Bought Northamber at 39.40p on Sept 25

Northamber Plc is a United Kingdom-based company principally engaged in the supply of computer hardware, computer printers and peripheral products, computer telephony products and other electronic transmission equipment.

Price/book = 0.34
price/tangible book = 0.34
price/(current assets – all liabilities) = 0.39

In the last few years it’s been making a small profit and paying a dividend. Price has ranged between 117p and the current lows around 30p.

Lets see what the next few years bring.

Bought Mallett at 78.90p

Price/Book =0.43

Price/(current assets – all liabilities) = 0.53

Since 1865 Mallett have grown to be the largest and most exclusive antiques business in the world with galleries in both London and New York.

Their share price had been around 250p in the last few years but since the start of 2007 (credit crunch) it has collapsed to below 80p and well below book value.  

Of course the credit crunch will impact them but in the long run I expect them to return to a fair price of at least 150p.

Bought Titon Holdings at 33p

I bought Titon Holdings (TON) today. They are a leading UK supplier of Ventilation Systems and Window Hardware.

Notable features were low debt, with current assets (9M) enough to pay of all liabilities (2.7M), leaving 6.3M and a current market cap of 3.1M. So you could buy the whole company, close it down and take the cash in the bank (almost 2M), sell all the stock and collect receivables and make a profit.

The share price has floated around 100p for the last decade, but since the credit crunch and related housing slowdown their share price has collapsed to around 30p. The only reason I can see for this looking at the company reports is that profits halved in the last year and general market sentiment against the housing related sectors.

The plan is to sit back and wait for the cycle to turn and/or management to make the required changes and sell out above 60p. If that hasn’t happened in 5 years I’ll sell up and move on.

The details were:

Titon Holdings bought at 33p, market cap 3.1M, PB 0.3

Value Share Selection

My share buying criteria are slowly taking shape, based on extensive back testing as reported in “What has worked in investing” by Tweedy, Browne Company LLC, plus some testing of my own using DigitalLook’s Market Stars system and my reading of Ben Graham.

I’m a simple chap so I like simple rules. I start by sorting the FTSE all share plus the FTSE Fledgling indices by price/book. I select those in the bottom 10%. Then I sort those by market cap and select the smallest 10%. Then I exclude those with a dividend yield less than 1%. Finally I sort by price/book again. Basically this gives me small cheap shares that are still paying a dividend. Generally I don’t like to buy shares with price/book over 0.5.

That’s the quantitative part, then I have a qualitative part.

I look at the historic share price. Is it reasonable to expect the price to double at least, in order to get back to a price/book of 1 (fair value) with the current book value? If the stock is at p/b of 0.5 at a share price of £1 but has only traded around £1.50 for the last 10 years then it’s less likely to get up to the £2 required to reach fair value. Compare that to an equivalent share that was at £2.50 until some recent quarterly losses and it seems more reasonable that the share will return to those levels if the management can fix whatever the problem is.

Then I look at the recent news for the company. If the news is all about how the company is about to go bust or is issuing rights or is looking for a buyer, then I’m not interested. I want companies that are trading reasonably well. Perhaps the share price is low due to the general negative economic environment (which will become more positive in time). Or perhaps the company has made some losses or weak profits for the last year or so which can also be turned around in time.

I also like the company to have enough current assets to pay of their current liabilities and preferably enough to pay off all their liabilities, although this is more rare. I don’t want a company that is too loaded with debt when losses are being made otherwise the lenders may have more influence than shareholders.

Once a company has jumped those fences then I’ll pick it if I don’t already own too many similar companies in similar industries.

That’s it, and good luck to all who sail in her.

Bought Pendragon at 8p and Ennstone at 16.47p

I started my toe dipping exercise into value investing this month. The plan is to start out light and only buy once a month or when I sell something. I want to hold up to 20 stocks and also use the sliding cash system I thought about last time where the cash % is twice the average PE of the market.

The general idea is to buy stocks from the FTSE All Share index which fall in the lowest 20% market cap of the bottom 10% price/book. So if there are 500 companies in the index then I pick the 50 with the lowest PB and then the smallest 10 of those by market cap.

Many previous studies have shown that these stocks can outperform the market over the next few years after purchase. The gist is that markets are not 100% efficient and that they over do the gloom on certain stocks or just don’t value them fairly.

My sell signal will either be when the company reaches a price/book ratio of 1, or when I’ve held the stock for 5 years, whichever comes first.

This month I bought:

Pendragon at 8p, market cap 62M, PB 0.15. This is a car dealership network and it’s been pretty beat up in this recession.

Ennstone at 16.47p, market cap 81M, PB 0.4. This is a construction and materials company and has not surprisingly lost a lot of value recently.

Two Value Portfolios

I want to run some back testing on a couple of value portfolios. They’re both based on picking relatively small cap stocks with a low PB, preferably below 0.5.

The first portfolio holds the stock for a year and if the criteria are no longer met (cap too large or PB too high) I sell, otherwise I hold for another year.

The second method buys the same stocks but holds them until the PB reaches 1, regardless of cap. Will this outperform the first method or will I just end up holding a bunch of stocks that are going nowhere, i.e. never reach par? Only back testing and time will tell.

This could be mixed in with the sliding cash holding method of the last post, or I could just be strict with the criteria and if the market is overpriced then there won’t be many if any stocks with a PB of 0.5… there certainly weren’t many between 1999 and late 2001.

Sliding cash ratio based on index p/e

I had an idea today that I might do some back testing with. It’s kind of a slant on MPT with a dynamic cash allocation. What if instead of having a fixed cash allocation of say 30% which you re-balance to each year, you instead use the p/e ratio of whatever indices you’re invested in (S&P, FTSE100 etc) to determine that allocation?

Assuming a p/e of 14x is fair value, 7x is very cheap, 21x is very expensive and 28x is an insane bubble, what if you used double that number as the cash %? So each year, if say the FTSE100 had a p/e of 14x you’d set your cash allocation at 28%. If the p/e was 7x you’d have the cash allocation at 14% and if the p/e was 28x you’d have the cash allocation at 56%.

This seems reasonable at first glance since at 14x, 28% cash is a reasonable safe amount. At 7x the stock market is historically cheap (with a better than average probability of going up) and yields are high so you load up on it with only 14% cash. At 28x the stock market is historically very expensive (with a better than average probability of going down) with low yields so you don’t want much exposure, i.e. 56% cash.

I think I’ll do some back testing if possible and see what history says.

July Investment update

The UK and US economies are still heading for recession caused by the credit bust and high food and energy prices. The rest of the world is affected to greater or lesser degrees. So mainstream equities are a bad idea and today they went into bear market territory with 20% drops from the peak last October.

Oil is $146 so oil related stocks are still looking like the place to be. I don’t see how that’s going to change for the next few years, if not a decade. China and India are still growing, non OPEC supplies are still falling and demand still equals supply. If OPEC starts to decline in the next decade we’re in for a hell of a rough time.

This only makes ‘climate change’ stocks and funds look more attractive since most of the responses are the same for peak oil and climate change. Fuel efficiency, renewable energy, electric cars, lightweight materials, insulation, energy efficiency, etc.

As things stand I might up the climate/renewable % of the fund to 20% from the current 10%.

Just to remind myself, the breakdown is currently:
cash 10%
renewables 10%
oil/gas related 30%
industrial mining 30%
gold miners 20%

Long Term Trend Following

I saw a nice chart that illustrated the point of following the long term trends. This ties in with Long Valuation Waves where the p/e of a mature market tends to ride up and down over a time scale of one or two decades. Last time I wrote about this I mentioned the roughly inverse correlation between energy consuming and producing companies. The 1965-1983 period was good to energy producers and inflation bets (gold), the 1983-2000 period was good for energy consumers since energy was cheap.

Another way to view these long cycles is that there is always a decade long bull in something. If you invested $35 in gold in 1970 it was worth $627 in 1980. Put that into the Nikkei until 1990 and it was worth $3,548. Put that into the nasdaq until 2000 and it would be worth $35,105. Finally stick that in oil and it’s now worth $159,591.

Those weren’t insanely hard trends to spot. Of course, you’d probably be hedged to some extent on a couple of major plays, but in general I still love this strategy. Currently I think the trend for the 2000-2010 period is oil/gold, although emerging markets have been a pretty handy place to be. I think the trend for the 2010-2020 period is likely to be renewable energy and energy efficiency, but again China could be useful. For 2020-2030 the trend may be back to consumption once a new global energy infrastructure is in place.

House Prices Start to Drop

Well, it had to happen at some point. This month the Nationwide survey shows an annual drop of 4% following the falls for the last 6 months or so since Northern Rock went pop. Given that inflation is at least 3% that’s about a 7% real drop. Not bad since the ball has only just started rolling. With any luck (for us) this will keep on for a few more years until prices return to sanity.

House Price/Earnings Ratio

I made up a little graph the other day to look at the house price/earnings ratio over the last 25 years or so. I was actually interested in creating some kind of affordability index based on prices, earnings and interest rates, but that didn’t produce anything with clear trends. However, simply looking at average UK house prices against average earnings gave surprisingly smooth trend lines.

The p/e ratio was 3.05 in 1982 and 1983, a low. Then, EVERY SINGLE YEAR, it increased to a peak of 4.32 in 1989. Then it decreased EVER SINGLE YEAR, finally hitting 2.64 in 1996. Then, once again it increased EVERY SINGLE YEAR up to 5.69 in 2007. The question now is if it drops in 2008, as seems likely, then does that mean a drop EVERY SINGLE YEAR until we hit a low, somewhere around a p/e ratio of 3? If so then that means a real drop of about 47% which is something in the region of how much the International Monetary Fund said UK houses were overpriced by. Also, given that we’ve been so far over the long term trend, it doesn’t seem beyond the bounds of reason that we may drop below a p/e of 3 for some time as part of mean reversion, which could easily result in a drop of more than 50%.

Unless there is a economic crisis or extreme interest rate rise I don’t see how this is going to happen in just a few years (not even the 7 years of the last downturn). It seems more likely to me that we’ll have a property downturn for a decade or more finally resulting in fair value, before we start the march up again.

Long Valuation Waves

Long valuation waves are the secular bulls and bears of the stock and commodity markets. The theory is that due to fundamental (for the last century at least) reasons, stocks and commodities become approximately inversely more or less expensive over long 30-40 year waves. General valuation measures such as p/e help indicate which stage of a long valuation wave the market is in and also what sort of returns you may expect from stocks or commodities.

This is of interest to me because my investment strategy is value based and long term, i.e. I don’t like to buy or sell more than once a year and I expect to be investing until I drop dead.

Currently my knowledge of these waves only scratches the surface but here’s the gist:

1. Let’s say that currently we have the capacity to provide all the commodities that the world needs. Commodity prices are low because of that and so investing in new capacity is very limited as it isn’t profitable and we don’t need it.

2. Population grows, standards of living rise, partly because of low commodity prices. This increases demand.

3. Gradually this increase of demand, over a period of years, begins to strain the current capacity to supply the commodities. Miners, farmers and others start to make more money and begin thinking about buying more land to plant crops or dig more mines. However, these things require big injections of capital so the producers don’t try to increase capacity straight away, they wait until they are sure that it’s worth it, i.e. until commodity prices are high.

4. Producers start to build new mines, farm more fields and pump more oil. However, it can take years to get new mines up and running, and the same goes for oil and food production (although less so for food). During this phase commodity prices are very high and this hurts other sectors of the economy as consumers have less spare money to spend on things other than food and fuel, and the other things also cost more because of raw material costs. The rest of the economy starts to make their use of commodities more efficient or just cut back on their use due to the high costs.

5. Eventually the producers do increase supply. At the same time the consumers are consuming less (or not increasing demand so fast) because of high costs. The producers can now supply enough commodities to consumers and prices drop. Prices keep dropping as people don’t want to invest in decreasing assets and also as it becomes obvious that supply exceeds demand.

6. We are now back at stage 1. All of this took 10-20 years to go from stage 1 to stage 5, then there may be another 10-20 years at stage 5 as money flows into other areas of the economy (technology or housing for instance) which very gradually increase demand for commodities again.