Sunday, 13 August 2017

No Need to Maximise Profits with Cash of Last Resort

CPF funds are my cash of last resort in investing. I have quite a good record of investing my CPF funds. However, that statement would be incomplete, because majority of the time, the funds are parked in bank preference shares and collecting regular dividends that pay higher than CPF Ordinary Account's interest rate of 2.5%. On equity investments, there were only 2 occasions when CPF funds were deployed. The first was during the market doldrums during 2000-2003, when I ran out of cash for investments and had to rely on my CPF funds. The second was to buy more of Global Logistic Properties (GLP) than what was allowed for in my cash portfolio (see What is My Target Price? for more info).

Since CPF funds are my cash of last resort, the overriding principle is safety rather than maximising profits. Hence, majority of the time, they were parked in bank preference shares rather than being invested in equities. Furthermore, on the 2 occasions when they were invested in equities, they were not held until profits were maximised. On the first occasion, CPF funds were invested in STI ETF when the STI was at 1,316 points in Feb 2003 and sold when the STI reached 2,169 points in Mar 2005 for a 66% gain. The STI went on to hit a high of 3,876 points in Oct 2007. The reason for selling STI ETF early was because by early 2004, the stock market had recovered from the doldrums and my cash portfolio had turned a profit. There was no longer any need to use CPF funds for equities investment. Hence, they were returned to CPF.

On the second occasion, I bought GLP at $1.985 in Nov 2016 on rumours that a Chinese consortium was interested to buy GLP. Last month, GLP announced that it had selected the Chinese consortium as the preferred bidder, which offered to privatise it at $3.38. I sold the GLP shares bought with CPF funds at $3.22, even though there is another $0.16 to gain if they were held until completion of the privatisation, which has to be completed by 14 Apr next year (unless extended). The gain is 62%. In my opinion, the job is done. There is no need to further expose the CPF funds to unnecessary risks to get the remaining gains. They can be returned to CPF until the situation calls for them again.

When you have a cash of last resort, the important thing is to keep them safe and have them ready when you need them. There is no need to expose them to unnecessary risks for longer than is required.

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Sunday, 6 August 2017

What Are Driving Those Numbers!

The quarterly earnings season has started and I have been busy reading the financial results. It is sometimes frustrating that the reports do not reveal much about why the business is doing well or poorly and whether the trend will continue. The reports contain a lot of numbers and some discussions, but most of the time, the discussions just regurgitate what the numbers already show. To illustrate what I mean, I will use M1's financial results as an example, but it is not the only company that has the issue.

The figure below from M1's financial results shows the numbers generated by the various business segments in 2Q2017. For instance, it shows that revenue for the mobile telco services segment dropped by 2.1% Year-on-Year (YOY) in 2Q2017, customer subscriptions rose by 4.5% YOY, etc. These are useful numbers to understand how well the business is doing. But they do not explain why revenue has fallen even though customer subscriptions have increased. By right, if customer subscriptions increase, revenue would also increase correspondingly, isn't it?

Fig. 1: Numbers

Following the numbers in the financial results is a discussion of those numbers. The figure below shows the level of sophistication of the discussion. 

Fig. 2: Discussion

The opening paragraph of the discussion says, "YOY, operating revenue at $251.6M for 2Q2017 and $512.3M for 1H2017 were 4.7% and 2.9% higher respectively due to higher fixed services revenue and handset sales. Compared to 1Q2017, it was 3.5% lower." Haven't all these information been reflected in the numbers already? What extra information do investors get after spending time to read the discussion?

What investors really want from the discussion is to understand the factors driving those numbers. Investors should not be left to guess why those numbers rise or fall and whether the trend would continue. An example of a good discussion is actually given by M1 in the second paragraph of Key Drivers, which explains why churn rate hit a high of 1.7% in 2Q2017 when the average historical churn rate is only 1.0%. It explains that "Churn rate was 1.7% for 2Q2017 and 1.4% for 1H2017 as a result of the migration of customers who were previously on 2G data to the M2M platform following the shutdown of the 2G network in April 2017." This gives investors assurance that customers did not desert M1 in droves in 2Q2017.

The discussion should not just be a repeat of what the numbers already show. If companies are serious about providing a discussion, I hope they would be more forthcoming and provide an intelligent discussion about the challenges the company faces and what plans does it have to overcome those challenges. Investors who are informed of these challenges and plans would be more willing to stick through thick and thin with the company when it is going through a difficult patch.

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Sunday, 30 July 2017

Properties and the Arrival of Robots and Automation

Recently, I went to view some houses and realised how expensive houses have become. A 2-bedroom condominium in Jurong could go for $1 million and a 4-room HDB flat in Clementi could sell for $700K to $800K. If you read my past blog posts on Properties, you would know that I am not a fan of properties in the long-term, mainly because of the ageing population in Singapore (see Properties, the Population White Paper and the Land Use Plan for more info). 

In the past 1 year, I have also begun to worry about robots and automation taking away jobs (see Early Retirement Maybe A Luxury That I Cannot Afford for more info). I believe that everyone would need to keep on learning and re-learning, and be prepared to change careers at least 1-2 times in their economic lifespans in order to adapt to changes brought on by technology. And in the worst case scenario, a lot of human jobs would be displaced by robots and automation.

For most people, housing is an expensive item and it can take 20 to 30 years to fully repay a housing loan. When you superimpose the trend of robots and automation displacing human jobs with the 20 to 30 years of steady employment required to service housing loans, it raises the question of whether most people can fully pay down their housing loans. And if they could not, what would happen to the housing market in, say, 20 years' time when the full effects of robots and automation happen?

Having said the above, at this point in time, it is not clear whether robots and automation would really displace human jobs on a wide scale as some writers fear, or whether they would allow governments to provide a basic income to every citizen so that everyone need not work and could pursue his/her own dreams. 

Personally, until the effects of robots and automation and governments' responses to them become clear, I would prefer to be more prudent in my housing decisions, i.e. to buy a HDB flat instead of a private condominium if possible, and/or to take a shorter loan tenure such that by the time I am displaced by technology, I would also have paid down the loan fully.

For investors buying properties with the hope of renting them out to foreign talents, robots and automation also raises another issue. If robots and automation really were to displace human jobs, the no. of foreign talents will also decline. Will properties still provide good rental yields in the future? I do not know.

I have raised more questions than answers in this blog post. This is because I also do not have the answers. We can only monitor and act accordingly.

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Monday, 24 July 2017

Oil & Gas, Show Me the Orders!

When I sold out of Keppel Corp in Jan at $6.16, my colleague laughed that I had sold too early. Nevertheless, I was pleased to get out of Keppel Corp before it announced results for 4Q2016. I was concerned that orders were not coming in fast enough to replace those orders that had been completed and that Keppel Offshore & Marine (O&M) would show a loss for 4Q2016. True enough, Keppel O&M reported a net loss of $138M for 4Q2016 after asset impairment. I was concerned that Keppel O&M would continue to report losses from that point onwards.

Nowadays, when I consider buying or selling Oil & Gas (O&G) stocks, I look at 2 key information. The first is where is the company positioned along the industry value chain (see My Upstream Oil & Gas Rescue Operations and My Downstream Oil & Gas Recovery Operations for more information). I do not mind the Exploration & Production companies that are at the start of the value chain and the Engineering, Procurement and Construction companies that are at the downstream side of the value chain, but not those in the middle, i.e. Offshore Support Vessel, oil services and ship/ rig building companies.

The other metric that I look at is orders-to-revenue ratio. This is similar to the book-to-bill ratio for the semiconductor industry. If the book-to-bill ratio is higher than 1, it means that the industry is expanding. Conversely, if the book-to-bill ratio is lower than 1, it means that the industry is contracting. Likewise, the orders-to-revenue ratio is able to show whether the companies are getting enough orders to sustain the business through the long and harsh O&G winter. The other way of looking at this metric is that orders will eventually translate to revenue down the road. If the order is $1, you cannot report a revenue of $2 later (nevertheless, you can do 2 years' worth of work in 1 year and report revenue of $2, but the maths dictate that total revenue cannot exceed total orders over time). Thus, the orders-to-revenue ratio is an useful metric in analysing O&G companies.

Based on the above explanation, you will now understand why I sold Keppel Corp in Jan. In FY2016, Keppel O&M's revenue was $2,854M. Its new orders secured over the same period was only about $500M. The orders-to-revenue ratio was only 0.18. A couple of years down the road, would Keppel O&M still be able to report profits based on annual revenue of $500M (or $1,000M if you combine 2 years' worth of work into 1 year)? I thought it was unlikely. Thus, I was pleased to exit Keppel Corp at a price higher than my average cost of $6.08.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that Keppel O&M has continued to surprise me. For 1H2017, it still managed to report a net profit of $1M when I was expecting it to report a loss. And my assessment of Keppel Corp's ability to navigate the rough waters remains unchanged (see Keppel Corp – A Good Captain Sailing Through Rough Waters).

This year, I have considered buying/ bought 3 O&G stocks. In all 3 cases, orders-to-revenue played a key role. The first was Dyna-Mac. Compared to the other O&G stocks, its level of debts is low and therefore has a higher chance of surviving the O&G winter. However, its orders-to-revenue ratio as at end Dec 2016 was only 0.06 (net book order of $12.8M versus FY2016 revenue of $204.0M). In other words, it only had enough work for 1 month and would be idling for 11 months if new orders could not be found quickly. I gave up the idea of buying it.

The second was Triyards. In FY2016, it obtained new orders of US$273.9M, versus revenue of US$324.9M, translating to an orders-to-revenue ratio of 0.84. Compared to Keppel O&M's ratio of 0.18, this is considered very good. The other reason why I bought Triyards even though it is in the shipbuilding sector is because it is a distressed asset play. It is 60.9% owned by Ezra, which went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Mar. The shares had been pledged to the banks as collaterals for a secured loan. If the banks were to sell the shares, it would trigger a general offer for the remaining shares. As at end Feb 2017, Triyards' net asset value was US$0.673. Unfortunately, in the latest results for 3Q2017, it reported a loss per share of US$0.208 due to asset impairment and cost overruns and the net asset value dropped to US$0.478.

The third stock was Rotary. My average cost was $0.62 and I wanted to average down for a long time. Last year, there was an opportunity to buy at $0.29, but I decided to give it a pass. In May this year, I bought at $0.37. The reason? Again, it is because of orders-to-revenue ratio. When it was trading at $0.29 last year, it only had outstanding orders of about $150M, versus FY2016 revenue of $233.9M. When it reported 1Q2017 results in May this year, the outstanding orders had increased to $435.9M. To me, it was not safe enough to buy at $0.29 last year, but safe enough to buy at $0.37 this year because of the increase in orders. 

As things turned out, I sold Keppel Corp and it went higher. I bought Triyards and it went lower. Nevertheless, the orders-to-revenue metric is sound and I will continue to use it to guide my investments in O&G stocks.

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Sunday, 16 July 2017

Interest Rate Hedging Smoke Screen

After US Federal Reserve increased interest rates in Dec, Mar and Jun, and after Yellen's congressional speech last Wed, interest rates are confirmed on the way up. This will impact companies with large debts, especially REITs, as higher interest expense would mean lower distribution for shareholders. The usual response that companies give to questions of rising interest rates is that they have hedged the majority of their loans by swapping floating loan rates for fixed loan rates. However, are such measures adequate to mitigate the impact of rising interest rates?

If you ask any person who took up a fixed-rate mortgage loan to finance his housing purchase, he will tell you that even though it is a fixed-rate loan, the interest rate is only fixed for 2-3 years. After that, the interest rate will revert to a floating rate. Although he can refinance to a new fixed-rate loan after 2-3 years, the new fixed interest rate will be based on the prevailing interest rates then, not the interest rates now. Currently, a 2-year fixed-rate loan is available at 1.6%. But if interest rates were to rise to say, 2.6%, 2 years later, the new fixed-rate loan after refinancing would be at 2.6%. So, fixing the loan interest rate does not eliminate the effect of rising interest rates. It only postpones the impact to 2-3 years later when the loan or interest rate swap expires.

Moreover, unlike mortgage loans in which you pay down the loan principal over time, company loans are usually bullet loans, in which repayment of the loan principal is only required when the loan matures. Furthermore, these bullet loans are usually refinanced and rolled over to a new bullet loan. In other words, the loan principal is not paid down over time. When you fix the interest rate and pay down the loan over the period of the fixed interest rate, you reduce the increase in interest expense when the rate is reset after refinancing. But when companies do not pay down the loan when the interest rate is fixed, the increase in interest expense 2-3 years down the road is the same as if the interest rate fix does not exist! The only benefit is that companies save some interest expense during the 2-3 years when interest rate is fixed. But it does not eliminate the impact of rising interest rates altogether.

So, when companies say they hedge interest rates, please be aware that it only postpones the impact to 2-3 years down the road.

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Monday, 10 July 2017

Which KrisEnergy Should I Buy?

If you read my earlier post on My Oil & Gas Fightback, you would know that one of the stocks I am interested in is KrisEnergy. The main reason for my interest in this stock is because it can potentially turn around quickly when oil price recovers and become a multi-bagger. However, there are 3 KrisEnergy counters listed on SGX, namely, 
  • the KrisEnergy stock itself;
  • a warrant named KrisEnergy W240131, which is convertible to the stock and will expire on 31 Jan 2024; and 
  • a zero-coupon bond named KrisEnergy z240131, which will also mature on 31 Jan 2024.
Which KrisEnergy should I buy for maximum capital gain?

KrisEnergy the stock is the simplest. If oil price goes up, it will make money. Conversely, if oil price stays down, it will lose money. There is no expiry date to the stock, unless the company goes bankrupt.

KrisEnergy the warrant is also easy to understand. It can be converted into the stock at an exercise price of $0.11. Because of the exercise price, it trades at a much lower price compared to the stock. Thus, the potential for a price increase is many folds that of the stock. However, it has an expiry date of 31 Jan 2024, after which it will become worthless. Thus, for  speculators who believe oil price will go up at least once in the 6.5 years before it expire can consider the warrant.

For me, there is another consideration in choosing between the stock and the warrant. I treat KrisEnergy as a minion, meaning it is a small speculative position which is mentally written off the moment it is purchased (see Meet The Minions for more info). Since the money will be written off,  it does not matter whether I buy the stock or the warrant. The stock and warrant currently trade at $0.12 and $0.038 respectively. For the same amount of money, I could buy 3.16 warrants for every 1 share of the stock. Coupled with the fact that if oil price were to recover, the rise in the warrant is many folds that of the stock. Thus, between the 2, the minion strategy always prefer the warrant.

KrisEnergy the bond is an interesting one. It is a bond, which means that it will be redeemed at face value when it matures. Furthermore, in the event of bankruptcy, the bond ranks higher than the stock and warrant and might be able to recover some money back for its holders. Thus, it has less risks compared to the stock and the warrant.

Moreover, it is not a plain vanilla bond that pays regular coupons (i.e. interest) to bondholders at regular intervals and does not move much in price. It is a zero-coupon bond. Zero-coupon bonds are bonds that do not pay any coupons. Instead, zero-coupon bonds are sold at a discount but redeemed at face value when they mature. Thus, investors who buy the bonds make money by gaining capital appreciation instead of regular coupons. For KrisEnergy's zero-coupon bonds, the last traded price is $0.44. When the bond matures on 31 Jan 2024, it will be redeemed in full at $1 (assuming KrisEnergy does not default). Hence, bondholders would gain $0.56 over a period of 6.5 years. This is equivalent to a coupon rate of 13.5%. Of course, the caveat here is that KrisEnergy does not default or restructure the bonds. 

Not only that, it is also a junk bond. Junk bonds are bonds whose issuer's ability and willingness to meet the bond obligations are uncertain. Their prospects are closely linked to the issuer's ability to pay dividends on the stock. Thus, both junk bonds and stock will rise and fall along with economic developments affecting the company. In other words, junk bonds can be as volatile as equities.

Thus, to gain capital appreciation, either the stock, warrant or bond are feasible options. The best instrument to speculate in will depend on your outlook for oil price. If you are bullish about oil price in the next 6.5 years, warrant will give the best capital appreciation. If you are neutral about oil price, bond will provide the best capital gain. If you are bearish about oil price, all instruments will be bad, with bond being less worse off. An estimation of each instrument's performance under the various scenarios on oil price is as follows.

Outlook Bond Stock Warrant
Bullish Good Good Best
Neutral Good Neutral Bad
Bearish Bad Worse Worst

P.S. I am vested in KrisEnergy stock but planning to switch to KrisEnergy warrant.

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Monday, 3 July 2017

Wills, Trusts, AMDs and LPAs

I just attended a 2-day estate planning talks on wills, trusts, Advanced Medical Directives (AMDs) and Lasting Powers of Attorney (LPAs) organised by RockWills Corp Pte Ltd. There are some interesting facts about them that I share below.


Most people know what is a will, so I will skip the basic facts and mention what I learnt from the talk. As you may be aware, you need to identify who are the executor and trustee of the will. The executor is the person who will carry out all necessary actions to distribute the estate according to the wishes of the will, while the trustee is the person who will hold on to the estate until it is completely distributed to the beneficiaries of the will. Although you can nominate an executor and trustee to carry out the wishes of the will, they can actually renounce these roles! The beneficiaries will then have to appoint another executor and trustee to execute the will.

The other point highlighted is that while you can write a well-planned will, if the will cannot be found or is destroyed, it is useless as well. This may sound like common sense, but the safekeeping of the will is sometimes taken for granted. For example, I made my will approximately 10 years ago. It is sealed inside an envelope and placed in an easily accessible location as nobody knows the existence of this will. However, for these past 10 years, I never open up the envelope and check the content. Who knows, maybe the ink might have faded or the paper on which the will was written might have turned yellow such that the will is no longer legible? 

The other concern for leaving my will so easily accessible is if someone were to read it after I am gone and dislike its content, he could simply destroy it and there would not be a will left behind.

The reason for my complacency is because I believed a copy of the will is kept by the law firm who wrote my will and by the Wills Registry under the Ministry of Law. I was reminded at the talks that the Wills Registry does not keep a copy of my will; it only has a record of when and who drew up my will. Will the law firm still keep a copy of my will 10 years after making it? I believe so, but I better not count on it since it did not charge me any custody fee. I will have to seriously think through how should I keep my will securely while still keeping it accessible when needed. 


This is the most interesting topic that I learnt from the talks. If you have read my blog post on There is Really a Regular-Payout Term Insurance, you would know that I have a preference for insurance policies that pay out regular sums of money over a period of time instead of a lump sum. This is because my dependents might not be financially savvy enough to handle a large sum of money suddenly and might unwittingly invest the money in some risky investment products. A regular payout provides greater certainty on the financial sustainability of my dependents.

Similarly, a will pays out the inheritance as a lump sum, which has the same disadvantages mentioned above. However, if you write a will to pay out the inheritance into a trust, you can provide instructions on how regularly a trust disburse the funds to the beneficiaries. You could also set certain milestones for your beneficiaries to achieve before they get further payouts, such as getting a degree, etc.

Advanced Medical Directives (AMDs) 

AMDs are instructions that you set in advance to inform doctors whether you wish to be kept on life-support in the event of a terminal illness and when death is imminent without life-support. You can refer to Ministry of Health's website on AMDs for more information.

The key thing to note is that the witnesses to the AMDs should not be beneficiaries of your will.

Lasting Powers of Attorney (LPAs)

LPAs are legal documents authorising a trusted person (known as a donee) to make decisions related to your personal welfare and financial matters in the event of mental incapacity such as dementia or stroke. This is a very powerful document as the donee(s) can make many decisions on your behalf. Thus, whom you appoint as donee(s) is very important. For the simple LPA, you can appoint 1 or 2 donees and specify whether the 2 donees need to act jointly or can act alone. You can also appoint a replacement donee should one of the originally appointed donees becomes unsuitable. You can refer to Office of the Public Guardian's website on LPAs for more information.

Some other practical considerations that the speaker mentioned at the talk are the donee should preferably not be of the same age, because both the donor and the donee might suffer from dementia when the LPA needs to take effect. Also, the donee should not be someone living overseas as he would have difficulties overseeing daily matters related to personal welfare and/or financial matters. 

That's all for the lessons I gathered from the talks. It is useful to attending such talks from time to time to clear up any misconceptions and understand the options available for estate planning.

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Sunday, 25 June 2017

How Long Would You Hold A Value Stock?

9 years and 11 months! That is how long I held on to a value stock known as Frencken. I recently sold it in Jun at $0.515, having first bought it in Jul 2007 at $0.535 when it was still known as ElectroTech. In between, I averaged down twice, at $0.33 in Jul 2010 and at $0.365 in Jul 2014. The figure below shows the share price performance since May 2005.

Frencken Share Price Performance Since 2005

As you can see, for a very long 9.5 years, the share price never recovered to its previous levels, until only recently. In between, it changed its name from ElectroTech to Frencken and took over not 1, but 2 SGX listed companies (ETLA and JukenTech)! It has been a very long 9.5 years for Frencken shareholders who bought it as a value stock.

In value investing, you are often told that you have to be patient; that the day will come when your value stock will rise significantly and become a potential multi-bagger. The logic is appealing: buy a $1 stock for $0.60 and eventually the market will come to recognise its value and price it at $1 or beyond! However, what is not mentioned is how long do you have to wait for this to happen. And in the case of Frencken, it took almost 10 years for it to recover to its previous levels.

You might ask, did I make a mistake for identifying Frencken as a value stock and for buying it at too high a price? I bought it in Jul 2007, so my assessment was based on the financial statements for Dec 2006. For FY2005 and FY2006, the respective earnings per share were 9.59 cents and 8.65 cents, the book value was 46.0 cents and 52.4 cents, and the dividend was 2.68 cents and 2.60 cents. Based on my original purchase price of $0.535, these translated to P/E ratios of 5.6 times and 6.2 times, P/B ratios of 1.16 times and 1.02 times, and dividend yield of 5.0% and 4.9% respectively. These figures suggest that Frencken was a value stock when I first bought it and I certainly did not pay too a high price for it.

The point I am trying to make is this: value investing does not always work. It is not a case of buying an undervalued stock and eventually it will become a multi-bagger. It is not that simple. As I later figured out, being undervalued is only a necessary but insufficient condition for a stock to rise to its intrinsic value. Some other catalysts must be present for the rise to materialise, such as a bull run, recovery in earnings, asset sales with special dividends, etc. Being undervalued alone is not sufficient.

In the case of Frencken, the recent recovery in share price is due to 2 factors: a bull run in electronics stocks that swept up not only Frencken, but also other electronics stocks such as Hi-P, Sunningdale, UMS, Valuetronics, Venture, etc. The other factor is a recovery in earnings. For the latest quarter in 1Q2017, it reported a 437% year-on-year rise in quarterly earnings. This explains the doubling in share price from $0.24 since the beginning of this year.

If being undervalued is the only necessary condition for a stock to rise, why did I have to wait for not 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, but almost 10 years for it to rise?

I used to be a value investor too. When the value stock that I bought rose, I believed that value investing worked. When the stock did not rise, I told myself to be patient, that one day the market would eventually recognise the stock's value and give it its rightful valuation. When the stock dropped further and turned into a value trap, I thought that there must be something that I missed and should work harder to improve my value investing skills. Seldom did I think that there could be some other factors at work that would determine to a larger extent whether I make money or lose money on stocks. If the value stocks rose, value investing was right (never mind that there could be a general bull market as in the case of 2004). If the stocks did not rise, value investing was not at fault!

It was only around 2011 that I realised that something was amiss with value investing. I found out that the stocks that I bought during the Global Financial Crisis did not rise as much as I expected. It was then that I finally understood that value investing does not always work. Being undervalued is only a necessary but insufficient condition for stocks to rise. From there, I kept an open mind and branched out to other investing strategies, such as growth, turnarounds, dividend, etc. 

Having said the above, value investing did not totally disappear from my investment strategies. The principles of not overpaying for investments have continued to stay with me (see What is My Target Price?). And I am actually very grateful to have learnt value investing back then in 2001. It taught me a scientific method to value stocks instead of using gut feel. But value investing could only bring me this far. To continue my investing journey, I had to understand what worked for value investing and discard what did not.

10 years. That is how long I held on to a stock bought on the thesis of a winning formula. How many 10 years does anyone have in his investing lifetime to realise that his much cherished winning formula does not always work?

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Sunday, 18 June 2017

Fundamentals of Stock and Bond Picking

You have probably heard of the study in which monkeys throwing darts on a dartboard with stock names on it could produce portfolios that outperform those picked by professional investors. A few reasons were given for the outperformance, such as size of the companies, Price-to-Book valuation of the stocks, etc. I wonder if the same study were to be repeated for bond picking, would monkeys still outperform professional investors?

There is no study on the above, but my answer to it is probably not. When you pick a stock to buy, you are expecting it to change in the future, whether it is the earnings or dividends increasing or the Price-to-Earnings valuation improving. In essence, you are forecasting the future. This can be seen from the various models for valuing stocks. The Dividend Discount Model, for example, estimates the intrinsic value of a stock as the summation of all future dividends discounted to the present. The Discounted Cash Flow Model does so similarly, using free cashflows instead of dividends. The present matters less in stock valuation, and yardsticks based on present assets such as Price-to-Book ratio do not feature much in investors' minds. There are good reasons for this, because if the assets cannot produce good future earnings, the assets have to be discounted from book value. 

The corollary is that, if things are not expected to change in the future, you should not pick the stock (except for dividend stocks, which have similarities with bonds). Also, since nobody can predict the future accurately, it is not surprising that monkeys can beat professional investors in stock picking. Likewise, professional investors underperform their respective stock benchmarks when they carry out tactical allocations according to their outlook for the future.

Bond investment is quite the mirror opposite of stock investment. When you pick a bond (or dividend-paying stock) to buy, you are expecting it to continue paying the same amount of coupons or dividends until they mature. In other words, you are expecting it not to change in the future. Hence, bond valuation starts with present assets and earnings and computes a margin of safety to cater for unexpected changes in the future. While the future is still important, the present plays a bigger role in bond valuation. Thus, bond valuation deals with yardsticks such as the debt-to-equity ratio, interest coverage ratio, etc. which are found in the present income statements and balance sheets.

Hence, when you compare stock and bond valuation methods, stock valuations are more of an art, because it is based on forecasts for the future, which everybody will have different opinions of. Whereas bond valuations are more of a science, because that they are based on figures in the income statements and balance sheets, which people rarely dispute. 

Hence, on the above question on whether monkeys will outperform professional investors on bond picking, my answer is probably not, since monkeys cannot analyse income statements and balance sheets. Also, based on the above argument, more professional bond investors should outperform their benchmarks compared to their stock counterparts. This is true. S&P publishes annual SPIVA (S&P Indices Versus Active) reports on whether active fund managers outperform their benchmarks. In all equities categories, active fund managers underperform their respective benchmarks. In bonds, active fund managers outperform their benchmarks in the investment-grade short and intermediate, global income and general municipal categories on a 5-year basis (see SPIVA report for US Year-End 2016).

Thus, on the question whether you should buy the stocks or bonds of a particular company, it depends on your outlook for the company in the future, summarised as follows.

Company Outlook Bonds Stocks Conclusion
Changes for the Better Good Best Best for Stock Investment
No Change Good No Good Best for Bond Investment
Changes for the Worse Bad Worst Both Investments are Bad

When things do not change in the future, bonds are better investments than stocks. When things change for the better in the future, bonds are good investments, but you can perform better by buying the stock. When things change for the worse, both are bad investments, but stocks are worse than bonds.

The above also has implications on the types of stocks we should buy. If there are no catalysts for changes such as improved earnings or dividends, asset sales or a bull market in the future, an undervalued stock will continue to remain undervalued. A growth stock will be a good investment, but only until the day its growth starts to slow down, from which it becomes a bad investment. A dividend stock is good provided things do not change or change for the better.

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Sunday, 11 June 2017

How to Avoid Cleaning Out Your CPF Balance When Taking HDB Loan

When you apply for a loan from HDB to buy a flat, it will take all the money from your CPF Ordinary Account (OA) before giving you the loan. This is to reduce the loan amount that you need to service. If you wish to avoid an empty OA account, you can temporarily transfer some of your OA balance out of CPF before you apply for the HDB loan. The pros and cons for either approach are discussed in Clean Out CPF Balance When Taking HDB Housing Loan?

A reader recently asked me how to temporarily transfer some of the OA balance out of CPF. Note that I am not encouraging you to do it, but if you have a real need for keeping some money in the OA to meet future financial obligations such as buying/ servicing insurance policies or financing your family members' tertiary education, below is one approach for doing it.

The approach I used is to invest in some safe investment instruments. As the objective is to temporarily park the cash outside of OA, the overriding principles are safety and liquidity of the investment. As there is a foreseeable use for the money in the future, it is of utmost importance that most of the money can be returned to your CPF account subsequently. Making a positive return on the money, although welcomed, is not crucial. Secondly, you also do not wish for your money to be locked-in in that investment for longer than is necessary. Typically, the aim is to withdraw the money 1 month before the HDB appointment date and return it 1 month after the HDB appointment, making it approximately 2-3 months of investment period. The longer the money is invested, the higher is the risk.

The instruments that you can invest 100% of your OA balance (note: you cannot invest the first $20,000 of the OA balance) are fixed deposits, government bonds, statutory board bonds, some insurance products and unit trusts. I chose short-term government bonds known as Singapore Government Securities (SGS). They have no credit risks and foreign exchange risks and have local banks providing liquidity as secondary traders. However, SGS are extremely difficult to trade. Before they were listed on the Singapore Exchange, I could only trade them by making a visit to the banks. Staff at the local bank branches practically never heard of them and had to consult their Treasury department at the headquarters every time I traded SGS. Moreover, bond trading is very different from share trading. There is the concept of clean price and dirty price. Clean price is the price that you see quoted on the market. Dirty price is clean price + accrued interest and is the price that you actually pay. It is complex enough, right? For this reason, I would not encourage this approach.

The simpler approach is to buy unit trusts that have the lowest risks and are eligible for CPF-OA investment. Suitable unit trusts are those that invest in (1) bonds, that are (2) short-term, (3) issued in Singapore dollars, and preferably (4) by the government. Bonds will reduce the price volatility compared to shares. Short-term (or short-duration) bonds will minimise the risk of interest rate going up and leading to a drop in bond prices. Bonds denominated in Singapore dollar will eliminate foreign exchange risks, and government bonds will avoid the risk of companies going belly-up. It is probably difficult to find a unit trust that invests in Singapore government bonds solely, so the next best is to have a mix of government and corporate bonds. Since most unit trusts invest in a lot of bonds, the risk of any one company going belly-up and affecting the price of the unit trust significantly is usually small. A good resource for finding suitable bond unit trusts is Fundsupermart.

So, after you have invested in the unit trust, complete the appointment with HDB, and 1 month later, after you have confirmed that HDB has completed its work, sell the unit trust and return the money back to your CPF account.

Lastly, please note that no investment is 100% capital guaranteed. There will be some transaction costs from buying and selling. And if interest rate rises during this period, some capital loss is unavoidable. But by choosing unit trusts that invest in short-term Singapore dollar denominated bonds, the risks are minimised.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Comparison of Singapore Shipping Corp with Shipping Trusts

Shipping trusts are not the only stocks that buy and rent out ships for recurrent income. There is another stock that does so -- Singapore Shipping Corp (SSC). I used to own this stock, and unlike the shipping trusts, I have fond memories of it. What are the similarities and differences between SSC and the shipping trusts like First Ship Lease Trust (FSL) and Rickmers Maritime and will SSC face similar difficulties as the shipping trusts in future?

First, a brief introduction of SSC. SSC has 2 business segments, namely ship owning and agency & logistics. The bulk of the revenue and profits are generated from the ship owning segment. The company owns a fleet of 6 Pure Car and Truck Carriers (PCTC), which it leases to shipping majors like Mitsui OSK Lines, Nippon Yusen Kabushiki Kaisha (NYK) in mostly long term time charters of more than 10 years. Thus, its business model is similar to that of Rickmers Maritime.

Rickmers started off in May 2007 with a fleet of 10 container ships leased to shipping majors in time charters of 8 years. It had a stable recurrent income from the charters from which it could pay good distributions to shareholders (USD5.64 cents in 2007). It also had low levels of debts (debt/equity ratio of 58% in 2007). However, over the next 2 years, it added more ships and more debts. The debt/equity ratio reached 196% in 2009. Unfortunately, the shipping industry then went into a downturn from which it has not recovered. As the long term charters expire, Rickmers had difficulty renewing the charters at the good rates they used to command. This resulted in inability to meet the debt obligations to banks. Eventually, Rickmers had no choice but to wind up.

SSC is also in a fleet expansion path currently. Prior to 2010, it had disposed most of its ships before the shipping downturn. It added 1 PCTC each in 2010 and 2011, 2 PCTCs in 2014 and another 1 more in 2015, making a total of 6 PCTCs. Debt levels followed similar trajectories, rising from debt/equity ratio of 0% in Mar 2010 to 161% in Mar 2015. The expansion plan has probably not ended, hence, we might potentially see debt levels increasing further.

Will SSC face similar difficulties as Rickmers when the long term charters expire? It is difficult to tell in 10 years' time whether SSC can renew its charters at good rates when they expire. However, one advantage that SSC has over shipping trusts is that it is a company and not a business trust. A company can only pay dividends out of accounting profits whereas a business trust can pay distributions out of operating cashflows. In other words, asset depreciation, which reduces accounting profits but not operating cashflows, reduces the amount of dividends a company can pay but not the amount of distributions a business trust can pay. Thus, SSC is restricted from paying out all its operating cashflows as dividends. Since 2009, it paid a constant 1 cent per share every year, translating to a dividend yield of only 3.6% at the current share price of $0.275. The cashflows retained are used to pay down debts, which SSC has done at a rapid rate. From a debt/equity ratio of 161% in Mar 2015, the debt/equity ratio has fallen to 97% in Mar 2017. At this rate, before the charters expire, SSC would have fully paid down the debts. Thus, based on this key reason, SSC would not end up being wounded up.

Nevertheless, 1 key risk that SSC faces is the ability and willingness of its customers to honour the charters if the market charter rates were to decline significantly. Its customers are NYK, Mitsui OSK Lines and Wallenius Lines. FSL, which deals with smaller shipping companies, had encountered several customer defaults in the past. Rickmers had no such problems with its customers, which are shipping majors. Nevertheless, it narrowly avoided the bankruptcy of Hanjin Shipping. A container ship leased to Hanjin expired in early 2016, just before it went into receivership in Aug 2016.

Finally, SSC had in the past sold ships when times were good and returned handsome dividends to shareholders. Between Aug 2005 and Dec 2007, SSC returned a total of 46 cents per share to shareholders. While it is not certain that market values for ships will recover to previous peaks for SSC to pull off this trick again, any special dividends from asset sales would be a bonus.

P.S. Currently not vested, but might consider.

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Sunday, 28 May 2017

Differences Between First Ship Lease Trust and Rickmers Maritime

For investors in First Ship Lease Trust (FSL), the question at the top of investors' minds is: will FSL go the way of Rickmers Maritime and be wounded up? This is my third time investing in FSL and the previous 2 attempts have ended in major losses. I certainly do not wish to lose money on it a third time, which explains this series of blog posts on shipping trusts.

Rickmers is currently in the process of winding-up, after their failure to secure re-financing of their loans. Although this is the triggering point for winding-up, it is not the only challenge facing Rickmers. Would FSL face the same challenges and end up being wounded up as well?

One of the differences between FSL and Rickmers is their business models, which is discussed in detail in A Comparison of Shipping Trusts' Business Models. Essentially, FSL started off with a ship financing business model (but progressively took on a ship rental business model for reasons beyond their control) while Rickmers had a ship rental business model. In good times when demand for ships is high, Rickmers' ship rental model would provide better returns than FSL's ship financing model. However, in bad times when demand for ships is low, FSL's ship financing model allows a faster return of capital than Rickmers' ship rental model. 

Another difference between the 2 shipping trusts is the diversity of ships. Rickmers specialises in container ships, especially Panamax container ships of 3,450 and 4,250 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs). Panamax ships refer to the largest ships that can pass through the Panama Canal, which is an important route for ships sailing between Asia and US east coast. In Jun 2016, the Panamax Canal was expanded to accommodate larger container ships of above 10,000 TEUs. Classic Panamax container ships became less useful now that bigger container ships can pass through the expanded Panama Canal. Daily charter rates for classic Panamax container ships fell as a result. Rickmers provided a discussion of the challenges facing the classic Panamax container ships in its Annual Report for FY2016. The figure below, taken from Rickmers' Annual Report, shows the fall in charter rates for classic Panamax container ships.

Fig. 1: Average Daily Charter Rates of Classic Panamax Container Ships

FSL also has 4,250 TEU classic Panamax container ships. Like Rickmers, its charter rates for these ships would fall drastically when the charters expire in 2020. However, FSL has a more diversified fleet of ships. Besides Panamax container ships, it also has feeder containers of 1,200 TEUs, product tankers of various ranges, chemical tankers and Aframax crude oil tankers. The diversity in ships allows FSL to better manage the low demand in any one segment of the shipping industry.

Like Rickmers, FSL has a lot of ships whose charters have expired or are expiring. In 2017, 9 out of its 22 ships will be completing their charters and be redelivered to FSL. When the ships are redelivered, new employment needs to be found for them, likely at lower charter rates. However, this is not the first time ships have been redelivered to FSL. FSL had in the past encountered unexpected customer defaults on the charters and had to redeploy the ships at low charter rates. Fig. 2 below shows the historical charter rates that FSL had. Figures in red mean a decline in charter terms/rates whereas figures in blue mean an improvement in charter terms/rates. "BBC" refers to bare boat charters while "TC" refers to time charters. For time charters, the bare boat charter equivalent (BBCE) revenue is about 60% to 65% of time charter revenue.

Fig. 2: FSL's Historical Charter Rates

As shown in the figure above, it is not a one-way decline when ships are redelivered to FSL. While most ships experienced a decline in charter terms/rates after redelivery, the Medium Range (MR) tankers and Aframax crude oil tankers saw improvements in charter terms/rates in recent years after redelivery.

In its Annual General Meeting presentation in Apr 2017, FSL disclosed the current and average time charter rates in the past 5 years for its ships (see columns in blue in Fig. 2 above). Except for the Panamax container ships, the charter rates that FSL currently have are not too far off the current and 5-year historical average charter rates. Thus, there is a chance that the redelivered ships will not suffer too large a decline in charter rates after redelivery. My estimates for FSL's BBCE revenue for FY2017 is USD62M, which is a 15% decline from FY2016 after redelivery of the 9 ships (see Sustainability of First Ship Lease Trust's Cashflows for more info).

There is, however, 1 key risk that FSL has which Rickmers does not have, which is customer credit risks. Rickmers' customers are all major shipping companies such as Mitsui OSK Lines, CMA CGM, Maersk Line, etc. which could survive the industry downturn better than others. They did not default on the charters with Rickmers. On the other hand, FSL's customers are smaller players. FSL had encountered a no. of defaults in the past, resulting in loss of attractive charter rates. In fact, a major risk facing FSL currently is whether Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp, which chartered the 3 Panamax container ships at high rates, would default or fail. If it does, it would have a large impact on the viability of FSL.

Finally, FSL has only 1 group of creditors while Rickmers has 4 groups. It is easier to negotiate with 1 group of creditors instead of 4 groups.

In summary, there are differences between FSL and Rickmers. FSL might not go the way of Rickmers and be wounded up. The major caveat is Yang Ming does not default or fail. If it does, all bets are off.

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Monday, 22 May 2017

A Comparison of Shipping Trusts' Business Models

You might be wondering why I am still writing about shipping trusts' business models when there is only 1 shipping trust left. This is because for investors in First Ship Lease Trust (FSL), it is useful to understand the differences between the business models of FSL and Rickmers Maritime to assess whether FSL would go the way of Rickmers Maritime and be wounded up. 

On the surface, both FSL and Rickmers are shipping trusts, however, their business models (at least in the initial stages) are quite different. As an analogy, supposed you wish to become a Uber driver but do not own a car. There are 2 ways to obtain a car, either rent a car from a car rental company, or buy a car by taking out a loan from a finance company. From this perspective, a car rental company is very different from a finance company. Rickmers is in the rental business, whereas FSL started off as a finance business (however, over time, FSL became more and more like a rental business for reasons discussed later).

The business model and risks between a car rental and a finance company are very different. A car rental company would want rental of its vehicles (return on capital) for as long as possible, while a finance company would want return of its loan (return of capital) as quickly as possible. Supposed a car has an economic lifespan of 10 years, a car rental company would hope to rent out the car for the full 10 years, whereas a finance company would hope to recover all its loan by no later than the 7th year.

Going back to FSL and Rickmers, both of them bought 4,250 TEU Panamax container ships in 2008 and leased them out. The structure of the deals shows the differences between a rental and a finance business. FSL assumed the ships have economic lifespan of 25 years and leased them out on a bare boat charter for 12 years. At the end of 12 years, the lessee has an option to buy out the ships. Rickmers assumed the ships have economic lifespan of 30 years and leased them out on a time charter for 10 years. Assuming that the bare boat charter equivalent (BBCE) revenue of a time charter is 65% of the time charter revenue, the cashflows for both shipping trusts work out as follows.

FSL Rickmers
Purchase Price  $70.0M  $72.0M
Daily Charter Rate (Time Charter) NA  $26,850 
Daily Charter Rate (BBCE)  $18,315   $17,453 
Annual BBCE Revenue  $6.68M  $6.37M
Charter Duration (Years) 12 10
Buyout Option Price  $30.0M NA
IRR @ End of Charter 2.16% -2.17%
IRR @ End of Charter with Buyout 6.20% NA

From the table above, the annual BBCE revenue generated by Rickmers in a rental transaction is less than that by FSL in a financing transaction. This is because a financing lessee has to make principal repayments whereas a rental lessee does not. Thus, at the end of their respective charter periods, FSL would be able to recover all its capital and generate a positive annualised return of 2.16% without considering the buyout option. If the lessee chooses to exercise the buyout option, the annualised return would increase to 6.20%. On the other hand, Rickmers would not have recovered all its capital at the end of the 10-year charter period. It would only do so in Year 12. This is not to say that Rickmers' rental model is entirely bad. If it could find shipping companies to rent its ships for the entire 30-year economic lifespan, its annualised return would be 7.96%, much higher than FSL's 6.20%. Unfortunately, in a market downturn where there is little demand for ships, a ship finance business like FSL would be able to recover its capital faster than a ship rental business like Rickmers.

As you can see, the return for FSL is higher if the lessee exercises the buyout option. In fact, the buyout option is probably designed to entice the lessee to exercise it. Based on the purchase price of $70.0M and straight-line depreciation of 25 years, the annual depreciation charge would be $2.8M. At the end of the 12-year charter period, the accumulative depreciation would be $33.6M, leaving the ship with a book value of $36.4M. Assuming that the market value approximates the book value had there been no market downturn, the buyout option price of $30.0M would represent a discount of $6.4M to the lessee. It is actually in FSL's favour if the lessee takes up this option, as it would get back another $30.0M by Year 12, which could be used to initiate a new financing transaction.

From the above example, it also shows that the risks of a rental business and a finance business are different. The main risks of a rental business are market risks, i.e whether it can find shipping companies to rent its ships at good rates. On the other hand, the main risks of a finance business are credit risks, i.e. whether the lessee has the ability and willingness to make principal and interest payments on the loan as scheduled. Going back to FSL, the 3 Panamax container ships that FSL has are leased to Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp. They generate an annual BBCE revenue of $20.0M even though the annual BBCE revenue at current market rates is estimated to be only about $1.6M, assuming 50% utilisation rate (see Sustainability of First Ship Lease Trust's Cashflows for the estimate). If Yang Ming were to default or fail, those lucrative charters would be lost and the viability of FSL would be in question. Thus, FSL's main risks are the credit risks of its lessees.

There is still one more difference between FSL's and Rickmers' business models. FSL's preference is for bare boat charters while Rickmers specialises in time charters. In a bare boat charter, the lessee has to bear vessel maintenance costs, whereas in a time charter, the lessor has to bear these costs. Like a car financing transaction, the lessee (or car "owner") has to pay repair cost or mandatory vehicle inspection cost for the car. The finance company is not responsible for these costs. Whereas in a car rental transaction, the lessee can ask the rental company for a replacement car or deduct rental charges for the period the car is not available for use. In times of market downturn, every cent counts, and FSL's bare boat charters reduce the operating costs needed to run the business compared to time charters.

Having said the above, I mentioned that FSL started off as a ship finance business but gradually became more of a ship rental business like Rickmers. As mentioned earlier, the key risks that a finance business faces are credit risks of its lessees. If the lessee were to default, the ships would be returned to the trust and the trust would have to find new charterers at charter rates that are likely to be lower than the previous charter rates. That is when a finance business becomes like a rental business and faces the same risks. FSL had encountered lessees defaulting previously. In addition, many of its existing charters will be expiring in the next few years. Given the current low market price of ships, none of its lessees are likely to exercise the buyout options. As the charters expire, FSL would progressively become a ship rental business.

Since we are at this topic of shipping trusts' business models, there used to be another shipping trust called Pacific Shipping Trust, which was delisted from SGX in 2012. At inception, its business model was also different from that of FSL or Rickmers. It was set up by Pacific International Lines to monetise its fleet of container ships. Going by the earlier analogy of the Uber driver, this would be a case in which the Uber driver owns a car, but decides to do a sale-and-leaseback. It too became more of a rental business after it expanded its business to lease ships to other companies besides its parent company.

It is probably a moot point now that FSL is progressively becoming a ship rental business, but starting off with the ship finance business model during its initial stages helps to manage the downturn in the shipping industry.

P.S. I am vested in FSL. Also, I will be overseas next week and will not be able to respond to your comments until I return.

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Sunday, 14 May 2017

Sustainability of First Ship Lease Trust's Cashflows

Last week, I blogged about the estimated current valuation of First Ship Lease Trust (FSL) and mentioned that since the current market value of the ships exceeds the loan amount, the probability of successful refinancing is quite high. However, the more important factor in determining successful refinancing is whether future cashflows are sufficient to meet the loan obligations. In this post, I will estimate the future cashflows of FSL and determine whether it is a viable business going forward.

For FSL to be viable, its cash inflows must be sufficient to cover its cash outflows. On a Bare Boat Charter Equivalent (BBCE) basis, the annual cash inflow must be able to cover the trust's operating expenses, loan principal repayment and interest expenses. For FY2016, the trust operating expenses (comprising management fees, trustee fees and other trust expenses) amount to USD4.8M, loan principal repayment is USD42.7M (excluding early repayment) and interest expense is USD9.6M. The total non-discretionary cash outflow is USD57.1M. Assuming that loan principal repayment remains the same after refinancing, the only item that will change much from year to year is interest expense. Thus, FSL must be able to generate cash inflows of between USD50M to USD57M annually, otherwise, there is a risk that it might run out of cash and be liquidated in a fire sale like Rickmers Maritime.

On the cash inflow side, FSL generates revenue from 3 types of charters, namely, voyage charter, time charter and bareboat charter. In a voyage charter, FSL acts as a shipping company like NOL to provide a service to ship goods between places. It bears all the costs necessary to provide the service. Among the 3 types of charters, on a comparable basis, voyage charters generate the highest revenue and costs. In addition, it also has to bear the risks of finding sufficient goods to ship at good freight rates. The consolidation of container shipping lines last year shows the high risks that shipping companies have to bear for providing voyage charters. As far as possible, FSL avoids having voyage charters.

At the other end of the spectrum, in a bareboat charter, FSL only provides the ship. All other expenses are borne by the charterer. Thus, bareboat charters generate the lowest revenue and costs among the 3 types of charters. This is the preferred type of charters for FSL, as the cashflow is the most steady.

In the middle of the spectrum are time charters, in which FSL bears the cost of the ship, crew, dry-docking, ship insurance, etc. while the charterer bears the cost of the bunkers, port charges, etc. Based on the financial results for FY2016, the BBCE revenue of a time charter is about 60% of the time charter revenue.

Besides the 3 types of charters, FSL also entered into a pool or Revenue Sharing Agreement (RSA) for some of its ships. Due to an oversupply of ships, FSL might not be able to find a charterer for some of the ships. Thus, it entered the ships in a pool to share revenue among similar ships. As an example, supposed there are 10 ships in a pool, but only 8 ships are hired on average. The 10 ships will share the revenue generated from the 8 ships. Thus, each ship will get only 80% of the revenue the ship would have in a time charter. Hence, for ships in a pool or RSA, there is a potential discount factor to consider in estimating the BBCE revenue based on the utilisation of the ships in the pool.

After discussing the various types of charters and pool arrangement, can FSL generate sufficient cash inflows of between USD50M to USD57M every year to meet its operating expenses and loan obligations? While I cannot predict what charter rates FSL can obtain in the future, we can at least assess whether FSL can generate sufficient cashflows based on historical charter rates. In its AGM presentation, FSL disclosed the current and average time charter rates in the past 5 years for its ships. Fig. 1 below compares FSL's charter rates against the 5-year average and current time charter rates in the market, as well as FSL's BBCE revenue in FY2016 against the BBCE revenue implied by the 5-year average and current time charter rates. As shown in the figure, some of the charter rates have fallen significantly. The last column provides a rough estimate of the sustainable BBCE revenue assuming that the existing charters are reset to the lower of the 5-year average or current charter rates. This figure also takes into consideration the possible utilisation rate for ships currently or likely to enter into a pool when their existing charters expire.

Fig. 1: Charter Rates and Estimated Sustainable BBCE Revenue

Based on the assumptions in the figure, the estimated sustainable BBCE revenue is USD43M, which is below the non-discretionary cash outflow of between USD50M to USD57M mentioned earlier. Thankfully, the BBCE revenue will not fall immediately from USD72.9M in FY2016 to USD43M as some of the more lucrative charters will not expire until mid 2020. Fig. 2 below shows the estimated annual BBCE revenue for each type of ships from FY2017 till FY2022.

Fig. 2: Estimated Annual BBCE Revenue

From FY2017 till FY2019, FSL is still able to generate BBCE revenue of USD63M, before falling to USD53M in FY2020 and USD43M in FY2021 and beyond. Based on the above estimated annual BBCE revenue and annual cash outflows, the year-by-year cashflows are estimated below.

Fig. 3: Estimated Annual Cashflows

Thankfully for FSL, just as the BBCE revenue begins to fall from FY2019 to FY2021, the loan principal repayment also ends around the same period, resulting in positive cashflows every year. By FY2021, FSL would have repaid its entire loan of USD192.5M and the remaining cashflow could be used to resume distributions to shareholders or buy new ships. The estimated balance sheet, excluding the value of ships which is subject to variable impairment losses, is shown in Fig. 4 below.

Fig. 4: Estimated Balance Sheet

By FY2020, the current assets (CA) would have exceeded the total liabilities. The value of FSL would be CA - Total Liabilities + Market Value of Ships.

Hence, based on the estimated future cashflows of FSL, it is likely to meet the loan obligations, providing another reason for believing why refinancing will likely to be successful.

Having said the above, the viability of FSL will depend very much on the Panamax containers, which are very lucrative when compared against the current charter rates in the market. They are currently leased to Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp. If Yang Ming were to default or fail, FSL will run out of cash unless the banks allow it a longer period to pay down the loan. This is definitely a high-risk game.

P.S. I am vested in FSL.

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Sunday, 7 May 2017

Valuation of First Ship Lease Trust

A reader recently alerted me to the undervaluation of First Ship Lease Trust (FSL). It is a stock that lost a lot of money for me, having bought it at $1.27 in Oct 2007, averaged down at $0.42 in May 2009, before finally throwing in the towel at $0.225 in Jan 2012. Together with Rickmers Maritime, the shipping trusts were the worst investments in the 19 years that I had invested in the stock market.

However, despite the heavy losses, I am prepared to relook at it 5 years after I sold it. FSL is in the business of financing/ leasing ships. The shipping industry has been in the doldrums for many years, and this has resulted in poor financial performance for shipping companies and trusts. Rickmers recently decided to wind itself up, with no residual value for its shareholders, despite reporting a net asset value of USD0.21 as at Dec 2016. Its ships, listed in the balance sheet at USD499.6M, fetched only USD113M in a fire sale.

FSL is facing similar business conditions. In my opinion, there are 2 key challenges facing FSL. The first is an immediate one. There is a term loan currently valued at USD192.5M which is due to be repaid in Dec 2017. If refinancing is not successful, FSL will face liquidation and potential fire sale like Rickmers. However, if refinancing is successful, the next challenge is sustainability of its cashflows. A lot of its existing ship charters will expire in 2017 and the next few years. These charters were entered into many years ago when charter rates were still high, but have fallen significantly in the past few years. When the charters expire, the ships will earn much lower rates, posing questions over whether it could generate sufficient cashflow to meet its annual debt repayment obligations. Finally, if supposed there is still sufficient cashflow left after meeting its debt obligations, there would be opportunities to restart distributions to shareholders, which have been stopped since May 2012.

What is my estimated current valuation of FSL? A lot would depend on the value of the ships. If, like Rickmers, its ships could only fetch 23% of their book value, there would be nothing left for shareholders. Thankfully, due to the structure of its loan, we can get some indication of the market value of FSL's ships, which are listed at USD418.4M as at 1Q2017. 

The interest margin that FSL has to pay on its loan is dependent on the Value-to-Loan (VTL) ratio, as shown below.

VTL Ratio Loan Margin
100% to 140% 3.0%
140% to 180% 2.8%
Above 180% 2.6%

In 4Q2016, it reported a loan margin of 2.8%, which means that the VTL ratio is in the region of 140% to 180%. In 1Q2017, it reported a loan margin of 3.0%, which means that the VTL ratio has dropped to between 100% to 140% due to the decline in market value of the ships. In the Annual General Meeting presentation on 28 Apr 2017, FSL also mentioned that the VTL ratio is above 125% despite vessel valuations declining considerably during 2016 and 2017 to date. Based on the above information, we can work out a high and low estimate of the current valuation of FSL. The high estimate is based on VTL ratio of 140% reported in 4Q2016 while the low estimate is based on VTL ratio of 125% reported in 1Q2017.

4Q2016 1Q2017
Loan 223.2M 192.5M
Loan margin 2.80% 3.00%
VTL Ratio 140% 125%
Ship Value (Secured by Loan) 312.4M 240.6M
Ship Value (Unsecured by Loan) 15.0M 15.0M
Trade Receivables 3.9M 5.3M
Cash 42.9M 25.1M
Total Assets 374.2M 286.1M
Total Liabilities 227.0M 198.2M
Net Asset 147.3M 87.9M
No. of Shares 637.5M 637.5M
Net Asset Value (USD) 0.23 0.14
Net Asset Value (SGD) 0.32 0.19

Thus, my estimated current valuation of FSL ranges from SGD0.19 to SGD0.32. As shown above, the valuation varies significantly with the market value of the ships. Based on the above calculation, the loan is fully covered by the market value of the ships. In addition, in its 1Q2017 results presentation, FSL reported that the remaining charters will generate USD90M in revenue. Thus, I believe that the probability of successful refinancing is high. Hence, I have added a short-term speculative position in FSL at $0.11 after a 5-year hiatus. This is solely a bet on successful refinancing. If and after refinancing is successful, I will likely reduce the position considering the uncertainty in sustainability of future cashflows.

Although refinancing is likely in my opinion, a rights issue to raise some money to partially pay down the debt cannot be discounted. At the current price of $0.097, a rights issue is going to be very dilutive. Hence, when I bought into FSL, I was also prepared to subscribe fully to the rights issue so as not to dilute my shareholdings.

This is still not the end of the valuation estimation. Like all distressed asset plays, there will be other players who want to bargain hunt. On 28 Apr 2017, it was announced that the major shareholder planned to sell all its shares to Navios Maritime Holdings. In addition, Navios would provide a convertible loan of USD20M to FSL, which is convertible to such number of shares that, together with the shares bought from the major shareholder, will result in it owning 50.1% of the enlarged share capital. This translates to an additional 330.5M shares to be issued if the USD20M loan is converted, or SGD0.0847 per share, which is a 13% discount to the current price of SGD0.097. The exact terms of this proposed transaction have not be confirmed. After this transaction, the estimated valuation of FSL would reduce from SGD0.19 - SGD0.32 to SGD0.16 - SGD0.24.

This will be my third time buying into FSL. Will I lose money again on it? Let's wait and see. This is definitely not for the faint hearted and certainly not recommended for anybody.

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