One Direction

Goldman Sachs says “we have more potential for shocks right now”. Deutsche Bank and Bank of America Merrill Lynch predict a pick-up in volatility to hit equities. The ever positive Albert Edwards of Socgen points to a recent IMF report on debt and trashes the Fed with the quip “these dudes will never identify an asset bubble at least before the event!

In the IMF report referenced above, and other reports published by the IMF this month, there is some interesting analysis and a sample of the accompanying graphs are reproduced below.

All of these graphs show trends going inexorably in one direction. Add in dollops of (not unrelated) political risk particularly in the UK and across Europe, and that direction looks like trouble ahead.

click to enlargeimf-gross-global-debt-as-of-gdp

click to enlargeimf-private-debt-during-deleveraging-periods

click to enlargeimf-decomposition-of-equity-valuations-october-2016

click to enlargeimf-global-real-rates

click to enlargeimf-report-sovereign-bond-yields-and-term-premiums

click to enlargeimf-report-banking-sector

click to enlargeimf-report-pension-deficits

Trinity Meltdown

In May last year I posted on an undisciplined investment, Trinity Biotech (TRIB), which I bought at $21 per share and, after ignoring some basic investing rules, didn’t sell until it hit $16. I had thought that the underlying metrics of TRIB existing business would improve, with a big upside potential with the FDA approval of its Meritas Troponin Point-of-Care test (as outlined in this post). Since last year, I have kept an eye on the firm as their operating results continued to be uninspiring, as per the graph below.

click to enlargetrinity-biotech-2011-to-q22016-revenue-operating-profit

I continued to monitor the firm from afar to see how the FDA approval was progressing, for curiosity sake more than anything else (the investment case was similar a coin toss given the operating results and I have, thankfully, grown out of such gambles). The timing of any final approval was dependent upon FDA queries but Q4 was been talked of as a possible time for a final FDA decision.

It has therefore come as a considerable shock to all stakeholders, and a 50% collapse in the share price, when TRIB announced early on Tuesday that it has withdrawn its FDA application for the Troponin test on the advice of the FDA itself. Analysts representing investors vented their anger at the company’s management on the conference call on the news (worth a listen if you are so inclined).

I genuinely felt sorry for management as they tried to explain the “devastating news” about how they could have got the FDA approval so wrong. Although the FDA would not go into the gritty details on a 30 minute call communicating the news to management behind their “minded to refuse” position, TRIB’s management were restrained in expressing their (obviously very disappointed) view that the FDA had moved the goal posts in their assessment criteria. The FDA will give TRIB more detail on their decision over the coming months (strangely only on the condition that TRIB withdrew their application).

Management expressed their view, based upon the information from the FDA call, that any new application was unlikely given the large R&D expenses needed to address the issues raised and announced they would shutter the programme, reducing their annual capitalised expenses from $9 million to $1.5 million including the closure of their Swedish facility. Given they capitalise most of these expenses, the impact will primarily be on cash-flow rather than on the P&L (they may manage to be cash-flow neutral on a pro-forma basis).  Insight into future operating results and what the balance sheet will look like after the write-offs needed on this withdrawal may come with the Q3 results.

At a share price of approx $6.50, TRIB indicated that their Board would likely instigate a large buy-back programme after the early release of their Q3 results (likely due by mid October). With $85 million of cash left from their $100 million convertible debt, TRIB has the firepower if it can get to positive cash-flow on an operating basis in the near term. Analysts were very blunt in their reaction, stating that management now had a major credibility issue and that a sale of the firm should now be the priority.

All in all, a sad day for TRIB, its employees and its future prospects. And, of course, for its shareholders.

Restrict the Renters?

It is no surprise that the populist revolt against globalisation in many developed countries is causing concern amongst the so called elite. The philosophy of the Economist magazine is based upon its founder’s opposition to the protectionist Corn Laws in 1843. It is therefore predictable that they would mount a strong argument for the benefits of free trade in their latest addition, citing multiple research sources. The Economist concludes that “a three pronged agenda of demand management, active labour-market policies and boosting competition would go a long way to tackling the problems that are unfairly laid at the door of globalisation”.

One of the studies referenced in the Economist articles which catch my eye is that by Jason Furman of the Council of Economic Advisors in the US. The graph below from Furman’s report shows the growth in return on invested capital (excluding goodwill)  of US publically quoted firms and the stunning divergence of those in the top 75th and 90th percentiles.

click to enlargereturn-on-invested-capital-us-nonfinancial-public-firms

These top firms, primarily in the technology sector, have increased their return on invested capital (ROIC) from 3 times the median in the 1990s to 8 times today, dramatically demonstrating their ability to generate economic rent in the digitized world we now live in.

Furman’s report includes the following paragraph:

“Traditionally, price fixing and collusion could be detected in the communications between businesses. The task of detecting undesirable price behaviour becomes more difficult with the use of increasingly complex algorithms for setting prices. This type of algorithmic price setting can lead to undesirable price behaviour, sometimes even unintentionally. The use of advanced machine learning algorithms to set prices and adapt product functionality would further increase opacity. Competition policy in the digital age brings with it new challenges for policymakers.”

IT firms have the highest operating margins of any sector in the S&P500, as can be seen below.

click to enlargesp-500-operating-profit-margins-by-sector

And the increasing size of these technology firms have contributed materially to the increase in the overall operating margin of the S&P500, as can also be seen below. These expanding margins are a big factor in the rise of the equity market since 2009.

click to enlargesp-500-historical-operating-profit-margins

It is somewhat ironic that one of the actions which may be needed to show the benefits of free trade and globalisation to citizens in the developed world is coherent policies to restrict the power of economic rent generating technology giants so prevalent in our world today…

Pimping the Peers (Part 2)

In the last post on this topic, I highlighted how new technologies, broadly under the fintech tag, had the potential to disrupt the banking sector, primarily by means of automating processes rather than any major reinventing of business models (although I did end that post with a bit of a rant about innovation and human behaviour). Blockchain is the hot topic that seems to be cropping up everywhere (I’ll leave that for another time). This post is about insurance and new technology, or in the jargon, insurtech.

The traditional business model in the insurance industry is not reacting well to a world of low or negative interest rates. For the life insurance sector, the duration mismatch between their liabilities and their assets is having a perverse impact as interest rates have fallen. Savings returns for aging populations have been sacrificed in Central Bank’s attempt to stimulate economic growth.

In addition, the traditional distribution channel for selling life insurer’s products, and the old adage is that these products are sold rather than bought, has relied too heavily on aging tied agents whose focus is on the wealthy client that can generate more fees than the middle class. The industry is generally at a loss on how to sell products in a low interest world to the mass market and to the new tech savvy generation. As a result, the industry and others are throwing money at a rash of new start-ups in insurance, as the exhibit on some of the current hyped firms focusing on life insurance below illustrates.

click to enlargelife-insurance-big-data

As the exhibit illustrates, the focus of these new start-ups is weighted towards technologies around product development, distribution, and underwriting. Some will likely succeed in trying to differentiate further the existing clientele of life insurers (e.g. real time health data). Many will be gobbled up or disappear. Differing attitudes between those aged under 34 and the older generation towards online distribution channels can be clearly seen in the survey results in the exhibit below.

click to enlargeattitudes-to-life-insurance-distribution-channels

With longevity and low interest rates the dominant challenges for life insurers today, automation of processes will assist in cutting expenses in the provision of products (mainly to the existing customer base) but will not likely meaningfully address the twin elephants in the room.  Citigroup reckons that in 20 of the largest OECD countries the unfunded government liability for pensions is around $78 trillion which compares to approximately $50 trillion in GDP for all OECD countries in 2015. I look forward to conversing with a robo-advisor in the near future on what products it recommends for that problem!

Insurance itself is hundreds of years old and although the wonderfully namely bottomry (the earliest form of marine hull insurance) or ancient burial societies are early examples, non-life insurance really took off with mass markets after the great fire of London in 1666.

The most hyped example of insurtech in the non-life sector is the impact of technologies on the motor business like drive-less cars and car telematics. This paper from Swiss Re shows that the impact over the next 20 years of such advances on motor premia could be dramatic.

Much of the focus from insurtech innovation is on reducing expenses, an item that the industry is not light on. The graph below shows examples of the level of acquisition and overhead expenses in the non-life sector across different jurisdictions.

click to enlargenonlife-expense-ratios

A recent report from Aon Benfield went further and looked at expenses across the value chain in the US P&C insurance sector, as below. Aon Benfield estimated overall expenses make up approximately half of gross risk premium, much of which represents juicy disruption targets for new technology in the insurtech world.

click to enlargeexpenses-across-the-value-chain

Insurance itself is based upon the law of large numbers and serves a socially useful function in reducing economic volatility by transferring risks from businesses and consumers. In 1906, Alfred Manes defined insurance as “an economic institution resting on the principle of mutuality, established for the purpose of supplying a fund, the need for which arises from a chance occurrence whose probability can be estimated”.

One of the issues identified with the current non-life insurance sector is the so-called protection gap. This is in effect where insurers’ risk management practises have got incredibly adapt at identifying and excluding those risks most likely to result in a claim. Although good for profits, it does bring the social usefulness of the transference of only the pristine risks into question (for everybody else). The graph below from Swiss Re illustrates the point by showing economic and insured losses from natural catastrophe events as a % of GDP.

click to enlargeinsurance-protection-gap-uninsured-vrs-insured-losses

It’s in the context of low investment returns and competitive underwriting markets (in themselves being driven by low risk premia across asset classes) that a new technology driven approach to the mutual insurance model is being used to attack expense and protection gap issues.

Mutuals represent the original business model for many insurers (back to burial schemes and the great fire of 1666) and still represent approximately a third of the sector in the US and Europe today. Peer to peer insurers are what some are calling the new technology driven mutuals. In fact, most of the successful P2P models to date, firms like Guevara, Friendsurance, and Inspeer are really intermediaries who pool consumers together for group discounts or self-financing of high deductibles.

Lemonade, which launched in New York this week, is a peer to peer platform which issues its own insurance policies and seeks to address the protection gap issue by offering broader coverage. The firm has been heavily reinsured by some big names in insurance like Berkshire Hathaway and Lloyd’s. It offers a fee based model, whereby the policyholders pay claims through mutualisation (assumingly by pools determined by pre-defined criteria). Daniel Schreiber, CEO and co-founder of Lemonade says that the firm will be ”the only insurer that doesn’t make money by denying claims”. Dan Ariely, a big deal in the world of Behavioral Economics, has been named as Chief Behavioral Officer, presumably in an effort to assist in constructing pools of well behaved policyholders.

The graphic below tries to illustrate how the business model is evolving (or should that be repeating?). Technology offers policyholders the opportunity to join with others to pool risk, hitherto a process that was confined to associations amongst professional groups or groups bound by location. Whether technology offers the same opportunity to underwrite risks profitably (or at least not at a loss) but with a larger reach remains to be seen.

click to enlargeinsurance-business-models

It does occur to me that it may be successful in addressing areas of dislocation in the industry, such as shortfalls in coverage for flood insurance, where a common risk and mitigant can be identified and addressed in the terms of the respective pool taking the risks on.

For specialty re/insurers, we have already seen a bifurcation between the capital providers/risk takers and the risk portfolio managers in the ILS arena. Newer technology driven mutual based insurers also offer the industry a separation of the management of risk pools and the risk capital provided to underwrite them. I wish them well in their attempts at updating this most ancient of businesses and I repeat what I said in part 1 of this post – don’t let the sweet scent of shiny new technology distract you from the smell of the risk…..

Paddy Power Betfair Revisited

It has been about 10 months since I posted on the potential for the Paddy Power and Betfair merger and a lot has happened since. Brexit and the resulting sterling volatility are obvious events of significance. In the betting sector, consolidation has continued with the Ladbrokes and Gala Coral merger having been announced and approved. The audacious proposed tie up by Rank and 888 on William Hill floundered with recent press reports suggesting Rank and 888 could get together. The consolidation in this rapidly changing sector is far from over.

The initial optimism on the future prospects for the two high achieving entities, Paddy Power and Betfair, resulted in the share price trading above the £100 level earlier in the year. Following Brexit, it traded as low as £80. The merged firm reported their H1 figures earlier this week which showed the full extent of the merger costs and provided an increased cost synergies figure for 2017 of £65 million. With 75% of EBITDA being sterling based, the currency impact was not as material as their multi-jurisdictional operations would suggest.

Top-line results for H1 do however indicate that 2016 revenue growth will likely not be as high as the 17% I had expected in November. The reality of issues in this regulated and highly competitive sector also served as a reminder that the path may not be as smooth as initially hoped for. Regulatory headwinds in Australia were an example. As a result, I revised my revenue estimates in November from £1.64 billion to £1.51 billion. The graph below shows the breakdown of my revenue estimates for the next few years with a comparison to overall average analyst estimates.

click to enlargePaddy Power Betfair pro-forma revenue split August 2016

Also, I have revised my previous earnings estimates with an operating profit margin of 20% for 2016, growing to 22% in 2017 and 23% in 2018. Based upon a share count of 86 million as at end June 2016 (which includes 2 million treasury shares), I estimate the H2 EPS at £1.55 which when added to the H1 EPS of £1.45 gives a full year 2016 EPS of £3.02.[ This 2016 estimate does represent an operating EPS of £3.79 which compares to my November estimate of £3.85 albeit that the November estimate was based upon suspect figures like the share count!!]. At today’s share price of £95.65, the PE multiple for 2016 is a hefty 31.6. The graph below shows the multiple based on my EPS estimates for 2016, 2017 and 2018 compared to those using the average analyst estimates.

click to enlargePaddy Power Betfair PE Multiples 2016 to 2018

In conclusion, I remain optimistic about the business model of Paddy Power Betfair particularly given the proven quality of the management team and their history of execution. However, quality doesn’t come cheap and the current valuation is priced for perfection. For new investors, it may be prudent to wait for a better entry point.