WeWork’s recently released IPO prospectus should have sent investors running. The office and hot desk rental company, after SoftBank pulled out of a $16bn investment, is looking to raise up to $3bn from the public market. It won’t be getting a dollar from me.
WeWork’s business model is simple. It leases property from landlords, does them up, and sells spaces to self-employed workers, start-ups and larger enterprises. It typically leases a location for 15 years and sells desk space on a monthly basis. It thinks that it should be worth $47bn.
It is, instead, likely to join the other big unicorns who launched their IPOs this year in stumbling to a much lower valuation. Think of Uber and Lyft.
Why won’t WeWorks model work?
They take on long-term obligations and only require short commitments from their members. They have $47bn in lease obligations, and that figure will only grow as they open more locations. They pump loads of money into their sites, making them fit for a hip, millennial freelancer or start-up. That’s where a lot of their losses come from, but that high up-front cost must be recouped over more than a decade. It would be risky in a stable, growing economy. Right now, we’re headed into the first recession for over a decade.
Will the coming recession hit WeWork hard?
The UK and Germany both announced that their economies were shrinking last week. The stock market took a considerable hit from the news. All around the globe, people are expecting a recession sooner rather than later. Trade wars, Brexit, and a mature business cycle all contribute to that feeling. Yield curves have inverted. Such an inversion has preceded every recession for the past fifty years. Only once have yields inverted without a recession happening.
The S&P 500 peaks within 3 to 22 months of a yield curve inversion. We could have two years before a downturn hits, but it may happen a lot quicker than that.
What is a yield curve inversion?
Government’s sell bonds to finance their running costs. These are very secure, not many countries default on their debt. But things are always more secure in the short term when we know more of the risks an economy might run into. This means that usually long-term bonds give better returns than short term ones as there is more risk involved. When a yield curve inverts, markets believe that short term risks are greater than the long-term ones and want to protect their money. In other words, bad times are coming sooner rather than later.
Recessions are bad for all parts of the economy, so why should you be more concerned about the effect one will have on WeWork in particular?
WeWork’s customers are mostly small teams, freelancers and the self-employed. Renting a hot desk in a WeWork location in London costs around £600 per month. When a recession hits, it hits those small businesses and freelancers hardest. An easy cost to cut is that hot desk. Someone is £600 richer and can just work from the kitchen table. Not as lovely as the kombucha, microbrew offerings of a WeWork, but you’ve got to save money. And it is a natural expense to get rid of. These memberships are done on a monthly rolling basis.
WeWork recognises this problem and has been trying to attract more enterprise customers. In their IPO prospectus, however, they have redefined what enterprise customers are, from businesses with 1,000 employees down to those with 500. Even then, they only make up 29% of WeWork’s business.
When the next recession hits, there will be a lot of space in WeWork locations.
Is WeWork overvalued?
The company’s sky-high valuation, around twenty-six times revenue, is based on its reputation. It brands itself as a tech company, in the same field as Facebook, Google or Amazon. ‘Technology’ is mentioned 93 times in their prospectus. But it isn’t a tech company. It rents office space. It might rent the most beautiful office space on the market, but it is still renting office space.
The brand of WeWork is doing a lot of heavy lifting. It calls customers ‘members’, its mission is to ‘elevate the world’s consciousness’, and it opens its IPO prospectus with the lofty declaration that ‘[w]e dedicate this to the energy of we — greater than any one of us but inside each of us’. That is a whole lot of bullshit. It rents office space.
IWG, which rents office space out, has revenues of over $3.25bn, much more than WeWork’s. Yet it is only valued less than $5bn. It doesn’t have the explosive growth of WeWork, but that growth is risky in risky economic circumstances.
Are there any signs of optimism?
In 2018 WeWork brought in $1.54bn. That’s nearly double the $764m it did in 2017. That’s stupendous growth and would auger well for a lot of companies. The losses, though, are on a similar trajectory. In 2017 it lost $900m, in 2018 that was $1.9bn. It costs WeWork $2 to make $1.
That could change in the future. High up-front costs recouped over decades unless a recession hits, can be sustainable. But even WeWork doesn’t think this is likely:
“We have a history of losses and, especially if we continue to grow at an accelerated rate, we may be unable to achieve profitability at a company level… for the foreseeable future.”
Adam Neuman, CEO and founder of WeWork, doesn’t even believe in the company. He has sold $700m of his stock already, and the prospectus even says ‘there can be no assurance that Adam will continue to work for us or serve our interests in any capacity’.
WeWork is a lousy bet. Its fundamentals are lacking, it’s facing a tight market, and it will be found out. Can a successful business be built of its model? Yes, but IWG has already done it. It’s not sexy or hip. But it works. The problem is that it has a value less than a tenth of WeWork’s.
When WeWork IPOs, it will be the early investors and backers who make money. The rest of us will soon be held WeWork shares that are plunging in value. Its backers have pumped the company up; now they’re ready to dump the stock before it falls.