Do Listed Markets Understand Ecommerce?

I have been keeping a close eye on the recent IPO activity of online retail businesses in the UK.

AO World is the most recent example, an online retail business selling a range of white good brands which listed on March 3rd 2014 and achieved a market capitalisation in excess of £1.5B (close to 6x historic revenues), joining ASOS and Ocado in what seems to be an uncontrollable euforia amongst retail investors for anything that involves selling and online.

Having looked at ecommerce businesses in the private market as an investor over the past four years, what caught my interest is that such valuations are nowhere to be seen in private equity land. Some of the most recent deals in the private markets (interestingly one has to go back to December 2011 to find the first relevant one), such as Wiggle, Moonpig or MyProtein, were done at 2-3x revenue and 10-13x EBITDA. This is a world apart from what the listed markets are valuing online retails businesses at the moment: Ocado (70x EBITDA), ASOS (80x EBITDA), AO (147x EBITDA).

So why are private equity investors not paying such high multiples for online retail businesses, while listed market investors pile in?

A few charts should help shed some light. Red dots represent listed online retail companies (including the ones rumoured to be listing in the next few months e.g. Boohoo, Photobox), blue dots represent privately owned online retail companies. Three things appear quite evident:

1) Listed market investors are happy to pay a premium for revenue growth, unlike private equity investors;

Valuation / revenue

2) Private equity investors value margins, while the listed market investors don’t seem to care that much;

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 20.01.35

3) There is a slight premium for scale in the listed markets, not in the private markets;

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 20.01.44

Three things could be explaining this data:

1 – The level of sophistication amongst private equity investors is higher than that of listed market investors (listed equity fund managers, pension funds, retail investors). This would explain private equity’s obsession with margin (a rough proxy for the quality of the business model) rather than topline growth (which could come at the expense of margins). In a nutshell this is Amazon’s equity story of how they won the heart of Wall Street: a business carefully run at zero margin to keep topline growing at >20% pa to win market share of all retail. More equity analysts covering UK ecommerce stocks could be a good thing as the market capitalisation of online retail businesses in the UK now tops £10B.

2- There is a scarcity of growth stocks for UK fund managers to take exposure to and the offline to online shift is still one of the few attractive growth stories remaining out there. So anything that simply smells ecommerce, regardless of the actual underlying business model, will attract a premium valuation. This is actually causing severe headaches amongst some of the best IPO candidates (and their bankers) that, despite operating at 30-40% margins, will inevitably be thrown in the “online retail” bucket by the listed markets and possibly get an Ocado (5% margin) or an AO.com (3% margin) multiple on their revenue (c. 4x). I am sure they won’t be un-happy about those multiples, but in theory they should trade at a premium to less attractive business models.

3 – Listed markets seem to believe that with size come economies of scale in ecommerce, and therefore they are happy to ascribe a premium for larger businesses. But is that actually the case? The same data set suggests the opposite, the larger the business the lower the margins (a proxy for its efficiency) i.e. it’s either growth/scale or margin in ecommerce. This brings us back to point 1: how sophisticated are the listed market investors?

Scale vs margin in ecommerce