Where to now?

There can be little doubt that March 2020 will go down in history. I fear that April 2020 will bring more pain and suffering across this little planet of ours. I have, like I am sure you have also, looked on in horror as events unfolded over the past weeks and felt emotions I never thought possible as I fear for family, friends and communities. We have to hope that medical science will come to assist us with treatments to take some of edge off this insidious pandemic until we can mass produce and distribute a vaccine for COVID19.

Until recent days, I have not had the stomach to sit down and try to read up on how this nightmare may end. The data, both medical and economical, that will come out in April will likely shock but will hopefully at least help us to figure a route out of this. Right now, I doubt we will ever go back to the world we lived in just a short few weeks ago. The price that will have to be paid for this human tragedy once the virus is conquered will, I fear, include destroyed businesses, unemployment, financial hardship for many and a debt crisis (both corporate & sovereign). If things get really bad, I would fear for social cohesion in the months and years ahead in many communities and countries. So, in trying to start to figure out where we go to now, the exhibits below are those I have taken from some recent reports (as credited) that I thought worth sharing.

Notwithstanding these fears, I do think it’s important to have hope and there are many things happening during this crisis that point to hope. Families getting stronger through adversity and a focus on what is important for us all are just two positives. We’ll see what the coming weeks bring….

Stay Safe.

Deloitte US GDP Forecasts


Investing can be cruel. Every now and again I find it useful to look back at my investment decisions and try to learn from mistakes. At the beginning of his year, I was knocked sideways about the profit warning from Apple (AAPL) and exited one of my favourite stocks, and one of the most profitable over the previous 5 years, as per this post. If I had ignored all the negative news such as China worries or the implication of the dropping of the iPhone unit disclosures, and blindly held faith, I would have been rewarded by an increase of approximately 77% in the stock since the date of that post! Just shows how clueless this bogger is, dear reader!

In my defence, the graph below of the actual results for FY2019 illustrate how the issues that confronted AAPL at that time played out (more on the estimates for 2020 later).

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As can be seen clearly by the 12-month trailing revenue split, AAPL’s iPhone revenue plateaued in Q4 2018 and went into decline over FY2019 due to the failure of its strategy to push average iPhone prices higher. Even AAPL discovered that it is not immune to price elasticity. With the introduction of the iPhone 11 and the planned iPhone SE2, AAPL has now reverted its strategy back towards an ASP for the iPhone below $700 whilst it harvests its massive installed base for services. New cheaper handsets and the possibility of a new 5G super-cycle in 2020 has meant that AAPL is once again a market darling. Taking some of the current analyst projections for 2020 and the bullish Q1 2020 guidance from AAPL, I revised my 2020 estimates as below (I, like everybody else, must make my own estimates of handset unit sales each quarter).

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In terms of valuation, if I stick with my trusted AAPL valuation methodology of the forward PE excluding cash ratio analysis, using my EPS estimates for 2020, the stock is currently trading around a 17 PE, approximately 75% above the 10-year average! If I revert to the bull thesis (held before the meltdown late last year) that the market has recognised that AAPL is not purely a hardware firm any longer and deserves a hybrid hardware/software rating to reflect its growing services business, the current price is approximately 30% above the fitted trend line (as a proxy for the hybrid valuation), as below. I will have to come up with a better hybrid valuation methodology in the future but it’ll do for now (all ideas welcome on that front!).

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So, the bottom line is that AAPL is richly priced currently but waiting for a perfect entry point may be a mugs game for such a quality firm with the possibility of a new iPhone cycle just beginning. AAPL has yet again shown how it can adapt and change course when its strategy is clearly not working. Still, I’ll be a mug for a while longer to see how this market and overall valuations develop (there will likely be a host of upgrades for AAPL in the coming weeks). I do admit to missing having AAPL in my portfolio, so I will likely not wait too long before establishing an initial position again. If any of the hype around 5G becomes reality as 2020 develops, I can see AAPL being a big benefactor next year.

Betting Battles

The sports betting and online gaming sector is going through transformative times. Firms like William Hill (WMH.L), GVC (GVC.L) and Flutter (FLTR.L), the new name for Paddy Power Betfair, are grappling with greater regulatory restrictions, more taxes, and the need to be seen to take the issue of problem gambling seriously (some of which are outlined in this previous post). Many of these issues are having a direct impact on revenues and margins. At the same time, they are trying to build a presence in the newly opened US gambling market. The exhibit below, from a recent GVC presentation, shows the players by revenues, both in the physical and the online market.

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A look at the operating margins of these firms show the impact on profits for the largest firms, with the pure online players Bet365 and The Stars looking the most lucrative (although it will be interesting to see the results for Bet365 to March 2019 when they are released in November).

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The future size of the US market is impossible to forecast, although all the firms are highlighting the potential. As per this post (when I had time to do proper research for my posts!!), its unlikely that the US market when it matures will be as profitable as the European or Australian markets. As Flutter/Paddy Power Betfair is the best public firm in the sector (Bet365 is private) and the one I am most familiar with, and have posted on many times (here, here and here for example), I had a shot at estimating the results to 2020 and came up with an EPS of £3.54 for 2020 compared to just over £3.00 for 2019, as below. These estimates are very rough and ready, based primarily upon a doubling of US revenues and a reduction of EBITDA losses in the US to £20 million in 2020 from £55 million in 2019.

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Based upon today’s price, I estimate a PE ratio for Flutter (hate the name by the way) for 2019 and 2020 of 22 and 18.8 based upon the EPS estimates above. Given the risks in these business models and the uncertainties over the development of the US market (plus my negative macro outlook), that’s still too rich for my liking. For others, given there was takeover rumours a few months ago in this ever-changing sector, it may be worth the gamble.

Creepy Things

It has been a while since I looked at the state of the reinsurance and specialty insurance markets. Recent market commentary and insurers’ narratives at recent results have suggested market rates are finally firming up, amidst talk of reserve releases drying up and loss creep on recent events.

Just yesterday, Bronek Masojada the CEO of Hiscox commented that “the market is in a better position than it has been for some time”. The Lancashire CEO Alex Maloney said he was “encouraged by the emerging evidence that the (re)insurance market is now experiencing the long-anticipated improvements in discipline and pricing”. The Chubb CEO Evan Greenberg said that “pricing continued to tighten in the quarter while spreading to more classes and segments of business, particularly in the U.S. and London wholesale market”.

A look at the historical breakdown of combined ratios in the Aon Benfield Aggregate portfolio from April (here) and Lloyds results below illustrate the downward trend in reserve releases in the market to the end of 2018. The exhibits also indicate the expense disadvantage that Lloyds continues to operate under (and the reason behind the recently announced modernisation drive).

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In the Willis Re mid-year report called “A Discerning Market” their CEO James Kent said “there are signs that the longstanding concern over the level of reserve redundancy in past year reserves is coming to fruition” and that in “some classes, there is a clear trend of worsening loss ratios in recent underwriting years due to a prolonged soft market and an increase in loss severity.

 In their H1 presentation, Hiscox had an exhibit that quantified some of the loss creep from recent losses, as below.

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The US Florida hurricane losses have been impacted by factors such as assignment of benefits (AOB) in litigated water claims and subsequently inflating repair costs. Typhoon Jebi losses have been impacted by overlapping losses and demand surge from Typhoon Trami, the Osaka earthquake and demand from Olympics construction. Arch CEO Marc Grandisson believes that the market missed the business interruption and contingent BI exposures in Jebi estimates.

The fact that catastrophic losses are unpredictable, even after the event, is no surprise to students of insurance history (this post on the history of Lloyds is a testament to unpredictability). Technology and advances in modelling techniques have unquestionably improved risk management in insurance in recent years. Notwithstanding these advances, uncertainty and the unknown should always be considered when model outputs such as probability of loss and expected loss are taken as a given in determining risk premium.

To get more insight into reserve trends, it’s worth taking a closer look at two firms that have historically shown healthy reserve releases – Partner Re and Beazley. From 2011 to 2016, Partner Re’s non-life business had an average reserve release of $675 million per year which fell to $450 million in 2017, and to $250 million in 2018. For H1 2019, that figure was $15 million of reserve strengthening. The exhibit below shows the trend with 2019 results estimated based upon being able to achieve reserve releases of $100 million for the year and assuming no major catastrophic claims in 2019. Despite the reduction in reserve releases, the firm has grown its non-life business by double digits in H1 2019 and claims it is “well-positioned to benefit from this improved margin environment”.

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Beazley is one of the best insurers operating from London with a long history of mixing innovation with a balanced portfolio. It has doubled its net tangible assets (NTA) per share over the past 10 years and trades today at a 2.7 multiple to NTA. Beazley is also predicting double digit growth due to an improving rating environment whilst predicting “the scale of the losses that we, in common with the broader market, have incurred over the past two years means that below average reserve releases will continue this year”.

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And that’s the rub. Although reserves are dwindling, rate improvements should help specialty (re)insurers to rebuild reserves and improve profitability back above its cost of capital, assuming normal catastrophe loss levels. However, market valuations, as reflected by the Aon Benfield price to book exhibit below, look like they have all that baked in already.

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And that’s a creepy thing.