Tag Archives: Warren Buffet

Admiral Plc (ISIN GB00B02J6398) – Short candidate or “Outsider” company with a Moat ?

Disclosure: The author might have bought the stock well in advance of publishing the post. In this special case, the idea has been presented already some weeks ago to a group of value investors.

Introduction

Admiral is a UK based P&C insurance company. A brief look into Admiral’s multiples would single it out as a potential short candidate (~15 GBP/share):

P/B 8,0
P/S 4,5
P/E ~14,5
Div. yield 3,7%

Especially P/B and P/S look overvalued if compared to other P&C companies. The average multiple for European P&C companies is ~2,1 for P/B, 1,6 for P/S and 11,6 P/E. So the company looks wildly overvalued.

Admiral – “The UK Geico” ?

Admiral is definitely no stranger for value investors. Metropolis Capital, a value investing shop with a good reputation presented Admiral as their pick for the London Value Investor conference some weeks ago.

The pitch is relatively simple: Admiral is the UK version of GEICO, the famous low cost direct insurer owned by Warren Buffet. Just look at the cost ratios of Admiral compared to its 4 main competitors:

Cost ratio P&C 2013
Aviva 32,8%
RSA 32,6%
Direct Line 22,3%
Esure 23,8%
Admiral 19,9%

Clearly, the cost advantage against “traditional” companies like Aviva and RSA comes from the fact that they don’t have to pay insurance agents. But even compared to the direct competitors, Admiral seems to have a cost advantage. Among other things, Admiral is the only FTSE100 company located in Wales which implies quite “reasonable” salaries.

However there is a big difference compared to GEICO:

GEICO’s business model as we all know, combines low cost / direct with investing the “float” Buffet style, so every premium dollar earned is kept and invested as profitable as possible, preferably in stocks. In principle, this is the strategy of all insurance companies, but very few are able to get “Buffet like” returns.

So I have compiled 3 statistics which show that Admiral “ticks” differently:

2013 Ratio Financial income /total profit Net retained premium “Other” in % of profit
RSA 116,4% 93,6% 0,0%
Aviva 72,9% 88,2% 0,0%
Direct Line 35,2% 101,6% 36,3%
Esure 11,3% 91,4% 40,1%
Admiral 3,3% 25,0% 85,0%

A quick explanation of those ratios: The net profit of an Insurance company is the result of 3 major components:
a) Underwriting result
b) investment result
c) “other” stuff

The first column in the table above shows what percentage of the total result in 2013 can be attributed to the investment result. RSA for instance actually makes a loss in insurance, so more than 100% of their profit comes from the investment portfolio. Admiral, on the other end, attributes only 3% of the total profit to investments. So what’s going on here ? Do they manage their investments so badly ?

The second column explains this “conundrum”: All the other players keep more or less all the insurance premiums they are collecting. Admiral, on the other hand only keeps 25% of incoming insurance premiums, the other 75% get “ceded” to Reinsurers.

Finally, the third column shows, that Admira is actually earning most of its money with “other” stuff whatever that means. To solve the puzzle, one has to look back into history of Admiral: Admiral was founded by a Lloyds syndicate to act as a kind of “Underwriting agency” in order to generate premium for the syndicate. So from the start, Admiral had a very lean structure, selling only direct etc. At some point in time they decided that the syndicate was too expensive and that they actually want to issue the policies themselves. Nevertheless, they kept their lean set up and lined up reinsurers to shoulder the majority of the risk.

Most people familiar with Insurance would say that the concept of Admiral doesn’t make sense. Why should you give up profits both, on the insureance side as well as in investments by passing 75% ? The answer is relatively simple: Capital efficency. Most insurance companies are notouriously capital inefficient. Long term ROEs for most major players are below 10% p.a. despite often significant leverage through subordinated debt. The main reason for this is the fact, that in many jurisdictions, the “GEICO” model requires to hold a large amount of capital to buffer capital market movements. Unless you are Warren Buffet, the returns on those investments are often below average so as a result, ROEs are bad. Plus the fact that growth often requires a lot of upfront capital as well.

For Admiral, the big structural problem of course is the following: If I pass most of my premiums and cash to reinsurers, how do I then earn money ? This is where the “other” column from my table above comes into play. Due to this business model, Admrial very early concentrated on making additional money by selling “ancillary” stuff.

This is what Admiral writes in its latest annual report (by the way: all annual reports since 2003 are highly recommended for clarity and insight !!!):

Other Revenue
Admiral generates Other revenue from a portfolio of insurance products that complement the core car insurance product, and also fees generated over the life of the policy. The most material contributors to net
Other revenue are:
> Profit earned from motor policy upgrade products underwritten by Admiral, including breakdown, car hire and personal injury covers
> Profit from other insurance products, not underwritten by Admiral
> Vehicle Commission (see page 25)
> Fees – a dministration fees and referral income (see page 25)
> Instalment income – interest charged to customers paying for cover in instalments

This additional income is extremely high margin with almost no capital requirement and drives the profitability of the company.

The result

This low capital requirement leads to ROE’s which are compared to its peers “from outer space”:

Name ROE FY ROE 5Y
     
Average 16% 17%
ADMIRAL GROUP PLC 59% 59%
TOPDANMARK A/S 26% 31%
TRYG A/S 19% 21%
LANCASHIRE HOLDINGS LTD 15% 17%
BEAZLEY PLC 21% 16%
GJENSIDIGE FORSIKRING ASA 16% 15%
SAMPO OYJ-A SHS 14% 14%
GRUPO CATALANA OCCIDENTE SA 13% 14%
EULER HERMES SA 13% 13%
ZURICH INSURANCE GROUP AG 12% 12%
ALLIANZ SE-REG 11% 12%
AMLIN PLC 19% 10%
MAPFRE SA 9% 9%
XL GROUP PLC 9% 9%
RSA INSURANCE GROUP PLC -11% 5%

Other unique aspects of Admiral’s business model

Comparison sites

Admiral runs in addition to its insurance operation, its own insurance comparison sites (e.g. Confused.com in the UK). Although those comparison sites themselves only contribute less then 10% of total profit, it gives Admiral a strategic advantage: Via their comparison site they can monitor in real time what competitors are doing and how they are pricing stuff. Other comparison sites also sell this kind of data but usually with a significant time delay. So running its own comparison site is clearly an advantage against a “normal” onilne insurer.

Capital allocation

With regard to capital allocation, again look at this statement from the 2013 annual report:

Admiral believes that having excess cash in a company can lead to poor decision-making. So we are committed to returning surplus capital to shareholders. We believe that keeping management hungry for cash keeps them focused on the most important aspects of the business. We do not starve our businesses but neither do we allow them the luxury of trying to decide what to do with excess capital.

Charly Munger would say at this point “I Have nothing more to add”. This is how it should be done but rarely found especially in the Insurance industry.

Managment & Shareholders:

The current CEO, Henry Engelhardt founded the company on behalf of the Lloyds Syndicate in 1991. He still holds ~12,8% of the company.

Co-founder David Stevens owns around 3,8%. Both founders only pay themselves ~400 k GBP per year salaries and no bonuses. The only exception is the CFO, who is relatively new. He earns around 1 mn GBP including a bonus and doesn’t have a lot of shares. There are quite some interviews available on Youtube with the CEO, among them this one is especially interesting:

Largest outside shareholder is MunichRe with 10%, who is also providing the majority of the reinsurance capacity. Other noteworthy shareholders are PowerCorp from Canada and Odey, the UK Hedge fund with a -0.79% short position. All Admiral employees are shareholders and there is a program for employes to purchase shares.

Stock price

Since going public, Admiral has performed very well:

Including dividends, Admiral returned 25,5% p.a. since their IPO against ~8% p.a. for the FTSE 100. Since 2004, EPS trippled and dividends per share increased by a factor of five. Interestingly, Admiral never traded at a level which one would asociate normally with such a growth stock, at the peak, the share had a P/E of 22 in 2006. I think this has to do with the general discomfort that many investors have with financial stocks.

Challenges for Admiral

Some of the additonal income sources for Admiral are clearly under regulatory thread. Referral fees, bundling etc. are currently investigated by UK regulators (see here and here) but especially Admiral seems to be quite creative on how to find different ways to earn fees.

Another and maybe the biggest strategic issue is that in theory comparison sites could start to sell additional products as well as we can see in the car rental market. However Admiral has the big advantage as they cover both, the comparison area and the insurance “sales funnel”.

I also think that for the comparison sites, it is not that easy to sell additional insurance products. Insurance policies are less standardized than rental cars, with very individual pricing so it is harder for a comparison site to actually close the deal intead of passing the client on to the insurer for a fee. Clearly comparison sites will try to get into this game as well but again, Admiral is the best positioned insurer.

Finally, the UK car insurance business shows almost a “brutal” cyclicality, for instance in 2013 premiums for the whole market dropped ~20%. Nevertheless, Admiral has shown that they are profitable over the cycle.

Opportunities

Admiral is currently trying to expand its business model into 4 other countries: Spain, France, Italy and the US. An earlier attempt in Germany failed a couple of years ago, mainly because the German market renews policies only once a year and Admiral was not able to really use its strengths (dynamic offers and pricing) on that basis.

If they succeed in any one of those markets similar to the UK, then there would be significant upside in the stock. If they suceed in 2 or more, Admiral could become a multibagger. If they don’t succeed at all, one could imagine that they might take additional market share in the UL, but then the upside is limited.

Although the subs are growing strongly, they still made a loss in 2013. Car insurance is however to a certain extent a scale business. You need a certain scale to become profitable. Clearly, just buying a competitor (and paying a lot of goodwill) would look better in the short term. Building up your own operations takes longer, but if you do it right, the value generation is significantly better than via M&A.

SUMMARY: Bringing it all together

Personally, I think Admiral has a very unique “outsider” business model. Reinsuring most of their business allows them to focus on the core product, car insurance underwriting and ancilliary services. They don’t have the complexity of traditional insurers with complex investments, expensive investment management and “asset liability management” departments etc. etc.

This keeps structural complexity low, lowers cost and allows them to scale up business much quicker than any “traditional” model and with very low capital intensity. Traditional insurance companies have always the option to realize investment profits in order to make results look good in the short term. In the long term, this often leads to a detoriation of the core business. Admiral doesn’t have this luxury. Additionally it insulates Admiral mostly from capital market volatility and enables them to move aggresively if other insurers are nursing their investment losses. Additionally, they don’t need to sell complicated subordinated debt etc.

Overall, I think the likelihood that someone succesfully copies Admirals business model is low, because for any Insurance executive, it is extremely counterintuitive to give premium away. Any insurance CEO would rather sell his grandmother than increase the reinsurance share and give away investment money. GEICO for instance in my opinion is not a “real” outsider company. It is a traditional insurer with a focused direct sales force. Admiral is really a very different animal.

Clearly, the thread of Google & Co is real, but on the other hand, Google & Co hesitate to to move into regulated areas. However if they would want to seriously move into this business, I would think that Admiral could be an interesting acquisition target for cash rich Google & Co.

Against the traditional competition, in my opinion Admiral has a 10 year headstart in understanding how to sell insurence and especially “others” over the internet. I think they will chuckle when they read how for instance AXA tries to become “digital” as they were already selling 70% of their policies over the internet in 2003.

I would go so far as calling the combined business model a “moat”. Yes, it is maybe not that difficult to start an online insurer and does not fit into the classical moat categories, but to scale up quickly and get the whole package right, this is another story and in my opinion very very unlikely. Even the direct clones like Esure only go “Half way” by keeping all the premiums and exposing themselves to capital market volatility.

I also think that this is still a “value investment” despite the optically expensive multiples. In my opinion, the value lies in the business model plus the headstart in online insurance. To put it into s short thesis: This is a high quality company at a “Normal company price tag” and an “above average” growth opportunity due to the cost advanatges.

For the portfolio, I had bought already a “half position” in April at 13,80 GBP per share as I have briefly mentioned in the April post. I know this is a little unfair but I just didn’t have time to finish the write up.

P.S. There will be an extra post for this, but I have sold the rest of my April SA position in order to keep the exposure to the financial sector (~20% of the protfolio including the bonds) constant

Compagnie Du Bois Sauvage (BE0005576476])- See’s Candy in a Belgian wrapper ?

While researching Ackermans & Van Haaren, I stumbled over another smaller diversified Belgian holding company called Compagnie Du Bois Sauvage (CBS).

The company doesn’t look too exciting with the following “standard” metrics:

P/B 0.92
P/E 16.6 (mostly meaningless for Holdcos)
Div. Yield 3.3%
Market Cap 340 mn EUR

The company presents itself as a holding company, active in Real estate and strategic participation plus a so-called “treasury” division.

The strange name of the company (wild forest) is explained on the website as well as the origins.

However it is much more interesting what they are doing now, especially the strategic holdings. The company divides the participations into the following pillars:

-financial
-industrial
-food
-other

Financial:

This segment consists only out of 2 investments:

1) A 26.41 stake in a tiny Belgian Credit insurance company and

2) much more interesting a 12% stake in one of Germany’s oldest and most succesful private banks, Berenberg .


According to the CBS report, Berenberg has around 300 mn EUR equity and earned on average around 20% return on equity over the last 3 years, which is very very good. They seemed to have bought the stake in 2002 from an US shareholder.

I tried to reconcile the numbers in CBS annual report with the official annual report of Berenberg but it did not match. I think Berenberg reports only their bank, not the complete Group

Nevertheless a very interesting and high quality asset

Industrial

CBS discloses the following stakes:

– a 1.56% stake in listed Belgian metal group Umicore

– a 29% stake in listed Belgian automotive supplier Recticel

– 29% in an unlisted US plastics company called Noel

Nothing special here, very diversified but in my opinion without a clear focus or strategy.

Food – Neuhaus Chocolate & Pralines

This is in my opinion the “highlight” . The main company in this segment is Neuhaus, a famous Belgian chocolate manufacturer where CBS owns 100% of the company . According to Wikpedia, Neuhaus has actually invented the “praliné” as we know it.

Neuhaus was actually a separate listed company until 2006 and then taken private by CBS.

Out of curiosity, I did not follow my normal “Armchair investing” approach but did some real research. Neuhaus positions itself at the very high end of Chocolate and praline manufacturers. When i went into one of the biggest downtown department store in Munich, i was surprised that they actually charge 5 EUR for a 100 g chocolate bar and up to 75 EUR for a 1 Kilo representative praline selection. I bought myself a 250 gram pack for 17 EUR which looked like this:

I am not an expert chocolate, but someone else is, Warren Buffet. That is what he said about See’s Candy: (from 1998):

It is a good business. Think about it a little. Most people do not buy boxed chocolate to consume themselves, they buy them as gifts— somebody’s birthday or more likely it is a holiday. Valentine’s Day is the single biggest day of the year. Christmas is the biggest season by far. Women buy for Christmas and they plan ahead and buy over a two or three week period. Men buy on Valentine’s Day. They are driving home; we run ads on the Radio. Guilt, guilt, guilt—guys are veering off the highway right and left. They won’t dare go home without a box of Chocolates by the time we get through with them on our radio ads. So that Valentine’s Day is the biggest day.

Can you imagine going home on Valentine’s Day—our See’s Candy is now $11 a pound thanks to my brilliance. And let’s say there is candy available at $6 a pound. Do you really want to walk in on Valentine’s Day and hand—she has all these positive images of See’s Candy over the years—and say, “Honey, this year I took the low bid.” And hand her a box of candy. It just isn’t going to work. So in a sense, there is untapped pricing power—it is not price dependent.

Neuhaus is doing pretty much the same but with a twist: Their increase in sales seems to come to a large extent from Airport duty free stores. So instead of the Californian car driver you have the European business man or tourist but the principle is the same.

The biggest difference in my opinion is only the price. While See’s currently charges 18 USD per pound, Neuhaus actually gets away charging more than twice with 33 EUR (~40 USD).

It seems to be that for one, “Belgian Chocolate” allows them to charge premium prices. On a recent inland flight I quickly checked an Airport store in Munich, and indeed, Neuhaus together with Lindt was sold at very high prices at a premium location. The third brand was Feodora, the premium brand from Hachez, a privately owned German chocolate manufacturer.

Out of fun, I created a table of the developement of Neuhaus from the CBS annual report. The turn around and growth since acquisition is impressive:

Neuhaus 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
                     
Sales   64.52 70.88 83.9 96.25 102.25 105.7 119.9 133.47 149.27
Net   0.505 1.34 3.33 6.95 8.94 10.31 10.95 11.63 12.02
Equity   25.98 26.5 29.55 36.37 45.18 50.89 57.6 53.24 58.79
                     
Net margin   0.78% 1.89% 3.97% 7.22% 8.74% 9.75% 9.13% 8.71% 8.05%
ROE     5.1% 11.9% 21.1% 21.9% 21.5% 20.2% 21.0% 21.5%
                     
CAGR Sales     9.9% 18.4% 14.7% 6.2% 3.4% 13.4% 11.3% 11.8%
CAGR Earnings     165.3% 148.5% 108.7% 28.6% 15.3% 6.2% 6.2% 3.4%

Not only did they achieve a great turnaround, but Sales doubled and ROEs have been constantly at 21-22% p.a.since 2007. This resulted in a 10 times increase in earnings over this period.

If we look for instance to market leader Lindt from Switzerland, we can see that Lindt has a slight advantage in margins, but Neuhaus in growing more and has a better (and more stable) ROEs .

Lindt 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
                     
Sales p.s.   9,151 10,255 11,721 13,210 11,389 11,126 11,309 10,944 11,765
Net incom p.s.   684 788 947 1,123 1,158 851 1,061 1,084 1,198
Equity   3,638 4,421 5,224 6,195 6,519 7,168 7,410 7,095 7,695
                     
Net margin   7.47% 7.69% 8.08% 8.50% 10.16% 7.65% 9.38% 9.91% 10.19%
ROE     19.6% 19.6% 19.7% 18.2% 12.4% 14.6% 14.9% 16.2%
                     
CAGR Sales     12.1% 14.3% 12.7% -13.8% -2.3% 1.6% -3.2% 7.5%
CAGR Earnings     15.3% 20.2% 18.6% 3.1% -26.5% 24.6% 2.2% 10.5%

Don’t forget that the market is valuing Lindt at a 30x P/E, I think a 25x P/E for Neuhaus would not be unrealistic, as the business looks like a nice high ROE compounder.

In a M&A transaction, I could imagine even a higher multiple for such a premium brand from a strategic buyer.

Valuation:

Interestingly, CBS discloses NAVs on bi-annual basis, the last value being 270 EUR per share at June 30th 2013.

So we can easily use the template from the annual report and plug in own values:

What about a Holding Discount ?

I have written about how I look at Holding Comanies. In CBS case, I am neutral. I like that they are able to strike really good deals (Neuhaus, Behrenberg) and hold them for the long term. On the other hand, some of the activities look like trying to kill time. Positive: transparent and conservative NAV calculation. Overall I would not necessarily require a big discount here, maybe 10-15% or so.

Compared to GBL/Pargesa for instance we do not have a double holding structure and the main assets cannot be invested directly. So definitely a lower discount here. Compared to CIR, there is also only little leverage in the company.

SO let’s look at the sum of part valuation now:

% Value Comment
Neuhaus Chocolate 100.00% 300.00 PE 25(2012)
Behrenberg 12.00% 54.00 at 1.5 times book
Umicore 1.56% 60.53 At market
Recticel 28.89% 47.67 at market
Noel Group 29.37% 4.64 PE 10
Other   20.00 as disclosed
       
Codic Real Estate 23.81% 24.52 at book
other reals estate   60 as disclosed
cash etc.   20  
       
Sum   591.36  
Net debt   -80  
NAV   511.36  
       
shares our   1.6  
NAV per share   319.60  
Holding Discount   271.66 -15%
Upside   25.19% at EUR 217

What we see is that before applying the holding discount, the stock would have an upside of around 50% which would be OK for me. After applying the discount, the potential upside shrinks to 25%.

Other Info:

The guy behind CBS is Guy Paquot, a well-known Belgian investor. He owns close ~47% of the company.

According to this article, he comes from a rich family and was knighted in 2000 by the Belgian King. He stepped down in 2010 and is no official director anymore, but I guess he still influences the company to a large extent as the dominating shareholder

The Fortis situation

There is one dark chapter in CBOs history: As part of their activities they also invest into Belgian stocks. In 2008 however, they seemed to have received insider information about the upcoming nationalization of Fortis and were able to sell the stock before.

Because of this episode, the CEO actually was imprisoned for a few days and Guy Paquot came back from “retirement”.

It seems to be that one member of the supervisory board of CBS was also in the supervisory board of Fortis and passed the information. In 2008, it was speculated that the fine might be 40 mn or more.

The company settled the dispute finally in last November for a 8.5 mn EUR payment without committing to any wrong doing.

Stock price

Interestingly, the November settlement seems to have been some sort of catalyst, as the stock gained almost 30% in the aftermath.

The stock seems to have bounced off from the 2011 level of 230 EUR but overall I would say the chart looks ok.

Summary:

Compagnie du Bois Sauvage is an quite unusual stock. Among a strange combination of businesses, there is a prime asset hidden which I think is comparable to Buffet’s famous “See’s Candy” which accounts currently for 60% of the value of the company under my assumptions. If Neuhaus keeps growing at this pace for 2-3 more years, the percentage of Neuhaus could be even bigger.

My own valuation shows an upside of around 25% from current prices after a 15% holding discount which is too low for me to buy . So although I like the company and the two great assets (Neuhaus, Behrenberg), the current price is not attractive enough for me +. For me, A stock price of 185 UR would be required or maybe profits (and valuations) of the two prime assets increase enough to justify an investment.

P.S: I started looking at the company and writing this post already in November 2013, when the stock was around 190 EUR. This is the reason why the post is so long despite the missing upside.

Some links

Very interesting post from Prof Damodaran on the differences between (value-)investing and trading

Bloomberg story about Eike Batista, the guy who lost ~ 35 bn USD in one year

Nate from Oddball muses about patience, simplicity and retail stocks

Good post about the implosion of Albermarle, the UK pawnbroker

Plus 2 interesting blogs I discovered just recently, both highly recommended:

Valuevista from the UK
AlphaVulture , a poker player and value investor

Finally, an interesting small cap “pump and dump” from Warren Buffet himself in 2000 (via Alphavulture comment section):
– Buffet buys privately a company called Bell Industries in Dec 1999
– in Jan 2000 he sells it after it has jumped 80% because of the disclosure
– in November 2000, he then bought again after the stock collapsed

Book review: Poor Charlie’s Almanach – Peter D. Kaufmann

This was one of my few “souvenirs” from my pilgrimage to Omaha some weeks ago.

The book can be basically divided in 2 parts:

1) The first 150 pages or so is some “Almanach style” collection of quotes, interviews, observation and general concepts of the “Munger style”
2) The remaining part then are transcripts/manuscripts of talks, Charlie Munger had given over the years

The speeches themselves are of course most interesting, as this is Charlie’s original work.

Those are the 11 talks / speeches

1) Harvard school Commencement Speech (1986)
Major concepts: Reliability, inverting problems

2) Talk at USC (1994)
“Worldly wisdom”, combining knowledge from many different areas, multiple mental models
Economics of scale / dumb bureaucracy, specialisation
Airlines vs. cereals, when does technology help or kill a business ?
Incentives

3) Stanford Law School 1996
make systems cheating proof, large companies shouldn’t produce football helmets

4) Practical Thought about Practical Thought (1996)
Mental model, Coca Cola case,

5) Harvard Law School reunion (1998)
Academic multidisciplinary

6) Investment Practices of Leading Charitable Foundations (1998)
Bernie Cornfeld, deficiencies of professional money management

7) Breakfast meeting of the Philanthrophic Roundtable (2000)
“febezzlemant”

8) The great Financial Scandal of 2003 (2000)
Option accounting at Tech companies

9) Academic Economics, USC (2003)
Raising prices often raises sales opposite to classical economic theory

10) USC Law School Commencement address (2007)
constant learning, acquisition of wisdom.LEarning machine”

11) The Psychology of Human Misjudgement
25 psychological “mental models”

At the end of the book, there is also a recommended reading list. The one from Charlie Munger himself can be found for instance here.

Summary:

I think it is a “MUST READ” for any serious disciple of the “Value Investing” School. It is basically the only book where you can find a lot of knowledge about the “number 2” guy at Berkshire Hathaway. For many people, the success of Berkshire is the success of Buffet. I am pretty sure, Buffet would have done well without Charlie, but I would not underestimate the contribution of Munger to the “Later stage” success of Berkshire.

The book is not an easy read and I will have to read it again. Although the author tried to compile it in a coherent way it is clearly not a “Bruce Greenwald” style step-by-step book or a “how to get rich quickly” publication.

One warning: It is a real heavy (1 kilo) big book. I “schlepped” this one back from Omaha and no, I will not take orders if I go to Omaha again next year.

Berkshire Hathaway 2012 listed stocks performance

I hope everyone has now read the 2012 annual Berkshire Letter which came out last week.

Among other stufff, Warren Buffet complained a little bit that he didn’t beat the S&P 500 based on the increase in Book Value at Berkshire.

Just for fun, I hacked in Berkshire portfolio.

In a first step I looked at all the disclosed positions above 1 bn USD.

2012 perfomance P/E P/B EV/EBIT EV/EBITDA Beta Volume
American Express 23.57% 14.7 3.8 16.1 8.9 1.05 8,715
Coca Cola 6.51% 19.6 5.3 16.6 14.0 0.72 14,500
Conoco Philips 9.20% 9.5 1.5 6.5 4.4 0.98 1,399
Direct TV 17.31% 10.8 #N/A N/A 9.0 6.2 0.89 1,154
IBM 4.17% 13.7 12.4 11.6 9.4 0.91 13,048
Moody’s 51.86% 16.6 29.1 10.3 9.5 1.31 1,430
Munich Re 54.71% 8.1 1.0 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 0.94 3,599
Philips 66 50.41% #N/A N/A 2.0 10.8 8.5 1.16 1,097
POSCO 1.19% 8.3 0.7 9.0 6.4 1.01 1,295
Procter & Gamble 5.18% 19.4 3.2 14.4 11.9 0.64 3,563
Sanofi 34.20% 20.0 1.7 13.2 6.9 0.76 2,438
Tesco -8.20% 10.8 1.7 10.4 7.2 0.72 2,268
US Bancorp 20.96% 11.9 1.9 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 1.09 2,493
Walmart 16.97% 14.6 3.2 10.3 7.9 0.59 3,741
Wells Fargo 27.37% 10.7 1.3 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 1.15 15,592
 
Total / Avg 17.56% 14.27 5.0 13.4 10.1 0.92 76,332

To add some value, I have added some valuation metrics and aggregated the performance based on year end values. Although this is not the 100% correct way to do this, we can see that the listed stock portfolio outperformed the S&P Total return index (+14.1%) by a margin of almost 3.5%. A very respectable outperformance for a 75 bn USD portfolio. One can also see that the Beta of the portfolio is clearly below 1, so the outperformance really looks like alpha. (EDIT: I do not know which Index Buffet used for his 16%, I took S&P 500 total return performance from Bloomberg).

From simple valuation metrics, the portfolio of course looks quite expensive. P/E of 14.4 is in line with the S&P 500, but it looks like that Berkshire doesn’t consider P/B as a meaningful metric for listed stocks anymore. Also, the average EV/EBIT of 13 and EV/EBITDA of 10 is far above I would be prepared to pay.

In a second step, I added all the stock positions which were disclosed by Berkshire plus anything available on Bloomberg with a value of more than 200 mn USD.

2012 perfomance P/E P/B EV/EBIT EV/EBITDA Beta Volume
American Express 23.57% 14.7 3.78 16.05 8.88 1.05 8,715
Coca Cola 6.51% 19.6 5.33 16.55 13.98 0.72 14,500
Conoco Philips 9.20% 9.5 1.47 6.54 4.38 0.98 1,399
Direct TV 17.31% 10.8 #N/A N/A 9.03 6.16 0.89 1,154
IBM 4.17% 13.7 12.41 11.56 9.41 0.91 13,048
Moody’s 51.86% 16.6 29.11 10.29 9.48 1.31 1,430
Munich Re 54.71% 8.1 0.96 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 0.94 3,599
Philips 66 50.41% #N/A N/A 1.98 10.82 8.52 1.16 1,097
POSCO 1.19% 8.3 0.70 8.96 6.36 1.01 1,295
Procter & Gamble 5.18% 19.4 3.21 14.44 11.88 0.64 3,563
Sanofi 34.20% 20.0 1.74 13.22 6.88 0.76 2,438
Tesco -8.20% 10.8 1.74 10.40 7.15 0.72 2,268
US Bancorp 20.96% 11.9 1.86 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 1.09 2,493
Walmart 16.97% 14.6 3.21 10.27 7.86 0.59 3,741
Wells Fargo 27.37% 10.7 1.33 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 1.15 15,592
               
Davita 45.80% 19.4 3.33 14.95 11.94 0.80 1,830
Swiss Re 49.31% 6.8 0.92 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 1.15 909
Washington Post 1.20% 17.6 1.16 9.27 4.52 0.81 704
General Motors 37.40% 9.3 1.47 #N/A N/A 1.31 1.19 697
M&T Bank 31.99% 13.7 1.43 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 1.07 558
BonY Mellon 30.69% 12.2 0.92 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 1.28 544
Costco 26.15% 24.8 3.50 13.49 10.21 0.75 444
USG 166.24% #N/A N/A 502.76 48.17 18.47 2.14 472
Viacom 16.92% 14.5 4.21 9.25 8.70 1.16 459
Precision Castparts 12.83% 20.3 2.92 15.23 13.93 0.92 374
Mondelez 6.24% 12.7 1.58 9.46 7.81 0.62 366
National Oilwell -0.76% 11.5 1.43 8.19 6.96 1.51 357
Deere 11.80% 11.2 4.67 8.22 6.75 1.14 355
Wabco 43.46% 14.4 6.48 12.46 10.07 1.72 281
General Dynamics 6.04% 10.6 2.10 30.15 17.28 0.97 262
Visa 47.56% 24.6 4.68 18.01 17.09 0.98 250
Torchmark 18.82% 11.2 1.25 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 0.97 245
Mastercard 29.89% 23.9 9.38 14.04 13.27 1.00 214
               
               
               
 
Total / Avg 19.57% 14.4 7.6 13.6 10.1 0.94 85,653

A few observations here:

I do not understand, why DaVita was not included in the shareholder’s letter with a market value of 1.8 bn. Maybe they have forgotten this position ?

Secondly, including those additional ~10 bn of stocks increases the total performance of the total portfolio by an incredible 2%.

In a third step, I calculated the performance of what I would call the “Non Buffet” Portfolio, taking Direct TV from the annual letter and eliminating Swiss Re and Washington Post from the < 1bn list.

2012 perfomance P/E P/B EV/EBIT EV/EBITDA Beta Volume
               
Direct TV 17.31% 10.8 #N/A N/A 9.03 6.16 0.89 1,154
Davita 45.80% 19.4 3.33 14.95 11.94 0.80 1,830
General Motors 37.40% 9.3 1.47 #N/A N/A 1.31 1.19 697
M&T Bank 31.99% 13.7 1.43 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 1.07 558
BonY Mellon 30.69% 12.2 0.92 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 1.28 544
Costco 26.15% 24.8 3.50 13.49 10.21 0.75 444
USG 166.24% #N/A N/A 502.76 48.17 18.47 2.14 472
Viacom 16.92% 14.5 4.21 9.25 8.70 1.16 459
Precision Castparts 12.83% 20.3 2.92 15.23 13.93 0.92 374
Mondelez 6.24% 12.7 1.58 9.46 7.81 0.62 366
National Oilwell -0.76% 11.5 1.43 8.19 6.96 1.51 357
Deere 11.80% 11.2 4.67 8.22 6.75 1.14 355
Wabco 43.46% 14.4 6.48 12.46 10.07 1.72 281
General Dynamics 6.04% 10.6 2.10 30.15 17.28 0.97 262
Visa 47.56% 24.6 4.68 18.01 17.09 0.98 250
Torchmark 18.82% 11.2 1.25 #N/A N/A #N/A N/A 0.97 245
Mastercard 29.89% 23.9 9.38 14.04 13.27 1.00 214
               
               
Total / Avg 34.97% 15.2 33.6 15.3 9.9 1.07 8,862

And here we can see that Weschler and Combs really “shot out the lights”. 35% performance for 2012 is a fxxxing fantastic result. Ok, Beta is slightly above 1 but at least for 2012 the did a outstanding job. No wonder Buffet said that in his annual letter:

Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, our new investment managers, have proved to be smart, models of integrity, helpful to Berkshire in many ways beyond portfolio management, and a perfect cultural fit. We hit the jackpot with these two. In 2012 each outperformed the S&P 500 by double-digit margins. They left me in the dust as well.

So even if some of the smaller stocks are “Warren & Charlie” stocks as well, Weschler and Combs showed them how its done at least with a smaller portfolio. Maybe the smaller size of the portfolio is the reason ?

Summary:

Once again, the portfolio of listed stocks of Berkshire outperformed the S&P 500 by a nice margin. However it seems to be that Buffet’s “elephants” don’t have a chance against the smaller holdings of Weschler and Combs. Nevertheless, for the “lazy” value investor, copying the Berkshire portfolio looks still like a winning strategy.

Copying the “small” Berkshire stocks however looks like the absolute killer strategy.

Energiedienst Holding AG (ISIN CH0039651184) and German electricity prices

I started my small 2013 utilites project with E.On 2 weeks ago. Instead of working through the list of German utilities I wanted to focus on Swiss listed Energiedienst Holding AG first.

Energiedienst is a slightly unusual stock. It is listed on the Swiss stock exchange, but its balance sheet is in EUR. The company basically runs a number of big Hydro power plants along the Rhine River plus some smaller Hydro Power plants in Southern Germany and Switzerland as this map shows:

Market cap: 1.3 bn Swiss Francs
P/B 1.1
P/E 12.0
EV/EBITDA 7.1
Dividend yield 2.3%

From a simple valuation point of view, Energiedienst does not look overly attractive, however one should mention that they do have net cash which is quite uncommon for utilities.

The company is majority owned by German ENBW (67%) plus a company called “Services Industriels de Genève (SIG)” which bought a 15% stake in 2011 from ENBW (remark: ENBW itself is in quite big trouble because of the Nuclear exit in Germany).

Business model

In addition to the Hydro plants, Energiedienst owns a distribution network with around 750 tsd clients in Switzerland and Southwestern Germany. The focus is clearly Germany with more than 80% of sales there. Energiedienst produces around 25% of its energy itself, the rest is bought in the market.

The interesting point is that their own electricity production is almost 100% Hydro power. Hydro power, in contrast to power from fossil fuel, is more or less a pure fixed cost business. You build the hydro plant, depreciate and that’s it. If electricity prices go up, you earn more, if they go down you earn less. You don’t have to worry about oil or coal prices. On the flip side, hydro power depends on the amount of water available, so in dry years you can produce less or more in wet years which introduces some uncertainty.

But in any case, a Hydro Power “pure play” is more or less a “bet” on electricity prices. In order to check this theory, I let’s look at EDHN’s share price (in EUR) against 1 year forward prices for German electricity (as a comparison, I plotted E.on as well):

edhn eon 12m strom

I find it fascinating that over the past 2.5 years, Energiedienst more or less directly followed German power prices. We can see that E.on is much more volatile and most likely exposed to general stock market fluctuations.

Just for the complete picture a history of German wholesale electricity prices since 2007:

electricity since 2007

It is interesting to see that German power prices seem to be at the lowest level since the beginning of this time series in 2007. After the surprise phase out of nuclear power after Fukushima and the corresponding propaganda from E.on & Co, one might have expected exploding electricity prices. But it looks like that the new supply of alternative energy plus maybe reduction in consumption led to a dramatic decrease in electricity prices.

Digging deeper, I found for instance this German publication from 2011 which confirms the point, that the subsidized renewable energy will lower electricity prices in general. So for a renewable hydro player like Energiedienst, the subsidies to solar and wind have the “perverse” effect of lowering the profit of this very cheap type of electricity significantly.

The “trick” is that the electricity distributors have to buy the renewable electricity at fixed subsidized prices, but have to sell it at current market prices into the German electricity exchanges. The difference then gets charged to consumers. According to the paper, the electricity price clears at the level of the most expensive supplier. The mechanism for the renewable providers however introduces practically a big source of potentially extremely cheap electricity as it gets sold at market prices no matter how low they might be and “unelastic” to the actual demand.

Due to the low interest rates, subsidized wind parks and solar plants are still attractive investments despite the price for electricity being at multi year lows and demand being rather weak.

So the low prices are not a result of low demand, but mostly of subsidized renewable energy which will be sold as long as the price is higher than zero.

Zero hedge just had a post in its usual style, claiming that the falling energy prices are a harbinger for falling stock prices. That is correct for utilities but other than that it is just a result of the mechanism described above.

Summary:

The current system for renewable energy in Germany (selling renewable electricity into the market at any price with the consumer paying the difference) is hell for “traditional” utilities including hydro power.

The German utilities have maybe underestimated the extent of renewable production, otherwise they could have done the exactly same thing themselves. Now howver, the are in a kind of “death grip” between having to run their expensive black coal and gas plants for peaks and the articificially low electricity prices. Combined with unfavourable natural gas delivery contracts, especially for E.on the air will remain quite thin.

So unless something changes significantly, German utilities (including Energiedienst) will need a long long time to adjust capacity and change their business models.

Warren Buffet seems to be much more clever: If you can’t beat them, join them. I think this is the reason why his US utility is investing so much into Solar and Wind.

Utility companies – The Warren Buffet perspective

In 2012, I sold my two utility stocks EVN and Fortum because I realised that I didn’t really understand the business model. I looked a little bit more general into utilities here, but with no real results. However,at least in Europe, the utility sector looks like one of the few remaining “cheap” sector.

If you don’t know a lot about a sector but need to start somewhere,it is always a good idea to look ifWarren Buffet has something to say about it

Although mostly his well-known consumer good investments like Coca Cola and Gilette are mentioned, Buffet runs a quite sizable utility operation called MidAmerican Energy.

Starting with the Berkshire 2011 annual report, let us look how the “sage” describes the business:

We have two very large businesses, BNSF and MidAmerican Energy, that have important common characteristics distinguishing them from our many other businesses. Consequently, we assign them their own sector in this letter and also split out their combined financial statistics in our GAAP balance sheet and income statement.
A key characteristic of both companies is the huge investment they have in very long-lived, regulated assets, with these partially funded by large amounts of long-term debt that is not guaranteed by Berkshire. Our credit is not needed: Both businesses have earning power that even under terrible business conditions amply covers their interest requirements.

So let’s note here first: Buffet uses “large amounts” of debt for his utility company.

Just below we find the following statement:

At MidAmerican, meanwhile, two key factors ensure its ability to service debt under all circumstances: The stability of earnings that is inherent in our exclusively offering an essential service and a diversity of earnings streams, which shield it from the actions of any single regulatory body.

I would argue he second point is interesting: Diversification in utilities works across regulators, not necessarily geographic location.

What I found extremely interesting is that Buffet is allocating a lot of capital to the utility sector. Out of the 19 bn USD Capex in Berkies operating businesses from 2009-2011, MidAmerican Capex summed up to ~9 bn USD, so almost half of Berkies total Capex.

One can assume that Buffet is not making all share investment decisions nowadays, but I think capital allocation to operating companies will be still made by him personally.

Buffet seems also quite interested in renewable energy, as the following comment from the annual report shows:

MidAmerican will have 3,316 megawatts of wind generation in operation by the end of 2012, far more than any other regulated electric utility in the country. The total amount that we have invested or committed to wind is a staggering $6 billion. We can make this sort of investment because MidAmerican retains all of its earnings, unlike other utilities that generally pay out most of what they earn. In addition, late last year we took on two solar projects – one 100%-owned in California and the other 49%-owned in Arizona – that will cost about $3 billion to construct. Many more wind and solar projects will almost certainly follow.

Here, he also mentions that he doesn’t extract any dividends out of his utility group. He considers it a growth opportunity rather than a cash cow. I think this is also worth keeping in mind, as many investors would judge utility stocks mainly by dividend yield.

From the 2009 report we learn the following:

Our regulated electric utilities, offering monopoly service in most cases, operate in a symbiotic manner with the customers in their service areas, with those users depending on us to provide first-class service and invest for their future needs. Permitting and construction periods for generation and major transmission facilities stretch way out, so it is incumbent on us to be far-sighted. We, in turn, look to our utilities’ regulators (acting on behalf of our customers) to allow us an appropriate return on the huge amounts of capital we must deploy to meet future needs. We shouldn’t expect our regulators to live up to their end of the bargain unless we live up to ours.

This is as clear as it gets. Utilities are a “natural” monopoly. If you play by the rules (at least in the US), you are guaranteed a decent return.

In the same report Buffet once more explains why he is suddenly more interested in utilities:

In earlier days, Charlie and I shunned capital-intensive businesses such as public utilities. Indeed, the best businesses by far for owners continue to be those that have high returns on capital and that require little incremental investment to grow. We are fortunate to own a number of such businesses, and we would love to buy more. Anticipating, however, that Berkshire will generate ever-increasing amounts of cash, we are today quite
willing to enter businesses that regularly require large capital expenditures.

From the 2008 report, this sentence is reinforcing Buffets strategy:

Indeed, MidAmerican has not paid a dividend since Berkshire bought into the company in early 2000. Its earnings have instead been reinvested to develop the utility systems our customers require and deserve. In exchange, we have been allowed to earn a fair return on the huge sums we have invested. It’s a great partnership for all concerned.

On acquisition of utilities, we can also find his thoughts in that report:

In the regulated utility field there are no large family owned businesses. Here, Berkshire hopes to be the “buyer of choice” of regulators. It is they, rather than selling shareholders, who judge the fitness of purchasers when transactions are proposed.

There is no hiding your history when you stand before these regulators. They can – and do – call their counterparts in other states where you operate and ask how you have behaved in respect to all aspects of the business, including a willingness to commit adequate equity capital.

When MidAmerican proposed its purchase of PacifiCorp in 2005, regulators in the six new states we would be serving immediately checked our record in Iowa. They also carefully evaluated our financing plans and capabilities. We passed this examination, just as we expect to pass future ones.

So being nice and trustworthy to the regulator is what counts in this business.

Finally let’s look at some “hard numbers” from MidAmerican, in order to be able to compare this to other utilities. I will use the MidAmerican 2011 annual report for this.

  2011 2010 2009 2008
Total Assets   47.7 45.7 44.7 41.4
Shareholders Equity   14.1 13.2 12.6 10.2
total financial debt   17.8 18.2 19.3 18.2
Sales   11.2 11.1 11.2 12.7
EBIT   2.684 2.502 2.465 2.828
Net Income   1.331 1.238 1.157 1.85
Int. Exp   1.196 1.225 1.257 1.333
Op. CF   3.220 2.759 3.572 2.587
Capex   2.684 2.593 3.413 3.937
 
ROE   9.8% 9.6% 10.2%  
NI margin   11.9% 11.2% 10.3% 14.6%
EBIT Margin   24.0% 22.5% 22.0% 22.3%
Debt/equity   126.2% 137.9% 153.5% 178.4%
EBIT/Int exp   2.24 2.04 1.96 2.12
ROA   2.9% 2.7% 2.7%

We can clearly see that this is low ROA business. Only the significant leverage allows Buffet to have ~10% ROE on average. Additionally, he seems to provide some “contingent” capital to MidAmercian, i.e. to promise a capital contribution of 2 bn USD if required. I think this keeps down the cost of debt without explicitly guaranteeing it. MidAmerican has a credit rating of “only” A- against Berkshire’s AA+. Also one can see that he reduced leverage over the last few years since taking over MidAmerican.

Nevertheless he seems to prefer this vs. returning cash to shareholders. Interesting.

So let’s quickly summarize Warren Buffet’s perspective on utilities as far as I understood it:

– he only started to invest into utilities relatively lately because he needs something where to invest his growing cashflows from the other operations
– he prefers regulated utility business, diversified over different regulators
– he invests a lot of money into renewable energy
– he uses significant leverage to achieve 10% ROE
– he is not looking at the busienss as a cash cow but a long term growth business and therefore does not extract any dividends

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