FY-2019…Hella Surprise Of A Year!?

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It’s still January…so by now, I’m sweating to wrap this up by month-end (at the very latest!), while you’re probably feeling besieged (& bamboozled) by the media’s parade of talking heads who seamlessly re-write their broken #2019 narratives & still pitch their #2020 market prognostications with undaunted confidence. Which is a tad discouraging when I’m busy trying to come up with my own unique version & perspective…albeit, in the wake of a fantastic year (talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth!).

Seriously…name a market/asset class that actually declined!?

But rewind a year & check the gamut of their 2019 predictions, and (once again) you’ll remember/realise they’re full of highly paid shit! So before I even start – let alone, God forbid, pontificate – I’ll share the only piece of market wisdom you really need to know, above all else:

‘Nobody knows anything…’

And that quote’s about the movie business! Granted, for anyone who cares, Hollywood probably seems like the most impressive Rube Goldberg contraption in the world…but frankly, figuring it out is a total cake-walk compared to grappling with & predicting what might actually happen next in the markets & the global economy! But unfortunately, that’s how we all step up & play the game:

Like useless office work expanding to fill all available time…useless market forecasts expand to fill all available airtime & news holes!

Probably my greatest investing achievement in the last year was switching off the financial media – and yeah, I stopped paying attention to brokers years ago – is it any wonder I reported such negligible portfolio activity? [It’s a real travesty seeing #buyandhold investors re-classified as chumps over the years (& decades)]. And in reality, markets are primarily focused on trying to discount a 12-18 month time-horizon, which means a diet of narrative manufactured to simply explain yesterday & today’s market/stock zig-zags is just irrelevant & misleading anyway. And so, I recommend you do the same: Go on, just switch off that guy on the box, you know the one…he just happened to attend some ‘school in Boston’, and is now an instant expert on epidemiology and up & to the right #coronavirus charts! Again:

‘Nobody knows anything…’

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Cpl Resources…A Most Talented Company!

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Cpl Resources plc (CPL:ID) (CPS:LN, sterling quote) (DQ5, its actual ISE/Euronext ticker) is Ireland’s leading recruitment firm – founded 30 years ago by CEO Anne Heraty, it’s been listed since its 1999 IPO. It provides talent & workforce solutions, via 13,000+ recruiters/contractors/temporary staff in 47 offices across 9 countries, focused primarily on Ireland, the UK, and Central & Eastern Europe. It operates via distinct specialist brands in sectors including technology, healthcare, pharmaceutical & life sciences, engineering, light industrial, finance & accounting,  human resources & office administration, and sales. It boasts a broad range of clients from global multinationals to startups to local SMEs, and operates across the full talent spectrum from permanent, contract & temporary recruitment to the provision of managed workforce solutions & strategic talent advisory services.

In its FY-2019 annual report (NB: FY ended Jun-2019), Cpl reported record results & the launch of Covalen, its new managed solutions brand. Revenue increased 8% year-on-year to €565 million, with gross profit (i.e. net fee income) up 16% to €96 million, delivering 30% growth in adjusted operating profit (to €26 million) & exceptional 37% growth in diluted EPS to 77.2 cents a share. This is reflected in an annual dividend up 41% & a balance sheet boasting over €40 million in net cash. Cpl Resources now trades at €7.05 a share…a €193 million market cap, an enterprise value of €153 million & a 9.1 P/E multiple!

Wow…soooo, what’s the catch?!

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H1-2019 Wexboy Portfolio Performance

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And once more…into battle!

Before the month is out, it’s time I look back & share a H1 portfolio update. Of course, in the wake of last year’s Q4 carnage, it wasn’t all that surprising to see markets chalking up a near-perfect YTD performance across the board. Equally unsurprising was the US market’s continued leadership…which seems like an inevitability these days, to the chagrin of long-suffering European & value investors. [Um, aren’t they synonymous?!] So here’s the scoreboard – as usual, my H1-2019 Benchmark Return is a simple average of the four main indices which represent the majority of my portfolio:

On average, a 13.4% benchmark gain…led by the S&P with a 17.3% gain (bested by the Nasdaq, which boasted a 20.7% gain). More surprising was the robust performance of the FTSE 100…despite a tsunami of Brexit nonsense, it still managed to deliver a 10.4% gain. [Not an index-related fluke – the more domestic FTSE 250 & the AIM All-Share (despite a glut of profit warnings) clocked up (on average) similar gains of 11.2% & 7.1%, respectively]. As for the ISEQ & Bloomberg Euro 500, they did themselves proud too, recording respective gains of 12.3% & 13.6%.

Overall, this is a reversal of the 13.5% benchmark loss I reported last year. Which, noting the S&P’s consistent out-performance, is an unwelcome reminder European markets are still actually lower/no better off than end-2017 levels! And really, I’m just cherry-picking here – my European benchmarks have pretty much gone nowhere for the last four years. And again, that’s another flattering perspective…believe it or not, Euro indices have mostly traded sideways for close to two decades now! [Read ’em & weep: FTSE 100, ISEQ, STOXX Europe 600]*. Sure, you still earned a dividend yield…but this savages the comforting notion that equities will always make you decent money/are the superior asset class in the medium & long-term. Though maybe, just maybe, there’s a silver lining to that bag you’re holding:

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FY-2018: What The Market Gods Giveth, They Also Taketh Away…

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Back in much happier days (last July!), faced with indices that were (on average) broadly flat, I sagely accepted that:

‘Looking back, the first half this year seems kind of inevitable now…’

Of course, this now haunts me as absurd understatement. And an unfortunate reminder the hardest time to sell is…inevitably, when you should sell! But after a crackerjack 2017, I did see 2018 as more of a market time-out, than anything else – as reflected here, consciously or not, in the lack of blog posts & commentary. My bad…but sometimes it’s better to take stock & just enjoy how wonderful real life can be!

The same is true of my disclosed portfolio – my only reported activity was to: i) top up my Record (REC:LN) holding (which I still prefer to call bad timing, vs. an actual bad decision), and ii) re-establish my Donegal Investment Group (DQ7A:ID) portfolio allocation, after management redeemed over 50% of its outstanding shares. Elsewhere, after enjoying rapid/substantial price run-ups on certain undisclosed holdings (the main reason they never quite made it onto the blog), I focused on positioning myself for a rough October. Pals will back me up on that…but obviously it wasn’t visible here, it’s never enough when you’re right (cheap buys won’t offset damage in the rest of your portfolio), the market proved far worse than I expected, and only fools believe in all or nothing market timing anyway.

[Forget the guy who pissed you off the other day – you know the one, that dude boasting only an idiot wasn’t all in cash & set for the crash – because he’s also the guy forgets how many other times he (wrongly) went to cash, plus all the gains he’s missed out on over the years].

So let’s just go ahead & survey the actual market carnage – here’s my FY-2018 Benchmark Return – as usual, it’s a simple average of the four main indices covering most of my portfolio (& my readers’ too, I expect):

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H1-2018 Wexboy Portfolio Performance

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Looking back, the first half this year seems kind of inevitable now…

In the wake of last year’s momentum – possibly even euphoria (see my FY-2017 performance review) – H1-2018 was an unwelcome cold shower for investors. But such is how the market gods operate… And in reality, momentum was limited mostly to US investors (in particular, FAANG fans), who enjoyed 19-25%+ returns last year. Spare a thought for (unhedged) European investors: A weak dollar (down 14% vs. the euro) diluted away most of their US stock returns, while locally they earned a fairly pedestrian sub-8% return. So it’s clearly galling for European investors to now see their local markets down year-to-date (vs. a small US gain)…particularly when most of the ‘blame’ (if there is such a thing) for recent market wobbles arguably belongs to America.

But surveying other markets, we’ve seen more savage reversals of fortune elsewhere this year. Emerging & frontier markets investors enjoyed 32%+ returns last year, but were blindsided this year as markets plunged across the board, with negative returns exacerbated by local currency weakness (high current account deficits being targeted in particular). In fact, quite a few individual markets entered bear market territory. And yes, I mean actual 20%+ declines…not the feeble 5-10% ‘bear markets’ the financial media breathlessly reports these days!

Of course, the real disaster bear apocalypse happened in the crypto market – remember this table?

Take a moment & marvel once more…seems like an awful long time ago now, eh?! While Bitcoin peaked mid-December (rather unfortunate for all those kids who persuaded their folks to buy in over Xmas!), Ethereum & the rest of the market’s incredible momentum carried right into the first/second week of January. Since that peak, the entire crypto market has collapsed almost 70%, with its end-June market cap now barely exceeding $250 billion. Clearly, my #CryptoFOMO theory hit a brick wall: Despite noting a possible crypto-wobble (as I published this post mid-Jan), I argued that new money might not be ready to dive into crypto, but last year’s crypto gains would surely inflame & elevate investors’ risk appetite in the equity markets. Obviously, at the time, I didn’t quite envision such a horrific crypto collapse…or the subsequent schadenfreude.

However, I’d still argue there’s a significant asymmetry here, in terms of potential risk/reward: Crypto euphoria could well re-emerge & spill over into equities…but on the other hand (hopefully, I’m not being too blasé here!) the popping of an asset class/bubble that can be measured in the mere hundreds of billions isn’t all that relevant or serious in the global scheme of things.

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Wexboy Portfolio Prospects – Part II

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Ugh, collywobbles!

Sure, we can all breathe easier now, but still feels a little bumpy out there, eh? Though maybe you should ignore the incipient nausea…just relax & embrace the ride! ‘Cos I’m perversely encouraged by these fresh mini-bouts of panic we’ve been seeing this year. They’re a useful reminder investors still have a real wall of worry to climb here. Which is probably the most important & necessary pre-condition underwriting the durability of today’s bull market. [And yes, it’s only a bull market…when investors (esp. the man in the street) go from hoping they’ll make money, to knowing they’ll make money, that’s when we enter bubble territory]. However, we still need to see whether my macro investment thesis eventually plays out here – a thesis I express via a question:

Globally, we’re still conducting a truly unprecedented monetary (& fiscal) experiment…could we end up ultimately inflating the most incredible bubble ever?

If you think that’s ridiculous, we really don’t need to debate it here. Or rehash a complete litany of facts & figures which prove history must repeat itself – the ever-flattening US yield curve being the latest bogeyman. But I have to ask, what’s so bloody alarming about entirely average market P/E ratios…when interest rates are still anything but average?! And despite their trajectory, we’ll obviously continue to enjoy ultra-low long & short-term rates in absolute terms, while central banks (in aggregate) also continue to print money:

Yep, there’s the real boiler-room of this market – in every sense of the word – as this chart nicely demonstrates:

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Wexboy Portfolio Prospects – Part I

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With the dust hopefully having settled here, it finally seemed like the right time to give this post one last polish & get it out! Maybe now, readers are  in the mood again to actually contemplate a potential new buy or two? As for me, almost inevitably, my top holdings tend to be my favourite buys…

Okay, maybe that’s not strictly true – each & every day, I’m still distracted by siren stocks I pine to own! But buying a new stock is equally about selling an existing holding*, one you (should) already know far more intimately. [*Unless you’re hoarding piles of cash…which would be pretty silly, right?!] And that’s an important & valuable hurdle for any investor. Because anything that might help reduce portfolio turnover is invariably a good thing! Which is no damn excuse for hanging on to losers…but it is a compelling incentive for really understanding the stocks/businesses you currently own. In particular, because learning how not to sell potential multi-bagger growth stocks is ultimately the biggest challenge most (experienced) investors will have to face, as I lamented in my last post.

So let’s crack on: For each of my disclosed holdings, I’ll comment briefly on its 2017 performance, then focus on its current prospects & valuation. NB: All share prices & market caps are cob Feb-27th, but individual stock allocations are listed as of year-end 2017 (essential to my 2018 portfolio performance tracking). Of course, any questions/comments you may have about these holdings are always welcome here (& by email):

i) Zamano (ZMNO:ID) (or ZMNO:LN) (1.8% of year-end portfolio):

Share Price:   EUR 0.04

Market Cap:   EUR 4.0 Million

2017 Portfolio Gain:   (25)%

Yeah, unfortunately they can’t all be potential multi-bagger growth stocks…

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FY-2017 Wexboy Portfolio Performance…Crackin’ The Code

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Hello. Why yes, it’s me…

Happy New Year!

Admit it: You thought I’d bloody well scarpered, to become the Wild Eyed Crypto-Boy from Freecloud – didn’t you?!

Well, not quite…

Though I did a mini-grand tour of Xmas dinners & meetings, and was bemused how often the conversation ended up in crypto-territory. Ha, so it’s not just me!? And even though I enjoyed some lighthearted crypto debate (best to avoid people who get too emotional about investing), I’m also left wondering how high #CryptoFOMO levels are running out there right now?! My new portfolio mantra may be dead on target:

Doesn’t everybody deserve a little crypto pixie dust?!

But anyway: I was actually 100% committed to an incredibly brutal training regime – preparing for my first naked solo New Year’s Day Iron Man Triathlon. Yeah, I know, just about anything to get out of the house…

Haha…again, not quite.

In reality, life simply got in the way, as it has a habit of doing…albeit, sometimes in great ways! But after all, isn’t that precisely what my life’s designed for & supposed to accommodate? Next time you fear dying chained to your office desk, keep your eyes on the prize & remember money isn’t really about buying things – which is just another form of indenture – what it really buys you is freedom!

And more recently, I’ve taken advantage of that freedom to meditate on doing…absolutely nothing! To explain: Over the last couple of years, I’ve executed a sloowww but steady transformation of my entire portfolio: Far less value, far more GARP. [The nay-sayers will insist this is simply an excuse to pay up]. And in 2017, I finally felt like this huge effort had come together beautifully…

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Kryptonite Even Superman Could Love…

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As some of you suspected, my last post (& related comments) were intended as an essential intro here, so it’s worth revisiting:

Cryptocurrencies & Blockchain – Longs, Shorts, or Trading Sardines…

[And since I ducked providing some kind of primer, let me highlight the best introductory books I’ve read in the past year: ‘Digital Gold’, ‘The Age of Cryptocurrency’, ‘Blockchain Revolution’, ‘The End of Money’…nor would I under-estimate the ‘For Dummies’ books. And this is new: Hash Power. And finally, here’s an interesting news/research resource.]

After highlighting some of the risks & challenges investors face if they’re considering direct investment in cryptocurrencies & blockchain (via mining, buy & hold investment, initial coin offerings, and/or blockchain VC investment), I concluded the safest & most practical approach for the vast majority of investors was inevitably via:

Listed Investment Companies

But while I detailed metrics for 16 core listed sector plays (& highlighted another 23 potential plays), I offered no recommendations. In fact, in terms of such nascent technology/innovation & the listed sector’s $2.6 billion market cap (just 2% of the $144 billion cryptocurrency market…which is another rounding error globally), I question if valuation’s even a relevant filter at this point. Same for management – many of which don’t necessarily match the typical CEO profile investors expect, or boast a prior/public track record.

[Not suggesting you abandon all (valuation) rationale. Or ignore management: Companies/projects will ultimately live or die by their management & they still need to be evaluated in their current role (at the very least). Focus particularly on what they actually do & achieve, not just what they say…]

In reality, the main challenge (& best framework) now for investors is to develop a real view on the entire sector – long, or short – one strong & personal enough to hopefully steer you towards the best investment opportunities, and help you sleep through the inevitable volatility & reversals to come. Thinking about cryptocurrencies & the blockchain separately is a great place to start, as people still confuse/conflate them*. Ultimately, they’re very different beasts…a negative view of one shouldn’t preclude a positive view of the other.

[*Even crypto-warriors have decided (or at least conceded) they’re trading Ethereum…but they’re actually trading Ether!]

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Cryptocurrencies & Blockchain – Longs, Shorts, or Trading Sardines…

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Over the last few months, I slowly added lines here & there to this post in my head. Well, the original: It soon evolved into a bear of a cryptocurrency & blockchain primer. One which, anticipating an eventual audience, kept dragging me down an endless rabbit-hole of what about & what if questions…

It’s astonishing such a new innovation has attracted so much passion & opinion so fast. [In reality, its key components – cryptography, a distributed ledger (i.e. a peer-to-peer network), digital money – have existed for decades. The genius of Satoshi Nakamoto was applying them in such a radical & elegant new way]. We’re barely outta the gates here, but it seems like everybody’s already adopted a fervent position of advocacy, denial, or just plain old ignorance… Take your pick & damn the facts close your eyes & you’d swear it’s politics, not technology.

But maybe this is no surprise – after all, we find it harder to talk (rationally) about money, even more than sex!? ‘Cos it’s personal. And emotional…nothing evokes those familiar demons, fear & greed, more easily than money. And that deeply personal relationship’s become even more fraught & anxiety-ridden – particularly in the West, with more to lose – as we live in a post-financial crisis world, with increasingly meagre economic growth prospects, relentlessly climbing public & private debt burdens, ever more polarised voters, and with even the future of work threatened by technology.

And then, Bitcoin: A new paradigm, uber-money, a stateless & entirely digital currency. Which only served to ratchet our fear & greed even higher. Too many struggle with the apparent irrational exuberance, and even more so the sheer intangibility, of cryptocurrencies. Which inevitably invokes a much deeper fear, of the same intangibility inherent in our fiat currencies, our fiscal obeisance to governments who seem dead-set on printing & spending their way into oblivion, the fragility of our financial assets & markets (which now exist only as electronic blips on hackable centralised repositories), and our economic future & security itself. Hence, that recent primal scream of denial:

‘But they’re not real!!!!!’

[Yes, I counted – Howard Marks really did use five exclamation marks.]

But we also flog ourselves into a real frenzy of greed: How did we miss out so completely on Bitcoin’s incredible & stupendous gains over the last few years (even this year!)? We wonder if maybe, just maybe, this is still the beginning…could a cryptocurrency (or two) ultimately scale up to match the gold market, or even a major global currency? [So why didn’t the media swarm Murray Stahl, as they did Marks or Jamie Dimon? Here’s Stahl’s incredibly bullish take. Ironically, he helped inspire Marks’ next letter, a rather grudging & half-hearted mea culpa]. We even speculate whether investing in the blockchain is a chance to go back in time & actually get in on the ground floor of the internet itself?!

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