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,...

Report on Q2 2013

Report on Q2 2013

5 Jul 2013

The FTSE fell by 3% in the quarter meaning, obviously, that the easy wins of Q1 (+8.7%) were unavailable. My Q1 recommendations of Enterprise Inns and Go-Ahead trod water. Home Retail Group fell after its last trading update, apparently on the basis that the rain kept people away from Homebase. Such absurdities provide buying opportunities for investors and would-be barbecue chefs. At 138p it has a historic FCF yield of 29% (admittedly 2012 was an exceptionally good year for its free cash flow.) In May, I updated on ICAP which was still at 327p. The volatility of this share can be unnerving but right now it is 15% higher at 378p and it has maintained and paid its large dividend. In May I wrote that I would not be buying FirstGroup at its ex-rights price of 111p. At today’s price of 97p I am still not buying but I’m still watching. I also offered a list of twelve yield stocks. So far, so good. Ten are essentially unchanged or higher compared to a slight (0.8%) fall in the FTSE. Only UBM and Royal Dutch are down (I don’t know why). For anyone fretting about my worst ever investment (in Taylor Wimpey), it just released a positive trading statement and is trading at just over 100p – and yes, I have sold some. In April I wrote dismissing gold as an investment after it fell below $1400 an ounce. It is now $1242 and as unappealing as ever, in my opinion. My view on QE, available here and there, is that it probably does nothing to stimulate economic growth but that it will continue to be favoured by the Treasury which influences the Bank of England decisively. Yesterday the MPC under its new Governor Carney stated that: “..the implied rise in the expected future path of Bank Rate was not warranted by the recent developments in the domestic economy.” In other words, the Bank Rate is going nowhere from its 0.5% base and QE is safe in their hands. The stock market duly rose 3% in...

Report on Q1 2013

Report on Q1 2013

26 Mar 2013

I will review the success of my own advice every quarter because it looks like a good discipline and it feels like the chance to brag or whine, both of which could be satisfying. First, the share tips. My first ever post in November suggested that Enterprise Inns was probably worth more than 67p and suggested 120p as a possibility. Today’s price of 109p (+63%) is a nice slice of beginner’s luck. Then I suggested that Marks & Spencer could not justify a share price of 400p unless it was a takeover play. The takeover talk faded and the shares fell. Then the takeover talk restarted and it popped up to 400p again. My opinion is that it is too messy to be a plausible target but never say “never”.  In January I recommended ICAP at 327p. It had a decent jump on news of slightly better trading but then fell back when it was linked with the Libor “scandal”. So it is basically unchanged and still appears to yield 7%, albeit now with a “known unknown” risk. Then I tipped Home Retail Group, which jumped while I was writing about it. I’m chuffed to say that it has jumped again. It was 122p when I started writing about it, 140p when I published and is above 155p now. So far, so good: I expect it to go further.  Then in February I recommended Go-Ahead at 1367p. That has also lived up to its name and has risen by 8% including its half-year dividend. Obviously these triumphs are not unconnected to the fact that the FTSE rose by c.8% in the quarter. Now, the other posts. The student sub-prime loans are designed to blow up in 20 years, which is when my “model” student will start to reduce his outstanding debt. The guilty should be out of sight by then. Interestingly, RPI (now 3.2%), which is the driver for the increase in interest on the loans that students took for the first time this year (RPI +3%), will no longer be designated as a national statistic” according to the United Kingdom Statistics Authority. When I say “interestingly”, what I really mean is that I...

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...