In the Spring 1999 Piper Jaffray produced a research report called Wall Street’s Endangered Species by Daniel J. Donoghue, Michael R. Murphy and Mark Buckley, then at Piper Jaffray and now at Discovery Group, a firm founded by Donoghue and Murphy (see also Performance of Darwin’s Darlings). The premise of the report was that undervalued small capitalization stocks (those with a market capitalization between $50M and $250M) lacked a competitive auction for their shares and required the emergence of a catalyst in the form of a merger or buy-out to close the value gap.
In the first follow-up, Endangered species update: The extinct, the survivors, and the new watch list, from Summer 2000, Murphy and Buckley (Donoghue is not listed on the 2000 paper as an author) tested their original thesis and provided the “Darwin’s Darlings Class of 2000,” which was a list of what they viewed as “the most undervalued, yet profitable and growing small cap public companies” in 2000.
In the Fall of 2001, Donoghue, Murphy, Buckley and Danielle C. Kramer produced a further follow-up to the original report called Endangered Species 2001 (.pdf). Their thesis in the further follow up should be of particular interest to we value folk. Putting aside for one moment the purpose of the report (M&A research aimed at boards and management of Darwin’s darlings stocks to generate deal flow for the investment bank), it speaks to the very fertile environment for small capitalization value investing then in existence:
In the last few of years, many small public companies identified this [secular, small capitalization undervaluation] trend and agreed with the implications. Executives responded accordingly, and the number of strategic mergers and going-private transactions for small companies reached all-time highs. Shareholders of these companies were handsomely rewarded. The remaining companies, however, have watched their share prices stagnate.
Since the onset of the recent economic slowdown and the technology market correction, there has been much talk about a return to “value investing.” Many of our clients and industry contacts have even suggested that as investors search for more stable investments, they will uncover previously ignored small cap companies and these shareholders will finally be rewarded. We disagree and the data supports us:
Any recent increase in small-cap indices is misleading. Most of the smallest companies are still experiencing share price weakness and valuations continue to be well below their larger peers. We strongly believe that when the overall market rebounds, small-cap shareholders will experience significant underperformance unless their boards effect a change-of-control transaction.
In this report we review and refresh some of our original analyses from our previous publications. We also follow the actions and performance of companies that we identified over the past two years as some of the most attractive yet undervalued small-cap companies. Our findings confirm that companies that pursued a sale rewarded their shareholders with above-average returns, while the remaining companies continue to be largely ignored by the market. Finally, we conclude with our third annual list of the most attractive small-cap companies: Darwin’s Darlings Class of 2001.
Piper Jaffray’s data in support of their contention is as follows:
Looking back further than just the last 12 months, one finds that small-cap companies have severely lagged larger company indices for most periods. Exhibit II illustrates just how poorly the Russell 2000 compares to the S&P 500 during the longest bull market in history. In fact over the past five, seven and ten years, the Russell 2000 has underperformed the S&P 500. For the five, seven and 10 year periods, the S&P 500 rose 82.6 percent, 175.6 percent and 229.9 percent, respectively, while the Russell 2000 rose 47.9 percent, 113.4 percent, and 206.3 percent for the same periods.
The poor performance turned in by the Russell 2000 can be attributed to the share price performance of the smallest companies in the index. Our previous analysis has shown that the smallest companies in the index have generally underperformed the larger companies (see “Wall Streets Endangered Species,” Spring 1999). To understand the reasons for this differential, one must appreciate the breadth of the index. There is a tremendous gap in the market cap between the top 10 percent of the companies in the index, as ranked by market cap (“the first decile”) and the last 10 percent (“the bottom decile”). The median market capitalization of the first decile is $1.7 billion versus just $201.0 million for the bottom decile. There is almost an 8.0x difference between what can be considered a small cap company.
This distinction in size is important, because it is the smallest companies in the Russell 2000, and in the market as a whole, that have experienced the weakest share price performance and are the most undervalued. Exhibit III illustrates the valuation gap between the S&P 500 and the Russell 2000 indices. Even more noticeable is the discount experienced by the smallest companies. The bottom two deciles of the index are trading at nearly a 25 percent discount to the EBIT multiple of the S&P 500 and at nearly 40 percent below the PIE multiple on a trailing 12-month basis.
This valuation gap has been consistently present for the last several years, and we fully expect it to continue regardless of the direction of the overall market. This differential is being driven by a secular trend that is impacting the entire investing landscape. These changes are the result of:
• The increasing concentration of funds in the hands of institutional investors
• Institutional investors’ demand for companies with greater market capitalization and liquidity
• The shift by investment banks away from small cap-companies with respect to research coverage and trading
The authors concluded that the trends identified were “secular” and would continue, leading small capitalization stocks to face a future of chronic undervaluation:
Removing this discount and reviving shareholder value require a fundamental change in ownership structure. Equity must be transferred out of the hands of an unadoring and disinterested public and into those of either: 1) managers backed by private capital, or 2) larger companies that can capture strategic benefits. Either remedy breathes new life into these companies by providing cheaper sources of equity capital and shifting the focus away from quarterly EPS to long-term growth.
They recognized the implications for secular undervaluation which lead them to make an impressive early identification of the re-emergence of modern shareholder activism:
Unfortunately, many corporate executives continue to believe that if they stick to their business plan they will eventually be discovered by the financial community. Given the recent trends, this outcome is not likely. In fact, there is a growing trend toward shareholder activism to force these companies to seek strategic alternatives to unlock shareholder value. Corporate management is now facing a new peril – the dreaded proxy fight. Bouncing back from their lowest level in more than a decade, proxy fights have increased dramatically thus far in 2001 and are running at nearly twice the pace as they were last year, according to Institutional Shareholder Services. In fact, not since the late 1980s has there been such attention devoted to the shareholder activism movement.
As shown in our Darwin’s Darlings list in Exhibit XX, page 23, management ownership varies widely among the typical undervalued small cap. For those that were IPOs of family-held businesses, management stakes are generally high. In these instances in which a group effectively controls the company, there will be little noise from activist shareholders. However, companies with broad ownership (i.e., a spinoff from a larger parent) are more susceptible to unfriendly actions. In fact, widely held small caps frequently have blocks held by the growing number of small-cap investment funds focused on likely takeover targets.
Regardless of ownership structure, these companies typically have the customary defensive mechanisms in place. They are also protected because they are so thinly traded. In most cases it can take more than six months to accumulate a 5 percent position in the stock without impacting the share price. While we expect most of the successful acquisitions in this sector to be friendly, small-cap companies will have to increasingly worry about these unfriendly suitors.
There are several consistent factors that are driving the increased frustration among shareholders and, consequently, the increased pressure on Management and Boards. These factors include the aforementioned depressed share prices, lack of trading liquidity, and research coverage. But also included are bloated executive compensation packages that are not tied to share price performance and a feeling that corporate boards are staffed with management allies rather than independent-minded executives. Given the continuing malaise in the public markets, we believe this heightened proxy activity will continue into the foreseeable future. Companies with less than $250 million in market capitalization in low growth or cyclical markets are the most vulnerable to a potential proxy battle, particularly those companies whose shares are trading near their 52-week lows.
Here they describe what was a novelty at the time, but has since become the standard operating procedure for activist investors:
Given the growing acceptance of an aggressive strategy, we have noticed an increase in the number of groups willing to pursue a “non-friendly” investment strategy for small caps. Several funds have been formed to specifically identify a takeover target, invest significantly in the company, and force action by its own board. If an undervalued small cap chooses to ignore this possibility, it may soon find itself rushed into a defensive mode. Thwarting an unwanted takeover, answering to shareholders, and facing the distractions of the press may take precedence from the day-to-day actions of running the business.
So how did the companies perform? Here’s the chart:
Almost 90 percent of the 1999 class and about half of the 2000 class pursued some significant strategic alternative during the year. The results for the class of 1999 represent a two-year period so it is not surprising that this list generated significantly more activity than the 2000 list. This would indicate that we should see additional action from the class of 2000 in the coming year.
A significant percentage (23 percent of the total) pursued a sale or going-private transaction to provide immediate value to their shareholders. Others are attempting to “grow out of” their predicament by pursuing acquisitions and many are repurchasing shares. However, many of Darwin’s Darlings have yet to take any significant action. Presumably, these companies are ignoring their current share price and assuming that patient shareholders will eventually be rewarded through a reversal in institutional investing trends, or perhaps, in a liquidity event at some later date.
The actual activity was, in fact, even greater than our data suggests as there were many transactions that were announced but failed to be consummated, particularly in light of the current difficult financing market. Chase Industries, Lodgian, Mesaba Holdings, and Chromcraft Revington all had announced transactions fall through. In addition, a large number of companies announced a decision to evaluate strategic alternatives, including Royal Appliance, Coastcast, and Play by Play ‘Toys.
The authors make an interesting observation about the utility of buy-backs:
For many of Darwin’s Darlings and other small-cap companies, the share repurchase may still have been an astute move. While share price support may not be permanent, the ownership of the company was consolidated as a result of buying in shares. The remaining shareholders were, in effect, “accreted up” in their percentage ownership. When a future event occurs to unlock value, these shareholders will reap the benefits of the repurchase program. Furthermore, the Company may have accommodated sellers desiring to exit their investment, thereby eliminating potentially troublesome, dissenting shareholders. There are circumstances when a repurchase makes good sense, but it should not be considered a mechanism to permanently boost share prices.
Piper Jaffray’s Darwin’s Darlings Class of 2001, the third annual list of the most attractive small-cap companies, makes for compelling reading. Net net investors will recognize several of the names (for example, DITC, DRAM, PMRY and VOXX) from Greenbackd and general lists of net nets in 2008 and 2009. It’s worth considering that these stocks were, in 2001, the most attractive small-capitalization firms identified by Piper Jaffray.
See the full Endangered Species 2001 (.pdf) report.
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