Google Price Target: $16,578.90 (Or, The Power Of Compounding)

by: Geoff Gannon

Regular readers of this blog will immediately recognize this headline is a joke. For the rest of you, I was kind of hoping the ninety cents part would give it away.

If you’re reading this because you’re interested in what I have to say about Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), you can stop now. I’m not going to say anything interesting about Google. Rather, I’m going to say something (that I hope is) very interesting about the wonders of compounding.

Warren Buffett’s annual letter to shareholders (.pdf) was released; I’ll write a lot more about it tomorrow. For now, I’m just going to pull out one little nugget:

Between December 31, 1899 and December 31, 1999, to give a really long-term example, the Dow rose from 66 to 11,497 (Guess what annual growth rate is required to produce this result; the surprising answer is at the end of this section.)

I knew what Warren was up to, and had some idea of the historical growth rate for the Dow, so I guessed 6%.

Here’s the answer to the question posted at the beginning of this section: To get very specific the Dow increased from 65.73 to 11,497.12 in the 20th century, and that amounts to a gain of 5.3% compounded annually. (Investors would also have received dividends, of course). To achieve an equal rate of gain in the 21st century, the Dow will have to rise by December 31, 2099 to – brace yourself – precisely 2,011,011.23. But I’m willing to settle for 2,000,000; six years into this century, the Dow has gained not at all.

I wish I could tell you that my guess was close. But, it wasn’t even in the right ballpark. The difference between a 5.3% annual gain and a 6% annual gain may look relatively small. In fact, the difference is not small. If, during the 20th century, the Dow had achieved a gain of 6% compounded annually rather than a gain of 5.3% compounded annually, on the eve of Y2K, the index would have been sitting at 22,302.33.

The rallying cry of the bubble years would have been Dow 20,000. And what of Dow 10,000? The index would have added its fifth figure in 1987. That’s right, if the Dow had achieved a gain of 6% compounded annually during the 20th century, the index would have broken the 10,000 mark while the Berlin Wall was still standing.

Over a century, that extra 0.7% really adds up. I recently wrote an email to a member of my family who had just had her first child. You would think that blathering on as I do here each day, I would have a sea of investing advice to offer. In fact, I provided only a single drop: Time trumps money.

If you want to have more money than you will ever need, your best bet is to find a few places where you can deploy large sums of money that will earn good returns for a great many years, and will not require you to share any of the spoils with Uncle Sam until you are done accumulating said spoils. To do this, you will have to own a business either in part or in whole. I’m an investor, not an entrepreneur; so, let’s stick to the economics of becoming part owner of a business.

It’s time to discuss Google. I have a price target of $16,578.90 on Google. Does that sound reasonable? No. Well, I may have forgotten to mention this is a 50-year price target? So, does it sound reasonable now?

Don’t answer. First, we need to see what it would take for Google’s share price to reach $16,578.90. Last I checked, each share of Google had a book value of $31.87. Everyone says Google’s a great business. They may be right. But, I like all my surprises to be of the pleasant variety. So, I’m going to start by chucking the idea of Google being an extraordinary business. For now, let’s just call it average.

Who would want stock options in an average business? Let’s pretend no one would. Since there's no downside, I think everyone would; but, let’s just ignore that inconvenient fact. We’re going to pretend Google won’t be diluting its shares at all. For the next fifty years, there will be no new shares and no stock splits.

As a public company, Google has earned an above average return on equity. It hasn’t been an earth shattering return on equity (it’s no Timberland), but it’s been better than most. Of course, with Google, you’re not paying up for the current return on equity – you’re paying up for all the ridiculously profitable growth to come. I’m willing to meet the Google bulls halfway on this one. I’ll give you growth, but no unusual profitability. You’re going to get a 12% return on equity, but there will be no limit to your growth. In my model, Google can literally conquer the world.

With something like $9 billion in equity to start with, a 12% return on equity, and the reinvestment of all earnings in the business, Google would get awfully big.

Don’t believe me? I know a 12% return on equity looks ridiculously low, but watch what happens. In 2056, Google will be a $312 billion company. Of course, the big question is: do I mean market cap or revenue?

I mean profits! At a P/E of 15, Google would have a market cap of $4.68 trillion. Yes, with a “t