If you focus on the downside risk, the upside return will take care of itself

Thursday, 12 February 2015


Reading the history of excellent value investors I find many started investing in statistical bargains. Securities of companies that are evidently cheap on multiples of earnings or net working capital. Working for a large institution that does not only deal with professional clients, many of these securities are out of my line of fire as they are neglected issues of small and illiquid companies - few buyers, less volume, hence more inefficient pricing (be it on the up or down side). A few respected investment blogs have mentioned a stock by the name of AVANGARDCO, who currently trades at x1 its past earnings. What a bargain it seems. What must be going on for this offer to be in place - to be so left alone that its market price must reach such a low point. Well the risk factors are the following: Ukrainian company with almost all assets in Ukraine (and now some assets in Crimea, Russia), Expropriation of assets by Russian government, assets being deserted due to war conditions locally hence not being productive, debt in foreign hard currency such as Eur, USD, major shareholder controls company with approx. 77% stake, now lose making due to above conditions. One could fear the company could be restructured to survive under such draconian conditions so current shareholders are diluted to an insignificant stake. But who would take it up today - perhaps the major sharholder only to control his grip. The major shareholder has a holding company which controls his stake in Avangardco. This was due to be listed in mid 2014 but was postponed due to the Ukranian crisis. This company is even more interesting due to their agricultural assets - indeed Cargill recently bought a stake giving an indication what it could be worth. It has been suggested Avangardco shares can be converted to that holding company when it becomes public. Shares in Avangardco, as they currently trade under distressed conditions - and the holding company will not be floated under distressed conditions - could offer an attractive entry point in that business. Note the biggest risk is 200 million USD of debt maturing in Oct 2015. Cash flow going negative mens even the large cashload they have cant rfinance the debt.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Risk run off mode

In this environment of ever decreasing bond yields, decreasing commodity prices and increasing margins and equity multiples I find myself in a clear risk run off mode as the risk - reward for many equity securities I look at just aren't attractive enough to make me deploy capital. Sectors such as energy are currently being investigated and small investments are being made here. I continue to buy bonds, recently adding to a healthcare businesses senior bond whose junk rating hides its excellent cash generative ability. A 4% yield in USD for a 6 year bond is attractive for me - as I feel the large debt burden of many developed markets will not allow them to raise rates significantly, if they do. Meanwhile commentators argue if rates will rise in Q2 or Q3..... The way I see it interest rates in USD are not likley to average more than 2.5% over the next 6 years. Hence a 4% yield over that period is an attractive premium if I am satisfied with the credit risk of the issuer and feel inflation is likely to average below 2.5%. I think this is likely at the moment.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

US Macro policy - the theory and the practice

We follow the macro situation to be aware of potential big problems and to guide us on asset allocation. US macro policy can be defined as follows in the last few years:- (1) Keep rates low, this will encourage capex spending (2)Buy bonds to reduce the rate, this will force the market to take on more risk, increasing asset prices and increasing wealth, this will increase consumer spending (3) Growth will reduce the debt/GDP ratio. If GDP growth is greater than the cost of debt the country can deleverage It sounds great on paper. However, QE by itself does not improve the economy. Its aim is to increase
animal spirits
- so demand is created by businesses willing to take risks by investing and consumers willing to spend. However, we have found the following happen:- (1) Low rates have decreased the income from cash deposits. With a growing elderly population who have reduced their risk profile this may mute demand. (2) Capacity utilisation has been below average why should businesses invest? Especially if consumer spending has been affected by low real wage growth, little credit availablility, and low deposit rates. The demand has not been there. So why should companies borrow to invest in capex. Better to borrow and buy back stock where earnings yields are lower than borrowing costs. However, higher asset prices only benefit those who are shareholders. This is often those with excess savings, hence the wealthy. Hence QE exacerbates the difference between the haves and have nots which can create social tension. (3) Total debt has not decreased. It has shifted from the problem of a few companies or consumers, to a problem of the whole country (i.e. the government). However, it maybe possible that a critical point is being reached in the US. Employment may be reaching a critical mass where real wages may start increasing. This will boost consumer confidence which can increase consumer spending, this may explain what seems to be the strong start to the Christmas retail season. Credit is becoming more available as US banks are now well capitalised. If this increases spending in the economy and GDP growth increases such that the US economy can start deleveraging, the economy will be improving in almost all metrics. This could even start a slow and gradual increase in rates increasing the income of low risk investors. This would be a virtuos cycle indeed and would be an important moment for central bank policyholders - who would deserve to be congratulated. However, due to the success so far relative to other countries the USD has started to appreciate. Though the trade defecit is shrinking as foreign oil demand is weakening due to large energy reserves found inhouse, it may affect the export market. For the Americans however this may be benefited by weaker commodity prices, which often have a strong correlation to the USD as they are transacted in USD.

Technical investing and risk management

I must admit a certain innocence in the use of technical investing. A close friend and respectable investor continuosly highlights its usefulness in investing. For example, this individual would buy into a stock weighting the size of the investments on the volatility of the stock. More volatility, lower initial position. I find this approach incomplete. For example, why not size positions comparing volatility of the stock price on volatility of cash flows. If cash flows are volatile and the stock price is volatile this merits a smaller initial position than a company whose cash flows are quite stable historically, and we believe they should not become considerably more volatile in the future. This way we connect market prices to company value generation. His second rule is he would buy once, buy twice, three out. Another rule is setting a limit on how much lose you would take. This seems sensible and I try to ensure no single position can suffer a more than 1% loss on the portfolio in my worst case scenario (which of course can be wrong - and has been in the single case of Tesco so far). Indeed, this viewpoint is what finally deceides the position size of a stock. However we must be careful. A long term investment philsophy based on understanding a business should not apply a trading risk management strategy - each process is built for a different strategy and combining them is likely to not be an optimal manner to manage assets.

The market is always weighting different factors differently, this leads to volatility of stock prices

The markets are a curious place because pricing at different points in time are dominated by different factors. Often macro factors dominate over sector and company specific issues. This results in higher correlation between stock prices in different sectors. Sometimes the market over emphasises quarterly results, meaning an up or down surprise can lead to violent changes in stock prices. Some investors spend considerable time understanding the mood of the market and understanding quantitatively what factors it is focusing on. I dont do that because this takes considerable time and does not suggest a clear cut investment as an output. Instead we focus on businesses we understand, and appreciate in a qualitative manner when the market mood is different by the way it values the same businesses differently. This can provide opportunity. We often find unlucky or lucky timing of events can pay a large role in market pricing. A large acquisition that perhaps was expensive can lead to the stock price of the company declining. A bad patch in the market can then exacerbate this decline followed by a bad sector issue can lead to carnage on the stock price of a company that was initially driven by a company specific event and then taken further down with market and sector issues. This can lead to mis pricing due to herd behaviour. It should be noted with ETFs taking greater market share of stock market volume this pricing momentum may increase.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Behind asset allocation decisions, lies inflation

Buying bonds just to (1) reduce volatility in the portfolio (buy 5 year bonds of high quality company) and (2) generate an attractive income over cash, or to have (3) capital appreciation when interest rates fall, these sources of returns for bonds have been taken away. Only real source available now is the (4) credit profile of a company increases so the yield decreases, hence the price goes up. I guess this is why many investors are in high yield and high risk bond investments at the moment. An increase in interest rates can create marked to market losses from a decline in prices. Yields are in absolute terms low. There is little opportunity cost to cash and the risk/reward seems poor. Risk of interest rates increasing, default, regulatory risk if have low capital structure securities of banks or telecom and utility companies, inflation risk, having equities being cheaper offering a higher return (but can always sell the bond with a 10% loss and buy the equity which would have dropped much more). Meanwhile if you dont know what is happening may be better to be invested in bonds and generating the income? The reward is 2 or 3%. I guess it is still 1.5% more than cash. But for how long will cash stay there. I guess that is the final question which will determine whether you buy bonds, or be underweight bonds and overweight cash. I have been the latter. So far it has been wrong as it has detracted from returns. The equities have done well, but the bonds should have helped more to contribute to returns. We are in a period where both bonds and equities are performing positively. This correlation will eventually break down. Increasing inflation is usually the factor that makes this relationship break down. Decreasing or steady inflation allows the conditions for there to be a positive correlation between bonds and equities. Inflation is the great unknown, and one should always try to hedge against it and have a minimal exposure to companies that can be hurt harshly by it.

Bonds: careful on how its role in many portfolios is changing

When I started investing, my vision for the role of bonds in a portfolio was to help produce a steady source of income greater than the cash rate, whilst providing only a small increase in risk relative to the cash position (i.e. we did not see the risk of the issuer we bought being greater than the average bank that is holding your deposits! In fact, we would only buy the bond if we felt the bankruptcy risk was quite remote). Hence a 40% allocation to bonds offering a 5 to 6% source of income (in those good old "normal" times) supported a 60% exposure to equities that were expected to generate around a 10% return per annum over the business cycle. This would allow a portfolio to credibly generate around 8% per annum over the business cycle with the bonds reducing the volatility in the portfolio, which many clients are so afriad of (at this moment I don´t chose my clients, but deal with clients from private banks, many who are lead to believe that volatility is risk in investing: a fact that would be ridiculous for them to consider if it was applied in there family/corporate businesses). However, today this role of bonds is quite limited. Rates are so low for the senior bonds of high quality corporates with duration less than 6 years that the small premium to cash rates today are substantially below the average cash rates for the currencies we deal with (for hard currencies you can assume the average cash rate over the last 100 years is around 4.5%). It is not silly to think that current cash rates will converge to the average over the next 6 years. So to generate that 5 to 6% in bonds today one must buy fixed income securities that are lower in the capital structure. This introduces the world of subordinated and perpetual bonds, as well as preferred shares, contingent convertible securities and the like. In a sentence: you are forced to increase risk to generate the same income. However, since in your portfolio statement all these securities fall under the BONDS section, many still assume it to be near risk free, or at least considerably less risky than equities. Again, as is often the case, the problem is how we define risk. The word risk without an adjective is meaningless. Are you afraid of the size of price risk (i.e. volatility), duration risk (the affect interest rates may have on the price of your investment security), bankruptcy risk, lack of income being generated in your portfolio etc. Depending on what your objective is, it will affect which risks you will be willing to take. For me, my view of bonds has changed, at least for the moment. When I look at great investors I see many don`t buy high quality bonds, but buy junk bonds. I guess if you focus on high quality companies to buy their equity, their is some logic to take advantage of the seniority of debt and focus on the average companies. When you buy a quality stock you often ask will the company prosper. But when you buy a bond, since you do not share in the profits, you only need to ask the question, will they survive. Indeed, I compare this strategy to buying net nets. These are companies that often have deteriorating operating results, but often have no debt on their balance sheet. Hence buying the equity is effectively equivalent to buying the bond. However, in this case you have the potential of a strong capital appreciation as well as any income that may be offered to shareholders. The question would be, is it more fruitful to invest in net nets of poor companies, or the senior debt of poor companies; which historically offers the more attractive return. Note should your analysis be wrong and the company goes through chaper 11 (in the US), as a bond holder you then become the shareholder of effectively a net net company (so you get a second chance!). With a net net unexpected costs may accrue leading to a lower return of capital than expected (book value is often much less in bankruptcy than it is stated on the balance sheet). However, junk bonds role in the portfolio will not be to reduce volatility! But will be there because the risk/reward is attractive and merits its position over cash. This is the only way I think it makes sense to build portfolios. Not to assume what correlations between asset classes may be, or make macro assumptions the pillar of your asset or security selection. You focus on the risk/reward of each investment. If the potential risk adjusted return is offering a satisfactory return greater than cash, it should be considered a worthy investment. Unfortunately client facing institutions rarely think like this. Instead their aim is to make money every year, every quarter, every day. Indeed, it is for this reason value investing continues to make above average returns. The vital ingrediant of patience is simply lacking from our important financial institutions. As a side note, if it was up to me I would focus on working with clients that (1) define risk as the potential of permenantly losing capital, (2) are keen on buying the securities of good companies at good prices, and (3) assess the performance of there investments over a three year period (over apprx. half the business cycle). A client who understands and agrees with the investment philosophy of their investment manager is more likely to have a fruitful relationship in terms of results, and to be more aware when the situation requires patience, or if their manager is sub par. If you cannot explain an idea to a client in a few minutes, it is not worth investing in their portfolio. Transparency and understanding leads to loyalty, and the best possibility of generating good results.