September 25, 2020

James Hanbury (Odey) Long Plus500: Sohn London Conference

We're posting up notes from the Sohn London investment conference.  Next up is James Hanbury of Odey Asset Management who presented a long of Plus500 (LONG:PLUS).


James Hanbury's Sohn London Conference Presentation

Long Plus500 (LON: PLUS)

Plus500 is a CFD trading business. Its main competitors are IG Group, Saxo bank, CMC. It’s a fintech business and very much a technology company. In the last 3 years: revenue 38% CAGR, EPS 58% CAGR, EBIT margin 59%. It is best in class with a very high return on equity. Cash conversion has been excellent. At the IPO in 2013 they raised £22m in primary net proceeds. Since then, they have returned nearly £850m to shareholders, mainly in dividends. Over and above this, there is £200m excess cash on the balance sheet.

Can Plus500 keep generating this level of cash and what are the barriers to entry? Plus500 offer negative balance protection to all customers. As a customer with Plus500 you can use lots of leverage but not lose more than your deposit. The competition does not offer balance protection because it’s difficult and expensive requiring good risk control. Plus500 also offer spreads that are 10% to 15% inside other CFD brokers.

Hanbury said that you can tell a good disruptive business by its revenue / employee. Plus500 £1.5m/ employee compared to the two strongest competitors: IG Group £300,000/ employee and CMC£200,000/ employee.

Plus500 has good marketing. It has invested in machine learning and artificial intelligence to produce algorithms that place adverts on Google, Twitter and other web sites. It spends more on marketing in absolute terms than competitors and more as a percentage of sales. Even though they spend more on marketing their fixed costs are lower: Plus500 12%, IG Group 50%, CMC 60%. Plus500 has been taking market share every year. It is the market leader in the UK, Germany, Spain, Australia.

What are the risks? Plus500 has been hit by ESMA regulatory changes over the last year that have reduced customers’ ability to take on high levels of leverage. The European area represents 70% of its revenues. There are also similar regulatory changes taking place in Japan and Australia. Hanbury believes that in a tough regulatory environment the tough will get stronger and the weak will get weaker. Expect the number of operators to decline. Having less leverage will be better for customers. Since the ESMA changes, Plus500 have reported falling customer acquisition costs, churn has hit record lows and the win/lose ratio for customers has been improving.

Part of the bear case for Plus500 is that customers are often inappropriate, low value and don’t last long. However, the percentage of customers who have been with Plus500 for more than 1 year is high at 73%. Expect that number to improve further in the new regulatory environment.

It’s important to remember that one of the most important drivers of revenues for a CFD trading business is market volatility. Plus500 do well in difficult markets.

Another aspect of the bear case is that the business is high risk. Plus500 now has a full listing on the main market and has the best transparency in the industry. The market has not fully appreciated that it doesn’t hedge its positions. Instead they limit customers’ position sizes. They are very happy to have whale traders, but they don’t like single whale trades. Their profile of winning/ losing days is extremely impressive: 85% of days are winning days. They do have big losing days. The biggest one came on a day in the Crypto craze in Oct 2017 where they lost £3.5m. Hanbury’s view is that is easily coverable by the £200m cash on the balance sheet. When there are high levels of downside volatility, Plus500 tends to make back money that it has lost quickly because volatility stimulates activity elsewhere.

Plus500 has started to buy back stock. In the current market there is potential for them to make a good acquisition. They could move into new markets like stockbroking, ISAs and new geographies. It is the best business in the industry yet it has the cheapest valuation 2.3x EV/EBIT 2020. PE 5.3x 2020.


Be sure to check out the rest of the presentations from Sohn London conference 2019.

Brian Baldwin (Trian) Long Ferguson: Sohn London Conference

We're posting up notes from the Sohn London investment conference.  Next up is Brian Baldwin of Trian Fund Management who presented a long of Ferguson (LON: FERG).


Brian Baldwin's Sohn London Conference Presentation

Trian disclosed a 5.2% stake in Ferguson in June 2019. It’s an activist investment and Trian has been in discussions with the board and management. Trian is the largest shareholder.

Ferguson’s main business is selling parts for plumbing and heating (80% of profits). They also sell waterworks and fire protection products (20% of profits). They have 1700 branches and 11 distribution centres in the US.

Plumbing products distribution is an attractive business in the US. Trian likes businesses that provide products at a fair price to their customers. Ferguson’s products cost much less than the labour costs to install them. Eighty percent of sales are done through their branches. Ferguson has the scale to get good prices from suppliers. Its scale also allows it to provide a wide range of products (100,000SKUs) to meet plumbers’ need.

Ferguson has used this scale to take 3-4 percentage points of market share per year over the last nine years. Revenue has been growing at over 9% CAGR for the last five years. EBIT at 11% CAGR over the same period. It is the market leader with 20% market share. There is still room for growth.

Ferguson announced that the remaining part of the UK business, Wolseley, would be divested just weeks after Trian disclosed their stake. At the same time, the CEO was replaced by the head of the US business, Kevin Murphy.

While the US business is a leader in a fragmented market the UK business operates in a less attractive consolidated market with several large players. Once Wolseley has been sold off, Ferguson will be a completely US business.

Ferguson’s main listing is on the London Stock Exchange. The company is not well known by US investors and is under-owned by US institutions. Trian are pressing for a listing on the NASDAQ.  European analysts misunderstand Ferguson because they focus too much on the UK operations.

Ferguson should be compared to other specialty distributors in the US. If Ferguson was listed in the US and traded in line with other specialty distributors its shares that sell for £68 today could be worth £105.


Be sure to check out the rest of the presentations from Sohn London conference 2019.

Notes From Sohn London Investment Conference 2019

Below are links to notes from the recent Sohn London Investment Conference 2019 which featured investment managers sharing ideas to benefit charity.


Sohn London Conference Notes 2019

- Brian Baldwin (Trian Fund Management): Long Ferguson

- James Hanbury (Odey Asset Management): Long Plus500

- Catherine Berjal (CIAM): Long Accor

- Jason Ader (SpringOwl Asset Management): Long Playtec

- Per Johansson (Bodenholm Capital): Long LivaNova, Short Koenig and Bauer

- Tamas Eisenberger (Sikra Capital): Long Star Bulk Carriers & Scorpio Tankers

- Måns Larsson (Makuria): Short ICA Gruppen

- Arnaud Langlois (1798 TerreNeuve Fund): Short Air Products & Chemicals

- Lucy Macdonald (Allianz): Long Bloomsbury Publishing

- Fadi Arbid (Amwal Capital): Short Kuwait Finance House, long Ahli United Bank

- Pieter Taselaar (Lucerne Capital): Long Altice Europe (apologies, no notes from this one)

Oddball Stocks Newsletter – Also Available à La Carte

Just a quick note that there are two different ways to become a true Oddball: subscribe to the Oddball Stocks Newsletter, or purchase one of the limited number of back Issues that we have published à la carte.

You can see a full list of à la carte Issues, but they are Issues 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, and 26. We just published Issue 27 to subscribers, but that will not be available without a subscription for a while.

Some comments from happy subscribers:
  • "You need to raise the price!"
  • "I think you guys are selling yourself short on your company visits. Saying that you are visiting or reporting from a company in your marketing, doesn’t give justice to the insight and analysis you are providing."
  • "The quality of the writing (even including your new contributors) is really top-drawer."
  • "Great newsletter! - you guys are either providing too much info or not charging enough..."
We also posted some excerpts to give a taste of the Oddball writing and coverage style - but just remember that the most interesting content is for subscribers only. The excerpts were on Tower Properties, Bank of Utica, small banks, Avalon Holdings, Boston Sand and Gravel, Conrad Industries, and Sitestar / Enterprise Diversified.

And also see this post for what's been going on in the Oddball Universe.

Just Published: Issue 27 of the Oddball Stocks Newsletter

Happy Thanksgiving to all Oddballs! We just published Issue 27 of the Newsletter. If you are a subscriber, it should be in your inbox right now. If not, you can sign up right here.

Also, a lot has been going on in the Oddball universe. Some blog posts to catch up on:

Malone Interview (CNBC), Iger Book, Bubble Watch

People keep talking about how crazy the market is, up more than 25% this year. It's a big year to be sure. But on the the other hand, even though the market has been decent in recent years, it hasn't been particularly bubblicious.

To put the 25% return into context, I think it's a good idea to look at it over 2 years or 3 years.  Since the end of 2017, for example, the market has return an annualized 8.4%/year.  Pretty good to be sure.  Since the end of 2016, its up around 12%/year.  Going back five years, it's up 8.8%/year (these figures exclude dividends).

Not bad at all, but not bubble-like either. If you were going to train an AI machine to look for bubbles, you would look at valuations (interest rate adjusted), sentiment etc. But one of the biggest factors that I would include would be historical returns over various time frames; strong performance reinforces the positive loop of increasing positive sentiment -> higher prices -> better-looking historical returns -> increasing optimism and 'proof' (both statistical and social) of the greatness of stocks etc.

The 10-year return is 10.9%/year, but that's off a depressed level due to the great recession. Over 20 years, the market has gone up only 4%/year.

Here is a table of the S&P 500 index change over various time periods.

S&P 500 Annualized Returns Through November 2019 (excl. dvd)

1-year return:    25.30%
2-year return:      8.39%
3-year return:    11.95%
4-year return:    11.34%
5-year return:      8.81%
10-year return:  10.91%
20-year return:    3.87%
30-year return:    7.55%
50-year return:    7.31%

S&P 500 Annualized Returns Through December 1999 (excl dvd)

1-year return:   19.53%
2-year return:   23.05%
3-year return:   25.64%
4-year return:   24.28%
5-year return:   26.18%
10-year return: 15.31%
20-year return: 13.95%
30-year return:   9.67%
50-year return:   9.36%


This is pretty insane. The annualized return over 5 years to December 1999 was 26%! And we are sort of freaking out that the market is up over 25% year-to-date in a single year, and not even double digits annualized over 2 years.

So anyway, that's why it doesn't really feel like a bubble. People aren't quitting their jobs (to trade stocks), buying new cars (with their capital gains), bigger houses and things like that we saw back in 2000. Most people I talk to still tend to hate stocks, the financial crisis still fresh in their minds.


Iger Book

I just finished the Iger book, and it was also a pretty great read. Iger seems like a genuinely nice guy. CEO's tend to have an image of not being nice guys, so it's great to see someone like him make it to the top. It's possible to be decent, honest and honorable and still do well.

Buffett did mention DIS as one of the well-managed companies (along with GE at one point); his relationship with DIS goes back to when DIS bought Capital Cities during the Eisner years (and Iger was working for Thomas Murphy / Dan Burke). And I think it goes even further back than that, actually.

It's fascinating to read about the events that we've been reading about in the newspapers from the people that were involved. This one involves Buffett / Murphy / Burke, Steve Jobs, George Lucas, Pixar and a lot of what is going on in media today. This connects (unintended) to the Malone interview below.

Anyway, this book is a quick read so go get it. By the way, I have not subscribed to Disney+ yet as I am big into Netflix and there is just so much stuff there that I can barely scratch the surface of what I want to watch (by the time I cancelled the DVD part of my Netflix subscription, I had more than 400 DVD's in the queue). My favorite things are the European cop dramas (French, Belgian, German, Norwegian etc.), the Indian and Japanese shows, and of course many U.S.-based shows too. I just watched The Irishman which is really good (creepy is the special effects to make these close-to-80 year olds look middle-aged), but at the same time I also thought, gee, do we really need another wise-guy movie?

OTT Tangent
People keep talking about the competition in direct-to-consumer streaming and how increasing competition will hurt Netflix etc. This is probably true to some extent; when Netflix was the only game in town, that's one thing, but with many participants jumping in, that's another story altogether.

On the other hand, when you think about it, this is not really an either-or world. People aren't going to sit there and debate whether to switch from Netflix to Disney+ or Apple. Netflix charges $14/month or some such thing, and Disney+ is even cheaper.

A lot of people are still paying $100/month or more for the conventional video package ( I dropped that a couple of years ago mostly because I don't watch most of the channels (ESPN, for example), but what bothered me even more was that they were charging me $14/month for each cable box in the house, which seemed ridiculous to me. Those things can't cost more than $100 (look at Roku at $20; and if it actually does cost more than $100, it's for functionality that I don't need), and they are charging $14/month forever; this makes absolutely no sense.

If you cut the chord, you have $100/month in video budget you can allocate (you still need to pay for the internet), so you can have Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, HBO and a few other things and still be under $100...


Malone Interview
There are a few annual events that are really exciting to me. Of course the Berkshire annual meeting (I just watch the video later), annual report, JPM annual report etc.

And another one of those is the CNBC John Malone interview by David Faber. Faber is one of the few people (of the reporters/anchors), if not the only one, who seems to understand the market and business.

Anyway, I jotted down some notes while watching the recent interview (done during the Liberty Media investor day). This is not everything, though, but a large part of it. He also talked about regulation, GOOG etc, for example, so go check out the video.

Here are Malone's thoughts on various topics:

Who is best positioned in streaming right now?
Malone answered by rephrasing the question to, "Who will be around in five years?"
Disney and Netflix.

DIS
Disney has great content, a great global brand, but doesn't have a large direct relationship with customers so must piggy back on those who do, like Verizon.

NFLX
Netflix, so far in the lead, good base / revenue stream.

AAPL
Apple may surprise. Slim content, but has great distribution in their direct customer relationships. They offer free for one year to buyers of AAPL products etc...
AAPL has optionality; see how it goes and decide how much they want to spend (how much they can afford).

HBO, AMZN
HBO is a decent service, but doesn't have the revenue stream to match Netflix.
AMZN has a totally different monetization strategy so... not primary biz.
Content is for marketing. AMZN may evolve to become a bundler of others' content

Tech companies want to be the platform, get info on customers, be gateway,
let others waste money on content.

DIS will be successful.

Direct relationship w/ customer in scale with growth and pricing power is a powerful business model.
DIS knows they need direct consumer relationship.

HBO Max: HBO content budget was $2bn/year.
If you want HBO, you already have it, so not much gain in new customers in the U.S.?   Malone doesn't see the growth. Maybe even attrition.
HBO budget is not enough to protect for the long term.  Takes years to develop content internationally. Don't own rights to intl distribution.  Problem seeing scale at HBO to get to top of direct consumer biz.  HBO is the same as it's been for 25 years. If you want it, you already have it so where is the growth?HBO may capture wholesale spread (as big bundle moves to direct).

ATT will face challenges. Historically has been the biggest dog in every fight, but not now, and not in this space (streaming media). About scale and globality. Need global scale, or won't get enough scale to compete in this space. This will be the challenge for ATT, HBO. FANG companies are all global. If you're only in the U.S., how do you compete?

Sports is glue that keeps big bundle together... will eventually blow up. Not sure when... big bundle still overpriced due to sports content...

Content Cost
At some point, hail Mary passes for some will prove to not be working so content cost will moderate. Some will fail (and stop spending) etc...

NFLX will have to moderate spend at some point.  Bundling of these services will happen too. Distributors may bundle too, if it reduces churn etc... will evolve like traditional cable. Comcast offers Netflix etc.

Cord cutting will level off. Erosion won't stop completely, though...

Cutting video increases margins at cable companies as margins for broadband is higher. Happening naturally.

Satellite will end up serving people with no other options, rural etc.

Linear TV will lose subscribers, ads, but as you get direct relationships, value of ads go up as you know more about customers.  Ad rev potential goes up; more focused ads etc.  Have to fight decline in reach due to decline of big bundle.  Provide content direct through app and sell content to others etc. Random access via app; if you subscribe to Discovery Channel, you get stuff through app too (not everything).

Cable industry changed when congress changed retransmission constraints; Margins started to go down. Content providers were able to extract more and more...

Will be profitable for people with unique situations, consistent, stable demand, pricing power, level of uniqueness...  those businesses ultimately gets regulated. 

Discovery
Discovery owns content globally, generating free cash, need to migrate to direct to consumer.
Malone bought more stock this week (November 2019).  Discovery will solve issues. Stock is dramatically undervalued. Malone bought $75 mn worth of stock. Growing, generating free cash. Market cap to levered free cash flow, cheapest on screen... They own all their content, generates tons of cash, investment grade b/s, they are growing while others are shrinking (5.5x cash flow). Cheap for good company...
Malone paid $28.03/share. 

CBS/VIA
They have no global presence. Lot of content is bought. CBS is totally dependent on sports rights so not sure about long-term profitability.  Not sure if CBS has enough power to carry all the channels.
VIA underinvested for many years, bought back stock at high prices, tactical mistake.
How important is MTV, Nickleodean to distributors? Question sustainability of model, and also they are U.S. only.

Yes, stock is historically cheap, but...  licensing out content to others. Ice cube melts faster when you don't put content on your own channel.

CBS/VIA needs to get global for long term sustainability. Find niche, glue to make customers sticky. Something unique.

Lions Gate
Sold LionsGate; didn't see them execute strategy of using library/content to drive Starrs. They focused too much on selling content instead of driving their own distribution.

Need global scale, or niche in small area that big guys don't care about to survive.

Wired and Wireless Together
Liberty Global followed strategy based on belief that combination of wired and wireless would lead to synergies. Turned out to be true.  Belgium, Holland (combined with Vodaphone).  Once they built scale, they were able to acquire. Synergies were real and very substantial.

In U.S, for Charter, same idea. Keep growing until they understand the economics of a combination. At the moment, not far along enough on that path.  Once scale is achieved, think about building own network. Hybrid tranmission over time. Could be joint ventures, mergers etc.

Malone interested in Altice, but Patrick wants control etc...

Uber
Not an expert, but doesn't understand Uber, how is scale going to make it profitable? Like selling hot dogs at a loss and making it up in volume. Can't see how scale changes economics. Can't understand why Dara took job.

Politics
Worries about attack on success and wealth in this country.
Worries about where country is going.

If Warren wins, wealth destruction will exceed wealth transfer.  Has places in Ireland, Canada, Bahamas etc... (that he can escape to),  but Malone rather stay here, be optimistic about balance.

Malone is Libertarian, would vote for Bloomberg.

Trump has right strategy, but not the right guy; he doesn't build a team. A lot of people that worked for him trying to take him down now. 

Enterprise Diversified, Inc. v. Woodmont Lexington, LLC

Previously regarding Sitestar (now known as Enterprise Diversified or ENDI but still trading as SYTE), we had a post in 2016 about the activist takeover as well as an interview in Oddball Stocks Newsletter with the new management.

The company put out an 8-K today regarding a dispute with (and lawsuit filed against) the manager that took control of Mt. Melrose, LLC (its divested real estate division in Lexington, Kentucky) in July:
This morning, Wednesday, November 20, 2019, Enterprise Diversified, Inc. (the “Company”) filed a verified complaint in the Court of Chancery of the State of Delaware commencing a civil action against Woodmont Lexington, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company (“Woodmont”).

As previously reported in the Company’s Current Report on Form 8-K filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on July 3, 2019, the Company had sold to Woodmont, on June 27, 2019, 65% of the Company’s membership interest in Mt Melrose, LLC, a Delaware limited liability company (“Mt Melrose”), which, as has been previously reported, owns and operates a portfolio of income-producing real estate in Lexington, Kentucky. Since the closing of the Mt Melrose transaction, Woodmont, by its representative, Tice Brown, has made repeated offers to buy out the Company’s remaining interest in Mt Melrose. Woodmont’s most recent offer was received by the Company, in writing, on November 11, 2019, with a deadline for acceptance of 9:00 a.m. Monday, November 18, 2019. All such offers have been rejected or not responded to by the Company, as being unfavorable, undesirable and not in the long-term best interests of the Company and its shareholders.

The present action was filed by the Company in response to repeated claims and demands and injurious conduct by Woodmont and its representative, Tice Brown. The Company is seeking, among other relief available, injunctive, declaratory and equitable relief against Woodmont, along with attorneys’ fees and expenses.
The LLC agreement between Woodmont Lexington, LLC and Enterprise Diversified, Inc. is available as an exhibit here. And here is the most recent investor presentation of ENDI, from November 14th.

The docket shows that Enterprise Diversified has filed a Verified Complaint for Injunctive Relief (Confidential Filing), a Motion for Temporary Restraining Order, and a Motion for Expedited Proceedings, as well as a Brief in Support of those Motions, plus various other documents like proposed Orders. Some of these documents were filed under seal, but the two motions can be seen below:

The case is currently assigned to Delaware Court of Chancery Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster. We read a lot of his decisions for the "Delaware Chancery Corner" section of the Oddball Stocks Newsletter - he is extremely sharp. 

Life Insurance Company of Alabama

Life Insurance Company of Alabama (LICOA) is a micro cap insurance company with two share classes, one of which (LINS, the fully voting shares) trades at a modest (~20%) discount to book value and the other of which (LINSA, with limited voting rights) trades at a gigantic (>50%) discount to book value. Note that in addition to the voting rights difference, the LINS shares have 5x the economic interest of the LINSA shares.

The company was written up on Value Investors Club and the story is broadly the same as it was then. Despite the big gap between the trading price and book value per share, management is not buying back any stock, and the valuation gap is not closing.

The State of Alabama Department of Insurance periodically examines the insurance companies that are licensed there and publishes a report about them. It is a report that is very helpful for gleaning more information about an insurance company, and helps fill in the gaps between what is in LICOA's bare-bones annual report or even in its annual and quarterly statements filed with the NAIC.

The old reports are not available on the Department of Insurance website, but they are available to anyone who writes in and asks for them. (And pays $1 per page.) The examination report on LICOA from May 2005 has some interesting revelations on the conduct of the family that controls and manages the company:

“It was noted that Rosalie F. Renfrow was hired as a management trainee in September 2002. Ms. Renfrow is the daughter of Raymond Rudolph Renfrom, Jr., a director, officer and stockholder of the Company and Anne Daugette Renfrow, a director of the Company. Ms. Renfrow's monthly salary for 2002, 2003 and 2004 was $1,900, $2,000 and $2,300, respectively, with her salary being increased in September of each year. Ms. Renfrow is also receiving a monthly automobile allowance. This allowance was $300 per month in January and February 2003 and increased to $550 per month for the remainder of the examination period. Ms. Renfrow did not keep regular business hours at the Company – it was noted by examiners that she was routinely not in the office.”

“Company management is not avoiding the appearance of impropriety. If Ms. Renfrow is being developed for a managerial position, she needs a defined job and training program. Due to nepotism within the Company, the Company's President should either actively supervise the training (before it happens, while it is happening, and after the fact) or delegate it where possible. Ms. Renfrow should report to the manager of each department in which she is training. The examiners find it highly unusual that a recent college graduate would be allowed to set their own schedule while receiving a full-time management salary. The preceding report of examination noted an issue with nepotism and this issue stands to harm the Company due to potential shareholder and/or policyholder lawsuits. It is imperative that the Company avoid the appearance of impropriety with the payment of salaries to family members. Ms. Renfrow should maintain working hours comparable to other employees of the Company and report to someone other than her father, Mr. Raymond Renfrow, in order to avoid internal control weaknesses and the appearances of improprieties.”

It is pretty amazing to see a report by a state regulator pointing out behavior by small company management that could cause "shareholder lawsuits". For one thing, only a certain subset of companies have their operations holistically assessed by a regulator: banks and insurance companies are two. And even then, the reports by bank regulators are not usually going to be seen by investors.

One wonders what was in the "preceding report of examination" as well? Meanwhile, here is the full report from 2003 as well as an excerpt with the section called "Other Compensation Issues".