Investment

Get ready to buy Boral & ABC rather than watch a market swim in concrete shoes

Governments rarely have imagination during crises. Usually, it involves chucking uncosted cash around. How many projects have we seen run way over the promised budget? Submarines anyone? NBN?

Handing out $750 cheques to 6 million struggling Aussies in the hopes they’ll spend it is a bit of a wing and a prayer strategy. Maybe those struggling will just use it to pay down debts of previous consumption rather than ignite a new spending splurge.

At some stage, large-scale infrastructure spending will return to the headlines to stem the economic slowdown. Look at the state of national infra spending forecasts in the chart above.

Bridges to nowhere. Tunnels, highways, schools and hospitals. New projects to get people back to work. It happens pretty much every downturn. So why should we expect anything different?

A read of the latest infrastructure report states quite clearly there are 4 areas to address:

  1. Population growth has become a major point of contention in infrastructure debates. In our largest cities, ageing assets have been put under growing strain, with rising road congestion, crowding on public transport and growing demands on social infrastructure, such as health, education and green space.
  2. Energy affordability has also deteriorated over recent years. A steep rise in network costs has driven energy bills 35% higher over the past decade, and up by 56% per unit of electricity consumed in real terms.
  3. In telecommunications, the nbn rollout continues to face challenges. In the 4.8 million households in which it has activated, services have not met the expectations of many users.
  4. In the water sector, the past four years have seen mixed results. Many metropolitan utilities are increasing the sustainability and quality of their services through innovation, supporting the liveability of our cities. But many regional areas are suffering from growing water security fears as large parts of the country are in drought.  

Cement companies play straight at the heart of three of these four distinct areas. Roads, rail, hospitals, schools, dams and so on. In the energy space, whatever direction we take (solar, wind, coal, gas or nuke), cement, asphalt and aggregates will be required to achieve it.

Bellwether Boral (BLD) is perhaps best positioned to benefit as it makes railway ballast, asphalt, cement, concrete. Boral shares have yet to be kicked as hard as others. Boral hit a GFC low around the $1.64 mark. It stands at $3.00, 33% above that level.

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50% of Boral’s Aussie revenue comes from NSW, the state with by far the healthiest balance sheet and the biggest infrastructure projects. 50% of revenue is Australian based with another 38% coming from the US which has huge infrastructure needs. 25% of group revenue comes from roads, highways, subdivisions and bridges. Good leverage.

Adelaide Brighton (ABC) has been bludgeoned in this market meltdown and $1.35 is the level it hit at the pits of the GFC in 2008. If it starts to sink below that level, it will start to look interesting again. If you look at the chart you can see it has slid from almost $7 in 2018 to its current price of $2.24.

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A read through ABC’s last set of results points to the difficulties in the market for its cement and aggregates business. It has also embarked on a rationalisation program before all of this coronavirus hysteria.

We hold no positions in ABC or BLD as yet but will look to accumulate should the market continue its sell-off towards these 2008/9 lows.

The national government is out of options but to build out locally. They have already used the bushfires excuse to ditch the budget surplus plans so might as well push a bold infrastructure plan to save us all!  The best plan would be a high-speed rail project which addresses real long term needs of Australians.

NSW to lose State of Origin 4 (Adani)

Who’d a thunk? The Queensland Labor Government is fighting for its life. If it means trading principle for expediency, they have chosen the latter path. Even throwing on last-minute ‘infrastructure taxes’ couldn’t halt progress. Adani has been approved.

Labor has spent 8 years obstructing Adani Carmichael from going ahead. After the unlosable election result handed to its federal colleagues, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk saw the light. Political suicide was at stake. It won’t stop the inevitable, especially post QLD Treasurer Jackie Trad’s deeper deficits announced this week.

What Greens Senator DiNatale fails to understand (despite saying every election hereon will be a #ClimateElection) is that Queenslanders couldn’t give a hoot for Victorians complaining about their wish to have jobs. The reality is that Adani Carmichael will likely be open for decades to come. It will employ those working at the mines and the local economies that support them.

What evidence has DiNatale got for thousands of jobs being destroyed? It is that level of economic comprehension that means they will remain such a joke as a credible party. Not least helped by the eloquence of NSW MLC Cate Faehrmann who thinks encouraging a blockade in a neighbouring state seems fair game.

There are only supposed to be three games in the State of Origin.  Faehrmann is guaranteed to lose her suggested matchup, much like former Senator Bob Brown’s convoy pre-election warm-up game concluded. Queensland will run rings around the NSW attack, as always!

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Nippon Carbon – hidden black diamond

Nippon Carbon (5302) is a hidden gem. CM stumbled over this company in 2012. A decade prior to this, one of the commercial jet engine makers spoke of a new space age technology on the horizon. He mentioned there was a secret sauce that went in to make ceramic matrix composites (CMC). However, because of the secretive nature of R&D, the supplier wasn’t disclosed. So 12 years after that meeting and years of trying to hunt down this miracle ingredient, CM stumbled into meet Nippon Carbon to discuss its mainline graphite electrodes business. In the lobby, a dusty glass trophy cabinet revealed a mysterious cotton reel with black fibres wrapped around it (pic above).

Needless to say on application, the investor relations director told CM it was Hi-Nicalon which goes into CMC! Bingo. Forget the mainstay graphite electrodes! CM found the missing link. In the process, he told CM that the company had spent 40 (yes, forty) years developing it. Who does that? Only in Japan. What the material does is enable jet engines to burn hotter which means longer life, more efficiency with fewer emissions and lower weight. Win, win, win, win.

CFM International (GE/Safran JV) has 8,000 jets (16,000 engines) in the order book. Nippon Carbon’s JV to make Hi-Nicalon was lifted 10 fold in recent years to 10 tons (full capacity will be hit this year) and GE has licensed another 100% capacity increase from Nippon Carbon to produce locally in the US. It is black gold of another dimension.

What is often underestimated, is that passing new technology in commercial aerospace is way harder than seeking new drug approval in the pharmaceutical world. A new drug might have drowsiness as a side effect. A jet engine can’t have that level of failure risk. So now that this product is already flying in the B737 MAX and A320neo, the technology will be rolled out on all new commercial jets from this point. The next generation Boeing 777x will sport Hi-Nicalon in its GENx engines which will use about 5x the material than a B737. 340 orders for the B777x have already been placed by airlines. Deliveries begin in May 2020. GE will be the only engine choice on 777x.

Nippon Carbon is the sole CMC source ingredient producer for GE, the world’s largest jet-engine/turbine maker. The wonderful part about that is the fact that no substitutes will replace it. There are no competitors because in aerospace, quality of material matters. Only source suppliers get a look in. Nippon Carbon owns 50% of the NGS Advanced Fibers business where Hi Nicalon sits. GE & Safran own 25% each of the remainder. 

Ube Industries (4208) has Tyranno-fiber and is partnered with Rolls-Royce. Yet it is tiny part inside a business dominated by construction cement.

Nippon Carbon shares were hit hard the day before 1Q earnings on the back of a downward revision by competitor Tokai Carbon (5301). This is what happens when stocks have no official stockbroker coverage and get tarred by having “Carbon” in the name.

Nippon Carbon’s 1Q results came out after the close the following day, reporting a 46% increase in sales vs last year and a 168% increase in EPS. Full-year earnings were left unchanged.

Nippon Carbon mentioned tougher pricing position in graphite electrodes like Tokai Carbon, but the volume side appears healthier. It would not disclose customers but said demand was still healthy.

Sadly, disclosure is not a strong point of many Japanese companies and Nippon Carbon is no exception. Yet Japanese retail investors get hysterical over homegrown technology winding its way onto globally famous products. Toray (3402), the massive textile manufacturer, signed an exclusive supply contract with Boeing for the 787’s carbon fibre needs. The share price did the following. The slump came on the back of GFC.

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Toray’s stock trebled. Carbon fibre was only 12% of its earnings at the time. It is around 20% today. The rest of the Toray business was low margin textiles. Buying Toray to get exposure to 787 was like buying a fruitcake to get some raisins.

Osaka Titanium

Osaka Titanium Technologies (5726) had an even more bonkers reaction to the 787 which was loaded with titanium parts. Coupled with a global production shortage of titanium sponge and sharply higher contract prices, OTT shares jumped 28x! From relative obscurity, the stock became the most liquid stock in Japan. This is what happens when the small-cap retail lunatics are running the asylum.

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Based on Nippon Carbon’s FY2019 EPS forecast of ¥1,148 it trades on a 3.6x PE ratio. It trades below replacement cost and invested capital. CM thinks that if it manages to hit 20t of Hi-Nicalon by 2020 its EPS could approach ¥1353. That would put it on 3.05x.  Writing in an Armageddon scenario (literally nuking the core graphite electrode business) of ¥210 EPS the stock would be trading at a trough 19.6x. Normally industrials in a downturn would face losses or 50-100x multiples. 

To be honest its biggest problem is that the Nippon Carbon has such woeful marketing of itself. A visit to its Tokyo HQ reveals a 1950s lobby. It doesn’t spend a lick on itself which is also a relief. No frills. It is a proper engineering company. Unlike Toray and Osaka Titanium (at the time), Nippon Carbon has no official broker coverage meaning it remains in obscurity.

Hi-Nicalon is truly revolutionary. It is a once in half-a-century product. It will become the defacto standard jet engine material. At the moment it stands at around 5% of revenue and minimal profit as it ramps up but by next year it could be as high as 15-16% in a few years, which maybe conservative. Depending on the demand for aircraft, it may head higher. It is worth noting at the time of GFC, airlines many upgraded to more efficient aircraft to lower operating costs. Leasing companies obliged. That isn’t to say that Nippon Carbon is isolated by any means but the product itself is unique which provides relative stability.

Worth taking a long hard look at the story. This is a game changer material. We only need for the retail investor to cotton on to this story and let the Pride of Nippon push it to absurd valuations. We have the history of Toray and Osaka Titanium. At 3.6x it is already at absurd valuations (just at the opposite end).

GE still $15 billion in negative equity

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While GE might have rallied back above $10 on the back of its 1Q results released overnight, the company’s goodwill shrunk $5.5bn but the company remains deeply in negative equity to the tune of $14.7bn. Why do analysts perpetually focus on the revenue and profit, rather than look at the elephant in the room? Especially as we are at the top of an industrial cycle with warning signs that global growth is already slowing faster than originally anticipated. GE is heavily indebted.

Of the $53.2bn in goodwill and $ $17.1bn in intangible assets, GE shareholder’s equity (including non-controlling interests) is at $55.6bn. The gap is c. $14.7bn.

One of the interesting notes in the 10Q regarding the goodwill Oil & Gas accounts for 42% of the total. GE noted in point 8.

While the goodwill in our Grid reporting unit, Hydro reporting unit, and Oil & Gas reporting units is not currently impaired, the power and oil and gas markets continue to be challenging and there can be no assurances that goodwill will not be impaired in future periods as a result of sustained declines in BHGE share price or any future declines in macroeconomic or business conditions affecting these reporting units.

We can celebrate the short term but when an industrial stock, one which was the largest company by market capitalisation almost 20 years ago, has such an awful balance sheet (354% debt: equity) and blew $45bn in buybacks in recent years, one has to wonder how investors can look at GE as a paragon of value? Reminiscing on the halcyon days of a stock is not a method of sensible investing when staring at reality.

Panasonic pulls the plug on further Tesla capex

What a surprise? Panasonic is the main supplier of Tesla batteries. The Japanese tech giant is pulling the plug on further investment as it cites “financial problems” according to the Nikkei.

Panasonic had planned to ramp up production to 54GW by 2020 but it seems likely to stick to 35GW.

CM made the stance clear in the 30 reasons why Tesla will be a bug on a windshield report with respect to growth being at the mercy of suppliers willingness to co-invest.

Japanese suppliers are among some of the most tolerant around. For them to get pangs of concern should speak volumes about the real underlying conditions at Tesla. So much for a vote of confidence.

Flannery departs GE. Market rewards +14% in pre-market

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General Electric (GE) shares have been a dreadful investment. The company, which trades in negative equity is indicated c.14% higher in trade after CEO John Flannery stepped down inside one year on the job. Lawrence Culp replaces him as Chairman & CEO.

Losing Flannery will look to add about $14bn to GE’s value. Keeping Musk will look to add $7.1bn to Tesla’s value today. A tale of two CEOs. The power or losing one to that of keeping one.

Will financial planners bring out a Naomi Osaka ETF?

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Japanese investors can get star-struck with investments. In 2015, popular pop-idol band AKB-48 saw the stocks of companies it was sponsored by surge 136% relative to the market. Aggregate sales of those companies surged 46% and 30% over the following two years. Such is the ‘hayari‘ (boom) culture in Japan. Corporates know this.

Since the US Open win by tennis star Naomi Osaka, sponsors are lining up to sign her. Prior to the win, Nissin Foods, WOWOW & Yonex were already sponsors. Nissan has just signed her. Since the win, the Topix has risen a tad over 6% while Nissan, Nissan & WOWOW have risen 7.5% in aggregate. Yonex has jumped 12.2% Early days to be sure, but the likelihood is that if she is sponsored by some smaller less liquid stock names these stocks could well fly.

Forget fancy models and esoteric investment strategies. Find whatever Osaka will be sponsored by in Japan and outperform through popularity over underlying earnings performance.

Any financial firm that launched a Naomi Osaka basket would likely see massive inflows and be able to charge higher fees on the back of it. Will the marketing departments wake up?

Do as I say not as I do

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Tesla’s senior VP of engineering Doug Field has been selling down his stake in the company despite suggesting he’s  insulted by those shorting the stock. Field has sold over $6.5mn in stock since Sep 2015, selling $500k worth in recent months according to filings. Surely any company that has signed off on an incentive package triggered at a $650bn market cap (12x today) would be nuts to sell any of the stock now. Will Musk’s April Fool’s joke about Tesla’s bankruptcy actually become a self fulfilling prophecy? Be careful why you wish for!

The beauty of honesty

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The above quote is from quirky fund manager Dr Michael Burry MD towards the end of the movie, The Big Short. It says so much of today. One mate who is a very decent asset manager in Australia wrote to his clients, “I realise such may fly in the face of typical adviser recommendations (show me how someone is paid and I’ll show you how they will behave) however, I would rather lose a client than lose a client’s capital.

We share similar views on the state of the global capital markets. We joked about his long message to his investors sounding like Jerry Maguire burning the midnight oil writing the “fewer clients, less money” manifesto which got him sacked.

Now that our world is moving further and further toward automated everything including pre-emptive responses (which I scoffed out the other day about LinkedIn) it is truly refreshing to see this authentic honesty. The irony is that as much as machines are pushing us into ever tighter time windows, humans instinctively carry long term memory whether trauma or positive life events.

May your honesty be paid back in spades when those you saved a bundle recall your genuine gesture.

Shift your investment from corporates that stick to IR to those that self promote through PR

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Fund managers will find it tougher in the new post MiFID2 world to discover new companies in Japan. The sell-side research houses are likely to focus less and less on the one part of the market that clients are likely to be interested in – smaller medium sized enterprises which have unique business models exploiting the slow to change direction super tanker large caps. As a result many corporations will stick to traditional investor relations (IR) behaviour. Producing quarterly results and annual reports will not be enough. As stockbrokers become disincentivized to promote the same corporations they used to go out of their way to support by hosting IR roadshows, the companies will have to take it upon themselves to fill the gap. To that end IR will become PR.

Instead of buy-side analysts running complex forecasting tools, perhaps they would be better off covering off which corporations are actively promoting themselves relative to others. Surely those companies proactively contacting investors and providing them with up to date and relative updates will gain much more mind-share than those that don’t. Do not think for one second that time poor investors and fund managers won’t make time for those companies that make time for them. It is tough enough trying to fight off the onslaught of ETFs internally so wherever a corporate makes decision making simpler and time efficient it is not unbelievable to think that those stocks (provided they follow through with the earnings) won’t trade at a relative premium to those that stay behind the comfort of their own desks, despite in their eyes providing the minimum requirement of information.

Meeting one successful internet database company in Japan recently, I questioned why a company that had seen its revenues grow 70% in 3 years had seen a share price drift 40% lower. The IR team were worried why they had seen such a drop off in client contact.  It wasn’t that it had poor results. It was that it was sticking to a stale script and a liquidity drifted below crucial levels, the stock was being dumped on that alone. The irony was that the smallest division that was growing the fastest was on the back page even though it was growing 5x faster than any other division and at twice group margins. For a simple tweak in its PR material, the stock would light up. Still the company intends to stick to convention (for now).