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Exploring the Mysteries of Palantir Stock

By Lou Whiteman – Aug 30, 2021 at 9:09AM

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Discussing Palantir's latest earnings report, and a few thoughts on recent news from Afghanistan.

In this episode of Industry Focus: Energy, host Nick Sciple is joined by Lou Whiteman to take a look at Palantir Technologies (PLTR -2.09%) earnings and its gold purchase. Plus, the two discuss the Afghanistan recent news and how it will impact the defense industry.

To catch full episodes of all The Motley Fool's free podcasts, check out our podcast center. To get started investing, check out our quick-start guide to investing in stocks. A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Aug. 19, 2021.

Nick Sciple: Welcome to Industry Focus, I am Nick Sciple. This week, I'm excited to welcome Lou Whiteman back on the show to take a look at Palantir's recent earnings. Lou, how's it going?

Lou Whiteman: Going well, good to see you, Nick.

Sciple: Great to have you here back on the show. We've talked about Palantir here in the past, I think this is the first show we're doing focusing specifically on this company. I had John a couple of weeks ago, we talked about the entertainment that we can get from Tesla earnings calls. There are some back-end relationships between Palantir, whose chairman is Peter Thiel, and then the Tesla CEO and former chairman, Elon Musk. What did you make of this earnings call, man? Palantir is a unique company.

Whiteman: They are. You know what? They own that, which I respect. It was a fun earnings call they did for people who didn't listen in. They have people submit questions, there's no live back-and-forth with analysts. It's brilliant because it really gives them a chance to communicate as they wish, and maybe not what they wish, but it makes for a really fun call. Issues or questions as simple as what's Palantir, what does Palantir do, which was one that you pulled out that I thought was great.

Sciple: Yeah. They take this out of the Tesla playbook, where they take submissions from investors online. At least for the first part of the call, I would say most of the call, the Q&A portion is spent answering those questions, having the IRR executives read that out.

One of the things that we struggled with here, Lou, is trying to figure out, what exactly does Palantir do? We had a whole episode where we talked about these highly classified businesses. Sometimes, everything is behind the wall. It's hard to figure out what's going on and what exactly the nature of these programs are.

It seems like some analysts are having the same problem, because there was a question we got on the earnings call. It says, "Are there plans for the company to increase its PR presence to increase awareness of its business model, which may lead to increased utilization of Palantir's various software platforms?"

We got an answer from the chief operating officer, Shyam Sankar. I don't think it was super satisfying for those who were trying to figure out what the business is all about. They say: "I can't really tell you why some people don't know or understand what we do. I can tell you about the people who do know though. It's the special operator who chased down a car to give him a hug. It's the civil servants who work tirelessly to deliver vaccines in the U.S. and the U.K. It's the French government as they raced to prevent bombs from exploding on the eve of Macron's election. It's the German police who caught the suicide bombers in time, the supply chain operators of the World Food Program, tackling COVID, escalating impact of global property and hunger, the factory workers on the assembly lines from Toulouse to Detroit." That's an answer. It's not really an exact answer. What is your understanding of what Palantir does, and where they fit in other than being like sneaky spy software people?

Whiteman: The big picture is this is a data analytics company. They bring order to data, and they do it with AI. They do it with a human intelligence. Humans are better at sorting through data than machines, but they do it with the speed and just the total volume of a machine. It's that human-level intelligence at the volume of machines that allows them to do amazing things. Most notably, they've helped the Pentagon find Osama Bin Laden, helped figure out that Bernie Madoff wasn't on the up and up. It is a special sauce. It's AI that helps sort through mountains and mountains of data and find things that both a human on his or her own or a lesser AI is going to miss. That in a nutshell is what they do. But it's complicated.

Sciple: It's complicated. You describe their culture as an artist colony. Very pretty eccentric you would say. Maybe it fits the Peter Thiel ethos. He has his book, Zero to One, I think it's one of the best investing books out there. But it talks about how you have to be different to achieve something different. They are certainly being very different from other folks, certainly, in the government services industry, maybe other companies, in general. When we look at the numbers from the earnings report, what the company is giving us as far as performance of the business. What stood out to you from earnings?

Whiteman: This is starting on a very high level. It was a very good quarter this recent quarter. We should note, they only went public late last year. It's an 18-year-old company, but it's relatively new to the public markets. Anyway, they earned $0.04 per share on revenue of $375 million. That easily topped estimates on revenue, $353 million was the estimate. It was a penny ahead on analyst expectations. Revenue was up an eye-popping 49% year-over-year. Adjusted operating margin topped 30% for the third straight quarter.  This is a good solid business. We'll talk about that later. But I think the heart of the question of what Palantir does, why don't analysts get it, is there is a market disconnect right now going on with the strength of the business versus the strength of the stock. It's hard to get by. But look, they are forecasting great things. They had a 3-to-1 book to bill ratio, which means they're bringing in almost three times the business they're billing out. Fantastic. They had 20 customers in the quarter. Many of those, to be honest, didn't view this a bit of an asterisk there, but that is growth, and commercial side growth as we'll talk about soon, is key to the bull case here. Most impressive, they don't really give guidance, but they said with confidence, 30% annual revenue growth for each of the next five years. We're talking about growing the business from just over $1 billion, analyzing run-rate to a $3.5-4 billion company in a matter of five years, 2026. As an investor, you got to like that. They are definitely going in the right direction.

Sciple: Big question for me, and you may or may not have deep thoughts on this Lou. But just why now? You mentioned this is a company that's been around for a number of years. They were involved in the Osama Bin Laden capture a number of years ago. This company has been around for a while. Now, we're seeing this incredible growth, forecasting lots of growth into the future. What is your perception of the quarter they've turned here, or why now?

Whiteman: This is perception because as we discussed from the top, this isn't a company that really likes to spell out all of its thoughts out to the markets. They only went public last year. That coincided with a real push on the commercial side. They've mostly been a government contractor. I think what we're seeing here is part of their evolution into, hopefully, a more diversified contractor serving both government and commercial customers, to justify a strong public listing. They've been around for 18 years and they are only now a $1 billion company, mostly in defense. That's going to trade at a different valuation than a company that can really attack the commercial market. We can get into that in a second as far as where they are in that. But I think that this, the PR push, the going public, the commercial, this is all about turning from a niche government contractor to a more-mainstream data analytics company.

Sciple: It's that leap, maybe if you think about it. There's a couple of examples of autonomy. We had the DARPA program that was about autonomous vehicles, and now you have lots of companies trying to launch that in a commercial sense. If you look at iRobot, that makes the robot vacuums, the early history of that company was they were a robotic minesweeper. Obviously, you don't want people to be going around, walking through the minefield tracking for mines. That was the early development of that technology. Maybe this is another example of technology developed in the test tube of the military that now you can open up the floodgates and unleash it out onto the commercial world. One thing you mentioned about, Lou, some of the growth in revenue we're seeing. I think they said there's only 1% of their growth and revenue. But a huge chunk of their total contract volume is coming from these smaller companies, they call them "Day Zero" companies, that they are investing in. What can you tell us about what they're doing here? Obviously, there's some risk.

Whiteman: They are investing partially through the SPACs. They are investing in companies that they see promise in, and they are also finding customers that way. You can't do it forever, but it's hard to knock the strategy. Let's talk about it a little because I think this gets back to that initial, what is Palantir, and the question was, why don't analysts get it? Which is an interesting thing to say. This is a company, as we said, most of their history has been on the defense side. Right now, it's almost a $50 billion market cap on a $1 billion run rate of sales, so a quite rich price-to-sales on today. Even if you go forward with that 30% growth over five years, we're still talking about 12 to 15 times projected 2026 sales. Honestly, defense contractors mostly are less than two times sales. It's just out of this world for defense. This is part of this process where they need to become a commercial company. While they're making progress here, and like the Day Zero companies, they are being innovative in how they're going to do it. There was nothing in this quarter to suggest that the profile of this company is going to change anytime soon. Government with 61% of total revenue in the quarter, and it is growing faster. Government grew by about 66%, commercial grew about 28%. 

By comparison, it's hard to get a perfect comparison, but Snowflake, which is a commercial company, similar size revenue, grew revenue by 110%. It is not growing as fast as Snowflake on the commercial side. If the government is a bigger part of the pie, and it's the side that's growing faster, it is really hard quickly to transition yourself into a commercial vendor. I think a lot of the angst in that question was, why don't analysts get the commercial? I think that's the better answer to that question right now, is that commercial is still the area of promise, but not the area that is the bulk of the business. These Day Zero companies initiatives like that, they've partnered with IBM to try and sell the software, which will cut margins which should hopefully help with growth. These are ways where they are trying to transform themselves into a more commercial minded company that arguably could justify a higher valuation long term.

Sciple: They talked about hiring a significant number of sales staff. Obviously, going out to sell to a different, more varied group of customers. I will say, for any company, we're having a venture capital arm of our business that's spinning up customers for us. I will say though, it makes you feel a little bit better when you have Peter Thiel, one of the best venture capitalists ever, as the chairman of the board. If there's anybody that's going to pick winners and have a pretty high hit rate there, I think he's one of them. We'll have to see.

Whiteman: They have the cash. I don't think there is a downside, but I also don't think that  this solves there. It looked really good on the customer acquisition numbers. It's not going to drive revenue and really transform the business, just the nature of these customers.

Sciple: Yeah. Really questions about how quickly they can continue to grow this commercial side, how these bets on smaller companies work out. You mentioned the cash pile, Lou, and that's the other thing that's grabbing headlines here is how they're spending that cash pile. The company purchased $50 million in 100-ounce gold bars, they said in their Aug. 12 earnings statement. They said the purchase will be kept in a secure third-party facility located in the Northeastern United States and the company will be able to take possession of the gold bars at any time with reasonable notice. They've talked about this being insurance against a black swan event. Palantir is the eye in the sky that's helping support the operations of people like the CIA and the NSA. What do you make of this group in particular, buying $50 million in gold bars?

Whiteman: That is certainly the headline, this so-called Skynet, the company that has the AI capable of predicting the future, is buying gold. You know, that's something. I don't know what to make of it. I think it's a great way to get publicity. I can't imagine a lot of at least the U.S. government or large corporate customers saying we want to pay in gold. It feels more like a publicity thing, maybe a foreign government sales, it may come in handy. But yeah, it definitely catches the eye, maybe they know something we don't. But I have a hard time changing my view of the business based on the fact that they bought gold. It's just a really fun thing to watch to see exactly what they have planned.

Sciple: Yeah. For me, it's a couple of things. For me, partially, it's a $50 million marketing expense line item, you can think of it that way because me and you are talking about it, CNBC is talking about it, they're writing it up on Bloomberg, all these other places. I don't know if you could get that level of coverage across the world in the financial media with just a $50 million ad buy. You certainly have an asset left on the back end here with the gold purchase that you wouldn't have had if you just went in and spent it on ads, there's that. Do you think it's realistic, because they talked about customers having the ability to pay with cryptocurrency but nobody has paid, they are encouraging customers to pay with gold. But the people who had realistically wanted to have untraceable payments are the people that Palantir had said they will not service. There's potentially hostile groups and groups that would want to cover up their operations. I don't think that the U.S. Government wants to cover up that they are a customer of Palantir.

Whiteman: No. I mean, hopefully not. There was a high-profile customer we won't name who was a customer, but it turned out that they we're using the software to spy on employees and not make better lending decisions. But that was a few years ago in the past. Yeah, no, I mean, it's funny not to be too tongue-in-cheek, but it's hard to imagine a big customer actually piling gold into a truck and driving at the Palantir headquarters, so probably what you would have is some paper that represents an amount of gold, which used to be the U.S. dollar, so maybe they're just trying to get us back to the gold standard. But I tend to think you're right, that's $50 million of publicity that they also have an asset in the bank on. We'll see what else they do with that. I'd be surprised if it's much.

Sciple: Yeah, I choose to take the publicity angle on this because if you take that they're predicting World War III angle here, I don't want to predict that future, so I'm going to choose the publicity angle. Lou, you mentioned earlier, when you look at Palantir, they're tough to put a thumb on, and in some perspectives, you want to going to put it in the bucket of government services contractors, and others you want to put it in this bucket with your Amazons, and your Snowflakes, and your Microsoft as this transformational Cloud software business. About a year ago, we did a defense stocks basket, which was some of these traditional companies. When you look at how Palantir has traded compared to some of those other companies, what are your thoughts on where Palantir fits in the bucket and there's different strategies for investors to get into these trends?

Whiteman: Not to dump the question, but this is really hard because I think business is fantastic. There is, in my mind, though, a disconnect between the business and the stock. It's hard to know how long that goes on or how quickly they grow out of it. One thing I do believe is that if they cannot get the commercial up and running the way they hope to, the valuation is not sustainable over time. Governments have cost-plus contracts. There is only so much business. If you talked to Pentagon people about Palantir, they both loved the company, they love the software when it's needed. But that when it is needed is important because it is expensive, it is cumbersome, it is a huge install, and frankly, it's best used not universally but when it's needed. I do think there are limits on the government's side, and I think the commercial side, they couldn't run into some of those same things. 

Last December, I actually put together a separate basket that was instead of Palantir, to buy these three defense IT firms. I was thinking five years, for the record, so far, I have not been right. My basket has losing to Palantir for less than 1% on average. If you throw in dividends, total return, I think I'm up, but whatever, we're very early in a five-year process. But the thing that struck me when I was looking at that this morning is just that Palantir, for all of its volatility, has basically gone nowhere in a long time. Now, it has been so long, it's been at various points in time this year, it's been up 60% for the year. It was down as much as 25%, wild swings. But for the year, it is actually losing to the S&P 500 by almost 9 percentage points. Basically, if you take out all that noise, it's a flat line. I wonder, this company, these products, they're too good for it just to fall off a cliff. It's hard to imagine the catalyst where it just crashes, it's done. But it's also hard to see that catalyst to get a jump higher. I think one or two things are going to happen. Either they're going to surprise me with the way they can grow the commercial, and I think honestly, probably surprise themselves because I think it's going to be much more than that 30% if they really see the stock take off, or this could just be a flat stock for a while while it slowly grows into its valuation. 

Looking at what it's done last year, I think the good news is that's not the worst downside. Really, it's hard to imagine this company just ceasing to exist. But I do question whether it can be a market-leading investment given its current valuation and the growth that's baked in, and the challenges that might find growth quickly. It really surprised me, its performance versus the S&P 500 for the year. I wonder if that isn't telling of what we have, maybe not for the long, long term, but for the next few years, and the foreseeable future.

Sciple: Right. Certainly, some execution to live up to that valuation. Lou, you mentioned that basket. Just for completion's sake, what were the companies that were on that list of the three IT services firms?

Whiteman: It was Booz Allen Hamilton, BAH, which to be honest, has been the real clunker for me, and then I believe it was SAIC, and Leidos Holdings, LDOS.

Sciple: Excellent. We've talked about those in the past so I'll try to drop some links to episodes where we've talked about some of those companies. Any last thoughts on Palantir before we move on our next topic?

Whiteman: Again, I think just back to that original thing, why don't analysts understand? I think it's an open debate whether or not analysts understand it better than retail or if retail understands it better than analysts, because a lot of defense people like me are looking at it through that spectrum. We could be wrong and we could be missing it, but I think as an individual investor, you should at least be mindful that that could be what they are, too. As I said, the stock could readjust overtime.

Sciple: Is it Rule Breaker or is it a faker, we're going to find out sometime in these next quarters and years. The big thing we're going to be watching is how quickly they can grow that commercial business and sustain that growth overtime. We've talked about defense a lot today, Lou, in the context of Palantir. Maybe zooming out a little bit, the headline story everywhere is what's going on in Afghanistan, a really tragic scene. When you put what's going on there in the context of what it means for defense more broadly, do you have any high-level thoughts or context to give us?

Whiteman: Yeah, as you say, it's so hard to watch, it's hard to really make it into a stock story, but these are stocks and they move on, I do think for big defense, it is mostly a distraction right now, I mean, it could be a distraction that causes some disruption. I'm pretty sure we're going to see hearings, I think it's going to distract Congress so we could see delays on the budget, that's less clarity than we hope. There could be some resignations, there could be some shuffling in the budget because of it, so I don't think the big picture really alters on this, but I do think it could cause choppiness up ahead. Part of leaving Afghanistan as part of a broader trend toward a shift and focus toward what causes great power competition, that's mostly China and Russia. In the worst-case scenario, I guess with Afghanistan, we're kind of sucked back in, and maybe that means more near-term spending on munitions versus great power R&D, which the companies would definitely prefer. The R&D, it's higher margin, more turnaround, but it's hard to imagine a world where we stopped focusing on Russia and China, and so I do think the R&D would be sustained. If anything, there was about $9 billion in the fiscal 2020 Pentagon budget to support the Afghan Army. That's presumably off the table, that does give some wiggle. That's not enough really to shift views on any one stock, but there is some wiggle room now. I think, long term, the thesis prior to this when all these companies remains the same, but it's certainly doesn't help clarity as far as when things get done and what the budget in the next year or two looks like.

Sciple: Yeah, it's an interesting history that rhymes a little bit, there was the Vietnam evacuation that was centered around Russia and some of the things going on there, and now we have this great power focus. Whenever I hear great power, I just translate that to Cold War in my brain, that's essentially the 21st century version of that, that's where we're headed.

Whiteman: I think we are and unfortunately, it's probably bullish for defense stocks over time because that does involve alot of again, this  R&D spending on advanced stuff. It's a very different profile than fighting insurgence, the low level war, but until the world gets safer.

Sciple: Hopefully, that can happen, Lou, any last thoughts here on the defense universe before we send us all home?

Whiteman: It's been a weird couple of years. We had the election last year and concerns about that, that I think we're overblown and now fresh chaos. This remains for me a sector that if you are very long-term and especially if you want dividends because you have a lot of approaching 3% dividend yields. I think it's still a safe place to go, but it is a long-term investment and you do, and there's tons of noise you have to block out, bullish and bearish.

Sciple: Lou, always love having you on the show, can't wait to have you back on again soon.

Whiteman: Pleasure to be here, Nick.

Sciple: As always, people on the program may own companies discussed on the show and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against the stocks discussed, so don't buy or sell anything based on what you hear. Thanks to Tim Sparks for mixing the show. For Lou Whiteman, I'm Nick Sciple, thanks for listening and Fool on.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Nick Sciple owns shares of Microsoft. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon, Microsoft, Palantir Technologies Inc., Snowflake Inc., and Tesla. The Motley Fool recommends the following options: long January 2022 $1,920 calls on Amazon and short January 2022 $1,940 calls on Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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