Friday, April 7, 2017

Hedge Fund Links ~ 4/7/17

Julian Robertson shuts down Tiger Accelerator fund [Reuters]

Allan Mecham's Arlington Value closes to new investors [ValueWalk]

Hedge funds manage risk: opposing view [USA Today]

Sears and its hedge fund owner, in slow decline together [NYTimes]

Eton Park shutdown shows how hedge funds are dying at an alarming rate [Fortune]

Potential Eton Park spinoffs coming? [Institutional Investor]

Hedge fund flows and name gravitas [SSRN]

Law firm Seward Kissel sees further hedge fund fee shift [ValueWalk]

Hedge fund titans face what's next as they pass certain age [Bloomberg]

The future of family office investing [Medium]

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ryanair's Low Cost Flywheel: Scuttleblurb Analysis

Scuttleblurb has agreed to let us post their recent analysis of Ryanair for free.  If you're not familiar, provides subscribers with balanced and insightful analysis and commentary on the moats, business models, and corporate strategies of companies across a variety of industries, as well as time-saving summaries of management commentary on earnings calls.

Market Folly readers can receive an 18% discount off your first year of Scuttleblurb using coupon code: marketfolly.   

Ryanair's Low Cost Flywheel

“One thing we have looked at is maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door...Pay-per-pee. If someone wanted to pay £5 to go to the toilet, I’d carry them myself. I would wipe their bums for a fiver.”  

- Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair

In a letter to one of GEICO's officers dated July 22, 1976, Warren Buffett wrote:

“I have always been attracted to the low cost operator in any business and, when you can find a combination of (i) an extremely large business, (ii) a more or less homogenous product, and (iii) a very large gap in operating costs between the low cost operator and all of the other companies in the industry, you have a really attractive investment situation. That situation prevailed twenty five years ago when I first became interested in the company, and it still prevails.”   

One of the most compelling moats a company can possess is a set of self-reinforcing processes that continuously fosters lower unit costs. Interactive Brokers, for example, benefits from such a dynamic. As I've previously noted, IBKR can charge its customers a fraction of the commission assessed by peers and still generate significantly higher profit margins because it: 1) spends far less of its revenue on advertising; 2) does not support physical branches or an army of customer service reps, and less appreciated but critically; 3) attracts trading volume that is itself endemic to continuously driving down execution costs, since the more trades the company executes, the more optimally it can route orders to low-cost venues, and better execution in turn, leads to more trading volume.

Ryanair benefits from a similar low-cost flywheel.

This story really begins with Herb Kelleher - the founder of Southwest Airlines, the company that Ryanair modeled itself after - who observed that the hub-and-spoke networks operated by legacy carriers, designed to maximize load factors, sub-optimally left aircraft stranded on the tarmac waiting for feeder traffic and baggage transfers. Herb understood that to generate healthy profits along short point-to-point routes, he had to keep his planes off the ground and in the air for as long as possible while assiduously controlling costs, which informed an operating framework designed to hasten turnaround times: single-class, unassigned seating to expedite onboarding; a no-meals policy to obviate time- consuming clean-up; a single aircraft model (Boeing 737) to reduce crew training costs and enable speedier repairs and servicing; and at least at the start, concentrating on uncongested, secondary airports to enable rapid take-off and landing.

Michael O’Leary, profanity-oozing ass-kicker and Ryanair CEO since 1994, left Kelleher’s charm and decency on the Love Field tarmac but imported his operating model to Europe, stoking a relentless self-reinforcing moat entrenchment process that continues to this day. Early in its corporate life, by targeting secondary airports desperate for traffic - Hahn, not Frankfurt; Brescia, not Verona; Lubeck, not Hamburg; Skavsta, not Stockholm - Ryanair obtained substantial landing fee discounts. Stansted, for instance, agreed to charge Ryanair £1 per passenger vs. the official rate of £6 while Essex airport offered heavily discounted fees on new routes, laddering up to higher tariffs over 4-5 years as those routes matured and densified. Ryanair recycled the cost savings into lower passenger fares, attracting fresh waves of traffic that were used to negotiate favorable landing fees at other secondary airports and receive discounts on aircraft orders from Boeing.

[When reading coherent business triumph narratives involving bold actors and crafty strategy, it's easy to neglect the crucial role of luck. Just to swiftly dispel the notion that Ryanair's status as the largest and most profitable airline banner in Europe was inevitable, know that the company was on the brink of collapse in the late '80s before Ireland's persuasive Minister of Transport somehow convinced the Cabinet to break up Aer Lingus' monopoly, yielding critical, life-saving routes to Ryanair. At the time, O'Leary, who was handling finances for the troubled airline, actually recommended to Tony Ryan (the airline's founder) that the whole cash-draining enterprise be shut down before striking what turned out to be an insanely profitable compensation package for himself, one which granted O'Leary a quarter of any profits above £2mn, a goal Ryan believed outside the realm of possible at the time (this deal has since been scrapped). The Aer Lingus break-up was then followed by EU’s 1992 Open Skies treaty, which deregulated the European airline industry and allowed carriers to fly passengers between EU states. I found this story and other interesting historical tidbits referenced in this post in the book Ryanair: The Full Story of the Controversial Low-Cost Airline written by Siobhan Creaton]

Complementing this feedback loop, a keen obsession with cost control and efficiency has taken root in policies and behaviors ranging from cringeworthy (charging the disabled for wheelchairs) to heroic (O’Leary heaving baggage onto planes during strikes) to downright petty (apparently and perhaps apocryphally, at one time Ryanair banned employees from charging their mobile phones during work hours, citing theft of company electricity amounting to 1.4 pence per charge), reinforcing an unrepentantly utilitarian attitude toward customer service: humane treatment for one compromises low costs for all.

This has all crescendo’ed to a cost structure today that no European competitor is even remotely positioned to rival. Ryanair's cost per passenger (excluding fuel) is just €27 vs. €40 for Wizz Air, the second lowest-cost airline. Culturally stodgy full-service European incumbents like IAG, Air France, Lufthansa, and Air Berlin have average ex. fuel per passenger costs that run 4x higher than Ryanair's. Besides maybe Wizz Air, a low-cost carrier focused on Eastern European routes whose seat capacity is just ~1% of Ryanair’s, no competitor can match the company's €42 airfare and still make money. This cost advantage will only widen as the company inks still more incentive deals with airports and takes delivery of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, which come with 4% more seats and a 16% reduction in fuel costs per passenger.

And so, because engaging in a fare war with Ryanair is suicidal - as the failed low-cost initiatives of major incumbents like Virgin Express, BA Go, and KLM Buzz attest - Ryanair can profitably undercut competitors and steal their passengers, maximizing load factors while leveraging market share gains to secure increasingly advantaged landing fees and aircraft prices, with the capacity to incessantly reinvest the resulting savings into still lower passenger fares. Over the last dozen years, this self-perpetuating process has spurred 14% annual growth in passenger volume, amplifying scale advantages that have allowed Ryanair to cost-effectively (EBIT/passenger has remained flat over this time) extend its reach beyond secondary airports. Unable to compete with Ryanair's prices, competitors have increasingly relinquished bases in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Belgium, compelling primary airports, which today represent just over half of all airports served by the company, to negotiate attractive volume deals with Ryanair.

[On public conference calls, O'Leary will frequently and explicitly highlight its cost advantage over peers, often goading competitors by name. The confrontational posture is more than just an unvarnished reflection of O'Leary's gracious personality; it signals to competitors that Ryanair stands credibly ready to take fares down to levels that would still allow Ryanair to generate profits while producing significant losses to them, i.e. "don't even bother competing with us on price" (my words)].

Sometime in the late-90s, Ryanair placed an £800mn order for 25 planes with Boeing with the option to purchase 20 more for £650mn, a huge commitment for what was then a relatively unknown fledgling. To test the company’s creditworthiness, Boeing rigorously stress tested the airline’s business model through computer-simulated declines in passenger traffic, fluctuating fuel costs, and exchange rates. The result: Boeing could not find a single 3-month period in which Ryanair would not be profitable.

Boeing’s Director of Sales in the UK and Ireland remarked,

“The lowest we could do was break even....It is probably the most robust model we have encountered.”   

This assessment would prove mostly prescient as Ryanair subsequently delivered positive operating profits each fiscal year up to today (“mostly,” because there were losses in some 3-month periods), generating among the highest returns on capital (averaging low-teens over the last 15 years) of all European airlines. Under O'Leary's guidance, management has acted as capable stewards of capital, opportunistically retiring 15% of the company’s share count over the last 5 years at attractive prices - with nearly 30% of that reduction taking place during the Brexit vote, when the company increased its share repurchase authorization to seize on the stock’s ~25% decline - all while maintaining a pristine balance sheet, which carries less than €600mn in net debt against €2bn in LTM EBITDA. The stock trades at 16x trailing earnings with a long runway for growth as passenger volumes, per management's guidance, expand by ~9%/year (about 2x the industry) from 119mn in FY17 to 200mn by FY24, and assuming flat fares, earnings should grow meaningfully faster than that on lower costs per passenger (as the more efficient MAX comes on line) and higher per-passenger ancillary revenue.

Since Ryanair announced that membership in myRyanair for all online bookings would be mandatory last November, membership has surged and is expected to reach 20mn by March 2017. Besides the immediately obvious revenue and cost opportunities from upselling reserved and upgraded seats (which has prompted management to raise medium- term guidance on ancillary sales) and disintermediating costly OTA and metasearch traffic, there are significant advantages from directly interfacing with a huge customer base, like fostering loyalty through customized services and even, just maybe, scaling an in-house OTA, linking travelers to car rentals and hotel rooms. Over the last decade, passenger fares haven't really budged much at all; however, ancillary revenue per passenger has nearly doubled, from ~€8 to ~€15 per passenger, driving all of the per-passenger EBITDA growth over that period, and now that Ryanair has made myRyanair membership mandatory, its burgeoning captive audience should translate into still greater ancillary sales/passenger.

Brexit has prompted Ryanair to pivot away from the UK and concentrate its growth ambitions in continental Europe. The UK represents about 2% of the company's capacity and 3 out of its 1,800 routes, so it seems like a manageable risk, though who can fully handicap the destabilizing consequences of creeping populist/isolationist sentiment? It's a risk. Still, pick a year, any year and you’ll find that there has almost always been a sound macro, political, or industry- specific reason not to invest in Ryanair stock: ATC strikes, terrorism, austerity measures, economic contraction, fuel shocks, low-cost competition from incumbents, low-cost competition from upstarts, foot and mouth disease, the Iraq War, Avian flu, Volcanic ash clouds. Just as GEICO’s structural cost advantage remained intact despite the company’s reckless underwriting practices during the ‘70s, so has Ryanair’s persisted through these destabilizing exogenous events. And besides, through it all, it turns out that for the right price folks still want to explore different cultures, get away during holidays, and visit loved ones in distant locations. I suspect this will continue to be true over the next decade.

So if you're a shareholder, the next time you find yourself on a Ryanair flight, as you recline comfortably squirm perpendicularly in your squeaky, navy blue seat, carapaced by overhead compartment doors littered with tacky revenue-generating ads, feel free to silently cheer through your discomfort.

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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

What We're Reading ~ 4/5/17

Modern Monopolies: What It Takes to Dominate the 21st Century [Alex Moazed]

How moats make a difference [Intrinsic Investing]

Boyar Research's thesis on QVC and Madison Square Garden [Barrons]

Autonomous cars and second order consequences [Benedict Evans]

The hardest question in portfolio management [A Wealth of Common Sense]

Diversification, adaptation, and stock market valuations [Philosophical Economics]

Noise: how to overcome the high, hidden cost of inconsistent decisions [Harvard Biz Review]

How Domino's built a $9 billion empire [Bloomberg]

How do winning consumer goods companies capture growth? [McKinsey]

Airlines make more money selling miles than seats [Bloomberg]

At Blackrock, machines are rising over managers to pick stocks [NYTimes]

What's next for malls? [Fashionista]

Andrew Ng on what AI can and can't do [Harvard Business Review]

Margin debt hit all time high in February [WSJ]

The 1% rule: why a few people get most of the rewards [James Clear]

Chuck Akre's Talk at Google: Three-Legged Stool Investment Construct

Chuck Akre of Akre Capital Management recently had a talk at Google about investing entitled "The Peregrinations of an English Major Trying to Solve the Investment Puzzle."

If you're unfamiliar with Akre, he focuses on finding long-term compounders and runs a somewhat concentrated portfolio.  Here's notes from his talk:

Chuck Akre's Talk at Google

- Reads voraciously to this day.  Cited one of the very first books he liked: The Money Masters.  Also noted that 100:1 in the Stock Market is the book he took the idea of compounding from.  Said he read The Intelligent Investor as well as business biographies.

- What makes a great investment?  "Rate of return is the bottom line of all investing."

- Looks at free cashflow return and focuses on valuation as the key to compounding; buy it right.

- How do they identify investments that will generate above average returns?  "We like to fish in the pond of high return businesses."  Asks: what kind of returns on capital?  What are the net margins?  Thinks an 'average' business returns high single digits.  Cites Mastercard (MA) and Visa (V) with 30% margins.  "What is it about the essence of that business that allows them to earn returns that cause them to have a big bullseye on their back?"

- Three-legged stool:  Their investment construct that lets them think in simple terms.  First leg is the quality of a business: a high return business.  Second leg is operations: want management to have skill and integrity (a demonstrated record) and treat investors as partners.  Third leg is reinvestment: would love the company to put cash back into the business if there's great opportunity.  Cited the book Dear Chairman (which we've reviewed here).

- "I have never been able to learn from other people's mistakes.  I have to make my own."

- Wants to be an investor in a business rather than a speculator in shares.

- His goal is to compound capital at an above average rate while incurring a below average level of risk.  Volatility is only a risk in the short run.

- Akre's separately managed accounts over 27 years have compounded at 12.7% versus S&P at 9.4%.  Also has a partnership that's done 15.25% versus S&P 9.2% and mutual funds that have done 13.2% annual.

- Mastercard: originally purchased in 2010 at around $22 with regulatory worries around Durbin amendment.  Business has fantastic returns, had a low valuation (13-14x at the time).  "Their returns are so high they can't possibly find a place to reinvest their money, so our compounding is diminished modestly because of that."

- Moody's (MCO): Bought in January 2012 at $39.  Any company that wants debt has to get a rating on it and it's basically an oligopoly: MCO, S&P (SPGI), and Fitch.

- Enstar (ESGR): Been involved for 10 years.  They buy insurance that's in run-off.  Paid 3 times book when he bought shares. 

- Quotes Einstein: "You should make everything simple as possible but no simpler."  "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we use to create them."  "The only source of knowledge is experience."  "Imagination is more important than knowledge."  That last quote is what's on the front of Akre's book:

- Two of his best investments (100 baggers): Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) and American Tower (AMT).  "Most of the time you can buy these businesses at reasonable valuations... sometimes you can buy them at a steal."

- On selling: "The most difficult thing to do in our business is not sell, if you're a long-term investor."

- Bought Visa (V) because they have concentration limits in their funds and were bumping into that with their stake in MA.  Did the same with SBA Communications (SBAC) as it relates to their AMT position.  Gaining more exposure to the themes via competitors since individual position limits kicked in.

Embedded below is video of Chuck Akre's talk at Google:

We've covered many other investor talks at Google, including:

- Howard Marks' talk at Google

- Michael Mauboussin's talk at Google

- Jim Grant's talk at Google

Joel Greenblatt's Talk at Google

Joel Greenblatt is the founder of Gotham Capital and also author of the book The Little Book That Beats the Market.  He recently gave a talk at Google and here are the takeaways:

Joel Greenblatt's Talk at Google

- He thinks the vast majority of investors should index rather than pick stocks.  That said, he doesn't index and Warren Buffett doesn't either.

- Greenblatt said people are still crazy (human behavior) and the market has wild rides (50% drops in recessions, tripling in value afterwards, etc).  So there's an opportunity.  The key is obviously to buy when valuations are below average and sell when they're above average.

- He tells his MBA students at Columbia Business School: "If they do good valuation work, I guarantee the market will agree with them... I just don't know when."

- "Stocks are ownership shares in businesses."  Looks at how relatively cheap they are compared to other businesses, to history, etc.  Measure in absolute and relative value.

- Emphasizes being patient; market oscillates back and forth over the years.  Time horizons are shrinking so we're playing time arbitrage. 

- "Almost never have I bottom-ticked a stock."  That means most of the time he'll be down on a stock at some point.  There's two reasons why: he's either wrong or just needs more time for the thesis to play out.

- Greenblatt also wrote a book called The Big Secret that he joked is still a secret since no one read it.  But he's also authored a wildly popular investing book with a cheesy title: You Can Be a Stock Market Genius

- "To beat the market you have to do something different."

- Runs 100% net long but it's typically achieved via 170% long and 70% short.  They determined the leverage amount based on returns.

- The market's been cheaper 83% of the time based on current valuations.  Based on this, market could see 3-5% returns over the next year and then 8-10% over the next two.  Not a prediction though he said.

- "Stock investing is figuring out what a business is worth and paying less."

- Harped on the importance of compound interest tables.  Start investing as early as possible.

- Thinks there's still a lot of groupthink going on.  If you're good at taking 'unfair bets' in obscure places that other people aren't looking, you can do well.  But eventually you'll have too much money to play in that arena anymore to have it move the needle.

- On Apple (AAPL): "I think it's cheap relative to other choices right now."

- "Your job is to be cold and calculating, and unemotional.  Unfortunately, people are human.  That's good news for us, but the stats are against you."

- "The last man standing is patience.  We call it time arbitrage.  That's in really short supply.  It's not getting better, things are moving faster... and less patience." 

- For more from this investor, we've also posted up Greenblatt's interview with Consuelo Mack

Embedded below is the video of Joel Greenblatt's talk at Google:

We've also posted a bunch of other investor talks at Google, including:

- Howard Marks' talk at Google

- Michael Mauboussin's talk at Google

- Jim Grant's talk at Google

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Phil Fisher's Investment Checklist: 15 Things to Look For In A Stock

Phil Fisher was a noted investor who founded investment firm Fisher & Company back in 1931.  He was basically a pioneer in the field of growth investing by buying great companies at reasonable prices while focusing on the long-term.  He's also the author of the popular investing book, Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits.

In the book, Fisher outlined what he deemed to be 15 things that investors need to look for in a common stock.

Phil Fisher's Investment Checklist: 15 Things To Look For

1.  "Does the company have products or services with sufficient market potential to make possible a sizable increase in sales for at least several years?"

2.  "Does the management have a determination to continue to develop products or processes that will still further increase total sales potentials when the growth potentials of currently attractive product lines have largely been exploited?"

3.  "How effective are the company's research and development efforts in relation to its size?"

4.  "Does the company have an above-average sales organization?"

5.  "Does the company have a worthwhile profit margin?"

6.  "What is the company doing to maintain or improve profit margins?"

7.  "Does the company have outstanding labor and personnel relations?"

8.  "Does the company have outstanding executive relations?"

9.  "Does the company have depth to its management?"

10.  "How good are the company's cost analysis and accounting controls?"

11.  "Are there other aspects of the business, somewhat peculiar to the industry involved, which will give the investor important clues as to how outstanding the company may be in relation to its competition?"

12.  "Does the company have a short-range or long-range outlook in regard to profits?"

13.  "In the foreseeable future will the growth of the company require sufficient equity financing so that the larger number of shares then outstanding will largely cancel the existing stockholders' benefit from this anticipated growth?"

14.  "Does the management talk freely to investors about its affairs when things are going well but 'clam up' when troubles and disappointments occur?"

15.  "Does the company have a management of unquestionable integrity?"

If you want to explore the usage of checklists further, many investors have recommended Atul Gawande's book, The Checklist Manifesto.  While it's not an investing book, it is about incorporating checklists into your process.

For guidance from other prominent investors, be sure to also check out Viking Global's Andreas Halvorsen on investment process as well as Fairholme Capital's Bruce Berkowitz investment checklist.

Tiger Global Adds To Apollo Position

Chase Coleman's hedge fund firm Tiger Global has filed a Form 4 and an amended 13G with the SEC regarding its position in Apollo Global Management (APO).  Per the filing, Tiger Global now owns 12.5% of the company with 23.36 million shares.

The Form 4 indicates their recent trading activity includes buying 300,000 APO shares on March 30th at $23.65, 34,900 shares at blended average of $24.022 on March 31st, and then another 26,900 shares on April 3rd at $24.565. 

Per Google Finance, Apollo Global Management is "an alternative investment manager in private equity, credit and real estate. The Company raises, invests and manages funds on behalf of pension, endowment and sovereign wealth funds, as well as other institutional and individual investors. The Company's segments include private equity, credit and real estate. The private equity segment invests in control equity and related debt instruments, convertible securities and distressed debt investments. The credit segment invests in non-control corporate and structured debt instruments, including performing, stressed and distressed investments across the capital structure. The real estate segment invests in real estate equity for the acquisition and recapitalization of real estate assets, portfolios, platforms and operating companies, and real estate debt, including first mortgage and mezzanine loans, preferred equity and commercial mortgage backed securities."