Monthly Archives: November 2014

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.

Uniting Gamesters

BWIN’s on-going search to “create shareholder value” seems to be moving on with the announcement that it “has entered into preliminary discussions with a number of interested parties regarding a variety of potential business”. A previous post on a number of the main players in the European gambling sector highlighted that William Hill and Paddy Power were speculated to be potential bidders for all or parts of BWIN, a European online gaming firm with a concentration of approx 25% of revenues from Germany. Now press reports speculate the potential interested parties include the Canadian firm Amaya, who purchased PokerStars/Full Tilt earlier this year, and Playtech, a software gaming firm that are “seeking transformational M&A opportunities to take the business to the next level”.

Commentators raised an eyebrow about the speculated 45% premium on offer (from before discussions were reported) given BWIN’s operating metrics and the uncertainty over the key German market. Speculation involving Playtech focussed on their recent debt raising which brings their cash-pile to around €700 million. Playtech’s shareholders may not be too pleased if their new strategy moves too far away from the very profitable software business, particularly considering the alternative of continuing with their generous special dividends. Taking on businesses such as BWIN, or even another speculated target like Ladbrokes, is a far cry from what made Playtech such a star.

In fact, the best performer in the sector (in fact the only name that’s in positive territory!) is the reinvigorated Betfair under Breon Corcoran (see previous post on Betfair) as can be seen below (they also have cash to spend on potential M&A).

click to enlargeShare price YTD selected betting stocks

This is a fascinated sector that is in the midst of considerable change. Although I have no financial interest in the sector, I am an intrigued bystander. Bring on the next development.

Will the climate change debate now move forward?

The release of the synthesis reports by the IPCC – in summary, short and long form – earlier this month has helped to keep the climate change debate alive. I have posted (here, here, and here) on the IPCC’s 5th assessment previously. The IPCC should be applauded for trying to present their findings in different formats targeted at different audiences. Statements such as the following cannot be clearer:

“Anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth, and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

The reports also try to outline a framework to manage the risk, as per the statement below.

“Adaptation and mitigation are complementary strategies for reducing and managing the risks of climate change. Substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades can reduce climate risks in the 21st century and beyond, increase prospects for effective adaptation, reduce the costs and challenges of mitigation in the longer term, and contribute to climate-resilient pathways for sustainable development.”

The IPCC estimate the costs of adaptation and mitigation of keeping climate warming below the critical 2oC inflection level at a loss of global consumption of 1%-4% in 2030 or 3%-11% in 2100. Whilst acknowledging the uncertainty in their estimates, the IPCC also provide some estimates of the investment changes needed for each of the main GHG emitting sectors involved, as the graph reproduced below shows.

click to enlargeIPCC Changes in Annual Investment Flows 2010 - 2029

The real question is whether this IPCC report will be any more successful that previous reports at instigating real action. For example, is the agreement reached today by China and the US for real or just a nice photo opportunity for Presidents Obama and Xi?

In today’s FT Martin Wolf has a rousing piece on the subject where he summaries the laissez-faire forces justifying inertia on climate change action as using the costs argument and the (freely acknowledged) uncertainties behind the science. Wolf argues that “the ethical response is that we are the beneficiaries of the efforts of our ancestors to leave a better world than the one they inherited” but concludes that such an obligation is unlikely to overcome the inertia prevalent today.

I, maybe naively, hope for better. As Wolf points out, the costs estimated in the reports, although daunting, are less than that experienced in the developed world from the financial crisis. The costs don’t take into account any economic benefits that a low carbon economy may result in. Notwithstanding this, the scale of the task in changing the trajectory of the global economy is illustrated by one of graphs from the report, as reproduced below.

click to enlargeIPCC global CO2 emissions

Although the insurance sector has a minimal impact on the debate, it is interesting to see that the UK’s Prudential Regulatory Authority (PRA) recently issued a survey to the sector asking for responses on what the regulatory approach should be to climate change.

Many industry players, such as Lloyds’ of London, have been pro-active in stimulating debate on climate change. In May, Lloyds issued a report entitled “Catastrophic Modelling and Climate Change” with contributions from industry. In the piece from Paul Wilson of RMS in the Lloyds report, they concluded that “the influence of trends in sea surface temperatures (from climate change) are shown to be a small contributor to frequency adjustments as represented in RMS medium-term forecast” but that “the impact of changes in sea-level are shown to be more significant, with changes in Superstorm Sandy’s modelled surge losses due to sea-level rise at the Battery over the past 50-years equating to approximately a 30% increase in the ground-up surge losses from Sandy’s in New York.“ In relation to US thunderstorms, another piece in the Lloyds report from Ionna Dima and Shane Latchman of AIR, concludes that “an increase in severe thunderstorm losses cannot readily be attributed to climate change. Certainly no individual season, such as was seen in 2011, can be blamed on climate change.

The uncertainties associated with the estimates in the IPCC reports are well documented (I have posted on this before here and here). The Lighthill Risk Network also has a nice report on climate model uncertainty which concludes that “understanding how climate models work, are developed, and projection uncertainty should also improve climate change resilience for society.” The report highlights the need for expanding geological data sets beyond short durations of decades and centuries which we currently base many of our climate models on.

However, as Wolf says in his FT article, we must not confuse the uncertainty of outcomes with the certainty of no outcomes. On the day that man has put a robot on a comet, let’s hope the IPCC latest assessment results in an evolution of the debate and real action on the complex issue of climate change.

Follow-on comment: Oh dear the outcome of the Philae lander may not be a good omen!!!

Same old guff

Now that the US hurricane season is over without any material events, I had a quick look over a few transcripts of conference calls in the specialty insurance and reinsurance sectors to see if there was any interesting comments on where the market is going.

Nearly everybody claims to be mitigating the challenging market conditions by ducking & diving between business classes whilst keeping their overall underwriting discipline. The softness in the reinsurance market has spread into the insurance market, albeit not to the same extent. The reality is that results continue to be flattered by reserve releases, low loss activity and improved loss trends. Market realities are slowly being reflected in ROEs which are coming down to the low double digits.

Nearly all of the reinsurers are claiming to be the winners in the structural changes in the “tiering” of the market whereby cedants are reducing their reinsurance spend and concentrating that spend amongst a select group of reinsurers. Everybody has special relationships and the gravity defying underwriters! That same old guff was the typical response in the late 1990s.

The only interesting comment that I could find was from the ever colourful Ed Noonan of Validus who, after claiming that not everybody is as disciplined as they claim (he was talking about the large generalist reinsurers), said the following:

“It’s unfortunate because the market has had such strong discipline for the last decade. There are no magical segments that are beautifully priced, and the idea that a well-diversified portfolio poorly priced risk makes sense is an economic capital model-based fantasy.”

The last sentence reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from Jim Leitner of Falcon Management that “there is no real diversification in owning a portfolio of overvalued assets“.

My view is that few economic capital models in the insurance market which are currently being used to allocate capital to business classes are taking such arguments seriously enough and most are likely over-estimating the benefit of diversification across soft or under-priced portfolios.