Podcast: The law of large numbers

In JSE Direct, Latest by Simon Brown

Simon Shares

  • Tesla (Nasdaq code: TSLA), epic short squeeze.
  • Steinhoff (JSE code: SNH), epic short squeeze.
  • Coronavirus continues to spread, fast, with almost 25,000 confirmed cases. People are recovering and we now have two deaths outside China.
  • Tongaat (JSE code: TON) results are out and the suspension has been lifted. The results were a horror show with debt of some R13billion and negative equity of almost R4billion. They need a rights issue of at least R4billion and the share lost over 50% when it resumed trading, currently at 488c after being suspended at 1321c.
  • No Sasol* (JSE code: SOL) that was not “a satisfactory set of operational results for the six months”. Both financially and operationally the last six months (six years?) has been a horror show. I hold Sasol since 1994 and haven’t added since the 2009 lows, but will be exiting.
  • Upcoming events;

* I hold ungeared positions.



Law of large numbers

In a financial context, the law of large numbers indicates that a large entity which is growing rapidly cannot maintain that growth pace forever.

Simple that the bigger you get the harder it is to grow and ultimately the growth slows to modest inflation or GDP adjustments. We see many companies fearing this rush out and make bad acquisitions – but that’s another story.

I want to focus on how this law can at times be broken when the underlying market fundamentally changes and the example is Microsoft (Nasdaq code: MSFT). On a PE of 30x it is expensive, but this US$1.37trillion company grew EPS by 40% making it cheap using a simple PEG ratio. It is up six fold in the last decade and in the decade before is was red.

How is a trillion dollar company able to grow earnings 40%? Broadly software as a service and cloud computing but the story is bigger, edge computing. Certainly the story is no longer Windows. Edge computing is the vast number of small devices that are invading our homes, offices and lives. Examples are; streaming music and movies, smart bulbs, security systems and virtual assistants. This is just a few examples, but they’re fundamentally changing our lives and the demands on processes and data storage and importantly the data is close to the device to ensure speed, requiring data centers everywhere.

Add to this the amount of data we create and need to store. For the first time in my life I have data that only exists in the cloud, simple because I have so much data. Now I am paranoid, so I keep it on two clouds, and wildy encrypted.

Data storage or cloud computing was hardly even an idea a decade ago. All the talk was of slim clients with all processing and data in the cloud. Back then Google (Nasdaq code: GOOGL) was the leader, but it has exploded and Google now trails in third position and we never really got to slim clients (Chromebooks the exception and services like Stadio newly trying).

This has changed companies such as Amazon (Nasdaq code: AMZN) and Microsoft (Google oddly lags in cloud) who are the leaders in cloud computing.

The thing is one could have made a solid argument that even under new management Microsoft was largely ex-growth and a mature company.

But then business models came along, they grabbed them with both hands and now they’re growing faster then they have in over two decades. This growth changes the game for Microsoft, Amazon and others. I have no idea where it ends but this trend can go on for a lot longer and they can grow revenue by a bunch more and then, hello two trillion dollar company.

What is noticeable that this is a tech issue and that traditional brick and mortar companies, miners and the like do not have this potential. They do hit the law of large numbers, but computing and the internet has changed the rules for tech stocks.

Of course eventually the law of large numbers will come into play again and growth will slow.


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JSE Direct is an independent broadcast and is not endorsed or affiliated with, nor has it been authorised, or otherwise approved by JSE Limited. The views expressed in this programme are solely those of the presenter, and do not necessarily reflect the views of JSE Limited.


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