Bearbull Also Doubts Reliance on Financial Analysis Alone

The writer Bearbull in the Investors Chronicle made some interesting comments in this week’s edition. He said:

“Talking of research, I might question the way that I dig out investment candidates. My off-the-peg approach focuses on number crunching from a company’s accounts. It uses past performance as the basis for guesstimating a range of per-share valuations – from optimistic to pessimistic – based on both accounting profits and cash flow. I back that up with more spreadsheet work to assess the trends in a company’s efficiency, its productivity and its financial resilience.

The merits of this approach is that it is an efficient way of scanning lots of candidates. Its shortcoming is that it pays insufficient attention to the future, which is where investment returns will come from. True, but the lion’s share of my time spent crawling over any company always comes down to relating the quantitative findings to the question, to what extent is the future likely to be as good as the past, better than or worse than? I don’t think that will change”.

This is very much my own approach. Doing an initial scan of the financials to weed out the worse candidates for investment makes a lot of sense. But the problem with relying on financial analysis alone is that it is not very predictive of the future. In the modern world where markets and businesses are rapidly changing, relying on a study of past accounts is of limited use. Or as I say in my book Business Perspective Investing: “typical ratios used by investors to evaluate and compare companies tell you almost nothing about the future”. That’s assuming you can even trust the accounts of companies which is another dubious proposition of late.

I’ll be covering this more and what investors really need to look at in my presentation at the Mello London event (Tuesday the 12th at 12.55 pm: https://melloevents.com/event/ ).

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Speedy Hire Presentation, Burford Analysis and Treatt Trading Statement

On Tuesday the 1st October I attended a company seminar organised by ShareSoc in Birmingham, mainly to present my new book. But there was an interesting presentation given there by Speedy Hire (SDY). This is not a company I have looked at before because it seemed to be in a sector driven by construction activity which tends to be cyclical and in a fragmented market with few barriers to entry. This is probably why other listed companies in the sector such as HSS and VP are on low valuations (typically P/Es of less than 10). Speedy Hire is on a prospective P/E of 9.5 and a dividend yield of 4.2% according to Stockopedia.

So why was the company interesting? Firstly Speedy Hire seems to be somewhat of a turnaround situation from dire 2016 results. The presenter, Chris Morgan, explained how the company has a new focus on improving the proportion of services in the revenue mix which have better margins and there is a new focus on SME customers which they consider a significant opportunity. They are also undertaking a “digital transformation” to reduce costs and improve service. That includes a new “app” that enables customers to order items whereas most orders are taken over the phone at present. This is currently in essence a very labour intensive business – for example they have over 50 people on credit control alone.

There are clearly opportunities to improve efficiencies in the business by investing in technology which small local hire companies would be unable to match. There is also a focus on improving the return on capital employed (ROCE) which I always like to see – it’s now about 12.8% excluding the recent Lifterz acquisition so is moving in the right direction. On the 3rd October the company issued a positive trading statement with revenue up 6% and higher growth in the sectors focused upon mentioned above.

In summary a company that may be worth a closer look as management seem to be improving the business substantially.

After the Speedy Hire presentation I covered my book “Business Perspective Investing” (see https://www.roliscon.com/business-perspective-investing.html ) which explains the important things that you should look at when choosing companies in which to invest. It suggests ignoring the typical approach of looking for “cheap” shares based on low P/Es and high dividend yields but focusing on the business model and other attributes.

As Burford Capital (BUR) is a company in the news after the shorting attack by Muddy Waters, I chose to run through why I would never have invested in the company based on the check lists given in the book. In essence it fails too many of them, no doubt to the consternation of some in the audience who held the stock. Here are just some of the problems:

  1. High barriers to entry? None I am aware of – I suspect anyone could set up a litigation funding company given enough capital.
  2. Economies of scale? I doubt there are any as legal claims are labour intensive.
  3. Differentiated product/service? I am not clear that they differ much from other litigation funding businesses.
  4. Low capital required? Absolutely the contrary as they have to fund legal cases for years at enormous cost before they get any payback.
  5. Proprietary technology or IP? There is none.
  6. Smaller transactions? The opposite. Burford’s profits depend on a few large legal cases.
  7. Repeat business? I question whether there is any. Legal cases tend to be one-offs.
  8. Short term contracts? The opposite. The cases they take on can run for years.
  9. No major business risks obvious? Significant risks of losing major cases.
  10. Low debt? The contrary as they use debt to finance their legal cases.
  11. Appropriate corporate structure? Odd to say the least until recently with the CFO being the wife of the CEO and no executive directors on the board.
  12. UK or US domicile? No they are registered in Guernsey.
  13. Adhere to UK Corporate Governance Code? No.
  14. AGMs at convenient time and place? No, they are in Guernsey.
  15. No big legal disputes? Apart from participating in the legal actions they fund, they also have received a claim from their founder and former Chairman recently.
  16. Accounts prudent and consistent? Is recognition of the value of current legal claims prudent (upon which the reported profits rely) and the accounts conservative? It’s very difficult to determine from the published information but I have serious doubts about them.
  17. Do profits turn into cash? Not in the short term. They are effectively recognising what they consider to be the likely chance of success in current profits. But winning legal claims is always in essence uncertain. I have been involved in several big cases and your lawyer always tells you that you have a very good chance of winning as they wish to collect their fees, but even if you win collecting any award can be uncertain.

I could go on further but the above negatives are sufficient to rule it out as a “high quality” business so far as I am concerned. That’s ignoring the allegations of Muddy Waters and the counter allegations by Burford of share price manipulation (i.e. market abuse).

Treatt (TET) issued a trading statement today (4th October). This is a company that specialises in natural ingredients for the flavour and fragrance markets, particularly in the beverage sector. I hold a few shares in it.

The statement says that there has been “a significant fall in certain key citrus raw material prices…..”. This is impacting revenue growth although they have been diversifying into other product areas. Profit before tax and exceptional items is still expected to be in line with expectations – which was for a fall in EPS for 2019 based on consensus broker forecasts.

Now when a company says its input prices are coming down by more than 50% as in this case, you would expect the company to be making bumper profits as a result. But clearly this is not so. It would seem that their customers expect to pay less which suggests this is a “commodity price” driven business where competitors track the prices of the raw material downwards.

This might be a well-managed business in a growth sector for natural ingredients but there may well be low barriers to entry and an undifferentiated product in essence. So it may well fail the checklists in my book.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Book Review: 100 Baggers

100 Baggers is a book by Christopher Mayer on those companies that have returned more than 100 times the original investment cost to shareholders. Having got some 10-baggers in my portfolio, and with the summer lull in business and the markets, I was interested in reading how to spot the ones that could generate an even bigger return.

The author credits a book by Thomas Phelps called “100 to 1 in the Stock Market” first published in 1972 as the inspiration for his own title and quotes extensively from it. Mr Phelps died in 1992 and his book was out of print for a long time but is now available as a reprint at some considerable cost. It’s also rather archaic in references to companies. Mr Mayer’s volume is therefore a useful update on the subject and also covers many areas of investment practice from his own experience.

One interesting quote from Phelp’s book he supplies is this: “There is a Wall Street saying that a situation is better than a statistic” and also says that “Relying only on published growth trends, profit margins and price-earnings ratios is not as important as understanding how a company could create value in the years ahead”. That accords very much with my thinking as espoused in my own recent book.

Christopher Mayer is obviously a widely read investor as he includes numerous pithy and apposite quotations from other authors. But this tends to make his book rather episodic and unstructured in nature. It’s full of parables and apocryphal or true stories to reinforce the points he is making.

What are some of the key points he makes? Firstly to have a 100-bagger means you need to a) invest in companies at a reasonable price; b) start with a relatively small company; c) have them grow at 20% or more per year; and d) hold them for a long time. Diving in and out of companies, or reacting to overall trends in the economy or the markets should be avoided, i.e. you need to “buy and hold”.

Who are some of the 100-baggers in the US market on which the author concentrates as at 2014 when this book was published? Amazon, Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Amgen, Nike, Union Pacific, Pepsi, Equifax, Walgreens Boots, Hershey, Intel, State Street, Southwest Airlines, Wal-Mart and Sunoco are just a few of the 365 and many of them you will not have heard of before. The key point is that they come from a wide variety of industries and sectors but the book does cover what are the defining characteristics of these companies. That includes high and consistent growth in revenue and high return on invested capital.

Longevity is important. Many of the 100-baggers in 2014 took more than 30 years to get there, although some such as EMC and Charles Schwab took less than 10. But the author tends to skip over the problem that even if you pick a company with the right profile in its early days, the chances are that you will be taken out by a takeover bid, by changes to the market for its products/services, by changes in technology or other vicissitudes. Companies have shorter and shorter lives in the modern era so the chance of a company reaching the age of 30 as a listed vehicle is quite low. It may be mostly chance that enables them to reach 100-bagger status. But that does not undermine the basic thesis that it is best to aim for those companies that have the potential to do so.

There is much to be learned from this book. But it does conclude with the statement that “there is no magic formula” so bear that in mind when reading it.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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