Saturday, June 01, 2019

Lessons Learnt: Hyflux - Part 2

This is a continuation of the previous post.

In the last post, we summarized the Hyflux debacle and discussed the lessons learnt.

1. Always limit or risk capital to an amount we can lose
2. Map out all the scenarios and probabilities and keep monitoring them.

Today we delve in #2 and share the third and fourth lessons further below. In our due diligence on Hyflux eight years ago. I would say that I did not do this well. Hyflux scenarios and probabilities should have looked like the following:

60% - business as usual, Hyflux continued to operate as successful as it had since IPO. In this scenario, things pan out as we wanted, perp holders get back their money when Hyflux redeemed them in 2018 or 2020. This would be the base case or good scenario.

30% - Hyflux business deteriorates or the external environment changed, causing some cashflow problems. But Hyflux should manage to pull through either with bank credit lines or with the Singapore government awarding it yet another project. Or Hyflux raised equity or debt to fund itself.

As a side note, this was partially played out in 2016 when it raised yet another round of perps. It should have served as a warning sign, but back then, no one suspected anything. Hyflux was going strong and Tuaspring was touted as a gamechanger. 

10% - Hyflux fails for some reason. This is the worst case or disaster scenario. In Hyflux's case, this scenario is playing out now. 

Investors complaining Hyflux's epic failure

In my analysis, I did not pay attention to this last scenario. I would never had ascribed a 10% probability of failure at that time. But maybe it should be a 1% or a 5% probability event. I should have considered it. Let's for learning sake mapped out how things would be like if I had ascribed such a scenario. Say, we ascribe a remote scenario that Hyflux would fail. The probability that Hyflux would fail is higher than say, DBS or UOB would fail. Then logically it means that 6% is not good enough. This was because DBS or UOB perps were at 5%. Between Hyflux at 6% and DBS at 5%, which investment is better? I would say DBS.

Inverting the thinking a bit, the question should also have been asked clearly: at 6% yield, we get back our capital after 16.7 years. Will Hyflux fail in the next 16.7 years? Hard to say but if it happened would this still be a good investment? The answers are clear on hindsight, now that things had happened. It would be hard to answer these back then, but still, these questions ought to be asked. It could meant a different decision: not to invest at all, or bid lower and put less capital at risk, or maybe buy DBS perps instead.

There was also a lot hype when the offering was launched. It was way oversubscribed and hence such risk hedging thoughts were thrown out of the window. So, on hindsight, there is a sub-lesson here (which again, we already know): the crowd is not always right, be fearful when others are greedy.

The other mistake was also the lack of monitoring. After I bought these, I was just happily receiving coupons and occasionally read some annual reports and followed the news. That's it. I didn't even know Hyflux issued more perps in 2016 until a few months later. Then when things really turned south, I still wasn't monitoring as hard. This brings us to the third lesson.

3. Act fast don't hope

As things deteriorated. I held hope that Hyflux could turn around. The perp prices fell from 80c to 50c to the dollar. I could have sold! That way, with the coupons clipped over the years, I would have lost a mere 10-20% of capital rather than 60%. This would prove to be a lesson that I had not learnt well. I had never cut loss well. I cut losses only to see stocks rebound 50% and fail to cut those that go down a lot more. It would likely take more years to hone this skill better.

Hope is a dangerous thing

This has to do with judgement. In Hyflux's case, we had determined that the business model was flawed. It needed to bid for projects and cost overrun could be very detrimental. When they issued another perp in 2016 and when the initial warnings came, I should have paid more attention. Judgement can only be honed over time and experience. It is also about understand the business model, the situation and all that is at stake. When the bond prices finally reacted and fell to 50c, it was supposed to be a big warning. Yet I failed to do more detailed due diligence. It wasn't my priority until everything blew up. Hence there's a last lesson here from Hyflux.

4. Focus on the best businesses

Investing is a full time job. If you want to make money, you have to devote the time and effort. But in today's world, where got time? We have our day jobs, family, kids, friends, social and community activities. It's just so difficult. This is so even when I am passionate about investing. Imagine someone who is not passionate but wants to invest because he or she thinks it's good passive income, easy money.

So in order to be able to invest and sleep well, we can only buy the best businesses because we don't have time to monitor any deterioration. Having said that, good businesses also get disrupted and we need to stay on top of things when we see these happening (Singtel, which I have, comes to mind). If we buy the best businesses, those with strongest economic moats which we had discussed before, generating strong free cashflows at reasonable valuations, then our capital would have more protection. 

In conclusion, here's the four lessons again from the Hyflux debacle:

1. Always limit or risk capital to an amount we can lose
2. Map out all the scenarios and probabilities and keep monitoring them.
3. Act fast don't hope
4. Focus on the best businesses

Hope this would help us avoid future debacles, huat ah!

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