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11 lessons from my lousy $50K profit on Afterpay

On 23 March 2020, Afterpay (APT) traded at a low for the year of $8.01 and 18.8 million shares changed hands. On 3 July 2020, Afterpay hit $70, a rise of almost 800% in only three and a half months. That’s a lot of winners and losers in a short time. When the history of the amazing investing year of 2020 is written, Afterpay will be the feature stock. Co-founders Nick Molnar and Anthony Eisen both own 20.5 million shares or about 8.1% of the company, worth nearly $1.5 billion each at $70. The 30-year-old Molnar is currently Australia’s youngest self-made billionaire, pipping the 32-year-old Melanie Perkins, the co-founder of graphic design platform Canva. With a market capitalisation around $18 billion, Afterpay is an ASX Top 20 company.

Afterpay share price, 1 January to 5 July 2020

Source: Morningstar Direct

Afterpay was founded in 2014 and listed on 4 May 2016 at $1, ending its first day at $1.25. It had received $8 million in private investment prior to the float, including backing from Ron Brierley’s Guinness Peat group, where Eisen had been Chief Investment Officer. Don’t kick yourself for not buying in the float. In the first half of 2016, Afterpay had revenues of only $220,000 and underlying merchant sales were about $3 million a month with 60,000 customers. It now has almost 10 million customers and adds them at 10,000 to 20,000 a day.

The business model, called Buy Now Pay Later or BNPL, is simple. Someone can own a $200 pair of sneakers immediately by paying four fortnightly instalments of $50 with no interest or fees if they pay on time. Merchants are charged a transaction fee as a percentage plus a flat fee, but most promote the product because it increases sales and Afterpay takes the credit risk.

My investment experience and valuing Afterpay

Afterpay has taken thousands of retail investors on a ride few will experience again, leaving behind the most astute professional investors in the country. Relatively few fund managers believe in the value. On 23 June 2020, Morningstar published an article called “Buy now, regret later? How Afterpay is dividing punters and pundits” showing most fund managers are underweight.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned to a colleague that Firstlinks was publishing an article on the estimated value of Afterpay, and he said, “Don’t tell me, I hate that company.” Imagine the mood of the people who sold at $8.01 a few months ago.

How do I feel having dabbled a mere $10,000 in Afterpay in December 2017, selling most of my shares along the way, and turning it (at the moment) into a ‘profit’ of $50,000 when it could have been $130,000 if I had held on?

Here are my Afterpay transactions. You might think a profit of $50,000 is nothing to sneeze at, but it feels like a shallow win.

So two guys half my age make $3 billion and are in the process of selling 10% of their holdings for $135 million each, and thousands of other people have made small fortunes, while I make a lousy $50,000 on a 70-bagger stock (floated at $1, now $70). I realise $50,000 is better than a poke in the eye but it’s not much of a result for investing in the biggest stock market success of the decade.

I’m not a stock trader. I’m a ‘buy-and-hold’ sort of chap. I prefer the Warren Buffett guidance to 'only buy something that you’d be perfectly happy to hold if the market shut down for 10 years'. So the dalliance with Afterpay in the past couple of years is not my usual style. Normally, I couldn’t be bothered trading smallish amounts, but Afterpay is no normal stock.

It’s not possible to value this company on normal metrics. Investors must believe the growth story. Morningstar analysts estimate a fair value of $24.10, with an uncertainty rating of ‘very high’. Citi recently upgraded its target from $27.10 to $64.25. UBS gave it a value of $17 last year then downgraded it to $13 with a ‘sell’ recommendation and more recently to $27. The bulls are Morgans at $68.58, Macquarie at $70, Bell Potter at $81.25 and as we go to press, Morgan Stanley at $101. Like, who knows? The chart below shows the rise since Morningstar initiated coverage with Afterpay heading into overvalued territory.

Morningstar Price versus Fair Value Chart for APT, as at 5 July 2020

Social media is alive with frustrated investors who cannot accept what has happened, and an equal number of true believers. 

What are the lessons from this experience?

I’m not a stock analyst but here are some lessons to ponder:

1. Watch your anchoring biases

‘Anchoring’ is a major tenet of behavioural finance whereby an investor places too much emphasis on some prior information or number. I remember thinking when I first sold 500 shares that it would pay for the initial 2,000 shares, covering me for whatever happened in future. The $14.87 sale in March 2020 was influenced by the $8 price a few days earlier, and the $49.45 sale was based on a notion of a $50 ceiling. Even professional investors have arbitrary rules for selling but a stock like Afterpay brings out behavioural biases when there’s not much else to cling to.

2. Discover an information edge

When a stock trades between $8 and $70 in a few months, it shows the market is far from an efficient pricing machine. However, there are times when you might discover something about a company that may not be fully factored into the price, or at least give you more confidence. During my Christmas shopping in December 2017, I was amazed how many stores had an Afterpay sign next to the cash register. 'Afterpay it' seemed more common than Amex or Visa. Some stores, such as Rebel Sports, included an Afterpay promotion on every display unit throughout the shop. I asked a friend who was a senior executive in a top-end sneaker business whether Afterpay was popular, and he said about one-third of buyers used Afterpay. One third! I’m not saying the market was unaware of Afterpay’s rapid growth by December 2017, but did it fully allow for younger generations embracing the BNPL idea?

3. Look for companies that customers love

Successful investors look for unique data sources, and scouring the internet for customer feedback is a good measure of repeat business potential. One such source is Trustpilot, and here is a summary of their Afterpay user reviews plus a typical comment (putting aside the merit of people buying things they cannot afford).

4. Check what is happening on Google Trends

Another non-traditional data point is Google Trends. This is available to anyone, and its use should not be confined to professionals doing thorough research.

Here are the results over the past five years for the word ‘Afterpay’. It has been surprisingly steady for a couple of years but a close watch would have revealed it coming to prominence over 2017.

5. Find companies that other businesses promote

This is a variation on a ‘network effect’, where the more people who use a product, the more valuable a business becomes. As Afterpay adds users, more retailers are compelled to join as customers are attracted to the payment method. Over the last year, merchant numbers have increased from 32,300 to 55,400.

Thousands of retailers not only allow Afterpay, but openly sing its praises, which leads to new customers, and more praise, and on it goes. Consider this from a US retailer, Outerknown:

“Afterpay is a service that allows us to offer our customers the ability to make purchases now and pay for them in four equal installments, made every 2 weeks, without any interest.

Just shop Outerknown.com and checkout as usual. At checkout, choose Afterpay as your payment method. You will be directed to the Afterpay website to register and provide payment details (Visa or Mastercard). If you’ve used Afterpay before, just log into your Afterpay account. Then complete your order -- it’s that easy.”

Wow. “It’s that easy.” Free promotions like this are better than paid advertisements.


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6. Check when a company is embedded in another's process

Afterpay is now embedded into the payment processes of thousands of businesses, in the same way it took Visa and Amex decades to achieve. The move to more buying online is another positive. The Afterpay purchase process is tempting to users about to pay for $200 when on the payment page, they are asked if they would rather pay $50 now and $50 a fortnight, at no added cost.

Similarly, when a company embeds an IT system or platform into its own processes, it is often a major exercise to unravel and change to another supplier. Inertia and routine are powerful ways to retain business.   

7. ’You never go broke taking a profit’ is poor advice

Most listed companies are not successful over time, either disappearing or underperforming the index. Ashley Owen's article, '99% of listed companies disappear worthless' is a stark reminder that investors need strong winners to make up for inevitable failures. A better saying might be ‘Let your winners run’, although there are many examples of companies which have won in the short term and crashed over time. For example, a former market darling, Axsesstoday (AXL) rose strongly in 2018 from $1.50 to $2.50 then quickly went into voluntary administration, leaving the shares worthless and paying bondholders less than 30 cents in the dollar.

These trading rules are dragged out when they work and ignored when they don’t, but simply 'taking a profit' is not a reason to sell a good investment.

8. You don’t need to like the product to invest in the company

I will never use Afterpay and most of my Baby Boomer generation will ignore it, but we're not the target market, so nobody cares. It’s not simply that my financial circumstances do not require me to pay for items in instalments. At no time in my life if I could not afford $200 sneakers would it make a difference to pay them off over four lots of $50.

I am not keen that a product like BNPL facilitates young people buying things they cannot afford. The Afterpay slogan, 'Shop Now. Enjoy Now. Pay Later.' encourages buying using debt. Customers are experiencing near-term gratification when they should live within their means in the same way they should not take on credit card debt. At least the Afterpay debt is required to be paid off quickly, whereas credit card debt is often permanent.  

9. Retail Share Purchase Plans are inequitable

The February 2020 Share Purchase Plan allocation of 85 shares costing $1,955 was the most given to any retail investor who applied for $15,000 worth. The retail raising was originally capped at $30 million although they accepted $33 million. At the time of the announcement of the plan, Afterpay advised it “was intended to follow shortly after the successful placement of shares to institutional and professional investors (Placement Shares) which raised $317.2 million (Placement).” That’s 10 times as much for professionals as retail.

10. You don’t need to value a company to invest in it

What’s Afterpay worth? Could be $10, could be $100. Here is Morningstar’s opinion. Arguments about the value of companies fly around fund manager offices every day, but normally, an analyst will produce a detailed spreadsheet with future revenues and costs and a discounted cash flow calculation. Amazon was considered a crazy Jeff Bezos business model for 20 years. Tesla cars rate poorly for quality control but the company is now the most valuable car maker in the world. Valuing is more art than science.

Sometimes, an investor must back their personal judgement, buy into the dream and the growth story and overlook the near-term losses. Venture capitalists and private equity are built on this idea because businesses like Tesla, Canva and Afterpay are not valued on Price to Earnings ratios. Of course, we conveniently overlook that there are far more start-up failures than successes when we swoon over these winning companies.

11. A simple, replicable business is not necessarily a bad business

To the outsider, it seems easy for the PayPals, Mastercards and Visas of the world to introduce a similar model. It’s just a variation on the old lay-by, so why don’t major retailers replicate it? Afterpay doesn’t appear to have much of a 'moat' beyond its brand and market penetration, something which many professional buyers look for to protect a quality company.

But when anybody says, “I’ll Google it” or “Get me a rum and Coke” or “Let’s Zoom” or “Whatsapp me” or “We’ll Afterpay it", you know a business has gone beyond a brand.

Where to from here?

I don’t know what Afterpay is worth. Half my ‘profit’ is on paper and it could disappear or double. I could be writing an article in a year about why analysts' low valuations should have been heeded.

Of course, there are risks. When a stock is priced for perfection, it’s easier for the halo to slip. The looming economic cliff may lead to a significant increase in unemployment and compromise Afterpay’s strong credit record. Somehow, they have kept bad debts below 1% without thorough credit checks.

At some point, there will be a rotation out of growth stocks into value, and we may look back on tech valuations and shake our heads. But this is not like the tech-wreck of 2000. Tech companies such as Microsoft, Alphabet, Facebook and Apple are quality companies with serious earnings. Clearly, Afterpay is not in their league, but as a Top 20 company in Australia, it’s hard to ignore. 

Anyone buying Afterpay at $70 is in for a wild ride, but to date, those who sold after a fall have missed the next run. Those buying into a growth story like this should mentally prepare to hang in for the long haul. For a little diversity, the BNPL theme can be backed in other names such as Sezzle, Zip and Splitit, but they are all part of the same bubble. Splitit listed in January 2019 at 20 cents and traded this week at $1.48.

I’m not even sure what to do with my paltry 385 shares. At least they give me the right to participate in the new Share Purchase Plan announced this week, priced at $66. Any fundamental number crunching is little help at this level. You either believe the growth story, or you don’t.

 

Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Firstlinks. This article is general information and does not consider the circumstances of any investor. An investment in Afterpay carries a high risk of loss and this article is not a recommendation to buy or sell. Every investor should do their own additional research. 

 

23 Comments
Nigel
July 23, 2020

One of the best written articles i have read in 2020!

Fred Woollard
July 12, 2020

I like the article but remind you that this is the kind of article you only ever see in the advanced stage of a bull market. Nobody was writing articles like this in mid-March when the market was at its low. It is a reminder that we are closer to a top than a bottom. Invest with caution.

michael lewis
July 11, 2020

Whilst I could never bring myself to personally invest in Afterpay especially since the Chinese commys party are heavily invested in it , as a platform though to use to purchase goods up to whatever credit amount you have and repay automatically via credit card over 4 fortnights is a winner for me. Most people I know can buy the items up front but its a nice easy to manage app that sits on your smartphone so you can see at a glance when payments are coming along and for how much. You can make advance payments at any time. Excellent job Afterpay. Another reason I am happy to sit on the side lines too is to wait and see when users don't have the ability to repay the purchase and see what happens then.

Scott
July 10, 2020

Interesting points from their April update:

- 48.8% of Afterpay users are in the highest credit score categories and only 0.3% are in the lowest score categories.

– Afterpay users have lower personal liabilities. This is consistent when matched to a group of
similar age, gender and income consumers who are not Afterpay users.

David Close
July 09, 2020

It would be interesting to have the views of knowledgeable younger millennial investors!

Blake
July 13, 2020

I'l refrain from calling myself knowledgeable but I am a millennial investor. I'd been fond of Afterpay for years and wished I had bought it but couldn't justify it at mid 2018 onwards prices. I got in March for a little over $9, lucky me. I've never used it personally and don't think I will.

I like it for a couple of reasons.
- As Graham mentioned it's almost become the generic term for BNPL, it's everywhere in shops and is becoming everyday terminology.
- I see it being used by lots of people who I know aren't in financial stress, as Scott has pointed out which is backed up by their reports.
- It was when a friend in 2018 payed for a major service at the local mechanic in 4 payments when she could of paid up front but finds it "easy to manage the weekly budget" that sold it to me.

Lyn
July 19, 2020

Hi David, Late commenter re this article & your comment absorbed at time of publishing so return to comment, FYI re millennial investors, in meantime discovered my 25yr old applied lessons learned at my knee and invested in APT at right time & also online supplier of electronic/electrical goods offering APT, in view of this & packages arriving on doorstep I am inclined to think I missed boat by a country mile & should have sought his youthful opinion 4 mths ago, secretly cross but also proud he saw it coming. Next will be informal survey of his mates!

Anthony Gross
July 09, 2020

Hi Graham.
Thank you Graham for the effort you put into this article. I agree with others that it is a very good summary and useful article for all other types of investors to read.
If I may suggest one additional lesson from the school of value investing as practiced by Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger?
If I can paraphrase Charlie's point, which in simple terms, is the futility of any investor having envy for the investment success of others...

I hope this point is useful for Graham and all other readers...Stay Safe Anthony

Martin
July 09, 2020

What a great article. And yah... the mind boggles!

James
July 09, 2020

I foolishly gave APT a miss. Already had all the other WAAAX stocks. Resisted the urge to sell over the years and still stare at the screen in disbelief at gains of between 700 and 1100% and rising. It’s crazy. I can’t put a value on these companies but can appreciate that if one stayed attached to ‘value’ investing you’d have missed out on a lot of gains. A $ is a $ !

Wilbur
July 09, 2020

Terrific article with great insight and lessons to ponder. Thanks Graham!

Scott
July 09, 2020

Simply wall st values APT at $15. Many broker valuations chase the market as they love the churn.
Its ok to brag about the one off win. The main thing is to consistently make money in the market over time.
Understanding value will give you an edge.
Someone who wants to consistently make 10-15% on their portfolio should have some understanding of how stock selection can build or destroy returns.
During the tech boom, managers who had too many APT type stocks in their portfolios, were ultimately destroyed.
As the great man says:
"the stockmarket is a short term betting machine and a longterm weighing machine"
Its early days for APT. I pity the poor sods who paid $70 (are the directors starting to cash out?).
There are some seriously smart people in the market who take advantage of the seriously stupid.
As Rene Rivikin once said. " the stock market is a good place to pay for you education"


Tony Reardon
July 09, 2020

I've had a very similar experience to Graham. I first invested in Afterpay back in June 2018 at $9 on the advice of my full service broker and participated to the maximum allowed in both their SPPs since then being allocated 574 @ $16.96 in the first one and the measly 85 @ $23 in the second.
Rather than looking at the share price, we kept an eye on the position size and sold down in two tranches once this exceeded $50,000 by a substantial amount - $50,000 being about as much as we want in one stock. As the price has increased, this means that our remaining 700 shares holding is sitting just under that $50,000 level.
Having taken a cash profit of $30,000 already, I think of this as a prudent approach and will sell down again if the price continues to appreciate in the same manner.
I have held on to another stock which ran all the way from $0.258 up to $6.19 and became greedy holding on to the whole position ($110,000). It now trades at $1.28 so still a profit but a huge fall in dollar terms. Position balancing partially protects against this. The psychology of greed and fear is tricky.

Stephen
July 09, 2020

Ultimately industry dynamics will determine the profitability. It’s a relatively new sector with many competitors emerging here and overseas. So while the sector might see explosive growth in users that might not lead to super profits in the medium to long term. It’s too soon to say whether it’s a flash in the pan or a durable growth business. We’ll know in 3-5 years, possibly sooner.

Alex Erskine
July 09, 2020

Well done for making and taking a profit. But, in my view, APT should be filtered out of portfolios on ESG grounds, particularly the social criteria. The business model, which bans charging merchants recouping the cost of the merchant fee from customers using APT, inexorably will see the merchant fee recouped by merchants raising their retail prices to all consumers, even those who do not use APT. I read a news report that some merchants are making 10 or 20% or even more of their sales to customers using BNPL. The greater the use of BNPL, the greater the pressure for general increases in retail prices, adding to the rate of inflation - a social bad. (Much the same can be said of merchants who do not charge users of credit cards if they do not recoup that from the card users, but at least the regulator-approved business model of credit card providers generally allows that to be done.)

George Hamor
July 09, 2020

Surely it is up to a purchaser to determine what price he/she is willing to pay for goods, regardless of whether it is over 4 instalments or in a single transaction.
It has nothing to do with what moiety the merchant charges over and above a certain price.
And please do not waffle on about "ESG" or "Social Bad".
We live in a capitalist society, the sharemarket is there to profit from, and all businesses exist to make a profit.
Next you might like to cap the amount of profit that a business or individual should make; 1000% is obviously obscene and must not be allowed.

Scott
July 10, 2020

Alex, whilst Afterpay may impact a retailers margins to a small extent, it has the potential to increase the volume of sales significantly.

Lanche
July 13, 2020

Exactly
I imagine fixed costs are a material cost burden for many bricks and mortar retailers. So the increased sales could in theory lower prices ans the fixed components of labour/overheads etc are averaged out.

Graeme Riley
July 09, 2020

I’ve been a holder since Touchcorp days, the merger partner that became Afterpay.
Your article is a good one that mirrors many of my thoughts along the way.
Fortunately I’ve been able to sell parcels Intermittently which has returned my original investment many times over whilst maintaining a serious holding that is still laying golden eggs! (On paper).

Having already benefited and put profits into other stocks I’m happy to hold now as I think their business model is sustainable and growth seems highly likely. Like you, as a baby boomer I would never use the service but early on when I first owned the shares I always asked retailers what they thought about Afterpay and the answer was always the same....we just have to have it!


Allan Ward
July 09, 2020

Interesting point about "You don’t need to value a company to invest in it". There are still some fund managers who won't invest in Amazon because they consider it to be overvalued.

Shawn Jewell
July 09, 2020

I remember laughing to myself as they crashed to a dollar, that it would be the end of AfterPay, then was shocked when I heard they were $70 recently. Not having any shares in them, I didn't really care, but seeing how the owners have done well out of it, it just makes me realise I don't always understand certain businesses, and I never will.

Roland Geitenbeek
July 09, 2020

Investing in start-ups can be a wild ride, the winners need to be big to make up for the many losses an investor will inevitably suffer. Making $50K is for many people life changing. For many investors it is a nice outcome and for those who are fortunate enough to be in the top point one percent, meaningless. The amount required to be invested to 'move the needle' varies hugely from one investor or investment entity to another.
If trading for short term gains or investing in start-ups, the latter being longer term holds than expected, requires discipline, strong nerves and unless one is able to conduct full due diligence and has an understanding of the underlying business and/or technology, is very high risk and should, for most investors be restricted to investing funds that one can afford to lose.

Jeff
July 09, 2020

Great Article and summary.

All the way along (I have a similar journey to you except I have not sold any of my shares), I have watched as analysts have said $4 was way too expensive as was $8, $18 and $35.

I am ready to click the sell button for small parcels to take profits, but aim to maintain a smaller holding to keep my toes in the water. I think $100 is liklely as a quick glance at the Depth should many small parcels going to Millennials who are gambling on the stock market with APT. Will be nice when/if they start to turn a profit!


 

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