Friday, 25 January 2013

London Capital Group - Worth a (spread) bet

OK, so the title isn't winning any awards for the terrible pun but hopefully the rest of the post will compensate. I'm a fan of London Capital Group (LON:LCG) as I believe it's a business that is fundamentally very attractive and is suffering from a number of headaches in the short term which don't really impair the long term value anywhere near as significantly as the market is pricing it to.

So, what's the story? LCG are a spread betting firm, a mix of their own brands and white label to other big names such as TD Waterhouse, Betfair, Bwin.Party and Saxo bank. They offer a number of products but by far the most significant is their UK Financial spread betting service (£26.6m revenues in 2011) followed by their Institutional FX business (£8m revenues in 2011). Whilst you might think this business is something similar to a stock exchange in characteristics I see it far differently; the economics share far more similarities to the gambling sector, an area I used to work in and know fairly well. The vast, vast majority of clients do not use spread betting like true 'investors' but instead they speculate heavily on margin - and they don't speculate very well. Nearly all the clients end up as net losers. A few people have asked me how such a model is sustainable, how does the business survive if the customers keep going bust? It's simple really - the same way William Hill & co survive, through a combination of recruiting new accounts and having old accounts redeposit. You'd be amazed at the gamblers who deposit year in, year out and somehow convince themselves that they are actually 'winners' and 'the sharp money'. Spread betting is, as the name suggests, gambling. The average revenue per user is much higher than traditional gambling too, at ~£1.4k per annum compared to more like £300 for a bookie.

At the end of 2008 LCG were riding high with their share price touching 400p. Now they are hanging just over 33p. What happened? The classic case of high profit multiple (20x in 2007) meets profit collapse in the 2009 recession. Since then the company has lurched from disaster to disaster; first the FSA forced them to pay a significant fine on grounds that seem very harsh, then the company had to write off millions of pounds worth of software assets after they proved unsatisfactory. To top if off, the most recent trading statement shows that profits for this year have collapsed to a loss after revenues took a big dive. How can this happen? Well, spread betting revenues are inherently more volatile than that of traditional betting as they depend on volatility in the markets. Big swings in the markets encourage clients to trade more and generates high revenues. Having a quiet year in the markets is the equivalent of William Hill having half the football matches they'd normally get in a season.  To get an idea of this volatility, here's a graph I lifted from the last annual report:

Looking at the graph, it's almost pure fluke that revenue growth has been so smooth for the past few years - good half years can be almost double bad ones. IG Group, LCG's much larger listed competitor (LCG are number 2) also reported significant drops in revenue for the past six months so this is clearly an industry issue rather than just an LCG issue. This is a big crux of my argument for this share - I believe this is not a structural decline but rather a cyclical one. It's folly to value a cyclical business on one year's results and a far better method is to look at average earnings over a decent period. Joel Greenblatt calls this kind of investing 'time-arbitrage', I'm able to 'arb' the difference between the price now, caused by investor's short time horizons, and the price sometime in the distant future due to my long time horizon.

Given everything is so terrible with LCG, why do I like it the share today? Essentially it all comes down to valuation. The market has looked at the most recent result and decided the company will never make a profit again, as the company now trades at a discount to the net cash on the balance sheet (£20.3m of cash against a £17.7m market cap) and about half of book value (which contains intangibles - it trades at 0.84 of tangible book). This is for a company which has, historically, earned an average of 20.7% ROE for the past five years even including all the disasters.

The business also has a number of qualities that are very attractive. For one, it's number 2 in it's main market (although the number 1 is 10x larger in revenues) which is still growing overall. LCG has achieved a huge CAGR of 35% in sales for the past five years and IGG has also done 27%. Whilst I don't think this level of growth can be achieved in the future I don't see why double digit revenue growth, on average, shouldn't be achieved. This is a growth company in a growth industry. Secondly, the company has a number of competitive advantages. Whilst regulation is a burden for this company it does massively increase the barriers to entry - if you want to be another FSA regulated spread better you'd have to comply. Whilst it's possible to relocate offshore (and a number of their competitors do) the FSA badge of approval is valuable in it's own right. It'd be especially tough to come in and try and win the white label contracts that LCG already have. Also the product is not a commodity - it has to be good to attract and win clients and a new competitor would need to reach their standard to compete. The competitive advantages LCG and IGG enjoy are reflected in the very good economics of their businesses: Both are non-capital intensive and generate high average ROEs despite the large cash regulation requirement and both have huge margins. So we have a growth company with good competitive advantages earning a huge return on capital and enjoying high margins (key phrase here - on average) - what's not to like? :)

Some more tasty facts and figures: Including the broker's expected profit for 2012 (-0.4p), the 4 year average profit of the business is 4.53p. Given the current share price, that's an average P/E of only 7.36. An average of 2.18p was paid in dividends over the period too (assuming no final dividend this year) giving an average yield of 6.53%. Now, I've chosen the 4 year time period to be as harsh as possible as it excludes the good 2008 & 2007 results. The same figures for a 6 year period are 8.94p of average earnings for an average P/E of 3.7 and an average dividend of 4.36p for an average yield of 13.11%. Even going on just the horrible 4 year numbers though, which includes two years where essentially no profit has been made, the share price still looks excessively cheap. It's worth pointing out that I don't include the net cash at all in my valuation. This is because almost all of it the company is required to hold under FSA regulations and so it's more like working capital than free capital - don't expect any IND style large special dividends any time soon.

The way I see it, even if things carry on being terrible the company is still going to earn a decent return, on average, for shareholders at the current price. The other thing to remember is that margins have come down from a high of an average of 44.7% for the four years 2005-2008 to an average of 18.1% (on adjusted profit figures) for the past three years. Profit growth hasn't come close to matching the revenue growth because of this margin contraction. IG Group have managed to hold their margins in the 40%s over this period so clearly LCG have under-performed in this regard. This is due to a number of factors: First, management have launched a number of smaller products that have more or less all made losses so far and so dilute the margin. Secondly, costs in the core business have also shot up without a corresponding rise in revenue. This is something management are now taking action about and are looking to trim back the cost base & try and get the smaller divisions to focus on achieving profitability. They believe they've found some 15% of the cost base that could be taken out and Simon Denham mentioned at the Mello meeting that IT costs should be dropping after a period of investment anyway. This is a source of further upside - if the company can execute on their cost cutting promises profits should recover.

Another factor to consider is the current interest rate environment. LCG benefit hugely from higher interest rates because they carry so much gross cash they can't do anything with (cash from customers and regulatory capital) other than invest at close to base-rate levels. At June 2012 they had £67.3m of this gross cash so each 1% rise in interest directly adds an extra £0.67m of profit to the bottom line - it's that simple. Not only that, but LCG also charge their customers financing charges to hold bets open based on LIBOR. Again, an interest rise plays nicely in to generating extra revenue here. This is yet another potential source of significant upside should interest rates begin to rise.

One last thing that stood out to me in the presentation Simon did. I knew from my time in the gaming industry that the customers tend to follow an extreme pareto distribution - 50% of your revenues come from the top few % of your customers. The big 'whales' as they are known are very important. However, when I asked Simon about his customer concentration he replied that his top ten customers account for no more than a handful of % of his revenues. This was pretty surprising to me, so I asked how this was the case. It turns out it's a deliberate risk management strategy, which makes sense, but it does mean LCG are turning away their biggest and most profitable customers! Again, I see further potential upside here should they decide to change this policy.

In the dream scenario here, revenues recover, margins go back to historical highs & interest rates rise. Any combination of these three would see PBT shoot back up and trigger significant multi-bagging from the current price. The downside is fairly well protected due to the very strong net asset position, of which a large chunk is held in cash. In my mind, this creates a really attractive risk/reward proposition. Simon mentioned at the Mello talk that a number of potential acquisition suitors had come knocking after the share price decline which I take as a good sign - people who know the industry well are coming around making opportunistic bids. I doubt a bid will take place around the current price any time soon though, LCG has big insider ownership from the three co-founders who will demand fair value for any purchase (which they believe, as I do, is significantly above the current market price). Personally, I'd much prefer a slow but big recovery than a quick 30% gain from a bid and am happy that my incentives are closely aligned with management.

So what are the big risks? Well, cash has fallen significantly over the past 6 months - down from £25.5m to £20.3m, far more than the actual profit loss. I remember Simon Denham saying something like only £4m of that £25.5m was 'excess cash' so it must mean they are close to eating in to regulatory capital (although in the 2011 annual report they say that, of the £25m of net cash, they had £10.7m of surplus regulatory cash requirements so maybe I'm misinterpreting him?). I'd expect that the company have anticipated such liquidity needs and are prepared accordingly. Another big red flag is the COO, who is also a major shareholder, has quit to 'pursue other interests'. This is a big worrying although the optimist could interpret it the other way, that after a number of years of poor margin performance we are seeing a replacement in a very significant senior position. There's also regulatory risk present, as we saw when LCG had to pay a large fine to the FSA. I see this kind of risk as an unpredictable cost of doing business, which decreases my valuation of the business but not in a significant way. A more serious regulatory risk would be if the government changed the rules to remove the tax advantages of spread betting, which would be very harmful to the industry.

The other really big risk is that I've completely mis-read the revenue decline and it's the start of a serious structural collapse. If that's the case, the assets could become significantly impaired by losses and the downside protection would be eroded. However, I personally believe the odds of this are pretty low given the obvious cyclical history of the company. There's also a bit of a stigma for these companies recently after the MF Global and Worldspreads frauds with the companies both dipping in to client funds. I think this risk is in reality very, very tiny due to the insiders owning such a large proportion of the company. Why ruin a great long-term business by engaging in short term fraud? I don't see the incentive here and as Charlie Munger says "Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives".

With all that in mind, I've made LCG a 4.8% portfolio allocation (down from last time due to the price fall and appreciation of the rest of the portfolio) and I'm tempted to top up after even more recent falls. 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.

This could well turn out to mistake and a number of investors are still bullish here, including Paulypilot who knows the sector far, far better than I ever could given he's worked in it but I don't feel like I'm able to calculate the upside/downside scenario probabilities here. If the upside scenario materialises I won't kick myself, there's always plenty of other opportunities out there. I will, however, be paying close attention to this graph on Google trends as it's probably a useful indicator of any turnaround success. The current graph direction isn't all that pretty though...

For the record, here's my portfolio as it currently stands now:

Disclosure: I am long LCG, KENZ & MGNS


  1. Nice article Mark G. Worth a good look. vinchainsaw

  2. Mark, out of interest, what's the relevance of the two vertical lines at 2% and 20%?

    1. Hey Brian, it's a feature in stockopedia where you can specify a min/max portfolio allocation so it warns you if a position breaches those rules

  3. 3 things:

    1: Competing with IGG is very tough. IGG have a 45% market share here in Ireland plus IGG have economies of scale.

    2: Will LCG will still be around in 5 years ? The company says it needs more volume so presumably without that extra volume the market won't be impressed leading to a supressed share price.

    3: If the LCG share price falls more then management should liquidate the company and hand cash back to share holders. Will this happen ? No, but that gives a big clue to management.


  4. So a bid has just come in! I've done a post on potential valuation ranges over on Stockopedia (and there's even more comments from other readers there too). The link is if anyone's interested.

  5. It’s my first time to visit this site & I’m really surprised to see such impressive stuff out there. MacFarlane Gro