ON BELIEF – LISTEN TO YOURSELF, TRUST YOURSELF

ON BELIEF – LISTEN TO YOURSELF, TRUST YOURSELF

4 Feb 2019

There is a classic episode of Yes Prime Minister (“The Bishop’s Gambit”) in which Jim Hacker has to choose between two problematic candidates for a vacant bishopric. One is a “modernist” and the other is a “separatist” (of church and state). There is a famous exchange that runs as follows: Sir Humphrey : “The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England” Hacker: “What about God?” Sir Humphrey: “I think he’s what is known as an optional extra”. Sir Humphrey explains that a “modernist” is a coded word. “When they stop believing in God they call themselves modernists”. Theists tend to prefer the word “faith” to “belief”. Much blood has been spilled across the centuries over the question of whether the wafer and wine offered as part of holy communion are really the body and blood of Christ or merely symbols. If you think that the answer to that question is obvious (and the chances are 1000-1 on that you do) that is because you can’t help yourself. Belief is not a result of choice. It’s something that happens to you based on the empirical evidence that you see. FAITH IS NOT AN INVESTMENT TOOL By contrast, faith is a great liberator. The more improbable something is, the deeper the faith required to accept it. Faith is not based on reason. Consequently, behaviour driven by extreme faith often looks like irrationality or worse to outsiders. For this reason belief is an essential tool of investment while faith is a menace. It is often difficult to distinguish one’s own beliefs from what might loosely be called wishful thinking. It is quite natural, but not good, to suffer from confirmation bias when hearing news about a company in which one has already taken the decision to invest. Confirmation bias is a symptom of faith. Not merely in investment but in all aspects of life we are keen and competitive to be clever and right and successful. I find it remarkable how hard it can sometimes be to work out what I actually believe. I would like to think that my beliefs frequently coincide with what turns out to be the truth but the relationship between belief...

INVESTING IN SOFTWARE COMPANIES

INVESTING IN SOFTWARE COMPANIES

30 Mar 2018

Ten years ago, I was paid to write research on investing in software companies. My USP was that I was pretty much a technophobe with little or no interest in software but with something of a passion for finding how to make money by investing in companies. Back in the early 2000s the world of software was full of exclusive jargon which, deliberately or not, served to discourage scepticism. The following is selected more or less at random from the 2006 Annual Report of SAP AG. THE “NEXT BIG THING” IN INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY Today, the IT sector stands on the verge of widespread adoption of service-oriented architecture (SOA), a development that promises to change the dynamics of the software industry as much as the shift to client-server architecture did 15 years ago. In essence, SOA defines the technical standards that enable the various enterprise software applications used by companies and their business partners to exchange data effectively. Thus, SOA will help reduce the costs of creating and maintaining data exchange interfaces, a factor CIOs consistently cite as one of their top challenges. When I read stuff like this I used to think a) does this mean anything and b) even if it does, how is anyone going to persuade the board of a major company to throw money at it? That is why I hit upon a personal rule that can be usefully extended from the narrow world of software analysis to life itself – never be afraid to ask the stupid question. Experience teaches that it’s often the hardest one to answer. Fifteen years ago the normal software business model was to sell a perpetual licence that allowed the customer to use the software plus an annually payable fee that got him maintenance and upgrades. The analyst community was obsessed with the growth of software companies and consequently watched the “new licence sales” number in every quarterly earnings release. Share prices were highly volatile as a result. A “miss” from the quarterly numbers often resulted in carnage for the shares. I was actually frightened. How I could I make recommendations to buy and sell shares when my view could and probably would be...

Dogs and tricks – new light from accounting changes?

Dogs and tricks – new light from accounting changes?

13 Jan 2018

The following paragraph is not true. A neat way to value a company is to divide the share price by the earnings per share (EPS) which gives you something known as a P/E (price/earnings) ratio. A low P/E ratio (say <10x) implies that a share is cheap and a high P/E ratio (say >20) suggests expensive. Many people, some of them claiming to be investment professionals or financial journalists, still promote P/E ratios (which came to be the standard valuation method in the 1970s and the 1980s). Here are some reasons why they are wrong. MARKET CAPITALISATION IS NOT THE VALUE OF THE COMPANY The price of a share is a measure of one of a company’s liabilities (the equity owned by shareholders) but not the value of the company. The equity is what is left over after all other obligations have been met. The value of the equity is known as the market capitalisation of the company. EI Group (formerly Enterprise Inns) has 479.5 million shares trading at 143p giving it a market capitalisation of £685 million. Also with a market capitalisation of £685 million is Go-Ahead Group with 43.2 million shares at 1586p. Their earnings per share last year were 20.5p (EI Group) and 207.7p (Go-Ahead) giving them P/E ratios of 7.0x and 7.6x respectively. How cool is that? Are they both cheap and are they almost equally cheap? You will not be surprised to read that it’s not as simple as that. The balance sheet of EI Group reveals that it the business is carrying more than £2000 million of net debt whereas Go-Ahead has £200 million of net cash. Consequently, the enterprise value of EI Group is £2700 million (market capitalisation plus net debt) and Go-Ahead’S enterprise value is just £485 million (market capitalisation minus net cash). On that basis the pub leasing business is worth 5.6x as much as the bus and train operating business. This doesn’t tell us which share is more likely to go up but it gives us plenty of ideas about what might influence their prices. None of which involve reported EPS. EARNINGS PER SHARE Another reason why P/E ratios are nearly useless is that...

Investing for our old age

Investing for our old age

16 Jan 2017

Here are two pieces of great news for the citizens of relatively rich, relatively developed, relatively Western economies. Women can increasingly combine career and motherhood rather than having to choose between them: and improved healthcare (if not exercise and diet) mean that people on average are living to greater ages. Fifty years ago, the UK average birthrate per woman was 2.9 (over her fertile life, not per pregnancy, obviously). Now it is 1.8. No doubt this is down to a combination of reasons which you can work out for yourself. Given that medical science has not yet worked out how to allow men to give birth you might imagine, if the UK’s experience is typical, that in the long term the global population will decline, on the rough basis that each woman should on average have two babies to replace those falling off the perch at the far end of life’s journey. Were it not for the fertility of some African countries, where birthrates of >5 per woman are quite common, mankind might become an endangered species.  According to the World Bank, the average fertility of women in the world was 2.5 in 2016 and the necessary “replacement rate” is 2.1. So the human race looks as if it will walk on for a while. Yet the story for developed nations is quite different. BIRTH RATE IN DEVELOPED NATIONS – FLACCID France (2.0), the US (1.9) and the UK (1.8) are doing their best (all, note, countries with histories of racially diverse immigration). The EU, which only promotes immigration from within itself, is overall at just 1.6 and Germany (1.4), Italy (1.4) and Spain (1.3) are below average. China, just unwinding its one child policy, is at 1.6 and Japan, perhaps the world’s most notorious ageing nation, is at 1.4. But the populations of established nations like the US, Germany and the UK are certainly not declining yet. Instead we have decades ahead in which the population will continue to grow but will age significantly. This is important for all kinds of financial reasons, none of them good. The last time that the fertility rate in the UK was at the “replacement rate” of...

Hidden charms of Mrs M&S

Hidden charms of Mrs M&S

5 Jun 2016

Back in November one of my first ever blogs was about M&S. The shares were trading at 389p and I wrote that only takeover interest could justify a higher price but I thought that the pension liabilities made that a very unlikely prospect. For reasons which were and remain unclear to me the shares touched 600p last year but M&S has not yet been taken over and they have now tumbled all the way back to 355p. A battered low-end competitor BHS has just been closed with 11,000 jobs lost and 164 stores closed. It is no surprise that it was the pension liabilities that provoked the final bullet to the head. In addition, Austen Reed is closing 120 outlets at the cost of 1000 jobs and Matalan is reportedly struggling under its debt burden. (Matalan’s founder loaded it with extra debt in order to pay himself a dividend – sound familiar?) A hard-headed analysis might suggest that the closure of a competitor is good news for the other clothing retailers but on 25 May M&S shares were hammered following publication of its 2015/16 results. Excluding last week’s ex-dividend adjustment they are down 17% (from 445p). For the nth year, M&S is having trouble with its Clothing business. The CEO was ridiculed for referring to the core customer as “Mrs M&S” though the results presentation offered the slightly surprising observation that 42% of its 32 million customers are men. I seriously doubt if there is any company on which more people have an opinion than M&S. There are millions of experts out there. I can read in the presentation what customers are complaining about. There is too much choice, too much fashion at the expense of style, too many sizes out of stock and not enough consistency about price and value. As someone burdened by little interest in shopping or retailing I must say that none of that looks impossible to fix. You can also shop at M&S online though I don’t know how well it works or whether that would appeal to the 78% of customers who are 35 or over (still reading the presentation). Following the rather negative publicity and the share...

Dare you trust these dividends?

Dare you trust these dividends?

21 Sep 2015

Perhaps the most pertinent question for UK stock investors today is “can I trust those high dividend yields?” Glaxo has pre-announced that it will maintain its dividend at 80p per share this year and next year. That’s a yield of 6.2%. Royal Dutch appears to yield 7.5% on the basis of paying $1.88 (c.120p) also “guaranteed” for 2015 and 2016. If these companies can be relied on to continue these pay-outs, it matters little whether Janet Yellen dares to raise the federal funds rate from irrelevant to insignificant or indeed whether Mark Carney goes mad and does the same with the bank rate.  Here is what I previously wrote about the interpretation of high dividend yields. Shares that yield 5% The market does not like these companies. They are seen as unreliable. This may be because there are external threats that are beyond the power of management to prevent or mitigate or it may be that management is simply mistrusted. It might also be the case that they are mature businesses that are, rightly or wrongly, thought to be approaching the end of their life-cycle.   Shares that yield 6% The market does not trust the dividend. It expects it to be cut (or “rebased”, in modern corporate terminology). Naturally I agree with every word of this and everything that follows should be seen in the context of those comments. I will briefly discuss Glaxo and Royal Dutch before moving on to some humbler companies. There is a summary at the end. GLAXO           Price:  1296p                    Hoped for dividend:  80p                       Yield: 6.2% Glaxo is showing off by paying a bonus 20p in respect of Q4 (year-end March 2016). This seems to me an unnecessary answer to the sceptics who would anyway be confounded merely by flat progress. People dislike Big Pharma about as much as they dislike Big Tobacco and they both look like industries that spend a fortune on lobbying. Glaxo needs to generate $3.8bn of free cash flow to pay its 80p dividend without adding extra debt (nearer $5bn this year with the bonus). In 2014 it made free cash flow of $5.5bn; in the year to March 2015 free cash flow was...

Gifts in the mail

Gifts in the mail

15 Jun 2015

The privatisation of Royal Mail in October 2013 was a lesson in how the City can run rings around politicians who fancy themselves as financial sophisticates. In this case the sap-in-chief was Vince Cable, a man whose CV includes many “economics advisor” titles. Despite this supposed in-house expertise, his department for Business, Innovation & Skills hired a vast syndicate of City banks, perhaps believing in the wisdom of crowds. It is well known that the shares were priced at 330p, that the institutional offering was oversubscribed by 24x and the retail portion by 7x. Most applicants for shares got none at all but 16 priority investors shared 38% of the entire offer (representing 22% of the company). On the first day of trading the shares closed at 455p. Within a few weeks, seven of the sixteen priority shareholders had cashed out completely. The grounds on which the priority investors had been selected were said to include their willingness to be long-term shareholders. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the government behaved with a mixture of ignorance and fear. For many years, financial institutions have gorged themselves on the naivety of their customers but, as a citizen, I find it very disappointing that my elected representatives are quite so useless. The underpricing and mishandling of the IPO was something of a public humiliation that may have contributed to the ejection of Vince Cable in the recent general election. It took only until March 2014 for the National Audit Office to publish a report that criticised the government for being cautious and pointed out in restrained language that “the taxpayer interest was not clearly prioritised within the structure of the independent adviser’s role”.  Royal Mail was something of a dinosaur company in stock market terms. It was a state-owned business that retained a highly unionised workforce and huge defined benefit pension liabilities. Moreover, it was obliged to maintain a national postal delivery service while the potentially more lucrative parcel delivery service was open to new competitors who could to some extent cherry-pick the services that they fancied. Letter volumes are in clear decline as most of us prefer e-mail while parcel volumes are rising...

Grocers minced

Grocers minced

24 Mar 2014

“FTSE 100 sees supermarket shares shelved as Morrisons wages price war.” Last Thursday week (13 March), shares of William Morrison fell by 12% to 206p. They have fallen by 32% since their 2013 peak of 302p in September. In a show of empathy, Sainsbury’s shares were -8% and -26% from last year’s high and Tesco’s -4% and -23% respectively. The strategic announcement from Morrison has emphasised what we already knew – that discounters like Lidl and Aldi have been winning market share from the “Big 4” supermarkets (the other one, Asda, is a subsidiary of the US giant Walmart). This stock market fallout has delivered some shares that ostensibly now look cheap. As ever, the way to judge is to ask what the valuations tell us about the outlook for the businesses and to decide whether this view is realistic, optimistic or pessimistic. But first, some background. Due to the fact that we all go shopping, my observation is that people tend to overestimate the value of their own opinions about retailers. (This is true of many other topics: house prices, because we all live somewhere; climate chance, because we all notice the weather; healthcare, because we all get ill; bankers, because we all use banks.) On that basis, I must assume the same is true of me. So let’s get my prejudices out of the way. First, Lidl and Aldi are private companies from Germany. In my experience, which is somewhat out of date, shopping in Germany is a grim experience, evocative of Britain in the 1970s. If German retailers compete on scale and price, it is because they have nothing else. It is still the case that the collective German psyche has a horror of inflation (I have a 50 million mark note from the 1920s on my desk) and until 10 years ago, the law regulated prices and shop opening times in a way that suggested that shoppers needed to be protected from greedy retailers. The only Lidl outlet I know (in rural France) usually has just one member of staff on the checkout and the last time I was there (buying Chardonnay at less than €3 a bottle) the customer...

Are RBS shares on a dotcom!!! valuation?

Are RBS shares on a dotcom!!! valuation?

28 Feb 2014

You might have heard that The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) delivered some disappointing results yesterday. Underlying operating profit fell by 15% to £2.5 billion and the shares fell by 8%. But you might be surprised that it made a profit at all, given that the reporting of the figures and the interviewing of the latest CEO were generally hostile. Well, here’s a point. The net result, discouragingly referred to as “attributable to ordinary shareholders” was rather a long way shy of the £2.5 billion underlying operating profit – it was in fact a loss of £9 billion. If you want to know how these figures are related, the earnings release has 225 pages to help you get up to speed. But before you do that, I would like to draw your attention to the report for 2008. Over a mere 99 pages, a modest underlying operating profit of £80 million somehow delivered a loss of £24 billion to those very ordinary shareholders. If you are wondering what damaged that hapless underlying profit so badly, it included: “Credit market write-downs and one-off items, purchased intangibles amortisation, write-down of goodwill and other intangible assets, integration costs, restructuring costs and share of shared assets”. Stuff, essentially. In case you think that the bank is putting a deceptive spin on its results, it explains itself as follows. “The financial information on pages 23 to 81, prepared using the Group’s accounting policies, shows the underlying performance of the Group on a managed basis which excludes certain one-off and other items. Information is provided in this form to give a better understanding of the results of the Group’s operations.” In other words, if you think that the bank made £2.5 billion rather than lost £9 billion, you will be understanding it better. You will be better informed than the FT (“Royal Bank of Scotland slides to £9bn loss for 2013”) and the BBC (“RBS shares fall after biggest loss since financial crisis”). The dictionary definition of “underlying” is interesting. 1. Lying under or beneath something: underlying strata. 2. Basic; fundamental. 3. Present but not obvious; implicit: an underlying meaning. 4. Taking precedence; prior: an underlying financial claim. I think...

Calmly seeking companies with long-term strategies

Calmly seeking companies with long-term strategies

6 Dec 2013

It may seem odd but it is harder than you might think to find companies with clear and measurable strategies. It is depressing how many listed companies offer nothing but a “mission” to be the “best of class”, to be “passionate about their customers” (yuk) and to pursue “value for all stakeholders”. In these challenging times when (thanks to QE) all assets are being priced as if they offer outstanding long-term value, I am inclined to seek companies with reasonably clear medium to long-term strategies. These generally feel obliged to keep their shareholders up to date with progress. Their executives generally accept that their careers depend on their achievements. If the strategies are realistic, they should be quite easy for investors to understand. To be fair, it is easier for a business to offer a clear strategy if it needs to undergo some kind of transformation. It is tougher for e.g. Coca Cola whose strategy understandably consists of flooding ever more of the world with its yummy syrup. The same could be said of Microsoft which has torched billions and billions of dollars trying to add other products to its ubiquitous desk software. There is no call to criticise successful businesses for failing to reinvent themselves – all we need to do is to check their attitude to shareholder value. But if we want to make serious money we should be looking for successful transformations. The simplest but most dangerous transformations are those, like Enterprise Inns, that involve financial rehabilitation. Share investors can be well rewarded if the equity portion of the business rises as the debt decreases. The purpose of this piece is different. It is to look for companies that are taking on the challenge of adapting their business model to changing times. Beware of companies that focus purely on financial targets, especially when these are linked directly to executive remuneration. A German company that I once followed made a quite inexplicable acquisition. While the company’s core business was in software with an operating margin of 25%, it bought a ragbag IT service company with a margin of approximately 0%. The justification offered by the management in defence of the deal was...

Yields are usually for a reason

Yields are usually for a reason

12 Jun 2013

Investment is betting on probabilities, not on outcomes. How can we judge if the probability of an event is over-priced or under-priced? Do not try to guess the probability of an outcome with a view to pricing it. Do ask when the price is telling you about the probability – then ask yourself if this is reasonable. For obvious reasons, investors are now very interested in dividend yield but they also have reasons to be worried about the stock market. Commentators seem to be evenly split between those who are looking down and suffering vertigo and those who say that equities continue to offer attractive value compared to what else is on offer. According to my own investment rules, you will find me in the second camp for as long as that proposition continues to be true. Dividend yields are as reliable a measure as any for judging what the market thinks of a company. Then, as the quotation from my fourth investment rule (Probability) says, we can ask ourselves whether this is reasonable. Below is a table of current dividend yields from shares that I follow. There is a wide range which, if the market is efficient, should tell us that we can choose between relatively safe companies with relatively low yields and relatively risky with commensurately high returns. Before I discuss any individual stocks, I will characterise what these various yields imply.     Price Yield BG 1165 1.4% Fuller Smith & Turner 925 1.5% Domino’s Pizza 670 1.5% Travis Perkins 1520 1.6% Experian 1175 1.9% Regus 165.00 1.9% Home Retail Group 152 2.0% Diageo 19.15 2.2% Interconti Hotels 1835 2.2% Smith & Nephew 755 2.3% Rentokil 88 2.4% Millennium 549 2.5% Cranswick 1120 2.7% Stage Coach 287 2.7% Kingfisher 344 2.8% Hays 90 2.8% BT 312 2.8% Synthomer 194 2.8% Sage 348 3.0% Rexam 505 3.0% Micro Focus 659 3.1% Unilever (€) 31.4 3.1% Reed 736.0 3.1% Tate & Lyle 811 3.2% Greencore 130.00 3.3% St Ives 160 3.3% Greene King 750 3.4% Debenhams 92 3.6% Morgan Crucible 277 3.6% M&S 448 3.8% Pearson 1173.0 3.8% UBM 690.00 3.9% Mitie 253 4.1% Costain 254 4.2% Tesco 343 4.3% Marstons 142 4.4%...

FirstGroup – watching with the wolves

FirstGroup – watching with the wolves

21 May 2013

Back on 14 February, when I wrote recommending Go-Ahead Group, I included summaries of my views on the other transport stocks, including this on FirstGroup: At 189p, FirstGroup has a market capitalisation of £911m but an enterprise value of £3357m due to £2446m of net debt (including pension liabilities). Its historic dividend yield of 12.5% tells us that the market expects the company to cut or skip its dividend (decision due in May). This would be a speculative investment and is too dangerous for my taste. With revenues of £6500m, this business is not going to disappear but the risk is that it will end up being mostly owned by creditors rather than current owners of the equity. And so, it came to pass, more or less. Yesterday equity owners were asked to put up a fresh £615m to defend the equity’s role in the company’s balance sheet against the creditor wolf pack: or as the rights issue press release coyly puts it – to “support the Group’s objective to remain investment grade”….Let’s hear it for investment grade! Yay! The poor shares swooned yesterday – down by 30% to 156p. It’s strange how bad news seems harder to predict than good, no matter, apparently, how explicit the evidence of publicly available facts. It may be that the terms of the rights’ issue – 3 new shares for every 2 existing shares at 85p each – were pitched at such a low level that the odour of desperation was repellent. In passing, fees of £30m (nearly 5% of gross proceeds) for an issue that surely does not need to be underwritten demonstrate that there are still bankers out there whose skills surpass mortal understanding. Never mind. It is not immoral to make a mistake, nor to be stupid, nor to wonder whether new investors might at some point take advantage of the pain of others. At today’s cum-rights price of 156p, FirstGroup has a market cap of £750m and net debt (including pension liabilities) of £2280m for an enterprise value of £3030m, or 0.44x revenues. These ratios will change after 11 June, when the shares trade ex-dividend but, on the face of it, the value...

ICAP – a secret utility company?

ICAP – a secret utility company?

14 May 2013

ICAP released its 2012 results today. They were agreeably dull after a number of blows to the share price coming from stories about regulatory investigations including reports that it was being linked to the Libor scandal. At first sight, the statement from CEO Spencer suggests a pretty bad year: This has been an extraordinarily tough year in the wholesale financial markets. Trading activity across all asset classes was negatively affected by a combination of cyclical and structural factors including the depressed global economy, a low interest rate environment and lack of clarity around some aspects of regulatory reform. ICAP’s financial performance reflects these extremely challenging conditions. So how bad were the numbers? The answer is that compared to the mood of that statement (“extraordinarily tough year…..extremely challenging conditions”) they were delightful. Operating cash flow was down from 25% of revenues in 2011 to 24% i.e. it was high by the standards of most businesses. The dividend is maintained (for a yield of >7% at yesterday’s close) and after the payment of dividends, capex and restructuring charges, net debt fell by £100m (ICAP now has a net cash position). ICAP is treated by the stock market as if it is a cyclical business (and Michael Spencer does not seem to discourage this view) but its numbers say that it is practically a utility company. A conventional utility company also produces reliable operating cash flow but is burdened with much higher capex requirements. National Grid makes a somewhat higher operating cash flow margin (33%) but invests a formidable 25% of its revenues in capex. Centrica, which is highly regulated (and regularly grilled on the Today programme,) makes an operating cash flow margin of just 13% and will generally invest 5% of its revenues in capex. ICAP spends 3-4% of its revenues on capex but therefore retains much more of its 24% operating cash flow margin for other purposes (shareholders). Moreover, the ICAP capex is directed at electronic trading platforms which, other things being equal, continue to raise group operating margins. Every time I write about ICAP it is trading at around 327p though it has ranged from 280p to 355p this year. I am in the...

Taylor Wimpey – end of an error?

Taylor Wimpey – end of an error?

26 Mar 2013

The source for many of my personal investment rules is mistakes that I have made in the past. The best (if that’s the word) illustration of this is my humiliating shareholding in Taylor Wimpey. I am prepared to make this public now because a) it might be a therapeutic exercise and b) the damage is not far off being repaired. (That last sentence was only just true: b) is 10x as important as a).) Taylor Wimpey is a house builder that was the result of a merger between George Wimpey and Taylor Woodrow, agreed in March and completed in July 2007. On the day that the deal was announced, the shares of the two companies rose by 7% and 16% respectively. At the time, the Daily Telegraph wrote: A source close to the deal said: “Both companies have strong complementary businesses and, while there is concern about the US market, if we put the two together it should add strength.” I cannot now think of many economies of scale that would result from merging the land-banks and workforces of two house building companies. Back in the summer of 2007, I didn’t give it much thought. For no particular reason, the price of the new stock slid from a theoretical £5.00 a share to around £3.30. The stock market at this point was showing no signs of the weakness that were to come to know so well and, without looking at any balance sheet numbers, I took what was for me at the time quite a large punt: I spent nearly £13,000 on 4000 shares at 320p. NB: it will not be my policy on this website to use my real investment amounts but in this case I will make an exception, to lace the tale with the self-administered poison that it merits. By December 2007, very few people were talking about a financial crisis but I set about causing one of my own by sticking another five grand into Taylor Wimpey, this time at the seemingly incredible bargain price of 200p. I had averaged down but had now invested £18,000 in Taylor Wimpey. A mere 11 months later, the shares closed at 8p and...

Transport shares – Go-Ahead can make my day

Transport shares – Go-Ahead can make my day

14 Feb 2013

One of the earliest stock market bubbles was in railway companies in the 1830s and 1840s. At the time, rail was the new technology replacing canals and it is not difficult to understand why people with capital to invest were excited. As with all predictable technology-driven changes, it took much longer than its early supporters expected. (I will briefly digress on why this might be. My theory is that obvious technological change attracts opposition from “old-technology” incumbents. Stuff than comes from nowhere (YouTube, Facebook) happens with shocking speed. In the case of the English railways, canal operators lobbied aggressively against them. When roads in turn began to compete with railways in the 20th century, no doubt the rail companies behaved in the same way). Many of the issues that mattered to the railways in the 1840s are still making news. New railways had to be approved by Acts of Parliament and landowners complained about plans to lay tracks over their property. Over the years, governments have veered between light touch regulation of transport infrastructure and complete nationalisation. British Rail was a state monopoly between 1948 and 1994 (from what I remember, these were not golden years of commuting) and was then clumsily privatised. Since then we seem to have been in a state of hybrid private ownership including the foolish listing and insalubrious de-listing of Railtrack. Operating franchises have proved hard to price correctly (to say the least) but we have more or less arrived at the point where trains and buses are mostly operated in the UK by five companies. Arriva was acquired by Deutsche Bahn in 2010. The other four are all still listed; FirstGroup, National Express, Stagecoach (which owns 49% of Virgin Rail) and Go-Ahead. I am not particularly interested in the operational details of running bus and train services but simple analysis of the four companies indicates that running buses is more profitable than running trains. Operating margins from bus services are typically +/- 10% whereas trains seem to struggle to hit 5%. One of the most basic ways to compare companies within the same sector is to look at the ratio of each company’s enterprise value to its revenues....

Home Retail Group – dinosaur goes digital

Home Retail Group – dinosaur goes digital

17 Jan 2013

HMV has just been crushed by the weight of its borrowings. Were banks less reluctant to write off bad debts, it would probably have gone a year ago. Yet its key strategic error, according to commentators, was to fail to respond to the threat of the internet. This charge seems almost unbelievable but it is a reminder of how difficult it is for established businesses to change. Argos, owned by Home Retail Group, is a business model that many people find laughably “old economy”. It was based on a printed catalogue of competitively priced goods that could be bought by filling out small order forms in stores that were like retail warehouses. The typical Argos customer is from the less affluent half of the population, though you might be surprised to know that more than 70% of all UK households buy something from Argos at least once a year. Despite the excellent financial state of the Home Retail Group, many analysts have thought that Argos is a doomed dinosaur. In August 2012 (the half year report), Argos had net cash of £211m and generated free cash flow of £129m in the six month period. Given that its market capitalisation is (at 124p) £1billion, implying a free cash flow yield of 16%, if it generates zero free cash in H2, there ought to be something pretty wrong with this company. If its problems are fixable, it should probably be on a FCF yield of c.10% implying a share price of 185p. So are its problems fixable? The group’s management certainly thinks so. It has a five year plan to “reinvent  Argos as a digital leader”. Its stores will all have free wi-fi and customers will be able to order goods from their mobile devices. Home delivery will be introduced. This will incur extra capital expenditure of £100 million over three years and restructuring costs of £50 million. Total capex is expected to be £175 million for the next three years (it was £135 million in FY 2012). These are significant but not excessive numbers. The group expects to maintain a net cash position during the transformation period. Its target is to raise Argos revenues to...

Why I am buying ICAP plc

Why I am buying ICAP plc

10 Jan 2013

At first glance, ICAP looks like the kind of company that I don’t like to invest in. It is a financial service business whose employees are well rewarded for success. The normal problem with such companies is an implicit conflict of interest in that the shareholders find themselves in competition with the employees for a share of the added value. Shareholders of investment banks in recent years will be well acquainted with this idea. A key fact about ICAP is that the CEO is the largest shareholder and, understandably, he appears to like dividends. Michael Spencer owns 16.7% of the company. The dividend for last year paid him 108 million lots of 22p. That’s £23.8 million on top of his executive remuneration of £5.5 million. This man’s appetite for dosh is huge by most standards but he is greedy on behalf of all shareholders: and it helps to know that ICAP’s annual charity day has now raised a total of £100 million. ICAP is a large interdealer broker that matches professional buyers and sellers of all kinds of financial products (interest rate products, foreign exchange, bonds, commodities etc). It charges tiny commissions on huge transactional volumes. ICAP does not take positions. It is a pure broker that will know on a daily basis what its income is and what its costs are. Since the financial crisis hit, volumes have fallen and the company has been quick to cut costs. There are two ways in which costs are cut; first, by reducing headcount among the traditional broking staff; and secondly, by increasing the penetration of electronic trading (where profit margins are 40%). The increased use of electronic trading is a strategic goal that should improve underlying margins. ICAP is a business with strong cash generation. Operating cash flow over the financial year is typically 20% of revenues. This funds the dividends. The full year dividend over the five years of the financial crisis has risen from 15.65p per share to 22p. In the first half of the current financial year (to March 2013) it was raised again, despite Michael Spencer reporting that “this has been one of the toughest periods in my 36 year career...

Marks & Spencer – if it’s 400p it must be a takeover play

Marks & Spencer – if it’s 400p it must be a takeover play

29 Nov 2012

In the investment rule that I call “Competing Assets” I included four ways in which investors in a company’s equity should look to get paid out. They are 1) by the share price appreciating because the value of the company increases; 2) by the equity’s share of the company increasing relative to the share of other liability holders; 3) through direct pay outs in the form of dividends; 4) through the sale of the whole business at a premium. M&S is obviously a very mature brand with a business model that some might unkindly label “dinosaur”. If it ever joins the e-commerce party it will be a late arrival. The chance of 1) (the value of the company increasing) looks modest. The same goes for 2); indeed, with capital expenditure growing this year and next, the opposite (the equity’s share of the company’s value declining) looks a risk. This leaves us with 3) (dividends) and 4) (takeover). There seems to be no serious risk to the dividend but no obvious reason why it should be increased. At present, M&S is maintaining its dividend (recent half year results). As such, we can look at the dividend yield (4.4%) and compare it to alternative investments as we wish. 4.4% is not to be sneered at but you can do better from Tesco and Sainsbury. But as the price occasionally pushes towards 400p (389p today) there is reason to think that a small takeover premium has crept into the share price. One of the obvious poison pills that a buyer of M&S would have to swallow is its pension liabilities. Any venerable, domestic company with a large workforce has potential problems with pension liabilities. As interest rates fall, the actuarial calculation of the present value of pension liabilities goes up. From that point of view, the current era of low rates is not good news. In addition, the actuaries have noticed that people are tending to live longer. Good luck for them but bad news for the pension liability. The M&S half year results (published on 1 November) were interesting reading in this respect, once you made your way to Note 10 on page 26 (of 28)....

Enterprise Inns

Enterprise Inns

20 Nov 2012

Enterprise Inns released its fiscal 2012 results today. It is a pub operator that expanded too enthusiastically and became dangerously indebted. Leasing pubs to landlords who want to run them is fundamentally a very profitable business. Enterprise makes operating margins of 47% which is about as good as it gets (Apple’s operating margin is 36.5%, for instance.) To the banks, Enterprise must have looked like a cash generating machine that was close to a licenced printer of money. Probably the Enterprise management felt the same way. Consequently the business borrowed and borrowed and expanded its pub empire. Naturally, when recession hit and pub customers and landlords started to suffer, Enterprise was left with a declining business trying to support a balance sheet designed for growth. At such times such as this, financial creditors, who always have one motivation only – to be repaid – become very worried and will foreclose – probably making the equity worthless – if it suits their purpose. Enterprise is crawling up the road to recovery but it’s a long road. In the last four years it has reduced its debt by >£1bn, which is around 25%. Yet it remains a very indebted company. At today’s share price (67p) the enterprise value of Enterprise Inns is c.£3.07bn of which net debt is £2.74bn and equity (the market capitalisation) just £335m. So the enterprise value is 9 parts debt to 1 part equity. If the value of the business falls by 10% and the debt remains constant, the shares will be effectively worthless. That is the risk of investing in Enterprise Inns now and the potential penalty if the progress along the road to recovery falters. But let’s skip quickly to the upside. Let us say that the business marks time but further progress is made in reducing debt through cash flow and, perhaps, some disposal of zombie assets. The enterprise value of the company sticks at £3.07bn but net debt is cut by another 10% to £2.47bn. In this case, the value of the equity rises from £335m to £600m. That makes 120p per share or a rise of 79% without the overall value of the business having changed. All...