Saturday, July 04, 2020

SIA at $10...Dream Long Long...

Here's two interesting charts on Singapore Airlines (SIA) that I found doing simple desktop research in late June. It shows the destructive nature of dilution including rights issue and other forms of equity capital raising. These charts illustrate how dilution works negatively for investors and they are great reminders that we have to invest in businesses with strong franchises which require little need for additional capital constantly.

The first chart below is a snapshot from Google showing SIA's share price since 2008 or so. This chart adjusts for the recent rights issue that SIA or SQ (its flight code) did in order to survive. The share count has since more than doubled and as such Google adjusted its share price accordingly. Historical prices now showed that SQ did not trade above $10 for the past 10 years based on the new share count (which is more than doubled before its rights issue).

SQ's price chart from Google

This is the correct representation. Kudos to Google. As old timers in the Singapore stock market would recall, SQ traded above $10 for most of its life as a listed stock. But it will almost never go back there because of the massive dilution/rights issue. 

The new $10 is $5. To reiterate what I wrote previously (in the post "What To Do with SQ's Rights Issue", the range of intrinsic value (IV) for SQ is probably in the vicinity of $3.3 to $5. Simplistically, I did a back of the envelope calculation which put the median of $4.2 as the new IV. As mentioned, if it falls close to $3, then we have a good margin of safety and SQ could be a profitable trade (but hey, we are value investors, not traders right?).

This second chart below shows SQ's share price but it's from Yahoo! Obviously Yahoo's A.I. or whoever is doing the charts hasn't gotten things right. We see SQ's share price showing some old prices, like SQ was trading at $16 in 2010 (which is shown as $8 in the Google price chart above). The Yahoo! price chart goes way back, so we see what the old timers see, SQ trading above $10 for most of its trading history. That's a mirage. A dream long gone. We see how the price then fall off the cliff from $8 to $3.75 today. Which is true, but with the adjustment not factored in, the whole picture doesn't gel.

Maybe that's why Yahoo! is no more and Google rocks!

SQ's wrong price chart from Yahoo!

When a dilution occurs, the share price has to work doubly hard to get back to where it was. Some companies like to do small rights issues in the name of M&A or other capital needs for growth, causing a 20-30% dilution. If we get lucky, or if the company's management is really good, this dilution is justified and the share price can compound growth and generate good returns to come back. 

But more often than not, this doesn't happen and investors get screwed.

In cases of massive dilution such as those we saw this year in Singapore: Singapore Airlines and Sembcorp Marine, investors are forced to cough out a lot more money and those who do not will never see their capital. Well, for those who do cough up, it's still tough. The $3 rights have 75c of profit given that SQ share price is now $3.75, but what about those lots invested previously at $6? It's just throwing money to stay in the game. The verdict is not out. We may see second waves and more rights issues.

So that's just investing. Buyers beware. We have dream long long to see SQ at $10 again. (Translation from Singlish to English: stop dreaming SQ will go back to $10 one day.) 

Caveat Emptor. Happy Independence Day! Huat Ah!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Book #9: Security Analysis - Chapter 2

Security Analysis is a seminal book written by the grandfather of value investing Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, a professor at the Columbia University. It was published in 1934. I started reading it about a couple of years ago but have yet to reach Chapter 3 (out of over 50 chapters). The book has over 700 pages.

The reason for such slowness is due to the way this book was written. First, it was written by two intellects espousing difficult concepts in investing. The language they used is not common day English and it does not help that it was written over 80 years ago when the usage of English wa probably different. Nevertheless, I believe there is value in finishing this book and as I complete these chapters, I hope to jot down my learnings here.

The first lesson learnt today is about trying to model earnings trend. As it is now vs 80 years ago, analysts like to model future earnings. They could create models for the next 5 years, or the next 10 and based on their model, they believed they can calculate the intrinsic value the stock. This is also what I have done for various stocks on this infosite.

To the grandfather of value investing, this is actually bullshit. The future earnings, in their minds, are not even quantitative numbers. They are merely qualitative assumptions of the future. The way they explained it, only past financial numbers are quantitative. They are track record achieved and they provide an idea how this business can perform and how cyclical or defensive the business can be.

They look for variance in earnings, look at long term (10 years) trends and is very discerning about what is truly quantitative i.e. not disputable. I guess this is simply another verification of how Ben Graham was always looking at hard numbers, net nets and balance sheets because everything else is just qualitative.

So this is it, first lesson from Security Analysis. Hope to come back with more in the future chapters!

Friday, June 19, 2020

Thoughts #21: Venezuela

I have followed Venezuela's cautionary tale with sadness. It is a reminder to me how GFC could have crippled the world. What we see in Venezuela today is what could have happened with we screw up our financial system. Here's a quote from FT:

Nearly 5m Venezuelans have left since 2015 — about 15 per cent of the population — and another million are expected to depart this year. That could make the crisis the world’s biggest refugee emergency, surpassing Syria. Unlike other humanitarian crises, it is a disaster caused not by war or natural disaster but by misrule on a grand scale.

With GDP collapsing more than 60% and hyperinflation rendering its currency worthless, it is a broken country now with no recovery in sight. It is another reminder how commodities (Venezuela has oil and soft commodities and benefitted from the boom 2007-2012) can be the biggest curse.

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

When the COVID Wave Strikes, those Swimming in Sembawang needs Rights Issues

Warren Buffett famously said, "when the tide is out, then we know who is swimming naked". Well in Singapore today, it's rights issue buffet for companies that start with S. COVID-19 has brought down our Singapore Inc companies like dominos. We saw Hin Leong, which didn't even had a chance to do rights issue and went belly up. Then our beloved national carrier Singapore Airlines raised S$15 billion in March which was more than twice its market cap. 

Who's swimming naked?

Now, we have the Sembawang Corporation Group in trouble. More specifically, Sembcorp Marine (SMM) is in trouble. Its parent, Sembcorp Industries (SCI) and grandparent Temasek are going to save it. Not without caveat though, SCI will disown the child by giving away SMM shares to its own shareholders. But the way it is done, minority shareholders of SMM will need to cough up a lot more money to stay in the game. Yes, minority shareholders in Singapore got screwed, again!

Here's the key highlights of the proposed transaction taken from SCI's website:

1. S$2.1 billion renounceable Rights Issue 

• Sembcorp Marine to undertake a S$2.1 billion renounceable Rights Issue 

• 5 for 1 at S$0.20 per share at 31.0% discount to TERP based on 76.5% discount to last close of S$0.85 on 3 June 2020 

• Sembcorp Industries to subscribe for its pro rata entitlement of S$1.27 billion and take up an additional S$0.23 billion if necessary to a total commitment of up to S$1.5 billion 

• Sembcorp Industries will set off its outstanding S$1.5 billion subordinated loan extended to Sembcorp Marine in June 2019 to subscribe for the rights issue; the loan will convert into equity on Sembcorp Marine’s balance sheet 

• Temasek has agreed to sub-underwrite the remaining S$0.6 billion of the rights issue with no sub-underwriting fees 

2. Proposed Distribution of Sembcorp Marine shares to Sembcorp Industries shareholders 

• After the completion of the rights issue, Sembcorp Industries proposes to undertake a distribution of its stake in the recapitalised Sembcorp Marine to Sembcorp Industries shareholders on a pro rata basis as dividends 

• Sembcorp Industries shareholders will receive between 427 and 491 Sembcorp Marine shares for every 100 Sembcorp Industries shares owned, with no cash outlay 

• The transaction will result in the demerger of Sembcorp Marine from Sembcorp Industries

The chart below shows clearly how SCI will no longer own SMM after everything is said and done. Temasek will still own both entities but SCI's shares in SMM will be transferred to SCI's own shareholders. As such, SCI's public shareholders will own 30.9 to 35.4% of SMM. This effectively demerge SCI and SMM. Some say paving the way for merger between Sembcorp Marine and Keppel O&M. But, we shall see, it is never so simple.

SCI to gives its SMM shares to its shareholders

To sum things up, SCI shareholders got the long end of the stick, while SMM shareholders got screwed. SMM share price collapsed 30-40% today dropping to 50 cents at one point before recovering while SCI share price rose 30-40% to above S$2. The market verified that this is a transfer of wealth from SMM minority shareholders to SCI minority shareholders. SMM shareholders will not see their capital if they do not subscribe to the rights issue. Well, also not that high a probability if they do! SCI shareholders will get SMM shares at the end of day and get to sell them for a bit more profit. 

Similar to SIA's situation, SMM raised an amount more than its market cap. S$2.1 billion vs its market cap at S$1.6 billion-ish before the announcement. So the share price will have to more than double just to get back to where it was. During the best of times, its market cap went to S$11 billion! Barring any miracle, we can say that it will never get near that market cap. For the last five years, its market cap hovered between S$2.8 to S$3.6 billion.

Looking past the last two decades, there are almost as many years as it was free cashflow (FCF) positive as it was negative. It's so volatile we cannot even compute a FCF number. For what it is worth, the average annual FCF is minus S$700m over the last 20 years. It did make an average of c.S$250m from 2000 to 2009 but a huge negative from 2010 to 2019. In short, it's hard to justify any market cap using FCF. Well, it is a similar situation with SQ but airlines, rightly or wrongly, command a higher EBITDA multiple and fortunately for airlines, EBITDA is not FCF. 

Capex heavy businesses

Again as with airlines, the oil and gas industry is highly capital intensive, which means it is always in need of capital to drill, to grow and to compete. Look at the stuff Sembmarine needs to build (above), it sucks, time, capital, manpower. It needs land, large building and factories, permits etc. It's just not good business. To make things worse, companies like Sembmarine has to take on leverage to manufacture these rigs and ships which weakens its balance sheet. So when the tide goes out, or when shit happens, everyone is screwed. 

Once upon a time, I liked that Keppel and Sembmarine ruled the world with high market share in rigs. They got scale, they even monopolized the design of the rigs. They were riding high on high oil and gas prices. COVID-19 showed us high oil price was a mirage, something that just goes up and down. It can also go negative. Well, I guess there's a lesson to relearn here: avoid capex heavy businesses. 

So while Sembcorp Industries shareholders are laughing now, well, SCI is in the same capex heavy shit business. Building power plants and utilities is not like selling ice creams. SCI shareholders might want to think about selling out before the next wave goes in (or goes out) depending on which metaphor you like. Meanwhile, stay safe!

Huat Ah!

Friday, May 29, 2020

Book #8: Billion Dollar Whale's Life Lessons

This is a continuation of the previous post.

In the last post discussing Billion Dollar Whale, the book depicting fully the 1MDB scandal and Jho Low's craziness, we learnt a few lessons on fraud detection. Today, we would discuss the last simple trick he used - putting in slight discrepancy in names of bank accounts and incorporated entities.

In order to fool people, Jho Low created shell companies which he controlled in Cayman Islands and other jurisdictions with very relaxed rules and regulations. These jurisdictions are happy to simply collect fees, without doing too many checks, including the previously discussed blatant oversight on lack of beneficiary name during bank transfer.

Jho used an ingenious trick which was to create shell companies with names that were very similar to the real beneficiaries. So it would be like 1MDB Investment Corp Ltd, which have nothing to do with the real 1MDB because the actual entity was 1Malaysia Development Berhad Ltd. Okay, I simply created these names without referring back to the book. But you get the idea.

The book introduced half a dozen of these examples used by Jho Low to wire money illegal to himself or his cronies. This allowed him to siphoned off a few billion dollars from Malaysia. He used the money to party, buy luxury yacht and financed his crazy lifestyle.

Google screenshot of Jho's various party photos

There are two lessons here: always double check when names are similar but not a 100% match and when there is something fishy, make sure we figure the whole damn thing out. The second lesson is that we cannot rely others to do the checks. The 1MDB saga showed that a lot of international wire transfers are simply done unchecked or even if checks were done and questions were asked, those not involved tend to let things slip through. So it ties back to the point made in the previous post. When there is no oversight, then chances are that things will go wrong.

Here's the summary of the three financial lessons:

1. Be careful when there is no transparency
2. Be very vigilant when there is a lack of independent oversight
3. Look out for the small discrepancies and figure things out when the parts doesn't gel

The life lessons from Billion Dollar Whale were more interesting, in my opinion. It is also related to what Warren Buffett referred to as people's inner scorecard as opposed to outer scorecards. According to the book, Jho Low lived by other people's scorecards of himself. It was this desire to prove himself that led him down the dark path. Well, that's Billion Dollar Whale's authors interpretation, we will never know for sure, but it's important to understand this scorecard concept.

People who live by how others score them will forever be chasing other people's dreams. Outer scorecard matters, if someone whom you trust and respect gives a realistic scorecard of you and would like you to improve. It then helps to compare our own inner scorecards to these important outer scorecards. So not all outer scorecards are bad, but when all outer scorecards matter more than inner scorecards, then the balance is upset and things can go wrong. 

In the book, Jho Low was being describe as an Asian boy who wasn't in this place during his school years in UK's top elite schools. This planted the seed of desire to prove himself and impress others. He wanted it so badly to the extent that he borrowed his friend's bungalow and put his own family photos to trick visitors that the big house was his. There were other episodes mentioned to put forth the story as well. If true, then Jho Low's story really is the cautionary tale to remind ourselves how living by outer scorecards can screw up everything.

His balance was totally upset. 

The other big life lesson was how Jho Low failed to get himself out of trouble when he had the chance. This was at the time of the so-called "third heist" of USD 3 billion dollars which Goldman Sachs helped 1MDB raised by selling bonds to gullible investors. After jumping several hoops and hurdles, this ridiculously went through all the checks and Jho Low got the money. All 3,000,000,000 US dollars! At that point, he could have used part of the 3 billion to plug his previous holes, which amounted to a billion or so (if I recall correctly). That way, he could have bought time to finally invest and claw back his losses. But he didn't and spent it on luxury yacht, pointless stuff and parties again. So here's the last lesson.

Once we do something wrong, it is very hard to turn back from black to white. It's a slippery slope down, like joining the dark side. Jho Low couldn't stop himself. It was akin to an addiction. Once you crossed the line, your mind tells you just keep going. It's been crossed, no point turning back. I stole a billion, why not steal three? Who's counting anyways? It takes a lot to redeem oneself. It is also very difficult for people from the other side to help. It is almost has to be one's own journey back. We have real life, fictional and historical examples of this: Benny Teo, founder of 18 Chef in Singapore, Darth Vader and St Paul from the Bible. Yes, only one real life example. Such redemptions are truly far and few in between.

So, don't cross the line. 

Circuit Breaker Ending! Huat Ah!

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Charts #31: Asian startups

Here's a dated chart from WSJ. The startup boom ended with the arrival of the coronavirus. Let's see how many will still be around in 18 months.

Grab has come a long way. Hopefully it will be fairy tale ending with rainbows for this ASEAN unicorn. Huat Ah!

Monday, May 04, 2020

Book #8: Billion Dollar Whale's Fraud Detection Lessons

Billion Dollar Whale was published in 2018 and updated in 2019 tells the story of Jho Low and the 1MDB heist in full details. Jho Low was the mastermind (even though he denied it) behind stealing billions of dollars from Malaysians. When the scandal broke out, it brought down Najib in the 2018 elections, in effect, ending UMNO's 61 year rule in Malaysia, our truly Asian neighbour.

Alongside Bad Blood, these two books provided detail descriptions of the financial bag of tricks and things to watch out for in fraud cases. It is worth jotting them down for future references. For me, here's the three warning signs:

1. Lack of transparency and out-of the-norm obsession with secrecy
2. Lack of independent oversight
3. Slight discrepancy in names of bank accounts and incorporate entities

1. Lack of transparency

In both stories, the perpetrators used secrecy as the main reason to put people off track. Theranos constantly site its need for maintain top secrecy because the firm had to take precaution against competitors who might steal their technology. They refused visits to their labs and keep a tight check on its employees to make sure nothing was ever leaked. In reality, there was no proprietary technology, it was all about hiding the scam. In Jho Low's case, he used the authority of the Malaysia's Prime Minister (Najib) and his sovereign wealth fund to fend off the need for transparency.

Without transparency, it is easy to cook anything. As such, investors must always be extra vigilant when companies or organizations use all sorts of excuses to mask transparency. In today's connected world, it is no longer possible to hide anything. You can only go only as far as common sense allows. When a company sue ex-employees for divulging secrets (Theranos' case) or when bank transfer is asked for accounts with no beneficiary's names (Jho Low's case), warning signs are all over. 

2. Lack of independent oversight

Every company has a board of directors. The board has a say in many things including firing the CEO and is accountable to shareholders. Singapore companies like to publish the faces of board members as it is an accomplishment for someone to be a board member of a prominent company. DBS' board webpage is decorated as such (see below).

The board usually made up of both insiders and outsiders. Sometimes, the board has a non-executive Chairperson. This means that the Chairperson is not a complete insider. In other cases, the founder or the past CEOs become the Chairperson. The Chairperson is very important as he is ultimately responsible for the board and thus the company or entity in question.

So when 1MDB first Chairman resigned in 2009. It was a big warning sign. Unfortunately, in our busy, mobile phone addicted world today. Nobody would notice anything if it's not flagged out. It was the same situation with Theranos when multiple board directors resigned as they kept hearing uncomfortable news from outer sources. The bombshell was dropped on Theranos when Henry Kissinger resigned. As such, resignation of prominent external parties is something to look out for.

There are cases whereby the board was already stuffed with conspirators in the first place. This was what happened in 1MDB after the first Chairman resigned. In many small companies, nobody wants to be on the board in the first place. So, naturally, only friends or friendly acquaintances would join the board. This is one reason why mid and small caps are not comparable to large, blue chips companies. The board is the minority investors' last line of defense. If they are conspirators of fraudster CEOs and founders, then there is little hope to see our money.

The other big independent entity is the auditor. The auditor's report is an important piece of document to pick up nuances as highlighted in Billion Dollar Whale. 1MDB rotated through 3 of the big four auditors with most of them highlighting concerns that were crafted into the auditor's report. The thing to look out for would be a disclaimer of opinion or an adverse opinion. A disclaimer of opinion means that the auditor chose not to provide an opinion of the company. 

An adverse opinion means that the auditor found something wrong in the financials but does not have enough evidence to express that opinion. When this happens, regulators would have to step in. As such, both disclaimer of opinion and adverse opinion would usually not happen in writing so what happened at 1MDB was continuous delay in finalizing the accounts as well as change of auditors within a short period of time.

This would be another major warning sign. In the next instalment, we would discuss discrepancy in names as well as other lessons. Stay tuned!

Happy Star Wars Day! May the Force be with You!

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Covid Destroys Crude!

The world was never meant to stop functioning for months on end. But this is the reality now with COVID-19 disrupting normal lives for most of humanity. For one, international air travel has grind to a halt. Singaporeans used to taking flights at least once every couple of months will find this new normal uneasy. Cinemas have stopped operating as we cannot practice social distancing sitting together in front of the big screen. Again, in entertainment deprived Singapore, we cannot wait for them to reopen. But who knows when that can happen.

Restaurants, bars, night clubs, live concerts and many other businesses which inherently cannot adhere to social distancing rules will find it difficult to operate as COVID-19 rages on. Many of these businesses may not survive. With businesses closing, we are talking about job losses. The US has seen over 20 million jobs lost. This is becoming a crisis that is be bigger than the GFC. In Singapore, we are lucky to still have our jobs.

Yet for most of us working from home, we have other worries. Family time is now on overdrive and we are restraining ourselves from committing domestic violence. Si Gin Na* Stop watching Youtube and do your homework! This is mental resilience training, so much so that we miss the office. There is no need for physical resilience, we practically just eat and sleep. So our bodies are transforming from the pic on the left below to the one on the right.

*Si Gin Na means obnoxious brats in Hokkien

Michelangelo's Covid

Actually, it's not a laughing matter. With economies collapsing, livelihoods are at stake. Nobody knows how long this will last. It could be many more months. We have to be mentally prepared. In a blue sky scenario, the number of infections continue to decline (as it has started to do so over the last two weeks), summer comes and we can reopen the economies. But this is now becoming less and less probable. Even if the virus goes away, we are faced with harsh realities with huge number of bankruptcies and millions of jobless people.

We may find ourselves in a very different world after COVID-19 subsides. 

A central scenario could be a slow, gradual semi-reopening of the economies in summer, hopefully the virus does not come back in fall and winter. The vaccines and cures are successful and we see a gradual normalization thereafter. International air travel may come back 2021 and summer Olympics in Tokyo next year could mark the turning point. We may have to accept the new reality - we live with WFH, HBL, social distancing and lockdowns for the rest of the year.

In a worst case scenario, COVID-19 hits us waves after waves. We see a Spanish flu situation. The number of infections goes beyond tens of millions and deaths spike. Efforts in finding vaccines and cures fail and we only defeat the virus after achieving herd immunity. This means months and months of lockdowns, failed reopenings and more lockdowns. Normalization might take years and we look back from the future recognizing today as one of the darkest period of modern society.

Last week, crude oil sort of gave a premonition of this armageddon. A barrel of crude which cost $20-160 over the last 80 years and average $40-60 over the last 10 years fell below zero. In fact, it went to -$40. This meant sellers paid buyers almost $40 to sell them a barrel of oil. Imagine, I make a bowl of bak chor mee and sells it to you for -$4. So you get $4 and get to eat the bak chor mee. Things went absolutely crazy. 

Long term oil price chart thanks to macrotrends

Why did this happen?

We do not have the full picture yet but as the days go by, more and more pieces of the puzzle are coming together. First, while the world stopped functioning, oil producers did not react fast enough to stop oil production. The drastic drop in air, land and sea travel caused demand for fuel to collapse. As such, the oil that is pumped out is not used and needed to be stored. But global storage facilities was never built to store months and months of oil. 

In the US, the main capacity to store crude oil in Cushing, Oklahoma was on the verge of running out. It was speculated that some novice market participants holding the expiring May contract of crude find themselves stuck because if they cannot find storage, they would need to take physical delivery and that was not an option. So in the last minutes of frenzy trading, crude fell below zero for the first time in history. 

This is a reminder that the finance world and markets are actually very complex. Don't anyhow play pay!

But things did not look good afterwards. Now the benchmark has rolled over to the June contract but prices did not recover. It traded at $1 the day after and both WTI and Brent are only at teens a week later. Still 40-50% below what was quoted just weeks ago. The same situation will come in a few weeks and traders might find themselves out of storage, this time not just in the US but globally! So we may see prices going negative again.

In a sense, we are witnessing a historic moment, how a virus - COVID-19 takes on the world's most traded commodity - crude oil and decimates its whole eco-system built over the last 80 years. We saw one US producer Whiting Petroleum going bankrupt and our own oil trader Hin Leong in huge trouble even before crude prices going negative. There will be more casualties along the way. Even Keppel Corp and Sembmarine could face their own issues. The saving grace for Keppel is that its property and telco / data businesses could help offset the weakness in its energy segment somewhat. But I would not be surprised if the stock retests its 2008 low of $3.41. 

Keppel Corp's share price

The other revelation last week's saga taught me was that commodities prices have no floor. I used to believe that a barrel of oil should have some kind of intrinsic value. People use it to power their cars, make plastic, produce electricity. So it should be worth something. When we look at the long term chart for oil, we could make an assumption that maybe a barrel of oil should be worth at least $20 and as oil get scarcer, perhaps it is worth more, maybe $40. Indeed, as mentioned, oil traded at $40-60 for the last 10 years. 

In the last few days, this thesis is turned on its head. If oil has some intrinsic value, how can price go negative? As such, I come to the realization that a commodity may not have intrinsic value. Crude oil is a commodity. A barrel of oil today is the same as that 30 years ago. It is also the same in US or in the Middle East. As such, there is no floor because when it is not needed, people will sell it at any price. Even negative prices. This is the same for copper, wheat and all other types of commodities. The exception might be gold. So between oil and gold, maybe gold might be the right commodity for the same thesis. 

In retrospect, perhaps crude price bouncing up and down all these years was all just speculation on supply and demand.

The same story actually played out in the different bits of the shipping industry. As astute investors would know, shipping is a commodity business. It does not make too much of a difference if you used NOL or Maersk or Evergreen to ship a container around world. So when there is a huge oversupply of ships, the shippers might pay customers and help ship stuff for them. The vivid example I saw in my investment experience was in the bulk shipping industry. 

When China was booming, there weren't enough large Capesize bulk ships and steel mills around the world paid exorbitant shipping costs to ship iron ore and coal to their mills in China and other parts of the world. Alas, good times came to an end and Capesize daily shipping rates fell below operating costs. So logically, the ships should just stop operating, since every single day in operation meant they bleed money, tens of thousands of dollars. But they have to do it for various reasons, the banks would cut the loans if they stop operations and docking these ships incurred cost as well. So it was a nightmare. They ship and bleed every single day. In fact, they are still in the nightmare today. 

So I guess the lesson learnt is to be very mindful when buying commodities and commodity businesses. In times like this we appreciate the boring businesses like Nestle and F&N that see relatively smaller impact and smaller volatility in share prices. While we are dealing with COVID and Si Gin Na in the house, at least we get to sleep better at night.

Stay safe and huat ah!

Saturday, April 18, 2020

MMM Analysis - Part 3

This is the last post in the three part analysis of 3M.

We have discussed 3M's investment thesis and its positives. Here's a summary:

3M is an innovative industrial conglomerate that has built its brand in safety healthcare and other niche segments in infrastructure and consumer businesses. It benefits from growth in Asia and US healthcare on the back of strong pricing power. The management understands capital and resource allocation well and has delivered a stellar track record of shareholder return. It is also one of S&P's Dividend Aristocrat.

3M has close to 40% of its businesses in growth segments namely Asia and healthcare and these businesses would be its growth engines in the next few years. Coupled with its strong management capabilities and focus on shareholder returns, 3M is poised to be deliver good performance. But we also need to understand its risks and look closely at valuations. If the stock price has already factored in all the goodness, then as investors, we cannot benefit. This is an important point that even seasoned market practitioners sometimes fail to understand.

Buy when price is way below value

This is also the reason why Benjamin Graham, the grandfather of value investing said that, "The three most important words in investing is - "margin of safety". Margin of safety refers to a buffer we need to incorporate into our calculation of the intrinsic value of the company. This means that we can only buy when the stock is way cheaper than its true worth. In short, valuations matter, if we overpay, we are not going to get returns because the high price we paid has factored in the growth many years ahead.

This is like paying up for an expensive meal or an expensive wine or whisky. If we spent $1,000 on a fancy dinner, it could be a very nice experience, the food could be exceptional and the service top quality, but we didn't profit from it. We paid up. Similarly, drinking expensive wine or whisky brings little "profit" except feeling shiok*. Unless it's a hot date and even though she's wearing a mask, your heart is beating so fast that margin of safety is the last three words that would come to your mind.

Margin of safety sir?

Haha, ok jokes aside, paying up usually have very little benefits. It's just emotional high and bragging rights. As such margin of safety, i.e. don't pay up goes against dating rules. But it is paramount in investing. By not paying up, we reduces the risk of losing money, even if we got the whole investment thesis wrong and overlooked all the damned risks. Alas, in our new era of negative interest rates, disruption and bitcoins, nobody talks about margin of safety today.

However, an investment always carries risks. The only protection that investors have is to know the risks and know the valuations well so that we know we are not overpaying. Back to 3M, we know there are a few big risks overhanging. We will discuss two today. The biggest of which is PFAS litigation. PFAS is an acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These were found to be harmful to humans, like asbestos in the past.

PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that includes many other acronymic chemicals which most people (including this blogger) have no idea what the non-acronym names actually meant. But importantly, PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe since the 1940s and it was discovered that PFAS are super harmful to both humans and the environment. Sadly, 3M has manufactured and used many of these chemicals.

One of the many PFAS chemicals

As things turned out, 3M is on the hook to pay off huge litigation costs related to PFAS. The company took a USD 200m pretax provision charge but analysts are saying that the true cost could be in the tune of USD 5-10bn. Meanwhile the markets had factored in even more, with 3M's market cap dropping more than USD 20bn after this risk broke out. So in an interesting twist, the PFAS risk is already factored in by the drop in share price. Is actual impact then mitigated? Well, yes and no. Yes, because it dropped more than what the analysts calculated. But no, because the future is not predictable. Is it really only USD 20bn? What we have to really worry about is that more litigations will come and the true cost is not USD 20bn but more, say USD 40bn. Then we as shareholders are on the hook.

This is why Ben Graham said margin of safety was important.

3M has another risk which is related to the economic cycle. 30% of 3M's sales is described as short cycle and capex driven. This means that when the economic cycle is going into a downturn, 3M's customers are prone to cut back on buying these short cycle products. Needless to say, capital expenditure or capex, would also be cut back. This is the reason why 3M tend to fall before economic indicators actually turn bad. Conversely, during an upcycle, 3M's share price tend to rise before the rest of the market.

3M is not doing well despite it being a COVID-19 beneficiary with its N95 masks selling like hotcakes and its healthcare business seeing strong demand. This could be due to the PFAS litigation overhanging but we could also say the overall economic situation with COVID-19 will weigh on 3M. So, 3M could go down before it goes up. This is a timing issue. It's not easy to catch stocks right at the bottom and usually we will miss the whole rally by trying to be too smart. Hence, value investors like to look at valuations.

3M's share price since 1970

At today's price, 3M trades at 6% free cash flow yield which is considered cheap for such a high quality company. This is derived by dividing 3M's market cap of USD 90bn over its free cash flow at USD 5 to 6 bn per year. Looking at other valuation metrics, 3M trades at 15x PE and 12x EV/EBITDA. Since the global negative interest rate regime started in 2016, we can hardly find quality at low to mid teens multiples, especially PE. Lastly, just to complete the picture, 3M's Price-to-book is at 8x with ROE at 50%. Ben Graham would have scoffed at anything trading at 8x book. But we are living in a different world today. Remember? Interest rates are negative! Book value is no longer as meaningful.

So rounding everything up, I would say 3M is cheap. 3M's share price peaked at c.$240 when its PE was 24x and FCF closer to 4%. I think we would see the company going back there when the PFAS issue is resolved. This might take a few years and that's the kind of trade that I have been quite successful with over the last decade (see Bayer). I think it's a good risk reward and I should buy the stock even if I couldn't get its N95 masks.

* Shiok is a Singapore slang referring to something being enjoyable. 

Friday, April 10, 2020

Monetary Bazooka and Multi-Curves

This post was first published in 25 Mar 2020 but things moved rapidly and my views have changed. The updated parts are in red.

Since we last discussed COVID-19, the world has gone from bad to worse. We now have a global pandemic which is increasingly out of control. It is becoming a crisis in the same order of magnitude as the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis. I have been using the original thebaselab website of daily checks. It is depressing. We have exceeded 15,000 100,000 deaths with no end in sight.

Courtesy of thebaselab

To combat the virus, many affected countries have gone into lockdown mode following China's example. But they didn't do it fast enough. Some countries' healthcare systems could not handle the situation and many lives were lost. It is important not to stress the healthcare system because there are only so many ICU beds and only so many respirators. Unfortunately, we don't learn fast enough. The first lesson from Wuhan was not learnt quickly enough to prevent the tragedies in Italy, Span and Iran and New York. Hopefully other countries and cities can still save themselves by working hard now.

Meanwhile, global markets went berserk. It did not help that Opec and Russia decided to shoot themselves by not reaching an agreement on production thereby causing a huge collapse in oil prices. (They finally agreed but the damage was done) The direct link between COVID-19 and crude is not clear. There is reduced demand but it's not 40%. However oil prices fell from the 50s to the 20s. In stressful times, as we had seen during the Great Financial Crisis (GFC), market participants adopt the mentality of "sell first, talk later". Hence the correlation of different asset classes goes to 1. Everything gets sold. Even gold got sold.

So last week (19 Mar) gave us a glimpse of the confusion that took place. As markets collapsed, we saw indiscriminate selling across stocks, bonds and commodities. The USD spiked because investors sold assets in other currencies and revert their holdings to USD cash. But the US Treasuries also got sold off, because that's another way to raise cash for redemption as well. This selling will continue. In Singapore, we have seen many blue chips hitting multi-year lows. As long as the global situation remains dire and fluid, we should not expect any recovery. (Then the market saw one of its sharpest rebound in history)

Why is everything going to hell in the markets?

While some of us in Singapore probably don't feel this way, this crisis could actually be worse than the GFC. The 350,000 1.7m infections had affected hundreds of millions of families directly. They are seeing their loved ones succumbing to the virus. But as the lockdown continues, the livelihoods of billions are are now badly impacted. We are talking about millions of people being laid off. They could be in the service industries, their employers only have days of cash left before going bankrupt. They could be the small suppliers in the airline/aerospace industry and/or the oil and gas industry. The big boys in these sectors are having issues, so what are the chances that the little ones can make it? 

The situation is really, really bad. People cannot pay their bills, their electricity is being cut off. They cannot pay rent, and face eviction. They have no money to buy food. It is literally life and death, even when the virus is not nearby. Some experts have drawn parallels to war. We are at war with the virus. Hence we need the monetary bazooka to come and save the day.

Helicopter Money

Alas, politics get in the way. The politicians cannot agree how this could be done. Can we bailout the corporates with no strings attached? What if these big oils and big aerospace just use the money to prop up share price instead of saving their suppliers? What about helicopter money? This is an interesting notion Milton Friedman coined in 1969 but made really famous by the previous Fed Governor Ben Bernanke. He famously said he would get on the helicopter and throw money on Main Street in order to stop the rout during the GFC. We are now doing it because families really need that $1,000 to tide over this month. Not next month, this month. 

So the politicians need to sort this out. They probably have days. Lives are at stake. (30 Mar update: they got their act together) The saving grace is that they managed it during the GFC, so it can be done. Then we need the virus situation to subside. China managed to contain it. So did South Korea. We need the major affected economies now (US, UK, Italy and Spain) to follow the playbook. Lockdown for a few weeks, things should get better. The situation will be different for many developing countries. Hopefully their leaders are learning fast. If they don't, their healthcare systems will not be able to cope. We will see a lot more deaths. May the Force be with them.

Finally, we come back to the big question, what do we do now? Buy, sell, wait?

Like I have said many times before, it is not possible to predict what happens next. The politicians could get their act together tonight and we are done with the bloodshed. Then we curse and swear that we didn't buy enough. My base case is the selldown continues and things get really cheap. It could be close to or even below GFC levels for some stocks. Then it will be the best time to buy. But we cannot tell in advance. So we buy incrementally. I plan to buy 1/5 of what I intend to deploy fully every week or two, something like that. It is not hard math or science, so you need to figure out what works for you.

Markets have since rebounded sharply but it might be consensus that this is a bear market rally. It is quite unthinkable we will recover and exceed the previous 2019 high any time soon. The upside is capped and given the bounce, the time to buy is not now (10 Apr 2020). If there are things that could be sold to raise cash, maybe we should raise some cash to have some more dry powder. The next selldown will test the 2020 lows.

The worst case is that the COVID-19 pandemic drags on for months and we did not move fast enough. One, two or three large corporates fail and drag down some banks. 100 million or even more jobs are lost globally. Or, we see continuing rise in infections and many more outbreaks. We see waves and waves because different countries are on different curves. Some successfully flatten their curves but not others. 

In Singapore, we see a full blown community spread. The fourth wave gets us. Our healthcare system gets stressed. Then we will fall below GFC levels. It is a doomsday scenario. Maybe we won't be worrying about our portfolios at that point. We must not let this happen. Stay at home. Keep the social distance. Flatten the curve!

In short, there are many scenarios. No one knows which one will pan out. I would wait now but would look out for stocks that becomes too cheap to ignore. For example, DBS at 0.5x book with more than 10% dividend yield looks good (albeit banks may not be able to pay dividend in 2020 given the situation). Sadly, I have bought it way too early at $21. Now the stock is trading at $18. Dairy Farm breaking its all-time low at $3.30 or Ho Bee revisiting $0.90 will be interesting. Genting does look cheap at $0.50 (it has since rebounded to $0.70) but we have to assume its businesses will recover strongly once the virus is defeated. We have discussed these stocks before so click on the links for related posts if interested. 

Meanwhile, hang in there. This is a marathon. WFH is here to stay. Don't scold the kids. Avoid the spouse. Flatten the belly curve on top of the other curve. 

Huat Ah!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

What To Do With SQ’s Rights Issue

Last week, our beloved national carrier, Singapore Airlines (SIA), or SQ as it is known by its flight code, announced a bazooka rights issue and mandatory convertible bond issuance to shore up capital in the fight against the coronavirus. The two instruments amount to SGD 8.8 billion dollars but this is just the first wave. The firm alluded to further capital raise of SGD 6.2 billion if needed and subjected to shareholders’ approval within the next 15 months. 

In total, SIA is raising SGD 15 billion dollars which is roughly one year’s worth of revenue (last year’s revenue was SGD 16 billion) but probably 16 to 18 months of its annual cost base. It is also more than 15 years worth of last year’s net profit at c.SGD 900 million. From the balance sheet angle, 15 billion is also bigger than its equity base of SGD 12 billion. The firm cited many use of this massive amount of money but it’s not too important. We all know that without the capital raise, SQ will cease to exist. In accounting language, the firm will no longer be a going concern i.e. SQ will go bankrupt. This is serious! It's Singapore's national carrier, our pride and glory!

How is SQ falling?

Well, we are at war with COVID-19. These are unprecedented times. It was reported that all airlines will fail in three months. With global travel down 25-40%, no airlines can survive without new capital. Three days before the rights issue, SQ announced that it is cutting capacity by 96%. Ninety six percent! Then, we saw this SGD 15 billion dollar bazooka. To put this number in another perspective, this is 125% of its equity base and twice its current market cap. This magnitude is unprecedented and alarmingly dilutive. Essentially, existing shareholders will never see their invested capital if they don’t subscribe. 

SQ was trading at $6.5, the day before the announcement. The market cap was then SGD 7.7 billion dollars. This capital raise (the rights issue and the mandatory convertible bond or MCB) will be SGD 8.8 billion dollars. This means that the dilution will be more than 50% (53.3% to be exact). So whatever intrinsic value SQ should be trading at before, be it $10 or $12, it will only be half of that. We will show the number later in this post but it's hard to imagine SQ going back to $12, ever.

To be helpful with the math, SQ gives us a theoretical ex-rights price (TERP) of $4.4. This means that after the rights issue (just the SGD 5.3bn portion), all things equal, Singapore Airlines' share price should be traded at $4.4 vs the $6.5 the day before, because of the dilution. This does not take into account of the MCB dilution (SGD 3.5bn) and the additional capital raise (SGD 6.2bn) which is subjected to shareholders’ approval. 

That’s a lot of numbers to take in for most people. Some of the details are also not made public and only Singapore Airlines’ shareholders get to see all the numbers. Since I am not a shareholder, I can only analyse with what is available publicly. Here’s two simple conclusions to start with: 

Grounded or Bankrupted? Just kidding...

1. If you are a shareholder, you should subscribe to everything to maximize benefits. But that means coughing out a lot of money to stay in the game. So it's about how much dry powder you have. Do not use too much and don't ever use your savings. Royston Yang from thesmartinvestor reckoned that if someone bought 1,000 shares of SQ at $6.50 (initial capital of $6,500), he has to cough out another $7,450 to subscribe to the rights and the MCB. Do read his well-written post for the details. 

2. If you are not a shareholder, it might worthwhile to monitor SQ closely. It could fall below the theoretical ex-rights price or TERP of $4.4 and that makes it interesting. In an improbable but possible scenario, SQ might fall near or below its rights conversion price of $3. This is an arbitrage opportunity and one can earn a lot of money buying SQ at that ridiculous price (more on this later). Obviously nothing is ever 100%. If SQ falls to $3, it means the market thinks this capital raise is not enough or COVID-19 has won the war or something really apocalyptic. We have to then make a bet that the market is wrong. Remember it is never easy.

But first things first.

Let's try to come up with an intrinsic value for SQ. With that in hand, we can then verify that $3 is ridiculously cheap and justify buying SQ with a good margin of safety. I must say this is just a back-of-the-envelope kind of analysis. I have never been interested in airlines because its business model simply makes it difficult to generate cashflows and compound earnings. But if the share price do fall a lot from here (i.e. fall to $3), it makes an interesting arbitrage opportunity.

Singapore Airlines has never lost money since its listing and its net income hit SGD 1.3 billion in 2018. Its historical high was actually in 2007 and 2008 when net income powered north of SGD 2 billion for two consecutive years. Just looking at its own history, I would say that SQ can do a billion SGD in net income going forward. It has done this before and in the post COVID-19 world, it would be in a better position than most to continue pushing ahead. Singapore Girl Power!

Looking at its EBITDA, which is what most people like to analyze airlines with, we can also see that SQ has achieved SGD 2.5-3 billion dollar of EBITDA annually. Again, this is based on its past track record. I have subscribed to Warren Buffett's view that EBITDA is not worth looking at because it's not cashflow. We are using it here to help us triangulate SQ's intrinsic value. It is also worth reminding everyone here that SQ is not your typical high quality compounding value investor stock. This is just an arbitrage opportunity. If and when this analysis actually plays out, buy SQ close to $3 and sell it at close to $5. That's the thesis.

Okay, so we have the net income at SGD 1bn and EBITDA at SGD 2.5-3bn. Using PE of 12-15x, we have the first estimates of SQ's intrinsic value (IV) at SGD 12bn to 15bn. This is also where its market cap was over the last 5 years. With EBITDA, we would use a ballpark of 5-6x. At 5x, that gives us SGD 12.5-15bn as well! How coincidental!  (Actually, that is usually how valuation triangulation work, the no.s should come close to one another). Since SQ will have enough cash to cover all debt going forward, we can say that its market cap will be equal to its EV. So we have three sets of numbers that point to the same ballmark. I will add a fourth using 6x EV/EBITDA for a blue-sky scenario - SQ beats the coronavirus and rise to glory, take market share, blah blah. You know the story.

1. SQ's market cap at SGD 12-14bn
2. PE based IV at SGD 12-15bn
3. 5x EV/EBITDA based IV at SGD 12.5-15bn
4. 6x EV/EBITDA based IV at SGD 15-18bn (blue sky scenario, SQ did achieve SGD 20bn market cap before) 

Now, with this massive capital raise, SQ's share count will triple from current 1.2bn to c.3.6bn. By dividing the above IVs, we have a range of target prices from $3.3 to $5. I would say that we can take the median of $4.2 as our IV to work with. Coincidentally, this is within 10% of its TERP at $4.4. Recall that the rights issue and MCB allows the shareholder to get more shares at $3 and $1 (technically speaking, shareholders don't actually get it at $1, but simply even more shares), so if the current share price drops close to $3, we will be getting everything with a margin of safety of 40% (4.2/3).

Having said that, SQ is now at $6. It may not fall to $3. In fact, it's probably hard to imagine that happening. But it should fall. So if it falls through its TERP of $4.4, to say $3.9, then we have to start thinking hard. Maybe that's cheap enough. Remember its IV is anywhere from $3.3 to $5. As it gets close to $3, we have to act. In fact, the window will be super short at the bottom. Like just a single day or two. And all bets are off after the rights issue date, since we won't get the rights and the MCB. Hence it's important to have done the work before that.

Hope this helps! Huat Ah!

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

MMM Analysis - Part 2

This is a continuation of 3M's analysis.

In the last post, we gave the background on 3M and why it's a good stock. Today, we shall formally write down its investment thesis, analyze the other positive factors, look at its risks and finally determine whether valuations are reasonable. I find that documentation is really a good practice for all investors. It makes the whole process transparent and we can look at to learn what worked and what did not. So, do write down our thoughts before buying or selling, even if it's just one line.

Okay, here's 3M's investment thesis:

3M is an innovative industrial conglomerate that has built its brand in safety, healthcare and other niche segments in infrastructure and consumer businesses. It benefits from growth in Asia and US healthcare on the back of strong pricing power. The management understands capital and resource allocation well and has delivered a stellar track record of shareholder return. It is also one of S&P Dividend Aristocrat.

The Dividend Aristocrat is a list of stocks in the S&P500 index that has increased its dividend payout for at least 25 freaking years. As of 2020, there are 64 stocks according to the wikipedia page. The table below shows an old list with the annual returns and absolute price change. It seemed that one can get a high single digit return by any dividend aristocrat stock.  

Dividend Aristocrat - Old List

Let's return to 3M, so we have got the investment thesis. We would want to support it with a few strong points. In investment lingo, we usually call these positives. As alluded above, 3M has a few positives going for it. Its growth sectors are Asia, which makes up c.30% of sales and healthcare, which makes up c.25%. There could be some overlaps so growth in total might be 35-40% of sales. As these portions grow, earnings improvement could accelerate from the current low single digit levels to something closer to its historical performance (13% according to the table above).

How did we get these numbers? Can we be sure Asia and Healthcare makes up 35-40%? Well, we can never be 100% sure. It is just a ballpark. In the past, Warren Buffett spent all his time scouring through annual reports/10K year after year to figure all these out. We can still do that today, but analysts, Bloomberg and reports usually do a good job putting all these together. The following are the segment and regional splits we can get from its 10K. The parts in red are of our interest.

3M EBIT split, margins and short descriptions:

Healthcare 24%, OPM 25%, skin and wound care, infection prevention, patient warming and oral care, food safety indicators, coding and reimbursement software etc.

Transportation and Electronics 28%, OPM 23%, display materials and systems, automotive and aerospace, advanced materials and transportation safety etc

Safety and Industrial 34%, OPM 23%, personal safety, adhesive and tapes, abrasives, automotive aftermarket, roofing granules, electrical markets etc.

Consumer 14%, OPM 22%, consumer tapes, Post-It notes, home air filtration, cleaning products, bandages, braces and supports, retail abrasives etc.

Geography split:
US 39%
APAC 31%
EMEA 21%
Latam/Canada 9%

As we can see, 3M enjoys good margins across its business segments. None of the its businesses are below 20% margins. Its geography split is also well-balanced with growth regions making up half or more of its overall revenue. Its ROE is even more spectacular at 40-50% annually over the last few years. Besides its high ROE, we also know from the slide below that 3M is laser focused on good capital allocation and shareholder return.

As such, 3M's exposure to growth sectors (healthcare and Asia), its stellar track record of capital management built on the back of its strong brand rounds up the investment thesis for 3M. Needless to say, it benefits from idiosyncratic events such as the coronavirus outbreak precisely because of its strong brand as a safety and healthcare pioneer.The stock is also a leading barometer for the industrial cycle. It is usually the first stock to recover at the bottom of the cycle. Hence by having the stock in the portfolio, we then tend to be able to monitor the cycle better which helps with our assessment on the other stocks in our portfolios.

In the next post, we shall look at 3M's risks and valuations.

Huat ah!

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Coronavirus to COVID-19, the Woes Continues...

Markets collapsed c.15% over the last two weeks as COVID-19 (renamed from coronavirus) raged and spread across the globe. The infection hit 100,000 people and caused over 3,000 death in 94 countries. The panic buying of toilet paper and other daily necessities in Hong Kong and Singapore were copied in Japan, Italy, US and various other countries. It's a complete pandemonium!

It is inevitable that masks run out. It is logical that people buy up alcohol wipes and disinfectants. It's acceptable that people go stock up on dried food, instant noodles, bottled water and other important items. But why toilet paper? We do not poop more because of the coronavirus. Some patients do vomit but we do not wipe with toilet paper to clean up afterwards. We wash. Toilet paper is not a necessity, we can always wash. Hundreds of millions of people wash daily, because they don't have the luxury of paying for toilet paper. Money needs to be spent on food, clothes, gas, the real necessities.

Why we are running out of toilet paper

The only reason, politically correctly speaking, is baseless fear. FOLO: fear of losing out or FOMO: fear of missing out. The crude Singaporean way of saying it not nicely goes like this. All these people stupid lah, monkey see monkey do, indiscriminately buying toilet paper without using their monkey brain. Most countries do not import toilet paper from China and is self-sufficient. But obviously, if every household chooses to buy and stock up 24 months of usage, no amount of production will be enough. This is human psychology at work and one of the key reasons market goes into bubble and panic mode so often.

The market is going into panic mode today. Highly leveraged companies find themselves in trouble as they lose revenue with the virus causing a huge global supply chain disruption, major slowdown in travel and reduction in consumption. In a normal world, they have access to bank loans, temporary credit lines, their suppliers and customers will give flexibility on payment terms. But as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, all this goes out of the window.

We already saw Flybe, a UK carrier, going bankrupt. Unfortunately, more bankruptcies will come. Credit default swaps (CDS) are rising for many listed corporates. CDS measures the possibility of default on bonds. It is the insurance that bondholders pay in case the bond goes into default. In normal times, most companies with bonds see their CDS trading at 100-200bps but in recently weeks, CDS are rising by 20-30bps in a week and some companies have seen their CDS spiked.

This is not good. Corporate defaults will put stress on the banks or other parts of the financial system. Frankly speaking, our modern financial system is not very robust. Every crisis had started with stress at the weakest link which hit major financial institutions bringing about the crisis itself. The GFC started with sub-prime, a small niche sector in the US property market. The Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) was triggered by the Thai central bank breaking the Thai baht's peg to the US dollar. This in turn triggered the collapse of a hedge fund called LTCM.

When Genius Failed: The story of LTCM

This is where things get interesting, as we had seen with toilet paper - the actions of market participants causes a snowballing effect which ultimately leads to unfavourable outcomes.

LTCM was a huge hedge fund with 140 billion dollars of asset under management. In 1997, three years after the establishment of the firm, the AFC hit global markets. It turned out that LTCM had bet on many Asian currencies to strengthen and was bleeding. The was because the unpegging of the Thai baht had a contagion effect, and many worried about the ringgit, the rupiah, the peso and even the Singapore and the Hong Kong dollar. 

So most Asian currencies started to fall, worsening the woes at LTCM. What's worse, many other hedge funds had followed similar strategies and held similar positions. The market started to realize they needed to unwind the same trades before others. Just like consumer rushing for the same toilet papers before others bought them clean, traders rushed to put in phone calls to unwind these trades.

LTCM, being the biggest elephant, couldn't move fast enough and was at the verge of collapse. It was believed that while LTCM only had 140 billion dollars, its leveraged trades had nominal values north of a trillion dollars. The Fed had to step in to rescue LTCM because they believed if LTCM failed, it would bring down the whole financial system, triggering massive defaults, bankruptcies and bring about widespread panic.

This was "monkey see monkey do" at its worst.

Okay, back to today's crisis. It looks like it would get worse before it gets better, but it's really hard to time the bottom. My optimistic view is that 12 months from now, things would be better, we would have regretted not buying more. But right here, right now, we can only take incremental steps. Buy some stuff if you see it's cheap enough but leave some dry powder. It can get cheaper.

There is a tail risk that we do get a lot worse, like a pandemic at the scale of the 1918 Spanish Flu (500 million infections and 50 million deaths) or the Black Plague, then we won't be thinking about how our portfolios are doing. We will really run out of water, food and the real necessities. Everybody will wash. Definitely no toilet paper. The only asset in the portfolio that can help us if that happens is real physical gold, not even the gold ETF. Let's hope that scenario will just remain as a discussion topic here.

Meanwhile, fingers crossed. Don't hoard toilet paper.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Charts #30: Chinese students

Another interesting chart from FT thanks to coronavirus.

Despite the animosity between the big superpowers today, almost 3x more Chinese students are studying in the US than the next country (Australia).

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Thoughts #20: More on Coronavirus

Coronavirus has been around and when kids get viruses, 1/3 are thought to be from the coronavirus family. Hence kids tend to develop some immunity to coronavirus and are less susceptible to this new type from Wuhan. Thankfully.

Coronavirus death rate may not be as high as 2%. As it goes round more humans, it should tend towards normal influenza rate of 0.1% to 0.2%. It is high now partly because it is concentrated in 1-2 Chinese cities whereby the healthcare system is tremendously strained. 

Masks are less effective than handwashing and maintain 1m from others (since the virus is not airborne, only aerosol). According to the WHO website, proper handwashing, avoiding contact of our own hands (unclean) to our eyes. nose and mouth would be more important.

On investment implications, the virus is likely to bring down economic growth with impact on global tourism and supply chain disruption. The US stock market has not fully factored in this risk. But looking at past experiences (SARS, ERS), the virus is very likely to die down in summer and we can move on with our lives.

So, very short term wise, there could be buy opportunities as stocks correct on negativism and fear. Things are likely to get better from here. But we must bear in mind that we are in a decade long bull market and valuations, especially in the US, are stretched.