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!).

Sell in May and go away…

This week has been a volatile one on the markets with much of the week’s losses being regained after a “goldilocks” jobs number on Friday. Janet Yellen chipped in with the statement that “equity market values at this point generally are quite high” which resulted in the debates about market valuation been rehashed on the airwaves through the week.

My thoughts on the arguments were last aired in this post. I believe there is merit to the arguments that historical data needs to be normalized to take into account changes in business models within the S&P500 and the impact of changes in profit margins. Yield hungry investors and the lack of alternatives remain strong supports to the market, particularly given the current thinking on when US interest rate rises will begin. Adjustments on historical data such as those proposed by Philosophical Economics in this post make sense to me (although it’s noteworthy he concludes that the market is overvalued despite such adjustments).

Shiller’s latest PE10 metric (adjusted for inflation by the CPI) is currently over 27, about 38% above the average since 1960, as per the graph below.

click to enlargeCAPE PE10 1960 to May2015

I tend to put a lot of stock in the forward PE ratio due to the importance of projected EPS over the next 12 months in this market’s sentiment. Yardeni have some interesting statistics on forward PE metrics by sector in their recent report. Factset also have an interesting report and the graph below from it shows the S&P500 trading just below a 17 multiple.

click to enlargeForward 12 month PE S&P500 May2015

Recently I have become more cautious and the past week’s volatility has caused me to again review my portfolio with a ruthless eye on cutting those positions where my conviction against current valuation is weakest. Making investment decisions based upon what month it is can be justifiably called asinine and the graph below shows that the adage about going away in May hasn’t been a profitable move in recent years.

click to enlarge5 year S&P500 go away in May

However my bearishness is not based upon the calendar month; it’s about valuation and the nervousness I see in the market. To paraphrase a far wiser man than me, all I bring to the table is over 20 years of mistakes. Right now, I would far rather make the mistake of over-caution than passivity.

Inhibiting Derivatives

The array and complexity of new financial regulation in response to the financial crisis can have unforeseen impacts. A reduction in the liquidity of the bond markets today compared to before the crisis is commonly explained as a result of increased regulation of the banking sector.

A report by International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) in 2013 highlighted the impact of the regulatory push, following a G20 direction in 2009, for the OTC derivatives markets to be cleared through central counterparties (CCPs), thereby creating a potential for systemic counterparty risk (as per this post). The idea was to provide a centralised clearing point per asset class with the goal of increasing transparency and providing regulators with consistent data across borders to monitor.

The reality today is somewhat different that the theory. Many competing repositories have sprung up with the commercial intend of leveraging the valuable data. David Wright, the Secretary General of IOSCO, recently stated “we’ve got 25 of these beasts today and they don’t talk to each other, so a basic fundamental trawl of transparency is actually missing”. Regulators are stressing the need for further reform so that data can be aggregated to improve monitoring and, in February, issued requirements on CCPs to disclose information on topics such as the size of their credit risk, liquidity risk, collateral, margins, business risk, custody, and investment risks

Benoît Cœuré, a member of the Executive Board of the ECB, said in a speech this month that “the gross notional outstanding amount of centrally cleared positions was estimated at $169 trillion for OTC interest rate derivatives, and at $14 trillion for credit derivatives. The sheer magnitude of these figures (around ten times the GDP of the United States or European Union) gives us an idea of the severity of the potential consequences from a stress event at a major global CCP”.

Cœuré outlined a number of options for strengthening the financial resilience of CCPs including increased regulatory capital, initial margin haircutting, setting up cross-CCP resolution funds or a central resolution fund. Any such measures would have to be consistently applied across jurisdictions to ensure fairness and designed so as not to provide a disincentive to using CCPs.

In March, the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) and IOSCO announced a delay until September 2016 for the introduction of margin requirements for non-centrally cleared derivatives (above certain thresholds and subject to exemptions). The proposed margin requirements are split between initial and variable, with the initial margin phased in from September 2016 to September 2020 and the variation margin phased in from September 2016 to March 2017.

The amount of initial margin reflects the size of the potential future exposure calculated “to reflect an extreme but plausible estimate of an increase in the value of the instrument that is consistent with a one-tailed 99 per cent confidence interval over a 10-day horizon, based on historical data that incorporates a period of significant financial stress”. The required amount of initial margin is calculated by reference to either a quantitative portfolio margin model or a standardised margin schedule (as per the schedule below). The requirements also prohibit the re-hypothecation of initial margin required to be collected and posted under the rules.

click to enlargeInitial Margin for Derivatives

The amount of variation margin reflects the size of this current exposure dependent on the mark-to-market value of the derivatives at any point in time. As such, the volatility of this requirement may be significant in stressed cases, particularly for illiquid derivatives.

The proposals, as set out by the BIS and IOSCO, are ambitious and it will be interesting to see how they are enforced across jurisdictions and the impact they will have on market behaviour, both within and outside CCPs. I suspect there will be a few twists in this tale yet, particularly in relation to unintended consequences of trying to tame the derivative monster.

Converts on a comeback

My initial reaction, from a shareholder view-point, when a firm issues a convertible bond is negative and I suspect that many other investors feel the same. My experience as a shareholder of firms that relied on such hybrid instruments has been varied in the past. Whether it’s a sign that a growing firm has limited options and may have put the shareholder at the mercy of some manipulative financier, or the prospect that arbitrage quants will randomly buy or sell the stock at the whim of some dynamic hedging model chasing the “greeks”, my initial reaction is one of discomfort at the uncertainty of how, by whom, and when my shareholding may be diluted.

In today’s low risk premia environment, it’s interesting to see a pick-up in convertible issuances and, in the on-going search for yield environment, investors are again keen on foregoing some coupon for the upside which the embedded call option that convertibles may offer. Names like Tesla, AOL, RedHat, Priceline and Twitter have all been active in recent times with conversion premiums averaging over 30%. The following graph shows the pick-up in issuances according to UBS.

click to enlargeConvertible Bond Market Issuances 2004 to 2014

Convertible bonds have been around since the days of the railroad boom in the US and, in theory, combining the certainty of a regular corporate bond with an equity call option which offers the issuer a source of low debt cost at a acceptable dilution rate to shareholders whilst offering an investor the relative safety of a bond with a potential for equity upside. The following graphic illustrates the return characteristics.

click to enlargeConvertible Bond Illustration

The problem for the asset class in the recent past came when the masters of the universe embraced convertible arbitrage strategies of long/short the debt/equity combined with heavy doses of leverage and no risk capital. The holy grail of an asymmetric trade without any risk was assumed to be at hand [and why not, given their preordained godness…or whatever…]! Despite the warning shot to the strategy that debt and equity pricing can diverge when Kirk Kerborian’s increased his stake in General Motors in 2005 just after the debt was downgraded, many convertible arb hedge funds continued to operate at leverage multiples of well in excess of 4.

The 2008 financial crisis and the unwinding of dubious lending practises to facilitate hedge fund leverage, such as the beautifully named rehypothecation lending by banks and brokers (unfortunately the actual explanation sounds more like a ponzi scheme), caused the arbitrage crash not only across convertibles but across many other asset classes mixed up in so called relative value strategies. This 2010 paper, entitled “Arbitrage Crashes and the Speed of Capital”, by Mark Mitchell and Todd Pulvino is widely cited and goes into the gory detail. There were other factors that exacerbated the impact of the 2008 financial crisis on the convertible debt market such as market segmentation whereby investors in other asset classes were slow to move into the convertible debt market to correct mis-pricing following the forced withdrawal of the hedge funds (more detail on this impact in this paper from 2013).

Prior to the crisis, convertible arb hedge funds dominated the convertible bond market responsible for up-to 80% of activity. Today, the market is dominated by long only investors with hedge funds only reported to be responsible for 25% of activity with those hedge funds operating at much lower leverage levels (prime brokers are restricted to leverage of less than 1.5 times these days with recent talk of an outright rehypothecation ban for certain intermediaries on the cards). One of the funds that made it through the crash, Ferox Capital, stated in an article that convertible bonds have “become the play thing of long only investors” and that the “lack of technically-driven capital (hedge funds and proprietary trading desks) should leave plenty of alpha to be collected in a relatively low-risk manner” (well they would say that wouldn’t they!).

The reason for my interest in this topic is that one of the firms I follow just announced a convertible issue and I wanted to find out if my initial negative reaction is still justified. [I will be posting an update on my thoughts concerning the firm in question, Trinity Biotech, after their Q1 results due this week].

Indeed, the potential rehabilitation of convertible bonds to today’s investors is highlighted by the marketing push from people like EY and Credit Suisse on the benefits of convertible bonds as an asset class to insurers (as per their recent reports here and here). EY highlight the benefit of equity participation with downside protection, the ability to de-risk portfolios, and the use of convertible bonds to hedge equity risk. Credit Suisse, bless their little hearts, go into more technical detail about how convertibles can be used to lower the solvency requirement under Solvency II and/or for the Swiss Solvency Test.

With outstanding issuances estimated at $500 billion, the market has survived its turbulent past and it looks like there is life left in the old convertible bond magic dog yet.

The Float Game Goes Into Overdrive

The IMF today warned about rising global financial stability risks. Amongst the risks, the IMF highlighted the “continued financial risk taking and search for yield keep stretching some asset valuations” and that “the low interest rate environment also poses challenges for long term investors, particularly for weaker life insurance companies in Europe”. The report states that “the roles and adequacy of existing risk-management tools should be re-examined to take into account the asset management industry’s role in systemic risk and the diversity of its products”.

In late March, Swiss Re issued a report which screamed that the “current high levels of financial repression create significant costs and lower long-term investors’ ability to channel funds into the real economy”. The financial repression, as Swiss Re calls it, has resulted in an estimated loss of $470 billion of interest income to US savers since the financial crisis which impacts both households and long-term investors such as insurance companies and pension funds.

Many market pundits, Stanley Druckenmiller for example, have warned of the destabilizing impacts of long term low interest rates. I have posted before on the trend of hedge funds using specialist insurance portfolios as a means to take on more risk on the asset side of the balance sheet in an attempt to copy the Warren Buffet insurance “float” investment model. My previous post highlighted Richard Brindle’s entry into this business model with a claim that they can dynamically adjust risk from one side of the balance sheet to the other. Besides the influx of hedge fund reinsurers, there are the established models of Fairfax and Markel who have successfully followed the “Buffet alpha” model in the past. A newer entry into this fold is the Chinese firm Fosun with their “insurance + investment twin-driver core strategy”.

The surprise entry by the Agnelli family’s investment firm EXOR into the Partner/AXIS marriage yesterday may be driven by a desire to use the reinsurer as a source of float for its investments according to this Artemis article on the analyst KBW’s reaction to the new offer. In the presentation on the offer from EXOR’s website, the firm cites as a rationale for a deal the “opportunity to exploit know-how synergies between EXOR investment activities” and the reinsurer’s investment portfolio.

Perhaps one of the most interesting articles on the current market in recent weeks is this one from the New York Times. The article cites the case of how the private equity firm Apollo Global Management purchased Aviva’s US life insurance portfolio, ran it through some legit regulatory and tax arbitrage structures with Goldman Sachs help, and ended up using some of the assets behind the insurance liabilities to prop up the struggling casino company behind Caesars and Harrah’s casinos. Now that’s a story that speaks volumes to me about where we are in the risk appetite spectrum today.