More Interviews With David Baran Of Symphony Fund

For reference purposes, here are three more recent interviews with David Baran of the Tokyo-based Symphony Fund, which is involved in shareholder activism and management buyouts of undervalued (especially net-net and net cash bargain) Japanese equities:

Investing in a ZIRP environment:

I’ve been trading Japanese equities since 1990, so I’ve seen it all twice [laughs]…

I think [it’s influenced] our views on how the world is going to look as a result of, not just the current sovereign debt crisis in Europe, but the entire cycle of over-leveraging in the world and the shifting to an almost perpetual low interest rate, low growth scenario.  We’ve lived it in Japan already—we know what it’s like, we know what it does to asset prices, we know you’re going to get attractive bull market runs but you’re still going to be in a long-term bear market. Being able to look back at our own experiences of having dealt with that in Japan gives us a completely different perspective, I think, from other managers who would be relatively new to the market—by relatively new, I mean, they’ve got 10 years experience—and they’ve only seen bull markets with some deep corrections that are reversed by policy.

I don’t think there’s a policy solution for what we have now. You’ve got to get rid of all the debt. The global debt overhang is huge, it’s historic. The amount of unfunded liability in the U.S. can cripple the country. And you have that situation amplified in Europe with fewer policy tools to rectify the problem.

The M&A trend in Japan:

MBOs [management buyouts] first came to prominence in Japan in 2006 with the Skylark MBO. This caused corporate Japan to first sit up and take notice that this was a possible road that management could take. At the same time, there began a series of changes to Japanese corporate governance that aimed to increased corporate disclosure and increase transparency. The most recent of these came out in 2010 and included requirements for director/statutory auditor independence, disclosure of executive compensation, and explanations for cross shareholdings. All of these are hard to swallow for many Japanese companies. In addition, with all these new rules, including IFRS accounting rules that will soon be introduced, the costs of being a listed company was getting high. Too high particularly for smaller cap companies for whom these costs were now of a material size relative to earnings. It is no coincidence that we have seen a steady increase in MBO activity in Japan, with 2011 on track to be the highest in five years.

They’re not activists, they’re advisors:

We are not activists. The whole activist approach doesn’t work in Japan. It probably works better in the U.S. because the shareholder base is more diversified and economically motivated. Shareholders in Japan may not necessarily use the same formula. The activists who tried a hostile approach here before, and this is where the cultural biases come in, they never had the ability to force management to do anything because they never had control. So they were requesting management to do something but doing it in such a way that management would just turn their back on them and say, ‘Well, we don’t even really need to talk to you,’ and the other shareholders really didn’t care, and would side with management.

We take a much more cooperative approach with management…We’ll act more as their counsel, their consigliere, guys they can talk to about things as opposed to the squeaky wheel.  We’re not interested in being the squeaky wheel.

Interview With David Baran Of Tokyo-Based LBO Fund Symphony

This is worth watching if you’re a value-investor interested in the Japanese equity market.

Description of the video from YouTube:

David Baran, Co-Founder of Symphony Financial Partners, has over 20 years of experience investing in Asia. He has lived in Asia and Japan for nearly 3 decades and is fluent in Japanese.

Baran’s SFP Value Realization Fund was launched in September 2003 when Nikkei was about 9,500. The index has fallen since then, yet his fund is still up 56% after fees.

The secret to achieving returns in Japan is that you’ll have to do more than just long-only investing. The unloved, under-covered nature of the Japanese market creates opportunities that ordinary fund managers are not capable of pursuing because it’s too hard to extract the value. Many Japanese firms, particularly the smaller ones, can boast about 40+% operating profits and 30+% EBITDA margins. They can have net cash positions and trade at 50+% net cash to market cap. Hundreds actually trade at over 100% net cash to market — which means the market is valuing these viable businesses at zero.

“Investors in the U.S. equity markets would be falling over themselves to invest in a company like these – net cash, strong business moat and growth prospects,” says Baran. But being “cheap” isn’t enough — you need catalysts to unlock the value.

M&A activity flourishing in Japan

Corporate activity is such a catalyst. MBOs have an average premium of 50% (!) and sometimes reach triple digit numbers. Many of the large Japanese conglomerates started to buy back listed subsidiaries. Baran also advises on the Sinfonietta Asia Macro hedge fund, one of the best performing Asian hedge funds in 2001.

Hear David speak about:

* The 8 reasons why management buyouts are gaining popularity

* Why you need catalysts to unlock value in Japan equities

* What investors are missing by considering Japan as an “asset class”

* How to avoid “value traps”

* Considering tail risk: Why Baran’s Sinfonietta hedge fund is “geared towards a disorderly market”

Would You Buy This Business? A Bargain In The Videogame Industry

The Nintendo investment thesis in one paragraph

At Y9020/share (June 1, 2012), you are buying a strong global entertainment franchise for Y1278T which has earned Y126B on average over the last ten years and generated Y120B in average FCF, with Y1191B in book value, Y958B in cash and investments and no debt. Global financial market pessimism coupled with hyperventilating technology futurist forecasting and a recent misstep by management that is now behind the company can be used to your advantage to buy this good business at a fair price.

The Nintendo investment thesis in several paragraphs, with links and charts

Nintendo ($NTDOY – ADR, JP:7974), the cherished childhood video game icon and global IP behemoth behind such hit game franchises and characters as Super Mario Bros., Pokemon, The Legend of Zelda and more, has stumbled recently. The company rolled out its new 3D handheld video game system, the Nintendo 3DS, around the world in the spring of 2011 at a price point that proved out of reach to many consumers.

To sale initial sales were disappointing would be an understatement– the system was a flop and with little software support from Nintendo out the gate, gamers had even less reasons to purchase this pricey new system. Realizing their mistake, the company quickly slashed the retail price of the system and offered retroactive credits and concessions to select customers who had purchased the system prior to the price drop.

With a new slate of software titles by Nintendo and premium 3rd party developers released in the 2011 Holiday season and thereafter, and the new price point, the system has finally caught momentum and software and hardware sales are both impressive. As of March 2012, worldwide sales of the Nintendo 3DS reached 17 million units and sales of related software amounted to over 45 million units. Consider this in comparison to the 151 million hardware units and 900 million software units sold over the last 7 years with the predecessor system Nintendo DS and its generations, and the 95 million hardware units and 818 million software units sold over the last 5 years with the smash hit Wii home game console (data source PDF).

Game console hardware and software sales tend to grow and then peak 3-4 years after release (software especially, as its dependent upon a hardware install base for growth, while hardware is in turn dependent on hit software releases to coax gamers to purchase the system to play their favorite games). Even with the poor initial release, the Nintendo 3DS has already outsold the wildly popular Nintendo DS over a comparable time period.

The world’s biggest game expo, E3, starts the first week of June and Nintendo will make a new announcement about their 2nd generation Wii system, currently named Wii U. Sales of the predecessor, revolutionary motion-controlled system have continued to show strength as the company has strategically discounted the system over its lifecycle to maintain sales and the hardware install base, thus driving software transactions as well, although they are slowing as any game system will after long enough after its introduction into the market.

The pessimism about the initial 3DS rollout and the uncertainty about the potential success of the new Wii U system mean that the market is not looking forward to anything good for Nintendo. The stock has been left for dead as the company trades near book value of Y1,191B with a current market cap of Y1,278B.

The fear and pessimism about this company is not just related to the hardware issues (which appear to be solved). Nintendo’s fortunes have been swept up in the whirlwind Tech Bubble 2.0, where everyone insists that all old things will be torn down and ruined and new, cloud-based (and primarily Apple owned and operated) variants will rise in their place. Analyst opinions, professional and amateur alike, have revolved around an obsession with the idea of Nintendo giving up its hardware business completely and selling itself to Apple and focusing on its software franchises. The company’s stated disinterest in following any course resembling this option has left many to conclude it is an absurd dinosaur, cluelessly waiting for the asteroid apocalypse to arrive and destroy its once powerful and profitable franchise in a massive thermonuclear explosion.

That’s what’s being imputed into the stock price, which has continued to plummet like a rock. But, the reality is quite different. Nintendo’s hardware is not being abandoned en masse by former fans. Nor is the world moving to a permanent, entrenched and exclusive model of casual gaming via cell phone apps. The value of the “casual gamer” is likely severely overblown to begin with (which, by the way, calls into question the value of Nintendo’s strategy of “games for everybody” and expansion of the gaming population, as noble as it may be and as successful as it may appear with the blockbuster sales numbers of the Wii). And Nintendo, while initially hesitant and reluctant to jump into the online transaction and gaming space, is by now doing much more than just dipping a toe in.

A few choice quotes from the latest President’s address by Nintendo head honcho Satoru Iwata are below.

On digital downloads and digital game delivery:

it is true that downloading software with 10 gigabytes of memory cannot be done in an instant today, even with broadband connections. So, compared with the situation of portable gaming devices, where comparatively compact-sized software can be downloaded, we have to ask our consumers to wait for a longer time before the download process is completed. However, consumers will be able to use the Wii U effectively by finding convenient times to download software such as when they are sleeping at night. Some consumers prefer to download digital software so that they can play with them on their system anytime without the need to exchange the games’ storage media. Some other consumers find it easier to purchase the medium at a retailer and play it as soon as they insert it into the game hardware. These consumers think it advantageous that they can exchange games with their friends. In order to offer consumers options to choose from, it is important for the company to first make the situation (where digital downloads of packaged software are offered to our consumers in addition to the existing packaged software sales) a reality, and we are ready to offer these options now.

Nintendo is taking a flexible approach, trying to allow gamers a variety of options for receiving games and game content ranging from traditional retail distribution to digital distribution, all with respect for the current limitations of average broadband connections.

On digital versus retail pricing:

we are proposing the two formats of sales mechanisms from which our consumers can make their own choices. The needs of society shall be determined by the choices to be made by the consumers. We do not hold such a premise that digitally distributed software has less value. In fact, as we have discussed this with a number of software publishers around the world, we have found that their opinions are completely divided on the topic of the price points of the digital distribution of packaged software. Some publishers believe that the digital versions should be cheaper while others insist that both versions must be set at exactly the same price. So, it is not only Nintendo’s idea. Each publisher has various ideas on this point and, among them, Nintendo is now offering both versions at the same price point (the same suggested retail price).

Again, the focus is on flexibility– not wedding the company to one model but taking a wait-and-see approach that alienates neither consumers nor distribution partners and allows the market consensus to finally guide the company to the best process over time.

On management’s responsibility for the flop:

with the financial results that we have announced, it is natural that I am being criticized. I do not feel that I have been experiencing something unreasonable. I am making efforts so that the situation can change as soon as possible.

How often do you see the president of a public company accept responsibility for a problem, and, better yet, still feel like there’s hope for a resolution?

On the lessons learned from the failed 3DS launch that will be applied to the Wii U launch:

As we look back, when we launched the Nintendo 3DS, we failed to prepare a software lineup which could satisfy our consumers in addition to other factors, and the Nintendo 3DS could not initially increase the sales as we had originally expected. This is why the company needed to carry out such a drastic markdown measure by sacrificing the profitability. As a result, and supported by a strong software lineup, the Nintendo 3DS was able to regain momentum during the year-end sales season of 2011. We laid out such a drastic measure by understanding that regaining the momentum which had been once lost, is much harder than trying to create momentum from scratch. Without it, the Nintendo 3DS could not have realized positive results at the end of last year or the current sales pace in Japan. It did hurt our financial results, but it was a necessary measure. So, how will we be able to use this lesson for the Wii U? There is always a limit to our internal resources. The company now has to develop software for the Nintendo 3DS, has to prepare for the Wii U launch and has to finalize the hardware functionalities. With these circumstances in mind, if I said that an overwhelmingly rich software lineup would be prepared from day one, it would be too much of a promise to make. On the other hand, we are making efforts so that we will be able to make several proposals even from the launch period that can eventually become evergreen titles for the Wii U. We have learned the lesson that we have to make that kind of preparation for the Wii U, or the Wii U will not gain enough momentum to expand its sales.

On the role of their 3rd party software publishing partners in the success of their systems:

It is imperative for Nintendo that our new hardware offers new proposals and potentially new play experiences so that developers will be interested in this hardware and be motivated to make attractive software. At the E3 show this June, you will be able to experience not only Nintendo’s Wii U software but also the titles being prepared by the third-party publishers. As a result, I think you will be able to notice that a number of developers are creating software (for the Wii U) even today. As for the Nintendo 3DS, there may appear to be fewer commitments from the U.S. and the European software publishers than those of their Japanese counterparts. This is due to the different timing (between Japan and overseas) when they noticed that the Nintendo 3DS would surely expand widely into their markets and, thus, the different timing when they started the actual development of the Nintendo 3DS software. You will also notice a change in this situation when a richer Nintendo 3DS software lineup in the overseas markets is announced around the time of the E3 show.

The first bold part is critical– this is one of Nintendo’s competitive advantages. The company has a purposeful policy of creating new play experiences that will provide incentive for software publishers to publish for their hardware and not others.

The second part is an explanation for why it appears that non-Japanese publishers have not been excited to produce software for the 3DS after the failed launch. They were last to see the sales momentum for the system turn in their markets so they’re behind on the development schedule as a result.

On the “gaming population expansion” philosophy:

Without making efforts to increase the number of new consumers and make video games accepted positively by society, we cannot expect a brighter future than now, so we will continue to make these efforts.

Once consumers have a notion that “this system is not for us,” we have learned that it is extremely difficult to change their perceptions later. Therefore, in promoting the Nintendo 3DS and the Wii U, we have announced that we would like “width” and “depth” to coexist. With the Nintendo DS and the Wii, the approach of “width” was well accepted by many people; however, what we did in terms of “depth” was not satisfactory for some consumers. This time, we would like consumers to be satisfied in both aspects. In order to do so, we started to work on the “depth” aspect first, and the current and existing software you can see for the Nintendo 3DS is based on that idea. In the future, the approach will evolve. By exploring the development both from width and depth standpoints, it is our intention to satisfy a wider audience with one gaming platform. Our approach for the Wii U is basically the same. By doing so continuously, we are expecting that the number of game users per household will increase and as the gaming population increases, we believe we can create a sustainable video game market.

Nintendo is not going away. It’s not a clueless dinosaur. It made some mistakes with the 3DS launch that it has learned from. The industry may have some challenges, headwinds and uncertainties as the distribution model transitions to digital over time, but none of this changes the integral value of this business drastically, which is that it is a premium provider of desired game IP on innovative 1st party hardware platforms that a growing audience of gamers enjoy using.

It might be a different story if Nintendo were in a different financial position than the one it actually occupies but the reality is as of Q4 FY2012 (Mar 2012), the company had Y958B of cash and short-term investments against TOTAL LIABILITIES of Y177B. The company has no debt. According to this link on the Nintendo IR website, at a current share price of Y9020 the company actually is selling below book (NAV) of Y9313/share.

If you’re not yet getting an idea of how cheap this company is, consider the following table:

Nintendo Trading Multiples
10yr 5yr Pre-Wii
Market cap 1277863 (millions Yen)
EV 319541 (millions Yen)
P/S 1.3 1.0 2.5
EV/EBIT 1.5 1.2 2.7
P/E 10.2 8.0 17.9

I created three periods to consider– 10 year average (full system cycle from 2003-2012), 5 year average (since the global recession started, 2007-2012) and the pre-Wii era (these are average earnings generated by the company prior to release of the hit Wii console, 2003-2006).

As you can clearly see, the company is trading for abnormally low multiples of sales, operating and net earnings. The future for Nintendo will probably be better than the pre-Wii era (it is a larger company with an even more expansive market and fan base than then) but may not be as successful as it was with the Wii. That remains to be seen.

Here is the company’s historical margins over the last 10 years:

  • Gross – 40%
  • Operating – 22%
  • Net – 13%
  • FCF – 12%

I think these margins demonstrate Nintendo is a good business with stable earnings power and strong ability to generate FCF from sales.

Relative to its average earnings power and franchise potential, the company seems to be unreasonably priced. Businesses like Nintendo do not deserve to trade below book or anywhere close to 1.5-2x sales. The stumble on the 3DS was temporary and the company is moving on. It’d be nice if the company was even cheaper, and with all the pessimism in global financial markets it might still be. But at these prices, it’s “cheap enough” for a business like this.

Notes – Gary North On Inflation, Deflation And Japan

The following notes cover Austrian economist Gary North’s views on the chances of inflation and deflation in the US and Japanese monetary systems, derived from a 5-part article series on the subject found at LewRockwell.com:

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 1: John Exeter’s Mistake

  • Fed will attempt to stabilize money supply before hyperinflation; “mass inflation, yes; hyperinflation, no. Then deflation.”
  • Deflation will not take place unless the CB stops making new money
  • When prices fall, you are richer, but you pay no income tax on your profits (deflation is good)
  • Not-money: if you pay a commission to exchange, the asset is not truly liquid
  • Gold is a mass inflation hedge, not a deflation hedge
  • According to Exter/deflationists, gold is supposedly both an inflation hedge and a deflation hedge– the only asset possessing this virtue
  • We have never been able to test Exter’s theory of gold as a hedge against price deflation because there has never been a single year in which CPI has fallen (Q: what did gold price of Yen do in 2009 Japanese CPI decrease?)
  • Consumer price indexes should be based upon goods and services that are rapidly consumed; not price of homes and other prices of “markets for dreams”
  • Central banks inflate, they do not deflate
  • “When housing is bought on the basis of ‘I’ll get rich,’ the market begins to resemble a stock market. When it is bought on the basis of ‘I can live here for what I can rent,’ it is more like the toilet paper market”
  • The skyrocketing price of housing under Greenspan was not reflected in the CPI; the collapsing price of housing under Bernanke was not reflected in the CPI
  • Consumer prices did not fall during the 2008-09 crisis because the money supply did not fall; if the money supply shrinks, there will be price deflation; watch the monetary statistics

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 2: The Deflationists’ Myth of Japan

  • The money supply shrank in the US 1930-33 (Q: Why did the Fed allow money supply to shrink? Does this weaken North’s argument that the Fed will always inflate rather than deflate going forward?)
  • The US and Japan had similar CB policies until late 2008, when the Fed “went berserk”
  • Japan’s M2 was mildly inflationary from 1992-2009; CPI was slightly deflationary over the same period of time but never worse than 1% in any 12mo period; prices rose 2% 1997 and 2008
  • There has been no systemic price deflation in Japan
  • Japan is more Chicago School than Austrian
  • Statistical conclusions about Japan:
    • CPI in Japan fell little 1992-2009, no more than 1% per annum
    • BoJ did not inflate the currency to overcome systemic price deflation, because it didn’t exist
    • Collapse of Japanese RE prices did not affect CPI
    • Collapse of Japanese stock market prices did not affect CPI

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 3: Why Currency Withdrawals Don’t Matter

  • The Japanese economy is starting to become price competitive; this will have ramifications higher up the corporate command chain
  • Estimates of US currency held outside the United States range from 50-70%
  • Rise of credit transactions such as credit cards have minimized the role paper currency plays in everyday transactions
  • Currency withdrawals from the banking system which are not later redeposited are deflationary due to the reserve ratio mechanism
  • Monetary deflation can occur as a result of deliberate Fed policy:
    • increase legal reserve requirement
    • sell assets
    • allow bank collapse to occur by not funding FDIC with new money to offset withdrawals

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 4: High Bid Wins

  • All economics systems are governed by principles of:
    • supply and demand
    • high bid wins
  • The increase in the Fed’s balance sheet (monetary base) has been offset by increase in excess reserves held at banks; thus, no price increases
  • Deflationists’ claim: “Commercial banks will not start lending until the recovery is clear. The recovery is a myth. So, banks will not start lending, no matter what the FED does. The largest banks remain over-leveraged. They will not be able to find borrowers at any rate of interest, so the capital markets will collapse (except gold), and then consumer prices will fall.”
  • North’s response: “the largest banks are making money hand over fist. It is the local banks that are failing. The FED has done what it was set up to do in 1913: protect the largest banks.”
  • Inflationists’ claim: “Commercial banks will start lending when the recovery is clear. The FED will probably not contract the monetary base all the way back to August 2008, because this would bring on another crisis comparable to September 2008. The FED will not risk bankrupting the still highly leveraged megabanks. It will therefore not fully offset the decrease in excess reserves. It will not “wind down” all the way, if at all. Bernanke fears 1930—33 more than anything else. So, the money supply will rise. Prices will follow.”
  • “The increase in excess reserves has been voluntary. The bankers are afraid to lend, even to the U.S. Treasury.” (Q: Why are bankers afraid to lend, even to the Treasury?)
  • “The FED is in complete control over excess reserves. It pays banks a pittance to maintain these reserves. It is legally authorized to impose fees.”
  • Why the Fed maintains its current policy:
    • doesn’t have to sell assets
    • doesn’t have to face rising long-term interest rates due to expanding money supply
    • doesn’t have to worry about collapsing housing market as interest rates go to 25-40%
    • doesn’t face a corporate bond market collapse
  • Monitoring money supply changes is key to predicting consumer price increases

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 5: Conclusion

  • J Irving Weiss and his son Martin, recommended 100% T-Bills since 1967; it takes $6400 to buy what $1000 bought in 1967
  • Deflationists confuse asset prices with consumer prices
  • Deflationists believe low interest rates lead to debt build up but lower ones won’t stabilize; cost of capital can fall to zero and no one will borrow
  • This is John Maynard Keynes theory, who therefore recommended the government should borrow and spend to avoid this fate
  • There is not a shortage of borrowers today, corporate bond rates are around 6%, not 0%, implying there are people looking to borrow at positive rates of interest
  • Capital markets — markets for dreams, priced accordingly
  • Consumer prices rise comparably to increases in M1 in the US and M2 in Japan
  • Deflationists confuse money (in a bank account) with dreams (imputed asset prices in capital markets)
  • At the supermarket, prices are slowly rising in the US and slowly falling in Japan

Notes – A Compilation Of Ideas On Investing

Why I’d Never Pay More Than Book Value For Nokia

  • You hate to see a group of the top five companies of an industry where they entered the industry at different times; this implies companies are coming and going as they please
  • You want the company you’re looking at to have a relatively high market share, ie, the company’s market share divided by the next closest competitor is high (1.5+)
  • The first line of defense in competitive environments is having the most customers relative to the alternatives; being the preferred product
  • As long as you believe a company’s competitive positions are lasting, you can buy the stock on a P/E basis

Ben Graham Net-Nets That Don’t File With The SEC

  • The simplest way to separate safe net-nets from unsafe net-nets is the number of consecutive years of profits
  • Profitable net-nets seem to be especially common candidates for abandoning the responsibilities of a public company without actually getting taken private
  • If you can’t trust the controlling family, you can’t trust the auditors

Free Cash Flow Isn’t Everything

  • Buffett-style approximation of unleveraged return on tangible equity: EBIT/(Receivables + Inventory + PPE) – (Accounts Payable + Accrued Expenses)
  • This represents the net investment; in the example of WMT, it represents their ability to finance $50B in productive assets at 0% interest
  • Reinvestment in businesses with sustainable double-digit ROIs is superior to receiving dividends (thanks to higher FCF)
  • It is harder to find companies who can earn high returns on unlevered equity and increase the size of that tangible equity over time than it is to find companies who can earn high returns on unleveraged tangible equity
  • For looking at return on invested tangible assets: EBITDA/(Receivables + Inventory + PPE) – (Accounts Payable + Accrued Expenses)
    • then, go back 15-20 years and find range, median, etc.
    • examine how much tends to be converted to net income or FCF to get an idea of profitability
  • FCF != Owner’s Earnings; only counting the cash available after a company grows will result in you passing up many good, growing businesses simply because they’re growing
  • If a company is earning good returns on their investments, it’s okay for them to not produce a lot of FCF
  • Businesses you’re investing in for profitable future growth should be 150% of the growth you think you could provide with another use of the money; the 50% represents margin of safety in your future compounding
  • Over time, more reliable returns compound better than less reliable returns
  • The most reliable ROIs tend to be in businesses built around a habit
  • Habits are the first line of defense in a business
  • The best business defenses involve:
    • defending specific customers
    • defending specific locations
    • defending specific times
  • Buffett’s favorites are business which:
    • have pricing power
    • have the lowest costs (can operate profitably at margins competitors can not)
  • Your return in a good business, held forever, depends on:
    • Growth; what quantity of earnings are you purchasing today?
    • ROI; how much room is there for reinvesting those earnings in the future?
    • Earnings yield; what will you earn on those reinvested earnings?

Earnings Yield or Free Cash Flow Yield: Which Should You Use?

  • Look to the story of Hetty Green; don’t put more into an asset unless the return you can get from that addition is better than what you could get elsewhere
  • A company that grows value doesn’t have to pay anything out; with real Owner’s Earnings, no FCF is necessary
  • FCF is useful for determining how much money is available for:
    • Dividends
    • Stock buybacks
    • Debt repayment
    • Acquisitions
  • In this case, use FCF/Market Cap to determine your “equity coupon”
  • Owner’s Earnings is useful for determining: How much bigger will my snowball get this year?
  • OE are just as valuable as FCF if and only if the future return on retained earnings is comparable to the average of the past; the wider the moat, the more reliable the historical average is
  • If you think you can earn 10% in your brokerage account:
    • a company earning 12% unlevered returns on tangible net assets is probably a wash and it’d be better if they gave them to you
    • but a company earning 20% is a different beast altogether– you’re probably better off letting them compound your money for you
  • If you know ROI will stay above what you could achieve yourself, use a P/E type measure (or EV/EBIT or EV/EBITDA, depending on accounting) to price the stock, don’t use FCF
  • Valuing businesses by ROI:
    • By earnings; reliably above average returns on investment
    • By FCF; consistent companies with a mixed or impossible to evaluate ROI situation
    • By tangible book; inconsistent companies with an unreliable or poor ROI situation
  • Stated another way:
    • Good, reliable companies are snowballs; worth what it can grow as it travels downhill; dynamic
    • Mixed, reliable companies are waterfalls; worth the rate of its flow; constant
    • Unreliable, bad companies are rocks; worth its weight; static
  • Remember– assets produce earnings; earnings become assets; the process repeats
  • Ask yourself:
    • What is the sustainable rate of cash removable from the business?
    • What is the value added or subtracted from the business by the resource use decisions of management?
  • Assume that retained earnings at subpar businesses to be worth less than their stated amount; similarly, retained earnings at above average businesses are worth every penny
  • With great businesses with favorable long-term prospects, treat earnings as FCF; it’s fine to use the earnings yield
  • Never make the mistake of thinking depreciation is a provision for the future; it’s a spreading out of the past
  • At bad businesses, cash is worth much more than inventory, receivables, property, etc.; in these cases, don’t use earnings yield, use FCF yield and asset value

How To Analyze Net-Nets Undergoing Change

  • As part of a group, you can easily invest in businesses undergoing change
  • “Managers rarely rush to evacuate excess capital from a sinking ship. Usually, they’re still there trying to save the wreck.”
  • It’s generally better to invest in a corporation undergoing change than a business undergoing change
  • With changing customer habits, it can be nearly impossible to predict future earnings
  • I require at least ten years of history before investing in a company for any reason other than its cash; prefer 15-20 years of history whenever possible
  • Overcapitalized companies undergoing change are good stocks to follow
  • Worldwide, there are fewer investors looking at Swedish stocks than US stocks; that’s an advantage if you’re looking at Swedish stocks, so use it

What Broker To Use When Buying International Stocks (Gannon On Investing)

  • Geoff uses a full service broker, but recommends Interactive Brokers or Noble Trading for most others looking to buy foreign stocks
  • If going with a full service shop:
    • personally know a broker ahead of time
    • give him your account with a clear understanding of what it is you want to do; try to negotiate a flat, guaranteed commission structure so you know how much it’ll cost you and he knows you’re worth the trouble
    • a good rule of thumb is 1% per roundtrip trade; it’d be greedy for the broker to ask for more than 2%
  • If a broker promised me it could buy any stock anywhere in the world for 2% of my assets per year, I’d take that deal
  • I look at my cost in a stock on an after-commission basis
  • “My broker won’t let me buy that stock” is never a valid excuse; if the broker won’t buy the stock, get a new broker
  • “Ben Graham said investing is most intelligent when it’s most businesslike. Business often means work”
  • Never let anything get in the way of buying the best bargains, especially not your broker

How To Find Cheap Foreign Stocks

  • Online research process for finding foreign stocks:
    • Screen for stocks in specific countries using the FT Screener
    • Check the business description, EV/EBITDA, etc., at Bloomberg
    • Look at the 10-year financial history at MSN Money
    • Go to the company’s website and read their annual reports
  • Bloomberg has the best worldwide coverage of stocks in their database
  • A good screen to start with at FT.com is a single digit P/E screen– just scoop up the simplest, most obvious bargains
  • Many European companies that aren’t too tiny trade in Germany
  • Use Google Translate if you’re having language issues
  • Beware of accounting differences:
    • US uses GAAP; insists on historical cost and does not permit revaluation of non-financial assets; in general, old US companies with lots of land and inventory (using LIFO) are more likely to contain “hidden assets”
    • RoW uses IFRS; PPE and investment property less likely to be carried on balance sheet at extremely low stated value; different way of valuing biological assets; never uses LIFO accounting for inventory; less likely to mask an asset’s liquidation value than GAAP
  • Good screen in the US due to GAAP accounting for depreciation: (Accumulated Depreciation /Tangible Book Value) * (Tangible Book Value/Market Cap) > 1; shows you the cheapest stocks relative to what a competitor would pay to own their assets; produces a real Ben Graham-type list
    • should also add: Tangible Book Value > Total Liabilities
    • and: Net Income > 0
  • Due to accounting differences, if you’re new to international investing, focus on earnings bargains, not asset bargains
    • It’s okay to buy companies that are cheap P/B if they have 10 yrs of consistent earnings
    • Otherwise, stick to low P/10yr avg earnings
  • Low EV/EBITDA is good to use around the world as it erases some differences in accounting
  • Good UK-specific screener– SharelockHolmes

How To Find Foreign Stocks: 13 Promising Companies From The U.K. (Gannon On Investing)

  • I went to the London Stock Exchange website; then I browsed stocks alphabetically
  • I was looking for potentially promising companies, regardless of price
  • In other countries, I start by looking for good businesses I can understand; the bar is higher overseas
  • Use the following process for finding promising companies:
    • At the LSE website:
      • clicked “fundamentals” tab
      • scrolled down to ROIC
      • looked for positive number in the double-digits
      • 20%+ ROIC over the last few years
    • Look the company up in Bloomberg
      • If you can’t understand the business description, throw it out
      • If it sounds like it has the potential to earn very high returns on capital, proceed
    • Looked up the annual report’s cash flow statement
      • CFO > CAPEX in each of the last several years
      • ie, should be generating FCF
    • For all the companies that qualify, download the past annual reports into a folder on desktop
    • Start reading annual reports from oldest to most recent
    • Then, appraise the value of the company, ideally without looking at the price first
      • 10x normal EBIT
      • 15x normal FCF
      • if the company is trading at least 25% below the value you appraised it at and you love the business, consider buying
  • Searching alphabetically is an old school, Buffett way of stock research
  • “Having to form your own opinions from scratch does wonders for investment analysis”; searching from scratch puts you in the best mindset to value a stock objectively
  • Three dependable ways to turn up great stock ideas:
    • Go through a list from A to Z
    • Read value investing blogs
    • Direct, personal experience with the company
  • Good UK value investing blogs:
  • “My best investments come from stocks I study and pass on due to price, only to buy the same stock some 4 or 5 years later when it has its Salad Oil Scandal moment”

5 Japanese Net-Nets: And How To Analyze Them

  • Net-net investing worked in actual practice in the 1930s and 1940s in the US; Japan is similar, but worse
  • Price and value determine your returns based on four factors:
    • Earnings yield (price)
    • ROI (profitability)
    • Sales growth (growth)
    • Dividend yield (dividends)
  • The lower the yield on the stock, the higher its earnings yield, growth and ROI need to be to justify investment
  • Japan is experiencing deflation of -0.7% while the US is experiencing inflation of 2.9% so you need to add 3.6% to all Japanese yields to get the equivalent in real terms in the US
  • A company’s real dividend yield is effectively a reduction in your hurdle rate
  • Japan is a low/no growth economy, so it makes sense to pay out earnings as dividends or retain them as cash rather than tie them up in low-return, long-term investments such as PPE
  • The margin of safety in Japanese net-nets is that the dividend yield is a payback unrelated to ROI
  • With Japanese net-nets, you exchange low growth and low ROI for high dividend yields, deflation (rising cash value) and excess cash
  • Japanese net-nets offer P/E around 10, dividend yield around 3% and net cash close to market cap, meaning you get three bets:
    • the value of the stock’s future retained earnings stream
    • the value of the stock’s future dividend stream
    • the value of the stock’s future cash pile deployment
  • The biggest threat to Japanese net-nets is a decline in the value of the  yen; this is the best reason for passing on net-nets in Japan
  • “If half my money is in dollars and half is in something else and all 100% of my portfolio is in some of the cheapest stuff on earth– my results will be fine… over time”
  • The US in the 1930s is the best illustration of what net-net investing in Japan is like
  • “I prefer a lot of uncertain opportunities to make money over time to one seemingly certain exit strategy”
  • The quality of net-nets in the US is not as good as in Japan; most US net-nets are extremely unsafe; this is a consequence of a few good years in the stock market

Value Idea: Japanese Net-Nets

Japan seems awfully cheap these days:

A study made under the authors’ direction (covering some 3,700 stocks traded on the Japanese exchanges), found 512 stocks selling for less than net current asset value (includes long-term investments) and 212 selling below ⅔ of net current asset value (Graham’s famous “66% net-net” threshold). Equally interesting, 763 of the businesses were selling for less than cash plus short and long term marketable securities. Suffice it to say, there are large parts of the Japanese market selling for extremely cheap.

Based on the studies previously referenced, we would anticipate this basket of cheap Japanese stocks to similarly outperform the market indices. If the 30 businesses were afforded a modest multiple (8-times earnings before interest and taxes) + net cash, similar to what businesses typically sell for in private-party transactions, the average valuation for the 30 businesses would be $191 million vs. a market-cap-inferred-price of $86 million. You’re theoretically getting $191 million worth of private-party businesses for the public market price of $86 million. This represents a tremendous upside potential when the market’s sentiments toward Japan become normal again– offering a handsome potential reward for those brave enough to test their resolve in the face of threatening headlines.

Individual securities can be attained through most brokerage houses without too much fuss. Although the trading costs can be steep (we’ve paid $100 per trade through one of the bigger name houses), we feel the potential upside justifies the transaction costs, depending on the size of your portfolio. For smaller amounts of money and certainly increased liquidity, WisdomTree’s Japan SmallCap Div Fd ETF (NYSE:DFJ) may be a good way to participate in Mr. Market’s mispricing of Japan. Although the DFJ is not as cheap as a readily-attainable basket of individual stocks (Price-to-Book of ~.77 vs. much less), the liquidity and diversification is quite attractive.

I like the idea of investing in Japan. It’s strongly within the econo-legal orbit of Western countries and Western attitudes toward law and commerce. There is definitely fraud and corruption, as there is anywhere in the world, but it’s probably less worrisome in Japan than it is in a place like neighboring China.

The challenges to investing in Japan are:

  1. Cost of trading
  2. Language barriers in studying company publications
  3. Convenient access to reliable market data

I am not sure how affected Japan will be by a China slowdown. I am not sure how much a person should worry about the fact that many of these Net-Nets appear to be in the engineering and construction consultancy business– this was an area that was a focus of corruption and overspending during the boom years in Japan and it’s questionable how many of these businesses are kept alive now or in the future by political connections.

Finally, at some point Japan is going to have a day of reckoning related to their massive government debts. For the average Japanese business with earning power and some growth prospects the implied inflationary solution to that problem seems like a tailwind. But for a Net-Net with no real exciting business prospects and a lot of cash on the balance sheet, that seems like it could destroy a lot of value, if anything.

Austrian economist Gary North insists that won’t happen, but I’m not sure what will take place instead.

The best strategy, were someone to attempt to take advantage of this scenario and these low prices relative to net current assets, would probably be to build some kind of a basket of the best of the best, as the author suggests.

I read a good article by Geoff Gannon on How to Pick Net-Nets, and he argues the main idea is to protect yourself from the downside, not to worry about the upside, when it comes to Net-Nets. He says the main risks to look out for are:

  1. Fraud
  2. Solvency
  3. Ownership dilution

I’m going to keep my eye on the Japanese NCAV situation, but for now it might be cheapest and easiest for me to find a few issues in the US, first. Meanwhile, I wonder what’s going on in Europe as far as Net-Nets go?