Last week McDonald’s Corporation (NYSE:MCD) and Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) both reported earnings that were higher than analysts expected. After these surprise announcements, the equities of both companies had big jumps.  But, unfortunately, both companies are in a Growth Stall and unlikely to sustain higher valuations.

McDonald’s profits rose 23%. But revenues were down 5.3%.  Leadership touted a higher same store sales number, but that is completely misleading.

McDonald’s leadership has undertaken a back to basics program.  This has been used to eliminate menu items and close “underperforming stores.”  With fewer stores, loyal customers were forced to eat in nearby stores – something not hard to do given the proliferation of McDonald’s sites.  But some customers will go to competitors. By cutting stores and products from the menu McDonald’s may lower cost, but it also lowers the available revenue capacity.   This means that stores open a year or longer could increase revenue, even though total revenues are going down.

Profits can go up for a raft of reasons having nothing to do with long-term growth and sustainability. Changing accounting for depreciation, inventory, real estate holdings, revenue recognition, new product launches, product cancellations, marketing investments — the list is endless.  Further, charges in a previous quarter (or previous year) could have brought forward costs into an earlier report, making the comparative quarter look worse while making the current quarter look better.

Confusing?  That’s why accounting changes are often called “financial machinations.”  Lots of moving numbers around, but not necessarily indicating the direction of the business.

McDonald’s asked its “core” customers what they wanted, and based on their responses began offering all-day breakfast.  Interpretation – because they can’t attract new customers, McDonald’s wants to obtain more revenue from existing customers by selling them more of an existing product; specifically breakfast items later in the day.

Sounds smart, but in reality McDonald’s is admitting it is not finding new ways to grow its customer base, or sales.  The old products weren’t bringing in new customers, and new products weren’t either.  As customer counts are declining, leadership is trying to pull more money out of its declining “core.”  This can work short-term, but not long-term.  Long-term growth requires expanding the sales base with new products and new customers.

Perhaps there is future value in spinning off McDonald’s real estate holdings in a REIT.  At best this would be a one-time value improvement for investors, at the cost of another long-term revenue stream. (Sort of like Chicago selling all its future parking meter revenues for a one-time payment to bail out its bankrupt school system.)  But if we look at the Sears Holdings REIT spin-off, which ostensibly was going to create enormous value for investors, we can see there were serious limits on the effectiveness of that tactic as well.

MIcrosoft also beat analysts quarterly earnings estimate.  But it’s profits were up a mere 2%.  And revenues declined 12% versus a year ago– proving its Growth Stall continues as well.  Although leadership trumpeted an increase in cloud-based revenue, that was only an 8% improvement and obviously not enough to offset significant weakness in other markets:

It is a struggle to see the good news here.  Office 365 revenues were up, but they are cannibalizing traditional Office revenues – and not fast enough to replace customers being lost to competitive products like Google OfficeSuite, etc.

Azure sales were up, but not fast enough to replace declining Windows sales.  Further, Azure competes with Amazon AWS, which had remarkable results in the latest quarter.  After adding 530 new features, AWS sales increased 15% vs. the previous quarter, and 78% versus the previous year.  Margins also increased from 21.4% to 25% over the last year.  Azure is in a growth market, but it faces very stiff competition from market leader Amazon.

We build our companies, jobs and lives around successful products and services.  We want these providers to succeed because it makes our lives much easier.  We don’t like to hear about large market leaders losing their strength, because it signals potentially difficult change.  We want these companies to improve, and we will clutch at any sign of improvement.

As investors we behave similarly.  We were told large companies have vast customer bases, strong asset bases, well known brands, high switching costs,  deep pockets – all things Michael Porter told us in the 1980s created “moats” protecting the business, keeping it protected from market shifts that could hurt sales and profits.  As investors we want to believe that even though the giant company may slip, it won’t fall.  Time and size is on its side we choose to believe, so we should simply “hang on” and “ride it out.”  In the future, the company will do better and value will rise.

As a result we see that Growth Stall companies show a common valuation pattern.  After achieving high valuation, their equity value stagnates.  Then, hopes for a turn-around and recovery to new growth is stimulated by a few pieces of good news and the value jumps again.  Only after a few years the short-term tactics are used up and the underlying business weakness is fully exposed.  Then value crumbles, frequently faster than remaining investors anticipated.

McDonald’s valuation rose from $62/share in 2008 to reach record $100/share highs in 2011.  But valuation then stagnated.  It is only this last jump that has caused it to reach new highs.  But realize, this is on a smaller number of stores, fewer products and declining revenues.  These are not factors justifying sustainable value improvement.

Microsoft traded around $25/share from March, 2003 through November, 2011 – 8.5 years.  When the CEO was changed value jumped to $48/share by October, 2014.  After dipping, now, a year later Microsoft stock is again reaching that previous valuation ($50/share).  Microsoft is now valued where it was in December, 2002 (which is half its all-time high.)

The jump in value of McDonald’s and Microsoft happened on short-term news regarding beating analysts earnings expectations for one quarter.  The underlying businesses, however, are still suffering declining revenue.  They remain in Growth Stalls, and the odds are overwhelming that their values will decline, rather than continue increasing.


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