Another great earnings report, another new all-time high. For Autodesk (NASDAQ:ADSK) it’s business as usual lately. But for how long will the good times keep up for ADSK stock?
Bulls argue that Autodesk is another Adobe (NASDAQ:ADBE) in the making. ADBE stock is up more than 500% since 2012 on the back of a wildly-successful conversion from a one-time sales to subscription-based business model. If Autodesk can pull the same feat, ADSK stock could run much farther.
Bears, on the other hand, argue that Autodesk is taking great risk. In particular, Autodesk’s move looks like a cash-grab that could send clients into the arms of competition. Additionally, Autodesk’s valuation is getting rather steep.
ADSK Stock Cons
Subscription Switch Aiding Competition: Autodesk has been in business for more than 30 years now. It has huge mind share in its field. Autodesk partners with institutions such as high schools to educate the next generation on how to use Autodesk in design and construction functions. As such, it seemingly has a huge moat. Professionals rely on Autodesk’s products to get work done.
However, Autodesk has ruffled a ton of feathers with its move from a licensing model to a subscription model. It has made long-term usage of its software far more expensive. That’s obviously great news for shareholders — if customers stick around. But there are plenty of cheaper alternatives to Autodesk. A lot of companies, once their licenses are up for older editions of Autodesk, may defect to competitors’ products. Autodesk built up a huge deal of goodwill with its decades of leadership in its niche. It remains to be seen how much of that advantage the company will lose going forward.
Not Profitable: Autodesk hasn’t notched a full-year positive earnings figure since 2015, when it earned 35 cents per share. In 2016, earnings went into the red. Last year, even free cash flow and EBITDA went negative as well.
Now there’s an understandable reason for this. The company used to earn fatter one-time sales off its licenses. Going forward, it will rely on subscription revenues to make money. In theory, once enough of the old license users decide that they need the latest version of AutoCAD and upgrade to the subscription model, the company will start generating robust profits again. However, the stock price has gone vertical while profits, EBITDA and cash flow have tanked. ADSK still has a lot more subscriptions to generate before reaching, let alone surpassing, prior levels of profitability.
Very Expensive Stock: Even leaving aside the concerns about a lack of profits or cash flow, ADSK stock looks crazy-expensive. It is trading at 15 times sales. The general rule of thumb is that things almost never turn out well if you buy a growth company above 10x sales. ADSK stock is well above that mark.
What should come as a particularly troubling sign is that Autodesk isn’t a new IPO or early-stage growth company. It has dominated its field for many years. Given this, there is no reason to expect rapid growth once the subscription-based business model conversion ends. Historically, ADSK stock has traded between 3x and 6x sales for many years. It fell to as low as 1.5x sales during the financial crisis. You can say it is worth more now if the subscription model pays off. But to what degree? This is a fairly mature business now. It’s hard to justify a 200% or more premium from its price/sales ratio when it was a younger company with more growth potential.
ADSK Stock Pros
Subscription Model Leads to Windfall Profits: Autodesk created a large number of outraged clients when it forced folks into the subscription model. It’s a real threat to the long-term business.
But let’s not overlook the positives. Autodesk is able to charge more, much more, by making people pay monthly rather than paying for a perpetual license. Some comments I’ve seen suggest that, to an average small- to mid-size business, Autodesk is effectively charging three times as much per user as it did under the old model. That’s a massive boost.
Market Loves Subscription Revenues: While it is debatable which business model is better over the long-haul, there’s one thing that can’t be denied: Wall Street loves subscription revenues right now. The market is paying far higher multiples for software and tech companies with recurring revenue rather than one-time sales.
Across the industry, in everything from data security to video games, if a company is growing its recurring subscription revenues, it is getting a far higher market multiple. Thus, it’s not hard to see why the ADSK stock bear thesis simply isn’t working. Autodesk pivoted to an all-subscription model just in time to ride a big wave of momentum higher. Perhaps the company will have to make adjustments to retain clients. Even if so, it now has far easier access to capital to make investments, acquisitions, and the like as necessary. A high share price is currency, and Autodesk’s treasury is loaded.
Another Great Quarter: ADSK stock ripped to new all-time highs following its latest quarterly release. It’s not hard to see why.
For all the concern about the subscription model, management’s plans are continuing to pay off. The company’s annualized recurring revenue more than doubled, while the company smashed expectations for both the top and bottom line. They also put up favorable forward guidance. For now, momentum is still clearly with Autodesk’s bulls.
ADSK Stock Verdict
There’s a case to be made for ADSK stock as a long-term buy-and-hold. The company’s move to a recurring revenue model appears to be paying off in spades. And it appears that Autodesk will soon return to profitability. Once subscription revenues become more entrenched, a larger share buyback or even a dividend wouldn’t be surprising.
That said, in the short run, ADSK stock is really overbought. Historically, it’s hard to find a time when investors have been this excited about Autodesk. The company has been public dating back to 1993, and only in 2003-05 did it make a run similar to what it has done over the past three years. From 2006-on, the stock would go no higher until 2014. That’s a troubling precedent. Given that the revenue gains from switching business models are a one-time event, it is unclear what the next huge driver for ADSK stock will be. For short- and intermediate-term traders, ADSK stock looks like a good profit-taking opportunity here.
At the time of this writing, Ian Bezek held no positions in the aforementioned securities.