Category Archives: Emerging Markets

Electrica S.A. (ISIN US83367Y2072) – A deeply discounted infrastructure stock from Romania ?

Again, this has turned out to be a long post. So a quick “executive summary” upfront:

Electrica S.A. looks like an interesting play on infrastructure in Romania. The stock is attractive as
– the current valuation is cheap compared to grid companies in Spain, Portugal and Italy
– the underlying business (electrical grid monopoly) looks structurally attractive due to high guaranteed returns on investment
– there is good visibility on growth for the next 5 years
Overall, based on relatively conservative assumptions, an investor could expect to earn 17-21% p.a. in local currency over the next 5 years.

There are clearly lots of risks (regulatory, politically) but overall the risk/return profile looks good and the risks are less correlated to overall market risks.

DISCLOSURE: This is not an investment advice. Do your own research !!! The author may have already invested in the stock prior to publsihing the post.

When analyzing Romgaz I said this:

Why Romgaz ? Well that one is easy: This is the only Romanian stock you are able to invest if you don’t have access to the Bukarest Stock Exchange. There are no ETFs on Romania either.

Well, that was wrong, because another formerly Government owned Romanian company IPOed in June this year on the LSE, the grid operator Electrica.

Electrica – the business

Electrica’s main business is owning and running the electrical grid in an area covering ~40% of Romania. Additionally, they are also an electricity supplier, however they do not generate any power. This graphic from the recent 9 month presentation shows how this looks on the map:

Electrica small

Similar to Romgaz, the IPO prospectus is a pretty interesting read, covering many aspects of the Romanian electricity market. Those were the major points that I extracted from reading the prospectus:

+ IPO proceeds went 100% to the company to fund future growth
+ significant potential for additional guaranteed investments
+ conservative balance sheet
+ efficiency gains possible (10% grid loss)
+ underlying growth potential
+ valuation ex cash VERY cheap for a grid company
+ potential M&A opportunities (ENEL assets)
+ EBRD as shareholder actively protecting minority rights
+ local regulation creates attractive “float”

– guaranteed return on regulated assets has been just lowered from 2014 peak (7,45% vs. 8,35% in 2014)
– business is partly electricity distribution, no pure “grid” play (no guarantees for distribution)
– limited experience with regulator (previous head of regulator convicted for bribery)
– some distressed subsidiaries (external grid maintenance)
– 22% minorities in all major subsidiaries

Electrical grid as a business

Building and maintaining an electrical grid is a very capital-intensive business. The electric grid is one of the most dominant monopolies available. There is competition on the generation and supply side, but there is always only one electric grid as this represents the archetypical network effect.

There is just no reason to build a second electrical grid and unlike as for instance telephone landlines, there is a pretty low risk that electricity could be distributed via an alternative way. This is one of the reasons that grids are almost always heavily regulated as the potential power to abuse this monopoly would be pretty high.

One additional features is the fact in many countries the grid was not designed to cope with locally generated renewable energy, so there is clearly a need for massive additional investments. Normally, a sector with large investment requirements is not that attractive, but if you combine this with stable yields and leverage potential, things can suddenly become very interesting in a low growth environment.

I had written 2 years ago that even Warren Buffett thinks utilities can be attractive, if the earnings are stable or even guaranteed, especially if you then can leverage up accordingly. Also the announced E.On spin-off ties to move grid and end-user supply into the good ship

Although there is always a risk that regulators run amok, at least for electrical grids the seem to be on the soft side as they know that a lot of capital is required to cope with the renewable energy revolution. As a consequence, the valuation of listed grid operators are the highest among the overall utility sector.

Let’s look at the valuations of 4 listed electric grid companies in Europe:

Name Mkt Cap (EUR) BEst P/E:2FY P/B ROE ROA Debt/capital
             
REDES ENERGETICAS NACIONAIS 1.352 12,2 1,2 11% 2,4% 70%
RED ELECTRICA CORPORACION SA 9.922 16,5 4,2 24% 5,8% 60%
TERNA SPA 7.811 14,6 2,5 17% 3,7% 71%
ELIA SYSTEM OPERATOR SA/NV 2.442 16,1 1,1 9% 3,3% 55%

It is interesting to see that despite being located in the more critical countries of the Eurozone (Portugal, Spain, Italy and Belgium) those companies enjoy quite rich valuations. ROAs are low single digits but due to the monopoly character of the business, it can easily be leveraged up between 50-70% of the total capital (and several times equity).

Romanian electricity market

This is an interesting quote from the IPO prospectus:

The average electricity consumption per capita in Romania is still significantly lower than the average electricity consumption in the 28 EU member states. In 2012, Romanian electricity consumption per capita was 2.3 MWh, whilst the average electricity consumption per capita in all the EU countries was 6.0 MWh and in the selected Central and Eastern European countries (excluding Romania) in the table above it was 4.3 MWh.
<

So assuming that Romania will catch up to a certain extent with the Eurozone, underlying growth in the electricity market should be strong. Romania has separated grid and power generation, however, at least in the case of Electrica, supply to end users is still part of the package.

The power market for end users is still highly regulated to a large degree but will be liberalized going forward. For Electrica’s grid business, this is irrelevant, but the supply business could be affected.

Electrica has a 25 year concession to operate the grid with an option to extend another 25 year. They can charge a fee to customers which guarantees them a certain pretax rate of return on assets if the meet minimum requirements set by the regulator. The base rate which they can charge is currently 7,45% for the next 4 years, higher rates seem to apply for “smart grid” investments.

One interesting specialty of the Romanian market is the existence of the “connection fee”. This is what they say in the IPO prospectus:

According to the law, the value of new connections to the electricity network is charged to the final users as a connection fee. The new connections to the electricity network are the property of the Group. The Group recognises the connection fee received as deferred revenue in the consolidated statement of financial position and subsequently records it as revenues on a systematic basis over the useful life of the asset.

The total amount they show as deferred revenue is 1,4 bn RON which is quite significant. For them, this is a very attractive “float” as it doesn’t carry interest and no covenants are attached. I assume that this also explains why they don’t use external debt as the investments are basically financed by the clients.

Valuation – simple version

Electrica has a market cap of 4 bn RON. Including IPO proceeds, the sit on 2,8 bn liquid assets, so the core business is valued at 1,2bn RON. With a run rate of 250 mn Earnings, this equals P/E of 4,8 ex cash. Assuming that a unlevered grid company in Romania could be worth 10 times earnings (still cheap compared to a highly levered Portuguese grid company at 11x earnings), the upside for the stock would be at least 30% based on current earnings.

Valuation including growth

Now comes the interesting part. Normally as a value investor I would assume zero growth. But in Electra’s case I would make a difference. Why ? Well, because:

1. They can invest (“compound”) at a guaranteed rate
2. The have already raised the money
3. The guaranteed rate can be charged irrespective of power prices or volume
4. There is no competition

The “only” risk that remains is the regulator. In order to model the profit growth, I have built a very simple model for the next 5 years using the information form the IPO prospectus:

I made the following (conservative) assumptions:

– supply business remains more or less constant despite significant growth yoy 2014
– I assume the losses from the “distressed” service subs will be phased out over 3 years
– they will distribute 85% of earnings as dividends
– they will invest according to plan at a blended guaranteed rate of 7,7%

Based on those assumptions, the profit after tax and minorities should double within 5 years. Assuming 8%% dividend payout (all of which can be funded by existing cash on operating cashflow), one can expect a return of 17-21% p.a. assuming an exit P/E multiple of 11-15.

Assuming exit multiples is of course already quite aggressive, on the other hand, if the price wouldn’t move, the assumed dividend yield of Electrica would be more than 10% in 2019. So some multiple expansion would not be unrealistic.

Addtitional (significant) upside could come via profit increases in the supply sector or opportunistic M&A as the ENEL grid seems to be for sale. My required rate for such an investment would be 10-15%, so at the current price Electrica looks attractive.

Other considerations

Stock price: In local currency, the stock price is only slightly above the IPO price of 11 RON:

Analysts: According to Bloomberg, a surprising number (8!) of analysts cover the stock. Their price target on average is around 14,6 RON, a potential upside of 30%.

Shareholders: During the IPO, the EBRD (European Developement Bank) acquired 8,6% of the shares. According to this article they are actively working to protect/ensure minority shareholder rights:

“Our participation demonstrates the EBRD’s commitment to supporting the government’s plans for increased privatisation of the energy sector,” Nandita Parshad, Power and Energy Director at the EBRD, said in a statement.

Parshad said the EBRD will work with Electrica to align its corporate governance with international standards: “This will provide additional comfort and confidence to potential future investors.”

The Romanian government still owns 49%.

Management: There is unfortunately not a lot of information on management. The CEO is an “Old timer”, joining the company in 1991. there seems to be some variable component in their companesation package but it is not clear how this looks like.

“Frontier” market: Despite being an EU member, Romanian stocks including Electra are considered “Frontier” stocks by MSCI, not even “Emerging”. That might make it more difficult for “established” funds to invest.

Summary:

As I have written in the Romgaz post, I find Romania fan interesting market in general especially with the lection of the new President. Electra is similar to Romgaz a privatization story. What I like about Electra is the fact that there is good visibility on growth.

The major risks are from the regulatory side, although I am quite optimistic that with the new president there will be even more of a “pro business” and “pro growth agenda”. Plus, the risks in this case in my opinion are relatively uncorrelated to other issues within my portfolio, so I think this could be a good diversifier.

With relative conservative assumptions and the guaranteed part of Electrica alone, one should expect between 17-21% return per annum over 5 years. If the non-guaranteed supply business improves or they are able to get other parts of the Romanian grid then the upside could be even higher.

I am pretty sure that not many investors will be interested in the stock as it seems to be both, too exotic and a strange mixture between “deep value” and growth, but for me it is the perfect stock as I don’t have to track any indices.

For the portfolio, I will buy a 2,5% position at current prices. This increases my “Romania bet” to 5% and total EM exposure to 13%. Time horizon is 5 years.

SNGR Romgaz (ISIN US83367U2050) – A chance to participate in a Romanian revival at a large discount ?

As this turned out to be a quite long post, a quick summary upfront:

Romgaz, the recently privatized Romanian Natural gas producer looks like a pretty cheap play on the success of privatisation in Romania. Additional tail winds could come from the recently elected ethnic German President who wants to fight corruption and intends to repeat the business friendly and succesful model of his hometown Sibiu where he was mayor for 14 years.

Depending on the underlying value of the natural gas resources, the stock could have a potential upside between +50% in a pesimistic case and 200% in an otimistic one.

Disclosure & Risk: The stock presented is clearly risky and quite illiquid. The author might have bought shares before publishing this. Please do your own research !!!

On Romania

Romania is part of the European union, however it is the second poorest member, only trailed by neighbouring Bulgaria. The country never really recovered from the financial crisis and many Romanians left the country to work all over Europe.

Last week, something quite interesting happened in Romania: An ethnic German was elected as new President of Romania.

Klaus Johannis became major in Sibiu, a mid size town in Romania in 2000 despite representing only 1% remaining ethnic Germans who live there since the 12th century. He was reelected 3 times and managed to attract a lot of German companies to his hometown Sibiu. As a consequence, Sibiu is the Romanian city with one of the lowest unemployment rates and the highest standards of living. By the way it is a really beautiful city very close to the Carpathian Mountains. In my opinion a very attractive yet undiscovered travel destination:

In Romania, the President has a lot more power and influence than for instance in Germany, I think one can compare it to France. Clearly, this election alone will no be enough, as for instance his opponent for the President’s job is still prime minister. nevertheless the vote should be a huge plus for Romania going forward, both as the new president seems to be trustworthy and anti-corruption as well a pro business and economy.

So how did the Romanian stock market react ? Ummm, if we look at the BET index, it didn’t react at all. Actually Romanian stocks are down since the election, so no “Modi Mania” for Romania it seems. One can speculate why this is the case, but in my opinion the Romanian Stock market is too small and so off-the-beaten-track that just no one bothered with it. And Romanians themselves do not really invest in stocks.

Romgaz

Why Romgaz ? Well that one is easy: This is the only Romanian stock you are able to invest if you don’t have access to the Bukarest Stock Exchange. There are no ETFs on Romania either.

Romgaz is a Natural Gas producer (“upstream”) with around 50% market share in Romania. Romania produces most of its own natural gas. In contrast to OMV-Petrom, its domestic rival, Romgaz only does “on shore” production,.

Romgaz has been IPOed one year ago and placed shares on the Bukarest stock exchange as well as on the LSE in the form of GDRs. Since then when the stock was sold at 30 Lei per share, not much happened with the stock price:

The great thing about a recent IPO is, that one usually gets the best information about the company and the sector through the IPO prospectus, which is normally much more comprehensive than any annual report.

The Romgaz IPO prospectus is actually very good and comprehensive

This is a summary of my pro’s and con’s after reading the prospectus

+ no debt, significant net cash
+ only one share class
+ further scheduled price increases due to deregulation, mostly independent of market prices
+ many additional assets like gas storage (90% of total storage capacity), smaller distribution networks, power plant etc.
+ dividend payout ratio ~90%, resulting in a current dividend yield of ~8% (withholding tax “only” 16%)
+ High quality reporting (English)
+ privatised Government company with modern management -> lots of potential to be more efficient

– windfall tax applied in 2013 & 2014
– “royalty payments” on natural resources to Government which could increase (Nat gas & storage)
– “donations” to Government in the past
– government clients defaulted on receivables (that’s how they became owner of a power plant in 2013)
– government influence remains with 70% share
– proven reserves for only 10 years at current production rate
– reserve replacement rate very weak in the past (better in 2012/2013)

This is on the reserves from the IPO prospectus:

Owing predominantly to the re-evaluation of existing reserves, Romgaz has recorded an increasing replacement ratio, reaching 298% in 2012 (2011: 152%, 2010: 92%, 2009: 49%, 2008: 57%), with proved reserves being 71% of its total reserves. Romgaz believes that further increases of Romgaz’s reserves base can be achieved by improving its recovery rates through utilisation of well-established technologies. Romgaz’s size, longevity and market position has also helped it to enter into partnerships with major international natural gas companies including Lukoil, ExxonMobil and Schlumberger to develop other opportunities to increase reserves both inside Romania and internationally

On the upside, until 2012, Romgaz had to deliver their natural gas at “far below market” prices to their customers. Following the deregulation, prices can be adjusted to reach the market price in some years. Again from the prospectus:

Price Liberalisation
In addition, Romania has undertaken to fully liberalise the gas price for domestic production as well as the end-customer prices. In February 2013, the Romanian government started to implement a plan to deregulate natural gas prices by raising gas prices by 5% for non-household customers. It has planned to achieve the
complete price deregulation by 1 October 2014 for regulated customers and by 1 October 2018 for non-regulated customers. For non-household customers, the price of domestic gas is to increase from 49 RON/MWh, as of 1 February 2013 to 119 RON/MWh, by 1 October 2014, and for household customers, the price is to increase from 45.7 RON/MWh, in 31 December 2012 to 119 RON/MWh, by 1 October 2018.

Despite a windfall tax applied by the government, this development has been clearly positive for Romgaz with a 40% profit increase so far in 2014 against the prior year.

Valuation:

Valuing commodity producers by “standard” metrics like P/E or P/B often misses the point. The main value of a commodity producer is clealy “the stuff in the ground” minus the costs to get it out. However normally it is quite difficult to value the “stuff in the ground”. In the Romgaz case however we are again quite lucky. Part of the IPO information package was an independent “resources report” carried out by a large and well known US specialist company.

In this report, they calculate future “net revenue” including all costs taxes etc. and then come up with an NPV. In the Romgaz case, they actually created 3 scenarios: A base case, a low case and a high case. Addionally they provide NPVs for different discount rates, ranging from 8-15% p.a.

So in order to fully value Romgaz we can do a relatively simple asset-based valuation: Using the value of the reserves from the report plus any “extra assets” like the storage facilities and the power plant.

This is what I came up with for Romgaz:

Some comments:

– for the net cash I used the most recent quarterly report 09/2014
– I assumed a valuation of 6x EBITDA for the gas storage in all cases (one could argue for a much higher valuation as “infrastructure asset”)
– I assumed the original “purchase price” of the power plant form early 2013 as the market price
– for the “resources worst case”, I used the lowest value from the report (low case, only proven reserves, 15% discount)
– for the mid case I used base case, proved plus provable resources discounted at 12%

I think it is important to mention that this valuation does not give any credit to a potential exploration of new reserves, this is pure “run-off” only.

In any case, even in the worst case, the stock would have a 50% upside to “fair” value, although the fair value would still imply that you make ~15% p.a. after this value has been achieved. In the more optimistic cases, the current stock price seems to represent an even higher upside. Clearly, there is no guarantee that this value will be realized within a short time frame, but it clearly should limit the downside and create a relatively attractive risk/return relationship.

Why is the stock cheap ?

To me, this could be the combination of different factors, Mostly in my opinion:

– natural resource companies/commodities are out of favour anyway
– Emerging Markets and especially Eastern Europe are unpopular and Romania is even further away from the “Beaten track”
– there is no local shareholder base for Romanian stocks

A few words on Russian companies (Lukoil, Gazprom)

P/E wise, Russian natural resource companies look a lot cheaper and I expect some readers to comment that I should rather buy Gazprom at a P/E of 2 or so instead of Romgaz at 10. For me, despite the higher multiple, Romgaz looks more attractive to me because:

1. there is less uncertainty with regard to property right etc. in Romania. Despite obvious issues with corruption, Romania has proven that Democracy works and it is full member of the European union. This should significantly lower the risk of any “Sistema scenario”.
2. Due to the privatization story, Romgaz is less exposed in the next years to overall market price fluctuations.
3. Despite the low P/Es shown, you never know what actually happens with all those Russian profits. Dividend payout ratios are very low and the companies issue debt like crazy. Romgaz in comparison pays out a large amount of earnings and runs a big cash surplus

Summary:

In my opinion, Romgaz offers a compelling combination between a recently privatized company at a large discount to its underlying value and a potential “macro trigger” for Romania following the surprise election of an ethnic German as new President.

As Romania is so “off the beaten track” for stocks, it might take some time to realize this value, but in between one is paid quite handsomely with a 7-8% dividend yield.

As a result, I will enter into a 2,5% position as part of my “Emerging Markets” bucket at current prices (34 RON / 7,60 EUR per share).

Overall, I expect to make ~100% over a 3-5 year horizon. 30-40% should come through dividends, the rest with price appreciation, mostly based on increased earnings. Downside factors to watch are clearly any government interventions (additional taxes, royalties), further upside could be realized if reserve replacement ratios develop better than expected.

ITE PLC (ISIN GB0002520509) – Super profitable market leader in Russia at a bargain price ?

After a “Near death” experience with Sistema, I am nevertheless still interested in companies with significant Russian exposure as a “counter-cyclical” EM play, however preferably with less “Oligarch” risk. A very interesting company with a significant Russia exposure is ITE Plc, the UK-based company. According to Bloomberg

ITE Group Plc is an international organizer of exhibitions and conferences. The Company provides
its services to customers in a variety of commercial and industrial sectors, including travel and
tourism, construction, motor, oil and gas, food, security, transport, telecommunications, and
sports and leisure.

The good thing with UK companies is that usually some blogger has covered the stock already. WIth ITE, this is the case as well. Among others, there is a very good Seeking Alpha post, from the Portfolio 14 blog and als the Interactive Investor covers the stock.

I agree with all posts. Organizing exhibitions is good business:

+ you don’t need a lot of capital (negative working capital due to prepayments)
+ once an exhibition is established, it creates a network effect which is relatively difficult to duplicate
+ although the business fluctuates with the cycle, costs are to a certain extent variable
+ it’s a nice b2b business, connecting a large number of exhibitors of with a large number of interested visitors
+ despite or because of e-commerce, personal contact in the form of trade fairs etc. seems to become even more important
+ the company has no debt

The “catch” is of course that most of their exhibitions take place in Russia and the former GUS. Clearly, not the easiest part of the world to be at the moment.Looking at the past 16 years since their “reverse IPO” in 1999, we can see that the business has suffered in downturns such as the Russian default but always recovered. However, mostly due to the weak ruble, comprehensive income in the last few years was mostly lower than stated income:

Year EPS Compr. Income In% of EPS
29.12.2000 0,03    
31.12.2001 -0,13    
31.12.2002 -0,01    
31.12.2003 0,03    
31.12.2004 0,04    
30.12.2005 0,07    
29.12.2006 0,07 0,07 99%
31.12.2007 0,09 #N/A N/A #WERT!
31.12.2008 0,09 0,09 97%
31.12.2009 0,13 0,11 86%
31.12.2010 0,10 0,12 121%
30.12.2011 0,13 0,10 82%
31.12.2012 0,13 0,13 98%
31.12.2013 0,14 0,09 64%

The valuation looks quite cheap, especially the EV/EBIT and EV/EBITDA ratios for such a business with high (historical) growth rates:

P/E ~9
EV/EBITDA 5,9
EV/EBIT 7,0
P/B 4,4
Div. Yield 5,0%

After reading some of the reports, I found a couple of things I didn’t like:

– focus on “headline” profits, excluding amortizations and “restructuring charges”
– Management fully incentiviced on “Headline profits”, not ROIC or ROE etc..
– Falling knife Stock chart
– one of the biggest “rainmakers”, Edward Strachan retired a few months ago.
– trade fares and exhibitions often have a time lag of 6-12 months to the general economy. So the worst in Russia for ITE might come only in the next few quarters.

Peer Group

There aren’t that many “pure play” trade fare /exhibition companies listed but I tried to compile a list to the best of my knowledge. Two of the companies listed below (Kingsmen & Pico) are actually more supliers to exhibitions than promoters/organizers:

Name Mkt Cap (GBP) EV/EBITDA EV/EBIT P/E P/S
ITE GROUP PLC 434,5 5,3 7,0 9,9 2,2
TARSUS GROUP PLC 198,7 7,7 12,0 16,4 2,6
UBM PLC 1267,5 9,6 14,4 9,9 1,7
MCH GROUP AG 237,8 7,2 13,9 11,9 0,8
FIERA MILANO SPA 182,0 156,0 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 0,9
KINGSMEN CREATIVE LTD 87,1 5,9 6,4 10,9 0,6
PICO FAR EAST HOLDINGS LTD. 182,6 6,7 9,6 11,2 0,7

If we look at P/Es, most of the companies trade relativelly cheap at around 9-11 times earnings, but long term ROE and margins at ITE are clearly a class of its own. The big question is: Can they sustain those margins in the long run ? Many of the listed peers as well as the unlisted ones like Deutsche Messe tried (at least before the crisis) to get into the Russian market.

The problem could easily be that ITE is too profitable. Past average net margins of 20%-25% are far higher than any of the competitors. Deutsche Messe for instance, which aggressively expands into EM earned a net margin of 3% in 2013. Clearly, It is not so easy to kick out ITE, but if the difference in margins is so big, at some point in time competition will begin to bite. although it’s not easy to establish a succesful trade fair or exhibition, it is relatively easy to start one. So yes, there is a network effect but the barriers to entry are still relatively low. A good example for this can be seen currently at TESCO in the UK. For quite some time it looked that they are protected by their dominant position and had margins 2 or 3 times higher than their continental peers. But once the competitors like Aldi and Lidl, who could only dream of such margins in other markets, were big enough, margins for the leader deteriorated pretty quickly.

Valuation

Based on what I described above, I would make the following assumptions:

– going forward, net margins will be lower than in the past. In the past they achieved margins of 20-25%, I will calculate with 18% (thats what they made in 2012 and 2013)
– in order to reflect the additional risk in Russia, I will require more return. My normal requirement would be 15%, here i need 5% more or 20% p.a.

So if I assume that in 3 years time, ITE will again do the same amount of sales as in the FY 2013, this would be 0,80 GBP per share. At 18% Net margin, they would then earn around 14,4 pence per share. A “fair” P/E for such a company could be around 15. So the 3 year target price would be 14,4*15= 2,16 GBP.

However, in order to earn my 20% p.a. , I need to discount my target: 2,16/ (1,2)^3 = 1,25 GBP. This is however a lot lower than the current price of 1,70 GBP

So for me, under those assumptions, LTE is not a buy, I would buy once the price is at or below 1,25 GBP per share.

Summary:

It really took me some time with ITE Plc. I really like the business model of trade fair /exhibitions. Although cyclical, it seems to be good business with a certain protection. For ITE however, I fear the worst is yet to come. With the oil price plunging and the “Russian situation” unchanged, including more potential trade sanctions etc., the next year will be even harder than the last for ITE.

I would stil buy them if they are cheap enough, which, at the moment they are not. They would need to drop a further 30% in my opinion to make them really intersting and compensate me for the additional risk. I will however try to look at some other similar companies going forward. Especially Pico Far East and Kingsmen looked interesting at first sight.

It could easily be that I am too cautious due to my losses with Sistema (“Recency bias” ?), but at the moment I rather make the mistake of being too conservative.

Emerging market risks, Turkey & Koc Holding

Emerging markets stocks are risky. This is not a very original insight but a pretty well-known fact. Among the obvious risks compared to most “developed” countries are:

– general legal risks (listing, disclosure, property rights)
– volatility of economy
– currency
– general political instability

Following the Sistema story, I would add another significant risk for any Emerging market based company:

– personal disputes between a controlling shareholder and the current government

That this risk is real can be seen very well in Turkey at the moment at Asya Bank. Asya Bank is supposed to be owned or influenced by the major Erdogan enemy, the Gulen movement. What is happening in Turkey, at least from my perspective is pretty unique: The Government is more or less actively trying to bankrupt a private bank because the owner of the bank is opposing the current government:

Investors have dumped stocks and bonds of Istanbul-based Bank Asya as the lender was dragged into a feud between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Islamic cleric who Erdogan blames for a graft probe that implicated his government in December. The president this week called for Turkey’s banking regulator to take action on Bank Asya, citing deteriorating finances.

It seems to be that Erdogan has become much bolder since he won the election a few weeks ago and seems to care less about any negative short-term impacts on the economy.

Honestly, that made me pretty nervous with regard to my largest EM based investment, Koc Holding. I am not completely sure if everything is well now between Erdogan and the Koc family. There were already several probes against Koc companies, the latest I found was against subsidiary Turpas in July 2014.

The big question is always: Am I getting paid for the risk I am taking ? In Koc’s case, especially after the nice run up in the share price, I am not so sure anymore.

Koc is now trading at around 11 times 2014 profits, which is in line with the overall Turkish stock index. Although I believe that Koc is a far above average quality Turkish company, the individual political risk is much higher than for the general Turkish market.

In my initial post, I wrote the following:

I am clearly no expert here, but the fact that the Koc family, among others, survived 3 military coups, the second world war and hyperinflation, the probability is maybe relatively high that they survive the current episode, but risks are clearly there.

Following the Asya story however, I got much more cautious and in EUR terms, Koc is almost 40% more expensive since I bought them. It could easily be that I am too cautious here, but I am not sure if I get actually paid for this Koc related “relationship” risk when I hold Koc stocks at the current level, especially with a portfolio weight of around 3,5%. If I compare this for instance with MIKO or Hornbach, I can still invest in a nice “Boring” stock at the same level without the very specific and real risks of Koc in Turkey.

As a consequence, I will reduce my stake by more than 2/3 to a 1% level which for the future will be my maximum exposure per position to any single Emerging market based company.

Sistema update & general thoughts on Russian stocks

The News

Today, Sistema dropped by some 40% because the boss of Sistema, Vladimir Yevtushenkov was put under “House arrest” following money laundering charges in connection with the Bashneft acquisition.

Going back to my initial Sistema posts (part 1, part 2), let’s look back at the original investment thesis. One fundamental assumption for me was the following:

Is a Russian stock really “investible”

This is a big question for me. A couple of months ago, I wrote a post why I would not invest in Greek stocks (mistake !) or German-Chinese companies (score).

Honestly, a Russian stock is clearly in general much more a “speculation” than a German or French one. Compared to Italian stocks however, I am not so sure anymore, as the EMAK and ASTM example clearly showed that Corporate Governance for instance in Italy is not that much developed.

The two most relevant questions in my opinion are:

a) Are the managers fraudsters or thieves ?
b) Can someone else easily interfere and take away assets etc. ?

At that point in time, my opinion was that:

It looks like that Sistema is at least on neutral to good terms with Putin. In the case of the Indian Mobile subsidiary for instance, Putin put the problems of Sistema on the table when he visited India in 2012.

and

This sounds like a guy who knows how to maneuver (so far) within the harsh Russian political and business climate. So the risk should be a lot lower than for instance for Pharmstandard, but clearly, a dispute with government (see Rosneft/Bashneft) or a more powerful oligarch could change this real quickly.


Well, it looks like that the core foundation of my thesis is not valid anymore.
Putting someone under house arrest to me looks already like a significant escalation. To add insult to injury, one of my readers alerted my already end of July:

Seb
26. July 2014 10:26 (Edit)

Hi,
there is something brewing with regards to Sistema’s shareholding in Bashneft. The chairman, Vladimir Evtushenkov had to appear in front of the Investigative Committee in relation to the “the theft of shares of oil and energy companies in Bashkortostan”. Sistema’s Shares in Ufaorgsintez and Bashneft are now restricted from being traded.

I guess, the Bashneft SPO which was planned later this year, will not go ahead. There is even a chance that Sistema could be forced to give up their shares in Bashneft. I feel that the political risk for the company has increased a lot so that I decided to sell my Sistema stock at a nice profit. What’s your opinion on that situation?

I personally thought at that time that they will somehow sort this out but it doesn’t seem to go away easily. Rosneft (and Putin) seem to want Bashneft (and the dollar cash flows) badly and what Putin wants, he gets at some point in time.

What to do now ?

For me the answer is clear: My core assumption has turned out wrong. I do not feel comfortable to price the political risk in this scenario and the only consequence for me is to sell first and ask questions later. Speculating on a rebound would be the other possibility, but this is too much speculation for my taste. In my experience, selling fast is often better in those cases.

Additional remarks on Russian stocks /Sberbank

As some readers might rmemember, I still have a postition in Sberbank and I used to own Pharmstandard for a short time. For now the score is 2 down, one still open for my Russian investments. Not a very good one which shows clearly that both, there is a lot to learn and that the market itself could be rigged against outside investors.

For the time being, I will keep my Sberbank shares but I need to think hard if I can justify investing into Russian stocks with such a personal track record.

I have also underestimated the escalation in Ukraine, where I thought that this will be settled without huge noise at some point in time. Doesn’t look like that and Sberbank could be one of the casualties along the way if the sanctions escalate.

GP Investments (GPIIF US) – Your chance to team up with Brazilian Investment Superstars like Uncle Warren did ?

That some Brazilian investors know how to make BIG money is no secret anymore, especially since Warren Buffet teamed up with Brazilian 3G to take over Heinz in a 26 bn USD deal.

What if you could team up with similar Brazilian guys like good old Warren did ? In theory, there is a good chance by buying shares in GP Investments, a listed Brazilian Private Equity company. GP Investments is not any Brazilian Private Equity company, but was the original Private Equity vehicle of “genius” investor Jorge Paolo Lemann. He sold the company in 2003 to his Junior partners and then went on to found 3G.

So in theory, GP Investments is like the “Junior” version of 3G with a LatAm focus and some of the employees of GP have actually been hired by the 3G guys which are all bilionaires now (Lemann is according to Bloomberg now number 28 in the world with a net worth of 24,8 bn USD).

Back to GP Investments:

There is a pretty comprehensive case study on Value Investor’s Club, so no need to replicate everything here.

The basic investment idea is simple:

GP investments trades at a discount to its holdings (in which it invests along its 3rd party private equity funds) plus you get the asset management company for free. On top of that, management is aligned with shareholders and repurchases shares.

Further, two “gold standard” value investment firms have large positions, Third Avenue with 11,65% and “legendary” Sequoia with 11,8%. Finally, GP Investments announced two very succesful exits over the last weeks which made them good money (BR Towers and SASCAR).

The stock price increased a little bit since then, but still, the stock looks very much undervalued and almost a “No brainer” if one is looking for a Brazilian investment opportunity.

What is the asset management business worth ?

My answer: Not much. Look at this table:

Management Fees Salaries, expenses Bonuses Net
2006 15.5 -18.99 -5.2 -8.69
2007 26.2 -38.1 -9.2 -21.1
2008 13.9 -47.9 -3.9 -37.9
2009 16.2 -47.9 -13.4 -45.1
2010 25.0 -48.6 -15.3 -38.9
2011 17.4 -45.4 -7.7 -35.7
2012 22.4 -60.2 -19.3 -57.1
2013 20.5 -74.9 -8.4 -62.8
Total 157.1 -382.0 -82.4 -307.3

Based on the available US GAAP account I created this table showing the assets maganagement fees charged to third party investors against salaries, expenses and bonuses for GP’s employes and operation. We can easily see that the balance has been increasingly negative over the years. Since the IPO, the “Asset Management Business” has cost the shareholders some serious money. Even if we assume that expenses include other general expenses, then to me the value of the Asset Manegement looks rather negative, it looks like that GP shareholders are subsidising 3rd party investors to a significant extent.

Private Equity track record

If you read through GP’s investor presentation, they always stress their great track record since 1993 with a lot of examples of exits where they made a lot of money. However, we never find a “real” track record which shows the real IRR for all assets. For an Asset Manager, the track record is the most important asset, before anything else.

In the following table, I tried to recreate their PE track record based on their published numbers since their IPO 2006 (in USD). I used disclosed US GAAP numbers and then calculated a simplified annual IRR. One remark: Minorities are a big contributor in GP’s P&L. I assumed that all minority results are PE related. In the table, a positive number in the column minorities means that the loss has been shared with minorities and vice versa for profits.

Investments eoy Realized gains, Div increase in value Minorities Total return in % a.m.
2006 173.9          
2007 1165 59.2 279.8 -169.0 170.0 25.39%
2008 1381 11.8 -513.9 304.2 -197.9 -15.55%
2009 1568 229.0 241.5 -284.0 186.5 12.65%
2010 1431 -47.8 -39.0 68.2 -18.6 -1.24%
2011 1173 38.3 -348.0 236.0 -73.7 -5.66%
2012 1279 133.0 -120.3 44.0 56.7 4.62%
2013 998.3 -284.2 191.6 89.6 -3.0 -0.26%
Total   139.3 -308.3 289.0 120.0

It’s not hard to see that the Performance only looks good the first year, after the they went public.Since then, the track record has been very weak. The Bovespa made in the same period a total return in USD of ~0,7% p.a. So yes, they performed slightly better than the Bovespa, but after bonsues and expenses, GP shareholders would have been better off with an index fund. Bad timing plays clearly a certain role here as well, however on the other hand it is hard to understand how the justify paying out more than 80 mn USD in bonuses for such a mediocre perfomance.

A few additional remarks on that from my side:

Debt/leverage

After the IPO, GP took on leverage, both as a bank loan and with an issuance of a perpetual note. Especially the perptual note in USD with 10% might have looked as a good idea when interest rates in Brazil were high and the real gained against the dollar, but now, with the real loosing significantly, this currency bet is of course making things worse. Additionally shareholders have additionally lost money via a “negative carry” on the debt funding compared to their low single digit investment returns.

Stock options / Alignment of interest

Since 2006, more than 50 mn options have been granted to the employees (against around 160 mn shares). Some are pretty far out of the money, but still, combined with the bonuses it doesn’t look like that there is “full alignment” between shareholders and employees. The executed share repurchases look rather small compared to the option grants.

“Diworsification”

In the last few years, GP diversified into infrastructure and real estate. For me, this is a clear sign that they focus on asset gathering rather than on performance. I think their problem is that they cannot raise a new PE fund as their perfomance is most likely substandard and many more competitors are now active in Brazil then when they started. Additionally, on of their recent pruchases, a Swiss based listed fund-of-fund vehicle called “APEN” s also not really consistent with their LatAm focused strategy.

So the big question is:

Is GP Investments a good investment despite the substandard track record ? Will they be able to generate better returns going forward ?

What I am concerned about is the fact that they seem to hang on their loosers and sell winners pretty quickly. Making 100% in 3 years sounds good, but the real money is made with investments that make 5 or 10 times their initial investment. Overall, to me it looks like that the bonuses which are paid independent of overall investment results are the biggest issue. In a “Good” private equity structure, the employees only cash out AFTER the full portfolio has been cashed out and the overall result. In my opinion, this is the only way how to align incentives in such an environment.

Finally, a few words on the “Lemann / 3G” connection: In the book “Dream Big”, which I just finished reading (review follows soon…) and which sketches the carreers of the 3G guys, Lemann is quoted that he left GP Investments because of 2 reasons:

1. GP did chase too many deals, as he wanted to focus only on a few for the very long term
2. He didn’t like the way his younger partners payed themselves big salaries. His credo was always that salaries and bonuses had to be fully reinvested into the company and employees should have a simple life style

So for me at this stage, I will not invest in GP. Despite the interesting and initially compelling story, I am simply not convinced that GP going forward will be a better investment than a Bovespa index fund. Full stop.

Depfa: No sale, LT2 and the “Kebab Zerobond” (ISIN XS0221762932)

Warning: The securities discussed are illiquid and/or risky and the author might have bought them already before publishing the posts. Please do your own research and if you decide to invest nevertheless, use apropriate limits !!!

Background:

For readers of my blog, Depfa is no stranger. I did buy a 2015 floating tier 2 subordinated bond in 2011 and this has been a very good investment so far.

To summarize the story of Depfa for “new” readers quickly: Depfa was initially a “full service” German mortgage bank which then split up into a German mortgage bank (Aareal) and an Ireland based “public funding” bank (Depfa Plc). Shortly before the Lehman crisis, Depfa got bought by another German mortage bank, HypoRealestate (itself a spin-off from Hypovereinbsank). The rest is history: Depfa/Hyporeal Estate was the first bank to go belly up and needed to be rescued by the German Government.

After beeing rescued, the startegy was to concentrate on German Mortgage banking and to sell the old Depfa part (which has been “cleansed” from PIIGS exposure via a bad bank). The sale process seemed to have been already quite far advanced, with Leucadia as favourite, before very surprisingly the German Government pulled the sale in the last minute before closing.

Germany has intervened to prevent bailed-out bank Depfa from falling into US hands just hours before a deal was about to be struck.

The government’s financial market stabilisation fund, known as Soffin, said on Tuesday evening that Depfa should be wound down by the German authorities rather than sold for what would have been €320m to US investor Leucadia, according to people familiar with the deal.

What does that mean for Depfa bonds in general ?

Tier 1 bonds of Depfa got hit quite hard, although one must say that they enjoyed a great run up until then as this chart shows:

The reason here is I think the expectation that the FMS, which will have the task to run down Depfa, will not do anything actively with the subordinated bonds, whereas any private buyer would have tried to get the subs out as soon as possible under par in order to realize value more quickly.

Although it is not clear, how Depfa will be passed over to FMS (most likely a sale at book in my opinion, in order to facility a Hypo Real Estate sale in 2015), I think it is fair to asume that sooner or later FMS will be the owner of all assets and liabilites.

FMS itself is a Government owned “bad bank”. As bad banks need constant refinancing, FMS issues new bonds on a regular basis like this one. FMS is owned by SOFFIN, the German “bank rescue” vehicle, which itself carries an explicit Government guarantee. A good description of the FMS can be found here (in German, page 108 ff).

So once, Depfa has been transferred to FMS, in principle the liabilites should be considered FMS liabilities which again carry a AAA rating and trade more or less at levels similar to KfW.

Impact on subordinated bonds

The bloomberg article above mentioned that Depfa subordinated investors were afraid of the following:

“The main risks facing creditors now are the risk of burden-sharing as well as an indefinite coupon ban,” the analysts wrote in a note to clients on May 14. “It’s difficult to see clear upside from current levels and further volatility is likely.”

I share the opinion that it is very unlikely that coupons on Tier 1 bonds will be paid in the near future, although, at some point in time FMS might want to buy out the Tier 1 investors as well. But at current levels (50% of nominal), this is not a very attractive speculation.

However for the Tier 2 bond I own, the transfer of Depfa to the FMS is actually good news. I cannot think of any realistic scenario which would lead to a loss for the Tier 2 until maturity in 2015. If they would like to screw those bond holders, I am pretty sure they will have issues refinancing and this is the last thing they want. The LT2 bond priced consequently barely moved as we can see in the Chart:

So far, the LT2 has been a very good investment. Around 30% annualised return with, in my opinion, very little risk. If one has cash to park, I think the bond is even now a very interesting investment. You get around 5% annualized return until maturity December 2015 which is effectively Governemnt guaranteed.

I will therefore increase the position from a “half position” to a full 5% as I have plenty of liquidity in the portfolio to park.

The Depfa 2020 TRY “Kebab Zerobond” (ISIN XS0221762932)

When I started to look at Emerging markets earlier this year, especially when I looked at Koc Holding, I was surpried that Depfa had Turish Lira bonds outstanding.

When you search in Bondboard.de for TRY bonds which are traded in Germany it is even interesting to see that the 2020 Depfa TRY Zero bond is the highest yielding TRY bond available.

At a current yield of ~13% p.a., the bond trades around 4% p.a. wider than a 2 year longer EIB Zero bond and around 3% wider than similar Turkish Government (coupon) bonds.

Why does the bond look cheap ?

1. First of all, I think the problem is that the “official” rating of Depfa is BBB. Many investors will simply compare the bond with other financial BBB issues and apply respective spreads. As many of the Italian and Spanish banks are BBB as well, BBB financial spreads are high.

2. The bond is relatively small (425 mn TRY) and illiquid as the 100 K TRY denomination will deter many smaller investors (at ~47%, you need to pay around minimum 17k EUR to buy one bond). I think also, many investors prefer coupon paying bonds to zero bonds, for most investors “zero” bonds are an exotic security

3. Finally, I think not many people did like the combination of the Depfa structural risk and the TRY currency risk. Either you like Emerging markets and TRY or you want to play the Depfa capital structure, but usually not both.

However for me, the bond is the ideal combination: I do like the Depfa risk as I think that any Senior Depfa bond will be a AAA equivalent bond after the transfer to the FMS. Additionally I do also like the TRY risk. Clearly, there is downside potential and he TRY/EUR is still volatile as the chart shows:

As an investor you can gain (or loose) money with this bond based on 3 risk faktors:

A) TRY/EUR exchange rate. Based on the current interest rate differential, the market assumes that the TRY will devalue vy ~8% p.a. against the EUR.Perosnally, I see a good chance that the devaluation could be less than that. Under many metrics (PPP, BigMac index etc.) the TRY is fundamentally cheap compared to EUR and USD although there is clearly political and econimical riskimplied. The currency factor is clearly no “free lunch”.

B) Turkish interest rates. As a zerobond, the bond has a duration of ~6,5 years, i.e. if interest rates go up or down 1% the bond price will move +/-6,5%. Currently the yield curve in Turkey is flat or even inverse, with the short end slightly higher. even if long term rates stay constantand only short terms go down, one can expect some “extra juice” from the potential roll down of the bond.

C) Depfa Spread. Compared to an EIB Bond, the implicit credit spread is around 3-4% p.a. although in my eyes the credit risk is similar to an IB or german Government bond. I think there is also a good chance that this could normalize over 2-3 years. If there is some rating action following the transfer, this could even happen quicker.

All in all, I find the TRY Depfa bond very attractive and will by a half position for the portfolio. As the risk is predominantly TRY, I will allocate it to the Emerging Markets bucket.

My expectation is that I can make ~50%-60% in local currency within 3 years, if the yield curve normalizes and the Depfa Spread tightens including the normal “carry” of 13%. If half of that shows up in EUR, I will be already very happy 😉

Hedge fund edition

For a smart (hedge) fund with good access to securities lending, a long (Depfa)-short (TRY EIB 0% 2022) trade could be interesting. Despite the slight duration mismatch, this could be an interesting way to speculate on the relative spread tightening between Depfa/FMS and the EIB bonds with an interesting implicit positive carry, although I am not sure how easy it is to borrow the EB bonds.

Summary:

In my opinion, the planned transfer of the old Depfa to the FMS is good news for LT2 and Senior bonds of Depfa, as the bonds become effectively German Government equivalent. I will therefore increase my existing lT2 position up to 5% and invest a half position (2,5%) into the Depfa 2020 TRY bond as Emerging Market investment.

P.S.:Why did I call this the “Depfa Kebab bond” ?

Doner Kebab is the most popular German fast food.

Based on Turkish ingredients, the current form (with salad etc.) is supposed to be a Turkish-German invention and in my opinion a good omen that a Turkish-German combination can be really delicious…..

Emerging Markets: Sberbank ADRs (ISIN US80585Y3080)- Buying Russia in one stock

Warning: The stock discussed is very risky and the risk of a complete loss is high. In any case this should be seen at best as a very small part of a diversified Emerging Markets portfolio and in no case as a concentrated “bet”.

After a short visit in Hongkong, back to Russia, the currently cheapest Emerging market.

Sberbank is the largest publicly listed bank in Russia, with a market cap of around 32 bn EUR. As many Russian stocks, the stock price has suffered severely, especially if you look at the EUR price including the Rubel devaluation:

The current valuation looks attractive as with most Russian stocks:

P/E 4.2
P/B 0.8
Dividend yield 4,5%

Clearly, there are a lot of banks which have lower P/B Ratios, but Sberbank has, despite some volatility, shown ROEs of ~25% on average over the last 11 years (low: 3% in 2009, high 44% in 2001) combined with remarkable growth (in Ruble, EPS increased from 1 RUB in 2004 to 17, CAGR of 132%). This supports my thesis that banking in high interest rate countries is much more interesting than in low-interest rate environments.

What about current situation Russia ?

Standard and Poors just downgraded Russia from BBB to BBB-. This forced the Russian central bank to increase short-term rates from 7 to 7,5% after increasing it from 5% to 7% in March. Clearly, this will not support the currently weak economy in Russia.

And there is certainly a big risk that the situation in Russia and Ukraine gets worse. As with Sistema, the argument that it can get much worse before it gets better is clearly valid. Nevertheless, I think it will be difficult to really hit the bottom and as Mark Moebius has said “If you see the end of the tunnel it is already too late to invest”, I think investing when everyone expects worse to come is usually the better strategy with Emerging Markets.

What many people forget: Despite the big headline issues, from a financial point of view Russia looks very solid. Super low government debt (~15% of GDP), low consumer debt etc. Russia is a pretty “underleveraged” country, so the impact of devaluation, higher interest rates etc. on the economy are less significant than for instance in highly leveraged countries. Although certain Oligarchs may disagree for their personal portfolios….

Why a bank ?

Well, first of all, Sberbank is not a bank in Russia but the biggest bank of Russia. 52% of the voting rights are held by the Russian Central bank, so it is effectively Government controlled.

Investing into a bank is clearly a leveraged bet on the whole economy. If the economy tanks and debtors default, banks are getting hit hard. If the economy recovers, banks often profit strongly.

In Sberbanks case, I assume due to the ownership stake of the Russian Central bank that they will not have any funding problems in local currency. Clearly, getting dollars might be a little bit trickier, but Russia as a whole as Oil and commodity exporter should be USD positive.

Why Sberbank

Sberbank has quite good reporting in place including a brand new investor presentation. Interestingly, even in a 0% GDP growth scenario, they still project double-digit growth in loans.

The highlights of Sberbanks market position are:

+ 11x the number of branches of the next competitor
+ ~30-40% market share in all areas
+ one of the most profitable banks globally (ROA)

Clearly, there are also a lot of issues. Corporate Loan defaults could easily double or triple in a worst case scenario. Nevertheless, if they manage only a part of their ambitious goal (doubling their profit until 2018), the potential upside could be significant.

Other considerations

When looking at Russian companies, fraud, missing property rights etc. are always an issue. You can bet that in such a large organization like Sberbank a lot of fraudulent stuff is going on. On the other hand, es we have seen in 2008/2009 this is a general issue with banks in all jurisdictions. Sberbank has a history of fruads like this one or that one. Although if we compare that for instance with the two massive frauds at Citigroup’s Mexican subsidiaries it doesn’t look that spectacular.

Subjectively I would say that Sberbank is quite transparent compared to other Russian companies and that there were no obvious attempts to screw shareholders in the last few years.

One thing needs to be mentioned here: The Sberbank shares traded outside Russia are “ADRs”, American Deposit Receipts. I have no idea if somehow US authorities could seize those ADRs or do anything else to cause problems for ADR holders. I assume not as this would kill the ADR business but you never know.

Summary

Sberbank is stand alone not a “value investment” as there is clearly a risk of permanent loss in a very adverse scenario. However as a small part of an Emerging markets portfolio, I think it could be an interesting play on a normalization in Russia.

I will therefore invest a 1% portfolio position at around 5,80 EUR into Sberbank ADRs as part of my Emerging market basket (currently Sistema 1%, Koc 2,5%, Ashmore 2,5%).

Emerging markets: China & Hong Kong stocks

On my trip into the Emerging Markets space, I tend to favour the most “countercyclical” countries and markets. When I was looking for my next “target”, I was thinking: Ok, which country and which sector have the worst reputation right now (of cours after Russia/Ukraine and Turkey) ? The answer was pretty easy: Chinese companies. Consensus seems to be now that China is crashing rather sooner than later, so that might be a natural place to start (slowly) looking for opportunities.

China & Chinese companies

In general, I have been sceptical or “bearish” about China since around 2008/2009. So far, Chine has kept up better and longer than I have expected, at least based on the official growth figures etc.

A quick look a the chart shows that the Hang Seng Index is only at 50% of the peak valuation compared to 2007, so the “official” growth rates did not translate into rising share prices at all:

Mainland Chinese companies are even more “depressed” based on the chart as the mainland based, Shanghai composite index clearly shows:

Valuation wise, the markets look cheap but not dirt cheap:

Hang Seng:
P/E 10,4
P/B 1.4
Dividend Yield 3,47%

Shanghai Comp
P/E 10,2
P/B 1,3
Dividend Yield 2,95%

I have written in the blog a couple of times about Chinese companies listed in Germany which in my opinion are to a very large extent promoted frauds, for instance Powerland (2011) and the Asian Bamboo series. I have also written why I would never invest in Chinese companies , so did anything change ?

Just to be clear: I would still not invest into a German-Chinese company or a US listed Chinese company. Also I would have reservations about China ;Mainland companies, as I don’t think that mainland standards are comparable to anything I have experienced yet.

Why not just ignore China ?

Some people might argue that “staying in the circle of competence” would be the better and safer option. However, if you look at the German Mittelstand for instance, most of the growth comes from business in China and/or Southeast Asia. Ignoring China is in my opinion a big risk for any investor as the impact on almost any company is growing day by day.

Looking directly at Chinese or Asian companies in my opinion will add an important perspective for any investor in order to be able to analyse Asian operations of non-Asian companies as well.

Where to look then in China ?

From my current status of knowledge, I would make one exception to my “Anti China” bias: I do think that “traditional” Hong kong listed companies could qualify as an investment.

As some might remember, Hong kong belonged to the UK until 1997, when the control then was ceded to China. What is interesting in my opinion is the fact, that the legal system in Hong Kong is still British or very close to British. This is a quote form Wikipedia:

The Hong Kong judiciary has had a long reputation for its fairness and was recently rated as the best judicial system in Asia by a North Carolina think tank.[2]

Although Hong Kong had its waves of fraudulent “Mainland” Chinese companies , I do think that “traditional” Hong listed AND Hong Kong registered companies are “investable”. A funny quote from the linked article above shows the issues with Chinese mainland companies:

There is no extradition treaty between Hong Kong and the mainland making it hard to take criminal action for fraud.

So even the Hong Kong regulators cannot get their hand on mainland fraudster, so good luck to German investors in Kinghero, Ming Le sports etc. ……

A good history of Hong Kong company registration and listings can be found here: including the short histories of many of Hong Kong’s most famous companies. So a lot of Hong Kong companies have a long history against one can check how they treated their shareholders etc. which is lacking for many mainland companies.

Despite the British heritage, Hong Kong is clearly an Asian market with a lot of pitfalls, specialties etc. Many companies are run by “Tycoons” or “Tai Pans”, strong patriarchical characters with many links and connections between large Groups, listed and non-listed comapneis etc. To get a “flavour” of some of the more common issues in Asia, one can read for instance this document from 2009 called “Guide on Fighting Abusive Related Party transactions in Asia”. A little Gem out of this report: There are no insider trading charges in Indonesia…..

What I do like about major Hong Kong companies is the relatively high standard of reporting. I looked at some annual reports and many of them were very well written and informative.

Hong Kong specialities

Traditionally, the big Hong Kong conglomerates are mostly active in some kind of transportation, real estate or both and have branched out into many other areas.

The Hang Seng index company is actually calculating a special index for “Non China” Hang Seng companies called the Hang Seng HK35 index. The constituents are the following stocks which I think are a good start to analyze further:

>

Code Constituent Name
1 Cheung Kong
2 CLP Hldgs
3 HK & China Gas
4 Wharf (Hldgs)
5 HSBC Hldgs
6 Power Assets
11 Hang Seng Bank
12 Henderson Land
13 Hutchison
14 Hysan Dev
16 SHK Prop
17 New World Dev
19 Swire Pacific ‘A’
20 Wheelock
23 Bank of E Asia
27 Galaxy Ent
66 MTR Corporation
83 Sino Land
101 Hang Lung Prop
142 First Pacific
93 Cathay Pac Air
303 VTech Hldgs
330 Esprit Hldgs
388 HKEx
494 Li & Fung
522 ASM Pacific
551 Yue Yuen Ind
880 SJM Hldgs
1038 CKI Hldgs
1128 Wynn Macau
1299 AIA
1928 Sands China
1972 Swire Properties
2282 MGM China
2388 BOC Hong Kong

As many companies invest to a certain extent in real estate, one should now that most HK companies revalue their proporties through the P&L. So low P/Es are often a result of large property valuation gains which might not be sustainable. This is the first thing to check with any HK company.

What to look for in general

For further excursions into Hong kong, I will try to concentrate on companies which will (among others) have the following characteristics:

– transparent reporting & good track record with regard to shareholder orientation (e.g. dividends, share buy backs etc.)
– conglomerates with the majority of listed subsidiaries (sum of parts)
– no pure real estate companies
– significantly cheaper valuation than comparable US/European companies or clear discount to sum of part
– it would not hurt if some well known value investors would be among the shareholders

Two reading tips:

At the end of this first Hong Kong post, 2 reading recommendations. The first is from Mark Moebius and called “Passport for profits”:

This is basically the extended version of the “Little book of Emerging markets” which I reviewed a few weeks ago. Mobius started his career in Hong Kong and has some interesting Hong Kong stories in the book.

A second, more unconventional tip is the novel “Noble House” from James Clavell:

This massive 1.200 pages book written in the 1960ies covers the story of a CEO or “Tai Pan” of a big Hong Kong Trading house and his fight against another big trading house. The author lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years and the story seems to be based on two “real life” Asian companies, Jardine Matheson (now headquartered in Singapore) and Swire. Along a spy story, various murders etc., the book contains detailed descriptions of bank runs, bear raids, insider stock trading, non existent trading rules etc. Although the names were changed, many of the events in the book actually happened, for instance a bank run in 1965.

A good long read for a summer (beach) vacation.

To be continued…..

There is always something “on sale”

When I go home from work, it is usually quite late and I don’t have a lot of time for shopping, as shops close at 8 pm sharp.

The next store for me is actually a “Karstadt” branch, which has a nice but VERY expensive grocery department. The interior looks like this:

The stuff they are offereing is good quality but it is in general very expensive (like 2 times the price compared to a normal REWE), but they do always have some items on sale. In the sausage department for instance, they will have really good Parma ham at a good price one week, Serano ham the next week and “Südtiroler Speck” the next week. So if you are flexible, you can make a “good value” purchase despite the fact that the store on average is really expensive. The interesting thing about being flexible is that if you always go for the “on sale” item, which I do for instance also for cheese, you sometimes discover interesting new things. One of my favourite cheeses (goat cheese with cranberries) for instance is one which I would never had thought of buying before. But as it was on sale, I bought it and really liked it.

The big trick is not to buy (too much) of the expensive stuff. Sometimes you can’t avoid it, but if you have a plan and stick to it, my overall bill is relatively similar to a “normal” Supermarket and I often end up with new and interesting items.

If I would always buy the same item, for example Parma ham, my favourite ham, I would end up paying on average far too much or, if I would use a hard cap on price I would end up hungry on many days. In my case, buying nothing and being hungry often ends in eating really unhealthy stuff like chips and chocolate, so this is a rather “high risk” strategy.

So why am I writing about my shopping habits ? Did I run out of investment ideas or what

Well, I do think that the current stock market is, to a large extent similar to my Karstadt grocery department. There is no doubt that on average stock prices look very expensive. Especially my favourite “hunting ground”, quality small caps are on average really expensive, same as US blue chips etc etc.

On the other hand, if you look around a little bit further and allow some flexibility like in my Karstadt grocery store, there is almost always something on sale in the stock market. For instance in 2011/2012 when German small caps already looked very rich, I decided to look into Italian and French stocks (which I had never done before) and I was genuinely surprised how many “good value” stocks existed outside my native environment. Clearly, not every new item will be of good “Taste” as some of my early experiments with Greek and Italian stocks showed. But the gain of the positive surprises more than made up the items which were not to my liking.

Although it is much early to tell, my trip further away into markets like Russia and Turkey seem to confirm my theory. Those markets are clearly on sale, but at a first glance, it is an unusual taste. On a second glance, one is often surprised how good those companies are.

Here are, in no particular order, some areas where I think “on sale items” can be found:

– Emerging markets stocks (Russia, Turkey etc.)
– Eastern European stocks
– European utility stocks
– European financials (banks, insurance)
– Oil majors, oil service
– Dutch real estate companies
– “traditional” Hong Kong companies
– UK grocery companies
– shipping

Clearly, not everything on this list will turn out as “good value” and some of them might even be far over the “consume until” date. And none of them will most likely prvide you with a “quick double”. But medium term, 3-5 years, many of those areas will contain stocks who will provide more than ufficent return compared to their risk.

Coming back to my grocery example: Many of those “sale items” aren’t even in the sausage and cheese department, they might be in the fish or salad area or even at the vegetable stand. But if you are flexible enough to go home and eat a delicious “oriental bulgur salad” instead of cheese or Parma ham, you will not only make a good deal but gain an interesting perspective.

One advice however: if you try something new and exotic, don’t go all in and buy 3 kilo for the next two weeks. Just buy a small amount and look if it is your taste. At Karstadt for instance i ended up once with a pink fish egg paste which I really didn’t like at all. But as I had bought only a small portion, I just threw it away with no loss.

Back to the stock market: What I see at the moment is that many good stock pickers are going into cash because their favourite area has become to expensive. They “slavishly” follow Buffett’s advice to buy only what they know and wait for a crash in order to buy back their favourite shares at low prices. For me however this strategy resembles a little bit this well-known strategy:

Additionally, many investors seem to be influenced by guys like John Hussmann who claim to have statistical proof that nothing can be earned on average at the current valuation levels. Ignoring the fact that Hussmann’s performance numbers short, mid and longterm totally suck, I think the problem with all those “backtesting” gurus is that their market timing asset allocation look great on paper and charts but rarely work in practice.

I personally think that “contrarian, value based” stock picking without active market timing will beat any “asset allocation backtest” strategy over the long run. Especially for smaller investors, the coming years might be very very good years for stock pickers if one stays away from the beaten paths despite most likely weak returns for the overall market.

As a stock picker, I think times likes these are a great opportunity to expand one’s circle of competence and look for bargains outside your favourite areas as there might seem to be plenty available. As I said in the headline: There is always something on sale.

« Older Entries Recent Entries »