Exploring Adobe's Pipeline: CS3 and Beyond

Nov.30.07 | About: Adobe Systems (ADBE)

Given the recent volatility in the market, I have slightly modified my screening process, placing slightly greater emphasis on strong topline growth, earnings consistency and clean balance sheets - the qualities of companies that tend to trade well during times of economic uncertainty. Obviously, I am not the only investor seeking a safe haven in this market, and the redirection of money flow into these stocks has driven their prices and P/E ratios up. Stocks like Proctor & Gamble (NYSE:PG) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) are at their 52-week highs and trade at P/E multiples much higher than historical averages. Although my investment approach is rooted in value investing, I am willing to pay a premium for stability in this environment. After all, the great Warren Buffet has even been known to pay up for quality during times of turmoil, as evidenced by Berkshire's late 1980's purchases Coca Cola (NYSE:KO) and Gillette.

My search has led me to Adobe Corp. (NASDAQ:ADBE). Most everyone that owns a computer in the developed world has at one time or another used Adobe Acrobat (900mm installed base). Adobe utilizes a "reverse razor blade" strategy by distributing free copies of its reader product to PC manufacturers, and generating its profits on sales of its writers, or applications used to create communications in .PDF format. This creates an enormous competitive moat for the company and allows it to generate strong returns on its invested capital.

Not only does the company have a strong competitive position, but several growth catalysts are emerging that should increase the visibility of earnings growth and likelihood of upward revisions. From an industry perspective, the outlook is bright. Enterprise roll-outs of Vista (Microsoft) and insatiable consumer demand for notebooks is expected to support PC/Notebook shipment growth of 11%-13% according to Gartner and IDC forecasts. Most of these machines will come pre-installed with Acrobat software. Furthermore, the popularity of web-communities such as MySpace (NASDAQ:NWS) and YouTube (NASDAQ:GOOG) is resulting in exponential growth in the number of websites and the need for creative content solutions.

Internally, the company is intently focused on its recent launch of CS3 (Creative Suite 3), a suite of tools used by creative professionals and consumers that want to use computers to create their own websites, blogs, and share media with family and friends. With the recent acquisition of Macromedia, known for its popular flashplayer technology, the new product offers much greater video functionality for web-developers and should generate significantly higher per unit margins than previous rollouts.

Since 2003 the average selling price of ADBE's product mix has grown from about $250 to $400. This trend should continue. Going back 20 years, I found a strong correlation between product launches and accelerating sales trends. Given that CS3 is anticipated to be the most successful launch ever for the company, revenues are poised to follow the historical pattern of post-launch growth. On its most recent conference call Adobe management pointed out that penetration rates among creative professionals are 40% higher than previous releases at this point in the product roll-out cycle (launch +6 months), due to CS3's growing popularity and enhanced functionality.

Additionally, new product launches in mobile applications should gain traction in 2008. The number of "flash enabled" devices sold per year has grown from about 50 million to 250 million in just the last 3 years. Interestingly, most of the developing world (and over 60% of the world's population) will access the internet for the first time via a mobile device, so the enormous opportunity here is clear. There are indications that the company will launch a mobile product in 2008.

Lastly, the company is making significant strides within the enterprise marketplace through a recently announced partnership with SAP AG (NYSE:SAP) which should dramatically increase the Adobe value proposition within large organizations. Longer term, the company has been beta testing a new html-based architecture known as AIR that will make web content creation much more accessible to the masses. As the operating system continues to look more and more like a home-page, applications such as AIR will be at sweet spot of this technological evolution. At a recent conference, management indicated that internally, they think AIR has the potential to do for internet content development what Acrobat did for document management. The company expects numerous product launches based on the AIR technology, as this next generation "razor blade" gains mass acceptance.

Fundamentals & Valuation

The company should earn about $1.85 next year, which means it trades at about 22x earnings at Wednesday's closing price of just over $42. They do have over $6B in cash & equivalents on the balance sheet, so adjusting for cash we are paying about 19X, not cheap, but not ridiculous either for a company that generates ROE of 25% and is expected to grow at 16% over the coming years.

I also like to look at free cash flow [FCF], and as expected with any software company, Adobe is a cash machine. The company has well over $1B in cash flow earning power, which is healthy for a company with a net enterprise value of about $18B. Based on my FCF analysis, which assumes consensus growth rates, a discount factor of 10%, and a terminal multiple of 18X, the stock is intrinsically worth about $50 per share, a modest margin of safety.

This isn't a classic value stock and any execution missteps with the new management team do pose a real risk to the thesis given the premium we are paying. I have met the new management team and they have been well groomed internally and largely seem to be thoughtful, shareholder-friendly managers. Not a risk-free story, but when the market gyrations have you reaching for the Pepto, a stock like Adobe, might let you sleep a little better.