Insurers keep on swinging

In a previous post, I compared the M&A action in the reinsurance and specialty insurance space to a rush for the bowl of keys in a swingers party. Well, the ACE/Chubb deal has brought the party to a new level where anything seems possible. The only rule now seems to be a size restriction to avoid a G-SIFI label (although MetLife and certain US stakeholders are fighting to water down those proposals for insurers).

I expanded the number of insurers in my pool for an update of the tangible book multiples (see previous post from December) as per the graphic below. As always, these figures come with a health warning in that care needs to be taken when comparing US, European and UK firms due to the differing accounting treatment (for example I have kept the present value of future profits as a tangible item). I estimated the 2015 ROE based upon Q1 results and my view of the current market for the 2011 to 2015 average.

click to enlargeReinsurers & Specialty Insurers NTA Multiples July 2015

I am not knowledgeable enough to speculate on who may be the most likely next couplings (for what its worth, regular readers will know I think Lancashire will be a target at some stage). This article outlines who Eamonn Flanagan at Shore Capital thinks is next, with Amlin being his top pick. What is clear is that the valuation of many players is primarily based upon their M&A potential rather than the underlying operating results given pricing in the market. Reinsurance pricing seems to have stabilised although I suspect policy terms & conditions remains an area of concern. On the commercial insurance side, reports from market participants like Lockton (see here) and Towers Watson (see graph below) show an ever competitive market.

click to enlargeCommercial Lines Insurance Pricing Survey Towers Watson Q1 2015

Experience has thought me that pricing is the key to future results for insurers and, although the market is much more disciplined than the late 1990s, I think many will be lucky to produce double-digit ROEs in the near term on an accident year basis (beware those dipping too much into the reserve pot!).

I am also nervous about the amount of unrealised gains which are inflating book values that may reverse when interest rates rise. For example, unrealised gains make up 8%, 13% and 18% of the Hartford, Zurich, and Swiss Re’s book value respectively as at Q1. So investing primarily to pick up an M&A premium seems like a mugs game to me in the current market.

M&A obviously brings considerable execution risk which may result in one plus one not equalling two. Accepting that the financial crisis hit the big guys like AIG and Hartford pretty hard, the graph below suggests that being too big may not be beautiful where average ROE (and by extension, market valuation) is the metric for beauty.

click to enlargeIs big beautiful in insurance

In fact, the graph above suggests that the $15-$25 billion range in terms of premiums may be the sweet spot for ROE. Staying as a specialist in the $2-7 billion premium range may have worked in the past but, I suspect, will be harder to replicate in the future.

Exabyte Zenith

There is a sense of déjà vu when you read about the competing plans of Greg Wyler’s OneWeb and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build a network of low earth orbit satellites to provide cheap broadband across the globe over the next few years. Memories of past failures from the late 1990s telecom bubble come to mind with these network plans. Names like Iridium, GlobalStar, Teledesic, and SkyBridge. Maybe, this time, the dreamers with access to billions can get it right!

You never know, there may even be a comeback for broadband over power-lines (not likely according to this article)!

I did come across the latest figures from Cisco in their “ The Zettabyte Era – Trends and Analysis” piece, as previously referenced in this post. As a reminder, gigabyte/terabyte/petabyte/exabyte/zettabyte/yottabyte is a kilobyte to the power of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 respectively. Cisco continues to predict a tripling of global IP traffic from 2014 to 2019. The graphics below give some colour on the detail behind the predictions.

Split by consumer and business traffic with each further split by traffic type. Unsurprisingly consumer video traffic is dominating the consumer 24% CAGR.

click to enlargeGlobal IP Traffic 2015 projections

Growth in the US, Asia and Europe is driving the impressive 29% metro CAGR whilst Asia Pacific traffic is the prime driver for long-haul growth.

click to enlargeGlobal IP Metro LongHaul Traffic 2015 projections

The split by region shows the status quo will be maintained in terms of traffic breakdown with Central/Eastern Europe and the Middle East /Africa regions projected to have growth rates of 30%+ and 40%+ respectively as opposed to approx 20% in the main markets.

click to enlargeGlobal IP Traffic Geographical Split

Exabytes are reaching their zenith and by next year global IP traffic is predicted to exceed a zettabyte.

Fidelity’s clever move on COLT

On Friday, Fidelity made a 190 pence offer, which is a 21% premium to the previous day’s close, for the approximately third of COLT that it doesn’t own. After years of underperformance and a series of restruturings, COLT has been long looking for a positive future. It bought the smaller Fidelity owned Asian carrier KVH last year (see previous posts here and here). COLT’s core European business has been slowly moving to higher growth and margin data and network business, as the graph below shows.

click to enlargeCOLT Telecom Revenue & EBITDA Margin 2006 to est2016

Fidelity’s offer values the debt-free business at £1.7 billion (or €2.4 billion or $2.7 billion at current FX rates) which I estimate to be 7 times 2015 EBITDA or 6.44 times 2016 EBITDA estimates (assuming 2015 EBITDA of €335 million and a 2016 10% EBITDA YoY growth). The independent directors have called the offer too low but haven’t made a recommendation due to the lack of options for minority shareholders.

From Fidelity’s viewpoint, this looks like a clever move to force any likely bidders out into the open or, failing any bidders emerging, to take the firm fully private at an attractive price. Robert Powell over at telecomramblings speculates that other European carriers such as Interroute or the US based Level 3 may be possible bidders. It will be fascinating to see how this one plays out.

Gambling Problems

It has been about 6 months since I posted on the gambling and gaming sector (also earlier here) and there has been a lot going on. BWIN, after being on the block for some time, is closing in on a sale of its business with 888 and GCV (in conjunction with PokerStars and FullTilt owner Amaya) the speculated favourites. 888 itself rejected an offer from William Hill earlier in February this year. Meanwhile, Betfair and PaddyPower opted to return their cash piles of £200 million and €440 million respectively to shareholders rather than get involved in any M&A.

Ladbrokes, after a series of poor results, promoted the digital head Jim Mullen to CEO who is currently involved in a route and branch review of the firm with the outcome due to announced in June. His first move was to put the Irish business into examinership. Ladbrokes woes have continued with poor gambling Q1 results, continuing a run of bad luck after a disastrous boxing day football gross loss, as the exhibit below shows.

click to enlarge2014 Boxing Day 11 standard deviations

As can be seen by the graph below, Breon Corcoran’s rehabilitation of Betfair’s exchange model has resulted in an outstanding performance with a near doubling of the stock. The ex-Paddy Power executive has delivered on his plans for the betting exchange (as detailed in this post). [Update: Numis just released a note on Betfair’s rich valuation as per this article.] The tiny casino player 32Red has also had a good run due to solid 2014 results and M&A speculation.

click to enlargeShare Price 6months to May 2015 William Hill Ladbrokes Paddy Power Betfair 888 BWIN 32red

Internal candidates in William Hill and Paddy Power, James Henderson and Andy McCue respectively, also took over the CEO role.

The challenges for the sector are considerable. In the UK, the point of consumption (POC) tax of 15% has been in force in the UK since December and a new 25% rate of Machine Games Duty (MGD) applied from the 1st of March. Uncertain regulation across Europe and the lack of traction in opening of US markets are other headwinds.

Operator’s ability to reduce pay-outs to punters to counter tax increases is restricted by the competitive nature of the market, particularly online as the graph below on gross win percentages illustrates.

click to enlargeOnline Sportsbook Gross Win Percentage

Taking the commentary from the operators on the impact of increased taxes, I estimated the likely impact on net margins for a number of firms (as the graph below shows).

click to enlargeNet Margin estimates to 2015 gambling firms

The market is giving Betfair and Paddy Power credit for their recent revenue growth, strong operating results, product development and strong mobile adoption. Based upon my estimates, both trade on a 2015 PE in the low 30’s.

click to enlargeMarket valuations gambling firms

A brief review of the business profile of a selection of firms illustrates the differing models, as per the exhibits below.

click to enlargeGambling Sector Revenue Split & EBITDA estimates

click to enlargeGambling Sector Revenue Geographical Split 2015

It will be fascinating to see how the remainder of 2015 plays out for this sector. Scale is undoubting going to be a strength for firms in the future. What the large UK operators, Ladbrokes and William Hill, will do to counter headwinds will be intriguing. Although there is nothing to suggest it is remotely likely, it occurs to me that a tie-up between Paddy Power and Betfair would make a powerful combination.

Disappointing TRIB

Every investor knows the feeling of wondering what to do when a stock they have invested in falls unexpectedly in value. Although some may not be aware of the term “disposition effect” in behavioural economics, it reflects the widely observed tendency of investors to ride losses and lock in gains (a previous post touched on more behaviour economic concepts). I have been guilty in the past of just such a tendency, all too often I’m afraid! Bitter experience, maturity and the advice of many successful professional investors has caused me to now try to proactively act against such instincts. [On the latter point, the books of Jack Schwager and Steven Drobny with wide ranging professional investor interviews are must reads.]

Averaging down when a stock you hold falls, particularly when there is no obvious explanation, is another strategy that rarely ends well. Instead of looking at the situation as an opportunity to buy more of a stock at a reduced price, I now question why I would invest more in a situation that I have clearly misread. I only allow myself to consider averaging down where I clearly understand the reason behind any decrease and where the market itself has reduced (for the sector or as a whole). Experience has taught me that focusing on reducing the losers is critical to longer term success. Paul Tudor Jones put it well when he said: “I am always thinking about losing money as opposed to making money”.

This brings me to the case in point of my investment in Trinity Biotech (TRIB). I first posted about TRIB in September 2013 (here) where I looked at the history of the firm and concluded that “TRIB is a quality company with hard won experiences and an exciting product pipeline” but “it’s a pity about the frothy valuation” (the stock was trading around $19 at the time). The exciting pipeline included autoimmune products from the Immco acquisition, the launch of the new Premier diabetes instruments from the Primus acquisition, and the blockbuster potential of Troponin point-of-care cardiac tests going through FDA trials from the Fiomi deal.

Almost immediately after the September 2013 post, the stock climbed to a high of over $27 in Q1 2014, amidst some volatility. Fidelity built its position to over 12% during this time (I don’t know if that was on its own behalf or for an investor) before proceeding to dump its position over the remainder of 2014. This may simply have been a build up and a subsequent unwinding of an inverse tax play which was in, and then out, of vogue at the time. The rise of the stock after my over-valued call may have had a subconscious impact on my future actions.

By August 2014, the stock traded around the low $20s after results showed a slightly reduced EPS on lower Lyme sales and reduced gross margins on higher Premier instrument sales and lagging higher margin reagent sales. Thinking that the selling pressure had stopped after a drop by TRIB from the high $20 level to the low $20s, I revised my assessment (here) and established an initial position in TRIB around $21 on the basis of a pick-up in operating results from the acquisitions in future quarters plus the $8-$10 a share embedded option estimated by analysts on a successful outcome of the Troponin trials. As a follow-on post in October admitted, my timing in August was way off as the stock continued its downward path through September and October.

With the announcement of a suspension of the FDA Troponin trials in late October due to unreliable chemical agent supplied by a 3rd party, the stock headed towards $16 at the end of October. Despite my public admission of mistiming on TRIB in the October post and my proclamations of discipline in the introduction to this post, I made a classic investing mistake at this point: I did nothing. As the trading psychologist Dr Van Tharp put it: “a common decision that people make under stress is not to decide”. After a period of indecision, some positive news on a CLIA waiver of rapid syphilis test in December combined with the strength of the dollar cut my losses on paper so I eventually sold half my position at a small loss at the end of January. I would like to claim this was due to my disciplined approach but, in reality, it was primarily due to luck given the dollar move.

Further positive news on the resumption of the Troponin trials in February, despite pushing out the timing of any FDA approval, was damped by disappointing Q4 results with lacklustre operating results (GM reduction, revenue pressures on legacy products). The continued rise in the dollar again cushioned my paper loss.  It wasn’t until TRIB announced and closed a $115 million exchangeable debt offering in April that I started to get really concerned (my thoughts on convertible debt are in this post) about the impact such debt can have on shareholder value. I decided to wait until the Q1 call at the end of April to see what TRIB’s rationale was for the debt issuance (both the timing and the debt type). I was dissatisfied with the firm’s explanation on the use of funds (no M&A target has been yet identified) and when TRIB traded sharply down last week, I eventually acted and sold all of my remaining position around $16 per share, an approximate 15% loss in € terms after the benefits on the dollar strength. The graph below illustrates the events of the recent past.

click to enlargeTRIB Share Price + Short Interest

My experience with TRIB only re-enforces the need to be disciplined in cutting losses early. On the positive side, I did scale into the position (I only initially invested a third of my allocation) and avoided the pitfall of averaging down. Joe Vidich of Manalapan Oracle Capital Management puts it well by highlighting the need for strong risk management in relation to the importance of position sizing and scaling into and out of positions when he said “the idea is don’t try to be 100% right”. Although my inaction was tempered by the dollar strength, the reality is that I should have cut my losses at the time of the October post. Eventually, I forced myself into action by strict portfolio management when faced with a market currently stretched valuation wise, as my previous post hightlights.

As for TRIB, I can now look at its development from a detached perspective without the emotional baggage of trying to justify an investment mistake. The analysts have being progressively downgrading their EPS estimates over recent months with the average EPS estimates now at $0.16 and $0.69 for Q2 and FY2015 respectively. My estimates (excluding and including the P&L cost of the new debt of $6.3 million per year, as per the management estimate on the Q1 call) are in the graph below.

click to enlargeTRIB Quarterly Revenue+EPS 2011 to Q42015

In terms of the prospects for TRIB in the short term, I am concerned about the lack of progress on the operational results from the acquisitions of recent years and the risks (timing and costs) associated with the Troponin approval. I also do not believe management should be looking at further M&A until they address the current issues (unless they have a compelling target). The cost of the debt will negatively impact EPS in 2015. One cynical explanation for the timing on the debt issuance is that management need to find new revenues to counter weakness in legacy products that can no longer be ignored. Longer term TRIB may have a positive future, it may even climb from last week’s low over the coming weeks. That’s not my concern anymore, I am much happier to take my loss and watch it from the side-lines for now.

Ray Dalio of Brightwater has consistently stressed the need to learn from investing mistakes: “whilst most others seem to believe that mistakes are bad things, I believe mistakes are good things because I believe that most learning comes via making mistakes and reflecting on them”. This post is my reflection on my timing on TRIB, my inaction in the face of a falling position, and my current perspective on TRIB as an investment (now hopefully free of any emotive bias!).