Investors Tuning In to Satellite Radio

The market is down today, but the satellite radio sector continues its ascent. XM Satellite (XMSR) and Sirius (SIRI) are seeing tremendous interest, mostly from retail investors looking to cash in on “the next big thing.” XM and Sirius today sport a combined market value of $13.5 billion, despite having never reported a single dollar in profit. Clearly, investors are betting on future earnings with this sector, but is there enough profit potential to justify the satellite radio market’s value at $13.5 billion today?

As usual, numbers can help us give color to the situation. While they can’t predict how the satellite market will play out over time, we can get a good idea of what the “upside” really is. According to the Department of Transportation, there are 200 million vehicles in the U.S. We’ll ignore the international markets for now, given that neither XM nor Sirius has hinted it will try and tackle those as of yet, probably for good reason. Even though prices of technology products and services tend to decline over time, we’ll assume that the $10 per month subscription fee will remain constant.

So, it’s relatively easy to determine the total market potential. If each and every car in the U.S. was equipped with a satellite radio, the industry would garner $24 billion in annual sales. Profit margins are tough to guess, especially when XM and Sirius are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to secure their content such as Howard Stern, Major League Baseball, and the National Football League. Leading radio companies such as Clear Channel and Cumulus Media net about an 8 percent margin, so we’ll use that as a guide to determine the total market’s annual profit potential: $1.9 billion.

These numbers are important because many investors who are buying these stocks today are not looking at the numbers behind the stocks, namely the extreme valuations already built into the share prices. Paying $13.5 billion today, for profit potential of $1.9 billion annually, seems excessive given that this assumption requires one to believe that every car, truck, and SUV in the country will eventually have a satellite radio. After all, only about 50% of households own computers and only 70% have cable television.

If we were to assume that in 10 years, half of all vehicles will have a satellite radio, the market will earn less than $1 billion in profit. So, investors today are paying 14x projected 2014 earnings. Clearly, a lot of people see this as a bargain. Only time will tell.

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