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Market Musings 19/9/2012

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It’s been a busy couple of days on the newsflow front, with a lot of the Irish smallcap exploration names prominent in this regard. Let’s round up on what has been happening since my last update.

 

To kick off with the energy sector, Kentz was awarded a $50m shutdown services and operations support contract by Exxon in Sakhalin, far-east Russia.

 

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in PetroNeft plc) Siberian oil producer PetroNeft released a reassuring update this morning, which revealed that output is steady at 2,000 barrels of oil per day, while early results from the Arbuzovskoye well 101, the first of ten planned new production wells on the Arbuzovskoye oil field, are encouraging. We should see a marked pick-up in newsflow from this stock over the coming months as the Arbuzovskoye campaign gathers momentum.

 

Elsewhere, Petrel Resources announced a “new start” in Iraq, with a new team in place that will “work with national and regional authorities in Iraq to identify projects in which Petrel can be involved”.

 

Providence Resources provided an update on its Rathlin Basin acreage. While this project is very much at an early stage, the company has identified a number of anomalies that it will now focus on evaluating.

 

In other resources related news, there was an interesting backward integration move by Samsung, which has invested in a gold mine in exchange for getting a cut of the output. This follows Delta Air Line’s recent purchase of an oil refinery, and may mark a shift by companies to ensure greater security of supply of key inputs and/or margin capture by buying key suppliers.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Smurfit Kappa Group plc) There was further M&A activity in the European packaging sector, with Mondi acquiring Duropack’s German and Czech operations for €125m. This is extremely welcome on two counts. Firstly, the European packaging sector has traditionally suffered from overcapacity and volatile pricing, but as I have previously noted, in recent times there has been a wave of consolidation in the industry. This should lead to more rational pricing and supply policies going forward, which will lift profitability across the sector. Secondly, from a Smurfit Kappa Group perspective, the multiples these deals are being done at highlight the value in the stock. As Davy note, using the Mondi-Duropack multiple would imply an equity value of €11.30 a share on SKG, well ahead of the €7.60 it is trading at this morning.

 

In other Smurfit Kappa news, following a recent similar move the company announced the sale of €250m worth of senior secured floating rate notes due 2020. The proceeds will be used to pre-pay term loans maturing in 2016/17 and while they will not make a significant dent in interest costs (the new notes will pay 3 month Euribor +350bps, versus the 3 month Euribor +362.5-387.5bps the term notes pay) they do push out the average maturity of the group’s debt, thus reducing the risk around the company and giving it enhanced financial flexibility.

 

In the food sector, Origin Enterprises released its full-year results this morning. These revealed a solid performance by its core agri-services business, with like-for-like operating profits up 7%. Net debt has fallen sharply to €68m compared with €92m a year earlier, which reflects the strong cash flow generation of the business (free cash flow was circa €70m, which implies a FCF yield of 12% or thereabouts). Given this, management has upped the dividend by 36%, which moves dividend cover from last year’s 4x to 3x now. Overall, these are solid results from Origin and shareholders (not least its majority owner Aryzta) will no doubt welcome the significant increase in the dividend.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Independent News & Media plc) There was some unexpected fall-out from the Irish Daily Star’s (appalling) decision to publish pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge, with 50% owner Richard Desmond saying that he would take “immediate steps to close down the joint venture“. This is easier said than done, given the troubles this would involve with redundancies, property leases, a loss of profits and printing contracts. While there has been speculation that this could be a stroke by Desmond to replace a 50% owned JV with his 100% owned UK Daily Star in the Irish market, I can’t see INM abandoning its sole presence in the national daily tabloid space. So, either this dispute is settled amicably (perhaps with INM agreeing a call option to buy out Desmond?) or not, in which case INM will likely launch a new tabloid (using a different title, as Desmond owns the rights to the Daily Star name) which should be able to more than hold its own against any imported competitor whose relevance to the Irish market could well prove to be uncertain.

 

In the blogosphere, Lewis looked at Wincanton, with his blog providing enough to persuade me that I don’t need to look at it in more detail!

 

And finally, if you’ve ever wanted to learn more about money and banking, UCD’s top-rated Professor Karl Whelan has very kindly put up his lecture slides from a course on this very topic.

Market Musings 15/9/2012

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It’s been an eventful few days since my last ‘general’ round-up on what’s been happening in the markets, with the Federal Reserve further opening the monetary sluices and continued positive developments around Ireland Inc (a well received sale of bills, positive noises from the IMF, soaring bond prices etc.)

 

For me, the central message to take from these markets at this time is that the monetary authorities on both sides of the Atlantic stand ready to do ‘whatever it takes‘ on the policy front. This is unambiguously bullish for a number of asset classes, in particular equities (in general) and commodities (including gold, which I’ve been a bull on for some time), however, it also has other consequences that are worth bearing in mind. While the growth outlook is concern enough in itself, the main overall threat in the system (in my view) remains on the prices front, as an enthralling battle takes place between the forces of inflation (central banks’ printing presses) and deflation (private sector deleveraging). Which force is likely to prevail? The old rule of “Don’t bet against the Fed” comes to mind. This to my mind puts the onus on investors to position themselves accordingly. We have seen from the share price reactions to Helicopter Ben’s latest move how they should do this, with mining stocks (e.g. commodity plays) surging, financials pushing higher (anything that pushes up asset prices a positive, while the funding outlook is improved) and a lift in those highly leveraged stocks operating well within covenants and who may take the opportunity to refinance at even lower rates as yields are pushed down elsewhere by central bank intervention (a good example being Smurfit Kappa Group, which I hold, whose balance sheet is to my mind still very much misunderstood by the market, and which rose 13% on 11 times average daily volume in Dublin yesterday as more investors wake up to to the story). Of course, it is also worth bearing in mind that higher commodity prices are likely to hurt a lot of stocks that are price takers on the input side and who will struggle, due to the tough economic backdrop, to pass on higher input prices to consumers.

 

In terms of my own response to all of this, I have been stepping up my exposure to financials, trebling my stake in Bank of Ireland and significantly increasing my exposure to RBS (which is now my third-largest portfolio position). The recent surge in the value of Irish government bonds prompted my Bank of Ireland move, given that BKIR held €5,945m worth of them at the end of June (up to €1.5bn of which were acquired following the LTRO earlier this year). As the notes to BKIR’s interim results show (see page 99), the vast majority of these are in the books on a ‘Level 1’ fair value basis, i.e. “valued using quoted market prices in active markets”. Given the recent lift in Irish bond prices, this should have a positive impact on Bank of Ireland’s NAV, given that “any change in fair value is treated as a movement in the [available for sale] reserve in Stockholder’s equity”. Elsewhere, in the case of RBS, the IPO of its Direct Line business and recent moves towards agreeing financial settlements for Libor and IT issues indicate that the narrative around the group may be about to radically shift, as I noted in a recent blog post.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Datalex plc) In other news, travel software company Datalex confirmed that interim CEO Aidan Brogan is to get the job on a permanent basis. This is a sensible decision. Aidan has been with the firm for almost 20 years, and his strong background in sales is likely to help Datalex build on its growing list of clients.

 

Elsewhere in the TMT space, Johnston Press has reportedly delayed its relaunch programme. You can read my recent piece on the firm here.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in France Telecom plc) And in other TMT news, the team in aviate came up with an interesting angle on Apple’s latest toy, namely that “in the European launch only Deutsche Telkom and France Telecom were given the hallowed LTE version of the iPhone 5“. I must confess that what I know about ‘fashionable’ mobile phones could fit on the back of a postage stamp, so hopefully one of my kind readers will let me know if this is a significant advantage over other carriers or not!

 

In the energy sector, consolidation has been a big theme this year, as cash-rich majors have snapped up financially constrained small cap names with proven resources. This clip suggests that the trend has further to run (and indeed, assuming the latest QE moves push up oil prices, this will provide the large caps with even more cash to play around with).

 

In the blogosphere, Lewis profiled Impellam. Elsewhere, John took a good look at Rolls-Royce.

Written by Philip O'Sullivan

September 15, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Market Musings 10/9/2012

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This is a bit of a hotchpotch of what has been catching my eye over the past few days.

 

To kick off with construction, Abbey announced the results of the mandatory offer from Gallagher Holdings. The latter has raised its stake in the housebuilder by 10.7ppt to 72.6%. This is not enough to force a compulsory acquisition of the balance of the shares, so the stock will retain its listing. In the run up to the deadline, I had struggled about what decision to take about my own holding in the company. While the bid from Gallagher represented a nice exit price on a stock I purchased for only €4.60 a share, it was pitched at a disappointingly wide discount to NAV. In the end, I elected to take the cash, on the grounds that I didn’t want to stick around in a stock that has now arguably moved from ‘quite illiquid’ to ‘extremely illiquid’ (!), which makes it unappealing to many institutional investors. However, I may well re-enter the sector in the not too distant future given that the long-term drivers of growth are very much intact (a very old housing stock, net inward migration, severe pressure on housing in the South-East of England).

 

In the food sector, Investec argues that Premier Foods faces ‘death or glory’ by 2014. Elsewhere, NCB issued very different (in tone) reports on Aryzta and its majority-owned associate, Origin Enterprises. On Origin, NCB argues that weather and FX should provide a tailwind to earnings, while on Aryzta, NCB makes a persuasive argument that it may not hit its 400 cent earnings target for 2013.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Harvey Nash plc) In the recruitment space, SThree released an interim management statement that revealed slowing growth. On an annual basis its gross profits rose 6% in Q3 2012 (in constant currency terms) of its financial year (i.e. to end-August), down from +15% in Q1 and +9% in Q2. Drilling down into the numbers we see it has experienced weakness in both the UK & Ireland and ICT, with other areas performing more resiliently. The slowdown in the headline growth rate was, unsurprisingly, explained by “the difficult macro economic backdrop”, but SThree’s resilient overall performance highlights once more the importance at this time of choosing recruitment stocks that offer diversification (both by industry segment and geographic), an attractive dividend and a strong balance sheet. This is what attracted me to recently buy into one of its peers, Harvey Nash. I hope to find the time to research all of the stocks in the sector that fit this bill over the next while.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Bank of Ireland plc and RBS plc) There were a few items of note in the financials space. I saw a very bullish MarketWatch piece on Bank of Ireland, which served as a reminder that while a lot of the domestic commentary is ‘doom and gloom’ oriented, many international observers are bulled up on Ireland Inc (Franklin Templeton’s bold Irish sovereign debt move is a good example of this, as is this favourable coverage from CNBC). In other sector news, RBS is planning to shut down its precious metals trading unit, while it has also ceased commodities research. The FT also reported that it is nearing a Libor settlement with US and UK authorities, which would remove another legacy overhang from the group, which remains on my watch list. Finally, I offloaded my second biggest holding, Standard Life, which has had a great run of late and is no longer (in my view) in ‘cheap’ territory.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Trinity Mirror plc) I was pleased to see that new Trinity Mirror CEO Simon Fox has been set very demanding bonus targets based on the share price performance of the group. It is good to see a remuneration committee flex its muscles in this regard, especially in a way that ensures investors’ and management’s interests are very highly aligned.

 

In the blogosphere, John Kingham says: “When I look at BT I see a company and an investment that screams mediocrity“.

Written by Philip O'Sullivan

September 10, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Market Musings 6/9/2012

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The most interesting development I’ve noted this week has been the surge in bond issuance by corporates taking advantage of low yields to refinance at cheaper rates and also push out the weighted average maturity of their debt. No less than 3 of the 20 stocks I currently hold have been at this in recent days – Smurfit Kappa Group, France Telecom (which sold 10.5 year bonds yielding just 2.6%!) and RBS. While reducing interest bills and pushing out the maturity date for corporate debt piles are positive moves for plcs (e.g. a tailwind for earnings and lowered perceived risk), I can’t help but wonder if the recent spike in corporate bond sales points to a bubble in that market. Although, with central banks continuing to significantly influence sentiment towards bonds in general this is a bubble that may not pop for some time to come yet.

 

Switching to specific Irish corporate newsflow, full-year results from CPL Resources – the largest recruitment company in the country with a circa 40% market share – were released this morning. These revealed a resilient performance, with operating profits growing 39% to €10m, while earnings per share rose by a third (helped by a lower number of shares in issue following the recent tender offer). In terms of the outlook, while noting that the market remains “challenging”, management is confident of achieving “further profitable growth in the months ahead”. In all, this is a good set of numbers from CPL. My view on CPL Resources is positive, underpinned by a first-rate senior management team, dominant market share in its home market, a very strong balance sheet (net cash of €28.0m) and a diversified business model (both by geography and by sector).

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Tesco plc) We saw some more distribution channel innovation at Tesco, with the roll-out of drive-through grocery pickups. It will be interesting to see if moves like this help to arrest the decline in Tesco’s UK market share.

 

In the energy sector, Providence Resources said its 80% owned Barryroe oil field offshore Cork may contain another 1.2bn barrels, bringing the total potential resource to 2.8bn (it should be noted that this is a P10 estimate).

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Ryanair plc) In the transport space, easyJet said that it is to roll out allocated seating across its network from November. This is a significant move and it will be interesting to see if Ryanair, which has experimented with this, follows suit. Speaking of Ryanair, it reported its busiest ever month in August, carrying a record 8.9m passengers, up 9% year-on-year. There has been a lot of media attention given over to Ryanair’s falling load factors (-1ppt to 88%), but I am not especially concerned by that given the impact capacity redeployments (mainly from northern to southern Europe) have presumably had on traffic stats, so I prefer to focus on the positive momentum in total passengers carried. Elsewhere, Aer Lingus reported a fall in ‘mainline’ passengers carried for the second successive month, however, good capacity management kept loads in positive territory.

 

In the blogosphere Lewis looked at an interesting UK quoted manufacturing company, Renold.

Written by Philip O'Sullivan

September 6, 2012 at 10:58 am

Market Musings 4/9/2012

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Newsflow has been mercifully light today, which is a help as I’m working on a number of other projects at the moment. In this blog I look at this evening’s Irish Exchequer Returns data, results from Total Produce and a few other bits and pieces that caught my attention since my last update.

 

To kick off with the latest Irish Exchequer Returns data, covering the first 8 months of 2012, these show a big improvement in the reported deficit, which makes for great headlines, but, as I’ve previously cautioned around such releases, tells us little of value about the underlying picture. Total receipts (both current and capital) rose 12% relative to year-earlier levels, while total expenditure (on the same basis) was 14% lower. This produced an Exchequer deficit of €11.4bn versus €20.4bn in the same period last year. However, that deficit figure is meaningless unless you adjust for one-off items and timing issues. On the revenue side, the Exchequer coffers were swelled by €233m from the sale of Bank of Ireland stock last year, while there were no such one-off gains this time round. Recapitalising the listed financial institutions cost €7.6bn in the first 8 months of 2011, but only €1.3bn in the same period this year. So far in 2012 the State has injected €450m into the Insurance Compensation Fund (2011: nil), while Promissory Notes (at least on a reported basis) have cost €25m in the ytd versus €3.1bn last year. Summing these items means that to get the underlying deficit for the first 8 months of 2011 you have to reduce revenues by €0.2bn and lower spending by €10.7bn. This produces a ‘underling’ deficit of €9.5bn in the first 8 months of 2011. The same exercise for the year to date involves lowering total expenditure by €1.8bn, which produces an underlying deficit of €9.6bn between January and August 2012. So, while the headlines suggest the deficit has significantly improved, in reality the underlying fiscal position is in fact little changed. While total revenues have increased (by €2.7bn on a reported basis), this has been eaten up by items such as a €1.6bn increase in interest costs on the national debt, while voted (i.e. day-to-day, nothing to do with bank recaps or interest on the national debt) spending is €0.4bn above year-earlier levels, in contrast to claims that extraordinary levels of fiscal austerity are being imposed on the economy. So, a case of ‘a lot done, more to do’.

 

One potential positive for Ireland Inc, however, is news that at least two European insurance IPOs are planned for later this year – Direct Line and Talanx. Assuming they get off OK it will bode well for the prospects of a sale of the State-owned Irish Life and, in time, (State-owned) IBRC’s 49% shareholding in the old Quinn Insurance business.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Total Produce plc) Total Produce released its interim results this morning. These revealed a 6.7% increase in earnings, while management hiked the dividend by +5% and raised the full-year guided earnings to the “upper end” of the previous 7-8c range.  This is all good stuff, and I suspect the risks for Total Produce lie to the upside as we move towards the end of the financial year. I remain a very happy holder of the stock, and given that it trades on only about 5.5x earnings and has a bulletproof business model, I would consider adding to my position.

 

Staying with the food and beverage sector, UK pub group Greene King said that the Olympics made no difference to its performance. While its overall reported like-for-like sales growth, at 5.1%, is commendable, its comments on the games strengthens my conviction around my recent disposal of shares in one of its peers, Marston’s, after the last of the three clearly identifiable potential catalysts for the sector (Euro 2012, Olympics, Jubilee) had played out.

 

Botswana Diamonds, which I recently profiled, issued an upbeat prospecting update this morning. The shares closed +17.7% in London, so clearly the market liked the look of them. It’s one of the stocks I have on the watchlist at this time.

 

Switching to the support services sector, the venerable Paul Scott profiled UK staffer Staffline. You can read my profile of one of its peers, Harvey Nash, here.

 

Another support services company, albeit a rather different beast, DCC, announced the acquisition of Statoil’s industrial LPG business in Sweden and Norway. This is a sensible bolt-on deal that strengthens DCC’s position in the Scandinavian region.

Market Musings 3/9/2012

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(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Abbey plc) While the macro outlook is challenging, it is interesting to see that two UK focused housebuilders have been the subject of takeover approaches from management in recent weeks. An investment vehicle controlled by Abbey’s Executive Chairman now owns nearly 62% of the company’s shares, with its offer remaining open for acceptances until 1pm (Dublin time) on 7 September 2012. Elsewhere, the Chairman of Redrow has also made a preliminary approach to buy out the firm using a consortium comprising his own investment vehicle and two funds. When management teams, who presumably (!) have access to better information than the likes of you and me, are making such moves, this suggests to me that there is decent value still to be had in the sector.

 

Staying with UK stocks, I sold out of Marston’s this morning. My reasons for doing so were twofold. Firstly, the three catalysts that had been identified for the stock (The Queen’s Jubilee, Euro 2012 and The Olympics) are all over and I am guessing that the regular newsflow from the many quoted UK pub groups means that the impact of these have all been priced in. Secondly, the shares have increased by over 25% (in euro terms) since I added it to the portfolio earlier this year. You can read about why I was originally attracted to Marston’s here. In terms of where the proceeds are being recycled into (Harvey Nash plc), I will upload a blog later today outlining my rationale for the inclusion of ‘an old friend’ back in the portfolio.

 

In other food & beverage sector news, tropical produce importer Fyffes today raised its full-year adjusted EBITA guidance to a range of €28-33m versus the previous €25-30m. This improved outlook is based on decent organic growth and FX effects in H1 2012. Extrapolating from the adjusted EBITA of €23.3m Fyffes achieved in the first half of the year and adjusted diluted EPS of 6.48c in the same period, this points to full-year earnings of at least 8.5c, putting the stock on less than 6x earnings, so clearly cheap. Its sister company, Total Produce, which I hold, reports its interim results tomorrow.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Smurfit Kappa plc) There was a bit of news out of Smurfit Kappa Group since my last update. This morning it announced the launch of a senior secured notes offering, which will raise €200m and $250m, maturing in 2018. The proceeds will be used to repay all of the existing 7.75% senior subordinated notes due in 2015. Given the relatively low rates on offer for similar rated debt at this time, this should, I estimate, shave at least €7m from SKG’s annual interest bill, as well as extending the weighted average maturity of its debt, which reduces the perceived riskiness around the group. In all, a win-win move for Smurfit Kappa. Elsewhere, the group is to invest €28m in a new bag-in-box facility in Spain, which  is a further sign of how Smurfit Kappa’s improved financial position is giving it enhanced flexibility on both the M&A and capex fronts.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Independent News & Media plc) It was confirmed that total Irish newspaper advertising declined 10% in the first 6 months of 2012. Annualising it, and putting in a little bit of a kicker for Christmas related spending, means that it’s still a circa €180m market, so not to be sniffed at despite the confident predictions of certain ‘new media’ devotees who assure me that ‘old media’ is completely toast. While I don’t for one moment dispute that old media is in long-term structural decline, my central thesis on the sector remains that it will not disappear for many years to come, with larger newspaper groups (such as INM) being able to mitigate against the effects of a shrinking market by gaining share as weaker competitors exit the industry. Of course, the extent to which equity investors can benefit from this depends on how successfully INM can prevail over its liabilities, and in this regard I was pleased to read reports of a third bidder entering the fray for INM’s South African unit. The more the merrier, clearly, as this should mean a satisfactory sale price for the business.

 

In the blogosphere, I was pleased to see the launch of two new blogs by Paul Curtis and Mark Murnane. I’ll be updating the blogroll later today – if there are any other investment and/or economics sites you think I should be following, please suggest them in the comments section below.

Written by Philip O'Sullivan

September 3, 2012 at 10:02 am

Market Musings 31/8/2012

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(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Irish Continental Group plc) The main news since my last update has been around ICG, whose shares have surged on the back of the announcement of a tender offer pitched at €18.50, or circa 15% above where they closed at on Wednesday. This announcement was contained in its interim results release, which revealed a resilient performance despite the macro headwinds. Revenues were flat, while good work on the cost side meant that EBITDA was only down €1.8m year-on-year in spite of a €4.5m increase in fuel costs. The company is also putting its balance sheet to work with its €111.5m tender offer, which I’m guessing should put net debt / EBITDA at circa 2x by the end of next year, so still undemanding. ICG has also announced the disposal of its Feederlink business for up to €29m, which looks like a great deal – 16x PBT. In all, yesterday’s news reaffirms my view on ICG – a very attractive business model (effectively a duopoly with Stena on the Irish Sea) with potent barriers to entry (capital, control of key port slots and other infrastructure), very strong cashflow generation with no major medium term capex requirements, huge operating leverage benefits once an eventual Irish recovery emerges and a fat dividend to boot.

 

Elsewhere, Kentz released good H1 results, with revenue +9%, PBT +36%, net cash +36% (to $241m)  while its backlog, at $2.54bn, is up 6% in the year to date. I’ve bought and sold Kentz before and would definitely consider putting it back into the portfolio at some stage – it’s a very well-managed business that is plugged into an area with buoyant long-term growth prospects where the long-term nature of work projects provides good visibility on revenues.

 

Switching to TMT stocks, betting software group Playtech released its H1 results yesterday morning, which revealed a very strong performance. It’s a stock I used to hold but which I sold on corporate governance grounds, which is a pity as I like the structural growth story around the sector, but not enough to hold a stock that has given me plenty of sleepless nights in the past!

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Independent News & Media plc) INM released its interim results this morning. These revealed a 26% decline in operating profits to €25.4m on revenues that were 4% lower at €272.2m. Trading conditions are, unsurprisingly, described as ‘difficult’. I was, however, surprised by the sluggish progress on the deleveraging front. Net debt fell by €3.5m, or less than 1%, since the start of the year. Led by the drop in profitability, free cash flow halved to €12.7m (H1 2011: €23.0m), but most of this was eaten up by cash exceptional items. INM’s retirement benefit obligations widened to €187.8m by the end of June, from €147.0m at the end of 2011. A potential sale of its South African business would significantly improve INM’s balance sheet and save millions in annual interest costs, and on that note I was pleased to see the group confirm in the presentation accompanying the results that it has received 2 bids for that unit. In all, there is little to get exited about from this release. INM is under pressure due to the tough macro conditions, while its high leverage ratchets up the risks around the company. That is not to say that catalysts for a re-rating are difficult to identify. These include a sale (on reasonable terms) of the South Africa business, a recovery in its 30% owned associate APN’s share price, a resolution of its pension issues and an improvement in advertising conditions. However, identification and successful execution are, clearly, two different things, so I’m disinclined to increase my stake in INM (currently 120bps of my portfolio) for the time being at least.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in France Telecom plc) There was further disappointing news from the French telecom sector, with Bouygues revealing that its profits in that area have sunk due to intense price competition from the new entrant, Iliad (whose results this morning have come in ahead of expectations). France Telecom is also being impacted by this pressure, but the impact is somewhat mitigated by Iliad’s use of FTE’s network. Speaking of FTE’s network, the group’s chairman was quoted by Reuters as saying they are in preliminary discussions with rivals about sharing 3G networks to reduce costs, which would be a welcome move.

 

Finally, smallcap financial IFG released its interim results today. These revealed a deterioration in profits in its continuing businesses, with UK profits falling due to falling SIPP volumes, investment in risk and compliance, and challenging conditions in the IFA space, while losses in Ireland have widened due to difficult economic conditions. The operating performance is, however, overshadowed by news of a £30m share buyback, which adds IFG to a growing list of firms (CPL, Abbey, Ryanair etc.) here that have launched similar measures in recent times. If only our plcs had the confidence to invest in growing their businesses through acquisition / greenfield initiatives that would (if done properly) augment their growth potential instead of engaging in de-equitisation. Oh well!

Written by Philip O'Sullivan

August 31, 2012 at 8:06 am

Market Musings 29/8/2012

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It has been another busy day on the results front in Ireland.

 

To start things off, Paddy Power released strong H1 results, with earnings rising 25%. This was despite start-up losses of €6.3m for four new online ventures and some adverse sports results. Net revenue increased in all five divisions (Online, Online Australia, Irish Retail, UK Retail and Telephone) by between 13 and 47%, which is an impressive performance. Also impressive is its branding efforts – in the year to date Paddy Power has increased its Facebook fans by 445% to 251k, Twitter followers by 308% to 133k and YouTube views by 186% to 13m. This gives the group an expanded audience to market its online offering to. As noted above, Paddy Power is investing heavily in improving its offering, particularly on the online side, while it is expanding into new markets. This increased investment is presumably why we aren’t seeing an upgrade to full year earnings guidance today from management despite the strong momentum evident across the group, however, as this investment enhances the longer-term profit outlook for the group investors shouldn’t be particularly concerned about it.

 

Grafton also released its interim results this morning. Reported revenues climbed 5%, but self-help measures on the cost side meant that operating profits increased by just over 19%. In addition, the group’s cash flow generation was impressive – Grafton generated operating cash flow of €55m, well ahead of its €30m in operating profits, as it reduced investment in working capital by €13.5m – a particularly impressive achievement given the increase in revenue. Net debt has reduced by €25m in the year to date to just €201m. There were significant variations in terms of the performance of Grafton’s main operating units. In the UK, revenues and operating profits rose 4% and 12% in constant currency terms, despite a tough market backdrop. In its small Belgian business, which accounts for circa 1.5% of group revenues, profits were flat despite a big increase (albeit off a small base) in sales. In Ireland, conditions remain very challenging – despite many of its competitors having reduced their presence in the market, Grafton’s merchanting revenues were -9% in H1 2012 while retailing revenue fell by 12% in the same period. Cost reduction measures helped to soften the impact on the bottom line. In all, the key message from these results for me is that Grafton is doing all the right things on the cash generation and cost fronts, but the benefits of this are being tempered by difficult end-markets.

 

Switching to food, Glanbia made two announcements this morning. The first being its interim results, which revealed a strong performance on the nutrition side allied to favourable currency effects (reporting earnings were +8.4%, but just +1.3% in constant currency terms). Management has hiked its full year (constant currency) earnings growth outlook from the previous 5-7% range to 8-10%. The second announcement relates to the restructuring of its Dairy Ireland business. Assuming it gets cleared by the various stakeholders, there may be a near-term share price overhang as the Co-op (Glanbia’s biggest shareholder) sells a total of 6% of its stock, while there may be further downward pressure as the Co-op distributes a further 7% of the company to farmers, some of whom may sell their shares. However, in the longer term the market should reward the improved liquidity, free-float and stability of earnings arising from this restructuring of Glanbia’s Irish dairy business.

 

In the financial sector, KBC reduced its 1 year Irish deposit rate by 30bps. This is positive news for banks operating in Ireland as it should help making the task of rebuilding net interest margins across the sector a little easier.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in PTSB plc) Speaking of Irish banks’ margins, interim results this morning from PTSB reveal a sharp decline in the NIM since the start of the year. In 2011 PTSB’s net interest margin was 92bps, but this has fallen to 76bps in H1 2012, due mainly to higher deposit costs. Total customer accounts and deposits have increased by €2.2bn in the year to date, with the majority of this due to corporate deposits (the vast majority, if you exclude the customer balances received following the acquisition of Northern Rock’s Irish deposit book), which is a welcome development. PTSB’s LDR fell to 190% at end-June from 227% at end-2011, so still unsustainably high but moving in the right direction at least. Asset quality deteriorated further since the start of the year, with 14.1% of mortgages in arrears of greater than 90 days at the end of June (12.0% at end-2011). The weighted average loan-to-value across PTSB’s mortgage book is 113%, with Irish owner-occupied at 115% and Irish buy-to-let at 137% (UK owner-occupied is 86% while UK BTL is 87%), which points to further pain ahead for the bank. In terms of self-help measures, operating expenses at PTSB were flat year-on-year at €136m, but even a significant reduction in this would be a drop in the ocean compared to the challenges in the loan book. One potential source of optimism is its excess capital – the total capital ratio was 21.5% at the end of June, well above the Central Bank’s minimum target of 10.5%. However, while the excess funds, at €2.2bn, are more than twice the group’s market capitalisation, further impairment charges will eat into this.

Written by Philip O'Sullivan

August 29, 2012 at 11:15 am

Market Musings 28/8/2012

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It has been a busy day on the results front in Ireland, particularly in the TMT sector.

 

To kick off, UTV Media, which has interests in the radio (local stations in the UK and Ireland, and the national talkSPORT station in the UK), television (the ‘Channel 3’ – ITV – franchise for Ulster) and new media (website design, marketing, broadband) segments, released its interim results this morning. This revealed a resilient performance in what are, clearly, challenging end-markets, with revenues and pre-tax profits climbing 4% and 3% respectively. The group continues to make impressive progress in terms of strengthening its financial position, cutting net debt by 21% over the past year to £50.0m. Across the group, UK radio revenues powered ahead, helped by the benefits of Euro 2012. Irish radio significantly outperformed, rising 4% in local currency terms, despite an estimated 10% fall in total Irish radio advertising in the first 6 months of 2012. The reason for this outperformance is that UTV’s Irish stations are all focused on the key urban markets on the Island of Ireland, which gives it a relatively more attractive proposition to offer to advertisers. On the television side, revenues and profits were down, with weak Irish advertising conditions to blame. With regard to the small new media business, margins were under pressure due to ‘competitive pricing’. In terms of the outlook, it looks like the rest of the year will see similar trends to the above, with outperformance on the radio side, underperformance in television and modest topline growth in new media. Not that investors should be too perturbed by this, as UTV is doing a decent enough job despite the challenging macro backdrop.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Datalex plc) I was pleased to see Datalex release very strong interim results today. Reflecting last year’s new contract wins (including Air China and SITA), revenues rose 18% to $15.7m. Reflecting the operating leverage inherent in Datalex’s model, nearly all of this  translated into profits – I note that in the first 6 months of 2012 Datalex generated gross profits of $2.8m, 82% of the total for the whole of 2011! This positive momentum should be sustained into 2013, with the likes of Indonesia’s Garuda and Fiji’s Air Pacific having gone live since the start of the year, while a number of other carriers including Delta are scheduled to go live later this year. On the balance sheet front, Datalex is guiding a 20%+ rise in cash reserves in 2012. Overall, these are excellent results, and continued good news on the new client wins front bodes well for the future. I’m not surprised to see the shares shoot higher in Dublin today.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Independent News & Media plc) INM completed the restructuring of its board, with the election of four new directors and the appointment of a new Chairman and Senior Independent Director. With this out of the way, hopefully the focus can move on to the more crucial issue of repairing the firm’s balance sheet, and on this front the Irish advertising trends noted by UTV must surely bode ill for INM.

 

Insurer FBD posted solid H1 results today. The numbers were in-line with expectations, while management is sticking to its FY guidance. Within the results it was interesting to see that FBD has reduced its exposure to government bonds by over 40% in the year to date – this is a sensible move given what I believe to be a bubble in government bonds in Europe – although its exposure to equities remains low, at just 4% of total underwriting investment assets.

 

United Drug announced another two acquisitionsDrug Safety Alliance (total consideration, including earn-outs, of $28m) and Synopia (total consideration, including earn-outs, of $12m). Both businesses will form part of United Drug’s Sales, Marketing & Medical division. These deals take the number of acquisitions the firm has made so far in 2012 to six (five operating businesses and one property acquisition), so bedding these down will presumably take up a lot of management’s time over the next while.

 

In the resource sector Petroceltic’s H1 release contained no material ‘new news’. Management is focused on successfully executing the merger with Melrose Resources.

 

And that’s pretty much all that’s caught my attention so far today. Tomorrow brings results from PTSB, Grafton, Paddy Power and Glanbia, which will no doubt provide much food for thought.

Written by Philip O'Sullivan

August 28, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Market Musings 27/8/2012

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(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in AIB, Bank of Ireland and PTSB) Since my last update I was pleased to see that deposits at Ireland’s covered banks (AIB, Bank of Ireland, PTSB) were +10% year-on-year in July 2012. This is a helpful vote of confidence in the system, given that it suggests that overseas deposits (given the sclerotic domestic economic situation) are returning to the Irish financials.

 

Speaking of Ireland Inc, there has been an intense focus in recent days around the possible introduction of a property tax. Ronan Lyons, who is the most authoritative voice on the Irish property sector, has written a good piece outlining the different considerations around such a measure. I agree with him in principle that we should have such a tax, particularly given that too much of our tax revenues are dependent on flows instead of stock. I say ‘in principle’ because I have difficulty in seeing how Irish people can shoulder yet another tax at this time – we currently have a situation where more than 1 in 5 mortgages are in trouble, while more than 1 in 7 people in the labour force are out of work. Throw in the effects of rising taxes over the past few budgets and falling incomes and I think we could be facing a scenario of mass evasion / people (in many cases justifiably) pleading inability to pay similar to the household charge debacle from earlier this year. Some have argued that a modified ‘property tax’ taking into account incomes should be introduced, but that would in practice only amount to yet another income tax, which will act as a disincentive to work (given the already elevated marginal tax on incomes in Ireland).

 

In the energy sector, I was unsurprised to see a surge in applications for UK North Sea licences following the British government’s reversal of its previous anti-investment stance, which I had been critical of. I hope to do some work on the firms focused on the UK continental shelf (Xcite Energy in particular seems to have a lot of fans) over the coming weeks.

 

In the pharma space, there was an interesting article in The Irish Independent around the prospects for a sale of Elan Corporation that’s worth checking out.

 

(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Ryanair plc) In the airline sector, the Irish government made the astonishing revelation that it has yet to formally discuss a sale of its stake in Aer Lingus to Etihad. Considering that a sale of State assets has been agreed with the Troika as part of Ireland’s “bail-out” and Etihad having recently signaled that it may also bid for part of Ryanair’s stake, I would have imagined that Dublin wouldn’t have been slow out of the blocks to have proper talks with the Middle Eastern carrier. This is especially so given that Etihad can effectively only buy either the government’s stake or most of Ryanair’s holding, because even though as a non-EU carrier it can, in theory, buy up to 49% of Aer Lingus, in practice Irish stock exchange rules which say you have to bid for the whole company if you go above 29.9% rules this out for the time being at least (there are some ways of circumventing this, but they would likely prove cumbersome to execute in the short-term).

 

Finally, I was sorry to read that Calum has closed his blog. There is a dearth of high quality blogs in the UK and Ireland covering the stock market and the demise of yet another one is a great shame.

Written by Philip O'Sullivan

August 27, 2012 at 10:46 am

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