I’m not a financial analyst and I don’t make stock recommendations , but as a participant and observer in the software investing ecosystem, I do keep an eye on macro market parameters and I read a fair bit of financial analyst research. Once in an while, I comment on what I’m seeing.
- Workday was $49/share, now at $192
- Zendesk was $15/share, now at $85
- ServiceNow was $47/share, now at $247
- Salesforce was $56/share, now at $160
Those four stocks are up 342% over the past 3 years and two months. More broadly, the Bessemer Emerging Cloud Index is up 385% over the same period. Given the increase, a seemingly frothy market for stocks (P/E of the S&P 500 at ~21), and plenty of global geopolitical and economic uncertainty, the question is whether there is another SaaSacre (rhymes with massacre) in the not-too-distant future?
Based just on gut feel, I would say yes. (Hence my Kellblog prediction that markets would be choppy in 2019.) But this morning, I saw a chart in a Cowen report that helped bring some data to the question:
I wish we had a longer time period to look at, but the data is still interesting. The chart plots enterprise value (EV) divided by next twelve month (NTM) sales. As a forward multiple, it’s already more aggressive than a trailing twelve month (TTM) multiple because revenue is growing (let’s guess 25% to 30% across the coverage universe), thus the multiple gets deflated when looking forward as opposed to back.
That said, let’s look at the shape of the curve. When I draw a line through 7x, it appears to me that about half the chart is above the line and half below, so let’s guesstimate that median multiple during the period is 7x. If you believe in regression to the mean, you should theoretically be a bearish when stocks are trading above the median and bullish when they’re below.
Because the average multiple line is pretty thick, it’s hard to see where exactly it ends, but it looks like 8.25x to me. That means today’s multiples are “only” 18% above the median . That’s good news, in one sense, as my gut was that it would be higher. The bad news is: (1) when things correct they often don’t simply drop to the line but well through it and (2) if anything happens to hurt the anticipated sales growth, the EV/NTM-sales multiple goes up at constant EV because NTM-sales goes down. Thus there’s kind of a double whammy effect because lower future anticipated growth increases multiples at a time when the multiples themselves want to be decreasing.
This is a long way of saying, in my opinion, as a chartist  using this chart, I would conclude that multiples are somewhat frothy, about 20% above the median, with a lot predicated on future growth.
This exercise shows that looking only at price appreciation presents a more dangerous-looking picture than looking at prices as related to revenues: looking across the whole chart, prices are up a lot since April 2014 but so are forward-looking revenues, and the multiple is roughly the same at the start as at the end: 8x.  Looking at things differently, of the ~350% gain since April 2016, half is due to multiple expansion (from a way-below-median ~4x to an above-median ~8x), and half is to stock revenue growth.
For me, when I look at overall markets (e.g., PE of the S&P), geopolitical uncertainty, price appreciation, and SaaS multiples, I still feel like taking a conservative position. But somewhat less than so than before I saw this chart. While it’s totally subjective: SaaS is less frothy than I thought when looking only at price appreciation.
Switching gears, the same Cowen report had a nice rule of 40 chart that I thought I’d share as well:
Since the R^2 is only 0.32, I continue to wonder if you’d get a higher R^2 using only revenue growth as opposed to rule of 40 score on the X axis. For more on this topic, see my other Rule of 40 posts here.
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 Nevertheless, 18% is a lot to lose if multiples instantly reset to the median. (And they often don’t just drop to the median, but break well through it — e.g., in Jan 2016, they were as low as 4x.)
 And chartism doesn’t work.
 If you ignore most of the first month where it appeared to be falling from 10x to 8x.