To China and back

Chinese internet stocks are way way way out of my comfort zone. Besides the hype and transient nature of many business models, the stratospheric valuations and the political risk are issues that I can’t get my head around. With the Chinese stock market up 25% in a month, it looks like classic bubble territory.

That said, the latest IDC predictions for 2015 recently caught my attention. One of the predictions asserted the following:

“China will experience skyrocketing influence on the global information and telecommunications technology market in 2015 with spending that will account for 43% of all industry growth, one third of all smartphone purchases, and about one third of all online shoppers. With a huge domestic market, China’s cloud and ecommerce leaders (Alibaba in ecommerce, Tencent in social, and Baidu in search) will rise to prominence in the global marketplace. Similarly, Chinese branded smartphone makers will capture more than a third of the worldwide smartphone market.”

Every now and again (as I did in this post) I look at how a few of the Chinese internet stocks that trade in the US are progressing for the sake of curiosity. The graph below shows a selected few – Baidu (internet search), NetEase (online gaming), Ctrip (travel services), Sina (online media), Sohu (various online services), Tencent (social, traded in Hong Kong), and Alibaba (e-commerce). click to enlargeChinese Internet Stocks December 2014 Tencent is the biggest gainer at over 300% since 2011; NetEase is just below 300%; with Baidu over 200%. Alibaba is up 16% since its stock market debut in September. Since 2011, the underperformers are Ctrip about breakeven, Sohu down 20%, and Sina down 50%. An equally weighted portfolio of these stocks, excluding Alibaba, invested at the beginning of 2011 would have resulted in an 84% gain or an approx 16.5% annual return. The current price to 2015 projected EPS multiples against the 2014 to 2015 projected EPS growth for these stocks compared to the same metric for a number of the established US internet names gives an insight into current valuations, as per the graph below.

click to enlargeInternet multiples Looking at this graph, Baidu is the only Chinese stock of the names highlighted by IDC that looks to me like one that may warrant further investigation as an investment possibility (but only when there is a meaningful pull back in the market in 2015). However, I wouldn’t be rushing out to get involved anytime soon as it seems to me that an established internet name like Google is more interesting as an investment prospect at current relative valuations than any of the higher growth Chinese equivalents.

STOXX600 versus S&P500

There is a nice article over at the Philosophical Economics blog from last month on the dangers of using the Shiller CAPE when the constituents of the underlying indices are constantly evolving. I particularly like the Ship of Theseus thesis being updated by the case of the 1970s group the Little River Band! As always with the Philosophical Economics blog, the post is well worth a read and provides some interesting food for thought in the on-going CAPE debate. I also largely agree with the author’s analysis on Europe and the assertion that monetary union “is going to have to eventually dissolve, or at least undergo a substantial makeover”.

In the post, the author references an April 2013 report from KPMG’s Global Valuation Institute on why more European firms traded below their book value following the financial crisis than US firms. One exhibit, produced below, shows that European firms in the STOXX600 recorded less impairments than S&P500 firms through the crisis. This highlights the sources of the impairments and the differing accounting standards at play.

click to enlargeSTOXX600 vrs S&P500 Impairments

Another exhibit from the report illustrates the different sectors that make up the STOXX600 and S&P500 and the percentage of each sector that traded below book value in early 2013. It would be really interesting to see an update of this exhibit.

click to enlargeSTOXX600 vrs S&P500

Updated Insurance Multiples

It has been a while since I looked at net tangible asset multiples for reinsurers and selected specialty insurers (the last such post is here). Motivated by the collapse in Lancashire’s multiple (briefly mentioned in a previous post) since they went ex-dividend, I redid the tangible book multiple figures. Previously I have used average operating ROEs as the x-axis but this time I have used annualized total returns since year-end 2010 (to capture the 2011 catastrophe year with the recent results of the past 3 years). Annualized total returns are made up of tangible book growth and dividends paid in 2011 to today. The split between tangible book growth and dividends, on an annualized basis across the past 4 years, for each firm as per the graph below (when calculating tangible book values, as is my usual practise disclosed previously, I excluded all goodwill and intangibles, except for the present value of future profits (PVFP) for life reinsurance business for European reinsurers).

click to enlargeReinsurers & Specialty Insurer Total Return December 2014

The graph of tangible book multiples to annualized returns is below. [Note – although insurance accounting has converged somewhat in recent years, caution still needs to be taken when comparing UK, European, and Bermudian/US firms due to the differing accounting regimes under which results are reported].

click to enlargeReinsurers & Specialty Insurers NTA Multiples December 2014

I split the firms into different colours – green is for the Bermudian & US firms, red is for London market firms, and blue is for the European composite reinsurers. In terms of who else may get involved in M&A following the Renaissance/Platinum deal, its interesting to see most of the Bermudians bunched up so close to each other in valuation and return profiles. The higher valued and larger firms may be the instigators in taking over smaller competitors but it looks more likely that medium sized firms need to get with today’s realities and seek tie-ups together. Who will wait it out in the hope of some market changing event or who will get it together in 2015 will be fascinating to watch!!

Follow-on: To get an idea of historical changes in the tangible book multiples in the three groupings above, the graph below shows the trends. The multiples in each year are simple averages across the firms (and not all are at the same point in the year) but the graph nonetheless gives an idea of changing market sentiment. Although the London and European firms are a smaller sample than the Bermudian/US firms, the graph indicates that the market is confident that the underwriting indiscipline of years past have been overcome in the London market, thus justifying a premium multiple. Time will tell on that score…..

click to enlargeHistorical Tangible Book Multiples for Reinsurers & Specialty Insurers

European Telecom Frenzy

After many years of forecasted telecom consolidation in Europe, the recent uptick in M&A activity in the European communications sector is turning into frenzy. The catalyst includes European regulator’s agreement to allowing consolidation from four to three operators in mobile markets in Germany, Ireland and Austria. Declining mobile revenues & ARPU, the capital expense required to upgrade networks to 4G and buy spectrum, and the popularity of the quad play (bundled mobile and fixed telephone, broadband & TV) in certain markets are other catalysts. The graph below from the Wall Street Journal highlights the trends in the European mobile market.

click to enlargeEuropean Mobile Telcom Revenues

BT is a central player in the frenzy and reported to be looking at accelerating its mobile strategy by purchasing either EE (owned jointly by Orange and T-Mobile) or O2 (owned by Telefonica) in the UK. Vodafone will need to respond to such a development and is reported to be assessing a bid for Liberty Global. Hutchison Whampoa, owner of mobile provider Three, is also reported to be considering its options. Sky and TalkTalk are talked about as possible targets in the UK.

The list of recent deals is long. O2 and KPN’s E-Plus merged in Germany. Vodafone purchased Ono in Spain and Kabel Deutschland in Germany with its Verizon booty. Liberty Global recently completed its acquisition of Ziggo in the Netherlands. Altice, owner of cable operator Numericable, bought SFR in France and, in Portugal, it’s just announced a deal for the Portuguese assets of Portugal Telecom from Brazil’s Oi. Hutchison Whampoa bought Orange in Austria and O2 in Ireland. France’s Orange is buying Jazztel in Spain.

The attraction of combining mobile traffic with fixed assets is highlighted by the growth in data traffic over connected devices like smart-phones as an exhibit from the Ericsson Mobility report below shows.

click to enlargeGlobal mobile data traffic 2010 to Q3 2014

A recent article from the FT speculated on other combinations in the European telecom sector. France’s Iliad, who made an audacious yet unsuccessful bid for T-Mobile in the US, may have another crack at Bouygues Telecom (maybe with SFR-Numericable taking some assets). In Italy, Hutchison Whampoa, owner of 3 Italia, may have a go at the debt heavy Wind, although the part ownership by the Russian Vimplecom may be an issue.

I haven’t taken an active (or economic) interest in the sector in Europe since Virgin Media came out of Chapter 11 and was subsequently bought out by Liberty Global a few years later. Although I have looked at Liberty Global a few times since, I couldn’t get over the valuation at the time or the massive goodwill/intangible items from its acquisitive history (currently over 40% of total assets). Liberty’s debt load of over 4.5 times EBITDA is scary but not overtly so given its strong cash-flow. At a current enterprise value (EV) to EBITDA multiple of 9.5, a merger with Vodafone would not be cheap (which currently trades around a 7.6 EV/EBITDA multiple with a lower net debt to EBITDA ratio of less than 2.5). A Vodafone/Liberty merger would be a fascinating test for European regulators as such a match-up would have been unthinkable just a few quarters ago.

The only European telecom firm that I have kept up with is the disappointing COLT (who I posted on here and here). COLT may get caught up in the merger frenzy as a target. I suspect majority owner Fidelity is looking to exit whilst maximising its value (or minimising its loss is more accurate in this case). COLT recently bought the Japanese operator KVH (who also had Fidelity as an owner). I updated my projections, as below, but given that COLT will likely spend most of its cash pile on the KVH acquisition and integration, the medium term operational outlook for COLT looks uninspiring. COLT does have a €150 million debt facility which is more than enough to get it to free cash-flow (I estimate that will not be until 2017 with KVH integration costs), unless of course it goes shopping!

click to enlargeCOLT Telecom Revenue & EBITDA Margin 2006 to 2016 incl forecast

So overall, the European sector is getting really interesting and, although I can’t see any obvious way to play it that excites me, it will be fascinating to watch from the side-lines.

Mega-Tsunami Fright Scenario

There was a nice piece on the online FT on the forces impacting the reinsurance sector last night. Lancashire, which is behaving oddly these days, was one of the firms mentioned. Lancashire looks like its set to drop by approximately 12% (the amount of the special dividend) when it goes ex-dividend after today the 28th (although yahoo has been shown it dropping by 10%-12% at the end of trading for several days now, including yesterday). If it does drop to a £5.50 level, that’s approximately a 123% price to diluted tangible book value. Quite a come down from the loftier valuations of 150%-170% under previous CEO Richard Brindle!

Anyway, this post is not about that. A major part of modern risk management in the insurance sector today is applying real life scenarios to risk portfolios to assess their impact. Lloyds’ has being doing it for years with their realistic disaster scenarios (RDS). Insurers are adept at using scenarios generating by professional catastrophic models from firms like RMS and AIR on so-called peak zones like US hurricanes or Japan earthquake. Many non-peak scenarios are not explicitly modelled by such firms.

The horrors of the tsunamis from the 2011 Tōhoku and the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquakes have been brought home vividly in this multi-media age. The damage in human terms from the receding waters full of debris makes the realities of such events all too real.  Approximately 80% of tsunamis come from earthquakes and history is littered with examples of large destructive tsunami resulting from earthquakes – the 1755 Great Lisbon earthquake in Portugal, the 1783 Calabrian and the 1908 Messina earthquakes in Italy, the 1896 Sanriku earthquake in Japan, the recently discovered 365 AD Mediterranean quake, the 1700 Cascadia Megathrust earthquake in the west coast of the US, and the 1958 Lituya Bay quake in Alaska are but a few examples.

Volcanoes are another potential cause of mega tsunamis as many volcanoes are found next to the sea, notably in countries bordering the Pacific Ocean, the northern Mediterranean and the Caribbean Sea.  One scenario put forward by a paper from Steven Ward and Simon Day in 2001 is the possibility of a mega tsunami from a collapse of an unstable volcanic ridge caused by previous Cumbre Vieja volcanoes in 1949 and 1971 in La Palma in the Canary Islands. The threat was has been dramatically brought to life by a 2013 BBC Horizon programme called “Could We Survive A Mega-Tsunami?”. Unfortunately I could not find a link to the full programme but a taster can be found here.

The documentary detailed a scenario where a future eruption could cause a massive landslide of 500 km3 of rock crashing into the sea, causing multiple waves that would travel across the Atlantic Ocean and devastate major cities along the US east coast, as well as parts of Africa, Europe and southern England & Ireland. The damage would be unimaginable, causing over 4 million deaths and economic losses of over $800 billion. The impact of the damage on port and transport infrastructure would also result in horrible after event obstacles to rescue and recovery efforts.

The possibility of such a massive landslide resulting from a La Palma volcano has been disputed by many scientists. In 2006, Dutch scientists released research which stipulated that the south west flank of the island was stable and unlikely to fall into the sea for at least another 10,000 years. More recent research in 2013, has shown that 8 historical landslides associated with volcanoes in the Canary Islands have been staggered in discrete landslides and that the likelihood of one large 500 km3 landslide is therefore extremely remote. The report states:

“This has significant implications for geohazard assessments, as multistage failures reduce the magnitude of the associated tsunami. The multistage failure mechanism reduces individual landslide volumes from up to 350 km3 to less than 100 km3. Thus although multistage failure ultimately reduce the potential landslide and tsunami threat, the landslide events may still generate significant tsunamis close to source.”

Another graph from the research shows that timeframe over which such events should be viewed is in the thousands of years.

click to enlargeHistorical Volcanic & Landslide Activity Canary Islands

Whatever about the feasibility of the events dramatised in the BBC documentary, the scientists behind the latest research do highlight the difference between probability of occurrence and impact upon occurrence.

“Although the probability of a large-volume Canary Island flank collapse occurring is potentially low, this does not necessarily mean that the risk is low. Risk is dependent both on probability of occurrence and the resultant consequences of such events, namely generation of a tsunami(s). Therefore, determining landslide characteristics of past events will ultimately better inform tsunami modelling and risk assessments.”

And, after all, that’s what good risk management should be all about. Tsunami are caused by large infrequent events so, as with all natural catastrophes, we should be wary that historical event catalogues may be a poor guide to future hazards.