The Inherent Contradictions of My Portfolio (or Who’s The Greater Fool..?) (Part II)

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OK, I posted Part I a month ago (and here’s its prequel, Welcome to the Floating World…), so you may want to skim those posts again. [Especially as the world’s changed so much since then…what with the bond markets going crazy, Greece staying crazy, etc. ;-) ] To briefly summarise:

The central banks control the price of money, and everything else is a function of the price of money, and post-crisis they embarked upon the greatest price-fixing experiment ever – an echo/amplification of the entire era leading up to the late ’60s/early ’70s. Consequently, sustained near-zero rates has meant there’s a wall of money that’s slowly but surely being forced into the equity market. And just like the early ’70s, investors have & will continue to exhibit a distinct preference for Nifty Fifty stocks, i.e. large cap/blue chip companies which guarantee (or at least offer the illusion of) predictable quality & growth in an uncertain economic & fiscal environment. Small & mid cap stocks may be neglected accordingly, but will probably end up getting dragged higher regardless.

As for liquidity, central banks will basically find it impossible to reverse the explosion in their respective balance sheets…Pandora’s Box is now open. And GDP growth may prove irrelevant – since positive/accelerating growth is likely to underpin/encourage market sentiment & valuations, whereas weak/negative growth will simply elicit fresh expectations of central bank stimulus. Most of all, regardless of potential rate increases (or bond market volatility), the absolute level of yields means stocks will arguably remain cheap at any price…

But I really don’t have to make the argument: If/when this bull market keeps marching higher, I have no doubt we’ll be spoon-fed all the erudite & compelling arguments we need to justify it, ’til investors can no longer help themselves & inevitably turn the market into a self-reinforcing bubble. I’m not saying this is necessarily a logical process (what bubble is?!) – but I am saying it could easily happen, plus I’m also saying it could well turn out to be unprecedented…

 [Again, it’s worth remembering two recent & very relevant quotes:

Buffett – ‘Everything is a function of interest rates. Interest rates are like gravity.’

Tepper – ‘Don’t fight four Feds!’]

So, what are the implications for my portfolio?

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One Fifty One? No, It’s Worth Far More…

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A One Fifty One plc investment write-up has long been outstanding from me now, as certain readers have reminded me! It’s high time now I rectify this – especially since I’ve already highlighted One51 & its CEO, Alan Walsh, play an integral role in the unfolding NTR plc story. Of course, One51’s also another classic example of Celtic Tiger hubris & near-collapse – but its future definitely looks far more promising…

Let’s rewind:  In 2005, members of the Irish Agricultural Wholesale Society Ltd. approved the creation of One51. In bygone years, it would probably have remained just a sub. of the Society, conservatively managing its investment properties & portfolio. But the Celtic Tiger demanded something more ambitious, so it became a stand-alone company: a) When Society members became direct shareholders in One51, via a Feb-2007 share exchange, and b) grey market trading commenced in One51’s shares at the end of Oct-2007.

[NB: Irish grey market shares are unlisted – akin to unlisted UK shares (which trade via matched bargain), or US OTC/Pink Sheet stocks (but without the benefit necessarily of market-makers). One51 now has a quarter billion dollar market cap, and its standards of reporting, corporate governance & investor relations equal any of its listed peers, but it’s still a grey market share…so be aware of the usual investor health warnings. But if you’re still interested, you can discuss and/or trade One51 with these brokers.]

This independence was something of an illusion though, as One51’s board and management was populated mostly with continuing (& former) directors and management of the Society & IAWS Group plc. [IAWS Group was a listed sub. of the Society, which has now become Aryzta (YZA:ID) & Origin Enterprises (OGN:ID)]. The company’s shareholder base also overlapped with those of the private & public IAWS entities. But those were heady times – brokers & punters weren’t too worried about potential grey market illiquidity, or governance issues. All they really cared for was the mesmerising strategic vision painted by Philip Lynch, One51’s CEO. [Who was still CEO of the Society, and a former CEO & Chairman of IAWS Group]. Unlike everybody else at the time, Lynch wasn’t actually focused on property investment & development…instead, his real ambition was to become a genuine mover & shaker in the Irish (& even the UK) corporate world.

Unfortunately, looking back, his vision doesn’t look so compelling (or even that strategic). During 2006-08, operating & financial acquisitions were occurring at the frantic pace of almost one a month – and well over EUR 500 million (gross) was actually spent during this period. As a result, the balance sheet almost quadrupled within a two year period (peaking at EUR 900 million+ by end-2007), funded by an easy combo. of bank debt & fresh equity. [Plus EUR 168 million of Convertible Loan Note (CLN) issuance, most of which was quickly converted to equity also.]

Buoyant business & investment confidence, optimistic growth expectations, and the intoxicating availability of cheap funding, all conspired to jack up prices paid (& goodwill recorded) at the time. And management’s lack of financial discipline was clearly evident in the minimal (low single-digit) net profits & return on equity recorded in 2006-07. But judging by One51’s opening share price, investors didn’t much care – they were too focused on their prospective gains, and the touted ‘integration and synergies’ to be extracted from the company’s sprawling portfolio.

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The Inherent Contradictions of My Portfolio (or Who’s The Greater Fool..?)

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My last post (‘Welcome to the Floating World…’) talked about some of my habitual concerns regarding the markets & my portfolio…and consequently, I couldn’t help but highlight an inherent contradiction of my portfolio:

If I worry so much, how come my entire portfolio’s invested in stocks..?!

The answer’s simple: I have been & continue to be resoundingly bullish on the markets. Except it’s really not that simple…because this immediately highlights another obvious contradiction of my portfolio:

If I’m so bullish, how come my portfolio’s invested so defensively..?!

To illustrate, let’s revisit my Top Tips for 2015 post – which actually listed my Top 10 portfolio holdings (as of year-end 2014). Here they are:

Wexboy Yr-End 2014 Top 10 Holdings

I’d classify eight of these holdings into three (overlapping) categories: Deep value, special situations & (mostly) uncorrelated stocks (vs. the economy, or even the market). Which leaves just two holdings that can be described as growth (or high beta) stocks/funds: Fortress Investment Group (FIG:US) & VinaCapital Vietnam Opportunity Fund (VOF:LN). Granted, a defensive portfolio mix helps me sleep at night, as I’ve boasted before – but in light of my bullish market view, I have to ask if this is really an unnecessary luxury…or maybe even a bloody hindrance?

And in reality, my market view shouldn’t necessarily be that relevant anyway – return to my recent Stock Picking…Art, or Science?! series (esp. Part IV), and we’re reminded that consistent portfolio diversification isn’t just about geographical & asset allocation. Take another look at my Top 10 holdings table – again we see an inherent contradiction of my portfolio:

If I’m so concerned about diversification, how come my portfolio’s so lacking in large cap/growth stocks..?!

[Interestingly, the two growth stocks/funds I identified are actually my largest market cap holdings. My other holdings’ average market cap is just $84 million.]

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Welcome to the Floating World…

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I regularly write about fear & greed here. And I often worry about the tentative & fragile recovery we’re hoping for/seeing in the developed economies (led obviously by the US), and whether it’s built on a foundation of sand…or, more correctly, of printed money. I also worry about markets’ headline valuation ratios, which keep marching higher, and question if they’re priced to reflect a growth renaissance, or simply fool’s gold. And sometimes I talk just as much about preserving wealth, as I do about increasing wealth. Most of all, I incessantly interrogate the diversity & robustness of my portfolio, and cling to the comfort its deep value & special situation stocks offer – I demand they help me sleep soundly each night…

Lots of investors deal with this kind of free-floating market anxiety by keeping a healthy slug of cash in their portfolios – but my current cash allocation is actually minimal (& this isn’t a new phenomenon). Which starkly highlights an inherent contradiction of my portfolio:

If I worry so much, how come my entire portfolio’s invested in stocks..?!

Now, I could offer a prior argument – as I usually don’t consider cash a necessary component of a portfolio, with (low risk) event-driven investments generally serving as an acceptable & more attractive substitute. But that would just be a red herring, as I haven’t actually maintained a big allocation to such a cash alternative either. In reality, the answer’s much simpler…as I’ve often said (about management):

Watch what they do, not what they say!

Which is obviously an exhortation that can just as usefully be applied self-critically… OK yeah, I worry, so I obviously rationalise & anaesthetise these anxieties accordingly – but in reality, my fully-invested portfolio is a resounding confirmation of my past, present & continuing bullish stance on the markets. Hopefully, this doesn’t come as a surprise to you – despite the concerns I express regularly, I believe this bullishness has been a predominant & underlying theme of the blog all along.

[This Jul-2014 post is perhaps the best & most recent expression of my underlying bullishness – it just might be worth a read in its entirety].

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NTR plc – Breezin’ Right Along…

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Judging by the emails/comments I’m getting, there’s plenty of current & potential investors out there delighted to see Monday’s announcement from NTR plc, confirming the sale of its US wind farms. [i.e. NTR’s 201 MW Post Rock, KS & 150 MW Lost Creek, MO wind farms – both approx. 3 years old, with 20 yr investment-grade PPAs in place]. Like many corporate releases though, it raises just as many questions as it answers…including the most obvious question:

So, what are the implications now for NTR’s NAV & share price?!

Far be it for me to predict a near-term share price trajectory – let’s see what the next few weeks’ trading brings – but I’m obviously keen to arrive at a fresh NAV estimate, based on this key value-realisation event. First, let’s take a breath & revisit my original NTR investment write-up (from Aug-2014). I won’t recap it here…because I’d suggest (re-)reading that piece is probably essential prep for the rest of this post (it definitely was for me!).

Picking up where I left off, I wrapped up that post with this speculation: ‘…it will be interesting to see if there’s any fireworks at the [September AGM] meeting’ – little did I know how fortuitous, yet prescient, this would prove to be! Preceded by a number of critical press articles (which prompted this pre-AGM response), there were indeed fireworks at the AGM itself…I think it’s fair to say management looked a tad defensive & beleaguered by all the questions and attention!

However, the real AGM highlight was confirmation the board had already requested management (in April-2014, which of course ‘preceded and was entirely independent from any…shareholder discussions’) to consider the strategic options for NTR’s US wind assets. It was also acknowledged (as I’d already argued in my prior post) ‘there could be strong interest in the US wind assets given their quality and operational performance’, and that ‘a successful sale could result in an opportunity for an additional liquidity event for all our shareholders.’ This was capped off with a commitment to appoint expert advisers, and (subject to their report) to potentially move ahead with a sale process.

Shortly after the AGM, the company then confirmed its three main shareholders (representing 71.5% of NTR’s issued share capital) had reached agreement, and had ‘put a proposal to the Board that it initiate a process to sell the NTR US wind assets as soon as possible and that NTR implement a tender offer as soon as possible thereafter for NTR’s issued shares.’ Depending upon the tender price per share, One Fifty One plc & Pageant Holdings informed the board they intended to accept such a tender offer for all their shares, while Woodford Capital (family investment vehicle of Chairman Tom Roche) stated its intention not to sell any shares in such a tender offer. This obviously allayed any lingering investor concerns management wouldn’t follow through on a value-realisation strategy…as evidenced two months later by the appointment of Marathon Capital to formally launch a sale process for the US wind farms.

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Stock Picking…Art, or Science (Part IV)?!

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Continued from here.

Value vs. Growth:

In my last Stock Picking post, I highlighted a common value investor failing – namely, a preference for over-leveraged & illiquid small/micro-cap stocks. All too often, it seems like this kind of preference (& others like it) are simply hard-wired in…maybe you’re born to be a value or growth investor! Now, we could get all touchy-feely here & try to personality-map this out – cautious vs. aggressive, quantitative vs. qualitative, thinker vs. dreamer, and so on – but does it really matter? Far better to recognise & accept what you are – if you haven’t already, just stop reading right now & come out to your wife:

‘Um, darling, it’s time you know…I’m a value investor!’

You may even find out she knew already…

Acceptance is the first & most important step in recognising inherent investing biases, and maybe trying to curb some of the worst excesses of hard-core value investing. [Of course, the same is equally true of growth investing]. This might take years…it definitely took me years! And pride often gets in the way – sometimes it’s nice to feel different, one of a select breed of smart investors who can boast of finding hidden gems in the rubble. But this is just an illusion – true growth investors are equally select. [Yes, most people seem biased towards growth stocks (if they ever mention stocks at all!?) – but in reality, they’re fairly clueless about money & investing. At best, they’re TALT* investors…] For them, genuine growth stocks are equally difficult & just as precious to find. And let’s face it – on average, in the real world, nobody can reliably claim value investing is superior to growth investing, or vice versa.

But accepting your value investing biases, curbing your excesses, and exploiting your natural advantages, is surely the best way to maximise your comfort & your returns as an investor. Except this can ultimately prove a double-edged sword…the world you end up living in may just be a value ghetto. Sure, it may feel large enough, it may even feel comfortable enough, but if that’s as far as your horizons stretch, you’re missing out on a whole other world of opportunity out there. Forget about investment ideology – again, this is about diversification, and it’s about becoming a better investor.

If you choose to ignore growth stocks & investing, you’re voluntarily cutting yourself off from vast swathes of the available investment universe – that’s countless companies, entire sectors, new/disruptive business models & secular trends, even geographies, etc. you’re missing out on, maybe forever…how does that make any sense? And even if you heed everything else I’ve written about diversification, how meaningful will the impact be if your portfolio remains blighted by the absence of growth stocks?

Of course, the classic value objection to growth stocks is that they’re invariably over-valued. But this, my friends, amounts to nothing more than a red herring… A true growth stock always seems to be over-valued, yet its share price can subsequently look astonishingly & ridiculously cheap after the business/stock somehow manages to scale up by hundreds or even thousands of percent. The real complaint here, I suspect, is that growth investing is just too hard!?! And if you’re a value investor, there should be no shame in admitting this – because that’s exactly how it feels: You naturally take a primarily quantitative approach to investing & you always require an adequate margin of safety, but identifying true growth stocks demands a far more qualitative approach & appears to offer little in the way of safety…

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The Four Mystery Horsemen, Revealed…

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Continued from here. A week ago, I set readers a mystery/blind stock challenge – to estimate an intrinsic/fair value for four mystery companies: Conquest, War, Famine & Death. Here’s the data table I provided:

Four Mystery Horsemen

First, let me thank all the readers who participated (by blog comment & email): Congrats, you took the time to stick your neck out & provided me with what I consider a meaningful set of fair value estimates. Second, without further ado, here’s a table of the 4 companies & their actual underlying data:

Four Mystery Horsemen Revealed

[NB: For the challenge, remember I normalised to 1 billion of revenue – i.e. applied factors of 20.8%, 39.4%, 78.5% & 17.4%, respectively, to each company’s revenue & additional data points (except CAGRs).]

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The Four Mystery Horsemen…

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Last week, I published the third post in my Stock Picking series (see Parts I, II & III), and it got me thinking – I haven’t seen a good mystery/blind stock challenge in a long time! There’s obviously tonnes of great investing advice out there to harvest, but the lessons we really take to heart are those we learn via trial & error, and hard won experience…

As I’ve been banging on about, stock picking is really composed of two very distinct processes: Stock Valuation & Stock Selection. But investors often tend to confuse & conflate the two… Just like meeting a person for the first time, stock selection often boils down ultimately to a first impression – a gut feeling Company X is dodgy/above-board, enjoys positive/negative investor sentiment, is well/poorly run, always/never delivers, is high/low growth, is financially weak/bullet-proof, has huge/no business or upside potential, etc. Basically, we’re making a snap decision whether it’s a good or bad company…

Such first impressions often exert a substantial & pernicious influence on our stock valuation process. We cherry-pick data, we discern & extract more favourable or unfavourable trends, valuation multiples contract or expand, inconsistent ratios are conveniently ignored, etc. etc. Given similar financial/operating histories, quite often we (wittingly, or unwittingly) end up arriving at radically different valuations for different stocks/companies.

Of course, their respective prospects may entirely justify wildly different valuations. Sure, but for the majority of companies, they generally don’t experience hockey stick growth out of the blue, nor do they suddenly fall off a cliff… [Novice investors are particularly susceptible to the ‘hockey stick’ assumption, blithely ignoring the fact they/other investors have sometimes been waiting years already for the same exceptional growth surge!] In reality a company’s future tends to reflect its past, good or bad, far more often than investors might credit – its management & culture, for example, can be a powerful institutional imperative ensuring this is true.

Multiply this potential for valuation bias across all investors, and inevitably you tend to end up with a pretty inefficient/irrational market…at least in terms of individual stocks & sectors. [Ooh, the heresy!] But a mystery stock challenge can wonderfully illustrate how under/over-valued individual stocks can actually become in the market. Plus it’s a highly effective way to separate the (quantitative) stock valuation process from the (more qualitative) stock selection process – and when the companies stand  revealed, investors can examine (individually & in aggregate) their stock valuation process & potential biases in a far more detached and objective fashion. Ideally, it also provides some up-close insight into the perspectives & valuation techniques of a broad selection of investors.

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Stock Picking…Art, or Science (Part III)?!

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Well, it’s not ideal publishing another post in this series two months+ after my last post…but I’m obviously no post a day pleaser. And life, Xmas, stocks & markets, and sneaking off to the movies, all tend to get in the way! ;-) A quick (re-)read of Parts I & II might be in order, if you’re so inclined? But to recap, very briefly: In Part I, I stressed stock picking is really two distinct & independent activities:

a) Stock Valuation, and

b) Stock Selection

And all too often, investors confuse & conflate the two…

But presuming your quantitative stock valuation process is nailed down, then stock selection is obviously a far more qualitative process…it’s certainly not about ranking & selecting stocks purely in terms of their upside potential. Fortunately, there’s plenty of stock selection filters you can employ – for example, to help protect against the risks posed by home bias, bottom-up stock picking, and/or a concentrated portfolio. Of course, the overall objective here is to:

i) Ensure stock selection is as much science, as it is art, and

ii) Always strive for greater diversification & superior risk/reward in your portfolio.

Here are some other filters you may find particularly useful. No doubt, as you read, they’ll strike you as perfectly obvious…the trouble is, applying them consistently is easily forgotten when you’re considering individual stock holdings & potential buys, let alone when you’re trying to manage the overall risk/reward of your entire portfolio: Continue reading

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