After offering several technology companies for “stock pick of the week,” we are switching to education stocks this week. Enter the Apollo Group, aka University of Phoenix, (APOL), a leading provider of private, online education. APOL is our stock pick of the week and one of January’s Most Attractive Stocks. APOL boasts a 39% ROIC, a level rivaled by Strayer Education (STRA) at 37% and dwarfed by ITT Educational Services Management Group (ESI) at 112%.
Though not as high as the previous companies, other, smaller players in the sector also enjoy strong (2nd Quintile) ROICs: Career Education Corp at 11% and Corinthian Colleges Inc (COCO). The only other sector with so many high ROIC companies is the tech sector.
Technology and education companies have more in common than best-in-market returns on invested capital (ROIC). The underlying strategy behind both business models is to monetize intellectual capital. The tech sector leverages intellectual capital (i.e. intelligence and innovation) to build products that offer better service/output at lower costs that the products they make obsolete. The education business sells intellectual capital directly to those who want to acquire it.
Both of these businesses are highly profitable because their customers are willing to pay premium prices because of the benefits they expect to receive. For example, buyers of iPods are willing to pay an exorbitant price for the package of plastic and metal that make up an iPod because that package of plastic and metal can do quite amazing things compares to other packaging of plastic and metal. The same concept applies to online education: consumers are willing to pay much more for media that provides certifiable education than they pay for a NetFlix movie (NFLX). Technology and education companies also enjoy a, relatively, low cost of goods sold because a single, good idea/concept is leveraged across multiple products (i.e. iPods) or students. One good concept or idea can be resold again and again with little incremental cost to the seller.
As most of our readers know, a high ROIC alone will not get a stock on our Most Attractive Stocks list. The valuation of the stock must be very cheap as well. And APOL fits the bill nicely with a price-to-economic book value ratio of 0.4, which means the current stock price ($42.31) implies the company’s profits will decline by 60% and remain at that level permanently. I repeat: the market price is predicting that not only with the company’s profits never grow again, they will decline permanently by 60%. Market expectations are setting the future-profit-growth bar quite low for this stock.
As shown in our free report on APOL, the company’s return on invested capital (ROIC) (39%) is in the top quintile of all the companies we cover and its economic earnings are higher than reported accounting earnings. During its last fiscal year, APOL’s economic earnings rose $136mm to $707mm while accounting earnings fell $45mm to $553mm. APOL is one of only 71 companies of the 3000+ we cover that whose economic earnings are higher than its accounting earnings. It is quite rare for a company to have higher economic earnings than GAAP earnings given that the accounting rules enable companies to overstate their GAAP profits so easily.
At the same time, the stock’s valuation implies that APOL’s profits will decline by 60% and never grow again. Given that most investors are not aware that the company’s operating profits are as strong as they are, the market is probably not giving APOL appropriate credit for its profitability.
In summary, APOL gets our “very attractive” stock rating because its economic earnings are strong and growing while its valuation implies economic earnings will decline permanently by 60%.
For details on what causes the difference between economic versus accounting profits, see Appendix 3 on page 10 of our report on APOL. See Appendix 4 to learn how APOL increased net operating profit after tax (NOPAT) on strong revenue growth even though its NOPAT margin fell from 17.1% to 16.8%. APOL’s ROIC (detailed in Appendix 7) still rose from 37.7% to 39.3% because, as detailed in Appendix 5,r educed its invested capital while revenue grew and raised its invested capital turns from 2.21x to 2.34x.
Note: Stock pick of the week is updated every Tuesday.