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:

      EPS
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.

Valuation:

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.

Summary:

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.

P.S.

Some other stories I found about Cheniere
http://www.alternet.org/fracking/how-powerful-friends-and-cozy-relationships-helped-cheniere-energy-cash-natural-gas-exports
http://www.octafinance.com/baupost-group-doubled-stake-cheniere-energy-still-bullish-us-lng/
http://www.mailtribune.com/article/20150125/Opinion/150129835

12 comments

  • Another hedge fund heavyweight expresses his opinion about Cheniere.
    As it is Jim Chanos you should not expect a get the bull case presented.
    http://www.cnbc.com/2015/09/09/jim-chanos-new-short-position-in-cheniere-energy.html

  • Wasn’t Klarman also quite fond of gold a few years ago?

    I’ve never really looked at his track record but I remember Buffett saying he was one person he would invest money with.

    • yes, he insted in some gold miners if I recollect correctly. And yes, his overall track record seems to be well but it is difficult to unerstand how he actually achieves it…

      • From what I’ve understood, most of their investments are in other than puclicly traded equities (debt, real estate etc.), stuff they don’t have to disclose under SEC rules. Hence it’s almost impossible to know what they invest in and “understand” the returns.

        But true, they’ve most probably taken a beating on the gold miners.

  • The fact that the Cheniere terminal was first built as an import terminal and then later converted to an export terminal IMO is the ultimate indicator of how unpredictable the gas/energy markets are (and consequently the risks involved!).

    Myb what Baupost among other things likes, is the downside protection through some already existing long-term contracts? … With the option-like potential of the capacity add-on(s). With long-term contracts it should be priced bond-like – as you said – so that 5-7% yield-corridor might be his discount rate in estimating the target share price.

  • I read his Margin of Safety-book and it was quite good (although a little overpriced on ebay and amazon :-). On gurufocus you can see some of his/Baupost investments and in the recent past I couldn’t find a single investment I would have done. Almost all of the fundamentals of the companies looked ugly as hell – including Cheniere’s. He also does a lot of biotec-investing. He seems to know what he’s doing (see his Idenix Pharmaceuticals-investment) but his current investment style is just not something I understand – or as you said: one for the “too hard” pile…

  • mmi,

    Thank you for this one and also for the always interesting links.

    I do not know Klarman enough to judge whether he does not return capital to his investors if he considers his fund as too large. Perhaps he thinks Cheniere is a brilliant idea for unfamiliar reasons.

    Milud

  • I think you are over-emphasizing Baupost’s propensity as a net-net investor. I’ve read Klarman’s Margin of Safety twice and don’t remember him writing too much about the style. And nowadays the net-net opportunities are extremely rare (and Baupost’s equity exposure has been very low at times) so I’d need to be shown some data about their net-net holdings.

    Last year they had holdings in eBay, ViaSat, Micron et al., which are not net-nets or even cigar butts.

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