Preparing for a year 2000-type scenario

I am relatively convinced that although the economy appears to be muddling along with a low real growth rate, the markets are pricing in a growth trajectory that is optimistic. We are likely to see increased volatility in the future.

There are some good doomsday type stocks, but perhaps none would be better than Fairfax Financial (TSX: FFH), who have continually prepared for a gloomier future. They have hedged their entire equity portfolio against the S&P 500 and also have purchased CPI-linked derivatives that would profit in the event of a deflation. From Prem Watsa’s annual report, he believes that any credit event in China would cause commodities to collapse (they consume 40-50% of most commodities from iron ore to copper) and it would have an impact on the mining industry. He goes on to state that world iron ore capacity has increased by more than 100% in the last ten years, mainly due to increased Chinese demand.

The excesses in the Chinese real estate market are quite well known and have been reported extensively in the past, but just like what happened in the USA from 2004-2008, it might take some time before any credit events emerge. In addition, the Chinese government has proven to be very adept at managing the situation.

While I don’t profess to if or when such a credit event will happen, if it does occur, it would be very adverse for Canadian investors holding equity and debt in such entities. Fairfax is an interesting bet for a doomsday scenario, but at CAD$470/share they are considerably priced above book value (which is US$339 at the end of 2013 or about CAD$374 at current currency rates). Given the performance of Fairfax’s businesses, one would expect a modest premium over book, but 25% over book seems a bit heavy to swallow. The company also sold 1 million shares at CAD$431 (CAD$417 after expenses) in November, but this was also in relation to their purchase of Blackberry convertible debentures.

Fairfax Chart and Blackberry

Normally when a corporation is buying out another entity (especially at a premium), the market’s instinctive reaction is to jettison the shares of the purchaser.

Fairfax’s slow attempt to take Blackberry out has a rather odd effect: Fairfax’s common share price has skyrocketed (at least relative to its historical trading patterns, which has been relatively boring):


There is a deep insider’s game being played with Blackberry and some of this information leaks into Fairfax’s stock price. Maybe I’m reading too much into this (realizing that Fairfax’s 10% stake in Blackberry is only about 5% of Fairfax’s market cap).

My hunch:

1. The terms of the deal were materially struck on October 25th and will likely be announced on November 4th in absence of any other deals;
2. Facebook getting into the scene is priced in as a negative (i.e. potential to pay more, hence worse for Fairfax).
3. The market believes Fairfax is getting a good deal.

Zuckerberg at Facebook is not an idiot and realizes that his $120 billion market cap is not going to last forever and the company needs to branch out. Similar to what Steve Case did with AOL and Time Warner, there is an interesting business case of just sheer diversification of doing an all-stock deal for Blackberry at some double-digit per share price – Facebook stock is now expensive currency and why not do a late 1990’s internet stock type move and purchase something tangible?

Its a low probability outcome, but right now capital is cheap and the market is giving the titans lots of currency to play with.

Positioning for deflation

I’ve been doing some research on which sectors perform best under deflationary conditions.

Obviously, cash is first and foremost as it will generate a natural real return over time without having to do anything, plus the nominal return you get from parking it in short-term funds (the Bank of Canada short-term rate right now is 1%).

Long-term bonds of solvent entities also are a good investment during deflationary conditions.

However, on the equity side things are a little more muted. The only direct play which I know explicitly has taken a position on deflation is the Canadian equivalent of Berkshire Hathaway, Fairfax Financial (TSX: FFH). Prem Watsa was fairly early to the subprime mortgage crisis in the USA but was able to profit handsomely on it, and he seems to be early on the deflationary game as well. His company has also been significantly short on S&P 500 equity index futures which also resulted in their portfolio performance suffering losses they really shouldn’t have been suffering. So while Watsa is likely paranoid, inevitably if you believe deflation is going to hit the marketplace and still need some form of equity exposure coupled with fairly competent management in asset allocation, then Fairfax is probably a good meal ticket. Regrettably, it is trading a shade over book value and historically it gyrates around it so there is likely a better opportunity in terms of market timing.

Interestingly enough, Watsa was also quite early in accumulating his (via FFH) 10% stake in Blackberry (TSX: BB). It remains to be seen whether this will be a win for him.

US Healthcare legislation

I took a brief summary review of the various players in the US Health insurance industry. Most of the companies had a shift in the stock price after the Supreme Court announcement, but otherwise traded in boring moderation as most insurance firms tend to do. I did manage to find one company intriguing enough (with sufficient insider ownership) that I plugged it on my watchlist for further review if the stock price went about 5% lower than its existing trading price. Insurance companies are not going to double on you overnight, but well-selected companies can provide a consistent return on investment over a lengthy period of time as they compound their book values. Examples of this (not necessarily related to healthcare) would include RLI (NYSE: RLI), Fairfax (TSX: FFH), etc., which have both provided 10% compounded annual returns to shareholders over the past 10 years, not even factoring in their dividend distributions.

I would note that these are not recommendations, but rather examples. Both of these companies, especially Fairfax, are going to be running into the law of large numbers where making high percentage gains becomes progressively more difficult as your equity base increases. RLI can probably continue its pace – you just have to be very judicious in terms of the market timing, similar to any other investment.

Shaw and Netflix – Bandwidth vs. Content

This is probably old news to a lot of people, but I’m awfully curious how the competition dynamics between Netflix vs. the bandwidth providers (e.g. Shaw/Rogers/TELUS) will play out. Shaw announced a streaming movie service recently.

I look at a company like Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) and ask myself how many more legs the company has before it starts to hit a competitive wall like TiVo (Nasdaq: TIVO) did.

I’m not going to call winners here, although I am quite aware that it is necessary for bandwidth providers to exist in order for companies like Netflix to exist; the question is where is the most profit to be obtained in the value chain? Is it about the bandwidth, or the content?

The biggest pure play on bandwidth has to be Level 3 (Nasdaq: LVLT), which has successfully been losing money since its history and is a darling of Southeastern Asset Management and the Canadian Berkshire-equivalent, Fairfax (TSX: FFH).

Time will tell, but I’m sticking to the sidelines.