Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013 - Year in review

So as the markets close for the last time in 2013 I've totaled up my figures for this year in terms of investment performance as well as over my investment lifetime. All stocks are valued to bid prices, with dealing charges and stamp duty costs included (but before capital gains tax). As I am often adding to / withdrawing from my portfolio for various reasons I track IRR as my main investment metric and benchmark myself to the FTSE All Share and Small Cap Indices:


My IRR: 50.45%
FTSE All Share IRR: 14.22%
FTSE Small Cap IRR: 40.00%

Lifetime (Began 2011):

My IRR: 44.88%
FTSE All Share IRR: 9.48%
FTSE Small Cap IRR: 29.06%

So it's been another year of a strong bull market in small and micro caps UK stocks and a rising tide has lifted all boats - my 50.45% IRR doesn't look all that exceptional when you consider the Small Cap index has risen a whopping 40% this year. In fact I'm surprised I'm actually ahead of the index at all as looking around the UK small cap market now the equities that are really taking off are often low-quality 'story stocks' as the bull market becomes more mature. This year I feel like I've been pretty lucky overall with my investments as I've had so many different ones work out positively and few losers (C21, CLIG and 3LEG have been the main detractors). I certainly still expect my Lifetime IRR to trend down over time to a more reasonable figure as the benchmark IRRs mean-revert to their long term averages although I'm happy with a ~16% out-performance since I began investing.

My main mistakes this year have been those of selling investments too early. As a fundamentals-oriented investor, I have a natural bias towards over-focusing on two of the three main sources of empirically confirmed equity out-performance (value and quality) and ignoring the third - momentum. Whilst I'm aware of this and try to compensate by holding on to well performing equities that were cheap until I feel full value has been realised I have sold a number of stocks that have gone on to do very well in a relatively short period post selling. Staffline I sold at 339p and it went on to touch over 600p. I sold ACSO at 340p and it's now trading at 780p. I don't feel that bad about the prices and multiples I was generally able to sell these at (I sold ACSO at a ~30x multiple at the time and it's gone to ~55x!) but I often find that I when I sell a well-performing share they often go on to do another 15-20% in a short period afterward, although that's probably an artifact of the bull market in general anyway.

Right now I'm finding it harder and harder to find undervalued equities in the micro and small cap markets although I'm still happy with my existing investments - the nice thing about micro caps is you can be very selective and there's always something about that's cheap. On a valuation basis most markets seem at best 'fair value' to me and often quite a bit toppy - some of the small caps have re-rated on to multiples that imply low forward returns on any reasonable expectation of business performance and when people can get away with stuff like this you know the temperature of the market is starting to get quite hot.

I hope you've had a good year investing, here's to many more in the future!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

CLIG - City of London Investment Group

There’s been a few mentions of CLIG on TMF before so I have to give credit to other write ups worth reading: Burgdorf’s, TMFFlaneur’s and TMFMayn’s but I’ll try and synthesise these all together, with my own comments.

CLIG are an asset manager focused on emerging markets (EMs). EMs have had a pretty rough time recently compared to developed markets and so are fairly out of favour (See the performance of the Vanguard EM ETF here) after having an exceptional run for many years prior to 2008. This has impacted CLIG pretty badly as revenues and earnings are tied to the assets under management (AUM) the firm has. This means that AUM falls in years where the EM indices fall, and rises when the EM indices do – consequently earnings also follow the same pattern.

From 2005 to 2011 CLIG grew AUM from about $1.6bn to $5.8bn through a combination of raising more capital and EM index growth and hence earnings also shot up from 11.85p to 34p. However, since then earnings have fallen to 24.6p as AUM has fallen to $3.7bn. This is due to the underperformance of EM markets as well as a big loss of one client who took their business in-house and away from CLIG. Due to this fall it’s likely earnings will also fall for next year – brokers forecast a consensus of 19.3p but TMFMayn has used the earnings model CLIG provide in their annual report to calculate that their current run rate is 17p.

CLIG have a great management culture and a pro-shareholder attitude. The founder, Barry Olliff, owns 11.4% of the shares whilst other directors, staff & ESOP own another 12.1% of the company. The staff also participate in a profit-share agreement, whereby 30% of PTP is allocated as bonuses, so staff have a strong incentive to grow earnings and shareholder value over the long term. It’s worth quoting Barry Olliff himself on this structure in 2012:
"As shareholders are aware, we run a business with a very simple business model. We collect fees from our clients for our services, we pay our bills which are both forecastable and to a great extent fixed. We don't use leverage, nor off-balance sheet instruments, nor do we trade derivatives as principal (other than occasional low level hedging). There are no associated companies or minority interests within the Group. We do not use tax havens. We do not handle client monies. We have a significant amount of cash in the bank relative to our size and we basically stick to what we know.
With regard to remuneration we continue to distribute 30% of our profits as profit-share. Our staff, clients and shareholders understand this formulaic approach. It's a pity that this approach has not been embraced by the financial service industry generally. As it is, in many parts of the financial services industry it seems as if losses are not the responsibility of mangers rather it's the shareholders who take the rap. Whilst our formulaic approach seems out of keeping with many in our industry, at least our shareholders have an idea that our returns go up and down together with theirs 
We have continued to manage our business very conservatively. We have continued to attempt to keep costs down. We do not spend shareholders' funds entertaining and we generally attempt to manage our business as if shareholders were present in our offices every day of the week. One reason I would suggest that expenses are kept down is because staff are either shareholders themselves or own shares via the CLIG ESOP. At present staff own (including ESOP ownership) 27.9% of CLIG shares, and 75 out of 82 of us are incentivised in this way (a handful of more recent recruits do not yet hold options).”
Importantly for an asset management firm, I think CLIG’s investment strategy adds excess returns (‘Alpha’ in the financial lingo) and hence is a desirable one for long term asset allocators (i.e. potential customers). CLIG’s main strategy is investing in closed-end funds, funds which have a fixed AUM (pre-distributions & returns) and have shares which trade publically. CLIG like to buy these when the share price trades at a discount to NAV, hoping to benefit when the discounts return back to their historical norms. They meet with all the managements of the funds they invest in and try to influence their use of strategies which help narrow that discount (87% of the funds they invest in have an Open Market Repurchase Program in place)) as well as investing in funds where they think the managers are better than average.

Unfortunately, this strategy has done badly recently as the Size Weighted Average Discount (SWAD) has risen from 8% back in 2008 to almost 14% in 2013, providing a headwind to their main source of excess returns. However, this headwind is sure to turn in to a tailwind as discounts mean-revert. This should also be a marketing advantage, as this is a simple message to sell to new clients (“Come invest now at the highest discounts we’ve seen in years and take advantage of the tailwind for excess returns!”). In fact, CLIG are looking to do just that and given the recent loss of a client have capacity now to add new clients and expand AUM. They are looking to raise $500m in 2014 and potentially another $500m in 2015 to replace the $1.3bn lost in FY12 and FY13.

CLIG also have another tailwind from the run-off of their marketing commission structure over the next 7 years. They currently pay £3.6m in commissions to marketing firms for introductions to clients they have however by 2020 this will have reduced to nearly £0 and the benefit should all flow directly to the bottom line. CLIG have also introduced nearly £1m of cost savings in the past year from closing underperforming products, reduced headcount and lower business development costs.

The other large negative factor weighing on the share price recently has been the departure of CEO and the FD under unexplained circumstances. It does appear to be fairly amicable however when Roger Lawson asked at the AGM no further explanation was given as to the reason behind it. It seems highly likely that due to whatever agreement was signed the board are unable to give the real reason for the departure. The question is what impact is this likely to have on the business? In the short term £1.1m had to be paid as termination fees to the departing management (although this was offset by Barry Olliff volunteering to waive his bonus) but the longer term fear is that this is sign of internal trouble within the staff – a very bad sign in a business that is highly dependent on the people it employs. This is partly offset by the fact that Mr Olliff believes that CLIG’s investment strategy isn’t dependant on ‘star managers’ but rather a ‘star process’, allowing internal talent to be developed. Also the firm’s focus (driven by Mr Olliff) on otherwise very good corporate governance and a pro-shareholder mentality offers reassurance, although this is clearly an area to be kept a strong eye on as prospective clients will want to see a solid investment team

On a valuation front, CLIG don’t ‘appear’ cheap as they trade at over 12x forward earnings (broker forecasts) however this is perhaps the wrong metric to focus on as earnings are volatile and the business is operationally geared. Given CLIG have the SWAD tailwind, the marketing run-off tailwind, the £1m cost-savings and are looking to raise ~$1bn of extra AUM over the next two years it seems likely that earnings could be significantly higher in 2-3 years time as AUM (and hence revenue) grows whilst costs come down. PTP margins are currently at 31% (a relative low) but have been as high as 41% previously and have averaged 34.2% since 2005.

Valuations for EMs also appear attractive and the case for EM investment is as strong as ever (See Wexboy’s excellent analysis) so it would not be unexpected to see a recovery in EM indices, further boosting AUM and earnings.

Investors are also paid handsomely to wait, with a 10% dividend at the current price (only just covered by earnings and probably uncovered next year, but 15.6% of the market cap is made up of cash on the balance sheet so CLIG should be able to maintain the dividend whilst earnings build back up). The wonderful thing about asset management businesses is that they are very high quality – earnings convert predominately in to cash and the business takes next to no capital investment in order to grow, so growth is highly value creating for shareholders. To confirm this, CLIG have earned an average of over 50% return on equity over the past three years. This lack of a requirement for earnings to be ploughed back in to the business means management have excess cash which can be distributed as dividends or used for acquisitions to expand the business (CLIG have tended to be more generous with the former, growing the dividend from 10p in 2007 to 24p today). It’s a great business to be in.

In conclusion, I think CLIG are both a great ‘value’ and ‘quality’ play (Stockopedia agrees with scores of 89/100 for Value and 88/100 for Quality) together with a number of favourable tailwinds and mean-reversion factors which should come through in the medium term, combined with top-notch corporate governance. I look forward to seeing them present at the next Mello event and highly recommend investors come and take a look at what I think is a great business at a great price!

An update on my portfolio since the last update: 

I've added SEA at 22.75p (yay!), NCON at 15p (yay!) and 3LEG at 24p (D'oh!). I bought more LCG at ~33p average price and topped up ZIOC at 15.6p as attractive prices presented themselves. I top sliced RNWH at £1.60 and TNI at £1.58, £1.72 and £2 as prices appreciated. I completely sold out of C21 for a big loss at 6.2p and out of JD. at £11.33 (too early, but at a decent profit) I've also bought one more 'mystery stock' I've blocked out of the list above as I'm still accumulating and it's a very illiquid stock. A full year review of my investment performance to come soon!

Friday, 6 September 2013

Portfolio Update

I've made quite a few changes in my portfolio recently so thought I'd better do an update to keep track of my thoughts. Here's my portfolio as it currently stands:

Here's a list of each of portfolio actions since my last update and an explanation:

Sold out of KENZ

I started top slicing KENZ as the price rose for portfolio balancing reasons, with sales at £4.10 and £4.48, but I sold out of my holding at £5.84 entirely after they disclosed that a few bid offers had been turned down. Looking back over my (short) investment history, I realised I'd repeatedly made the wrong decision in potential bid situations (CHG and LCG come to mind). To combat this, I've come up with a new heuristic for dealing with them - I imagine that there's no bid, then take whatever action I would do anyway had the price just risen to that market price regardless. That generally means that at least top slicing is necessary, but in this case I felt that KENZ was close enough to what I'd consider fair value such that I sold out completely to invest elsewhere. Given a ~50% rise from my average cost for KENZ, this investment played out well.

Bought in to RNWH

I actually attended an investor presentation by RNWH back in March 2012 and decided against investing in them at 75p. At the time they were lowly rated relative to their profits but I was concerned by the quality of earnings - there was a large exceptional cost in the final results and the cash flow generated was pretty poor relative to profits. 

However, I changed my mind and bought in at 115p after taking a second look recently. Their interim results were impressive, with profits continuing to grow, only a small exceptional charge and FCF above reported earnings. Combined with this, the order book was up 19% year on year, continuing the impressive growth management have made in engineering services. The nature of the work they do (essential maintenance & renewal) gives me more confidence that profits will be less cyclical and their margins are high given the sector, confirming higher than normal barriers to entry from other firms bidding for the same business. Despite the price rises recently the business is still on a single digit P/E, which seems harsh given management now have a decent track record of both organic and inorganic growth and the positive outlook for the future.

Since I bought, Renew announced another acquisition at a similarly low multiple which should further boost earnings and supports the thesis that there's plenty of inorganic growth available at an attractive price in their sector. They also announced a number of exceptional items, the net result being an exceptional profit and a large cash injection. I must admit I'd completely missed the extra value from the land they owned so this is a really nice boost and the cash freed up means that they are already 'reloaded' from the latest acquisition and hence can go back on the hunt.

Bought in to ZIOC

Sometimes in investing it's nice to get a large spot of luck. ZIOC certainly falls in to that category. Despite the large portfolio allocation now of 6.1% I actually only put a few % in originally - my buy price was 11.5p. The share price last closed at 24p. ZIOC is, technically, a miner - an area I profess little expertise in and normally would consider outside my circle of competence however ZIOC is more of a special situation relating to whether or not they can sell their share of the assets they own. There's a really good post and discussion over at the Motley Fool which contains a write up of the situation.

What really attracted me to ZIOC was the asymmetry in the investment. They have a genuinely world class asset supported by work done by Xstrata (now Glencore) and it's right at the bottom of the iron ore cost curve. Whilst the market was panicing over the well publicised collapse of the iron ore market the share price was, indirectly, implying a near zero percent probability for ZIOC being able to derive value from their assets. I felt that ZIOC was a bit of a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater - most junior miners are (rightly) seen as value destroyers with low quality assets. In the case of ZIOC we have a business that's majority owned by insiders so the incentives for value destruction are low and an asset that could be worth many multiples of (even the current) market price. Due to the low free float, aggressive selling by Blackrock trashed the price and created this interesting investment opportunity. Doing some quick expected value calculations told me that the market was pricing in a tiny probability (a few %) of a sale going through which seems like a mispricing given the obvious quality of the asset they have.

Whilst the price is much less supported by 9p of cash on the balance sheet now than it was at 11p I'm trying to let this position run - I originally priced it as a small % of my portfolio so I could afford to lose it on the basis that I'd let this fairly binary investment play out to conclusion - either they sell the asset and I get a huge multi-bagger or they can't and I make a small loss (supported by the cash position). That being said, as the price rises it does get tempting to take profits...

Topped up ARGO

With ARGO still trading at an attractive valuation I topped up my holding with the capital I'd gotten from selling out of KENZ. Wexboy has just given his assessment of the value here and I'm a fan of discount-to-asset plays, especially given the business still is throwing off a large dividend and is profitable.

Sold out of TRCS

This was a tough one for me and required a lot of thought - I first wrote about Tracsis here where I reasoned that they were a good long term bet. I'm still convinced of this, although now I have more valuation concerns. I was expecting significant profit growth this year, especially given the boost to earnings from Sky High, but it appears that EPS should only grow slightly. This is all down to how much profits are dependent on the MPEC division now, where revenues are dependent on winning contracts. As I've seen with my C21 experience, markets don't tend to look too favourably on short term disappointment. Given what I thought was disappointing growth in earnings combined with a ~10% share price appreciation since my original purchase made me re-assess how much margin of safety I had.

I still really rate the management of Tracsis and I think the business will be worth considerably more 5+ years down the line but I'm more concerned about the near term future. Arguably this is a mistake and a longer term horizon would prove more rewarding but when I start having doubts about an investment decision I tend to err on the side of caution and sell - I really want the valuation discrepancy to be shockingly large and not a close cut thing. I'll keep an eye on TRCS though and would love to buy back in at a lower valuation.

Bought in to VNET

This was another tough one, as there's a multitude of things I dislike about Vianet, but in the end the price has proved too tempting. VNET has fallen from ~120p earlier in the year to around 68p now on the back of disappointing results and the news that there's a consultation in to regulation regarding pub ties which could impact them negatively. Other negatives are a seemingly endless decline in revenues and profits and a number of divisions which seem to repeatedly lose money. Quality of earnings is also a concern of mine, as they do capitalise a lot of costs and repeatedly have exceptional costs (they aren't exceptional if they happen every year!).

That being said, there are a few positives amongst the doom and gloom. The CEO owns 15% of the business and was buying shares in significant volume fairly recently at much higher prices (~100p) than today - he clearly believes in his business and thinks there's value here unappreciated by the market (and I'm a big fan of owner-operators - never forget the power of incentives!). The current price offers an 8.7% dividend and a historic P/E of sub-10. It's worth noting that there are a number of loss making divisions which obscure the true earnings power of their core Brulines business, which earns big healthy margins (although sadly in a declining industry - pubs have been net closing in the UK for decades). The current forecast, however, is for a large improvement in profits to 14p a share, probably largely from management expectations that the loss-making divisions will move in to profit. Whilst a doubling of profits seems unlikely to me, even a large miss to say 10p would put the shares on a P/E of under 7. Also, I consider the proposed regulatory changes very unlikely to happen - the Vianet response document is very interesting. Some of the 'arguments' against flow monitoring equipment like Vianets are just plain ridiculous. Consider this one:

5.2 Clearly, it is entirely legitimate for one party to a contract to seek to ensure that the other party complies with the terms of that contract. However, the model of the tied public house has been part of the British pub industry since at least the 18th century and for the majority of that time modern flow monitoring equipment has not been available. It is therefore clearly possible to operate a tied estate and to enforce the tie without the use of flow monitoring equipment.
Vianet's response pretty much sums up the rational response to such a statement:

Whilst pubs may have operated successfully before the advent of beer line cooling, electronic point of sale and electric lights were invented, nobody is suggesting they should go back to warm beer, paper book-keeping and the use of gas lanterns and candles.
I think the market is over-pricing in the risk that this proposal could ever become law and is capitalising the losses from the loss making divisions (which really should be seen more like startups in their own right) creating this attractive entry price.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Sprue Aegis - Hidden value

Sprue Aegis (SPRP) are an ISDX listed company that are, in their own words, "one of Europe's leading home safety products suppliers and manufactures one of the world's smallest CO sensors for use in CO alarms." For those who aren't aware, ISDX is an even smaller version of the AIM market run by ICAP. This is indeed a company listed on a market most aren't even aware exists - an ideal situation for creating big security mispricings. I believe SPRP to be one such mispriced security.

@Glasshalfull has done a write up fairly recently on Sprue Aegis over at the Motley Fool which covers a lot of the background to Sprue. The one big event since that write up that hasn't been covered is a 90p a share offer by a 30% shareholder, Jarden Corporation. Before I get in to all that though, let's look at the background of this company.

Graham Whitworth, the CEO and Nick Rutter, the MD are long timers at Sprue with Graham joining as CEO and Chairman in 2001 and Nick being a founder in 1998. The FD, John Gahan, joined in 2010 with a background from KPMG. Sprue is an owner-operator company, with insiders and their family owning 25.2% of the business.

In that time, management have built sales from zero to £37.2m last year. The CAGR of sales for the past five years is 38.6% and the most recent trading statement indicates that H1 sales are up 28% on last year. Sprue have been included in the SundayTimes FastTrack100 (for the 100 fastest growing companies in the UK) for five consecutive years. Sales growth is being driven by a series of recent significant contract wins with distributors such as B&Q, British Gas and Baxi. Management credit the impressive performance of the company to significant investment in their product range by aiming for best-in-class products. Sprue have 68 patents granted and a further 27 pending. Stiftung Warentest, the German equivalent of 'Which?' magazine, recently rated their ST-620 product as having the joint highest score out of all the smoke alarms they tested, beating products from larger competitors such as Kidde. This product investment is paying off as Sprue win contracts and take market share from the incumbents.

Sprue operate in both the retail and trade areas with specialised products and brands for each. As well as smoke alarms they also produce carbon monoxide detectors. Retail has lower gross margins than trade although fixed distribution costs are lower. Both areas have significant tailwinds from increased household penetration (especially CO detectors - 85% of UK homes have smoke detectors but only 20% have CO sensors) and increasing legislation mandating the installation of such important safety products.

Geographically Sprue started out in the UK and hence have the highest market shares there, although European expansion is their current focus. Especially so in France, given the legislation for all homes to have smoke alarms installed by 2015 in order for insurance to be valid, and Germany given the recent Stiftung Warentest award.

Capital allocation has been largely focused on fueling organic growth, although given the business is highly cash generative and not capital intensive (Retail requires more WC than Trade, but it's still pretty capital unintensive) management have been returning excess capital in the form of dividends. Last year the dividend was doubled to 4p, from 2p the previous year, itself doubled from 1p the previous year, itself doubled from 0.5p the previous year..! The balance sheet is also rock solid, with zero debt and £6.2m of cash.

Despite a slightly disappointing profit result last year due to impacts from FX and a one-off warranty charge (and lower quality of earnings - something worth keeping an eye on in the next results), Sprue confirmed they are in-line with PBT expectations for this year of £5.3m. If achieved, the company would be trading on an EBIT multiple of only 8x, itself hardly demanding given the company's outstanding historical performance and fantastic growth opportunities (It's worth pointing out that, due to Patent box legislation applying to Sprue's products, management expect the medium term tax rate to approach 10%). The latest broker note believes £10.2m of PBT is possible for 2015 - whilst such growth is so high as to demand prudent skepticism it would imply an EBIT multiple in the future of only 4x. As it stands, Sprue already looks cheap on FY13 expectations (which the company say they are so far on track to meet) and ludicrously cheap on (admittedly ambitious) FY15 expectations.

However, I haven't yet touched on the title of this post - 'Hidden value'. Whilst the impressive performance of this company has remained under the radar because of it's ISDX listing there is another important valuation element not immediately observable for Sprue. It lies in the details of the distribution agreement between Sprue and their partner-turned-suitor Jarden Corporation.

Back when Sprue signed the DA with Jarden in 2009 Sprue had no trade brand to call their own - they were purely a retail focused company. Jarden, impressed by the performance of Sprue's management, asked if they would take over running their UK and European operations of their trade brand - BRK - and they took a 30% stake in Sprue with an agreement not to increase their stake which expired earlier this year. Shortly after the expiry of that clause, Jarden launched at 90p a share offer for Sprue, threatening to terminate the DA if Sprue shareholders didn't co-operate. However, Sprue management put out a robust defense urging shareholders not to sell their shares. It appears Jarden's hand is not as strong as they'd like Sprue shareholders to believe. To quote the defense document Sprue put out after the 90p share offer:
BRK’s UK business was fully integrated into Sprue over the last 3 years, with all its
• staff transferred to Sprue
• customer contracts novated to Sprue
• IT systems upgraded onto Sprue’s IT platform
• warehouse and office facilities integrated into Sprue’s organisation
A lot has changed since 2009 and Sprue have since developed their own line of products to obsolete the brands they inherited from BRK. Again from the defense document:
Due to changes in market demand, Sprue has already replaced a number of BRK’s products with Sprue’s own products and technology
• With new potential third party sourcing arrangements and market demand moving towards more sophisticated technology, the Independent Directors estimate that between 2012 and 2015, sales of BRK’s products are expected to substantially decline as a proportion of Sprue’s total revenue
• Save for a relatively low amount of sales through Mapa in France, Sprue is not contractually obliged to sell BRK’s brands anywhere in Europe
• Sprue is free to replace existing BRK products with its own products at any time
My view is that Jarden have realised that they are now in a weak bargaining position with Sprue given the DA is up for re-negotiation in 2015 and are trying to buy the company (and their superior products) at an opportunistic moment. It's especially interesting because the DA's terms masks the underlying true earnings power of the business as it stands:
 • Under the terms of the Distribution Agreement, Sprue pays BRK c.£4.2 million p.a. before other costs
• As sales of BRK’s products are expected to decline, the distribution fee may not represent “value for money”
• Within 12 months we have the opportunity to serve notice not to renew the Distribution Agreement
• We have almost two years to replace BRK branded products with other brands and products
• Sprue has plenty of time to source its smoke products away from BRK to an alternative supplier at potentially lower cost
The implication of this is that, if FY13 forecasts of £5.3m of PBT are made this year then the "Sprue Enterprise" as a whole will actually make £9.5m of PBT, except Jarden currently capture a fixed £4.2m of this through the fixed distribution fee (as well as creating other unnecessary servicing costs for Sprue). This highlights the impressive moat and pricing power that the business has given this implies that the real operating margins of the enterprise are above 20%. Given the obsolescence of the under-invested BRK brands and the expiration of the DA in 2015 this creates a near-term opportunity for Sprue shareholders to recapture some more of the earnings power of the enterprise as a whole. In the very long run, Sprue could even eat BRK's own lunch back in the North American market where BRK are already losing market share to competitors (A tasty line from the defense document: "CO sensor approval process underway in huge North American market" - clearly I'm not the only one anticipating this potential move!).

What could the Sprue business look like in 2015 after the BRK deal expires? Let's consider two scenarios: first, FY13 PBT of £5.3m doesn't grow at all and only half the distribution fee gets renegotiated (Base case) and second that broker forecasts of £10.2m PBT are achieved and the whole distribution fee is cancelled (Bull case - I have confirmed that the broker forecasts assume no change in DA). In the base case, PBT is £7.4m putting Sprue on an EBIT multiple of 5.7x at the current share price. The bull case would mean Sprue would be doing an astonishing £14.4m of PBT at a current EBIT multiple of below three. It's not hard to imagine multi-bagging scenarios under even the base case assumptions.

In summary, I believe Sprue shares to be an absolute steal even after significant price appreciation this year. Investors are buying a management with a focus on long term shareholder value and a great track record of value-creating growth at a multiple normally reserved for much weaker businesses. Given the near term catalysts of impressive organic earnings growth and a potential move to the AIM market, as well as medium term improvements from the DA renegotiation, I think current shareholders will be richly rewarded both in the short and long terms.

Disclosure: I'm, obviously, long SPRP.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Half year review - Part 3

LCG - London Capital Group

I did my main write up on LCG here. The two big bits of news since then for LCG have been the trading update and the change (again!) of the CEO, Mark Slade. With regards to the CEO, I'm sorry to see Mark go after such a short period but it does seem genuinely to be for non-business related reasons (and on the bright side, the overly generous options package granted to Mark will no longer dilute shareholders). The new CEO's background seems well suited to the role and he's already a shareholder so knows the business well.

The trading statement generated a bit of positive movement for the shares as it confirmed that the core business had grown from £12.8m to £13.2m (and this is based on the good H1 last year, not the bad H2) although the institutional FX and broking business declined from £4.8m to £3.1m. They claim an "adjusted" profit before tax of £3.1m compared to £2.7m in last year's H1. There's the expected IT platform cost (they are running two platforms concurrently whilst they perform a migration and should cease when completed) and some restructuring costs (which I think should be expected, given they are going through a much needed cost cutting process). Even being cynical with regards to how non-recurring these costs are, that's still an annual run-rate of £3m PBT (£6.2m if you think they are genuinely non-recurring) compared to a market cap of ~£23m (as I write, the shares are up today). They've disposed of two loss making divisions as well, which is good news. I still think there's plenty of upside left here.

PVCS - PV Crystalox Solar

All seems suspiciously quiet on the news front here from PVCS, as shareholders have been expecting a large return of capital (7.25p per share, compared to a market price of ~11.5p) for months now. Correspondence with the company has sadly only yielded a "wait and see" message, as they wait till the next trading update to announce what they'll do. The proposed tariff on Chinese imports on solar panels in to the market materialised, although they were somewhat less drastic than what was hoped for they still offer some degree of relief for the market. PVCS is still a net-net and all the reasons I have for holding still stand, although quite why the return of capital has taken so long is worrying.

TNI - Trinity Mirror

Trinity Mirror recently released their latest results and they were pretty impressive. Debt continues to be paid down from the huge cash flow generation and they even managed to grow operating profits despite the continued decline of newspapers. Many analysts still point to the huge pension deficit, which currently is larger than the market cap of the company. In many respects, owning the equity here is akin to a large bet on pension discount rates and their assumptions (although I still think the shares are cheap even if the liability is as stated). I made a comment on Stockopedia about my thoughts with regards to these assumptions and it's fair to say I want to bet on the overs when it comes to how realistic the current discount rates are (and hence I think the liability is considerably overstated). People also seem quick to forget the ~£300m of property assets they own as well as the fact cash flows are greater than profits due to depreciation being greater than capex.

The one thing I'm much less sure of, having given it some thought, is how well newspapers can handle the transition to online. Even with the huge growth figures being quoted for page views etc by TNI the actual revenue generated from their online operations is absolutely tiny - their tiny online recruitment businesses dominate their online news business. I did some research looking at DMGT (The Daily Mail group) and in their accounts I found that the group of businesses of which the Mail Online (the famously successful online tabloid and the world's most popular news site) is one contributed only £100m of revenues last year. Given that the wildly successful Zoopla group is one of those (who take up at least £30m of those revenues) that means the world's most successful news site does less than £70m in revenues a year. It certainly doesn't look like the monetisation of online news is anywhere near solved and, whilst I think there will always be a need for journalism, I'm not sure I know what its future looks like anymore. That said, some very bright people still think it's not all over yet...

TRCS - Tracsis

The only big news on the Tracsis front since my original post about them has been the trading update. To be honest I was surprised that profits were merely in-line, as the acquisition of Sky High should contribute significantly to profits in absence of any organic growth. Given so much of the profits come from the Condition Monitoring division, what do management have to say about it?
The Group is currently involved in negotiations with a major customer to continue the next phase of a significant Framework Agreement for its condition monitoring technology. The timing of the prospective contract extension indicates that potential major orders for the Group are expected in late 2013 or early 2014, assuming successful renewal. A further update will be provided in due course.
So it sounds like profits might be subdued somewhat until these orders arrive. I'm happy to hold here in the mean time, although I'll need to re-evaluate when the full results come in. I still think Tracsis has great long-term growth opportunities and the fact that they entered the rail freight market has gone largely unnoticed by the market. When I spoke to the CEO at an investor presentation he confirmed that they were pursuing the (much, much larger) American freight market and Tracsis still seem to be the only company dominating their market niche of crew scheduling software. I'll pay up for companies (within reason) where I can see a) very strong long term growth tailwinds in their market niches b) an excellent record of capital allocation and c) owner-operator management with an eye on the long term. Currently only JDG and TRCS fill this 'GARP' niche in my portfolio (although I'd argue ALLG should be considered a long-term GARP share, even if it's more deep value at the moment!) mainly because I find it hard to find many companies who tick all the boxes, especially box b).

Sharp eyes might have noticed I've missed off SPRP from this post. Given it's such a large proportion of my portfolio at the moment and I've not said a word about it I felt it deserved its own write up, so expect a full post on my first ISDX stock soon!

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Half year review - Part 2

Continuing on from my last post here. Technically since last time I have one to add to the 'Closed positions' list as I've sold out of MGNS, so I'll start with that.

Closed Positions

MGNS - Morgan Sindall

Whilst I still think Morgan Sindall is not near fair value, this has been an odd case of a) the investment case deteriorating yet b) the share price increasing leading me to sell out in search of better ideas. I originally bought in to Morgan Sindall on a thesis that a) the company has a good, decade plus record of well managed, value-creating growth b) it's an owner-operator share c) It was trading on a low P/E of around 7 whilst earnings and margins were far towards cyclical lows d) it paid a ~7% dividend. Since then, margins have deteriorated even further to a record low (at least as far back as I can see, to 1999) and the dividend has been cut for the first time (at least not since 1999). Whilst I still think this is a function of the cycle which will eventually turn the other way, the market has run up recently such that I was sitting on a ~15% share price appreciation despite the fact that broker forecasts for future earnings have been trending downwards:

Whilst I'd still bet on a medium term regression-to-the-mean here and the long term success of MGNS, it no longer appears as dirt cheap given recent fundamental & share price performance, sitting on a forward P/E of 11. I decided to sell on the basis of opportunity cost given the ideas I have elsewhere.

Open Positions - Contributors

ALLG - All Leisure Group

All Leisure has had a volatile 6 months, rising from 23.5p at the beginning of the year to a high of 52.5p, before falling back to the current price of 31p. I already did a big update fairly recently on ALLG here so I'll just add my thoughts on recent developments. I still think ALLG is one of the cheapest stocks I own, although it does just love stumbling between one-off disasters. This RNS basically sums up the recent troubles - with ship technical problems causing cancellation of a few cruises and the political troubles in Egypt cancelling some more. Both of these will lead to one-off costs of ~£3.1m, not insignificant. Together with the extra synergy costs planned for this year I actually expect ALLG to return a full year loss.

However, this is not necessarily the year I thought earnings would especially shine as ALLG flagged up before that they would already have a number of one-off costs due to integrating the acquisition of Page and Moy (which I still think was an utterly fantastic purchase). The light at the end of the tunnel though is that trading appears to be improving. The medium term bull points appear to be coming to fruition:
"The integration between the cruise division and tour operating division in Market Harborough has gone well and the Burgess Hill office was closed on the 31 May 2013.  The cost to the company and the synergies outlined previously remain in line with expectations.  Where previously the company had experienced later bookings, trading at this early stage of the financial year 2013/14 has started very well across all brands, with the exception of Discover Egypt, which has limited forward capacity.  Sales for Voyages of Discovery are up 30%, Swan Hellenic 21%, Hebridean 19%, Travelsphere 23% and Just You 29%."
Hopefully this should lead to margins returning to pre-2008 levels for the cruising division. Together with the post-synergy contributions from Page and Moy I can see the real normalised earnings power of ALLG being revealed which should lead to a well deserved re-rating by the market.

ARGO - Argo Group

I invested in ARGO after reading Wexboy's excellent extended thesis and agreeing with how very cheap it is. Given the move in share price from 12.5p to 14.8p, together with a 1.4p dividend, ARGO has given decent returns so far yet still trades at a huge discount to intrinsic value and even the cash and investments held on the balance sheet. I still harbour hopes that Wexboy's persistent activism will lead to some of the value-generating moves he suggests being taken up by management. Their funds have been performing really well recently as was highlighted to me by @FlorisOliemans, with the The Argo Fund up ~15% YTD but especially the Argo Distressed Credit Fund which is up a staggering 33.6% this year. These developments should bode well for AUM as well as Argo's ability to attract new business based on this excellent performance (and don't forget earnings! 33% returns do quite nicely under a hedge fund cost structure...). I continue to hold in anticipation of greater gains.

JD. - JD Sports Fashion

My thesis on JD Sports is fairly simple. We have a business which a) has shown good long term growth and returns on investment b) has depressed earnings from taking over a loss-making business, Blacks, from administration which should contribute, not detract, from performance further down the road and c) trades on a low multiple of such earnings. The share price has rallied from ~700p to around 900p yet the business still looks fairly cheap. It's quite interesting comparing it with Sports Direct (SPD), its major competitor, which trades at a price to sales ratio of 3.6 yet JD. can manage only a lowly 0.35! Whilst SPD looks expensively priced to me (and, to be fair, is a better business, although not much better), the comparison is still staggering. The main detraction to me is the reputation of the chairman, Peter Cowgill, who has a number of vocal detractors on message boards due to his behaviour at MBL group. Despite this, I continue to hold (although a smaller position than usual)

JDG - Judges Scientific

I try hard to keep myself rational when considering Judges but it's hard not to love a management team who can deliver such exceptional compound growth. The Judges' story still hasn't changed in my mind although the best share price performance is behind it due to the re-rating that has occurred since my first purchases - on a historic P/E of around 7 - to the current P/E of 20. That being said, the compounding effect of Judge's business model means that a re-rating isn't required for exceptional share price performance in the future - that P/E keeps getting eroded with a rating of ~14.5 on forecasted 2014 earnings (which I think look far too conservative given the potential earnings impact of the last acquisition, Scientifica, as well as the fact that pro-forma organic growth is now up to 13% because of how strongly GDS and Scientifica are growing). I trimmed my holding based on the re-rating having occurred but I intend on holding a significant portfolio allocation for the long-term. If I had to put all my money in a single share and go and live on an island for the next decade Judges is exactly where I'd put it.

KENZ - Kentz

The KENZ price is a funny one that seems to swing repeatedly between about 370p and 430p. The fundamental performance however has been fairly positive, with repeated trading updates about how everything is going swimmingly and new contract wins. KENZ has the headwinds of its major customers being squeezed on capex as miners and oil companies cut back on investment however despite this Kentz has been able to grow earnings. KENZ ticks all my boxes of being a) a high quality company that earns high returns on investment b) having excess balance sheet strength that's being ignored by the market (although I've read recent reports that Kentz intend on using their excess cash to make acquisitions - seems like a good time whilst the whole sector is quite cheap) and c) is available to buy at a single digit P/E, and is even more attractively priced on EV-based metrics. The biggest detraction is the high accruals rate in the past year, although Kentz have given explanations for this that seem reasonable to me. I did a more detailed post about this on Stockopedia here. I added recently at the ~370p trough and made a small trim recently at ~420p (just in case the previous price behaviour decides to continue frequent re-balancing seemed sensible) and am a happy holder.

I've still got LCG, PVCS, SPRP, TNI and TRCS to update on but I'll save these for another post. SPRP certainly warrants a longer mention as it's a new position I haven't written about before and I hold in some conviction as it's ~10% of my portfolio at the moment - lots more share price appreciation to look forward to I hope!

Monday, 15 July 2013

Half year review - Part 1

As it's now (a bit over, I'm slightly late!) 6 months into the year it's time for a portfolio update. Whilst I think 6 months is an insanely short period to measure portfolio performance it's at least interesting to reflect on decisions made in the time period and try and look for areas of improvement.

For reference, here's what my portfolio looked like going in to 2012:

And here's what my portfolio looks like now:


As of this weekend, this corresponded to a total return of 20.4% after costs (An IRR of 44.1%). Whilst good, this is only marginally ahead of the returns I'd have made in the main benchmark, the FTSE Small-Cap Index (ex-investment trusts) of 18.4% although decently ahead of the FTSE All share, which would have grown my capital 12.2%.

I've gone from a total of 16 investments down to 13, so I've gone more concentrated overall. Partly this is down to a conscious choice to limit the number of holes on my investment 'punch card' in order to force me to really think about my investments although I'd quite like to go back up to around ~15 investments as this feels like a good balance between concentration and diversification.

The big positive drivers of my overall return have been from ALLG, JDG and SPRP. ALLG & JDG I felt were my best ideas and hence had big allocations going in to 2012. Both performed well, with JDG reaching new highs recently although ALLG has given a lot of performance back since peaking at over 50p in April. SPRP is a more recent addition I made with the proceeds from halving my stake in JDG (made because it was making up an uncomfortably high % of my portfolio)

The biggest detractors of my performance have been from CLIG and C21. I continue to hold both, and have added more to CLIG recently as the price has fallen.

Closed Positions

FCCN - French Connection

Closed out around 26.5p. To quote a previous post:
As for the rest of my portfolio, since my last post I've sold out completely of FCCN and redirected the proceeds in to KENZ and MGNS (which have both gone up since, nice to have a bit of good luck!). The losses at FCCN were worse than expected and due to the high operational gearing of the company the risk here is too high for me. Against weak comparables from last year the company still reported a revenue fall. The company has net cash of ~£25m, granted, but they burned £10m of cash last year. Even if things don't get worse, which there's no reason why they couldn't, they'd burn through that pile pretty quickly. Operational gearing could make the situation either very, very good or very, very bad here - it's kind of an all or nothing punt. Since I'm an investor who likes to be fairly concentrated and I can't protect the downside here it's one I'm going to pass on.
CHG - Chemring

Sold out at 273.3p. It was a small position for me (I covered CHG in my 'Investment Mistakes' post - it didn't go very well!). A combination of feeling that I couldn't determine intrinsic value anymore due to the rapid earnings collapse as well as a desire to focus on high conviction positions led me to sell out.

STAF - Staffline

Sold out at 339p. I still really like the company and sold far too early (the shares are now 440p) but at a P/E of 12 (when I sold) I felt I had cheaper ideas to invest in to. Also, I was concerned about the need to build up working capital from the Welfare to Work scheme and I disliked the fact it that part of the business relies on government spending for a policy-du-jour. That being said the company has a great long term track record and management have been executing well, so I can understand further price rises.

SIV - St Ives

Sold at 132p. Again, too early, the value investor's curse. Here quality of earnings concerned me, as investors seemed happy to focus on adjusted earnings and dividend yield ahead of true cash flow generation. When I met with management I was told that the restructuring was over and to expect no more exceptional charges - but now the exceptionals no longer live up to their name. I was also a bit weary of the prices being paid for some acquisitions, which are the main source of cash-flow reinvestment. On balance, despite seeming cheapish, I felt that after the price appreciation and my revised expectations for 'real' earnings I had better ideas elsewhere.

SRT - Software Radio Technology

Sold at 23p (D'oh!) as part of a deliberate focus of strategy to move away from hot growth stocks with no cash flow (regardless of the convincing nature of the story!). I felt the growth in sales being made over the last 2 years didn't justify the valuation and given the mandated nature of the sales I felt the story was undermined somewhat. The shares are now 34p, so I'm living up to my own incredibly low expectations of myself when it comes to market timing!


A wind up play I exited after participating in a tender offer at NAV. Overall I made a small ~5% return here, so not bad although I exited early after I changed my mind on the investment due to recent events. First, the new managers published a more detailed look at the assets of the portfolio which were worse than I was expecting. Second, the activist investor on the board resigned and has begun selling down their position. Third, after the tender the share price dropped much less than I expected it should have done given a constant discount to the non-cash assets. The combination of these three lead me to consider ideas elsewhere.

Open Positions - Detractors

C21 - 21st Century

My largest faller in my investment list, down 30% since the start of January (excluding dividends). Sadly this is a case of a GARP share losing the G part. EPS was forecast to grow to 2p (which also seemed reasonable to me given the recent success in winning contracts) but instead is now forecast to come in around 1p instead, quite a difference! The company put this down to delays in receiving orders, teasingly hinting that this is because the 'large value' of the contracts means they have to go out to tender first:

For the five months to 27 May 2013, our trading results are ahead of the Board's expectations but, as in prior years, the Group's sales targets are weighted toward the second half of the year. Generally the market does remain subdued and consequently we are encountering delays in progressing a number of potential sales. Given the value of these, the Board currently expects revenues for the full year to be similar to those achieved in the year to 31 December 2012 at around £14m.
These previously anticipated new sales have been impacted by a number of significant overseas customers needing to obtain funding from local transport authorities before committing to new projects whilst others, who are trialling EcoManager, potentially now being obligated to go through tender processes because of the large value of these contracts.

They also claim additional investment in marketing and sales is hurting short term profits for long-term benefit. If true, this is the kind of long-term thinking I applaud from public companies so I'm willing to give the management the benefit of the doubt here.

Thankfully because I was able to buy C21 with a large margin of safety in the first place even a drastic cut in expected profit doesn't make the shares seem overpriced (and the 30% decline has helped too!) - in fact they seem very cheap even under fairly pessimistic scenarios of growth. They have around £2m of net cash on the balance sheet (against a market cap of ~£10m) and are on a P/E of 10.5, 8.4 ex-cash and yield 6.67%. Should any of these large contracts ever actually appear then the company is insanely cheap although even under a no-growth scenario on sub-peak profits the investment is hardly expensive. I continue to hold.


Currently down 16% on the year and over 20% from my initial purchases. However in this case I've decided to add more and build my position. Why? The shares have been under pressure from two sources. First, they are an emerging markets asset manager and EM indexes have been performing badly. I believe this to be a good buying opportunity rather than any long term problem with EMs and investors are overly focusing on the negatives when there's so many positives - see Wexboy's detailed thesis here - and EMs have historically performed well at similar valuations to today.

The much more worrying second reason is the recent board room shakeup. The founder, Barry Olliff, had to come back to lead the firm once more after the CEO and Finance director both resigned. Both these two were long-timers at the firm which makes this increasingly concerning, although the counter to this is that Barry and other insiders still own large amounts of the company and so still have their incentives well aligned with shareholders. As asset managers are largely 'people' businesses it's ultra-important to have the incentives between staff and shareholders aligned compared to other businesses.

On balance, the cheapness and quality of the business still attract me here. At the current prices investors are getting a >10% yield (which management confirm they will pay, despite low cover) and a low P/E on what I believe are cyclically depressed earnings. I don't know when EMs will come back in to favour but I think that they will eventually, helping CLIG to grow AUM again. CLIG's long-term investment results and refreshing approach to asset management also resonate with me, as I identified in a previous post.

That's all of my closed positions and significant performance detractors covered - I'll save the rest for a future post.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Next - The king of share buybacks

Next PLC (LSE: NXT.L) are a company most people in the UK will be familiar with as they are a large clothes retailer with over 500 stores and a FTSE 100 constituent. Perhaps what most people won't be aware of though is the phenomenal success of the shares over the past two decades. Since 1999 (as far back as I can see on Google Finance) the shares have compounded at a rate of 15.3% p.a., and that figure doesn't include dividends. Given other figures I've heard anecdotally from other investors, that figure is even higher if you go back further, rising above 20% p.a.!

Their latest financial report is a brilliant read and it's refreshing to have a company explain what they've done and what they intend to do so clearly without the usual waffle and management speak that's so common. In places they are brutally honest, even to the point where it's slightly comical! Check out this passage:
Planning remains a problem, though often more of a delay than a brick wall. We are actively working with planning officers, councillors and local communities to deliver new shops, investment and jobs. We continue to make a greater investment in the external architecture of our new stores, particularly on Retail Parks. Our aim is to transform the quality of construction associated with out-of-town retail and create the sort of buildings that communities will see as an asset, not an eyesore.
In our dealing with local councils it is noticeable that some are much more pro-growth and pro-jobs than others. Many local councils are enthusiastic and efficient; but a few remain an unhealthy mix of Luddite intransigence and incompetence. Going forward, in areas where councils traditionally have got away with just saying “no”, we will be more active in harnessing the law and the full weight of public opinion to campaign for growth
The part of the report that really surprised me though was the section where they explain their philosophy around share buybacks. Most companies don't really think very hard about share buybacks and when to do them but Next are explicitly clear that they see it as just another re-investment opportunity to be analysed alongside others. It's the kind of thing one expects to read in the Berkshire Hathaway annual letter and reminds me a lot of Outsiders (one of my favourite business books).

It's well worth reading the whole thing yourself, but here's some choice paragraphs:

Despite their increasing popularity, share buybacks are still widely misunderstood. There are still those who wrongly believe that they are some sort of share support scheme. This, of course, would be futile as any attempt to support a share price would evaporate as soon as the money ran out.
The only reason share buybacks can deliver long term value is because they permanently reduce the number of shares in issue and so increase the amount of profit attributable to each share (EPS). An important part of the logic of share buybacks is the implied link between growth in EPS and growth in share price. Whilst, in the short term there might appear to be no link, in the long run share prices tend to reflect the fundamental value of the earnings and dividend stream. If the share price did not rise with EPS, the buyback programme would eventually leave a single share owning all the profits and dividends!
Over the long term, we have been following these rules when considering buybacks:
1. Share buybacks must be earnings enhancing and make a healthy Equivalent Rate of Return (see below).
2. Only use the cash the business does not need. NEXT has always prioritised investment in the business over share buybacks.
3. Use surplus cash flow, not ever-increasing amounts of debt. We have never allowed our share buyback programme to threaten our investment grade credit status and will not do so going forward.
4. Maintain the dividend at a reasonable level through growing dividends in line with EPS. NEXT will continue to increase dividends in line with EPS.
5. Be consistent. NEXT has been buying shares every year for more than 10 years, reducing the shares in issue by more than 50%.
6. For share buybacks to be an effective use of shareholder cash, the core business must have the prospect of long term growth.

I'm not a shareholder myself as I focus exclusively on smaller companies (there's greater share mispricings to exploit) but for the LTBH large cap crowd I'd take a serious look at any company that has such a great record of capital allocation.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Where do I get my investment ideas from?

I've recently been thinking about my sources of investment ideas and how that's changed over time. Given I'm not a full-time investor time is a big constraint when it comes to finding good ideas given a lot of my time goes in to researching existing positions and checking and re-checking my current thesis. When I first started, I got essentially 100% of my ideas from two sources: The Motley Fool UK message boards and anything that came up on my share screener results. I used to use the Sharelockholmes screener but the new Stockopedia one is just brilliant - they have a selection of pre-prepared screens but you can customise and save your own so I've got plenty looking for things like negative enterprise value, low EV/Sales, low P/B & high 5y ROE etc.

As I've learnt more about investing I've slowly added more strings to my bow and now I get ideas from a much wider range of places: Blogs, twitter, bulletin boards, stockopedia, newsletters, company presentations, email contact and more. It's incredible the amount of ideas I have access to from a wide range of investors and a testament to the power the private investor can have in the internet age.

Right now I find I'm using blogs more and more as a great way to find initial ideas. I've got round to adding a 'Blogroll' to the site which contains all the investing blogs I regularly read - I recommend taking a look through them if you're interesting in finding more ideas from other investors (predominately small cap value investors, but there's a few others in there too) who are frequently far better than myself. Even if I don't find myself agreeing with the author's thesis I always find myself learning something so it's a great way to develop as an investor.

You may have noticed a fair few non-UK blogs in my blogroll (especially a number of US investors) and also noticed a distinct lack of any non-UK listed investments in my last portfolio update. This is not because my international counterparts have failed to convince me of the merits of their markets but, I'm embarrassed to say, largely a failure of my own investment process.

In the UK market I subscribe to two services (Stockopedia and Sharelockholmes) which together allow me to quickly investigate a company's financials within minutes and form a general picture of how the business has been run over a long time period. I find this is a great way to cover a lot of ground in a short period and to compare the numbers with the investment thesis I've read elsewhere. (As an aside, I'm a great believer in the ability of financial statements to tell the diligent investor a great deal about the business without even having to know anything about exactly what the business does. I can form an opinion rapidly on management's capital allocation ability, the underlying attractiveness of the historic business characteristics as measured by ROCE, margins, cyclicality etc.) I can also see at a glance all the usual 'core metrics' I'm interested in such as P/E, EV/EBIT, P/TB etc which is handy.

If I'm still interested after this quick check, then I go in to the next 'phase' and dig in to the original reports and detailed financials. The problem I have with international markets is I lack this 'quick investigation' phase which I rely on as a great filter of investment ideas already. Thankfully Stockopedia are looking to expand internationally soon so this should help on this front in time. I'd be interested to hear about what other private investors do when they invest outside the UK markets and what data sources & tools they use? (Or if any international readers have any tips for how best to screen data in their markets) It also doesn't help that my broker, TD Waterhouse, offer horrific FX rates for converting to international currencies!

Anyway, rant over. So what about the other methods I use? Bulletin boards are handy to keep up with news bits you might have missed on specific stocks but the signal-to-noise ratio can be terrible. I use ADVFN and they cover the UK markets (are there any good international BBs worth looking at?) but beware - some of the boards venture in to YouTube comment territory - I'm often worried that the stupidity might be contagious. That being said, often the companies I'm most interested in tend to be off the radar and it's a bullish signal if the only posters on the board of a new company I'm looking at are familiar value investors I recognise and not the ramptastic muppets. Also, I'd wager that the level of posting activity is inversely correlated with future investment returns - busy boards tend to signal that the crowd has arrived.

Twitter's a funny one, because you can't really convey an investment thesis in 140 characters but it does allow me to track specific investors I respect and see what they are buying and selling and why. I've already had one investment idea which I got off twitter (GFIR / SIGG courtesy of @marben100) but probably the other big intangible benefit has been from finding other investors who I end up following (both on twitter and on their blog, if they have one) and often end up communicating with about other investment ideas.

Despite all these modern internet methods of finding investments I've gotten a surprising number of ideas from the old fashioned method of attending company presentations and meeting management. I live in London so it's fairly convenient for me to attend the various private investor events that get organised around here and I only wish I had more time to attend these! My staple diet here consists of recurring dinners known as 'Mello' events. These are organised by @carmensfella who is a well known active UK private investor and I highly recommend going if you live nearby. There's also plenty of other company presentations going on all the time, as well as ShareSoc events, Blackthorn Focus events and more. I only wish I had more time to see more of these!

I am, however, highly cautious of being overly swayed by over-bullish management speak so I tend to try and form an opinion of the business first from the numbers and then use the Q&A time to understand specific aspects better and try and then try and get a feel for how competent management seem at important attributes like capital allocation. Management can talk and talk but it's their actions (which are reflected in the financial statements) that I'm most interested in.

What methods do you use to find good investment ideas? Which do you think work best? Ideas in the comments please!

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

A leisurely update

Now I'm not expecting to do frequent portfolio updates as I don't trade very often and most short-term market movements are just noise anyway but quite a lot has happened to my portfolio in the past month and a half so I thought I'd better get my thoughts together. Yesterday, my largest position - All Leisure Group (LON:ALLG) - announced their 2012 results. It's risen quite a lot this year, ~57% even after the pull back after the results, but I'm getting increasingly bullish on this share and don't see any need to trim it yet. It's actually my pick this year (and last year!) for the Motley Fool's share competition and I did a write up here as well as follow up comments so I recommend reading that first before reading this blog post.

The results at first seem very subdued. Revenue takes a large jump up but full year profits were tiny at £0.8m. What's there to be excited about? Well, 2012 is pretty much a transitional year for ALLG. Due to a weak cruising market (partly due to the Costa Concordia tragedy) and a fleet in need of a revamp the directors took the decision to pull three (out of four) of their ships out of service for a good part of the year for upgrades. Also, for one of their ships a third party charter pulled out and left the vessel out of service (during which they decided to do the upgrades). As a result, their cruising division showed a stonking loss for the year of -£6.9m - they say the loss of the charter 'contributed significantly' to this loss. However, this is in the past and we now have a fleet that's been recently upgraded and ready to operate at full capacity again. This appears to be paying dividends already:
"At the start of the winter 2012, mv Voyager was in the exceptional position of being 82% sold for that season prior to her inaugural sailing. Currently revenues per diem for mv Voyager are forecast to be 20% higher than achieved 2011/12 on mv Discovery. This is driven by the increased number of outside and balcony cabins and less capacity."
"Over the winter 2011/12, mv Minerva was out of service for just over three months, whilst a substantial technical upgrade was carried out. During this time the ship also underwent an extensive upgrade to both public areas and the 197 cabins. 73% of the cabins are outside cabins and clever use of space increased the number of balcony cabins from 12 to 44. A new observation lounge added to Promenade Deck increases the on board facilities. Passenger response to the upgraded vessel has been extremely positive."
So if cruising caused such a big loss, what made up the difference? Here we get on to what I see as being a very exciting development for ALLG - the acquisition of Page and Moy Travel group. They first announced the acquisition here where the headline figures got my attention. They paid £4.2m for a group doing £107.6m in revenues! How did they get it so cheap? The catch - it made an operating loss of £5.6m in 2011. Not great. The previous owners were two banks - HSBC & Credit Agricole - who ended up with it after the previous private equity owners, HgCapital, went bust with it in the 2008 downturn. It's probably worth noting at this point that HgCapital paid £180m for it. Whoa. Clearly they were far too optimistic but it's clear this business has done pretty well before in the past to have warranted such a price. Naturally the banks here just wanted this loss making business off their books so weren't price sensitive allowing ALLG to swoop in and nab it for a relative song.

At the time of the acquisition I was a bit worried as it seemed a big risk to be taking on such a loss making business given the current one wasn't firing on all cylinders either. However the heavy degree of insider ownership re-assured me that if anyone was going to lose big here through hubris it was going to be the directors so I trusted they'd thought this through (I very, very strongly prefer owner-operator shares. Never forget the power of incentives!). The annual results give more detail on the acquisition so we can learn more about what's going on here. Let's take a look at some figures for Page & Moy in 2012:

Full year results:
Revenue: £93.9m, Profit: £4.6m

Contribution to results:
Revenue: £60.9m, Profit: £8.9m

Balance Sheet Pre-Acquisition:
Tangible Assets: -£14.7m

So this tells us another reason why they got the business so cheap - it has negative tangible assets. This has pros and cons: pro, it means the business probably operates on negative working capital (like the cruising business) so expansion is an extra source of cash which can be used in the business. con, it means if things turn south the business is in trouble. That being said, the directors also state the business is a "low-risk model and has no forward financial commitment for hotel costs, transportation costs, or aviation capacity", which it probably needs to be to make negative working capital operation safe and viable.

It also says that the timing of the acquisition flatters the profits by £4.3m, so the combined entities made a loss in this FY. However, the major plus is that management have already turned the £5.6m loss in to a £4.6m profit. It hence means they acquired the business for less than last year's profits! What a wonderfully shrewd move by management. Revenue is down from 2011, yes, but this is due to cutting unprofitable lines of business. To quote the results again:
Following a detailed strategic review of the Page and Moy Travel Group brands and product portfolio prior to its acquisition, a number of underperforming products and business lines have been discontinued for 2013. Ceasing to operate the ex UK coaching holidays and components of the Christmas programme was part of this strategy, along with the decision to phase out the Page & Moy brand and incorporate the profitable components of the business into Travelsphere's portfolio of tours. The Group then re-launched the Travelsphere brand as a value for money, yet quality product. The end of year results show this has been very successful and going forwards the flexible business model of our Tour Operating Division allows us to align our capacity to fluctuating demand.
This means the 'pro forma' results of the business in 2012 were:

Revenue: £160.4m
Operating profit: -£3.5m

However we now have all ships upgraded and back in action. Given the non-acquired business did £66.5m this year but did £80.4m in 2011 implies at least a boost of £14m in revenues just from ships coming back in. Stockopedia reckons that the brokers are putting them on £202m of revenue for 2013 (although these same brokers reckoned they'd do £192m of revenue this year and make a 5.2p profit - no idea how they thought that was possible!!) which seems high but potentially achievable given the ship upgrades in capacity and quality. For fun, let's imagine a set of  'pro forma' results that take the 2011 ALLG numbers (with no ships out of capacity) and the 2012 Page & Moy numbers and combine them:

Revenue: £174.3m
Operating profit: £8.0m

So this puts this hypothetical year (which is probably closer to an average year) on a P/E of 3 at the current share price! Now in this hypothetical year the directors are still complaining about how poor the results are due to the economic climate (they were in 2011 and in 2012's results,) so clearly they still see the margins here as being poor at ~4.6%. ALLG was doing solid >11% margins pre-2009 so clearly there's scope for improvement there (although I've no idea what P&M's average margins are). So, we have a business on a pro-forma P/E of 3 despite the E being disappointing. This is why I'm so very bullish on these shares and think there's still plenty more upside available when the true earnings power is revealed here in the next few years of results and the business gets re-rated to a more sensible valuation.

What are the risks here? Well, besides all the ones I've mentioned before in my other posts I think the big new one is balance sheet risk. The weak balance sheet of P&M means that the combined business only has £9.3m of net tangible assets and the previous tangibles are now intangibles. I think the benefit of increased earnings power here outweights this though.

That's my updated thesis on ALLG. Since my last update I've also added CLIG & SIGG to my portfolio. I got the idea for CLIG through a Motley Fool write up here (and there's more here) and I especially liked their shareholder-orientated incentive structure (as well as the dirt cheap price and wonderful business economics). This quote from the annual report really got my attention:
As shareholders are aware, we run a business with a very simple business model. We collect fees from our clients for our services, we pay our bills which are both forecastable and to a great extent fixed. We don't use leverage, nor off-balance sheet instruments, nor do we trade derivatives as principal (other than occasional low level hedging). There are no associated companies or minority interests within the Group. We do not use tax havens. We do not handle client monies. We have a significant amount of cash in the bank relative to our size and we basically stick to what we know.
With regard to remuneration we continue to distribute 30% of our profits as profit-share. Our staff, clients and shareholders understand this formulaic approach. It's a pity that this approach has not been embraced by the financial service industry generally. As it is, in many parts of the financial services industry it seems as if losses are not the responsibility of mangers rather it's the shareholders who take the rap. Whilst our formulaic approach seems out of keeping with many in our industry, at least our shareholders have an idea that our returns go up and down together with theirs.
We have continued to manage our business very conservatively. We have continued to attempt to keep costs down. We do not spend shareholders' funds entertaining and we generally attempt to manage our business as if shareholders were present in our offices every day of the week. One reason I would suggest that expenses are kept down is because staff are either shareholders themselves or own shares via the CLIG ESOP. At present staff own (including ESOP ownership) 27.9% of CLIG shares, and 75 out of 82 of us are incentivised in this way (a handful of more recent recruits do not yet hold options).
As for SIGG I got the idea from @marben100 on Twitter and read some notes @BrianGeee1 kindly sent me. Essentially it's a wind-up play for 96.4p of assets compared to a market price of 57p. There's a lot of worry on ADVFN about the quality of the assets and how illiquid they appear to be. The new management however take a low management fee of 0.5% but are largely compensated as to how quickly and effectively they can realise the assets for shareholders so I'm glad our incentives are aligned here. Even at a big hair-cut and a relative slow asset realisation process my IRR should be decent here. I currently also have one other share on buy list but I'm waiting for cash to build up before I buy it - I'll reveal more when I actually pick it up!

In other news, my big write up on LCG came good when not one but three potential bidders appeared! I made some comments in my stockopedia post here as to what I think could happen. I'm still very bullish on the shares. MGNS also announced their results today and they were pretty disappointing - especially the big dividend cut. The outlook is still grim but the price is so low for a business that is clearly only suffering from a cyclical downturn that I'm happy to still sit tight and wait it out. It's another owner-operator share and John Morgan has stepped back in as CEO to take charge so our incentives are aligned here - I trust him to focus on long term shareholder value.

We're clearly in a full on bull market in UK small caps at the moment, with the FTSE Small cap index (ex. investment companies) up 8.25% YTD and the AIM index up 6.64%. I'm a bit torn between the worrying signs of increasing optimism from other investors however I still think I can find companies on cheap valuations so I'm not taking money off the table yet. I've had a good start to the year so far - I made only one short-term performance prediction in my 2012 performance review and that was that there was no chance I'd better my IRR of 97% (which I made entirely through lucky timing). Currently I'm being proved very wrong and my IRR for 2013 YTD is 166% as my portfolio is up 13.8%! As much as I'd love to put this down to skill I have to hold my hand up and admit I'm just the lucky beneficiary of a bull market - a lot of my out-performance has been driven by a handful of concentrated positions (especially ALLG) so it's statistically meaningless unless I can repeat this over many, many years.

Right, that's the end of this update. My current portfolio allocation can be seen below (Disclosure: I own all the shares shown):