amazon controls about 38% of all U.S. e-commerce, according to eMarketer, and it's particularly successful at buffering its retail margins and keeping customers loyal via its Prime membership. Amazon has said that it has more than 150 million worldwide Prime members.
But the real lure of Amazon (and the reason I remain an excited shareholder) is the company's cloud-services segment, Amazon Web Services (AWS). Since it's growing at twice the rate of the e-commerce segment, AWS went from contributing 11% of total sales in 2018 to 12.5% of yearly revenue in 2019. What's more, since cloud margins are so much juicier than retail or ad revenue, AWS was responsible for $9.2 billion of Amazon's $14.5 billion in operating income last year.
It may sound crazy saying it, but Amazon could very well be a $5,000 stock by 2023.
Apple: 13 times 2022's estimated cash flow
Next up is innovation kingpin Apple at roughly 13 times Wall Street's consensus cash flow per share estimate for 2022. It's worth noting that while Facebook's, Alphabet's, and Amazon's forward-looking cash flow multiple is well below their five-year averages, Apple's multiple of 13 is slightly above its five-year average multiple of 12. In other words, Apple looks to be more fairly valued than these "cheaper" FAANG stocks.
There's little question that Apple will continue to attract a cult-like following of consumers for its wireless products, such as the iPhone. The expectation has been that Apple will debut its first 5G-capable iPhone this year, but it's unclear if that'll happen now due to COVID-19 disrupting supply chains and Apple's innovative process. Nevertheless, when Apple does debut its 5G-capable iPhone, we should see a wave of smartphone upgrades.
Apple CEO Tim Cook has also conveyed his intent to move Apple away from being a products company and toward being a services and wearables provider. Recently, high-margin wearables and services have grown at a double-digit rate, which should help improve Apple's already robust operating margins over time.
Netflix: 45.3 times 2023's estimated cash flow
Finally, in the case of "which one doesn't belong," Netflix stands out as the priciest of all FAANG stocks with a multiple to 2023's forecast operating cash flow of 45!
There's no question that Netflix has done an incredible job of growing its subscriber numbers in an increasingly competitive streaming environment. As of the end of March, Netflix saw its sequential subscriber count grow by more than 15 million worldwide to 182.9 million, with the company counting on adding another 7.5 million worldwide subscribers by midyear. Proprietary shows and first-mover advantage have certainly worked wonders for Netflix.
However, the company's push into international markets has been exceptionally pricey, and as a result Netflix has been burning through its cash on a regular basis. Even with better-than-expected subscriber numbers, Netflix could still burn through up to $1 billion in cash this year. With Netflix unlikely to generate positive cash flow until 2022, it appears to be a very pricey stock.