Argo Group…Time for a Sale and/or a Wind-Down?


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Here’s a copy of a recent letter to Andreas Rialas of Argo Group (ARGO:LN) – the letter speaks for itself…

August 29, 2014

FAO: Andreas Rialas, CIO

Cc: Michael Kloter, Chairman
      Kyriakos Rialas, CEO
      David Fisher, Director
      Kenneth Watterson, Director

Argo Group Limited
33-37 Athol Street
Isle of Man

Dear Andreas,

Further to our prior conversations, I would like to confirm I now speak for 15.6% (in aggregate) of Argo Group’s outstanding shares. Excluding insiders, this represents 25.0% of Argo’s external shareholder base. Supporters now include well-respected funds and investors such as Church House Investment ManagementXXX Capital Management, Guy Thomas, and over two dozen other Argo shareholders.

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NTR plc…Wind of Change?


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NTR is a strange beast, neither fish nor fowl. Of course, regular readers will recognise that tends to intrigue me – the best opportunities often arise from misunderstanding & neglect. And NTR’s balance sheet intrigues me even more… But whoa Nellie, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here! Let’s back up:

We should begin with the Roche family dynasty – here’s a good potted history. Tom Roche Senior founded National Toll Roads – its first venture, the East-Link toll bridge, opened in 1984. The company slowly expanded, completing the West-Link bridge in 1990 & adding a second span in 2003. With the advent of the Celtic Tiger in the late ’90s & the completion of the M50, traffic volumes & revenues exploded, and the company became a goldmine. The government, in its wisdom, then decided to buy the West-Link in mid-2007 – just ahead of the credit crisis! NTR subsequently monetised the NRA’s index-linked payments of EUR 50 million pa (from Aug-2008 to Mar-2020) for an up-front consideration of EUR 0.5 billion. This was a great deal (followed shortly thereafter by an even larger sale of its Airtricity stake), but unfortunately the company was also in full Celtic Tiger mode at this point. With Tom Roche Junior taking the helm after his father passed away in 1999, NTR had ambitiously transformed itself into a developer & operator in renewable energy (solar, wind & corn-based ethanol) and sustainable waste management – in Ireland, the UK & across the US.

By Mar-2007, in just 3 years, the balance sheet more than quintupled to EUR 2.0 billion (funded by 1.5 billion of total liabilities)! Accompanied by a share price which managed much the same feat – I specifically recall the brokers hailing NTR as a new Irish blue chip to every last punter with a pulse & a wallet. [When I mention the company's listing 'status', you'll realise this pitch was even more dangerous than it sounds...] But investors eventually started getting cold feet – the shares peaked at EUR 7.00 in Jan-2007, well ahead of the crisis. Because of the West-Link & Airtricity sales, the company was sitting on a large cash pile as it entered 2008 – but it was also burning close to EUR 0.7 billion pa of free cash flow at the time. And despite the financial crisis, the spending never stopped… In Apr-2008, management actually embarked on a brand new investment folly (solar energy) with an initial USD 100 million deal to purchase a controlling interest in Stirling Energy Systems. Well, you know what came next…

I’ll spare you most of the blood & guts, let me just highlight total equity (exc. NCI) bottomed this year at EUR 117 million, down nearly 90% from a Mar-2008 peak of EUR 1.1 billion. [NTR's real annus horribilis came in FY-2011, with a loss of EUR 381 million - one of the largest non-banking losses in Irish corporate history]. And the share price suffered even more horribly – reaching a EUR 0.25 low in Aug-2012, down 96% from its peak:

NTR Decline

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Mea Culpa (II)…


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Continued from here.

vii) ‘Sorry, I don’t have any sure-fire winners’

Do I feel confident about my portfolio? Yes, I do…

But with an important caveat:  I feel long-term confident. I’d even dare to say I expect to out-perform my benchmark indices. [Well, another caveat: That's really not my objective - I'm more focused on absolute returns & generally improving my risk-reward ratio].

But do I feel confident about my individual stock picks? No, not necessarily…

Unfortunately, this is a reality we all face as investors. No matter how diligent your research, no matter how rigorous your quantitative & qualitative analysis – all too often, individual stocks feel just like a roll of the dice. Most obviously, the insidious effects of fear & greed are to blame – but no matter how hard you stamp these out, you’re still subject to the tender mercies of Lady Luck. And there’s no escaping her. [Though it helps if she looks like this...] As any good boxer will tell you:  If you box, you will get hit… The sooner you resign  yourself to rolling with the punches, the better – but don’t forget, the best boxer (usually) wins in the end.

And over time, investing skill & experience will inevitably beat luck, while diversification is also your ultimate secret weapon. Sure, I confirm my portfolio allocation for each stock I write-up – and that’s a great indicator of my confidence level – but the real lesson I preach is diversification, not concentration. Imposing relatively mechanical limits within your portfolio (see Well, Are You The Right Size?) is a great way to remove emotion from the equation. [Over the years, I've homed in on 3-7.5% as an optimal allocation for a single stock, in a portfolio of 15-20 (core) holdings]. As any smart investor will tell you, they’re usually confounded by their portfolio winners & losers in any one performance period. And trying to predict (or buy) just a few top picks is a fool’s game. So, no matter how confident you are, you still need to spread your bets…

viii) ‘I’m sorry it’s a micro-cap, and you hate the price & spread’

Well, really, I’m not…

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Mea Culpa…


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Surely about time I address this post to readers – the majority of these mea culpas are genuine apologies, the rest are probably just a little cranky:

i) ‘Sorry I didn’t get to your email/comment sooner…’

I like to think I’m fairly good at keeping up with your emails & comments – well, most of the time! As I’m sure you know, if you neglect to answer an email immediately, it’s all too easy to lose track of it. There’s also a daily mountain of spam I have to traverse – at this rate, I should be ditching the investing lark, ‘cos apparently I could be making an easy million squid a day instead… [I must applaud the sheer persistence & inventiveness of the Nigerian people - so definitely an economy worth considering! Guaranty Trust Bank (GRTB:LI), anyone?] But hopefully I get to (almost) every email in the end, even if it takes a week or three – if I don’t respond in a timely manner, just ping me again.

Unfortunately, I tend to suffer from a ridiculously compulsive version of ‘If you don’t do it well, why bother doing it at all?!’ So emails invariably seem to demand a specific & in-depth reply – um, which I often have to get ’round to completing… Might be a good idea to keep track of some of my recurring reader dialogue(s), and summarize/respond to them more systematically here instead – we’ll see, perhaps it might offer up a couple of interesting insights for readers.

But please, keep ‘em coming, they’re much appreciated. Investing’s ultimately a pretty solitary activity, so ‘work’ socializing tends to be a more deliberate affair – emails/comments are a great opportunity each day to just hang out at the ‘water-cooler’ & shoot the breeze with fellow investors!

ii) ‘Sorry, yeah…actually, I did see that headline’

There’s obviously blogs out there providing excellent daily/weekly updates of the latest & most relevant news, weekly reading links, company & valuation updates, plus other interesting snippets & topics. Clearly, this blog isn’t one of them…

I’m definitely grateful for & awed by their industrious contribution, but personally I’m more than happy to rely on the fact you’re all reading & analyzing the same headlines as me! ;-) And from my perspective, individual headlines usually only add very incrementally to the mosaic of knowledge I already have about the markets, sectors & stocks I’m interested in. And in my defence, I also fall back on my Twitter account – I’ve somehow managed to accumulate an horrific 8,000+ tweets at this point, so surely there’s some interesting & contemporary tweets among them!?

iii) ‘Sorry I poured cold water on your favourite stock’

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H1-2014 TGISVP, Portfolio Performance


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Now, let’s take a look at H1-2014 performance for The Great Irish Share Valuation Project. The valuation phase (covering 80 companies) ran from Feb to May, so the mid-point of these posts (March-30th) is the most appropriate start date for benchmarking purposes. Since then, the ISEQ is down 5.8% (as of end-June), so any TGISVP out-performance will be doubly welcome…

Actually, the ISEQ’s recent decline has been even more pronounced – since its end-Feb high, the index is down 9.5%. [And we have a similar pattern with the UK's AIM All-Share, down a whopping 12.7% since its March high. Clearly, the major indices have been performing very differently...I expect to revisit this divergence in my next post]. Despite that, it’s worth highlighting the ISEQ still managed a 3.5% gain for the entire first half – a nice reminder the Irish market seems to enjoy disproportionate first quarter gains nearly every single year.

OK, before looking at overall performance, let’s have some fun – who were the individual winners & losers to date?! [Remember, for each stock, we're only looking at gains/losses since its TGISVP evaluation date (i.e. Feb-May), so these tables don't necessarily reflect full H1 performance...though I'm sure there's plenty of overlap!]. Here’s the Sewer Shit:

TGISVP H1-2014 Losers

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TGISVP – End-H1 2014 Snapshot


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I expect to publish a performance-related post or two, but timeliness dictates I first take a closer look at what’s hot or not in The Great Irish Share Valuation Project. This year’s valuation phase was a 10 post epic stretching from Feb to May – so end-H1 presents a good opportunity to update share prices (plus some underlying valuation-related variables, primarily FX rates), and re-rank all 80 Irish shares in terms of their current upside potential. Obviously, I haven’t updated my underlying intrinsic valuations on the fly – that was never the intention – so pay close attention to any subsequent results & news flow for shares that might interest you. [But I generally find intrinsic valuations change slowly/incrementally]. I do have two last minute exceptions though:

Company:   Kentz Corp

Prior Post(s):   2012 & 2013 & 2014

Ticker:  KENZ:LN

Price:   GBP 926p

Well, this update’s pretty simple: Just a week ago, Kentz announced a recommended cash offer by SNC-Lavalin Group (SNC:CN) at GBP 935p per share. This seems to have taken the market by surprise, but it’s only an 18% premium vs. the 792p price target I published 3 months ago – arguably, one would expect such an additional control premium. I’ve even heard some PI mutterings about other potential bids… Yes, that’s always a possibility, but it doesn’t seem very realistic in this instance: With two other suitors rejected last year, I’m sure management explored all other possibilities before dropping their drawers for SNC-Lavalin.

Despite that, ideally I’d like to re-assess my valuation to determine whether a higher bid could be justified. But there’s been no subsequent results, except for a 10% increase in the company’s backlog (to $4.5 billion, plus a further $125 million contract announced in June). Which is clearly encouraging, but not much of a tangible basis for increasing my price target significantly. At this point, the most likely & logical price target is the recommended cash offer itself…

Price Target:   GBP 935p

Upside/(Downside):   1%

[NB: There are two other pending takeover offers to consider: i) A recommended share offer for Fyffes (FFY:ID) by Chiquita Brands International (CQB:US) - I expect this to close & already incorporated it into my 2014 FFY price target, and ii) a rejected share offer for Kenmare Resources (KMR:LN) by Iluka Resources (ILU:AU). I suspect KMR management (& shareholders?!) would prefer to go straight to hell, rather than accept this offer - unfortunately, the company's current operating, cash & debt trajectory all suggest hell is actually a distinct possibility. I haven't re-considered my much lower 2014 KMR price target at this point.]

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Universe Group – Some Fresh Perspective(s)


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I first published a write-up on Universe Group (UNG:LN) almost 2 years ago: A Universe of Stocks… This was back when the shares were trading at GBP 2.375p, after a long & relentless 9 year decline. At that point, despite the scary chart, I believed the company had finally reached an inflection point…

This perception wasn’t just built on hope value:  The core HTEC division was an obvious jewel in the crown, a new management team was already delivering on its promises, and (if necessary) the shareholder register promised potential activist intervention. The company’s substantial undervaluation was obvious – and its evolution from manufacturing & product sales to a software/transaction solutions provider, focused on increasing recurring revenues, promised significant intrinsic value upside potential in the future. Based on the company’s metrics at the time (adjusted for somewhat excessive debt), I pegged Fair Value at 8.4p per share. I also predicted its loss-making CEM unit would be closed down, or sold – contingent on that, I suggested a Secondary Fair Value of 11.0p per share was also possible.

Just 2 weeks later, the story took a big step forward. Universe announced a placing & a GBP 0.2 million loan issuance – initially for debt reduction, which I was pleased to see. Unfortunately, the resulting enhancement of intrinsic value was relatively small (in my opinion), whereas the dilution impact was substantial: UNG’s undervalued share price/market cap meant a colossal 63% increase in outstanding shares was required to raise just GBP 1.7 M of equity funding. Which knocked my Fair Value targets back to 5.1p & 6.8p per share, respectively. However, management also stated they were ‘exploring a range of options’ for the CEM business – which I took as confirmation it would soon be shut down/sold off, so I was happy to merge/average my price targets into a new Fair Value of 5.9p per share. Despite the dilution, this still offered a highly attractive 164% upside potential! Fast forward two years, the company’s made steady progress…

As expected, the CEM unit was sold in Dec-2012, followed by two strategic bolt-on acquisitions (Indigo & RST) in 2013. A new & updated product offering was completed in 2012 & enjoyed a very successful 2013 customer roll-out. Revenue reached a H2-2013 run-rate of GBP 18.6 M, vs. continuing ops. revenue of 10.5 M in 2011. And with the turn-around complete, the CEO Stephen McLeod departed in Sep-2013 to pursue other projects (Robert Goddard remains as Chairman) – to be replaced by Jeremy Lewis, an ex-investment banker & a technology/software company CFO/CEO for the past 15 years. The share price has also lived up to its potential – it’s now trading in excess of my price target, at 6.125p – that’s a 158% gain vs. my original write-up at 2.375p per share! In fact, the shares almost reached my original 8.4p fair value target, with a Nov-2013 high of 8.25p per share. Which begs the obvious question – what’s an appropriate fair value target for UNG now?!

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European Islamic Investment Bank – Tender Offer/AGM Reminder


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I hope readers were just as pleased (as I was) to note the recent tender offer announcement by European Islamic Investment Bank (EIIB:LN). Even if you’re not an EIIB shareholder, it’s an excellent reminder activism isn’t simply a bloodsport practiced by US hedge funds. All investors, large & small, have rights & responsibilities as the owners of the companies they invest in – and sometimes they need to insist their voice is heard by management…

I proposed such a tender offer to EIIB management in my Jan-2014 letter (with the support of Guy Thomas, Ali Al Shihabi & a number of other shareholders). Of course, this letter was a follow-up to my previous 2013 letter. Some might argue I’ve been far too sedate/polite in my activism – that’s understandable – I could definitely have taken a far more aggressive activist stance, but in this instance my approach reflected my underlying (positive) perspective on the business. As I’ve detailed before, I believe EIIB offers investors a compelling triple play on frontier markets, Islamic finance, and Middle Eastern oil wealth & resources. Unfortunately, in its previous incarnation, that potential was wasted…

However, the arrival of HBG & the appointment of Zak Hydari as CEO stabilized the business, led to the acquisition of Rasmala & re-focused operating strategy on becoming a leading GCC asset manager. Which has, to date, been a great success – not that you’d notice from the share price – Assets under Management (AUM) have doubled in just 2 years (to USD 1,176 million at year-end 2013, from USD 600 million in Jan-2012). This is clearly a high margin business, with attractive economies of scale, but that’s not yet apparent due to the restructuring of Rasmala/EIIB & the rapid expansion in AUM. Unfortunately, as things stand, it’s unlikely this operating progress/potential can deliver a decent return on equity for shareholders in the foreseeable future – because any likely return will end up swamped in a sea of equity! [EIIB currently has GBP 123 million of equity, mostly in cash & liquid securities].

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2014 – The Great Irish Share Valuation Project (Final – Part X)


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Continued from here:

[NB: Worth revisiting Part I if you're a new reader, or you'd like a refresher on TGISVP & my approach to the whole project.]

OK, it’s the final furlong..! This should be my last TGISVP post – that will make it a grand total of 80 Irish companies, all covered in very random order since February. Except this last post – I deliberately withheld DCP:ID & ZMNO:ID ’til I got around to posting separate write-ups for each, plus I’ve only just added another 3 (recent) Irish IPOs. I also debated including 3 other vaguely ‘Irish’ stocks, but decided (somewhat arbitrarily) against them in the end…

[FYI, my 3 rejections were:

- Kennady Diamonds (KDI:CN):   Dermot Desmond has long been involved here - he currently owns a 17.5% stake & the Chairman Jonathan Comerford's actually an investment manager with IIU. However, the company has no other Irish connections, and I've never noticed any kind of Irish PI/institutional following for the stock.

- Kennedy Wilson Europe Real Estate (KWE:LN):   KWE's a new fund launched by Kennedy-Wilson Holdings (KW:US), focused on investing primarily in real estate & real estate loans in the UK, Ireland & Spain. While the fund's already completed a chunky Irish acquisition, one would expect Irish assets will ultimately be the smallest component of the portfolio (considering the relative size of the UK/Spanish economies & property markets).

- Metro Baltic Horizons (MET:LN):  MET's another of those funds launched back in 2006 - focused on property development in the Baltic States & St. Petersburg, and targeting a minimum 25% IRR. Aaah, those were the days, eh..?! Garrett Kelleher & Dermot Desmond/IIU (again!) originally backed the company (with a 27% stake between them), and after some farcical/fraudulent events along the way, the board's now comprised of a senior IIU executive & two other Irish directors. MET has become a cash/litigation shell & a suspension of its listing's now imminent - but we should hopefully see some new proposals (inc. a continuation of MET's listing) from the board shortly.]

So, without any further ado – let’s dive right in & finish up:

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