Tuesday, 14 September 2021 13:19

Investment GEMs podcast - September 2021

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Mark Draper (GEM Capital) and Shannon Corcoran (GEM Capital) recently spoke with Clay Smolinski (Co-Chief Investment Officer, Platinum Asset Management) about whether he is optimistic or pessimistic about COVID.

We also spoke with Clay about what the recent regulatory changes introduced by the Chinese Government mean for investors ..... plus more.

Click on the image below to listen to the podcast.

 

Thursday, 09 September 2021 13:43

Utilities - high income with growth

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Investing in utility companies is the equivalent of buying “Water Works” or “The Electric Company” on a monopoly board.  It’s not the excitement of owning Mayfair, but they pay a steady income to their owners.  Utility owners on the ASX also enjoy relatively high levels of income, some as high as 6%, within a stable business.

Utilities according to Hugh Dive, Portfolio Manager at Atlas Funds Management are characterised as businesses that have some form of monopoly, extensive capital to construct their assets, steady demand and varying degrees of government regulation.

 

Gerald Stack, Head of Infrastructure at Magellan Financial Group likes to illustrate the idea of utilities by referencing electricity.  There are four distinct aspects to the provision of electricity starting at power generation.  The electricity is then transported over high voltage transmission lines before the voltage is reduced and transported over distribution lines to consumers.  The final stage is that electricity is marketed to consumers through retailers.  

Only the transmission lines and the distribution lines are considered utilities by Magellan as they are the only parts of the electricity chain that are monopolies.  Generators and retailers are excluded by Magellan as they are subject to competition and are therefore generally not considered utilities.  This is an important aspect of investing in utilities, as investors owning parts of the chain that are subject to competition and price changes, will receive a different outcome.

Stack believes that investors should own utilities for their predictable, reliable profitability which typically means that dividends are also reliable and predictable.  

Dive says that utilities can provide a hedge against market falls.  During the sharp 21% ASX fall in March 2020, regulated utilities were among the least impacted stocks on the ASX.  Spark Infrastructure and APA Group only declined by 4% while Ausnet posted a 1% gain.

Investors can gain exposure to Australian utilities via ASX companies including Spark Infrastructure (powerlines and transmission), Ausnet (gas pipelines, powerlines and transmission) and APA Group (gas pipelines).  Alternatively investors can access exposure via Infrastructure funds, which also have the benefit of being able to seek global opportunities.

Dive and Stack both agree that the main risks to investing in utilities relate to regulation and interest rates.

Investors need to understand that utilities can earn income that is regulated, or revenue which is contracted.  Typically regulated income allows the utility to earn what the regulator assesses as a fair rate of profit and usually the regulatory regime is fixed for a period before being reviewed.  For example electricity distributors in Australia usually operate under 5 year regulatory periods.  Contracted revenue occurs when there is a legal contract for services between the utility and the end user.  

Investors also have to feel comfortable with the jurisdiction they are investing in.  Australia, UK, US and Canada are generally considered regions where investors have comfort in the regulatory framework and can obtain recourse through the legal system.  Some developing countries require more caution in this area.

Utilities are often financed with a significant amount of debt, therefore a change in interest rates can have a material impact on operating profits without the protection afforded by regulation, according to Stack.  However the regulatory regime will normally allow for protection from the impact of changes in interest rates so that profitability is largely unaffected.  Changes to interest rates can not only impact operational profits, but also the assessment of fair value of the utility by the markets.  Generally lower interest rates result in higher utility values and of course the reverse applies.

A significant pick up in inflation that could lead to central banks raising interest rates could lead to a reduction in appetite for investment in regulated utilities.

While utilities are traditionally known as an income play for investors, there is potential too for growth.  The need for communities to reduce carbon emissions to ‘net zero’ offers significant opportunities for electric utilities.  Key steps in the transition include significant increases in the amount of renewable energy and the electrification of economies including electric cars.  Renewable energy projects and the need to increase the capacity and reliability of the electricity grid offer significant investment opportunities.

High income with growth, it’s little wonder that the utilities sector is starting to attract takeover attention.

 

Every month Mark Draper (GEM Capital) writes for the Australian Financial Review - this article appeared in the 8th September 2021 edition

Wednesday, 11 August 2021 07:56

Smart ways to play reopening trade

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To many Australians right now, the re-opening of the economy must seem like a mirage.  Investors should consider the opportunities that come from depressed share prices in sectors hit hard by lockdowns, otherwise known as the re-opening trade.

The re-opening trade seeks to invest in businesses that have been negatively impacted by COVID-19 and are trading well below their valuation based on a normal operating environment.  Obvious candidates include travel, shopping centres, airports and even private hospitals which have suffered due to cancellation of elective surgery.

Investors must ask themselves whether the current state of lockdowns and border closures is a permanent feature or not.

Nathan Bell (Head of research, Intelligent Investor) says that reopening the economy will be as bumpy as it is inevitable, as the cost to taxpayers and businesses is already stratospheric and Australia can't afford to be left behind the rest of the world.

So far, the number of hospitalisations and deaths in countries with highly vaccinated populations that are reopening, such as the UK, are low for those who've been vaccinated. Provided this continues, international borders between similarly vaccinated countries will be opened according to Bell.

The vaccination rates in the US, UK, China and Europe are high, evidenced by the graph below.

 

In Europe the average number of departing passengers hit 2.1 million per day in the last week of June, up 39% on the 1.5 million recorded just three weeks before.  

Hotel occupancy in the US has doubled from 35% to 70% in the first six months of the year and US airlines expect passenger numbers to be close to normal within a matter of months.  Dan Moore (Portfolio Manager, Investors Mutual) says that US consumer spending is actually ahead of pre-COVID levels.

In China, 99% of pre-COVID aircraft are flying again.  The International Air Travel Association recently forecast that global passenger numbers recover to pre-COVID levels by 2023.

These statistics indicate that Australia could head toward a speedy recovery in the travel sector once the vaccine program becomes well advanced.

Moore is looking at countries who are ahead of the curve with vaccinations and analysing data such as mobility, employment activity, consumer spending, housing and industrial production as a way of developing a lead indicator for Australia.

Moore’s advice to investors seeking to profit from the reopening trade is firstly to look for depressed share prices, but checking this is not due to a large dilutive equity raising.  He then suggests investors ask themselves whether the company’s future prospects are permanently impaired.  Moore favours focussing on companies with a strong balance sheet so they can weather short term set backs, and are industry leaders.  He cites United Malt, one of the largest global suppliers of malt to the beer and whiskey industry as a good example.

Moore likes Virgin Money, a UK bank that is priced at a fraction of its Australian counterparts when measured using a price to book basis.  The reopening of the UK economy has seen an increase in consumer spending, resulting in growth in credit card lending and mortgages for Virgin Money.

Moore is wary of some travel companies that do not have strong balance sheets.

Bell’s advice about the best ways of playing the reopening trade is “carefully”.  He says that  many stocks impacted heavily by COVID have already had a full recovery baked into their stock prices, while others have vulnerable balance sheets that could disintegrate if the economy doesn't get back to 'normal' relatively soon.

Bell adds that Stocks such as Star Entertainment, Auckland Airport and skydiving company Experience Co will be direct beneficiaries of the great reopening with solid balance sheets and plenty of room for their valuations to increase as profits and dividends recover.

Another sector that has been hard hit by the pandemic is the energy sector whose share prices are not yet reflecting the recovery in the oil price.

The key risk facing investors choosing to invest in the re-opening theme is a return to lockdowns in countries with high vaccination rates such as the UK, US, the Nordic countries and Israel.  

Investors will learn a great deal about this in the coming months.

 

Every month Mark Draper (GEM Capital) writes for the Australian Financial Review - this article was published on Wednesday 11th August 2021.

Wednesday, 14 July 2021 07:53

Retail investors guide to IPO's

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Every month, Mark Draper (GEM Capital) writes an article about investing for the Australian Financial Review.  

This  month he writes about how retail investors should think about IPO's (initial public offerings or floats).  This article appeared in the AFR during July 2021.

 

Every retail investor dreams about doubling their money on day one of a hot IPO (initial public offering).  But Myer, Dick Smith and Nuix demonstrate that not all IPO’s turn out to be profitable.  With the likelihood of a flood of IPO’s in the second half of the year, investors should dust off the IPO playbook to ensure they don’t end up owning the next Dick Smith.

Hugh Dive (Chief Investment Officer, Atlas Funds Management) believes that the most important question for an investor to ask is who is the vendor and why are they selling.  Historically investors tend to do well where the IPO is a spin-off from a large company exiting a line of business, or the vendors are using the proceeds to expand their business.  IPOs, where the owners are looking solely to exit the business entirely (such as in the 2009 Myer IPO), tend to see poor outcomes for investors.

Investors also need to understand whether the vendor will continue to own any shares post IPO and ‘have skin in the game’ and for how long.  While continued vendor ownership doesn’t guarantee success, it does result in some alignment of interests with new shareholders at least in the short term.

Vince Pezzullo (Deputy Head of Equities, Perpetual) firmly believes that any IPO candidate must fit in with the investor’s usual investment strategy.  Retail investors in the past have been guilty of chasing a quick trading profit via IPO’s, often deviating from the types of investments they would usually make.  

Matt Williams (Portfolio Manager, Airlie Funds Management) agrees and says that while it might sound simple, the IPO has to be a good business with good prospects.  Some ingredients to determine whether the IPO is a good business would include the level of recurring earnings, debt levels and whether the industry sector has a favourable outlook.

The difficulty facing retail investors wishing to participate in IPO’s is access to information.  IPO investors are confronted with the task of understanding a new company with limited and often misleading financial data often referred to as pro-forma accounting within a brief marketing period.  Some of the accounting tricks that IPO’s have used in the past include amortising expenses so costs are transferred from the profit and loss account to the balance sheet, writing down of inventory pre IPO to artificially boost profitability post IPO, and cutting regular maintenance expenditure to boost profit.  Investors would be wise to read the cash flow statements and balance sheet positions in the prospectus to look for red flags.

The prospectus is generally considered an unfriendly document to retail investors due to its length and complexity.  Williams says that before investing in an IPO it is critical investors do their homework so they know what they are buying.  This involves reading the prospectus, particularly the ‘bad stuff’ including the Key Risks section.  Usually in the key risks section there is information showing the sensitivities to profitability should certain conditions change such as interest rates, currency, input costs etc.  Williams believes this is critical in assisting the investor make a decision on what to do next after the IPO lists.

If an investor can get comfortable with the quality of the IPO on offer, Pezzullo then suggests looking at whether the price is attractive.  Assessing the IPO price compared to other listed companies in the IPO’s peer group would be a useful measure of this.

Dive says there is a fundamental informational imbalance between the seller and the buyer of the IPO.  The seller knows the business intimately and is choosing the time to sell their stake in the business to be IPO’d at the time when conditions are most favourable to the seller.

Dive advises to ignore the hype around recent IPO success stories and look at every IPO from the initial position that the seller is trying to trick you into buying something that they are selling and then slowly work backwards towards a position of trust.

Finally, Warren Buffett says about IPO’s "It's almost a mathematical impossibility to imagine that, out of the thousands of things for sale on a given day, the most attractively priced is the one being sold by a knowledgeable seller to a less-knowledgeable buyer."  When it comes to IPO’s - Buyer beware!

 

Thursday, 13 May 2021 07:57

Telstra - value emerging for shareholders

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In the last 5 years Telstra shareholders have had little to cheer about as they have watched the NBN punch a hole in earnings, resulting in a share price slide and dividend cuts.  That is now changing.

In the recent profit result, not only did Telstra forecast earnings growth for the first time in 5 years, but also outlined a timetable to change its legal structure by splitting the company into 4 parts.

The proposed legal structure within the Telstra Group, expected to be completed by December 2021, includes:

  • InfraCo Fixed, which would own and operate Telstra’s passive or physical infrastructure assets: the ducts, fibre, data centres, and exchanges that underpin Telstra’s fixed telecommunications network.
  • InfraCo Towers, which would own and operate Telstra’s passive or physical mobile tower assets, which Telstra is looking to monetise given the strong demand and compelling valuations for this type of high-quality infrastructure.
  • ServeCo, which would continue to focus on creating innovative products and services, supporting customers and delivering the best possible customer experience. ServeCo would own the active parts of the network, including the radio access network and spectrum assets to ensure Telstra continues to maintain its industry leading mobile coverage and network superiority.
  • International, will be established under a separate subsidiary within Telstra Group and includes subsea cables

 

After being negative on Telstra for years, Gaurav Sodhi (Analyst, Intelligent Investor) believes the new structure is a good move.  He says that there are a lot of assets within Telstra that aren’t being adequately valued.  Separating them will recognise the value of infrastructure style assets that can generate stable, recurring revenues, resulting in a far higher valuation than the present share price.  Sodhi’s sell trigger of $5 on Telstra provides some guidance on the value he sees.

The Towers business carries a modest asset value of just $300m on Telstra’s balance sheet after heavy depreciation.  Once towers are in place and connected to the fibre backhaul, they are expensive to replicate and therefore extremely valuable.

Experience overseas shows that Telstra is following a well trodden path as it seeks to increase shareholder value.  Will Granger (Analyst, Airlie Funds Management) says that mobile tower companies can trade at EBITDA multiples (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, amortisation) ranging between 21-27 times earnings.  Telstra by comparison currently trades on an EBITDA multiple of around 8 times.  Granger believes through a partial or full sell down of these assets, Telstra can realise this valuation arbitrage and increase shareholder returns.

Gaurav supports this view by referencing American Tower which is listed in the US.  It is the largest tower business in the world which bought AT&T’s long distance phone lines years ago and used them to host mobile infrastructure and are today valued at over US$100bn.  American Tower trades at over 20 times EBITDA while AT&T trades at just 7 times.

Granger adds that Vodafone spun off its mobile tower assets in March of this year on an EBITDA multiple of around 20 times.

Granger sees few downsides for the proposed restructure other than Telstra risking their network advantage if the mobile towers separation is not properly structured.

Sodhi agrees and said that American Tower and Crown Castle have been so successful because they host multiple networks from a single piece of infrastructure.  They have been able to scale nicely.  For Telstra’s tower businesses to do the same, Telstra would have to allow other networks access to those sites.

There is a clear trade off here.  In order to maximise the value of its infrastructure, Telstra needs to allow other networks access to it.  If it does that, it risks its network superiority.  Sodhi believes that Telstra is likely to opt for a lower value for its infrastructure to protect its network superiority.

The ACCC is another risk to this restructure.  Sodhi says that while its been hard to predict the reaction of the ACCC in recent years, he doesn’t believe there would be too many objections.  A split of the towers and infrastructure assets potentially opens the door to other networks also utilising those assets which could even the playing field.

Telstra has been a serial underperformer over the past 5 years, but investors must be forward looking and responsive to new information.  The split is new and its happening this year, and investors may do well to reconsider Telstra.

 

 

This article was written by Mark Draper and appeared in the Australian Financial Review during the month of April 2021.

Bell Potter have produced a special report on developments of COVID-19 focussing on the virus itself with particular reference to Europe and the US.

The report looks at infection rates and death rates, comparing the first and second waves.

The analysis considers the likelihood of reaching herd immunity.  Complete with statistics and graphs the report is designed to assist investors reach their own conclusions about what may be in store for the world with COVID-19.

Download your copy of the report by clicking on the report below.

 

Friday, 04 September 2020 09:05

Best of the Best - August 2020

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The Investment Team at Montgomery Investments have produced their bi-monthly "Best of the Best" report.

This edition focuses on:

- Why it's time to focus on quality businesses

- Optum - Hidden GEM in US Healthcare

- Nanosonics has a long runway for growth

- Three reasons we continue to like Woolworths

 

Download your copy of the report by clicking on the report below.

 

Friday, 04 September 2020 08:56

What we learned from reporting season

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The only thing certain about the future right now is that the future is uncertain.  So as we complete one of the strangest company reporting seasons we have ever seen, investors should reflect on the company profit announcements to see what they can learn about what may lie ahead 

Matt Williams (Portfolio Manager, Airlie Funds Management) says that while overall profits were down 20% compared to the previous year, the dire predictions in late March proved to be too bearish and there are now more profit upgrades than downgrades.  He said “The economy has strongly outperformed the accepted bearish scenarios of late March, retailers have produced phenomenal numbers”.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has not been uniformly bad for all Australian companies.  Travel related companies and listed property trusts with shopping centre assets have had a tough 6 months, while electrical retailer JB Hifi, hardware and office retailer Wesfarmers, AfterPay and Domino’s Pizza all saw record revenue over the past 6 months, benefitting from consumers being quarantined at home” according to Hugh Dive (Senior Portfolio Manager, Atlas Funds Management).

Nathan Bell (Head of Research & Portfolio Management, Investsmart) picked up on the travel sector which saw airlines and travel retailers at the epicentre of the COVID-19 storm.  “You could hear the desperation in Alan Joyce’s voice as he pleaded for state borders to reopen after announcing a $4bn loss”.  Bell also highlighted the almost 100% drop in passenger numbers since COVID-19 emerged for listed Sydney and Auckland airports.  He is of the view that leisure travel ultimately recovers and even if business travel only recovers to 70% of past highs due to a permanent shift to online meetings, both airports represent good value at current prices.  “People are once again going on holidays in the northern hemisphere, which is another good omen for this pair of airports.  Vietnam, Taiwan and Korea recently reopened their domestic borders and passenger numbers are now 10 – 20% above 2019 levels, suggesting pent up demand” he adds in support of the investment case for a rebound in airports.

Food and alcohol retailers (such as Woolworths and Coles) reported solid results as they benefitted from changing consumer purchase patterns, but they now trade at huge valuations.  Their valuations suggest future returns are likely to be far more muted if not negative should the impact of Job Keeper payments and people raiding their super funds wear off.

Dive points to the fact that “cash flows from the government were a significant feature of the August results season, albeit one that was understandably not highlighted by management when they presented their results.  JobKeeper and higher JobSeeker payments have helped companies such as JB Hifi and Afterpay as cash flows from the Government have supported retail sales despite the significant rise in unemployment”.  Investors would be wise to resist extrapolating the impact of these Government payments over the past 6 months into the future.

While the Telco sector reported earnings hits from lower global roaming charges and reduced retail sales during lockdowns, the 5G networks will cover the majority of the population in the next 12 months which represents revenue growth opportunities.  More rational mobile pricing should also help the Telco’s.

Banks reported much lower profits due to a mix of low credit growth, low interest squeezing margins and increasing bad debts.  Bell says of the banks “the bull case for Australia’s largest banks rests on them trading at large premiums to book value despite reporting single digit return on equity figures.  If this happens, Australia will be the exception to the rest of the world.  We don’t see why Australian banks are an exception as more people deleverage in the years ahead and property investors look beyond property for large capital gains”.  Ultimately the loan repayment deferrals will also need to be bought to account as well.

Williams said that in his discussions with company management, the key themes about the future were:

-       What happens at the end of the Government stimulus where retailers would appear most exposed.  

-       Opening up of state borders

-       Economic reform

With around 70% of companies either not issuing future earnings guidance or withdrawing earnings guidance, coupled with some market sectors trading on extremely high valuations, the job of assessing investment value is difficult.  The best opportunities ahead are less likely to be found in this years’ reporting season stars.  

 

This article was published in the Australian Financial Review during the month of September 2020.

Monday, 10 August 2020 14:03

Sustainable returns from Telco sector

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Telecommunication companies (Telcos) have been central to many of our activities during the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from virtual wine tasting nights with friends, working from home, Netflix binges or simply ringing family.

In recent years Telco’s have been challenging for investors with falling margins from mobiles and the NBN crushing broadband margins.  The worst of this may be behind the sector now and investors are now presented with an investment opportunity that may be COVID-19 proof.

An investment into a Telco company typically involves two main segments, infrastructure and retail/business operations which includes broadband, mobiles and services. .  

In Australia the three major players are Telstra, Optus and TPG which recently merged with Vodafone.  Telstra and TPG are listed on the ASX.

According to Andrew Peros (Deputy Head of Research, Ausbil) “infrastructure is probably the most attractive on the assumption that it can be successfully separated from the retail assets.  Telecommunications infrastructure provides a long term steady cash flow which is highly valued by the market.  Unfortunately, in Australia, there are no pure play communication tower investments.  Telstra’s communications infrastructure are currently part of the overall business and have not yet been demerged as a separate business, similarly with TPG’s cable infrastructure”

That may be about to change following a restructure announced last year which resulted in Telstra splitting its infrastructure assets into a separate business segment called InfraCo.  InfraCo consists of exchanges, ducts, data centres, subsea cables, fibre and 8,000 towers that host networking equipment.

Towers and other parts of InfraCo currently generate revenue from servicing Telstra alone.  If this division were separated from Telstra, these assets could increase revenue by servicing other Telcos.  A tower that currently services only Telstra could service all three mobile networks.  Competitors would have to supply their own networking gear, but the infrastructure owner could earn three times as much revenue. Mobile network towers are a natural monopoly and it makes little sense to duplicate a network once it has been constructed.  We don’t duplicate water pipes or electricity wires and the same can apply to mobile towers. This is an important opportunity for investors to grasp.

Annabel Riggs (Telco Analyst, Airlie Funds Management) is “attracted to the mobiles market, with the sector transitioning into a more rational pricing environment after a period of intense competition between network operators.  We are beginning to see evidence of a more rational market with Telstra lifting prices a couple of weeks ago across its post paid mobile plans.  This is positive for earnings and returns.”

5G is the next battle ground for the Telco’s.  Riggs believes that “network operators will selectively compete with the NBN in some areas by using a fixed wireless product.  The margins and returns on this product work if the customers are relatively low usage.  We have seen in New Zealand that about 20% of their broadband base is now on Fixed Wireless and bypassing their own version of the NBN.”

Peros adds “telcos are likely to hesitate on fixed wireless if competition between operators is expected to lower returns on capital, and there is a risk in Government support firming to protect the value of the NBN.”

Government regulation would seem one of the key risks to investing in the Telco sector.  The relatively high access costs the NBN charges the telco resellers for broadband is a good example.  Riggs points out that the NBN has improved its pricing model however the total cost of accessing the NBN for telcos is still much higher than the copper network.  The higher access costs to the NBN has put huge pressure on earnings of the telco sector.

The decision to ban Huawei from providing 5G equipment in Australia was another big decision.  Huawei was a lower cost equipment provider which will ultimately increase expenditure for TPG which was planning their 5G build around Huawei equipment.

Peros flags the economies of scale in a geographically large country with a small population as another important risk.  

Investors should also pay attention to some interesting new entrants.  Riggs points to Uniti Group who has recently acquired Opticom as having an interesting opportunity to challenge the large players in the fibre market.  Peros likes NextDC which owns data centres which will benefit from the increased demand for data now that a greater proportion of the workforce are working from home.

It would seem that Telco’s revenues are largely COVID-19 proof, but the growth story could come from the demerging of infrastructure and new entrants.

This article was published in the Australian Financial Review online on Monday 3rd August 2020

Note:  Mark Draper, Shannon Corcoran and their entities own shares in TPG and Telstra.

The investment team at Montgomery Investments have put together another informative report that covers various aspects of the current investment landscape.

In this report the team looks at:

- Is it time to get back in

- How should you think about cash?

- Looking through market volatility for opportunity

- 4 criteria to consider before buying shares in this market

 

To download your copy of this report, click on the report below.

 

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