Is Noble Corp. Set To Deliver Alpha?

| About: Noble Corporation (NE)
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With Noble Corp. (NYSE:NE) looking a bit "toppy" at current levels, we thought it important to share our thoughts on the firm's valuation.

Our Report on Noble

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Investment Considerations

Investment Highlights

The higher the rating on our Buying Index (our stock-selection methodology), the higher probability a company will deliver alpha, in our view. Noble registers a 7 on our Buying Index. Though respectable, it is not as good as other firms that score a 9 or 10 that may be included in our portfolio.

Noble scores fairly well on our business quality matrix. The firm has put up solid economic returns for shareholders during the past few years, with relatively low volatility in its operating results. Return on
invested capital (excluding goodwill) has averaged 13.5% during the past three years.

The company looks fairly valued at this time. We expect the firm to trade within our fair value estimate range for the time being. If the firm's share price fell below $23, we'd take a closer look at adding it to the market-beating Best Ideas portfolio.

Noble's cash flow generation and financial leverage are at decent levels, in our opinion. The firm's free cash flow margin and debt-to-EBITDA metrics are about what we'd expect from an average firm in
our coverage universe.

Economic Profit Analysis

We think the best measure of a firm's ability to create value for shareholders is expressed by comparing its return on invested capital (ROIC) with its weighted average cost of capital (WACC). The gap or difference between ROIC and WACC is called the firm's economic profit spread. Noble's three-year historical return on invested capital (without goodwill) is 13.5%, which is above the estimate of its cost of capital of 10.6%. As such, we assign the firm a ValueCreation™ rating of Good.

In the chart below, we show the probable path of ROIC in the years ahead based on the estimated volatility of key drivers behind the measure. The solid grey line reflects the most likely outcome, in our opinion, and represents the scenario that results in our fair value estimate.

Cash Flow Analysis

Firms that generate a free cash flow margin (free cash flow divided by total revenue) above 5% are usually considered cash cows. Noble's free cash flow margin has averaged about 1.6% during the past three years. As such, we think the firm's cash flow generation is relatively Medium. The free cash flow measure shown above is derived by taking cash flow from operations less capital expenditures and differs from enterprise free cash flow (FCFF), which we use in deriving our fair value estimate for the company. At Noble, cash flow from operations decreased about 64% from levels registered two years ago, while capital expenditures expanded about 268% over the same time period.

Valuation Analysis

Our discounted cash flow model indicates that Noble's shares are worth between $23.00 and $43.00 each. The margin of safety around our fair value estimate is driven by the firm's Medium ValueRisk™ rating, which is derived from the historical volatility of key valuation drivers. The estimated fair value of $33 per share represents a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of about 22.4 times last year's earnings and an implied EV/EBITDA multiple of about 10.8 times last year's EBITDA. Our model reflects a compound annual revenue growth rate of 16% during the next five years, a pace that is higher than the firm's three-year historical compound annual growth rate of -7.9%. Our model reflects a five-year projected average operating margin of 30.7%, which is below Noble's trailing three-year average. Beyond year five, we assume free cash flow will grow at an annual rate of 6.3% for the next 15 years and 3% in perpetuity. For Noble, we use a 10.6% weighted average cost of capital to discount future free cash flows.

Margin of Safety Analysis

Our discounted cash flow process values each firm on the basis of the present value of all future free cash flows. Although we estimate the firm's fair value at about $33 per share, every company has a range of probable fair values that's created by the uncertainty of key valuation drivers (like future revenue or earnings, for example). After all, if the future was known with certainty, we wouldn't see much volatility in the markets as stocks would trade precisely at their known fair values. Our ValueRisk™ rating sets the margin of safety or the fair value range we assign to each stock. In the graph below, we show this probable range of fair values for Noble. We think the firm is attractive below $23 per share (the green line), but quite expensive above $43 per share (the red line). The prices that fall along the yellow line, which includes our fair value estimate, represent a reasonable valuation for the firm, in our opinion.

Future Path of Fair Value

We estimate Noble's fair value at this point in time to be about $33 per share. As time passes, however, companies generate cash flow and pay out cash to shareholders in the form of dividends. The chart below compares the firm's current share price with the path of Noble's expected equity value per share over the next three years, assuming our long-term projections prove accurate. The range between the resulting downside fair value and upside fair value in year three represents our best estimate of the value of the firm's shares three years hence.

This range of potential outcomes is also subject to change over time, should our views on the firm's future cash flow potential change. The expected fair value of $45 per share in year three represents our existing fair value per share of $33 increased at an annual rate of the firm's cost of equity less its dividend yield. The upside and downside ranges are derived in the same way, but from the upper and lower bounds of our fair value estimate range.

Pro Forma Financial Statements

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.