Expect hearty returns from this healthcare IT firm with a strong M&A platform

MTBC Inc (NASDAQ: MTBC) is a healthcare IT company that provides SaaS-based critical back-office services to physician groups and hospitals. The company has emerged as an advantaged acquirer of providers of backend healthcare technology. It acquired 5 companies from 2006-14, and accelerated the pace of acquisitions to 15 from 2014-20 after going public in 2014. The M&A playbook relies extensively on quality and low-cost labor (2400 full-time headcount primarily based in Pakistan, 8x headcount in US) to reduce operating expenses by 50-60% at acquired companies. The fragmented industry provides a long growth runway, which supports increasing operating leverage and potential in reducing funding costs significantly (11% preferred equity is the sole “debt”) to further M&A. MTBC stands out from peers with high 17% ROIC, substantial insider ownership (49%), and proven senior management (3 out of 4 members has executed the M&A playbook together since founding in 2006). Most notably, the company possesses the potential to compound capital in the long-term as an advantaged acquirer.

The B2B, non-consumer-facing nature of MTBC’s services may be unfamiliar to readers. MTBC improves the medical billing reimbursement process, increases collections, and reduces errors in submission, collectively known as revenue cycle management (RCM) services. Complementing the core RCM are practice management services and EHR. Practice management involves patient scheduling, insurance analysis, and other day-to-day workflow functions. EHR, or electronic health records, conducts patient communications and clinical charting electronically to support the billing and reimbursement processes. The RCM industry is stable and mature, growing at low to mid-single digit annually, which implies that consolidation and cost-cuts are central to profitability. Customer retention is usually high (80-95%), highlighting the importance of M&A for growth.

Its latest acquisition involving Carecloud, a high-profile acclaimed SaaS platform, proves the value of its cost-cutting playbook in an increasingly costly RCM industry. Carecloud, which raised a cumulative $150m as of 2019, was sold to MTBC for only $41m, implying large losses for venture capital investors (but great for MTBC) even when Carecloud earned excellent reviews for its product. VC investors likely approved the loss-making sale because of a cloudy outlook for profits from expensive technology and labor investments. RCM providers face several cost-increasing industry trends. Health insurers have complex reimbursement processes because of new laws and payer requirements. Medicare, Medicaid and commercial insurances are increasingly requiring proof of adherence to best practices and improved patient health outcomes to support full reimbursement. Moreover, the recent shift to new insurance codes has dramatically increased the complexity associated with selecting procedure and diagnosis codes needed to support claim submission and reimbursement. Therefore, automated SaaS billings must be complemented by laborious, time-consuming, and expensive human expertise in keeping up with insurance claims and reimbursements practices. MTBC has cracked the code to reduce costs by training a horde of full-time skilled and low-cost labor, based in Pakistan, to handle analytical tasks that support customer-facing personnel based in the US.

Nothing is better at proving MTBC’s value and the industry’s difficulty to cut costs than athenahealth, a RCM industry leader taken private by Elliott Management for $5.5B. athenahealth had targeted 30% operating margins, but could not achieve greater than 16-17% before the transaction. MTBC reported 11%, which was an admirable result before the benefit of scale (athenahealth was 70x the size of MTBC). Excellent execution is rare in the RCM industry because of the increasing complexity of regulations. Hence investors should give MTBC’s industry-leading execution more credit than they do today.

In valuing MTBC, inorganic growth must be considered. Management guided for an additional $100m revenues from M&A by FY21, expanding current revenues by roughly 3x in 2 years (MTBC reported FY19 results in Feb 2020). Management reiterated guidance made in Feb 2020 during the covid-19 debacle, a testament to its excellent execution and stable industry dynamics.

Assuming that revenues reach $170m in FY21 (roughly $100m higher than FY19 revenue and $70m higher than FY20), MTBC is expected to pay $70m at 1x revenue. Judging from previous transaction, $5m of $70m would be in contingent payouts. The $65m would be financed from a combination of preferred stock, cash flow from ops, and cash on balance sheet. The estimated preferred stock raise is $26m with current $35m cash on balance sheet (leaving $4m to maintain day-to-day operations) and assuming FY20-21 cumulative $4m levered FCF.

Based on management guidance in FY20 and projections of $170m revenue in FY21, standard DCF (r=10%, g=3%) results in $240m NAV. Backing out $4m cash and $129m preferreds (incl the est $26m raise) results in about $115m market cap, representing about 46% upside potential.

The calculation above, though based on reasonable assumptions, understates the return potential of MTBC as a long-term compounder. Advantaged acquirers, such as Pool Corp and Watsco, with a sustainable M&A platform are rare. The streak of M&A can be interrupted by the reduction of targets, lack of cheap capital, and executive turnover among other factors. For MTBC, its M&A streak is unlikely to end before reaching a billion-dollar valuation. MTBC is executing in a mature, fragmented industry with few competing acquirers; not dependent on cheap capital for M&A; and having 49% insider ownership that strongly discourages turnover.

How to generate extreme returns (Part 2) – The market exists to serve, not to guide.

In ground rules, I stated that “Your manager seeks to avoid permanent losses, but not quotational losses. A security can trade at any price, hence price volatility can never be avoided.”

That a security can trade at any price should be both seductive and intimidating. The stock bought at $10 yesterday can trade at multiples higher today or $1 the day after. Any price is possible. Many investors have this principle seared into their psyches during the Covid-19 downturn.

If volatility is threatening, one is looking to the market for guidance. A large decline from purchase triggers fear, which activates the human instinct to abandon self-thinking and follow a higher order, in this case the crowd and the market, for guidance. Succumbing to these instincts is a grave mistake. Investors should look to the market for opportunities, not for guidance, and embrace volatility as a provider of opportunities.

But doesn’t the market know more than any individual? Isn’t the wisdom of crowds worth following? In truth, the market may not know more than the individual. The market price is the product of many buyers and sellers who are not always motivated by fundamentals. They may transact based on emotions such as fear and greed or on technical factors such as portfolio rebalancing.

Therefore, the investor who keeps a cool head and has conviction in the right fundamental perspective may actually know more than the market. He looks to the market for opportunities, not for guidance.

To have conviction in the underlying fundamentals of a stock is to follow the rules outlined in part 1. Practice investing based on cash flows and avoid speculation; avoid excessive leverage; know the boundaries of your knowledge; have processes that guard against destructive human instincts.

Following the aforementioned rules effectively leads to a focus on the asset and business, not price, resulting in an evaluation of the stock’s fundamentals relative to price, not an evaluation of price alone. A stock does not exist in a vacuum. It is an ownership stake in a business. Even experienced investors forget this during extreme bouts of volatility.

Volatility that feels intimidating functions as a feedback mechanism. It is the market’s way of informing investors that they lack conviction and understanding of fundamentals. Investors who heed the warning would exit and reflect. Those who don’t will eventually succumb to destructive instincts and look to the market, instead of independent thought, for guidance, suffering losses as a result. Yet this is the brutal fate for the majority of investors, providing the minority that keeps a cool head with opportunities.

How to generate extreme returns (Part 1) – an introduction

First published on 2/29/20. Revised on 4/11/20.

My goal as an active investor is to out-perform standard stock indices by a large margin over an extended period.

A standard stock index is a formidable opponent, as the vast majority of active investors would attest. Most generate returns insufficient to beat a passive investment in a diversified index in a single year. Those who do are unlikely to repeat the performance in other years. However, those who maintain sustainable market-bearing returns exist, albeit in small numbers.

Achieving extreme returns can be a complex study weaving disparate topics from finance to psychology. Yet, similar to complex phenomena in the physical sciences, simple rules, governed by constraints, underlie chaos. Simple does not imply that the rules are easy to learn or execute. Rather it means that the rules are clearly defined and hence possible, though difficult and unintuitive, to learn. This series of studies attempts to explain the simple rules underlying the complex, oftentimes disorderly, achievement of extreme returns.

First, avoid permanent loss.

 “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.” -Albert Einstein

It is perhaps counterintuitive to introduce the topic of extreme returns in the form of loss avoidance. It is akin to telling a new driver that the point of driving is, not to travel from A to B, but to avoid accidents. Yet the practice of defensive driving to avoid accidents inevitably leads to safe travel. Similarly, the practice of avoiding losses eventually results in returns.

Loss avoidance unleashes the power of compounding to produce extreme, if not downright mind-boggling, returns over time. A $10,000 investment generating 10% per annum provides $1.7 million profits in 30 years. However, a single year of loss can cost years of profits. In the previous example, a 50% loss in the 30th year is equivalent to losing all profits in the prior 7 years. Consecutive 50% losses in the 29th and 30th year wipe out profits accumulated over the prior 15 years.

Second, to avoid permanent losses, one must invest, not speculate. Investments are decided based on cash flows, and speculations on anything else.

Investors perceive a business having two values: the observable market price, and the unobservable yet conceivable intrinsic price. Investors establish the intrinsic value of a business on an absolute basis, meaning it is based on the sum of future cash flows discounted by appropriate interest rates. Speculators have little consideration for intrinsic values. Their chief concern is future price movements based, not on fundamentals, but on predictions of the behavior of others. Some assets, such as collectibles, can only be speculated and never invested because they do not generate cash flows. Hence they can only be priced based on past transactions. Their values are based on circular reasoning, that is they are bought because they were bought in the past. This increases their prices, attracting more buyers, further increasing prices, and repeating the cycle. The speculative logic can collapse any time.

To further differentiate investors and speculators, one distinguishes absolute valuation from relative valuation. Believing that a business should trade at 20x earnings because its peers do is an example of relative valuation. However, such speculative logic quickly collapses with second-order thinking. If one purportedly buys the business in question at lower than 20x peer earnings, the purchase would increase the peer group multiple higher than 20x, which is the impetus for further purchases. Circular reasoning inherent in relative valuation means that the logic can collapse at any time.

Third, stay away from excessive leverage.

Investors have to be ready for the markets to do anything. It is challenging to tell what will cause a crisis, so investing with a plan to defend against crises is absolutely necessary. The more leverage is used, the lower the ability to ride through temporary quotational losses, the weaker the defense against crises.

Fourth, define your circle of competence and stay within it.

“Real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance.” -Confucius

“There is nothing wrong with a know-nothing investor who realizes it. The problem is when you are a know-nothing investor but you think you know something.” -Warren Buffett

“It ain’t what you don’t know that kills you. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”-Mark Twain

To avoid losses, you have to avoid what you don’t know. The successful investor does not have to know everything, but has to be certain of the boundaries of his knowledge.

To evaluate a business, the investor has to know the factors that are important and knowable. The intelligent can identify the important elements, but only the wise can tell whether they are knowable. The wise is aware of the limits of understanding.

For example, it is easy to identify oil prices as a primary determinant of revenues for an energy exploration business, but it is utterly unwise to believe that one can forecast oil prices with certainty. Oil prices are important but unknowable. Forecasting customer retention for a software subscription business that has maintained consistent retention for 20 years is relatively more certain. Retention rates are important and likely to be knowable in this example.

For some businesses, the important factors are never knowable. Their prospects can never be predicted with certainty. Hence these businesses can never be wise investments. Buffett places them in the “too-hard” pile. Why leap over 7-foot hurdles when you can step over 1-foot hurdles?

Fifth, maintain a process that guards against destructive instincts.

“If the Earth formed at midnight and the present moment is the next midnight, 24 hours later, modern humans have been around since 11:59:59pm – 1 second. And if human history itself spans 24 hours from one midnight to the next, 14 minutes represents the time since Christ.” -waitbutwhy.com

The implicit mathematics shows that the existence of modern humans occupies one-tenth of 1% of 1% of time since the formation of the Earth, and the existence of civilization (crudely defined as time after the birth of Christ) is one-thousandth of that. In short, humans have not existed that long, and human civilization occupies a tiny part of that short history.

Hence, the human instinct has mostly evolved in environments before civilization. The important implication is that instincts useful during pre-civilization may not be so now.

Consider the human instinct to follow crowds. Pre-civilization, humans lived in hazardous environments with dangerous predators, and lacked sufficient food, water, and shelter. A tribe offered better protection against hazards and more resources than the individual. There was safety in numbers. The tribe was so essential to human survival that following others became a basic instinct. Fast forward to today, investors are unlikely to live in conditions similar to those their ancestors did. There is no pressing need to live closely with others in a tribe to protect against hazards or obtain necessities, but the instinct to follow others still exerts itself because our instincts are mostly shaped during pre-civilization.

Following the crowd in investing is detrimental. If one buys and sells stocks when the crowd does, one would buy high (the crowd buying increases prices) and sell low (the crowd selling lowers prices).

To weed out destructive instincts, investors require a systematic process that provides fair treatment to all analytical thoughts. Any thought has to be properly judged and given due process. The lack of due process is akin to a court with only one attorney. The sole attorney may present an excellent argument, but a judge can never find it valid without weighing other perspectives.

Along the lines of the same analogy, the investor takes the role of an attorney (when presenting his own perspective), listens to opposing attorneys (when considering the perspective of others), and finally arrives at a conclusion, whether presented or not (when weighing all, available and unavailable, perspectives as a judge).

The complexity of achieving extreme returns is proportional to its rewards. Identifying simple, clear rules is akin to locating a lighthouse, essential in pointing the right direction amid the perplexing, inundating, and stormy sea of investing.

“It [referring to investing and achieved outsized returns] is not supposed to be easy. Anyone who thinks is easy is stupid.”-Charlie Munger

Get hooked to this maker of tobacco alternatives

Turning Point Brands (NYSE: TPB) is a manufacturer and marketer of OTP (Other Tobacco Products) and hemp-derived CBD products. Attractive product economics, in the form of non-cyclical demand and strong brand loyalty, support pricing power, consistent margins and cash flows, and high returns on capital (~40% gross margin, ~10% FCF margin, 20% ROIC). TPB stock increased from $10 to $55 between 2016 and 2019 on the back of strong growth in vaping, but cratered to $20 after rising teen addiction and increasing lung injuries from illicit vaping products in Q419. The FDA banned most e-cig flavors on January 1 2020, and required manufacturers to go through an arduous, expensive approval process (ie PMTA) to continue sales of e-cig. FDA approval, though costing $10-20mm, will ultimately benefit TPB and other well-capitalized survivors by shutting numerous small players and legitimizing surviving vaping products. The vaping debacle had taken attention away from the established OTP segments that provide at least $50mm FCF (and may account for the entire current value of the company) and the company’s strong balance sheet ($140mm available liquidity), which provides ample liquidity for PMTA approval process and a free call option in the form of transformative M&A targeted at vaping products (ie NewGen segment). As proof of non-cyclical demand and brand loyalty, on April 2, TPB affirmed Q1 guidance, first made in February 26, implying that impacts from Covid-19 are minimal. Valuing the OTP segments as strong cash-flowing businesses and the NewGen segment at cost (ignoring the potential for transformative M&A), the stock provides 77% upside.

The OTP segments – Smokeless and Smoking – generate stable cash flows ($50mm FCF) that fund the growth engine, which is the NewGen segment housing proprietary brands and distribution of third-party brands related to e-cigarette, CBD, and other vaping products (50% revenue CAGR 2014-19 before disruption. More on this later). The OTP segments contain dominant brands in the categories below:

-Chewing tobacco (part of Smokeless). Brands: Stokers (20% market share, 2nd largest in industry), Beech-Nut, Trophy, Durango, Wind River. Collectively 29% market share. Chewing tobacco is cured tobacco in the form of loose leaf, plug, or twist, delivering nicotine without smoke associated with traditional cigarettes. Industry growth is about low single digits;

-Moist snuff (part of Smokeless). Brand: Stoker (4.5% share, one of fastest-growing brands in the market). Moist snuff, also known as snus, is cut tobacco that can be loose or pouched and placed in the mouth. Industry growth is about low single digits;

-Cigarette paper (part of Smoking). Brand: Zig-Zag (35% share in premium market, largest premium brand). Industry is shrinking in low single digits;

-Cigar wraps (part of Smoking) Brand: Zig-Zag (75% share overall).

Buffett said that one may assess the quality of a business by the ease with which it raise prices without losing customers. By this benchmark, the Smokeless segment is a quality business because it raised prices by 4.3% and increased volumes by 3.4% from 2016-19 on average, while expanding EBITDA margins to 38% from 32%. Moist snuff was the key driver, contributing 54% segment revenue. It is manufactured and packaged in the company’s Tennessee and Kentucky facilities in a proprietary process that results in a superior product. In addition, smokeless products align with increasing smoke-free ordinances and increasing consumer awareness of relatively lower health risks compared to traditional combustible tobacco. The Smoking segment is a lower quality business in which revenue has been stagnant since 2016, but it still delivers admirable ~40% EBITDA margins. Smokeless and Smoking collectively generated ~$50m FCF in 2019.

Standard DCF with conservative assumptions shows that the OTP segments are worth at least the entire company value ($400m mkt cap at time of writing). This implies that the market ascribes zero to negative value to TPB’s growth engine, the NewGen segment, and assumes the segment to be consistently loss-making. This dire assessment is very unlikely to play out because of a strong track record of execution, ample liquidity to survive the PMTA process, and favorable competitive dynamics post-PMTA.

Even before the vaping debacle in 2019, the NewGen segment has generated consistently positive EBITDA and FCF from 2016-18. Management balanced product and marketing investments in vaping with profits, displaying shrewd capital allocation. 2019 was the first year in which NewGen suffered EBITDA losses. When vaping sales were disrupted in Q419, management quickly shrunk exposure to the vaping distribution business. They consolidated 4 warehouses into a single facility, eliminated low-margin platforms, and wrote off unsalable inventories because of the FDA flavor ban. The PMTA process will likely cause a large reduction in vaping brands and declining distribution profits. Management has responded optimally by investing more in proprietary brands than in distribution capabilities moving forward. It is unusual for a small-cap company to display a strong track record of execution. This is likely made possible by executives who have decades of experience seeing major shifts in the tobacco business. Larry Wexler, CEO, spent two decades at Altria and 17 years at TPB. Graham Purdy, COO, spent 7 years at Philip Morris and 16 years at TPB.

A major transition in the vaping business is underway. In August 2019, the CDC reported increasing lung injuries associated with vitamin E acetate in THC-containing e-cigarettes and vaping products. It is essential to differentiate between THC and CBD because marijuana-derived THC is illegal (except in low concentrations and when prescribed in certain US states) while hemp-derived CBD is legal (See Appendix for technical information). TPB only deals with CBD, not THC, in vaping products. Furthermore, legal vaping products do not contain vitamin E acetate. TPB has clarified in a statement that it does not sell e-cigarettes and other vaping products containing THC or vitamin E acetate.

Yet TPB and other legitimate manufacturers are subjected to regulation designed to weed out illicit production. To protect consumers from illicit THC/vit E acetate-containing e-cigs and vape products, the FDA requires all vaping manufacturers to receive marketing authorization for vape products through a Premarket Tobacco Product Application (PMTA) pathway. The PMTA is an exhaustive and expensive scientific study that considers the risks and benefits of the tobacco product for public health. The US subsidiary of London-based British American Tobacco, an $83B company, submitted 150,000 pages for its VUSE vaping product. At an estimated cost of $120k per product, a standard vape manufacturer with 10 flavors available in 5 capacities and 3 levels of nicotine content can expect to spend $18mm (10*5*3*120k). Numerous legitimate, in addition to illicit companies, but under-capitalized companies in the fragmented vaping market will either shut down or curtail production, leaving well-capitalized peers with significantly reduced competition. For a $400mm market-cap company, TPB is well-capitalized with $95mm cash, ~$45mm in undrawn revolving credit, and ~$50mm FCF from its OTP segments, more than the $20mm expected in PMTA expenses. TPB has the management capability and liquidity to be successful in the PMTA process.

(As a side note, the FTC recently sued Altria to undo its $12.8B investment in Juul. Should the lawsuit succeed, the largest e-cig manufacturer with >70% market share will lose the backing of one of the largest tobacco companies, further tilting competitive dynamics in the favor of TPB.)

The strong balance sheet provides ammunition for transformative M&A. TPB might had completed deals in Q419 if not for the vaping disruption. Senior management appeared to be on the prowl for strategic acquisitions:

We are in deep dialogue in several potentially transformative acquisitions. That does not mean we are certain of the outcome, but we’ll most certainly continue to pursue accretive opportunities that can further propel company growth. We have the access to capital, and we will efficiently deploy those resources to accelerate the company momentum.” -CEO Larry Wexler, Q419 earnings call.

“And Jamie, at the end of the day, like I think you guys all are aware, like vape gate was extremely disruptive. We terminated 60 people, right? And we run a tight ship. And so we have real deals in the pipeline, but they require management to push them through. And if it wasn’t for vape gate, we would’ve had deals done in the fourth quarter. So we — the pipeline is, frankly, stronger. We did move management around where we’ve dedicated some resources solely to getting deals done. And those are moving forward.” -CFO Bobby Lavan, Q419 earnings call.

The topic of transformative M&A deserves attention because studies show that the majority of deals destroy value. TPB appears to have defied the curse so far. It has spent ~$50mm in acquisitions since 2016, of which $26mm was spent to develop the NewGen segment from scratch and the balance in a bolt-on acquisition for chewing tobacco (part of Smokeless segment). The NewGen segment was created with three M&A deals, thus it serves as a useful benchmark in assessing management’s ability to create growth from M&A. Against roughly $166mm ($26mm acquisitions + $115mm debt increase from 2016-19 assuming that new debt is taken solely for NewGen + $25m cumulative interest expenses 2016-19) invested on building NewGen since 2016, TPB generated a cumulative ~$393mm revenue and ~$93mm gross profit. This means that in 3 short years, TPB has recouped about 55% of its investment in NewGen before operating expenses (~18% “return on capital”). Excluding expenses associated with the vaping disruption, the figure would be 70% (~23% “return on capital”). We used gross profit as a measure here because TPB reports low capex relative to revenues (capex ~1% revenues), so “growth capex” is likely to be in operating expenses. Gross profit can then be thought as a proxy to profits before growth investments.

The high “return” metrics showed that NewGen had excellent product economics similar to the OTP segments. Shareholders should feel assured that TPB management would continue to engage in value-additive deals. CFO Bobby Lavan seemed eager and excited yet careful about the deal pipeline (likely to be focused entirely on NewGen):

“But deals, you never want to be forced to do deals. The pipeline is strong. The — frankly, it’s — there are a bunch of companies that I bid for in sort of late summer that have come back and said, is that offer still on the table, which is an interesting dynamic. And so we are sort of evaluating that. I will tell you, there is carnage in the street, blood everywhere when it comes to these cannabis in CBD companies. It is — the opportunity set is massive. We’re just — it’s just a capacity issue … So we’ve got this quarter through. We’ve cleaned up our books, reset the business. We moved Jim Murray straight to deal making, which is awesome, and it’s — we’re going to get stuff done.”-CFO Bobby Lavan, Q419 earnings call.

Because the PMTA process is likely to reduce the number of vaping manufacturers significantly, TPB has made the logical decision to pivot from solely being a distributor to a manufacturer and marketer of proprietary vaping brands. Future deal-making is likely to focus on acquiring growing vaping brands. There is little doubt that vaping would continue to grow in popularity, despite the interruption from lung injuries. Stimulant drugs like nicotine are very difficult to quit because of withdrawal symptoms. That is why nearly 40mm Americans still smoke after a 30-year nationwide campaign against smoking. Smokers are always looking to minimize harm when feeding their nicotine addiction. Vaping reduces harm by delivering much less carcinogens and no secondhand smoke compared to combustible cigarettes. The vaping population grew 7-fold from 2011-18, and is likely to continue growing.

In thinking about the valuation of TPB, it’s best to see the company as having 3 businesses with separate risk and growth profiles. The Smokeless segment is established with ~40% EBITDA margins, above-industry growth, and a clear expansion pathway in moist snuff. The Smoking segment is also established with ~40% EBITDA margins, but has a weak industry backdrop and no clear growth drivers. The NewGen segment arguably has the best growth potential, but also the most uncertain future with M&A integration and developing regulations. Each segment is valued below. Summing the below, TPB provides ~77% upside, which excludes the upside potential of transformative M&A in NewGen.

-Smokeless: r=9%. g=4% (2x global GDP). TV multiple=20.8. NPV=$626mm based on historical 7% revenue growth and 40% EBITDA margins.

-Smoking: r=10%. g=0%. TV multiple=10.0. NPV=$288mm based on historical 0% revenue growth and 40% EBITDA margins.

-NewGen: NPV=$166mm (at cost approximated using cash spent on M&A, debt, and interest expenses). Shareholders should be at least confident that management won’t destroy value.

TPB makes products with great economics but unloved dynamics in the current social context. Chewing tobacco and moist snuff are profitable but dirty. Vaping presents great growth prospects but involves addiction, death, federal agencies, and the revival of Big Tobacco. Investors ought to look past the smoke of temporary dynamics, and stare at the long-lived economics of TPB products.

Appendix

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a compound found in hemp plants and most commonly used to produce CBD hemp oil products. CBD is non-intoxicating and, when derived from hemp, is legal under U.S. federal law. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a compound found in marijuana plants and is responsible for the euphoric “high” that people experience when they ingest or smoke marijuana. The legal status of THC products differ from state to state.

Buy stocks now

Special deal sign in the shopping mall in Asia. Bali.

The headlines appear more threatening every day. Increasing infections and deaths from Covid-19 are forcing quarantines at an unprecedented scale. The economic fallout is certain to be bad, and the timing of the recovery uncertain. Almighty corporations such as Boeing and Delta are seeking state-backed bailouts reminiscent of AIG and General Motors in the Lehman crisis.

Yet the one thing to do, neither intuitive nor obvious, is to buy stocks now.

Stocks reflect the long-term earnings potential of their underlying businesses. The American economy is contracting because of necessary measures to contain the virus, but the long-term potential of the American economic expansion is intact. In the past 100 years, America, backed by relentless dynamism, has survived a flu epidemic; the Great Depression; costly World Wars and numerous conflicts; an assassination and a resignation of her Presidents; hyperinflation and oil shock; Black Monday; savings-and-loans implosion; September 11; the dot-com crash; defaults of major economies; the Lehman and mortgage crisis; and the Eurozone sovereign crisis. Yet the S&P 500 increased from 18 to 3,231. There is little doubt that major corporations in the United States would set record earnings 10, 20 and 30 years from today.

So why now?

How do we know that stocks have bottomed? The truth is that there is no way to tell, despite what you hear from Goldman Sachs and CNBC. Steve Jobs said that “you can never connect the dots forward. You can only connect the dots backwards”, which means that we will only know the bottom with hindsight. Because you can’t be certain to buy at the bottom, you should only buy when you expect reasonable returns. Using 90-year averages for the S&P 500 as a benchmark, the investor can expect roughly 7% returns per year in the next 10 years (see Appendix at end of article for calculation), a reasonable return.

Why now when investors are hungry for cash and appear to be selling assets from stocks to bonds to commodities for cash? Cash pays next-to-nothing and loses value in an inflationary economy. The Federal Reserve and the ECB, the two most significant central banks, set policies to target positive inflation every year. You don’t want to bet against that. Yet investors demand cash now because of a lack of confidence in assets, even when cash is a depreciating asset. Stocks are almost certain to beat cash in returns over the next 10 years. So buy stocks before others regain confidence, as long as you are buying at levels that are likely to offer reasonable returns.

The case for owning a piece of the American economic expansion now is clear, yet there are other obstacles – psychological, economic or otherwise – for investors to pull the trigger. I do not purport to convince every person to own stocks and hold them for a sufficient duration for significant returns. Perhaps JP Morgan said it best – in bear markets, stocks return to their rightful owners.

Appendix

S&P 500
EPSPEPrice
19281.1814.8917.57
2019139.5323.153,230.78
CAGR5.4%0.5%5.9%
To keep calculations straightforward, CAGR is not total return because it excludes the reinvestment of dividends. The reinvestment of dividends adds roughly 3.5%/y, meaning that the total return between 1928-2019 is 9.4% per annum. As a side note, the S&P 500 was created in 1957, but one can “create” the index before that year.

Table above shows that S&P returned 5.9%/y for the past 90 years, comprising mostly EPS growth (5.4%) and a little PE expansion (0.5%). As of March 20, 2020, the S&P 500 traded at 13.3x forward PE. Using the 90-year averages as a benchmark, if the investor expects PE at 20x in 2030 (20x is the 1928-2019 average), this means that PE will grow from 13.3x now to 20x within 10 years, providing 4.2% return per year. Let’s assume that the return is reduced to 3.0% because of damage to confidence from the Covid-19 fallout. To estimate returns from EPS, the investor can use 5.4%, which is the 90-year average. Let’s assume that EPS returns almost halved to 3.0% because of the damage from virus containment. Summing the returns from PE (3.0%) and EPS (3.0%) result in 6.0% returns without the reinvestment of dividends. Say if we assume dividends add another 1% return conservatively (current dividend yield is about 2%), total return becomes 7%.

Airport operator ready for take-off

Corporacion America Airports SA (NYSE: CAAP) is the largest private operator of airports (by number of airports), having a concentration of concessions in Argentina and Latin America. The airport operator has a resilient, utility-like business model with limited competition and high returns through the cycle. The icing is a capable, long-term-oriented controlling shareholder (>80% stake) who is among the wealthiest people in Argentina with a great track record in building value. Airport businesses are rarely for sale, but this one is because of two temporary demand shocks that can’t happen simultaneously at a better time – macroeconomic weakness in Argentina and travel depression related to Covid-19. CAAP generates $280m unlevered FCF relative to $1.4Bn EV. Even using very conservative estimates (5% declined in FCF over 2 years and zero growth in perpetuity), the stock has 80% upside (Target price: $6.70. Current price: $3.70).

CAAP operates 52 airports in 7 countries through government-granted concessions that lasts at least 10 years. CAAP pays “leases” for airports to governments in exchange for the right to collect fees from airlines, passengers, and businesses for their use of airport facilities. Airlines are charged for every take-off, landing, and parking. Passengers are charged fees, which are typically bundled in the cost of air tickets, for the use of airports. Businesses pay for cargo storage, warehouses services, and leases to operate retail stores in airports. By geography, airports based in Latin American accounted for ~90% revenues, in which 60% was from Argentina. By business line, aeronautical revenues contributed 50%, commercial 35%, and construction services 15% of revenues.

Airport operators are recession-resistant businesses that maintain high returns even during economic slowdowns. Argentina has been mired in recession since 2018 (GDP declined by 9% in 2018), yet growth in operating statistics remain strong. Passengers, cargo volume, and aircraft movement showed growth in 2018 (6/5/3% growth respectively). However, it is easy to miss the strong resiliency because revenues showed 15% decline in 2018. The real decline is actually only 0.8%, which supports the resilient picture shown by operating statistics.

Out of the $176m decline in revenue in 2018, $112m was related to the application of IAS 29, an accounting principle required for hyperinflationary economies like Argentina. IAS 29 applies most to companies that receives revenues in Argentinean pesos but reports in other currencies (CAAP reports in USD). Hyperinflation depresses the value of pesos, hence revenues must adjust for the depreciation. However, CAAP receives ~80% revenues in US dollars, so its adjustment for peso depreciation should be much lower than what IAS 29 requires. This means that the nature of the $112m decline was accounting-related, not economic related. Another portion of the decline concerned a $55m decline in construction service revenue, which was really capital expenditures rather than revenue (more on this later). Excluding the two declines, the real decline was $9m (<1% decline), not $176m (15% decline).

The resilient fundamentals were accompanied by ~14-16% returns-on-capital, which were maintained even during recessionary periods. Returns are defined as after-tax adjusted EBITDA minus capex, and capital as the sum of debt and equity. CAAP applies IFRIC 12 like many infrastructure companies, which makes the calculation of ROC more complex. The key point to note in IFRIC 12 is that all investments required by the concession agreement are recognized as revenue, and the actual cost of these investments are recognized as cost. Companies typically do not recognize investments as revenues because investments do no immediately result in revenue. Yet those who apply IFRIC 12 are typically toll-like businesses that can quickly gain revenues from investments. For example, a busy airport may invest in a parking structure that can realize revenue quickly upon completion.

To adjust EBITDA, I treat “construction services cost” as capex (on top of what CAAP already reports as capex) because this is the actual cost of investments, and discount “construction services revenue” to a present value. Going back to the previous example, the airport building the parking structure should only recognize additional revenue from parking fees after the structure is completed, but not before. We can discount future revenues to present by using a factor of 0.5, which roughly corresponds to revenues coming 9 years later and an 8% discount rate (discount factor=1/(1.08)^9=0.5), both of which are conservative estimates considering the low-risk nature of the project. Based on the table below, 2018 adjusted EBITDA should be ~$350m (=445.9-196.3+0.5*198.4) before tax/working capital/reported capex, and not the stated $445.9m. These adjustments, plus tax and working capital changes, result in ROC ranging 14-16% between 2016-18. To achieve 16% ROC in 2018 when the key country reported 9.5% decline in GDP in the same year is formidable, demonstrating a recession-resistant business model.

 $ m2015201620172018
Reported adj EBITDA277427462446
Reported capex-8-10-12-15
Additional capex (Construction services costs)-177-164-249-196
Discounted future revenue (Construction services revenue)898312599
  Discount factor applied0.500.500.500.50
Tax expense-45-56-47-14
Change in working capital (receivables and inventory only)-60-96-79-43
Unlevered FCF76183200277
Interest expense-69-118-115-96
Levered FCF66585181
     
Total capital1,3231,3091,6871,569
ROC (unlevered FCF/total capital)14%15%16%
ROE (levered FCF/total capital)14%19%39%

(As a side note, ROE was even higher than ROC because of declining tax expenses caused by over-payment. The focus here is on ROC because of significant debt and interest expenses.)

The growth runway in airport fundamentals generally correlate to macroeconomic growth, so it is necessary for CAAP investors to consider the economic growth of Argentina (60% 2018 revenues). As mentioned, Argentina is mired in recession and hyper-inflationary territory. Its debt has been declared unsustainable by the IMF, which lent a record $44Bn to the country. However, the current administration is the first ever in Argentina making credible moves to restore economic growth. It has demonstrated an ambitious start by setting a two-month timeline to restructure $67Bn debt by March 2020 to keep interest expenses manageable for economic growth, and already announced the hiring of advisors in the first week of March. The timeline keeps the administration accountable, and is far more preferable to the mysterious, hostile tactics during the 15-year odyssey of Argentina’s previous default in 2001. For the first time in its history, the country also agreed to Article IV talks that would allow the IMF to inspect Argentina’s accounts before a new agreement is signed, surprising the market because it has almost always been hostile to IMF scrutiny. Article IV talks would assure bondholders as they head into restructuring talks that Argentina is under IMF supervision.

Perhaps the most promising is the appointment of Martin Guzman as finance minister . Guzman has an impressive resume. He is the protégé of Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and influential economist. He is a leading expert on sovereign debt policies, and has testified before the US Congress on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and at the United Nations about the need for a better international system for resolving sovereign debt crises. Most important, he demonstrated a sound understanding of the importance of coordinated policy action and sustained growth, instead of mere monetary tightening, to combat inflation in this op-ed. There is no doubt that Guzman is the best chance for Argentina to get back on sound economic footing.

CAAP is cheap on an absolute basis (I’m not a fan of relative valuation). Assuming no growth and a 10% discount rate, a 3-year DCF results in $2.8Bn EV (~2x current market value). The same DCF produces 140% upside from current price when growth is assumed at 2% (roughly the growth of global GDP, which is a low estimate). Current valuation implies that CAAP shrinks FCF by 9% annually in perpetuity, which is very unlikely given the mission-critical nature of airports, low risks of disruption and substitution, and strong tailwinds in air travel. To allow for the temporary disruption of Covid-19 and recession in Argentina, I assume a 5% decline in FCF per year for the next two years and zero growth in perpetuity, resulting in an ~80% upside from current price.

The target price does not account for upside related to actions from management, which has proven competent for the past 20 years since the founding of CAAP. Management is aligned with shareholders because the founding and managing family owns 82.1% of CAAP while public shareholders own the balance. CEO Martin Eurnekian is the nephew of founder Eduardo Eurnekian, who had a great track record in building value (net worth: $1.5Bn) from diverse business interests in media, energy, infrastructure, and finance as a shrewd entrepreneur. Management transition had been stable without typical family strife with only one CEO transition in the history of the firm. Eduardo had led the company since its founding in 1998, and passed the CEO position to Martin after the IPO. Martin, now 40, had started his first job at CAAP when he was 18, and spent the past 22 years “doing everything one could imagine” at CAAP.

In 2020, it is irresponsible to discuss a travel-related business without thinking about disruptions from Covid-19. The virus, about 5-10x more contagious than seasonal influenza, has almost reached the proportions of a global pandemic. Experts estimate the mortality rate to be ~1% or lower (the current rate announced by the WHO is 3.4%. This is too high because it is based on backward-looking data). I cannot offer more insights concerning the virus. What I can do is offer some extent of clarity based on current facts:

-Covid-19 is infectious but not deadly to most people. This means that most of us (about 90%) can resist the virus. This also means that Covid-19 does not constitute an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it event.

-A vaccine is possible. Estimated time to production varies from one to two years. What is important to know is that the human race has her best minds working on this day and night. Betting against the human race (ie shorting the market thinking that the virus would destroy the global economy) is unwise.

-Every government and central bank is ready to unleash significant monetary and fiscal stimulus to combat the impact of the virus. Betting against the Fed, ECB, and their peers is foolish.

-The world seems to be over-reacting with mass quarantines, but over-reaction is better than under-reaction. China under-reacted at first by suppressing information about the virus, then the country over-reacted by placing 50 million citizens in mandatory quarantine. It worked – the growth of new cases stalled. Italy under-reacted at first too, then over-reacted by enforcing quarantines and travel restrictions on the entire country. The US over-reacted in a different way by having the Fed cut rates and the White House floating stimulus measures. Over-reaction is good because it preemptively reduces the impact, biological or otherwise, of the virus. But over-reaction can also be misunderstood as a signal that the virus is an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it event. Over-reaction stops the virus from becoming worse, but does not indicate a worsening of its impacts.

It is easy to be pessimistic by reading headlines showing the relentless growth of new cases. However, reality is often a lagging indicator of our efforts. You exercise to lose weight, but your body typically does not show weight loss until later. Humankind is racing to contain the virus, which will eventually be conquered. The only question is when. I am optimistic knowing what will happen but not knowing when.

CAAP generates high returns through the cycle, owns valuable airport concessions, and demonstrates incentivized management with a good track record in building value. When the sky clears of temporary demand shocks in the form of macroeconomic weakness in Argentina and reduced travel from Covid-19, the stock will be ready for takeoff.