Q1-2017 Performance Report

Portfolio Performance

My very unaudited portfolio performance in the first quarter of 2017, the three months ended March 31, 2017 is approximately +18.6%.

My 135 month compounded annual growth rate performance is +18.6% per year, an identical number that is strict coincidence.

Portfolio Percentages

At March 31, 2017 (change from Q4-2016):

24% common equities (-24%)
20% preferred share equities (-7%)
38% corporate debt (-6%)
3% net equity options (+2%)
15% cash (+35%)

Percentages may not add to 100% due to rounding.

USD exposure: 50% (+8%)

Portfolio is valued in CAD (CAD/USD 0.7508);
Other values derived per account statements.

Portfolio commentary

Needless to say this was a good quarter for me. Normally posting a return like this would be good for a year’s performance. Although I do not invest for relative performance, relative to the S&P 500 (+6% for the quarter) and the TSX (+2%) my portfolio had a smashingly good quarter.

I will warn this performance will not be matched in the next 9 months of this year. The upside potential of the current portfolio components is limited. My estimate of this potential, assuming an above-average ideal of things going correct, is 8%. This means about 2-3% a quarter for the next three quarters, and of course things never run that smoothly in portfolio management, unless if you invested in GICs.

In terms of buying activity, this quarter was relatively inactive (less than a percent of the portfolio). On the selling side, my two largest equity components (TSX: MIC, NYSE: KCG) had considerable rises in price, and as such, I did some significant trimming. They are now down to reasonable proportions of the portfolio. I also trimmed some preferred shares. Also assisting the +15% cash position was the maturity of Pengrowth Energy’s debentures (my initial post about them was here). My portfolio now has a positive cash balance for the first time in about a year.

In contrast, I ended 2016 with a -20% cash balance (i.e. a margin position of 20% of the equity of the portfolio). As you can see, it was time to cash some chips. Cashing in some chips results in capital gains taxes to be paid in the next year, but this is the cost of profitable portfolio management. Taxes are a secondary consideration in trading decisions – valuation is the primary driver. I am relatively happy to see the capital gains inclusion rate did not change in Budget 2017, but I do not take the government at its word at all that it will keep this rate steady.

The other corporate debt in the portfolio has an weighted average remaining term of slightly less than 3 years. The corporate debt will collect interest income and will otherwise sit there collecting dust until maturity or being called. At par value, I am not interested in liquidating them until maturity (or if they are called away). Given the short duration, I do not care if risk-free rates rise.

Portfolio Outlook

The decision to play safe this quarter (and likely for the remainder of the year) is obvious to me. Markets have risen significantly in the Trump honeymoon and I do not believe that risks (specifically the so-called “unknown unknowns“) are being truly appreciated at the moment. Everything is seemingly looking good. Things are comfortable. Look at what happened to the S&P 500 implied volatility after Donald Trump got elected (November 8, 2016):

When everybody thinks things are comfortable, this is a formula for future loss when less optimistic scenarios bakes into market pricing. I am not sure when negative sentiment will pervade throughout the market, but these things will always manifest themselves later than one expects – I am probably too early.

It is psychologically difficult to sell yielding securities for non-yielding cash (why sell something that gives away money for something that just sits there and earns zero?), but I must reload my ammunition for when the market truly decides to go into a tailspin. I don’t know the specific reason for the next tailspin will be (or when), but these things usually do occur when people least expect them. The future is always difficult to predict, but right now when I am looking microscopically across the markets for opportunities, I am drawing so many blanks that I need to crawl to a safe place. It might look foolish to duck into the shelter before there is even an inkling of a hurricane or tornado coming in the horizon, but this is how I feel, so I will bunker down.

I had written earlier in my 2016 year-end report that if everything goes well this year I should probably see a low-teens performance. Because of some unexpectedly positive developments in my two largest portfolio components, I have already made a year’s worth of gains in a single quarter. I will repeat that while one can extrapolate this quarter’s performance to future quarters, I would advise it would be a significant error to do so – there is no way this can continue. As I continue to cash up, it will continue to cap my performance gains. If markets rise to my additional sell points, the amount of cash can go 50%, which is a ridiculously high amount. I am also content to hold cash or cash-like instruments for extended periods of time.

Just imagine showing up to work in a finance firm as an asset manager and telling your bosses that you’re holding cash and going to watch movies until the markets drop. While I am not that lazy (I do run occasional stock/bond screens and try to look at the microscopic parts of publicly traded securities which are less prone to overall market fluctuations), when I do some detailed due diligence, it mostly ends up flat. Even worse yet are the IPO and secondary offerings that are hitting the market – there’s a lot of junk being shoved out the door to yield-hungry investors. It reminds me of what they did with the income trusts in the early 2000’s (most of them blew up and lost a lot of people money, other than investment banks and management insiders).

Sadly, market conditions and the selling nature of my portfolio at present means my writing will become more boring until things become more volatile. I recognize this is my shortest quarterly commentary in quite some time – I’m finding little to invest in.

My next challenge is to find a good location to park cash.

Some macroeconomic outlooks

I do have a few convictions that surround my decision-making (or lack thereof). One is that I am of the belief that the US dollar is undervalued and should perform relatively well against other world currencies, including the Canadian dollar. I have generally maintained a policy of keeping the US dollar exposure of the portfolio between 30-70%.

The other conviction I have is that I believe crude oil will continue to be a mediocre performer and indeed, in any sign of any world economic malaise, will take a tailspin from their existing price band. This makes Canadian oil producers (especially in the existing hostile federal and provincial environments) relatively prone if they have debt pressure, especially those contingent on higher oil pricing. At present, a lot of these companies have “value trap” written all over them. A good example will be Cenovus (TSX: CVE), who decided to leverage up, but just imagine the stress their shareholders will feel at US$40/barrel instead of US$50/barrel today. There will be a time to invest in fossil fuels, but not now.

Political outlook

My home province of British Columbia is having an election. Although I project the incumbent party is going to continue to win another majority government, there is a strong anti-incumbency undercurrent which appears to be brewing, which will make motivational aspects of elections (i.e. turnout) crucial. I am not nearly as certain as the result as I was at the beginning of this year when I projected the existing government would cruise to an easy victory.

The main opposition party, the BC NDP, still doesn’t appear to have their act together (I don’t see them focusing on issues that will actually win them the election), but this campaign is going to be quite volatile since the public is only going to pay attention during two weeks of the election period before deciding who they will vote for.

It doesn’t matter how incompetent the BC NDP have looked in the past, it matters how competent they look in exactly those two weeks when the public care.

Portfolio - Q1-2017 - Historical Performance

Performance and TSX Composite is measured in CAD$; S&P 500 is measured in US$. Total returns indices are with dividends reinvested at time of receipt.
YearDivestor PortfolioS&P 500 (Price Return)S&P 500
(Total Return)
TSX Comp. (Price Return)TSX Comp.
(Total Return)
11.25 Years (CAGR):+18.6%+5.8%+8.1%+2.9%+5.8%

Home Capital Group – The cliche about smoke and fire applies

Home Capital Group (TSX: HCG) fired its CEO today.

The manner that it did suggests that there was a considerable disconnection between the information the Board of Directors was receiving and what management actually knew about the situation (or over-boasted about its damage-control abilities).

My guess is that the final straw was the dealings concerning the Ontario Securities Commission alluded to in the March 14th press release.

Home Capital Group is notorious in my mind for having a very high cost to borrow shares for shorting – it is the biggest proxy used by most people to bet against the fortunes of the Canadian real estate market – right now it would cost you about 22% to borrow to short. Those short sellers will probably be most happy to cover some of their holdings tomorrow (or depending on their risk horizon, add to their shorts!).

Psychology of Portfolio Management – Doing half

There are some situations in the investment world that result in considerable confusion and risk.

In particular, I am still trying to process the action that has surrounded KCG Holdings (NYSE: KCG) last week. The position appreciated considerably, but there is obviously not going to be any resolution to the matter unless if I wake up one day and a definitive merger agreement has been signed. If the initial proposal and subsequent due diligence cycle does not come to fruition, then there will likely not be any press to that effect and the stock price will drop.

There is a very real reason to hold on (the suggested merger price was lower than my estimate of its fair value), and a very real reason to not hold on (there will be no formal merger agreement). Also, there is no information at all whether this merger would succeed or not, nor any indications on timing.

So the solution was obvious. Sell half.

David Merkel is one of my favourite finance authors and he concisely writes about it in an April 2009 blog post and a subsequent November 2016 post.

This is a perfect situation where doing half applies. The psychological advantage is that I don’t have to cry if there is a better price given to the company, nor do I have to cry if they trade lower (since I know where their fair value rests).

Researching Primary Market offerings

The market has run so dry, it has finally come to this – I’ve had to resort to looking at prospectuses of primary market offerings.

Questrade has a rather interesting link to offerings that they’re trying to peddle to the unsuspecting public. And being the sucker I am for these sorts of things, I glossed through a couple prospectuses.

Hampton Financial Corporation (TSXV: HFC) is trying to raise $20 million in preferred shares (plus warrants on their common shares that are nearly double the current market price). The preferred shares have a perpetual, uncallable (by either side) 8% yield. The head honcho owns a lifetime control stake in the company (and a decent economic interest) and a very sweet-looking employment contract. Try negotiating this on your employer (I’ve replaced the person’s real name with Mr. CEO as I don’t want to foul up his pristine search engine profile on his name):

“In consideration of Mr. CEO’s services, the Corporation has agreed to pay Mr. CEO an annual base salary of $200,000, which is to be increased by a minimum of 25% each year from the first anniversary of the commencement date of the employment and a one-time cash bonus of $200,000 payable at any time during the first year of the executive employment agreement, at the discretion of Mr. CEO. In addition, Mr. CEO is entitled to receive annual bonuses at the discretion of the board which may be paid in part by shares or equity-related instruments of the Corporation and a perquisite package of $24,000 per annum.”

There’s other stuff in the prospectus that is juicy, but suffice to say, I’m not too inclined to support this particular public offering, especially considering they don’t make money and they have about $3 million in stockholder’s equity. They also have some very interesting lawsuits that have judgements rendered which give a very good insight on the culture of the firm.

Who the heck would invest in this? If it actually sells, it’s certainly a sign that the market is willing to pay for anything with yield.

With most of these offerings, keep your hands on your wallet.

(Update, March 21, 2017: At the request of one of the issuers, I have amended this post.)

Pengrowth executes an asset sale

Pengrowth Energy (TSX: PGF) managed to execute an asset sale on its conventional production property north of Edmonton, the Swan Hills assets for CAD$180 million.

The debt profile at December 31, 2016 looked like this:

Right now the CAD/USD ratio is 0.75.

At the end of December 31, 2016 they also had CAD$287 million cash in the bank, plus another CAD$250 million for the 4% gross royalty sale on their Lindbergh asset.

They will be redeeming CAD$126.5 million in convertible debentures on March 31, 2017. They also have redeemed US$300 million of their 2017 debt maturity, and will redeem the rest after this transaction concludes at the end of May.

The company announced that after this sale, they have a pro-forma net debt of CAD$970 million.

My math suggests that after the 2017 redemption, they would have CAD$57 million cash left, assuming their operations consume zero cash (not a correct assumption!).

Payment of the debt will result in an interest expense decrease of $42 million per year.

They still need to have CAD$368 million on-hand on August 2018 in order to pay off their next debt maturity. It is possible they will run into covenant issues given that oil hasn’t moved around the US$50/barrel mark – their existing senior debt to adjusted EBITDA ratio would be the most material of it. They have about CAD$1.02 billion outstanding and their EBITDA needs to be above CAD$290 million in order to clear this hurdle.

Although the EBITDA value for covenant purposes was CAD$582 million, this is a skewed figure due to the employment of hedging. People not versed in accounting procedures for commodity hedging will have a tough time figuring out the mess, but I will just point out that management closed out their hedges in 2016 (which had been a VERY profitable transaction to them that otherwise would have guaranteed CCAA had they not had the foresight to doing so when times were much better).

KCG Holdings – Takeover bid from Virtu

The Q1-2017 report is going to be shockingly positive. Genworth MI (TSX: MIC) used to be my largest holding, but I have trimmed the position (mainly for diversification and deleveraging reasons). It still is a decent size of the portfolio, but not as prominent as it used to be.

My largest position after Genworth MI was KCG Holdings (NYSE: KCG).

Yesterday, near the close of trading, they confirmed that they received an unsolicited takeover proposal of US$18.50-20.00 per share from Virtu (Nasdaq: VIRT), another (very credible) high frequency trading firm. KCG did not file with the SEC.

Virtu filed 8-K with the SEC confirming they “made a preliminary, non-binding proposal to acquire KCG”.

Both entities have been quite silent otherwise. There is likely a lot of backroom jockeying going on.

KCG’s stock shot up from about $13.60 a share to $18/share today on over 6 million shares of volume. The company has about 66.4 million shares outstanding, and Jefferies (a wholly owned subsidiary of Leucadia (NYSE: LUK)) owns 15.41 million shares, and insiders own another 3 million shares, leaving a float of about 48 million shares that can be actively traded. 6.65 million shares traded today and suffice to say there is quite a large amount of speculation about what is going to happen.

My take on the matter is the following (in no particular order):

1. Tangible book value of KCG Holdings is $18.71/share as reported in their 10-K filing. A US$18.50 takeover price would allow Virtu to effectively take over KCG for free. This is the primary reason why I wouldn’t think this takeover would go anywhere as-is. My guess is that if Virtu was serious they would have to offer some equity as well, or some sort of premium to book value.

2. Virtu is a logical strategic acquirer to KCG – the synergies are quite obvious to both businesses. There might even be anti-trust issues with this acquisition.

3. Even though the acquisition at the low price range would be “free” for Virtu, it leaves the question of how they would immediately finance it.

4. The Jefferies control block is vital to the situation – if they can be persuaded to sell out, then management will likely have to follow. The question is whether they are motivated to sell out or not – obviously they will at the right price, but US$18.50 is too low.

5. The CEO was granted a huge amount of options at $22.50/share (priced well out-of-the-money at the time of the grant) and probably doesn’t have much of an incentive at this point to selling out the company for cheap.

6. Operationally, KCG is treading water in terms of cash flow, but this is because of unprecedented low market volatility conditions that is practically the worst environment for the firm (and also Virtu). In more normal conditions, one could easily estimate a value of US$25-30/share for the firm which is where I think management is targetting. They’ll probably sell out at 24ish if the bid got there.

7. Who leaked this unsolicited offer? Obviously KCG did – probably trying to drum up any counter-proposals out there as there are some other financial institutions that would be interested in acquiring the business. Perhaps management knows the end-game is nearing and this was a last ditch attempt to prevent a forced merger.

The decision forward is a high-stakes game for a lot of participants!

Disclosure: I own common shares of KCG, call options, and also their senior secured debt. Sometimes you really do hit the lottery in the marketplace.

A reason why I’m not a fan of index investing

Reading press releases like this one makes me quite happy to not being an index investor:

SMITHS FALLS, ON, March 10, 2017 /CNW/ – Canopy Growth Corporation (TSX: WEED) (“Canopy Growth” or “the Company”) today announced that by being added to the S&P/TSX Composite Index, it has achieved another major “first” in the cannabis industry. Management expects this to drive liquidity and increase the percentage of institutions holding Canopy Growth positions. In short, more investors than ever will be buying and holding WEED.

It is pretty obvious that future outsized gains to be made in the marketplace are going to be in companies that are not in the major indexes.

Seemingly the only variable that will dampen Canadian Real Estate

I’ve written a lot about this in the past, but Canadian real estate in urban centers is simply about too much capital chasing too little yield. Financially it makes sense to borrow at 2.83% like REITs such as Rio-Can (unsecured debt!!) and turn it around and invest it in a real estate yield product at 5.8% and pocket the difference in income.

This only becomes dangerous when credit markets start shutting down and you’re facing a cascade of debt maturities, or the collateral backing your loans (in this case, real estate) has a material mark-to-market drop (and then your debt leverage ratios will go out of whack and nobody will want to lend you money).

So I will bring your attention to interest rates. I’m fairly convinced at this point that until interest rates start rising (or we start seeing provincial governments enact serious foreign capital restrictions that can’t be easily bypassed like it is in British Columbia) we are not going to see any collapse in real estate pricing in Canada.

However, the US Federal Reserve is going to start to rise all boats fairly soon, and this will likely have knock-off effects in the rest of the world, including Canada.

I’m looking at Canadian interest rates at the Bank of Canada, and notice those longer term yields start to creep up again – 5-year government bond rates are at 1.23% and the trend on yields are seemingly upwards.

It remains to be seen whether this is white noise or whether this is the start of a trend, but it is something worth watching. If interest rates normalize to something resembling historical standards (e.g. 2% higher than present levels), Vancouver residential real estate that is currently renting for a 3% cap rate would be selling for a 5% cap rate – the result would be a 40% drop in price. This is not a prediction, it would be financial reality if a 2% rate increase occurred. Leverage has gotten to the point where such a change in interest rates would cause significant financial dislocation and this is likely why central banks are very afraid to make sudden changes to short term rates.

Difference Capital – Year-End 2016 Report

I wrote about Difference Capital (TSX: DCF) in an earlier post. They reported their 4th quarter results a couple days ago and their financial calculus does not change too much. They have CAD$29.6 million in debentures outstanding, maturing on July 31, 2018. Management and directors own slightly under half the equity, and thus they want to find a dilution-free way to get rid of the debt.

At the end of 2016 they have about CAD$14.4 million in the bank, plus $60.8 million (fair value estimate of management) in investments. One would think that in 2017 and the first half of 2018 some of these investments could be liquidated to cover the debentures. The situation is similar to the previous quarter, except for the fact that they’ve retired about 10% of their debt in the quarter, which is a positive sign.

Due to their investment portfolio not making any money (they have been quite terrible in this respect), they have a considerable tax shield: $186.3 million in realized capital losses, plus $41.9 million in non-capital losses which start to expire in 2026 and beyond. If you assume that they can realize both of these at half of the regular tax rates (I just quickly assumed 13% for the capital losses and 26% for the net operating losses), that’s $17.6 million.

Considering the market cap of the corporation is $26 million, there’s a lot of pessimism baked in. Mind you, there are a lot of corporations out there with less than stellar assets, a ton of tax losses, and tight control over the corporation (TSX: AAB, PNP quickly come to mind) so it is not like these entities are rare commodities. The question minority shareholders have to ask is whether the control group wants to bleed the company through salaries, bonuses and options or whether they are actually genuinely interested in profitably building the corporation (in all three cases, to date, has not been done).