Eminence Capital Plays Vodafone / Verizon Pairs Trade: Q3 Letter Excerpt ~ market folly

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Eminence Capital Plays Vodafone / Verizon Pairs Trade: Q3 Letter Excerpt

Ricky Sandler's hedge fund firm Eminence Capital is having a great year, up 6.7% net in the third quarter and up 22.3% net for the year through September with AUM north of $3 billion.  Their third quarter letter to investors details a new trade they recently put on:

Long Vodafone / Short Verizon Pairs Trade

For those unfamiliar, a pairs trade is a bet made where an investor goes long one security and shorts another.  Some investors utilize this to make a market neutral bet, while others use it to bet on mean-reversion.

Some hedgies will undoubtedly be familiar with this specific pairs trade as various funds have had it on in the past.  The trade here is essentially an arbitrage on the valuation of an asset both companies share: stakes in Verizon Wireless ("VZW").  Vodafone (VOD) owns 45% of Verizon Wireless and Verizon (VZ) owns 55% of Verizon Wireless.

Eminence put on this pairs trade (long VOD, short VZ) in recent months and here's why according to Sandler:

"VOD trades at a significant discount to VZ for a number of reasons and thereby creates a unique opportunity where the same asset is being valued by two sets of investors very differently.

If we assign a fair value to VZW for each of VOD and VZ we are left with the following valuation anomaly: the rest of VOD (after subtracting VZW at fair value) has an $82B Enterprise Value which values its best of breed European and Emerging Market wireless service business at 7x adjusted EBIT (EBITDA minus Capex) and 4.5x after-tax economic earnings. Simultaneously, the rest of Verizon (after subtracting VZW at fair value) has an $80B Enterprise Value for a structurally declining fixed line telephone business in the US that generates zero EBIT and trades at an infinite multiple of economic earnings because it burns free cash flow.

We think the time is right for this trade to play out because we have come to the point where VZW will need to pay out a lot of free cash flow to each of its owners over the next few years. VOD will increasingly appear to generate more free cash flow than it had been as investors begin to see these dividends from VZW. Alternatively, VZ’s free cash flow will appear to decline as it pays out cash from its consolidated position in VZW to VOD. We expect investors to more fully reward VOD for its look through cash flow since it will be receiving this cash regularly from VZW while investors will also come to realize that VZ can’t even afford to pay its corporate dividend when only 55% of the VZW cash flow is counted. It is also possible that VZ realizes its stock is overvalued and tries to use its currency to buy in the VZW it doesn’t own which would be a material positive for our position."

Given that numerous other funds have been in this pairs trade in the past, it's interesting that Eminence feels now is the right time to play it.  With some analysts expecting another VZW special dividend for VOD by year-end, we'll have to see how this trade plays out.  Vodafone is now Eminence's fourth largest long.

For more from this hedge fund, be sure to also check out why Eminence is bullish on Google.  While they reduced their position size a bit recently, it's still their largest holding.

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