Should You Buy Ferrari's IPO?

Ferrari's F12 Berlinetta starts at around $320,000. Ferrari's stock price is likely to be a lot lower, but it's unlikely to be cheap. Source: Ferrari S.p.A.

It's one of the most hallowed names in automotive history. And soon, you'll be able to own a piece of it.

But like everything else associated with Italian supercar maker Ferrari, its stock is unlikely to be cheap.

Sometime in the next few weeks, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is expected to begin the legal process of taking Ferrari public. FCA owns 90% of Ferrari: 10% will be offered in an initial public offering, or IPO, while the other 80% will be distributed to existing FCA shareholders. (The remaining 10% is owned by Piero Ferrari, son of founder Enzo. He's not selling.)

The Ferrari IPO is expected to happen this fall, sometime after mid-October. Should you jump in?

Ferrari should be a very profitable automaker, but ...The short answer is that it's hard to say. We'll know a lot more after the offering documents are filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and more still when we find out the likely price of the shares.

But we do know a few things that might make Ferrari an intriguing investment.

In terms of operating profit margins, at least, an independent Ferrari might end up being the most profitable automaker in the world. It's annual sales volumes are minuscule by global-automaker standards -- just over 7,000 cars in 2014 -- and significant sales growth is unlikely. That's because the automaker caps sales in order to preserve exclusivity (and profits).

It works: Last year, Ferrari's earnings before interest and taxes were about 275 million euros, on revenues of 2.76 billion euros. That's a 14% EBIT margin, far ahead of most automakers.

That's great, but there's a big catch. One of the biggest questions facing an independent Ferrari will be this: If production is capped and prices are already sky-high, how do you grow from there?

Is there a growth plan for Ferrari?Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has hinted that Ferrari could expand its sales in a small way (to around 10,000 a year) without significantly compromising exclusivity. More significant sales growth seems unlikely.

But assuming that its luxury-brand cred remains impeccable and its products remain compelling, it's possible that limited supplies and high demand will give Ferrari some room to increase prices (and thus profit margins) over time. It's also possible that more limited-run products like the $1.4 million "LaFerrari" could help push margins upward.

Production of the super-exotic LaFerrari was limited to 499 units. It sold out shortly after it was announced in 2013, despite a starting price over $1.4 million. Image source: Ferrari S.p.A

It's also possible that Ferrari could find a way to leverage its elite luxury-brand status with nonautomotive luxury-product offerings, like (perhaps) pens or watches. But it's not clear if that would add significantly to the company's bottom line -- and it's not clear if that could be done without cheapening the brand.

So how do you promise investors growth when capping sales is a key part of your strategy? That's a question that will need answering as we get closer to the IPO.

These probably won't be cheap shares, at least at first Unless you have a very big account at one of the investment banks managing Ferrari's IPO (said to be UBS, JPMorgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs), you can probably forget about getting any shares at offering prices.

But you will be able to buy shares on the market -- Ferrari will be listed on the New York Stock Exchange, Marchionne has said. It's a safe bet that the mystique of the Ferrari name will lead to strong early demand for the shares, though. Put another way, it's unlikely that ordinary individual investors will be able to buy for anywhere near the IPO price.

But one could buy shares of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles before the cutoff date to receive Ferrari shares (which hasn't been announced yet, but will probably be sometime in late September or October). That would ensure that you get some shares of Ferrari, automatically.

But there's a catch there, too: The IPO could clobber FCA's share price.

The real catch is Ferrari's expected valuation. Marchionne expects Ferrari to be valued at "at least 10 billion euros," he has said. Ferrari brought in just 2.9% of FCA's total global revenue in 2014, and 12.1% of its earnings before interest and taxes -- but Marchionne thinks the IPO will be priced to recognize the immense value of Ferrari's brand.

Here's the problem: 10 billion euros is around 60% of FCA's total current market cap. If Ferrari is valued at 10 billion euros, how will the market price the rest of FCA once Ferrari is gone? It might be a steep drop from current levels.

The upshot: Don't make plans for a big investment just yet As a lifelong car enthusiast, I will absolutely understand anyone who wants to own a few shares of Ferrari "just because."

But there are a few big questions that need answers before we can consider Ferrari a good investment. What's the growth plan? And how much will the shares cost?

Once we have an answer to the first question, and some idea of the second, we'll take a closer look. Stay tuned.

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John Rosevear has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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