Wall Street has always been captivated by controversial companies, controversial leaders, and controversial mergers. Tesla’s shocking offer to buy SolarCity on Tuesday featured all three, so it was no surprise that the deal instantly seemed like a bigger story than the presidential race, gun control, ISIS, and Brexit. It even managed to make the last controversial company that dominated headlines, Valeant Pharma, seem like an afterthought.
A few people have written in asking my opinion of the deal. The short answer is, I believe investors are well advised to avoid both stocks like the plague. As separate entities, these companies are wildly overvalued story stocks with a good chance of going broke. Together, they will form one wildly overvalued story stock with a good chance of going broke.
Earnings, as the old Wall Street adage goes, are “the mother’s milk of stock prices.” But not all earnings are the same. More and more companies believe they can hoodwink investors into accepting the myth that non-GAAP earnings are a better measure of corporate progress than numbers produced by generally accepted accounting principles. In 2016’s first quarter, 19 of the 30 Dow companies reported both GAAP and non-GAAP earnings.
In theory, filing non-GAAP numbers can give a clearer picture of a company’s health by excluding expenses managements consider (or hope) to be nonrecurring, such as charges for divestitures, acquisitions, and foreign currency adjustments. In practice, non-GAAP figures increasingly allow managements to present wildly distorted pictures of their firms’ financial health by omitting the most troublesome aspects of their balance sheets. Valeant is all over the news now for doing just that. But the biggest and, mystifyingly, least talked about expense omitted in non-GAAP numbers is stock based compensation.
Believe it or not, mobile home stocks used to be good places to park your money. Twenty years ago, the so-called “manufactured housing” industry was widely followed by Wall Street analysts, and public companies like Clayton Homes, Champion Homes, and Palm Harbor Homes were all rated strong buys.
Then the roof caved in.
First, the easy credit of the early-2000s housing bubble allowed many first time buyers to choose “site built” homes instead mobile homes. That was followed by the 2008 crisis, when financing for all types of homes, mobile or otherwise, evaporated. Now, US mobile home production hovers around 70,000 units, down from a peak of 350,000 units in the late-1990s.
But a few companies have managed to weather the storm. The top three builders now command a combined 72 percent of the market. Berkshire Hathaway owns the largest of them, Clayton Homes, which accounts for 45 percent of all US mobile home production. The third largest company, Champion, is privately held. Aside from tiny Skyline Corp (SKY), that leaves only one publicly traded option for most stock investors: the second place company by market share, Phoenix-based Cavco Industries (CVCO).