Philip O'Sullivan's Market Musings

Financial analysis from Dublin, Ireland

Posts Tagged ‘Harvey Nash

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.

Harvey Nash (HVN.L) – Recruiting Shareholders

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(This is the eighteenth installment in my series of case studies on the shares that have featured in my portfolio. To see the other seventeen articles, on Smurfit Kappa GroupBank of IrelandAIBRBSMarston’sFrance TelecomRyanairPetroNeftIrish Continental GroupIndependent News & MediaTotal ProduceAbbeyGlanbiaIrish Life & PermanentDatalexTrinity Mirror and Datong, click on the company names. I remain an investor in all of the above stocks, save for Marston’s and Glanbia)


One of the most interesting market sectors for me is recruitment. As with other professional services’ business models, it has some unusual characteristics – its principal assets walk out the door each evening, it has minimal capex requirements (a rented office, phone line and computer will suffice for most employees where tangible assets are concerned) and while its core business is, clearly, very cyclical, companies in the space can reduce volatility through measures such as diversification across different segments of the labour market or by adding recurring revenue offerings such as managed services (payroll etc.) to clients.


I’ve held two UK listed recruitment stocks in the past, namely Imprint (which is no longer quoted) and Harvey Nash. I sold out of the latter last year when its shares were trading above 70p. With the price now back in the low 50s, I figured that it was time to update the model and investigate whether or not I should be buying back into it.


To start, let’s look at Harvey Nash’s business model. To say it is a diversified one wouldn’t quite cover it – the group has 40 offices in Europe, North America and Asia. As slides 24 through 26 of this presentation show, just under half of its gross profits come from Europe, with 39% from the UK (which includes Asia!) and 12% coming from the US. Outside of geographic diversity, it is also quite diverse where sectoral exposure is concerned. Some 22% of gross profits come from executive search, 17% from permanent recruitment, 34% from contract & temporary, 19% from offshoring & outsourcing and 8% from managed services. The latter three are clearly ‘stickier’ than the first two, which are more reliant on one-off revenues. The group also operates across a wide range of industries. So, with different revenue streams across multiple industries in three continents, Harvey Nash doesn’t have anything like the degree of volatility a staffer focused on just one or two segments and/or markets would have.


Turning to its performance in recent years, I should mention that I don’t look at staffers’ revenues when analysing their performance, as this can be distorted significantly by mix effects due to the different treatment of monies received for placing permanent and temporary / contract candidates. So, skipping down to the more meaningful profit lines reveals a resilient performance over the past 5 years. Gross profits in the year ending 31 January 2012 were 63% higher than in the year ended 31 January 2007, while over the same period operating profits grew 33%. Harvey Nash’s operating profits for the 12 months to the end of January 2012 (€9m) were double those achieved at the low point of the cycle (the financial year ended 31/1/10). Despite the economic headwinds, the group has retained a prudent balance sheet policy, reporting net cash in each of the previous 5 years. Loyal investors have also been rewarded by a dividend that has increased by a total of 166% over the past 5 years.


In terms of returns metrics, there are some interesting takeaways from these. Between FY07 and FY09, ROCE and ROE were very stable, consistently standing at circa 17% and circa 11% respectively. Once the downturn hit, these unsurprisingly nosedived in tandem with profits, to reach troughs of 2.9% and 1.4% respectively in FY10. Over the past two years these have started to recover back towards cyclical highs, reaching 13.9% and 9.2% in the 12 months to the end of January. Given that these are still some way off pre-economic crisis highs, I think this is a good point in the cycle to be revisiting the story.


So, with Harvey Nash’s track record where earnings, dividends and returns are concerned out of the way, what has the company been saying recently? Obviously, conditions are far from optimal, but the company has nonetheless sustained its positive momentum. In its June trading update, management said it was ‘delighted’ with the group’s performance in Q1 of its financial year, with revenues +18% and underlying operating profits +10%. More recently, in an update provided in the middle of August ahead of the release of H1 numbers on September 28, the company said it expects to ‘confirm a robust performance’ in H1, guiding a 15% rise in revenues and 7%+ uplift in operating profits. Another development revealed in that update was the revelation that the company has swung into a modest (£13m) net debt position, having had net cash of £5.2m at the end of January. This reversal is due to: (i) a £2.2m one-off spend on a new consolidated facility for its London operation; (ii) the €1.8m cost of a business acquired in Belgium; and (iii) investment in working capital to support the temporary labour business. None of these factors give me any cause for concern as: (i) the London facility will trim costs by £0.8m per annum, so a less than 3 year payback; (ii) the Belgian business was acquired for less than 3x PBT, which again points to a likely short payback period; and (iii) Harvey Nash guides that working capital investment will “return to more normalised levels over the next 18 months”. Moreover, the £13m net debt compares with existing bank facilities of £41m, which gives me more comfort.


In terms of the valuation, based on consensus EPS forecasts and this evening’s closing price (51.75p), Harvey Nash trades on 7.5x forward earnings. This compares very favourably with its UK quoted peers – Hays (13.2x), Robert Walters (26.4x) and Michael Page International (24.8x).


One of the key problems with staffers is forecasting their likely performance, given the short-term visibility that is inherent to the permanent hiring business. In my own model, in which I’ve plugged in what to me look like conservative assumptions, I can get to a valuation above £1 (£1.056 to be precise), or about double where Harvey Nash is now. Is that an unrealistic valuation? Well, when you look at the multiples its peers trade on, I don’t think it is at all. Also, while past performance is by no means a guarantee of future returns, HVN’s shares traded as high as 97p in mid-2011. Moreover, if I simply plug in the £13m net debt reported in the recent statement into the DCF-based model and ignore the expected unwinding of this, it spits out an 81p price target, which is close to 60% above where the shares now trade. The key near-term risk is, obviously, the macro backdrop, but three things make me relaxed about this, namely: (i) Harvey Nash is cheap in both absolute and relative terms; (ii) if the outlook deteriorates, the investment in working capital is likely to unwind faster, which would see the balance sheet strengthen as the income statement softens; and (iii) based on where the shares are trading now, the stock offers a well covered dividend of 5.6%.


In summary, I view Harvey Nash as a case of strong track record+ diversified business model + attractive, well-covered dividend + inexpensive (both in absolute terms & relative to its peers) valuation. To this end, I have bought back into the stock today.

Written by Philip O'Sullivan

September 3, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Posted in Sector Focus

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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 13/8/2012

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Since my last update Insulation giant Kingspan announced two acquisitions, buying ThyssenKrupp’s European insulated panels business for €65m and a Middle East composite panels and roofing business, Rigidal, for $39m. These are sensible deals that strengthen Kingspan’s presence in those markets and the acquisition price paid for both is quite undemanding – the ThyssenKrupp business was acquired (if you strip out the €15m pension contribution) for 0.5x its gross assets, and while it is at present modestly loss-making (operating margins are -1.5%), once it is integrated into Kingspan’s existing European operations the synergies should see this rebound into profit, and with the former ThyssenKrupp business having achieved sales of €315m in the year to the end of March 2012 this deal could prove a very tidy bit of business for Kingspan in time. By this I mean that if , for example, the minus sign before its operating margin is replaced by a plus you’re looking at a 10% pre-tax ROI (ex the pension contribution), and given that Kingspan’s insulated panels business achieved trading margins of 6.7% in 2011 the returns over time will presumably be much higher than the example I provide above. As regards Rigidal, a price of 1x sales is undemanding for something that has, according to Kingspan, “an extensive route to market in the Gulf region”, which is an area that currently contributes a small fraction of Kingspan’s annual revenues.


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in PetroNeft plc) This morning saw another operations update from PetroNeft. Interest in every one of these updates centres on (i) production trends; and (ii) financing. There was no update today on (ii), while on (i), the company says production is ‘stable’ at 2,000bopd, and while this is lower than the 2,200bopd reported in June I am less concerned than I otherwise might be given that in the intervening period two wells were converted to water injectors for planned pressure support while other points of note include: drilling of the first of ten new production wells on the Arbuzovskoye oil field has commenced and is expected to come into production in September 2012; while the Arbuzovskoye No. 1 well is producing lower than normal output due to an electrical fault with a pump that is scheduled to be replaced. What this all means is that, at least in theory, PetroNeft shareholders could be looking forward to a short-term recovery in production which will either help with securing longer-term funding or make the stock more attractive to a potential suitor.


Elan Corporation announced plans to split the company into two units. Under the plan the group will split into one unit focused on its existing Tysabri blockbuster drug and mainly late-stage  projects, and another more early stage drug delivery business platform whose employees will, I assume, be highly incentivised to deliver on the R&D front in the short term given expected cash spend of $50-60m per annum and start up capital from Elan of $120-130m.


Harvey Nash, a UK staffer I’ve held in the past, issued a solid trading update this morning. Despite the ‘challenging environment’ it expects to report solid revenue (+15%) and profit (+6%) growth in the 6 months to the end of July. It’s a stock I like, offering the right sort of diversity for a staffer – geographic, industry and also a mix of permanent/temporary/outsourcing services for clients. I hope to do some work on this company soon with a view to seeing whether it’s worth buying back at current levels – while I know some of the newsflow out of the sector of late hasn’t been too encouraging, the low multiple HVN trades on mitigates against a lot of the macro risks.


Finally, I’m going to be travelling from tomorrow until Tuesday week, so you can expect some ‘radio silence’ from me until then. However, as always the markets will continue to churn out plenty of newsflow. The key things to watch out for over the coming days, at least from an Irish corporate perspective are:


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in CRH plc) CRH reports its interim results tomorrow. Many of its peers have updated the market in recent weeks, and the sector commentary has been full of reports of tough conditions in Europe but a better picture in the US. This narrative was pretty much mirrored in its trading update back in May. It will be interesting to see if there has been any changes in the trends noted across its operations, particularly in the US where there has recently been signs that things could be getting a bit softer, while another area of focus will be on the acquisition front – CRH reported H1 ‘acquisition and investment initiatives’ totaling €0.25bn in July, and more recently it has been linked with a potential large deal in India.


Another firm reporting H1 results tomorrow is Dragon Oil.  It recently noted some minor production issues, but these should be resolved in the near term with the installation of sand screens. The company also recently upped its 2012 development well target to 16 wells from the previous 13, which gives further confidence that it will meet its medium term production goals. I don’t think there’s any real scope for any surprises tomorrow given how recently it last updated the market and its relatively ‘boring’ (at least where oil companies are concerned!) business model, and with the shares supported by the ongoing $200m buyback and trading at a reasonably big discount to NAV I wouldn’t have any major near-term concerns around the stock.


Next Monday Kingspan will report its interim results. The group issued a very solid trading update in May, despite what it described as a “subdued global construction market environment” and it will be interesting to see if it is noticing any changing trends across its world-wide operations since that update.

Written by Philip O'Sullivan

August 13, 2012 at 7:28 am

Market Musings 1/6/2012

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This is a bit of a ‘catch-up’ blog as I spent much of the past couple of days building a financial model for AIB to support my analysis on that stock.


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in BP plc and PetroNeft plc) The energy sector has seen some very interesting developments. Parkmead, a vehicle led by ex Dana Petroleum executives, agreed to buy DEO Petroleum for £12.7m earlier this week, which hopefully signals a resumption of the frenetic M&A activity within the sector that we saw earlier this year. Elsewhere, Dragon Oil entered the Iraqi market. While the award of one exploration licence is hardly a game-changer for the stock, it is encouraging to see it continue to execute on its strategy of geographic diversification. Going the other way is BP, which said this morning that it is to “pursue a potential sale of its interest in TNK-BP“. I am delighted to hear this news given that the venture seemed to be more trouble than it is worth. In other Russian oil sector news, PetroNeft announced that it has agreed a new $15m debt facility, while also saying that its output is “stable” at 2,200bopd (in its last update in early April output was running at 2,300bopd). PetroNeft’s shares moved higher on the back of the update as some investors had feared that a rights issue / placing would accompany any new facility, but of course it should be noted that $15m doesn’t go too far in this industry.


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Datong plc) Yorkshire-based spy gadget maker Datong released solid H1 results. As previously guided, the first half of the year was unusually quiet, but very bullish guidance saw the shares initially gain well over 30%. The firm’s order intake during April and May was £3.1m, versus £1.2m in the same period last year, supporting management’s previous forecast of an unusually strong H2. Datong had net cash of £2.1m at the end of H1, or roughly 55% of its market capitalisation. NAV of £10m works out at 73 pence per share, a huge premium to the 28.5p the shares currently trade at. While management has been doing a good job in recent times, given Datong’s very poor liquidity and limited resources I can’t help but wonder if investors would be best served if the group were to sell itself off to a larger defence business.


In the support services space, Harvey Nash, a staffer I’ve held in the past, released a solid Q1 IMS today. Unsurprisingly, given recent positive signals from the US economy, it sees the strongest growth across its operations there, while the UK and continental Europe is slower. HVN remains on my watchlist, but for the time being I’m focusing on trying to realise value across my portfolio and reduce the number of positions I have as opposed to adding more names to it.


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Abbey plc) In the construction space, London-focused housebuilder Telford Homes released a strong set of results, with profits coming in ahead of market expectations. The company raised its full-year dividend by 20% in a strong expression of confidence about the outlook, while in terms of its forecasts for this financial year management say they expect to report a “substantial increase in profit before tax”. Overall, the signs from the South-East England property market remain very robust and this has positive implications for Irish listed housebuilder Abbey, which derives the majority of its business from that part of the UK.


In the food and beverage sector, I was interested to learn that Ireland’s Glanbia produces 18% of global output of American-type cheese. Elsewhere, pub group Fuller, Smith & Turner’s full-year results revealed nothing new relative to what its peers have been saying of late, namely that the sector is betting on a positive impact on demand arising from the Jubilee, Olympics and Euro 2012.


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Trinity Mirror plc) In the media sector, there was a considerable amount of intrigue around Trinity Mirror. The group dispensed with the services of the editors of the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror, announcing that they will be merging the titles. Rival publication The Daily Telegraph claims that the departed pair were planning a bid for the group, with the support of an unnamed ‘wealthy figure’. Regardless of whether or not there’s any truth to that story, to me the stock is great value given its strong asset backing (freehold property worth 69p/share, or 2.5x the current share price) and its low rating (1.2x PE, 5.2x EV/EBIT on my estimates for FY12), while on the liability side it has made material progress in cutting net debt in the year-to-date, while the pension deficit is, I believe, very manageable. Hence, I’ve doubled my stake in Trinity Mirror today.


Turning to the macro space, this article served as a useful reminder of what often happens when countries impose capital controls.


In the blogosphere, Calum did a good write-up on BSkyB, but I would dissent from his conclusion about the valuation, chiefly because I’m disinclined to pay double-digit multiples for stocks when there are so many names trading on low single-digit multiples in this market. Lewis maintained his impressive blogging work-rate with a piece on Tullett Prebon. Like Lewis that isn’t an area I’m particularly familiar with, so despite being optically cheap my instinct is to stay on the sidelines.

Written by Philip O'Sullivan

June 1, 2012 at 10:30 am

Market Musings 18/2/2012

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As has been the norm so far this month we’ve seen a lot of newsflow in recent days from right across the market. Let’s cover what’s been happening on a sector-by-sector basis.


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in France Telecom plc) In the telecoms space, I was interested to read that Deutsche Telekom is considering exiting its Everything Everywhere jv with France Telecom in the UK. It will be interesting to see how the latter responds, given that France Telecom has been exiting operations in Europe of late, selling its Austrian and Swiss businesses. Bernstein reckons that it is likely to IPO Everything Everywhere, which would be my preferred choice – France Telecom needs to slash its vast net debt (€30.3bn at the end of H1 2011) and this, along with the proceeds of the recent disposals, could put a chunky dent into it. With the French state, France Telecom’s biggest shareholder, losing its AAA rating from S&P earlier this year and Moody’s threatening to follow suit, I think heavily indebted corporates in that market are going to come under increasing pressure unless they can get their balance sheets in order. Against that I note that FTE is considering spending $2bn to buy out its Egyptian partner in that market, but the costs of that potential deal are significantly outweighed by the disposal proceeds outlined above.


In the construction sector, I was interested to read that the company that bought out Wolseley’s assets in the Irish market has been placed into examinership. While time will tell what the outcome of that process is, any closures would likely benefit Grafton, which has 67 merchanting outlets and 49 DIY retailing outlets in Ireland. Elsewhere in the sector Valuhunter did up a stonking blog on housebuilder Bellway in which he makes a very interesting observation – the UK benefits cap may lead to some internal migration as people move from the more expensive south-east of England to other regions. I am perplexed to read hand-wringing articles on the benefits cap such as this one – surely it is unreasonable to expect taxpayers to pay for people to live in the most expensive areas?


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Total Produce plc) Switching to food companies, I was interested to read Indian media reports (this doesn’t appear to have been picked up by either the Irish media or any of the domestic brokers here yet) that Tata has ‘dissolved’ its joint venture with Total Produce. This is disappointing, as there’s no denying that the jv offered the greatest organic growth potential of all of Total Produce’s units. However, we have to frame that disappointment in the context that it was only a very small part of Total Produce’s business – I estimate only 1 or 2% of turnover.


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in PetroNeft and an indirect shareholder in Dragon Oil) In the energy sector, PetroNeft issued a ghastly trading update, in which it said production has slipped to 2.3kbopd versus 3kbopd at end-2011. This is eerily reminiscent of the technical problems that dogged the stock throughout 2011, and hence it was no surprise to see the share price close down nearly 40% yesterday. Sentiment will not be helped by an RNS posted after the market close by JP Morgan, which said that it has followed up its recent share sale by offloading a further 5m shares. JP Morgan has 6.8% of PetroNeft’s shares remaining, and were it to run its stake down to zero that would mean the market will have to digest about 8x the ADV. I can’t see a queue of buyers for that at the moment. Elsewhere, Dragon Oil said that it is considering making a bid for Bowleven. Contrarian Investor UK welcomes the return of M&A within the sector.


In the recruitment space, Harvey Nash issued a strong trading update. It’s one that I sold out of early last year – in hindsight, with very good timing – but I have been keeping an eye on it because I like its conservatism, diversification and excellent management team. While there is no denying that it’s cheap – it trades on a single digit PE and yields around 4.5%I suspect there will come a better time to buy Harvey Nash later this year – EPS momentum is set to fall off a cliff from the +16% in the 12 months to end-January 2012 to +4% in the current financial year, before accelerating once again to +34% in the 12 months to end-January 2014.


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Allied Irish Banks plc, Bank of Ireland plc and Irish Life & Permanent plc) I was interested to read that IBRC, the bad bank formerly known as Anglo Irish Bank, is “anxious” to take on the tracker mortgages that are causing so much hurt for AIB and IL&P. Bank of Ireland reports results on Monday that will hopefully give a lot of clues about the dynamics within the Irish market at this time. The key things to watch out for in BKIR’s results are pre-provision profits (most analysts expect €500m), deposit trends, net interest margins, progress on deleveraging and impairment guidance.


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Independent News & Media) I recently did up a case study on Independent News & Media, in which I mentioned the problem of imploding newspaper circulations. I was interested to read that INM has just de-registered 12 of its regional titles from the industry’s official circulation auditor, ABC. I’m sure that there’s no correlation between the two!


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in Datong plc) I was interested to read a piece in Growth Company about a stock I hadn’t come across before – PSG Solutions. PSG is clearly a microcap, with a market cap of only £26m, but I was interested to learn that it has a unit called Audiotel that specialises in technical surveillance countermeasures. I wonder if it would be a good fit with Datong, whose surveillance capabilities are well documented. Partnering the two could give it a nice breadth of offerings to security agencies. If anyone has a view on this, why not post a comment below.

Market Musings 28/11/11

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Blogging has been light as I have a raft of end-of-term MBA assignments and exams falling due. However, newsflow has been anything but light, with continued Euroland turmoil and a slew of corporate announcements grabbing my attention in recent days. Let’s quickly recap on what’s been happening.


In terms of the Eurozone, I don’t see any alternative to debt monetisation by the ECB. This will not be a panacea for the bloc’s problems, but it will buy the members of the currency union some time to get their houses in order (whether it’s used or not, of course, is another matter). All of the PIIGS countries have seen regime change in 2011 to no avail. What the market clearly wants is new policies, not new politicians. I am unmoved by calls for delinquent states to be drop-kicked out of the single currency, as the domino-effect we’ve seen playing out over the past while leaves me convinced that the market will take a “Who’s next?” approach if the likes of Greece are ejected. Such a move would, as we have seen in the US during its quantitative easing drives, lead to a rally for stocks and commodities (especially gold), while it would prove bearish for cash (as inflation will rise) and (at a minimum) longer dated government bonds as inflation expectations pick up. If Eurobonds are introduced, this will likely slap down existing short-dated Euroland government bonds as they will be perceived as riskier than short-term issues guaranteed by all of the Eurozone member states. And of course, if existing government bonds sell off, this will damage banks’ balance sheets even more.


Something from the archives – Prudent Investor outlines The 4 Kinds of Money.


Switching to corporate newsflow, Promethean disclosed that it has exited its position in IFG. It had held circa 4% of IFG’s shares in issue (which made it the sixth-largest shareholder in IFG), and while a sale at the low level IFG trades at surprised some market watchers, it is in keeping with the winding-up programme underway at Promethean.


Recruiter Harvey Nash is a stock I used to hold, before selling it earlier this year on UK macro concerns. It issued a solid update last week in which it revealed that it is still seeing strong growth, adding that it expects the FY out-turn to be in-line with expectations. I like HVN, but given the challenging outlook for the UK it’s not one I’ll be buying again in the near term.


Matterley has a great value-oriented investment approach, so those of you who follow that doctrine should download this videoFund Manager Henry Dixon says he is positive on Dragon Oil, Petropavlovsk, Cranswick and RPC.


As we head towards the Budget in Ireland the government is drip-feeding out information to soften up citizens for a tough series of measures. I was very disappointed to hear of plans to raise taxes on dividends, which flies in the face of drives to encourage more saving and investment. Irish household balance sheets are in urgent need of repair, as slides 24 and 25  in this excellent presentation by Cormac Lucey show.


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in AIB, Bank of Ireland and Irish Life & Permanent). Other Irish balance sheets are in need of shrinking, chiefly, the banks. I was disappointed to see the sale of Irish Life halted. This means that the State will have to inject €1.3bn into its parent, Irish Life & Permanent, or around €300 for every citizen of this country. On a happier note I was pleased to see a Core Tier 1 neutral sale of a Project Finance loan portfolio with total drawn and undrawn commitments of c. €0.59bn by Bank of Ireland today, while reports indicate that AIB is looking to offload €1.4bn of property loans.


Aryzta issued a solid Q1 trading update earlier this morning. Revenue trends have continued from FY11 and in terms of the outlook management is retaining its FY EPS guidance.


(Disclaimer: I am a shareholder in France Telecom plc and Total Produce plc) Finally, in terms of the best entries I’ve seen in the blogosphere of late, John McElligott has an interesting piece asking if European telecoms dividends are sustainable; while Wexboy has conducted even more detailed research on Total Produce.

Lessons Learned

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While blogging earlier this week I noticed that I was approaching my 100th post on this site. I thought that this would be a good time to ‘take stock’ of the lessons learned since I started to publish my musings back in March.


There have been a number of consistent themes on the blog throughout the year. From a macro perspective I’ve been very bearish (and remain so) on all of the world’s leading economies. While this was hardly an earth-shattering stance to take, I have been surprised by just how weak the response of policymakers in both the US and Europe has been. The only other macro-surprise that I’ve encountered is the way the Chinese economy hasn’t slowed down as much as I had anticipated, but given how unreliable official Chinese “data” is (apparently if you sum all of the reported provincial GDPs in China and compare the result with reported national GDP the difference is bigger than the size of the Swiss economy!) you can never be sure what the truth is.


From a stocks’ perspective, my preference all year has been for defensives over cyclicals, which is no surprise given my macro call. I haven’t rigidly stuck to that call, however, having made a couple of opportunistic cyclical trades in the past few months (although, to be fair, I had significant defensive exposure within the portfolio to begin with). I’ve also seen two of the companies in my portfolio, Uniq and Chaucer, taken over. I also did a lot of travelling during the year which constrained my ability to monitor the markets and trade more often. Excluding takeovers, here are the trades I’ve made since launching the blog:


  • Harvey Nash (Support Services/Recruitment). Sold on 24/3/11 for 71p/share. Price now = 58p. I exited this holding due my nervousness around the UK economy. I like the company, and management, but given my macro view this isn’t one I’d be looking to buy back into anytime soon.
  • Ryanair (Transport / Airlines). Bought on 28/3/11 for €3.25/share. Price now = €3.67. I doubled my holding in Europe’s low-cost carrier because I liked the valuation and the potential for another special dividend. Strong recent results and increasing chatter around a special dividend makes this one I’m a very happy holder of. The main reason why I won’t buy more here is that I have a chunky (c. 20% of my portfolio) exposure to it.
  • Kentz (Energy / Oil Services). Sold on 29/3/11 for £4.03/share. Price now = £4.765. I sold out of Kentz having slightly more than doubled my money on the stock. Clearly the timing could have been better, alas! Kentz is a stock I do like due to its strong balance sheet, track record and excellent management team. I’m sure that I’ll buy it again in the future.
  • Trinity Mirror (Media / Newspapers). Bought on 30/3/11 for £0.47/share. Price now = £0.515. I tripled my holding in this company after its shares had tanked. I like this one a lot – strong asset backing, a very inexpensive rating and decent potential for upside for equity holders from its ongoing deleveraging.
  • AstraZeneca (Healthcare / Pharmaceuticals). Sold on 13/4/11 for £30.095/share. Price now = £29.095. I had made about 10% out of this one (>15% if you add in dividends) and was talked into selling it by a pharma analyst. One that I’d need to do a lot of work on before buying back into.
  • Standard Life (Financials / Insurance). Bought on 20/4/11 for £2.102/share. Price now = £2.057. Doubled my holding in this one after being attracted by the chunky dividend and also a desire to maintain my insurance sector exposure after Chaucer headed for the stock market exit.
  • Smurfit Kappa Group (Industrials / Paper & Packaging). Bought on 19/7/11 for €6.84/share. Price now = €4.80. The dramatic events in the Euro-area have thumped this company’s share price. I believe the shares were fundamentally undervalued at €6.84 when I nearly doubled my holding. At the current level they are even more so.
  • PetroNeft (Energy / Oil Exploration & Production). Bought on 28/9/11 for £0.215/share. Price now = £0.245. Doubled my holding in this Siberian oil producer after market sentiment towards it was dented by poor production figures. Further discoveries of oil during the year underline the deep value in this company, but it is going to have to prevail over its operational issues before it gets the rating it deserves.
Overall, my trading record hasn’t been too bad, but of course had I liquidated my portfolio earlier in the year and bought back in more recently I’d be far happier! At the moment I’ve 20 positions across the UK, Irish and French markets, which is probably as many different holdings as I can manage given the other demands on my time. This is why, as you’ve probably noticed, all of my buys have been top-ups of existing holdings.
I have a bit of cash in my trading account at present, but I’m reluctant to invest more at this time due to a combination of an uncertain backdrop and also the way that I’m toying with around 5 different buy ideas. What the latter tells me is that I don’t have enough conviction to pull the trigger on anything just yet, while in any event having cash gives me the flexibility to respond appropriately if any compelling opportunities present themselves, which is clearly no bad thing. When I was younger I tended to be impulsive and invest whenever I had the funds to do so. Perhaps my current conservatism is a sign that I’m getting old!
On a final note, one of the main benefits for me of operating this blog is that it has given me an opportunity to interact with some of the top investment bloggers. Since going live with the first (to my knowledge) Irish-orientated blog I’ve been joined by two outstanding peers – John McElligott and Wexboy – whose views I highly recommend. In terms of blogs based in other countries, I really value the insights of Expecting ValueKelpie CapitalMakro TraderMark CarterSharecropperUK Value InvestorValuhunterUK and the incomparable Zero Hedge. Hopefully by the time I approach my 200th post this list will be considerably longer.

Written by Philip O'Sullivan

November 12, 2011 at 4:32 pm

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