Short cuts: Admiral, KAS Bank, NN Group

Some quick updates on preliminary numbers form 3 of my financial stocks:


Admiral released “preliminary annual” numbers yesterday. EPS declined slightly which was not a big surprise. My take aways at a first glance:

– UK car still tough, UK comparison some issues due to competition, however cycle might turn in 2015
– slowing growth in Italy

+ Italy at break even, break even in Spain expected for 2015
+ US growing strongly
+ Intenational comparison sites profitable

The CEO letter is again a must-read for anyone who is interested in Admiral and/or insurance. These guys are really different.

KAS Bank

Kas Bank came out already a few days ago with a press release on preliminary 2014 numbers. EPS almost doubled to 1,65 EUR due to the already mentioned one time effect. “Normal” earnings would have been around 0,74 EUR per share.

On the negative side, KAS Bank’s equity has been siginficantly reduced by an increase in the pension liability due to lower discount rates. Additionally they announced that they will expense 5 mn or so p.a. of the one-time gain as “investments”. Top line income acually fell but they were able to cut costs quicker. Overall, if low or negative rates will remain for a lnger time, the upside potential of KAS Bank now seems to be limited.

NN Group

Finally, NN Group came out with their 2014 results already 4 weeks ago. As with any life insurance company, they are quite difficult to interpret. What I found quite intereting is the fact that they said that their Solvency II ratio under the Standard model is 200%. Normally, most internal models show much higher solvency ratios than the standard model. In my opinion. NN Group remains the best (and only !!!) European Life insurance company to invest in despite the overall extremely difficult environment.

In any case, I will need to analyse all cases in more detail once the annual reports come out, especially with regard to KAS Bank and the pension issue.

Performance review February 2015 – Comment “Interest rate surrender”

Performance February

In February, the portfolio gained +5,7% against +7,2% for the Benchmark (Eurostoxx50 (25%), Eurostoxx small 200 (25%), DAX (30%),MDAX (20%)). Still worse than the benchmark but closer than in February. Year to date, the score is +9,2% against +16,1% for the benchmark.

For the first time since its inception (1.1.2011), the portfolio has now doubled in value with an overall gain of +100,6% against +67,3% for the benchmark.

Outperformers in Fabruary were Miko (+16,5%), Draeger (+14,7%), KAS Bank (+12,6%) and TFF (+12,4%). Losers were Koc (-10,2%), Installux (-5,2%) and the TRY Depfa Zero (-3,2%).

February showed the typical “catch up” of small caps which often outperform with a certain time lag to the liquid markets. Overall with around like 20-30% of cash & cash equivalents, I can clearly not expect to match the benchmark in such a phase. This is the strongest start into a calendar year for the stock market since I run the portfolio and my low beta approach then doesn’t work so well.

Portfolio transactions

February was a slow month. The two exceptions were that I sold out the remaining part of Cranswick and increased my Electrica position by 1%. Direct cash ist now at 12,8% plus a further 11% in cash like positions (HT1, Depfa LT2, MAN). I clearly see the problem of some shares reaching fair value and not generating a lot of great new investment ideas.

The number of holdings is now at a reasonable 25. Above 25 I don’t feel too comfortable, so if I would add a new position, I will most likely “kill” an old one. Most obvious candidates would be my smallest holdings, Koc and Trilogiq. The month end portfolio as alaways can be accessed via the “Current portfolio” page.

One remark here on my portfolio holdings: Currently, a lot of companies issue “preliminary annuals”. I always hesitate to fully read them because often they lack important information which is only disclosed in the annual report. I find it much more time effective to wait for that annual report and then decide what to do, unless something really dramatic happened.

Comment: “Changing interest”

Normally I tend to stay away from most macro related issues because it makes my head spin. This comment will be a small exception. First an interesting datapoint: What do you think was the best asset class in 2014 at least in “developed” markets ? Well, US stocks with 15,3% look strong but the German 30 year bund made around +34% in 2014. For many people this is surprising as how you can make +34% in a year with an instrument which had a yield of 2,8% at the end of 2013 but this is the “power” of duration and convexity.

But the even more interesting thing (at least for me) is that for the first time in my 20 year professional career in finance, most of the people I talk to have changed their expectations with regard to interest rates. Even back in the 90ties, everyone was convinced that interest rates could only go higher. The lower rates went, the louder the voices grew. Bond bubble, hyper inflation etc. etc. were the buzzwords and shorting the bund was the absolute “No brainer” trade.

Looking at the historical yield of the bund future (the proxy for 10 year Bund yield), we can clearly see that this “interest rates can only go up” attitude was to a large extent a combination of “Recency bias” and “Anchoring”:


It clearly shows that at least for the last 25 years there was no mean-reversion in interest rates.

I guess the events early this year, mainly the Swiss Franc de-pegging plus the Draghi announcement to buy 60 bn EUR monthly for the foreseeable future combined with negative yields all around have somehow silenced many of the pundits. With negative rates, being short duration now suddenly really starts to hurt. Keeping cash in a long tem pension portfolio until now did not really hurt, but now, if you really have to pay money for deposits, people do anything to get yield. It almost looks like that negative yields force many institution to “surrender” and go long duration, no matter how low yields are. It will be interesting to see for instance what “my friends” at FBD are doing after betting on rising interest rates for the last few years.

Historically, such large scale surrender situations have often marked a mid-term turning points. I would not bet on this nor am I sure that this observation is relevant. However it is definitely a change in expectations compared to the last 25 years. Which I find interesting.

18 observations from Berkshire’s 2014 annual report

Just an upfront note: I have written down those items while reading the 2014 annual report for the first time. Usually I read them at least twice. This year’s report contains a 4 page letter from Charlie Munger (page 39), nicely summarizing the “Berkshire system”. Overall, Buffett and Munger seem to emphasize in this year’s report that they see a great future ahead for Berkshire, even without them on board.

I would recommend anyone to read the annual report first before reading any comments from secondary sources. It is a lot to read but it is definitely worth your time.

My personal take is that it will be extremely hard for any succesor to fit into Buffett’s (and Munger’s) shoes. This company was built by and around two geniuses. Yes, the “Berkshire system” does have some enduring qualities but combined with the size of the company, it will be extremely hard to deliver outstanding performance ging forward.

Call for comments: Comments from my readers about what items you did find especially noteworthy would be highly appreciated !!!!

1. 50 year history

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Book review: “Good to Great to Gone: The 60 Year Rise and Fall of Circuit City” – Alan Wurtzel

Circuit City was the largest consumer electronics retail chain in the US in the 1990s and 2000s. The stock was a super star performer and the company even made it into Jim Collin’s book “Good to Great” as one of the best companies in the US.

In 2009, Circuit City filed bankruptcy. The book now describes the full story from the founding in the 1960s to the fall in 2009. The book is written by Alan Wurtzel, the son of the founder Sam Wurtzel, who also served 13 years as CEO from 1973 to 1986 and as a board member for couple of more years until 2001.

So clearly his story about the company is not as neutral as a “normal” author might have written it but he states that at the very beginning of the book.

Pretty early in corporate life, around the 1970s, Circuit City (then called Wards) had already an existential crisis as their previous business model (mostly selling to “department like” stores in larger stores) stopped to work. They then completely changed strategy. In the 1970s to the 1990s they perfectly rode the wave of consumer electronics with their “super stores” which relied on sales via dedicated sales professionals working on a commission.

Then, starting in the mid 2000s, Circuit City lost track, especially against Best Buy and had finally to file for bankruptcy in 2009. Funnily enough, Best Buy had its own crises but somehow recovered.

Wurtzel is very critical on his successors, especially that they never really used the cashflow for improving stores but rather did share buy backs and acquisitions.

The unique aspect of the book in my opinion is that the author very much focuses on strategic planning and the interaction between Management and the Board. He describes in very good detail what kind of strategical mistakes were made by the management and how the board failed in challenging and correcting the flawed strategy. There was a lot to learn for me and I think it would be interesting for people who regularly speak to management. Just asking how they handle strategy might get some surprising results. Wurtzel for instance is of the opinion that an annual strategy process tends to become “mechanical” and inefficient and that strategy should only updated on a 2 year basis.

The book is also a reminder that retail is a very difficult industry. Retailers can grow very quickly and profitable, but if something changes profoundly in the competitive landscape, turning around businesses becomes difficult. In Circuit City’s case, the larger self-service Best Buy stores seem to have been the nail in the coffin. Circuit City never got up to really take a big investment and completely remodel the stores. Instead, in order to keep investor happy, they used the cash to buy back stocks. Wurtzel correctly points out that stock buy-backs make only sense if you have “truly” free cash flow. If you just avoid or shift necessary Capex, then buying back shares is not a good idea.

Circuit City also had a very strong corporate culture, especially with regard to its sales personal. The problem with that culture was that it also seemed to prevent the shift to a non-commission, self-service structure like Best Buy. So yes, strong culture is a competitive advantage, unless it prevents a necessary change in the business model. Interestingly, Circuit City started a used-car dealership called CarMax based on the same prinicpals which was spun off from Circuit City and still is doing well (14 bn USD market cap).

The Circuit City story reminds me a little bit about Tesco. Tesco also tinkered around little by little in its stores in the UK while they didn’t fully realize the threat of the discounters. Let’s wait and see how they will do.

In any case, I can highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the retail industry and/or company strategy.

P.S.: There is even a documentary on the rise and fall of Circuit City called “The tale of two cities”. Some clips of that movie can be viewed on Youtube here.

Svenska Handelsbanken vs. Deutsche Bank – what to look for when investing in banks

Many value investors are of the opinion that banks are not investable. Either because they say the business is too complex or because they think banks are doomed anyway. Maybe due to the overall low valuations of banks, I get regularly requests on writing about how to value bank,s so at least some people seem to be interested. The greatest value investor of all obviously has no problems with investing into banks. Wells Fargo is the biggest position of Buffett at around 26 bn USD and he holds various other bank assets like the Bank of America Warrants.

A few days ago, a good friend recommended me to look at Handelsbanken from Sweden as an example how a well run bank should look like.
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Update Gronlandsbanken – result and annual report 2014 & Danish interest rates


Gronlandsbanken has just released 2014 numbers and its 2014 annual report. 2014 results look solid: ~50 DKK profit per share, roughly 6% more than in 2013. The dividend remains at DKK 55 (dividend is paid out of pretax income). ROE has remained high at 16,3%. The result would have been even better if Gronlandsbanken would have not increased reserves. This is the quote from the annual report:

The result before value adjustments and write downs of DKK 148,6 million is the Bank’s best basis result so far. This is of course satisfactory. It is at the same time above the last announced results expectation of a result before value adjustments and write downs in the upper end of the range DKK 125 – 145 million. The result before tax returns 16.3% on year start equity after dividend.

This was achieved against a slight drop in Greenland’s GDP which I find quite remarkable. The stock market seemed to have “anticipated” those results to a certain extend as the stock price shows:

The balance sheet is still super rock solid with an equity ratio of 19% (of total balance sheet, not risk weighted assets or some similar shenanigans).

My initial investment thesis 2 years ago was the following:

– as it is the only bank in Greenland, its margins are around twice as high as the best global banks and the balance sheet is rock solid. One could call this a natural moat
– even based on the current state, current valuation implies significant upside to fair value
– the Greenland resource story could add significant growth going forward, even with maybe other banks entering Greenland
– finally, Management has started to buy shares after surprisingly good Q3 numbers
– although there is no direct catalyst, an indirect catalyst could be if some of the projects proceed well and Greenland will move into the spotlight. Gronlandsbanken is the easiest (and only) way to invest into Greenland without project specific risk

One of the issues of course is that most of the natural resources projects look a lot less likely to happen than 2,5 years ago.The annual report is as always a great resource to see what is going on in Greenland. Most projects seem to be on hold or cancelled, the only remaining interest is from China:

Among the larger projects, it has become obvious that virtually only Chinese investors continue to show a certain interest. The BANK of Greenland considers it likely and quite naturally, that the funding can come from China. Chinese enterprises are often the leaders in processing for further use in either Chinese, American, or European industry.

Especially the oil sector has been hit hard:

The prospects of the oil area are more dismal than of the mineral area. After Cairns test drilling in 2010 and 2011, oil exploration in Greenland is now greatly reduced, see Figure 8. The stagnation of the exploration in both the oil and the mineral area is expected to continue over the next few years, even though new licenses have been issued and the preparatory work is continuing in 2014 as well.
The declining interest in oil exploration is a.o. due to large oil and gas discoveries in other places, and the fall in the oil price . Of importance can possibly also be the administration and regulation of the area so far have not been regarded as sufficient by several persons in the industry.

So the bad news is that within my initial time frame of 3-5 years, I will not see any large mining or oil projects in Greenland. The upside might be that the incentive for other banks to enter Greenland will be most likely quite low.

Interest rates

However, another thing happened which was not on my radar screen: Denmark went from having low-interest rates to negative interest rates. This is how 3 month local swap rates developed:

dkk ir

Just as a reminder: Swap rates are “unfunded”, that means based on contracts where no principal changes hands. If we look at “funded” rates, so how much money Danish banks pay for actual deposits, the situation is much more dramatic:

dkk fund

So just to put this in context: If you want to deposit money for 3 months at a Danish bank for 3 months in DKK, they charge you -1,6% p.a. for this “service” !!!!

Impact on Gronlandsbanken:

One thing about Gronlandsbanken which I liked initially but what could be a problem going forward is the following: Gronlandsbanken has a significantly higher deposit base than loans outstanding. While this is good from a liquidity and risk point of view, it is bad because those excess funds have to be invested somewhere and in local currency.

I am not sure if Gronlandsbanken could actually charge for deposits locally, so the risk is there that they get squeezed on the amounts not loaned out to customers. They seem to have anticipated this and increased their bond holdings, but still, at year end 2014, roughly 20% of the balance sheet is potentially exposed to this potential “Negative carry” problem.

On the other hand, as a EUR investor being invested into a DKK security exposes me to a “positive Black Swan” similar to the CHF/EUR move in January. If something goes horribly wrong in the EUR zone, there might be some upside in holding DKK denominated securities.

Addtitionally, any Danish pension fund and Insurance company will struggle to find income producing assets in DKK. With a dividend yield of (gross) of around 8%, Grondlandsbanken should be not unattractive and therefore support the share price in the short term.


The underlying business of Gronlandsbanken has done surprisingly well in 2014 despite a lackluster economy. Due to the carnage in natural resource prices, the implied “resource option” has been postponed some years into the future, making the investment case less attractive compared to 2,5 years ago.

Ultra low and negative interest rates could make it more difficult for deposit-rich banks like Gronlandsbanken to maintain their interest margins. As there are not that many alternatives at the moment I will continue to hold the stock for the time being, as it also functions as a kind of “Euro Black Swan” hedge. If I find other interesting finaincial service stocks, Gronlandsbanken would be the first one to be replaced as I think that my other financial holdings (Kasbank, Van Lanschot, NN, Admiral) have a better risk/return ratio.

I will also monitor closely if and how the negative rates will feed through Grondlandsbanken’s Q1 results.

Why on earth is Seth Klarman investing 1,7 bn USD in Cheniere Energy (LNG) at 7x P/B ?

In my book review “The Frackers”, I mentioned one of the stories in the book was about Cheniere Energy:

Finally, there is a fascinating side story about the guy who is running Cheniere Energy, Charif Souki. His great idea was to import natural gas into the US and he raised several billion USD to build a huge gasification plant on the gulf coast. He clearly did not see fracking coming and his investment was worthless. Nevertheless, he was able to raise another few billion bucks and retool the facility in order to export natural gas.

This “double or nothing” gamble seems to have paid off. Seth Klarmann by the way, has just doubled its stake in Cheniere, making it their biggest public listed position at around 1,7 bn USD.

Seth Klarman

Seth Klarman is a famous value investor running Baupost Group a 25bn USD hedge fund. In contrast to Buffett, Klarman very seldom gives interviews and his fund commentaries are hard to get. Hi is considered to be the “heir” of Benjamin Graham and still sticking to the “cigar butt” approach of deep value investing. Two years ago in a Charlie Rose interview, Klarman made the following comment:

Baupost’s leading man says that he buys “cigar butts” at cheap prices. Warren Buffett used to also do this. The difference between the two legends is that Klarman stayed focused on cigar butts while Buffett’s process morphed into buying great companies at great prices and then into paying so-so prices for great companies.

Klarman does many things ordinary investors can’t do, like buying defaulted Lehman stuff etc. Not many of his investments are public and not all of his public investments are successes. Nevertheless it is clearly interesting to look more deeply into his biggest public position, Cheniere Energy.

Cheniere Energy

Cheniere’s stock chart shows the “unusual” history of the company:

Just as a side remark, somehow this chart reminds me of this funny animal:

Looking at Cheniere’s latest quarterly report, we can clearly see that Seth Klarman’s days as Graham style “net-net” investor seem to be over. Cheniere has currently around 7,5 bn net debt and 2,3 bn equity. Based on a market cap of around 17 bn USD, this is a P/B of roughly 7 times so hardly a bargain investment based on this metrics.

On top of that, the company never made a profit in its life as this table with EPS since 2004 clearly shows:

02/21/2014 FY 13 12/13   -2,2
02/22/2013 FY 12 12/12   -1,6
02/24/2012 FY 11 12/11   -2,6
03/03/2011 FY 10 12/10   -2,3
02/26/2010 FY 09 12/09   -3,8
02/27/2009 FY 08 12/08   -6,0
02/27/2008 FY 07 12/07   -3,6
02/27/2007 FY 06 12/06   -1,5
03/13/2006 FY 05 12/05   -0,9
03/10/2005 FY 04 12/04   -0,6
N.A. FY 03 12/03   -0,4

So the question is clearly: What does Seth Klarman see to make this his biggest publicly disclosed investment ?

The best analysis I found was the one at Value Investor’s Club (accessible with guest login) from 2013, where the stock was trading at a third of the current price (Klarman bought between 60-70 USD). There is also a good article in Forbes from 2013 about the story behind Cheniere from 2013.

I try to summarize the case in a few bullet points:

– natural gas is very cheap in the US due to fracking and multiple times more expensive especially in Asia
– despite high costs, it is a pretty good business to liquify natural gas in the US and ship it to Asia in order to earn the spread
– Cheniere is in the process of finishing its first gasification plant by the end of the year 2015 and will then start to produce reliable cash flows as it has already contracted out its full production capacity for 20 years to major energy companies

The most important point is however the following quote from Forbes:

Cheniere’s Sabine Pass facility got its approval from the Department of Energy to export to any country in the world two years ago. It is so far the only facility to be cleared to export to countries that do not have a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. And getting a non-FTA permit is a make-it-or-break-it approval for these projects, because there’s only one big gas-importing country (South Korea) with a free trade deal with the U.S. Unless a facility can export to the likes of Japan, China and India, the economics likely won’t support a multibillion-dollar build-out.

Cheniere had the luck to be the first to get this license. Later on, mostly due to the pressure of US based energy users, the US Government declined to issue further LNG “non FTA” export licenses for some time. According to Cheniere’s latest investor relation presentation, in 2014 two more “non FTA” licenses have been granted but Cheniere clearly has a head start.

Many more export facilities in the US would lead to higher prices in the US and to lower spreads compared to Asia, but for the time being, Cheniere’s primary LNG facility could be viewed as the typical “toll bridge” for US natural gas on its way to off shore destination as the other two licensed projects are still to be completed in several years time.

Cheniere itself is trying to further expand its current facility by 50% and they are projecting another site, but both projects have not yet received their license.


Replacement value

Despite buying at 7 times book, the question is: Could it be that Klarman is buying below replacement value ? I think it is unlikely. EV is around 25bn, stated book value of the assets is around 8 bn. Liquification facilities are not that hard to construct. all you have to do is to call someone like Bechtel and sign a turn-key project. Ok, you need the land and the permission, but overall this seems to be manageable in the US. So without going into more detail, we can assume that the current valuation of Cheniere is clearly above replacement value.

Valuation based on future cash flows

The VIC author estimates around 4-6 USD per share distributions for Cheniere’s shareholders going forward based on the first 4 trains of the initial liquification project. I have not double checked this but I will assume this number of being correct.

Reading through the roughly 15 pages of risk factors in Cheniere’s 2013 report, I would not call this a risk free business.There are still a lot of moving parts and operational risks even if the whole facility is up and running. Cheniere’s public bonds in the operational subsidiary trade at around 5,5% yield p.a. So discounting equity cash flows at the HoldCo level should be higher than that.

A) Existing facility and licence & contracted cash flows only

Cheniere has fixed contracts for 20 years. In the following table I have calculated NPS for the above mentioned EPS range and different discount rates, based on the assumption that one gets those earnings for 20 years and after that nothing (for instance any future earnings have to be applied to retire the debt):

eps/discount rate 4 5 6
6,50% 44,07 55,09 66,11
7,50% 40,78 50,69 60,83
8,50% 37,85 46,73 56,08
9,50% 35,25 43,17 51,81
10,50% 32,92 39,96 47,95
11,50% 30,84 37,05 44,46

We can clearly see, that the contracted amounts at the existing facility will not be enough to justify the current valuation of around 70 USD.

B) Existing facility, indefinite cashflows

This is the table with an indefinite stream of earnings at various discount rates:

eps 4 5 6
6,50% 61,54 76,92 92,31
7,50% 53,33 66,67 80,00
8,50% 47,06 58,82 70,59
9,50% 42,11 52,63 63,16
10,50% 38,10 47,62 57,14
11,50% 34,78 43,48 52,17

Even with an indefinite time horizon, Cheniere does not look like a “bargain stock”.

C) Existing facility + 50% capacity increase, contracted cash flows only

eps/discount rate 4 5 6
6,50% 66,11 82,64 99,17
7,50% 61,17 76,03 91,24
8,50% 56,78 70,10 84,12
9,50% 52,87 64,76 77,71
10,50% 49,39 59,93 71,92
11,50% 46,26 55,57 66,69

D) Existing facility +50% capacity increase, indefinite cash flows

eps 6 7,5 9
6,50% 92,31 115,38 138,46
7,50% 80,00 100,00 120,00
8,50% 70,59 88,24 105,88
9,50% 63,16 78,95 94,74
10,50% 57,14 71,43 85,71
11,50% 52,17 65,22 78,26

The 4 scenarios show relatively clearly that only with including future non-contracted cashflows and additional, not yet approved capacity, the stock looks interesting. In order to satisfy the return expectations of Klarman, which should be 15-20% p.a.based on his track record, he must assume further cash flows for instance from the second site Cheniere wants to contruct at some point in the future in Corpus Christi. Plus, there should be no dilution etc. from raising the rquired gigantic amounts of capital.

Maybe he is betting that the stock will trade like a bond if the company starts paing dividends ? Or is he leveraging the investment with addtional debt ?

In any case, he seems to be paying a lot for future, uncertain cash flows, which contradicts his “we still do cigar butts” statement. This is not that different from what Buffett is doing when he is paying rather expensive prices for great companies. At least for a guy with a portfolio size like Seth Klarman, the time of “cigar butt” investing seems to be over. Even he must feel th pressure that you cannot charge 2/20 for holding cash.

So to answer the question from the beginning:

Why on earth is Seth Klarman investing 1,7 bn USD in Cheniere Energy (LNG) at 7x P/B ?

I have no real idea but it might be the case that Klarman somehow need to put money at work and he expects this investment to be uncorrelated to general market as he has been quite pessimistic on equities for some time.


For me, Cheniere at current prices is clearly one for the “too hard” pile. Klarman of course can spend a lot of money and time to fully analyze the energy markets etc. although as we know now, most energy experts have a hard time to make meaningful forcasts. But still it doesn’t look like a bargain and clearly no “cigar butt” or “net-net” kind of investment.

Funnily enough, analyzing Cheniere makes me much more confident in my Electrica investment. At least to me, the risk/return relationship there is some magnitudes better than for Cheniere. I think I will upgrade this to a full position over the next few days.


Some other stories I found about Cheniere

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