A year ago, two of our top Fools locked horns over TASER International
Bust a move
Tim started by conceding that TASER's management sometimes moves in mysterious ways. But he still saw still too much good in the business model and the flagship product to walk away, for the following reasons:
Insider ownership. Inept competition. Lawsuit risk.
The third advantage doesn't sound that great, but Tim explained that TASER had proven that it could win the lawsuits raining down upon it since time immemorial. He wrote:
According to the 10-K filed on March 16, TASER had 49 product liability lawsuits filed against it. Since then, four more suits have been dismissed. What's more, on Monday TASER said that the SEC has completed all aspects of its investigation into the company, with no enforcement action recommended. All of that should create a higher hurdle for potential litigants.
Then Tim took his argument home by noting that the law enforcement market TASER served could be a $4.3 billion opportunity, and there was simply no credible competition. With less than $200 million in lifetime sales at the time of that original Duel, it was "only a matter of years before a well-capitalized rival emerges to bury TASER, or the stock becomes a multibagger."
Ryan came up with a bearish list of his own. O TASER, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways:
Accounting. Lawsuits. Valuation. Miscellany.
Ryan pointed out that management had a history of fast-and-loose accounting, numerous SEC investigations, and unsavory insider-selling moves. He took an opposing view on the lawsuits, noted that the stock was trading at a rich 35 times forward estimated earnings with little cash flow, and complained that the company was spending its research dollars unwisely.
In all, Ryan thought of TASER as a pure speculative play, with risks way out of proportion to the payoff, and one that Benjamin Graham would have sneered at.
Tim swung the Ben Graham bat right back with a quote on the value of informed speculation. Perhaps the language of professional gaming says it best, in Tim's words:
To use poker parlance -- you brought Vegas into this debate, remember? -- that's a lot of outs for a pot that equals at least $4.3 billion. The best players in the world have pushed all-in for a lot less. You needn't expose your portfolio to the same risk, of course. (Diversification is a key tenet of successful investing, after all.)
And Ryan's final salvo centered around a modern-day Graham, Berkshire Hathaway's Charlie Munger:
You should find something to invest in and then compare everything else against that. That's your opportunity cost.
That opportunity cost was still too high for my fellow Fool, and as he wrote, "There are plenty of stocks that are able to meet SEC filing deadlines, don't have major litigation issues, and also have huge potential in fast-growing or large markets."
Eye of the storm
That's where you came in to cast your votes on the debate. When all was said and done, Tim pulled out a comfortable bull win, claiming 58% of 238 votes, versus 31% for Ryan and 11% undecided. Curtains, please.
So let's put on our 20/20 hindsight goggles and see what really happened. Since that heated argument aired, TASER's stock price has dropped by about 2% -- essentially flat. At the same time, the S&P 500 gained more 17%, so the stun-gun maker couldn't keep pace with the broader market. Score one for Ryan.
In a wider perspective, TASER has lost 67% of its value since its original Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation in December 2004, though it remains about level with the rerecommendation price from fall 2005. That's a non-scoring round, folks.
Then there's TASER in the news. The company has yet to lose a wrongful death lawsuit, and has now built a strong backlog of cases to fall back on. The new lawsuits these days tend to be aimed at the police departments and city government agencies that use TASER weapons, not at the company itself. We can argue all day about how that disincentive to adoption might hurt TASER's sales, but the lawsuit storm appears to be dying down. Score, Tim.
As for valuation, the stock now trades at 35 times the expected earnings for the next 12 months. I'm inclined to give that round to Ryan.
All in all, the company appears in decent shape, though many of the old issues still remain. This is another reminder of why Rule Breakers investors need a very long investment horizon, along with decidedly thick skin.
If TASER blows up in a good way, realizing some of that $4.3 billion annual sales opportunity, investor patience will be rewarded in spades. Then again, you never know what will happen in this crazy market, and the company could just as well go belly-up or get bought out at a ridiculous discount.
Tim won the popular vote, but Ryan took the year-later crown. We'll just have to wait a bit longer to see who really won.
Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. You can check out Anders' holdings if you like, and Foolish disclosure doesn't kill -- it sort of tickles, actually.