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...

Report on Q4 2016

Report on Q4 2016

13 Jan 2017

The UK stock market continued to climb the wall of fear or crawl forward in the sea of uncertainty or whatever you will in Q4. The FTSE 100 outperformed the FTSE 250 for the third time (out of four quarters) in 2016. Rising interest rates helped the UK banks index rise by 16% in the quarter. Some people think that lending margins will improve as interest rates “normalise”. Good luck to them. I will not be making that trade. Over the year as a whole the FTSE 100 rose by 13.9% having fallen by 4.8% in 2015. The FTSE 250 was up by 3.5% after +8.4% in 2015. The bond market was a bigger story in many ways with the 10 year gilt yield falling from 1.93% in December 2015 to 0.58% in August and then back up to 1.41% in December 2016. That is quite a rollercoaster dip. Many people believe (or hope) that the rise in interest rates will continue.  In many ways it would be helpful if they did (to help savers rather than borrowers) but I am not convinced that it is going to happen. The trading statements that January has seen have mostly been very encouraging. Marks & Spencer actually sold more clothes. I must admit I didn’t see that coming. I was less surprised that Morrisons sold more food. That has been a slow burner for me but it has started to come good. Let me say that I bought both these shares because of their financial strength (M&S’s cash flow, Morrison’s balance sheet) on the assumption that they would have the time to sort out their retailing problems. I know next to nothing about retailing but I can see that burdensome debt must make it much harder (eg Tesco). I was also amused and pleased to see that Sainsbury is now being helped by its acquisition of Argos. That stock (Home Retail Group) was my one attempt to take a view on a retail model and I just got away with it. The post that is most often called to mind at present is Four kinds of bias from May. The selective use of facts is all...

Four kinds of bias

Four kinds of bias

30 May 2016

1)      SELECTIVE USE OF FACTS It is not news to say that people will select facts and opinions that appear to favour their side of an argument. There was a good example last week from the pro-Remain CBI which wants to demonstrate that the possibility of Brexit is already hurting investment. “Overall, surveys of investment intentions have shown a deterioration in investment plans, particularly in the services sector. Some of this is likely to be related to uncertainty ahead of the EU referendum. Although our April investment intentions data for the manufacturing industry actually strengthened, anecdote from the sector suggests some specific factors at play – in particular, replacement spending in the food & drink sector (following flood-related damage earlier in the year) and buildings investment by chemicals manufacturers looking to expand production on the back of solid export demand.” CBI Economic Forecast 16th May 2016 Did you get that? The latest data suggest that their view is wrong so they have concluded that the data are wrong. The CBI is supposedly a highly respectable organisation (so respectable that the EC contributes money to fund some of its publications) and can get away with substituting anecdote for data, or so it seems.    The Leave side is mostly less respectable and, partly by virtue of the necessity that it is promoting something of a leap in the dark, rarely seems to attempt to employ hard facts. But you can be sure that it is highly selective in what it says. You would imagine that the UK is full of people who are deeply worried about immigration. According to a survey that goes back to 1962, the peak year for UK citizens thinking that there are too many immigrants was 1970 when the level reached 89%. In 2014 it was 54%. Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech was made in 1968 and probably contributed to the high level of antipathy to immigration that the chart shows. During the speech, Powell quoted a white constituent (in Wolverhampton) as saying: “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” As it happened, the period...

Report on Q1 2016

Report on Q1 2016

8 Apr 2016

Following a nervous rally in Q4, in Q1 the UK stock market was merely nervous. For the first time in seven quarters, the FTSE 100 (-1.2%) outperformed the FTSE 250 (-3.0%). This is a small indication that investors were becoming more worried about the outlook for earnings, I suppose. Since the Fed made the first tiny upward move in rates (0.25% in December), the economic smoke signals have deteriorated. Janet Yellen has publicly backtracked on the outlook for more rate rises this year. The ECB has signalled that more stimulus may be needed. Then there is China, Brexit and, most particularly, blah blah.      As usual, market commentators think that equity prices should reflect their view of the world. As usual, they miss the fact that equities are merely assets that compete with the value on offer elsewhere. The implicit secondary purpose of QE (the primary purpose was to bail out the banks) is to make the value of every other investment so unattractive that people begin to invest directly in riskier ventures that are more likely to help the economy. That’s the theory on which, despite its having the weight and robustness of a Twiglet, the world seems to be relying. How’s it going? Well, the price of “safe” investments has climbed to yet more prohibitively unattractive levels. The yield on German 10 year Bunds was 0.63% on the 30th December 2015 and 0.14% on 30th March 2016 and is thought by some to be heading negative. Well, why not? The Bank of England started its QE purchases of gilts in March 2009. At the time, the average UK dwelling cost £157,500 (its low point of the last ten years). In March 2016, the average dwelling cost £224,000 a nifty rise of 42% or 5.2% compound over seven years. No wonder that most Britons think that housing is the best possible investment and that we must have a housing shortage. Memo to everyone: house prices have been inflated by a deliberate and unprecedented policy of monetary easing, not by supply shortage. This is not going to end well. How about the next stage? Are people helping the economy by making riskier investments? Today’s...

Report on Q2 2015

Report on Q2 2015

6 Jul 2015

In Q2 the FTSE 100 fell by 3.3% but the FTSE 250 was up by 2.8%. In the first half year of 2015, the FTSE 100 was flat but the 250 was +9.2%. This divergence is probably indicative of two factors. The FTSE 100 is heavily weighted with banks and resource and mining stocks, few of which have looked like attractive investments for some years. The 250 is more reflective of UK PLC. Second, despite nervous headlines about (in no particular order) Greece, China, the interest rate cycle and the various consequences of terrorism, large companies have not benefitted from any move to perceived safe havens. Blue chip oil and pharma companies yield 5%+ but the average investor doesn’t seem to care. To put it another way, investors are not particularly nervous. European bond markets have normalised to some extent. The UK 10 year gilt yield has risen from 1.6% to 2.1%. Way back in September 2103 I recommended (and bought) a gilt, UNITED KINGDOM 1 3/4% TREASURY GILT 22. It was trading at 92. Having touched 103 in Q1 it now trades at just under 99, yielding 1.9%. This is not yet tempting me to get back in but it’s movement is worth following. Very little happened to the share prices of the major food retailers in Q2. They have all begun to tackle their structural problems. My view is that the market is now ignoring a trickle of good news. While Tesco is taking small steps at the start of a very long road – because Tesco needs to overhaul its financial structure – Sainsbury reported that the performance in its large stores had improved in June. It implied that the appeal of discount stores like Aldi and Lidl was waning slightly. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but Sainsbury is making an effort and its new joint venture with Argos is interesting. Morrisons has a new chief executive, David Potts, who seems to be making the right noises. When the (dull) Q1 numbers were released he said: “My initial impressions from my first seven weeks are of a business eager to listen to customers and improve“. He seems to be as good as his...

Report on Q1 2014

Report on Q1 2014

22 Apr 2014

The FTSE 100 fell by 2.2% in the quarter. The FTSE 250 (that’s companies from 101 to 350) rose by 2.1%. I wrote in the Q4 report that it is generally the case that smaller companies’ share prices are relative beneficiaries of improving confidence. Large blue chips do better when investors are seeking protection. It is worth noting that in the first three weeks of April, FTSE 250 shares have become more jittery, falling by 2.2% compared to a modest 0.4% recovery in FTSE 100 stocks. It looks as if there has been plenty of profit taking in the best performing shares of the past year, many of which are those of FTSE 250 companies. These were relatively trivial ups and downs in UK equities. Of more consequence for relative valuations is the continued strength of major government bonds. Yields on US, German and UK 10 year bonds have continued to fall, despite much talk of stronger economic data and falling unemployment. More impressive still has been the rebirth of demand for the bonds of Greece (yield on 31 December 2013, 8.41%; today, 6.12%), Portugal (5.9%; 3.73%), Ireland (3.43%; 2.83%) and even France (2.46%; 1.99%). Cash continues to chase yield and is becoming less fussy. At a time when the price of assets regarded as safe continues to rise, it would seem irrational to turn negative on the shares of established and financially sound companies. On that basis, this year’s flat equity market is probably resting rather than expiring. Turning to shares that I have recommended, in December I highlighted four companies with long-term strategies. UBM, whose share price is nearly unchanged since then, has just acquired a new CEO. I must admit that I had missed the declared intention of the CEO David Levin to retire in 2014. He has now been replaced by Tim Cobbold, ex-CEO of De La Rue. There is no reason to think that this will change the company’s long-term strategy. UBM raised its dividend slightly in 2013 and, with its low capex requirements, is confident of maintaining its “progressive” dividend policy. But, there is inevitably a risk that a new CEO will surprise investors (new managers are usually...

Report on Q4 2013

Report on Q4 2013

7 Jan 2014

The FTSE 100 rose by 4.4% in the quarter for a full year gain of 13.9%. The FTSE 250 (that’s companies from 101 to 350) performed twice as well in 2013, rising by 28.8%. There are never truly hard factual reasons why share prices move but it generally remains the case that smaller companies’ share prices are relative beneficiaries of improving confidence. Large blue chips do better when investors are seeking protection. It is also probably the case that smaller companies are less well known and consequently deliver more surprises. Note that in bad times they typically deliver more bad surprises which point takes us back to why large stocks do better when investors are nervous. It is reasonable to conclude that confidence improved in 2013. The mood implied by the yields offered by government bonds rose from clinically depressed to merely grumpy – in the case of the UK this was from 2.0% in January 2013 to 3.0% now. In the US the rise was slightly sharper, from 1.8% to 3.0%, but it was much the same story. The bond markets are suggesting that we are looking at a fairly gentle, low inflation recovery. Analysts sometimes name this “Goldilocks” (not too hot, not too cold) and it feels like a very comfortable investment environment. Comfort eventually causes complacency and this is exactly why it is wrong to commit one’s investment strategy to an opinion about the future, no matter how tempting. Investment is always about how probability is priced. Consensus rarely offers compelling value. I am pleased though not surprised to say that my satellite index of companies with female executives quite dramatically extended its outperformance against the FTSE 250. After the first nine months of 2013, the FTSE 250 was +25% but the 27 companies with female executives had risen by 35%. After the full twelve months, those numbers were +29% and +46% respectively. As for the shares that I recommended this year, in Q3 I wrote that I was surprised that Enterprise Inns rose by 40% in Q3. In Q4 it was much quieter, rising by 6.5%. I am not attracted by the value of the company now and I don’t...

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...

Report on Q3 2013

Report on Q3 2013

2 Oct 2013

The FTSE rose by 3.9% in the quarter (Q1 +8.7%, Q2 -3.0%) meaning that year-to-date it is +9.2%. I didn’t recommend a single new share in the quarter. This is partly because I was away in France, but is also because no compelling new ideas turned up. City analysts are expected to come up with recommendations (usually ‘Buy’s) regularly but real people don’t have to. To some extent, this reflects my current view of the stock market. The most likeable companies are generally priced accordingly. As I mention repeatedly, value is always relative and shares must always be compared to other asset classes. On that basis, there is not so much to worry about. UK house prices are creeping higher from unaffordable levels, encouraged by the government’s reckless Help to Buy scheme. (I heard the PM complain that the average income is unable to buy the average house. You might think that the solution is to raise the average income or lower the average house price or preferably both, but the answer from our government is to play “let’s pretend” and to forward the problem into the future, as usual). With growing numbers of people hooked up to the life support of the 0.5% Bank Rate, the chance of regular savings accounts bidding for your money are also about 0.5%. The only practical rival to equities in Q3 was, surprisingly, government bonds. On 10 September I recommended one. UNITED KINGDOM 1 3/4% TREASURY GILT 22 was trading at 92 then. This is an investment to tuck away for the long term but in the short term it has risen to 93.78, which, for a gilt, is pretty exciting. Shortly before the end of Q2 (12 June), I suggested a yield portfolio of twelve shares. From that date, they have returned 6.1% (including dividends) against 2.3% for the FTSE. So my implied caution has worked out quite well. The only stinker was Ladbrokes, thanks to a profit warning derived from its concerning failure to manage its online business. That having been said, its cash flow remains good and it has pledged to maintain the dividend. Today (167p) it yields more than 5% so I am,...

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...