AstraZeneca versus the FTSE 100 – Which is better?

If you’re going to be a stock picker then one of your goals has to be to beat the market.  It must be, otherwise, why would you bother with all the extra work?  And if you’re out to beat the market then it makes sense to check each potential investment against the market to see which is best.

The FTSE 100 is a great investment

Just to recap, the FTSE 100 (via an ETF or index fund) is a pretty fantastic investment to start with since it always pays a dividend, the earnings almost always trend upwards over the longer term and it’s virtually certain to be around when you retire so the risk of losing all your money is almost zero.  Many studies have shown that for UK investments it’s almost impossible to beat over the long term.

Why pick AstraZeneca?

AstraZeneca has been scoring very well on my screens for a while so it was due a review and I’m also looking to buy something as well.  It’s a very large, globally diverse company and it’s in the FTSE 100 anyway, so it’s not like we’re comparing the FTSE 100 with some crazy micro-cap start-up.  It’s a big, stable company with tens of thousands of employees earning billions in revenue and profit.

The gap between the FTSE 100 and AstraZeneca is about as small a gap as you’re likely to get between an index and a single company so the comparison is fair I think.

Checking past performance

Both have more than 10 years of positive earnings with no losses and no periods without a dividend, so both have good stable histories.

Over that last decade, the FTSE 100 has grown earnings by about 7% while AstraZeneca has managed about 12%.  Dividends have increased for both at sustainable levels with the dividends covered more than 2 times in each case.

The FTSE 100 has managed to return almost 10% on retained earnings while AstraZeneca has managed over 20%.  Retained earnings are that bit of the earnings that management has kept back (they are your earnings since you are the shareholder and owner) and invested within the company.  Since it’s your money you should want it re-invested at the highest rate possible.

In summary, AstraZeneca has had better earnings growth than the FTSE 100 and has produced better rates of return on each pound of shareholder money retained within the company.  AstraZeneca wins round 1.  Now let’s look at the present.

What return are you getting from day one?

At 5990 (8th July 2011), the FTSE 100 has an earnings yield (inverse of the PE) of 8.8% and a dividend yield of 3.1%.  At 3127 (8th July 2011) AstraZeneca has an earnings yield of 11.3% and a dividend yield of 5.3%, higher in both cases.

Yields are the simple bit of investing that most people understand without much effort since they’re used to looking at yields on savings accounts.  The higher the yield the more ‘interest’ you’re getting on your money, especially in the case of dividends since the analogy with interest is all the closer as they are both cash payouts.

With the bigger yields, AstraZeneca wins round 2.

Which has a brighter future?

Ahh the future; a land of hopes and dreams or a vast black impenetrable fog, take your pick.  To be honest I prefer hopes and dreams but before we get too far into future gazing it’s important to remember that the future will always be highly uncertain.  The only thing that changes is how much people are aware of that uncertainty.

Given that the future plays its cards close to its chest, one handy trick to increasing your predictive powers is to predict something predictable.  If I say that the Sun will come up tomorrow then I’m almost certain to be right.  I could even say that the Sun will come up 200 years from now and I’d still probably be right.

The same sort of idea can be applied to investing.  If you take a company with volatile earnings, perhaps some years of loss, it becomes difficult to say anything meaningful about what that company’s future earnings might look like, other than saying they might look like the past, i.e. volatile and therefore unpredictable (or at least less predictable).  In fact, there might not be any future earnings if they have too many of those loss-making years.

On the other hand, a company with a long history of relatively stable earnings growth, no losses and no dividend cuts or cancellations may just have a future that also looks like its past, i.e. relatively stable, predictable growth that can be extrapolated into the future with some small degree of confidence.

Both AstraZeneca and the FTSE 100 have relatively predictable earnings and dividend growth and that’s how we can make an educated guess at what their futures might look like.

To infinity and beyond

Using the rates of return on retained earnings and the amount of earnings typically retained, the future growth of earnings can be estimated as about 6% for the FTSE 100 and 12% for AstraZeneca.

By combining estimated future earnings and the average PE of the last few years (14 for the FTSE 100 and 13 for AstraZeneca) and adding in the total amount of dividends paid out, the total return to shareholders over the next 5 years can be estimated as:

56% for the FTSE 100

212% for AstraZeneca

No prizes for guessing which one looks more attractive.

But hold on!  Don’t expect those estimates to be accurate, certainly not to a single percentage point.  But they may well be a reasonable guide as to what will happen… and so, kapow!  AstraZeneca wins round 3.

Pesky Mr Market

There are problems with these sorts of projections.  The first problem is they are almost certainly wrong.  There’s no way that a buyer of AstraZeneca today will see a 212% return in 5 years.  Even if the projections of future earnings are spot on (that’s problem number 2, they won’t be) Mr Market frequently values companies anywhere between half and double (and sometimes much more) what they should be worth.

Even if I am so clever that my earnings projections are right, Mr Market may value the company at half what I expect him to, and so my total returns would be 28% for the FTSE 100 and 106% for AstraZeneca.  Or, if Mr Market is very happy in 5 years’ time then the return might just be 112% for the FTSE 100 and 414% for AstraZeneca.

Unless you can live with this level of uncertainty (which in the world of equities is actually quite small) then you might be better off with an index tracking stock/bond portfolio and get used to the 6-8% annual returns.

However, the main point still stands in that since we cannot know what Mr Market will do in the future, we have to effectively ignore him!  That in turn means we look back to the original, very probably wrong, projections, which means that…

AstraZeneca wins!

If you think you have the stomach for stock market investing and can handle large amounts of uncertainty (the antidote to which is good old blind faith… no seriously, it is), then AstraZeneca in this case should appear to be the better investment.