Sunday, 25 June 2017

How Long Would You Hold A Value Stock?

9 years and 11 months! That is how long I held on to a value stock known as Frencken. I recently sold it in Jun at $0.515, having first bought it in Jul 2007 at $0.535 when it was still known as ElectroTech. In between, I averaged down twice, at $0.33 in Jul 2010 and at $0.365 in Jul 2014. The figure below shows the share price performance since May 2005.

Frencken Share Price Performance Since 2005

As you can see, for a very long 9.5 years, the share price never recovered to its previous levels, until only recently. In between, it changed its name from ElectroTech to Frencken and took over not 1, but 2 SGX listed companies (ETLA and JukenTech)! It has been a very long 9.5 years for Frencken shareholders who bought it as a value stock.

In value investing, you are often told that you have to be patient; that the day will come when your value stock will rise significantly and become a potential multi-bagger. The logic is appealing: buy a $1 stock for $0.60 and eventually the market will come to recognise its value and price it at $1 or beyond! However, what is not mentioned is how long do you have to wait for this to happen. And in the case of Frencken, it took almost 10 years for it to recover to its previous levels.

You might ask, did I make a mistake for identifying Frencken as a value stock and for buying it at too high a price? I bought it in Jul 2007, so my assessment was based on the financial statements for Dec 2006. For FY2005 and FY2006, the respective earnings per share were 9.59 cents and 8.65 cents, the book value was 46.0 cents and 52.4 cents, and the dividend was 2.68 cents and 2.60 cents. Based on my original purchase price of $0.535, these translated to P/E ratios of 5.6 times and 6.2 times, P/B ratios of 1.16 times and 1.02 times, and dividend yield of 5.0% and 4.9% respectively. These figures suggest that Frencken was a value stock when I first bought it and I certainly did not pay too a high price for it.

The point I am trying to make is this: value investing does not always work. It is not a case of buying an undervalued stock and eventually it will become a multi-bagger. It is not that simple. As I later figured out, being undervalued is only a necessary but insufficient condition for a stock to rise to its intrinsic value. Some other catalysts must be present for the rise to materialise, such as a bull run, recovery in earnings, asset sales with special dividends, etc. Being undervalued alone is not sufficient.

In the case of Frencken, the recent recovery in share price is due to 2 factors: a bull run in electronics stocks that swept up not only Frencken, but also other electronics stocks such as Hi-P, Sunningdale, UMS, Valuetronics, Venture, etc. The other factor is a recovery in earnings. For the latest quarter in 1Q2017, it reported a 437% year-on-year rise in quarterly earnings. This explains the doubling in share price from $0.24 since the beginning of this year.

If being undervalued is the only necessary condition for a stock to rise, why did I have to wait for not 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, but almost 10 years for it to rise?

I used to be a value investor too. When the value stock that I bought rose, I believed that value investing worked. When the stock did not rise, I told myself to be patient, that one day the market would eventually recognise the stock's value and give it its rightful valuation. When the stock dropped further and turned into a value trap, I thought that there must be something that I missed and should work harder to improve my value investing skills. Seldom did I think that there could be some other factors at work that would determine to a larger extent whether I make money or lose money on stocks. If the value stocks rose, value investing was right (never mind that there could be a general bull market as in the case of 2004). If the stocks did not rise, value investing was not at fault!

It was only around 2011 that I realised that something was amiss with value investing. I found out that the stocks that I bought during the Global Financial Crisis did not rise as much as I expected. It was then that I finally understood that value investing does not always work. Being undervalued is only a necessary but insufficient condition for stocks to rise. From there, I kept an open mind and branched out to other investing strategies, such as growth, turnarounds, dividend, etc. 

Having said the above, value investing did not totally disappear from my investment strategies. The principles of not overpaying for investments have continued to stay with me (see What is My Target Price?). And I am actually very grateful to have learnt value investing back then in 2001. It taught me a scientific method to value stocks instead of using gut feel. But value investing could only bring me this far. To continue my investing journey, I had to understand what worked for value investing and discard what did not.

10 years. That is how long I held on to a stock bought on the thesis of a winning formula. How many 10 years does anyone have in his investing lifetime to realise that his much cherished winning formula does not always work?

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Sunday, 18 June 2017

Fundamentals of Stock and Bond Picking

You have probably heard of the study in which monkeys throwing darts on a dartboard with stock names on it could produce portfolios that outperform those picked by professional investors. A few reasons were given for the outperformance, such as size of the companies, Price-to-Book valuation of the stocks, etc. I wonder if the same study were to be repeated for bond picking, would monkeys still outperform professional investors?

There is no study on the above, but my answer to it is probably not. When you pick a stock to buy, you are expecting it to change in the future, whether it is the earnings or dividends increasing or the Price-to-Earnings valuation improving. In essence, you are forecasting the future. This can be seen from the various models for valuing stocks. The Dividend Discount Model, for example, estimates the intrinsic value of a stock as the summation of all future dividends discounted to the present. The Discounted Cash Flow Model does so similarly, using free cashflows instead of dividends. The present matters less in stock valuation, and yardsticks based on present assets such as Price-to-Book ratio do not feature much in investors' minds. There are good reasons for this, because if the assets cannot produce good future earnings, the assets have to be discounted from book value. 

The corollary is that, if things are not expected to change in the future, you should not pick the stock (except for dividend stocks, which have similarities with bonds). Also, since nobody can predict the future accurately, it is not surprising that monkeys can beat professional investors in stock picking. Likewise, professional investors underperform their respective stock benchmarks when they carry out tactical allocations according to their outlook for the future.

Bond investment is quite the mirror opposite of stock investment. When you pick a bond (or dividend-paying stock) to buy, you are expecting it to continue paying the same amount of coupons or dividends until they mature. In other words, you are expecting it not to change in the future. Hence, bond valuation starts with present assets and earnings and computes a margin of safety to cater for unexpected changes in the future. While the future is still important, the present plays a bigger role in bond valuation. Thus, bond valuation deals with yardsticks such as the debt-to-equity ratio, interest coverage ratio, etc. which are found in the present income statements and balance sheets.

Hence, when you compare stock and bond valuation methods, stock valuations are more of an art, because it is based on forecasts for the future, which everybody will have different opinions of. Whereas bond valuations are more of a science, because that they are based on figures in the income statements and balance sheets, which people rarely dispute. 

Hence, on the above question on whether monkeys will outperform professional investors on bond picking, my answer is probably not, since monkeys cannot analyse income statements and balance sheets. Also, based on the above argument, more professional bond investors should outperform their benchmarks compared to their stock counterparts. This is true. S&P publishes annual SPIVA (S&P Indices Versus Active) reports on whether active fund managers outperform their benchmarks. In all equities categories, active fund managers underperform their respective benchmarks. In bonds, active fund managers outperform their benchmarks in the investment-grade short and intermediate, global income and general municipal categories on a 5-year basis (see SPIVA report for US Year-End 2016).

Thus, on the question whether you should buy the stocks or bonds of a particular company, it depends on your outlook for the company in the future, summarised as follows.

Company Outlook Bonds Stocks Conclusion
Changes for the Better Good Best Best for Stock Investment
No Change Good No Good Best for Bond Investment
Changes for the Worse Bad Worst Both Investments are Bad

When things do not change in the future, bonds are better investments than stocks. When things change for the better in the future, bonds are good investments, but you can perform better by buying the stock. When things change for the worse, both are bad investments, but stocks are worse than bonds.

The above also has implications on the types of stocks we should buy. If there are no catalysts for changes such as improved earnings or dividends, asset sales or a bull market in the future, an undervalued stock will continue to remain undervalued. A growth stock will be a good investment, but only until the day its growth starts to slow down, from which it becomes a bad investment. A dividend stock is good provided things do not change or change for the better.

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Sunday, 11 June 2017

How to Avoid Cleaning Out Your CPF Balance When Taking HDB Loan

When you apply for a loan from HDB to buy a flat, it will take all the money from your CPF Ordinary Account (OA) before giving you the loan. This is to reduce the loan amount that you need to service. If you wish to avoid an empty OA account, you can temporarily transfer some of your OA balance out of CPF before you apply for the HDB loan. The pros and cons for either approach are discussed in Clean Out CPF Balance When Taking HDB Housing Loan?

A reader recently asked me how to temporarily transfer some of the OA balance out of CPF. Note that I am not encouraging you to do it, but if you have a real need for keeping some money in the OA to meet future financial obligations such as buying/ servicing insurance policies or financing your family members' tertiary education, below is one approach for doing it.

The approach I used is to invest in some safe investment instruments. As the objective is to temporarily park the cash outside of OA, the overriding principles are safety and liquidity of the investment. As there is a foreseeable use for the money in the future, it is of utmost importance that most of the money can be returned to your CPF account subsequently. Making a positive return on the money, although welcomed, is not crucial. Secondly, you also do not wish for your money to be locked-in in that investment for longer than is necessary. Typically, the aim is to withdraw the money 1 month before the HDB appointment date and return it 1 month after the HDB appointment, making it approximately 2-3 months of investment period. The longer the money is invested, the higher is the risk.

The instruments that you can invest 100% of your OA balance (note: you cannot invest the first $20,000 of the OA balance) are fixed deposits, government bonds, statutory board bonds, some insurance products and unit trusts. I chose short-term government bonds known as Singapore Government Securities (SGS). They have no credit risks and foreign exchange risks and have local banks providing liquidity as secondary traders. However, SGS are extremely difficult to trade. Before they were listed on the Singapore Exchange, I could only trade them by making a visit to the banks. Staff at the local bank branches practically never heard of them and had to consult their Treasury department at the headquarters every time I traded SGS. Moreover, bond trading is very different from share trading. There is the concept of clean price and dirty price. Clean price is the price that you see quoted on the market. Dirty price is clean price + accrued interest and is the price that you actually pay. It is complex enough, right? For this reason, I would not encourage this approach.

The simpler approach is to buy unit trusts that have the lowest risks and are eligible for CPF-OA investment. Suitable unit trusts are those that invest in (1) bonds, that are (2) short-term, (3) issued in Singapore dollars, and preferably (4) by the government. Bonds will reduce the price volatility compared to shares. Short-term (or short-duration) bonds will minimise the risk of interest rate going up and leading to a drop in bond prices. Bonds denominated in Singapore dollar will eliminate foreign exchange risks, and government bonds will avoid the risk of companies going belly-up. It is probably difficult to find a unit trust that invests in Singapore government bonds solely, so the next best is to have a mix of government and corporate bonds. Since most unit trusts invest in a lot of bonds, the risk of any one company going belly-up and affecting the price of the unit trust significantly is usually small. A good resource for finding suitable bond unit trusts is Fundsupermart.

So, after you have invested in the unit trust, complete the appointment with HDB, and 1 month later, after you have confirmed that HDB has completed its work, sell the unit trust and return the money back to your CPF account.

Lastly, please note that no investment is 100% capital guaranteed. There will be some transaction costs from buying and selling. And if interest rate rises during this period, some capital loss is unavoidable. But by choosing unit trusts that invest in short-term Singapore dollar denominated bonds, the risks are minimised.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Comparison of Singapore Shipping Corp with Shipping Trusts

Shipping trusts are not the only stocks that buy and rent out ships for recurrent income. There is another stock that does so -- Singapore Shipping Corp (SSC). I used to own this stock, and unlike the shipping trusts, I have fond memories of it. What are the similarities and differences between SSC and the shipping trusts like First Ship Lease Trust (FSL) and Rickmers Maritime and will SSC face similar difficulties as the shipping trusts in future?

First, a brief introduction of SSC. SSC has 2 business segments, namely ship owning and agency & logistics. The bulk of the revenue and profits are generated from the ship owning segment. The company owns a fleet of 6 Pure Car and Truck Carriers (PCTC), which it leases to shipping majors like Mitsui OSK Lines, Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (NYK) in mostly long term time charters of more than 10 years. Thus, its business model is similar to that of Rickmers Maritime.

Rickmers started off in May 2007 with a fleet of 10 container ships leased to shipping majors in time charters of 8 years. It had a stable recurrent income from the charters from which it could pay good distributions to shareholders (USD5.64 cents in 2007). It also had low levels of debts (debt/equity ratio of 58% in 2007). However, over the next 2 years, it added more ships and more debts. The debt/equity ratio reached 196% in 2009. Unfortunately, the shipping industry then went into a downturn from which it has not recovered. As the long term charters expire, Rickmers had difficulty renewing the charters at the good rates they used to command. This resulted in inability to meet the debt obligations to banks. Eventually, Rickmers had no choice but to wind up.

SSC is also in a fleet expansion path currently. Prior to 2010, it had disposed most of its ships before the shipping downturn. It added 1 PCTC each in 2010 and 2011, 2 PCTCs in 2014 and another 1 more in 2015, making a total of 6 PCTCs. Debt levels followed similar trajectories, rising from debt/equity ratio of 0% in Mar 2010 to 161% in Mar 2015. The expansion plan has probably not ended, hence, we might potentially see debt levels increasing further.

Will SSC face similar difficulties as Rickmers when the long term charters expire? It is difficult to tell in 10 years' time whether SSC can renew its charters at good rates when they expire. However, one advantage that SSC has over shipping trusts is that it is a company and not a business trust. A company can only pay dividends out of accounting profits whereas a business trust can pay distributions out of operating cashflows. In other words, asset depreciation, which reduces accounting profits but not operating cashflows, reduces the amount of dividends a company can pay but not the amount of distributions a business trust can pay. Thus, SSC is restricted from paying out all its operating cashflows as dividends. Since 2009, it paid a constant 1 cent per share every year, translating to a dividend yield of only 3.6% at the current share price of $0.275. The cashflows retained are used to pay down debts, which SSC has done at a rapid rate. From a debt/equity ratio of 161% in Mar 2015, the debt/equity ratio has fallen to 97% in Mar 2017. At this rate, before the charters expire, SSC would have fully paid down the debts. Thus, based on this key reason, SSC would not end up being wounded up.

Nevertheless, 1 key risk that SSC faces is the ability and willingness of its customers to honour the charters if the market charter rates were to decline significantly. Its customers are NYK, Mitsui OSK Lines and Wallenius Lines. FSL, which deals with smaller shipping companies, had encountered several customer defaults in the past. Rickmers had no such problems with its customers, which are shipping majors. Nevertheless, it narrowly avoided the bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping. A container ship leased to Hanjin expired in early 2016, just before it went into receivership in Aug 2016.

Finally, SSC had in the past sold ships when times were good and returned handsome dividends to shareholders. Between Aug 2005 and Dec 2007, SSC returned a total of 46 cents per share to shareholders. While it is not certain that market values for ships will recover to previous peaks for SSC to pull off this trick again, any special dividends from asset sales would be a bonus.

P.S. Currently not vested, but might consider.

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Sunday, 28 May 2017

Differences Between First Ship Lease Trust and Rickmers Maritime

For investors in First Ship Lease Trust (FSL), the question at the top of investors' minds is: will FSL go the way of Rickmers Maritime and be wounded up? This is my third time investing in FSL and the previous 2 attempts have ended in major losses. I certainly do not wish to lose money on it a third time, which explains this series of blog posts on shipping trusts.

Rickmers is currently in the process of winding-up, after their failure to secure re-financing of their loans. Although this is the triggering point for winding-up, it is not the only challenge facing Rickmers. Would FSL face the same challenges and end up being wounded up as well?

One of the differences between FSL and Rickmers is their business models, which is discussed in detail in A Comparison of Shipping Trusts' Business Models. Essentially, FSL started off with a ship financing business model (but progressively took on a ship rental business model for reasons beyond their control) while Rickmers had a ship rental business model. In good times when demand for ships is high, Rickmers' ship rental model would provide better returns than FSL's ship financing model. However, in bad times when demand for ships is low, FSL's ship financing model allows a faster return of capital than Rickmers' ship rental model. 

Another difference between the 2 shipping trusts is the diversity of ships. Rickmers specialises in container ships, especially Panamax container ships of 3,450 and 4,250 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). Panamax ships refer to the largest ships that can pass through the Panama Canal, which is an important route for ships sailing between Asia and US east coast. In Jun 2016, the Panamax Canal was expanded to accommodate larger container ships of above 10,000 TEUs. Classic Panamax container ships became less useful now that bigger container ships can pass through the expanded Panama Canal. Daily charter rates for classic Panamax container ships fell as a result. Rickmers provided a discussion of the challenges facing the classic Panamax container ships in its Annual Report for FY2016. The figure below, taken from Rickmers' Annual Report, shows the fall in charter rates for classic Panamax container ships.

Fig. 1: Average Daily Charter Rates of Classic Panamax Container Ships

FSL also has 4,250 TEU classic Panamax container ships. Like Rickmers, its charter rates for these ships would fall drastically when the charters expire in 2020. However, FSL has a more diversified fleet of ships. Besides Panamax container ships, it also has feeder containers of 1,200 TEUs, product tankers of various ranges, chemical tankers and Aframax crude oil tankers. The diversity in ships allows FSL to better manage the low demand in any one segment of the shipping industry.

Like Rickmers, FSL has a lot of ships whose charters have expired or are expiring. In 2017, 9 out of its 22 ships will be completing their charters and be redelivered to FSL. When the ships are redelivered, new employment needs to be found for them, likely at lower charter rates. However, this is not the first time ships have been redelivered to FSL. FSL had in the past encountered unexpected customer defaults on the charters and had to redeploy the ships at low charter rates. Fig. 2 below shows the historical charter rates that FSL had. Figures in red mean a decline in charter terms/rates whereas figures in blue mean an improvement in charter terms/rates. "BBC" refers to bare boat charters while "TC" refers to time charters. For time charters, the bare boat charter equivalent (BBCE) revenue is about 60% to 65% of time charter revenue.

Fig. 2: FSL's Historical Charter Rates

As shown in the figure above, it is not a one-way decline when ships are redelivered to FSL. While most ships experienced a decline in charter terms/rates after redelivery, the Medium Range (MR) tankers and Aframax crude oil tankers saw improvements in charter terms/rates in recent years after redelivery.

In its Annual General Meeting presentation in Apr 2017, FSL disclosed the current and average time charter rates in the past 5 years for its ships (see columns in blue in Fig. 2 above). Except for the Panamax container ships, the charter rates that FSL currently have are not too far off the current and 5-year historical average charter rates. Thus, there is a chance that the redelivered ships will not suffer too large a decline in charter rates after redelivery. My estimates for FSL's BBCE revenue for FY2017 is USD62M, which is a 15% decline from FY2016 after redelivery of the 9 ships (see Sustainability of First Ship Lease Trust's Cashflows for more info).

There is, however, 1 key risk that FSL has which Rickmers does not have, which is customer credit risks. Rickmers' customers are all major shipping companies such as Mitsui OSK Lines, CMA CGM, Maersk Line, etc. which could survive the industry downturn better than others. They did not default on the charters with Rickmers. On the other hand, FSL's customers are smaller players. FSL had encountered a no. of defaults in the past, resulting in loss of attractive charter rates. In fact, a major risk facing FSL currently is whether Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp, which chartered the 3 Panamax container ships at high rates, would default or fail. If it does, it would have a large impact on the viability of FSL.

Finally, FSL has only 1 group of creditors while Rickmers has 4 groups. It is easier to negotiate with 1 group of creditors instead of 4 groups.

In summary, there are differences between FSL and Rickmers. FSL might not go the way of Rickmers and be wounded up. The major caveat is Yang Ming does not default or fail. If it does, all bets are off.

See related blog posts:

Monday, 22 May 2017

A Comparison of Shipping Trusts' Business Models

You might be wondering why I am still writing about shipping trusts' business models when there is only 1 shipping trust left. This is because for investors in First Ship Lease Trust (FSL), it is useful to understand the differences between the business models of FSL and Rickmers Maritime to assess whether FSL would go the way of Rickmers Maritime and be wounded up. 

On the surface, both FSL and Rickmers are shipping trusts, however, their business models (at least in the initial stages) are quite different. As an analogy, supposed you wish to become a Uber driver but do not own a car. There are 2 ways to obtain a car, either rent a car from a car rental company, or buy a car by taking out a loan from a finance company. From this perspective, a car rental company is very different from a finance company. Rickmers is in the rental business, whereas FSL started off as a finance business (however, over time, FSL became more and more like a rental business for reasons discussed later).

The business model and risks between a car rental and a finance company are very different. A car rental company would want rental of its vehicles (return on capital) for as long as possible, while a finance company would want return of its loan (return of capital) as quickly as possible. Supposed a car has an economic lifespan of 10 years, a car rental company would hope to rent out the car for the full 10 years, whereas a finance company would hope to recover all its loan by no later than the 7th year.

Going back to FSL and Rickmers, both of them bought 4,250 TEU Panamax container ships in 2008 and leased them out. The structure of the deals shows the differences between a rental and a finance business. FSL assumed the ships have economic lifespan of 25 years and leased them out on a bare boat charter for 12 years. At the end of 12 years, the lessee has an option to buy out the ships. Rickmers assumed the ships have economic lifespan of 30 years and leased them out on a time charter for 10 years. Assuming that the bare boat charter equivalent (BBCE) revenue of a time charter is 65% of the time charter revenue, the cashflows for both shipping trusts work out as follows.

FSL Rickmers
Purchase Price  $70.0M  $72.0M
Daily Charter Rate (Time Charter) NA  $26,850 
Daily Charter Rate (BBCE)  $18,315   $17,453 
Annual BBCE Revenue  $6.68M  $6.37M
Charter Duration (Years) 12 10
Buyout Option Price  $30.0M NA
IRR @ End of Charter 2.16% -2.17%
IRR @ End of Charter with Buyout 6.20% NA

From the table above, the annual BBCE revenue generated by Rickmers in a rental transaction is less than that by FSL in a financing transaction. This is because a financing lessee has to make principal repayments whereas a rental lessee does not. Thus, at the end of their respective charter periods, FSL would be able to recover all its capital and generate a positive annualised return of 2.16% without considering the buyout option. If the lessee chooses to exercise the buyout option, the annualised return would increase to 6.20%. On the other hand, Rickmers would not have recovered all its capital at the end of the 10-year charter period. It would only do so in Year 12. This is not to say that Rickmers' rental model is entirely bad. If it could find shipping companies to rent its ships for the entire 30-year economic lifespan, its annualised return would be 7.96%, much higher than FSL's 6.20%. Unfortunately, in a market downturn where there is little demand for ships, a ship finance business like FSL would be able to recover its capital faster than a ship rental business like Rickmers.

As you can see, the return for FSL is higher if the lessee exercises the buyout option. In fact, the buyout option is probably designed to entice the lessee to exercise it. Based on the purchase price of $70.0M and straight-line depreciation of 25 years, the annual depreciation charge would be $2.8M. At the end of the 12-year charter period, the accumulative depreciation would be $33.6M, leaving the ship with a book value of $36.4M. Assuming that the market value approximates the book value had there been no market downturn, the buyout option price of $30.0M would represent a discount of $6.4M to the lessee. It is actually in FSL's favour if the lessee takes up this option, as it would get back another $30.0M by Year 12, which could be used to initiate a new financing transaction.

From the above example, it also shows that the risks of a rental business and a finance business are different. The main risks of a rental business are market risks, i.e whether it can find shipping companies to rent its ships at good rates. On the other hand, the main risks of a finance business are credit risks, i.e. whether the lessee has the ability and willingness to make principal and interest payments on the loan as scheduled. Going back to FSL, the 3 Panamax container ships that FSL has are leased to Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp. They generate an annual BBCE revenue of $20.0M even though the annual BBCE revenue at current market rates is estimated to be only about $1.6M, assuming 50% utilisation rate (see Sustainability of First Ship Lease Trust's Cashflows for the estimate). If Yang Ming were to default or fail, those lucrative charters would be lost and the viability of FSL would be in question. Thus, FSL's main risks are the credit risks of its lessees.

There is still one more difference between FSL's and Rickmers' business models. FSL's preference is for bare boat charters while Rickmers specialises in time charters. In a bare boat charter, the lessee has to bear vessel maintenance costs, whereas in a time charter, the lessor has to bear these costs. Like a car financing transaction, the lessee (or car "owner") has to pay repair cost or mandatory vehicle inspection cost for the car. The finance company is not responsible for these costs. Whereas in a car rental transaction, the lessee can ask the rental company for a replacement car or deduct rental charges for the period the car is not available for use. In times of market downturn, every cent counts, and FSL's bare boat charters reduce the operating costs needed to run the business compared to time charters.

Having said the above, I mentioned that FSL started off as a ship finance business but gradually became more of a ship rental business like Rickmers. As mentioned earlier, the key risks that a finance business faces are credit risks of its lessees. If the lessee were to default, the ships would be returned to the trust and the trust would have to find new charterers at charter rates that are likely to be lower than the previous charter rates. That is when a finance business becomes like a rental business and faces the same risks. FSL had encountered lessees defaulting previously. In addition, many of its existing charters will be expiring in the next few years. Given the current low market price of ships, none of its lessees are likely to exercise the buyout options. As the charters expire, FSL would progressively become a ship rental business.

Since we are at this topic of shipping trusts' business models, there used to be another shipping trust called Pacific Shipping Trust, which was delisted from SGX in 2012. At inception, its business model was also different from that of FSL or Rickmers. It was set up by Pacific International Lines to monetise its fleet of container ships. Going by the earlier analogy of the Uber driver, this would be a case in which the Uber driver owns a car, but decides to do a sale-and-leaseback. It too became more of a rental business after it expanded its business to lease ships to other companies besides its parent company.

It is probably a moot point now that FSL is progressively becoming a ship rental business, but starting off with the ship finance business model during its initial stages helps to manage the downturn in the shipping industry.

P.S. I am vested in FSL. Also, I will be overseas next week and will not be able to respond to your comments until I return.

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Sunday, 14 May 2017

Sustainability of First Ship Lease Trust's Cashflows

Last week, I blogged about the estimated current valuation of First Ship Lease Trust (FSL) and mentioned that since the current market value of the ships exceeds the loan amount, the probability of successful refinancing is quite high. However, the more important factor in determining successful refinancing is whether future cashflows are sufficient to meet the loan obligations. In this post, I will estimate the future cashflows of FSL and determine whether it is a viable business going forward.

For FSL to be viable, its cash inflows must be sufficient to cover its cash outflows. On a Bare Boat Charter Equivalent (BBCE) basis, the annual cash inflow must be able to cover the trust's operating expenses, loan principal repayment and interest expenses. For FY2016, the trust operating expenses (comprising management fees, trustee fees and other trust expenses) amount to USD4.8M, loan principal repayment is USD42.7M (excluding early repayment) and interest expense is USD9.6M. The total non-discretionary cash outflow is USD57.1M. Assuming that loan principal repayment remains the same after refinancing, the only item that will change much from year to year is interest expense. Thus, FSL must be able to generate cash inflows of between USD50M to USD57M annually, otherwise, there is a risk that it might run out of cash and be liquidated in a fire sale like Rickmers Maritime.

On the cash inflow side, FSL generates revenue from 3 types of charters, namely, voyage charter, time charter and bareboat charter. In a voyage charter, FSL acts as a shipping company like NOL to provide a service to ship goods between places. It bears all the costs necessary to provide the service. Among the 3 types of charters, on a comparable basis, voyage charters generate the highest revenue and costs. In addition, it also has to bear the risks of finding sufficient goods to ship at good freight rates. The consolidation of container shipping lines last year shows the high risks that shipping companies have to bear for providing voyage charters. As far as possible, FSL avoids having voyage charters.

At the other end of the spectrum, in a bareboat charter, FSL only provides the ship. All other expenses are borne by the charterer. Thus, bareboat charters generate the lowest revenue and costs among the 3 types of charters. This is the preferred type of charters for FSL, as the cashflow is the most steady.

In the middle of the spectrum are time charters, in which FSL bears the cost of the ship, crew, dry-docking, ship insurance, etc. while the charterer bears the cost of the bunkers, port charges, etc. Based on the financial results for FY2016, the BBCE revenue of a time charter is about 60% of the time charter revenue.

Besides the 3 types of charters, FSL also entered into a pool or Revenue Sharing Agreement (RSA) for some of its ships. Due to an oversupply of ships, FSL might not be able to find a charterer for some of the ships. Thus, it entered the ships in a pool to share revenue among similar ships. As an example, supposed there are 10 ships in a pool, but only 8 ships are hired on average. The 10 ships will share the revenue generated from the 8 ships. Thus, each ship will get only 80% of the revenue the ship would have in a time charter. Hence, for ships in a pool or RSA, there is a potential discount factor to consider in estimating the BBCE revenue based on the utilisation of the ships in the pool.

After discussing the various types of charters and pool arrangement, can FSL generate sufficient cash inflows of between USD50M to USD57M every year to meet its operating expenses and loan obligations? While I cannot predict what charter rates FSL can obtain in the future, we can at least assess whether FSL can generate sufficient cashflows based on historical charter rates. In its AGM presentation, FSL disclosed the current and average time charter rates in the past 5 years for its ships. Fig. 1 below compares FSL's charter rates against the 5-year average and current time charter rates in the market, as well as FSL's BBCE revenue in FY2016 against the BBCE revenue implied by the 5-year average and current time charter rates. As shown in the figure, some of the charter rates have fallen significantly. The last column provides a rough estimate of the sustainable BBCE revenue assuming that the existing charters are reset to the lower of the 5-year average or current charter rates. This figure also takes into consideration the possible utilisation rate for ships currently or likely to enter into a pool when their existing charters expire.

Fig. 1: Charter Rates and Estimated Sustainable BBCE Revenue

Based on the assumptions in the figure, the estimated sustainable BBCE revenue is USD43M, which is below the non-discretionary cash outflow of between USD50M to USD57M mentioned earlier. Thankfully, the BBCE revenue will not fall immediately from USD72.9M in FY2016 to USD43M as some of the more lucrative charters will not expire until mid 2020. Fig. 2 below shows the estimated annual BBCE revenue for each type of ships from FY2017 till FY2022.

Fig. 2: Estimated Annual BBCE Revenue

From FY2017 till FY2019, FSL is still able to generate BBCE revenue of USD63M, before falling to USD53M in FY2020 and USD43M in FY2021 and beyond. Based on the above estimated annual BBCE revenue and annual cash outflows, the year-by-year cashflows are estimated below.

Fig. 3: Estimated Annual Cashflows

Thankfully for FSL, just as the BBCE revenue begins to fall from FY2019 to FY2021, the loan principal repayment also ends around the same period, resulting in positive cashflows every year. By FY2021, FSL would have repaid its entire loan of USD192.5M and the remaining cashflow could be used to resume distributions to shareholders or buy new ships. The estimated balance sheet, excluding the value of ships which is subject to variable impairment losses, is shown in Fig. 4 below.

Fig. 4: Estimated Balance Sheet

By FY2020, the current assets (CA) would have exceeded the total liabilities. The value of FSL would be CA - Total Liabilities + Market Value of Ships.

Hence, based on the estimated future cashflows of FSL, it is likely to meet the loan obligations, providing another reason for believing why refinancing will likely to be successful.

Having said the above, the viability of FSL will depend very much on the Panamax containers, which are very lucrative when compared against the current charter rates in the market. They are currently leased to Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp. If Yang Ming were to default or fail, FSL will run out of cash unless the banks allow it a longer period to pay down the loan. This is definitely a high-risk game.

P.S. I am vested in FSL.

See related blog posts:

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Valuation of First Ship Lease Trust

A reader recently alerted me to the undervaluation of First Ship Lease Trust (FSL). It is a stock that lost a lot of money for me, having bought it at $1.27 in Oct 2007, averaged down at $0.42 in May 2009, before finally throwing in the towel at $0.225 in Jan 2012. Together with Rickmers Maritime, the shipping trusts were the worst investments in the 19 years that I had invested in the stock market.

However, despite the heavy losses, I am prepared to relook at it 5 years after I sold it. FSL is in the business of financing/ leasing ships. The shipping industry has been in the doldrums for many years, and this has resulted in poor financial performance for shipping companies and trusts. Rickmers recently decided to wind itself up, with no residual value for its shareholders, despite reporting a net asset value of USD0.21 as at Dec 2016. Its ships, listed in the balance sheet at USD499.6M, fetched only USD113M in a fire sale.

FSL is facing similar business conditions. In my opinion, there are 2 key challenges facing FSL. The first is an immediate one. There is a term loan currently valued at USD192.5M which is due to be repaid in Dec 2017. If refinancing is not successful, FSL will face liquidation and potential fire sale like Rickmers. However, if refinancing is successful, the next challenge is sustainability of its cashflows. A lot of its existing ship charters will expire in 2017 and the next few years. These charters were entered into many years ago when charter rates were still high, but have fallen significantly in the past few years. When the charters expire, the ships will earn much lower rates, posing questions over whether it could generate sufficient cashflow to meet its annual debt repayment obligations. Finally, if supposed there is still sufficient cashflow left after meeting its debt obligations, there would be opportunities to restart distributions to shareholders, which have been stopped since May 2012.

What is my estimated current valuation of FSL? A lot would depend on the value of the ships. If, like Rickmers, its ships could only fetch 23% of their book value, there would be nothing left for shareholders. Thankfully, due to the structure of its loan, we can get some indication of the market value of FSL's ships, which are listed at USD418.4M as at 1Q2017. 

The interest margin that FSL has to pay on its loan is dependent on the Value-to-Loan (VTL) ratio, as shown below.

VTL Ratio Loan Margin
100% to 140% 3.0%
140% to 180% 2.8%
Above 180% 2.6%

In 4Q2016, it reported a loan margin of 2.8%, which means that the VTL ratio is in the region of 140% to 180%. In 1Q2017, it reported a loan margin of 3.0%, which means that the VTL ratio has dropped to between 100% to 140% due to the decline in market value of the ships. In the Annual General Meeting presentation on 28 Apr 2017, FSL also mentioned that the VTL ratio is above 125% despite vessel valuations declining considerably during 2016 and 2017 to date. Based on the above information, we can work out a high and low estimate of the current valuation of FSL. The high estimate is based on VTL ratio of 140% reported in 4Q2016 while the low estimate is based on VTL ratio of 125% reported in 1Q2017.

4Q2016 1Q2017
Loan 223.2M 192.5M
Loan margin 2.80% 3.00%
VTL Ratio 140% 125%
Ship Value (Secured by Loan) 312.4M 240.6M
Ship Value (Unsecured by Loan) 15.0M 15.0M
Trade Receivables 3.9M 5.3M
Cash 42.9M 25.1M
Total Assets 374.2M 286.1M
Total Liabilities 227.0M 198.2M
Net Asset 147.3M 87.9M
No. of Shares 637.5M 637.5M
Net Asset Value (USD) 0.23 0.14
Net Asset Value (SGD) 0.32 0.19

Thus, my estimated current valuation of FSL ranges from SGD0.19 to SGD0.32. As shown above, the valuation varies significantly with the market value of the ships. Based on the above calculation, the loan is fully covered by the market value of the ships. In addition, in its 1Q2017 results presentation, FSL reported that the remaining charters will generate USD90M in revenue. Thus, I believe that the probability of successful refinancing is high. Hence, I have added a short-term speculative position in FSL at $0.11 after a 5-year hiatus. This is solely a bet on successful refinancing. If and after refinancing is successful, I will likely reduce the position considering the uncertainty in sustainability of future cashflows.

Although refinancing is likely in my opinion, a rights issue to raise some money to partially pay down the debt cannot be discounted. At the current price of $0.097, a rights issue is going to be very dilutive. Hence, when I bought into FSL, I was also prepared to subscribe fully to the rights issue so as not to dilute my shareholdings.

This is still not the end of the valuation estimation. Like all distressed asset plays, there will be other players who want to bargain hunt. On 28 Apr 2017, it was announced that the major shareholder planned to sell all its shares to Navios Maritime Holdings. In addition, Navios would provide a convertible loan of USD20M to FSL, which is convertible to such number of shares that, together with the shares bought from the major shareholder, will result in it owning 50.1% of the enlarged share capital. This translates to an additional 330.5M shares to be issued if the USD20M loan is converted, or SGD0.0847 per share, which is a 13% discount to the current price of SGD0.097. The exact terms of this proposed transaction have not be confirmed. After this transaction, the estimated valuation of FSL would reduce from SGD0.19 - SGD0.32 to SGD0.16 - SGD0.24.

This will be my third time buying into FSL. Will I lose money again on it? Let's wait and see. This is definitely not for the faint hearted and certainly not recommended for anybody.

See related blog posts:

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Globalisation, Technology and the Home Bias

I have both active and passive investments in my cash account. The active investments are in local equities while the passive investments are in global/US equities. Part of the reasons is because I understand that passive investments, especially using index funds, can lead to better performance over active investments. In recent years, I have come to realise that there is another important reason for having passive investments that are invested globally. It is the increasing disadvantage of the home bias in the face of globalisation and technology.

Since my active investments are in local equities, I am highly susceptible to the home bias. Home bias means that an investor invests only in companies operating in his home country due to familiarity with local companies and regulations. Literature shows that home bias results in lower performance as the investor gives up the opportunities of investing in better managed companies overseas. With globalisation and technology, the disadvantage posed by home bias is increasing.

Let us use Yellow Pages as an example to illustrate the increasing impact of globalisation and technology on home bias. Before the rise of internet search engines, whenever consumers wish to search for a particular good or service, they had to refer to either word-of-mouth or Yellow Pages. Yellow Pages thus could do well as it had a monopoly on the directory of goods and services in the country. Each country has its own version of Yellow Pages, with some doing better than others due to different environments. While investors who invest only in their country's Yellow Pages might not have reaped the maximum benefits from investing in the best run companies globally, they could still do relatively well. Before globalisation and technology, home bias leads to relative underperformance, but it is still not serious.

Enter the internet search engines. With internet search engines, consumers no longer need to refer to the local Yellow Pages to find goods and services. They can search on the internet instead. Companies also respond by advertising their goods and services on the internet instead of Yellow Pages. There is also a network effect at work. The more companies a particular search engine covers, the more consumers use that search engine. And the more consumers use that search engine, the more companies advertise on that search engine. This gives rise to just a few dominant search engines in every country. The 3 dominant search engines in the world are Google, Bing and Yahoo, which all reside in US. Thus, with the march of technology and globalisation, local Yellow Pages in every country suffer declining revenue from a business that used to be very stable. Investors who invest in their country's own Yellow Pages suffer as well. Home bias, in the face of globalisation and technology, can be serious.

Although I used Yellow Pages as an example, it is by no means the only company facing increasing challenges from globalisation and technology. SPH's newspapers are facing declining readership due to internet news sites, ComfortDelgro's taxi business is under threat from Uber, hotel business trusts like CDLHT, FrasersHT, FarEastHT, etc. are facing competition from Airbnb. The list goes on and on. The examples above show that big, local companies are not spared from the competition. Not only that, the competitors threatening the local companies are all based overseas. Investors who invest only in local companies are likely to see declining dividends and share prices.

In conclusion, before globalisation and technology, home bias is a small price to pay for the familiarity with local companies and regulations. But with the relentless march of globalisation and technology, the price of home bias is more and more singnificant. It looks like I have to allocate more money to my passive investments, which are invested in global/US equity funds.

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Sunday, 23 April 2017

Possibly The Worst Time to Invest – 3 Years On

This is an annual blog series that I started 3 years ago to document the worries about investing at the wrong time, which would bring losses and headaches. The blog series track the performance of 2 passive portfolios invested in index funds using the portfolio rebalancing strategy. Both portfolios comprise of 70% allocation in stocks and 30% in bonds. The plain vanilla portfolio invests in global equities and global bonds while the spicy portfolio invests in US equities and Asian bonds. The first portfolio was started in Dec 2013, while the second one was funded progressively over 2015. 

In the first post in 2014, I mentioned worries about the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) nearing its all-time high (then) and US Federal Reserve planning to raise interest rates from an all-time low. In the second post in 2015, I mentioned that the same worries persisted, with DJIA touching yet new highs and interest rates moving up in anticipation of Fed's interest rate increase. Not only that, new risks emerged with oil price crashing by more than 50%, China's growth slowing down and the threat of Grexit. Yet, despite all these worries, the plain vanilla portfolio went up by 12% since its inception.

In the third post last year, I mentioned that worries about market declines actually materialised, with major declines in Aug 2015 and Jan 2016. The decline in Jan 2016 was especially severe, with stock markets around the world crashing. At mid Feb 2016, the plain vanilla portfolio was down by 0.7% since inception while the spicy portfolio lost 7.0%. Yet, by the time I wrote the annual post in Apr 2016, both portfolios had bounced back strongly. The plain vanilla portfolio was up by 8.5% while the spicy portfolio gained 0.6% since inception.

With each passing year, more and more risks materialised. Jun 2016 saw Britons voting for Brexit while Nov 2016 saw US citizens voting for Donald Trump as president. Both outcomes were unexpected and led to sharp falls in the stock markets around the world. Yet, barely days later (or hours in the case of the US presidential election), stock markets had recovered fully from their initial falls. Not only that, stock markets went on to scale new heights on optimism that President Trump's fiscal policies would spur faster growth in the US and world economies. Currently, the plain vanilla portfolio is up by 21.6% while the spicy portfolio is up by 13.7% over their respective holding periods of about 3.5 years and 1.5 years.

Personally, I still worry a lot about risks, which I wrote about in a couple of posts last year, such as What Have We Got After 8 Years of Easy Money?, Making America Great Again and Its Impact to Asia, Another Year That Ends with 7, etc. This pessimism is reflected in my active investments. Over the past 1 year, I have been taking some money off the table. Some of the risk management related divestments include Venture at $8.38, Valuetronics (partial) at $0.50, Global Logistic Properties (partial) at $1.81 and a couple of speculative shares (see Meet The Minions). Nonetheless, there are new investments, but these are in more defensive stocks such as dividend stocks, beaten-down stocks and even Gold.

In fact, I was quite tempted to tinker with the 2 passive portfolios given the strong views about the market. But I decided not to do anything about them. Had I rebalanced or withdrawn money from the 2 passive portfolios, they would not have achieved the returns mentioned above. They have built-in defence mechanisms to manage market crashes through portfolio rebalancing if the stock/ bond allocation were to deviate from the original allocation by a pre-defined amount. For these 2 portfolios, I will continue to stick to the pre-defined strategy even if the markets were to crash.

In conclusion, it is difficult to predict where the markets are heading. If you have a well-defined defence mechanism in place, just let the portfolios continue their work.

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Sunday, 16 April 2017

Early Retirement Maybe A Luxury That I Cannot Afford

I have blogged about early retirement in the past 2 years, but I really do not intend for this to be an annual series. Moreover, I do not intend to retire early and sit back and do nothing. Nevertheless, there are fresh insights on this topic and it is good to write them down for future reference. 

In the past 1 year, I have read a few books such as "Capital in the 21st Century" and "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future". I am concerned about automation and robots taking away jobs. By right, this should not be a concern for someone who has considered early retirement. However, there are additional complexity if I think about future generations. I do not have any children currently, but if I have, then any actions on my part now would have an impact on them in the future.

I do not think I will be replaced by automation and robots any time soon. However, the same cannot be said for the next generation. If the doomsday scenario of robots replacing workers on a wide scale were to materialise, it means that we are back to the very old days when how well we live does not depend on how hard we work, but who our parents are and/or whom we marry. In the case of my children (if any), that parent would be me. Thus, when seen from an inter-generational perspective, the window of human employment is closing soon and early retirement at a time when jobs are still available seems a luxury. Hence, instead of saving enough for my own retirement and retiring early, I should work for as long as possible to maximise the income from human capital and build up sufficient financial capital upon which my descendants could lead a decent life. Early retirement maybe a luxury that I could not afford in the face of automation and robots.

Of course, this is not a fool-proof plan. Whatever I save could be squandered away by future descendents. So, I do hope that the doomsday scenario of robots replacing workers will not happen. Or perhaps the prevailing governments of the day would understand the social implications and implement some basic income for citizens as suggested in the books mentioned above. If I have to pay more taxes for this to happen, I would grudgingly pay them. It is a small price to pay for social insurance for my future generations.

Having said the above, if I can have the option of not relying on some external parties to bail us out, that would be the best. Thus, I will have to use my own efforts and earn as much as possible. Sorry, folks, I have to go back to work tomorrow.

See related blog posts:

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Breaking My Valuation & Position Limits

It is official! I have broken my valuation limits on buying & selling stocks and position limits on individual stocks! Previously, I mentioned in What is My Target Price? that I have valuation limits of 1.8 to 2.0 times book value for buying stocks and 3.5 to 4.0 times book value for selling them. In Jan this year, I had broken these rules with the purchase of M1 at 4.7 times book value and Singtel at 2.5 times book value!

Also broken were my position limits on individual stocks. I have an initial position limit of $15K to $20K on each stock, depending on what type of stocks they were. These limits could be doubled to $30K to $40K if I need to average down on the stocks. The position limits were first broken in Nov 2015 with the purchase of Global Logistic Properties (GLP). Initially, I thought this would be the exception rather than the rule, considering the long-term growth prospects of GLP. However, after I invested in M1 and Singtel beyond the initial position limits, it is confirmed that the position limits have been broken. 

What caused the change in my valuation and position limits? To understand the reasons for the change, you need to understand why the valuation and position limits were put there in the first place. For a very long time, I have been using quantitative methods to analyse and value stocks, looking at only earnings, dividends, cashflows, debts, book value, etc. This approach has served me well in the past, but there are times when this approach turned up value traps whose share price keeps on declining. Thus, it makes sense to have valuation limits to ensure that I do not overpay for stocks identified using this approach and position limits to ensure that whatever mistakes I make do not become so large that I cannot recover from them. Quantitative limits on valuation and position size go hand in hand with quantitative methods.

It is also important to realise that quantitative methods have some underlying assumptions -- either (1) the stock will close the gap between price and intrinsic value, (2) the stock will recover to its past earnings and price (mean reversion), or (3) the stock will continue to generate good earnings and dividends (extrapolation). Sometimes these assumptions do not hold. Some stocks just do not recover in earnings and price after a decline, such as the few Oil & Gas stocks that have gone into judicial management. Other stocks are unable to sustain the good earnings and dividends, such as Starhub and M1. The problem with quantitative methods is that you cannot tell whether the assumptions will hold or not until the results are announced. By that time, it is probably too late to sell the stocks. Valuation and position limits make a lot of sense when you cannot see what is ahead.

Over the past 2 years, I have been gradually moving away from quantitative analysis into qualitative analysis, looking at issues such as business strategies, competitive environment, corporate governance, etc. This approach has the advantage of providing a glimpse into where the business is heading instead of extrapolating from past performance. Thus, if the business looks good, I could take up positions ahead of the market. Conversely, if the business looks bad, I could sell in advance. Valuation and position limits are less useful if you can see accurately what is ahead.

Furthermore, SGX is a small market. There are very few stocks in some industries such as banks, telcos, shipping, etc. But the amount of work necessary to analyse the industry is independent of the number of listed companies in that industry. For example, I wrote 8 posts on the telco industry but there are only 3 telco stocks, out of which I selected 2 for purchase. If I could only invest $15K on each stock, it really does not do justice to the amount of efforts put in. Position limits become constraints when there are limited number of stocks in a particular industry. Thus, my position limits were officially broken with the purchase of M1 and Singtel in Jan.

Having said the above, I have not fully discarded the valuation and position limits. There are dividend stocks that I purchase using the quantitative methods. For these stocks which I have no insights or time to analyse deeply, valuation and position limits will continue to be in place.

Will breaking the valuation and position limits lead me to make mistakes that I cannot recover from? I certainly hope they would not. I will still need to improve my skills at seeing the future prospects of the companies. 

See related blog posts:

Monday, 3 April 2017

I Didn't Let My Alma Mater Down

How time flies. This is post no. 208, which makes it the 4th birthday for this weekly blog. This is a time for celebrations and reflections. Today's story is about my studies in the Singapore Management University (SMU)'s Masters in Applied Finance (MAF) programme.

I enrolled in the programme in Jul 2004. The stock market had just recovered from a 3-year slump due to the crash in 2000, Sep 11 terrorist attack in 2001, accounting scandals in 2002 and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003. After a prolonged slump, the market staged a strong recovery in 2004 and I made my first (small) pot of gold. I decided to reinvest the profits, not in stocks, but in a formal education in investment. Through good fortune, I heard of the MAF programme in SMU and decided to enrol in it in Jul 2004.

The MAF programme catered to professionals who wanted to advance in their careers in the finance industry as well as people who were looking to make a career switch into the industry. Thus, it took in graduates who were trained in other disciplines. However, being the introvert I am, I had totally no idea what the intent of the programme was all about, nor the hot prospects of jobs in the finance industry then. I was not even aware of the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) programme! I was simply happy to be accepted into the programme even though my basic degree is in engineering. It was only after I enrolled into the programme and met my new classmates, some of whom were planning to switch into the finance industry, did I realise what the programme was all about. At one stage, I wondered whether I had deprived anyone with the intention to switch of a place in the programme. Anyway, by then, it was too late. So, I continued my studies.

Frankly speaking, studying for the purpose of gaining knowledge instead of getting good grades is a joy. I enjoyed the lessons and the projects despite having to rush to class from work every Tue and Thu, besides spending the whole of Sat in classes. How could projects be boring if they were on analysis of companies such as Informatics, CK Tang, SIA, etc., since whatever insights we gathered for the projects could be useful for our own investments? Besides, the American education system that SMU adopted encouraged lively exchanges of ideas instead of just copying notes from the lecturer. I even had the curiosity to read up the "Greeks" (i.e. Black-Scholes model for options) outside of the classes! When we were about to graduate 1.5 years later, I felt a sense of loss. Never had I enjoyed classes so much in my life!

After I graduated, I applied for a few jobs in the finance industry, but I was not accepted, partly also because I was over 30 years old by then. Nevertheless, I did not feel too dejected, since my intention of enrolling in the programme was to gain knowledge rather than studying for grades.

A couple of years later, in 2012, I started this blog to share my knowledge and experience about investing. I believe I have a unique combination to offer to readers -- someone who is old enough to have 30+ years of experience in the stock market and has witnessed many stock market crashes but still young enough to blog and share knowledge. Furthermore, that practical experience is complemented by academic knowledge from the MAF and CFA programmes.

It is 4.5 years since I started blogging and 4 x 52 posts later, I believe I have established a useful resource for readers who wish to learn more about investing. What I have shared in this blog has sometimes gone beyond what is found in books. While I did not contribute back to society through working in the finance industry, through this blog, I am returning to society what I have gained from SMU. I like to say that I did not let my alma mater down. Thank you, SMU, for giving me a wonderful education in investment. Last, but not least, thank you readers who have encouraged me to continue writing through your visits to this blog.

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Sunday, 26 March 2017

The Investigative Approach to Stock Investments

There are a couple of quantitative methods for analysing stocks, such as the Dividend Discount Model (DDM). A lot of people use them for stock analysis and investment as they are relatively simple to use and do not require qualitative analysis of the business strategies, competitive environment, corporate governance, etc. For a very long time, I was also a keen user of such methods, looking at only earnings, dividends, cashflows, debts, book value, etc. to identify value stocks. Such an approach has served me well in the past. However, there are times when this approach turned up value traps whose stock price keeps on declining. Over the past 2 years, I have gradually moved away from such quantitative analysis.

Let us use the DDM as an example of the quantitative approach. A simple form of the DDM is:

where P    = Intrinsic value of stock
           D1  = Dividend for the next financial year
           r     = required rate of return
           g    = perpetuate rate of growth in dividends

It is simple to use, as there are only 4 parameters to estimate. A lot of times, in the absence of qualitative analysis, these parameters are estimated from past performance. However, past performance do not necessarily represent future performance. An example of this is Starhub. Since 2010, Starhub has been paying a constant dividend of 20 cents every year. The dividend has been so regular that it is commonly assumed that the 20-cent dividend will continue every year. Last month, Starhub dropped a bombshell by announcing that the dividend will be cut from 20 cents to 16 cents in FY2017. This is the perils of looking just at the financial numbers and extrapolating past performance into the future.

An alternative approach to stock investment is to carry out a qualitative analysis of the company and the industry it is in. One of the best known techniques in this approach is the scuttlebutt technique, which is made famous by Philip A. Fisher in his book "Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits". For the past 8 weeks, I have attempted the use of such an investigative approach in the analysis of telco stocks, looking at the business strategies, competitive environment, (my own) customer experience and industry trends. My skills are still rudimentary compared to the scuttlebutt technique, but the investigative approach does provide a glimpse of where the business is heading rather than extrapolating from past performance.

It is tough work reading through and comparing all the telco price plans, financial results, annual reports, industry statistics and trends, technology news, etc. But the end result is a better understanding of the prospects and risks of the company and whether the money can be safely invested in it. 

So far, 2 industry analyses have been completed, namely, Oil & Gas and Telcos. I hope to complete more industry analyses in time to come.

See related blog posts:

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Challenging Times Ahead for Starhub's Dividends

When M1 announced its results in end Jan, I went to buy both M1 and Singtel, but I did not buy Starhub. The conventional wisdom is that between M1 and Starhub, Starhub would be better able to manage the competition from the fourth telco, as it has Pay TV, broadband and enterprise fixed services besides mobile services. That is true provided the other business segments are generating stable, recurrent cashflows. However, is that true?

First of all, let us look at the revenue contribution from its 4 business segments.

Fig. 1: Starhub's Service Revenue Breakdown

Excluding equipment sales, mobile services constitute the bulk of Starhub's service revenue in FY2016, contributing 55% of the revenue. The second largest segment is enterprise fixed services, contributing 18%. Pay TV is third with 17% contribution while broadband services is smallest with 10% contribution. Let us look at the prospects of each business segment.

Mobile Services

Over the past couple of weeks, I have tried to understand the mobile services business by analysing M1, because M1's mobile services constitute 79% of its service revenue and is closest to a pure mobile services company. You can refer to the following blog posts for more information about the mobile services business:

Generally, based on my assessment of M1, mobile services is facing a decline in revenue due to the introduction of SIM-only plans and data upsize plans in the short run. However, the effects are transient and should disappear in the later half of the year. Over the long run, mobile services is still a viable business despite the threat of the fourth telco. 

Pay TV

An entire blog post is dedicated to the analysis of Starhub's Pay TV business in Is Pay TV Still A Reliable Cash Cow? Generally, the Pay TV business is facing intense competition from over-the-top (OTT) providers such as Netflix, CatchPlay, Apple TV, etc. The cost structure for the business is mostly fixed cost for the cable network infrastructure and premium TV content. Thus, the declining Pay TV subscription means that there are less subscribers to spread out the fixed cost. Furthermore, there is also the threat of TV content owners moving away from Pay TV providers to OTT providers. Starhub's response to OTT providers is to roll out similar video on-the-go services, which are priced lower than traditional Pay TV offerings. It also invested in mm2 Asia to acquire locally made video content.

Thus, from the cashflow perspective, there is reduced cashflow as subscribers move away from its Pay TV network and if Starhub continues to make investments in media companies.

Wired Broadband

The wired broadband business can be categorised into cable broadband and fibre broadband. The total no. of broadband subscribers have remained stable in the last 2 years. However, on closer inspection, there is declining subscription for cable broadband, offset by a corresponding rise in fibre broadband subscription. See Fig. 2 below.

Fig. 2: Starhub's Broadband Subscriptions

If the total no. of subscriptions stays the same, does it matter if one type of subscription is declining while another is increasing? Yes, it matters. As explained in the analysis of the Pay TV segment (see Is Pay TV Still A Reliable Cash Cow? for more details), the cable network infrastructure is a fixed capex cost, thus, the less cable broadband subscribers Starhub has, the less customers to spread out the fixed cost. Although Starhub has raised the monthly rates for cable broadband, that is still insufficient to offset the declining subscription. Fortunately, since the cable TV/ broadband businesses have been in operation for many years already, the infrastructure cost should have been mostly depreciated.

On the other hand, fibre broadband has a variable cost structure. Fibre broadband is provided through the Next Generation Nationwide Broadband Network (NGNBN) which is owned by NetLink Trust. Starhub leases the network capacity from NetLink Trust. Thus, the more fibre broadband subscribers Starhub has, the more money Starhub has to pay NetLink Trust. It is still a profitable business nonetheless, but the profit per subscriber is smaller than for cable broadband.

Moreover, the fibre broadband business is also facing intense competition from other telcos as well as broadband service providers like MyRepublic. M1 and Singtel have to bundle mobile broadband and digital home voice to stand out from the competition.

Thus, from the cashflow perspective, there is reduced cashflow from the wired broadband segment as subscribers move away from its cable broadband network.

Enterprise Fixed Services

Perhaps the only rising star is the enterprise fixed services segment. This segment is a cluster of InfoComm Technology (ICT) solutions such as managed security services and analytics, as well as infrastructure solutions such as data centres and islandwide fibre network. Revenue from this segment has increased by 3.9% in FY2016. However, to earn increasing revenue from this segment, Starhub has to continue to invest to build up the network infrastructure, which is expensive. In Jun 2016, Starhub issued a medium term note of $300 mil. In addition, Starhub has announced that dividends for FY2017 will be cut by 20%.

Moreover, this segment is not without competition. ICT solutions are in direct competition with Singtel, while infrastructure is in direct competition with the NGNBN owned by NetLink Trust and Singtel's own network. Thus, even this bet is not guaranteed.

From the cashflow perspective, this segment will require a lot of capex instead of contributing to the cashflow, at least in the short term while the network infrastructure is being built up.


Going back to the opening paragraph, the conventional wisdom is that between M1 and Starhub, Starhub would be better able to manage the competition from the fourth telco, as it has Pay TV, broadband and enterprise fixed services besides mobile services. Yet from the analysis above, it can be seen that the Pay TV and broadband segments are no longer the reliable cash cows that they used to be. Although enterprise fixed services is a rising star, it is soaking up cashflow at a time when the other 2 business segments are not generating as much cashflow as before. Starhub is facing challenging times ahead.

P.S. I am vested in M1 and Singtel.

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