Paddy Purgatory

The last time I posted on Paddy Power Betfair (PPB.L) in March, I highlighted the rich valuation and cautioned better value may be had on future dips, ending with the comment that “the game of speculation is all about getting the best odds”. Well, PPB.L has been on quite a ride in recent months. First the prospect of disappointing operating results put the stock under pressure and last week the bombshell that the golden boy CEO, Breon Corcoran, wants to do something more meaningful with his time. The result, as can be seen below, is PPB.L down 15% since the start of the year and 20% since this time last year.

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The revenue for the latest quarter, even after adjusting for the lack of the Euro soccer tournament in 2016, disappointed analysts who are fretting about whether reduced net revenue margins are part of a trend.

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Despite the firm putting reduced net revenue margins primarily down to unfavourable sports results (increased promotion costs also contributed), the worry is that competitive pressures rather than bad luck are resulting in reduced net revenue and gross win margins. [Net revenues are gross wins less VAT and fair-value adjustments for free bets, promotions and bonuses]. Care needs to be taken when comparing gross win margins (i.e. gross win divided by amounts staked) and net revenue margins across firms as the make-up of the underlying portfolio is important (e.g. gross wins varies by sport type such as football, horses, tennis, etc and by geography) and firms may account for certain items differently. Also, the absence of the largest online player, the privately owned Bet365, makes industry analysis difficult for amateurs like me.

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Taking into account that gross win and net revenue margins can differ by around 100 basis points, the trend at PPB.L seems to be also present in William Hill’s results. Ladbrokes results have been all over the place in recent years and the impact of their merger with Coral needs to be further understood given their high margins of late.

Of course, this sector is haunted by regulatory risk. The predicted restrictions of the highly addictive gaming machines by the UK Government is expected to impact PPB’s high street competitors much more that PPB.L. For example, PPB.L only derives 6% of its revenue from gaming machines compared to 30% for William Hill. The reaction of PPB’s competitors to compensate for restrictions on gaming machine revenue is likely to have a bigger potential impact on PPB.L’s future results.

For me, the biggest disappointment in the Q2 results wasn’t the revenue line but the operating margins. The full year 2017 EBITDA projection was nearly 10% shy of my estimates. The firm acknowledged that the platform integration has been taking longer than planned and took up over 70% of internal technology resources in Q2. This is projected to reduce to 60% and 30% in Q3 and Q4 respectively before been completed by year end. Releasing these resources will allow a refocus on product development and on fixing other problem areas such as their online gaming offerings. As a result of the Q2 results, I have taken a knife to my earnings estimates (my revenue estimates only required minor adjustment) for 2017 and 2018, as the graphic below shows.

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My 2017 and 2018 EPS estimates have reduced to £3.72 and £4.01 respectively, down 10% and 12% from my previous estimates. That puts PPB.L’s current market cap at a PE of approximately 20 and 18 for 2017 and 2018. That’s not bad for a firm with EPS growth of 13% and 8% for 2017 and 2018 respectively although, if these figures turn out to be accurate, the share price is likely to have gone lower that it currently is on worries about reducing operating metrics in a fiercely competitive market.

These estimates are conservative in my view, possibly overtly so. They reflect a sense that Breon Corcoran’s reason to go off into the tech sunset now is really due to concerns about the medium-to-long term prospects for the sector. Corcoran obviously has put a different explanation forward, one which is suspiciously unconvincing given the amount left undone at PPB.L, although he still does have about £40 million of share options in PPB.L. No firm is simply about the CEO and at the end of the conference call an indication was given of ensuring more exposure to the full management team in future investor engagements. That should help investors get more comfortable with management depth at the firm. I know nothing about the new CEO, Peter Jackson, so he has a real challenge in gaining investor’s confidence. He has big boots to fill as far as investors are concerned.

So, yet again, I suggest the best course of action is to wait, both for existing and new shareholders, and see how 2017 develops for PPB.L. There can be little doubt that recent events mean that the odds on PPB.L have lengthened.

Sugar Highs

Having just recently returned from a trip to the Southern US, I was really struck by the poor food quality and, in particular, the amount of sugary drinks and foods that were being consumed by adults and children alike. As somebody who must watch their sugar intake, I took a trip around a supermarket in a relatively affluent area and I was dumbfounded by the amount of food advertised as low fat or healthy which were just stuffed with sugar. The labelling of many products did nothing to highlight the high sugar levels.

Dr Margaret Chan, the then Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said in a speech in October that “in just a few decades, the world has moved from a nutrition profile in which the prevalence of underweight was more than double that of obesity, to the current situation in which more people worldwide are obese than underweight”. The role of adiposity (a fancy word for fatty body tissue) as an independent risk factor is strongest for diabetes, defined by WHO as fasting blood glucose equal to or higher than 7 mmol/L, or on medication for raised blood glucose, or with a history of diagnosis of diabetes. The global prevalence of diabetes in the adult population has increased dramatically in recent decades, nearly doubling from 4.7% in 1980 to 8.5% in 2014. The increase in the US is frightening, as the graphs below show.

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The increase in obesity and diabetes has not been confined to developed countries (where the prevalence is highest amongst urban dwellers and lower-income groups) with increases been seen globally, including sub-Saharan Africa and developing countries such as India and Mexico. China, with the world’s second largest economy, now vies with the US as the nation with the largest number of overweight citizens. In 2013, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a report by Chinese researchers where the authors estimated a prevalence in the adult Chinese population of nearly 12% living with diabetes, and in its most shocking finding, the study estimated that nearly half of the entire adult Chinese population has pre-diabetes, amounting to nearly half a billion people.

Now that’s just mad.

Top Marks

An entertaining memo on the current market from Howard Marks of Oaktree called “There They Go Again….Again”. Worth a read.

Telecoms’ troubles

The telecom industry is in a funk. S&P recently said that their “global 2017 base-case forecast is for flat revenues” and other analysts are predicting little growth in traditional telecom’s top line over the coming years across most developed markets. This recent post shows that wireless revenue by the largest US firms has basically flatlined with growth of only 1% from 2015 to 2016. Cord cutting in favour of wireless has long been a feature of incumbent wireline firms but now wireless carrier’s lunch is increasingly being eaten by disruptive new players such as Facebook’s messenger, Apple’s FaceTime, Googles’ Hangouts, Skype, Tencent’s QQ or WeChat, and WhatsApp. These competitors are called over the top (OTT) providers and they use IP networks to provide communications (e.g. voice & SMS), content (e.g. video) and cloud-based (e.g. compute and storage) offerings. The telecom industry is walking a fine line between enabling these competitors whilst protecting their traditional businesses.

The graph below from a recent TeleGeography report provides an illustration of what has happened in the international long-distance business.

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A recent McKinsey article predicts that in an aggressive scenario the share of messaging, fixed voice, and mobile voice revenue provided by OTT players could be within the ranges as per the graph below by 2018.

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Before the rapid rise of the OTT player, it was expected that telecoms could recover the loss of revenue from traditional services through increased data traffic over IP networks. Global IP traffic has exploded from 26 exabytes per annum in 2005 to 1.2 zettabytes in 2016 and is projected to grow, by the latest Cisco estimates here, at a CAGR of 24% to 2012. See this previous post on the ever-expanding metrics used for IP traffic (for reference, gigabyte/terabyte/petabyte/exabyte/zettabyte/yottabyte is a kilobyte to the power of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 respectively).

According to the 2017 OTT Video Services Study conducted by Level 3 Communications, viewership of OTT video services, including Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, will overtake traditional broadcast TV within the next five years, impacting cable firms and traditional telecom’s TV services alike. With OTT players eating telecom’s lunch, Ovum estimate a drop in spending on traditional communication services by a third over the next ten years.

Telecom and cable operators have long complained of unfair treatment given their investments in upgrading networks to handle the vast increase in data created by the very OTT players that are cannibalizing their revenue. For example, Netflix is estimated to consume as much as a third of total network bandwidth in the U.S. during peak times. Notwithstanding their growth, it’s important to see these OTT players as customers of the traditional telecoms as well as competitors and increasingly telecoms are coming to understand that they need to change and digitalise their business models to embrace new opportunities. The graphic below, not to scale, on changing usage trends illustrates the changing demands for telecoms as we enter the so called “digital lifestyle era”.

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The hype around the internet of things (IoT) is getting deafening. Just last week, IDC predicted that “by 2021, global IoT spending is expected to total nearly $1.4 trillion as organizations continue to invest in the hardware, software, services, and connectivity that enable the IoT”.

Bain & Co argue strongly in this article in February that telecoms, particularly those who have taken digital transformation seriously in their own operating models, are “uniquely qualified to facilitate the delivery of IoT solutions”. The reasons cited include their experience of delivering scale connectivity solutions, of managing extensive directories and the life cycles of millions of devices, and their strong position developing and managing analytics at the edge of the network across a range of industries and uses.

Upgrading network to 5G is seen as being necessary to enable the IoT age and the hype around 5G has increased along with the IoT hype and the growth in the smartphone ecosystem. But 5G is in a development stage and technological standards need to be finalised. S&P commented that “we don’t expect large scale commercial 5G rollout until 2020”.

So what can telecoms do in the interim about declining fundamentals? The answer is for telecoms to rationalise and digitalize their business. A recent McKinsey IT benchmarking study of 80 telecom companies worldwide found that top performers had removed redundant platforms, automated core processes, and consolidated overlapping capabilities. New technologies such as software-defined networks (SDN) and network-function virtualization (NFV) mean telecoms can radically reshape their operating models. Analytics can be used to determine smarter capital spending, machine learning can be used to increase efficiency and avoid overloads, back offices can be automated, and customer support can be digitalized. This McKinsey article claims that mobile operators could double their operating cashflow through digital transformation.

However, not all telecoms are made the same and some do not have a culture that readily embraces transformation. McKinsey say that “experience shows that telcoms have historically only found success in transversal products (for example, security, IoT, and cloud services for regional small and medium-size segments)” and that in other areas, “telcoms have developed great ideas but have failed to successfully execute them”.

Another article from Bain & Co argues that only “one out of eight providers could be considered capital effective, meaning that they have gained at least 1 percentage point of market share each year over the past five years without having spent significantly more than their fair share of capital to do so”. As can be seen below, the rest of the sector is either caught in an efficiency trap (e.g. spent less capital than competitors but not gaining market share) or are just wasteful wit their capex spend.

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So, although there are many challenges for this sector, there is also many opportunities. As with every enterprise in this digital age, it will be those firms who can execute at scale that will likely to be the big winners. Pure telecommunications companies could become extinct or so radically altered in focus and diversity of operations that telecoms as a term may be redundant. Content production could be mixed with delivery to make joint content communication giants. Or IT services such as security, cloud services, analytics, automation and machine learning could be combined with next generation intelligent networks. Who knows! One thing is for sure though, the successful firms will be the ones with management teams that can execute a clear strategy profitably in a fast changing competitive sector.

Strong and Stable

The impact of the Brexit vote on UK politics was far reaching and the results of the UK general election have shown just how far reaching. In a post last year following the Brexit vote I said “one lasting impact of the Brexit vote is likely to be on the make-up of British politics”. The graph below shows the political allegiance breakdown of the Brexit vote.

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The Brexit issue meant that the previous political (social class) allegiances of the UK electorate has splintered further by factors such as age and by views on immigration and/or globalisation. This has led to some extraordinary results in Thursday’s election: conservatives winning seats off the Scottish nationalists with swings as large as 16%, a significant number (reportingly 25%) of the collapsed UKIP vote going to Labour, a resurgent left wing Labour winning in some of the wealthiest constituencies in the UK are just a few examples.

Adding to the political volatility is that the Brexit referendum vote has to be implemented by politicians elected under a parliamentary system by a first past the post (FPTP) electoral construct. Given the 4% spread in the Brexit vote, the difference between the seats allocated under a FPTP electoral system as opposed to a proportional representation (PR) one can be material, as the results of the 2015 general election with spreads of +14%/-19% show.

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It is therefore highly interesting to see that the difference between the FPTP and PR systems in Thursday’s election result is significantly less with spreads of +6%/-3%.

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There can be little doubt that the earthquake that the Brexit vote set off in UK politics is far from over and there will be more tremors to come as the Brexit negotiations play out. On the plus side, this election has resulted in a closer parliamentary representation of the UK electorate than the 2015 election. On the minus side, it reflects the uncertainty over the exact type of Brexit that the British electorate wants. And that uncertainty looks set to continue. Strong and stable government in the UK looks to be more aspirational than reality in the coming years.