Posts Tagged ‘Catalysts’

In March I highlighted an investment strategy I first read about in a Spring 1999 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, simply stated, is to identify undervalued small capitalization stocks lacking a competitive auction for their shares where a catalyst in the form of a merger or buy-out might emerge to close the value gap. I believe the strategy is a natural extension for Greenbackd, and so I’ve been exploring it over the last month.

Donoghue, Murphy and Buckley followed up their initial Wall Street’s Endangered Species research report with two updates, which I recalled were each called “Endangered Species Update” and discussed the returns from the strategy. While I initially believed that those follow-up reports were lost to the sands of time, I’ve been excavating my hard-copy files and found them, yellowed, and printed on papyrus with a dot matrix 9-pin stylus. I’ve now resurrected both, and I’ll be running them today and tomorrow.

In the first follow-up, Endangered species update: The extinct, the survivors, and the new watch list (.pdf), 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.

As for the original class of 1999, the authors concluded:

About half of the Darwin’s Darlings pursued some significant strategic alternative during the year. A significant percentage (19 of the companies) 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, about half of the 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, more likely, a liquidity event at some later date. The path chosen clearly had a significant impact on shareholder value.

Here’s the summary table:

There are several fascinating aspects to their analysis. First, they looked at the outstanding performance of the sellers:

The 19 companies that pursued a sale easily outperformed the Russell 2000 and achieved an average premium of 51.4% to their 4-week prior share price. The vast majority of transactions were sales to strategic buyers who were able to pay a handsome premium to the selling shareholders. In general, the acquirers were large cap public companies. By simply valuing the profits of a Darwin’s Darling at their own market multiple, these buyers delivered a valuation to selling shareholders that far exceeded any share price the company might have independently achieved. Note in the summary statistics below that the average deal was at an EBIT multiple greater than 10x.

Here’s the table:

Second, they considered the low proportion of sellers who went private, rather than sold out to a strategic acquirer, and likely causes:

Only three of the Darwin’s Darlings announced a going-private transaction. At first glance, this is a surprisingly small number given the group’s low trading multiples and ample debt capacity. With private equity firms expressing a very high level of interest in these transactions, one might have expected more activity.

Why isn’t the percentage higher? In our opinion, it is a mix of economic reality and an ironic impact of corporate governance requirements. The financial sponsors typically involved in taking a company private are constrained with respect to the price they can pay for a company. With limits on prudent debt levels and minimum hurdle rates for equity investments, the typical financial engineer quickly reaches a limit on the price he can pay for a company. As a result, several factors come into play:

• A Board will typically assume that if a “financial” buyer is willing to pay a certain price, a “strategic” buyer must exist that can pay more.

• Corporate governance rules are usually interpreted to mean that a Board must pursue the highest price possible if a transaction is being evaluated.

• Management is reluctant to initiate a going-private opportunity for fear of putting the Company “in play.”

• Financial buyers and management worry that an unwanted, strategic “interloper” can steal a transaction away from them when the Board fulfills its fiduciary duty.

In light of the final two considerations, which benefit only management, it’s not difficult to understand why activists considered this sector of the market ripe for picking, but I digress.

Third, they analyzed the performance of companies repurchasing shares:

To many of the Darwin’s Darlings, their undervaluation was perceived as a buying opportunity. Twenty companies announced a share repurchase, either through the open market, or through more formalized programs such as Dutch Auction tender offers (see our M&A Insights: “What About a Dutch Auction?” April 2000).

As we expected, these repurchases had little to no impact on the companies’ share prices. The signaling impact of their announcement was minimal, since few analysts or investors were listening, and the buying support to the share price was typically insignificant. Furthermore, the decrease in shares outstanding served only to exacerbate trading liquidity challenges. From announcement date to present, these 20 companies as a group have underperformed the Russell 2000 by 17.5%.

For many of the Darlings and other small cap companies the share repurchase may still have been an astute move. While share prices may not have increased, 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 should reap the benefit of the repurchase program. Furthermore, the Company may have accommodated sellers desiring to exit their investment, thereby eliminating potentially troublesome, dissenting shareholders.

One such company repurchasing shares will be familiar to anyone who has followed Greenbackd for a while: Chromcraft Revington, Inc., (CRC:AMEX), which I entered as a sickly net net and exited right before it went up five-fold. (It’s worth noting that Jon Heller of Cheap Stocks got CRC right, buying just after I sold and making out like a bandit. I guess you can’t win ’em all.) Murphy and Buckley cite CRC as an abject lesson in why buy-backs don’t work for Darwin’s Darlings:

I’m not entirely sure that the broader conclusion is a fair one. Companies shouldn’t repurchase shares to goose share prices, but to enhance underlying intrinsic value in the hands of the remaining shareholders. That said, in CRC’s case, the fact that it went on to raise capital at a share price of ~$0.50 in 2009 probably means that their conclusion in CRC’s case was the correct one.

And what of the remainder:

About half of the Darwin’s Darlings stayed the course and did not announce any significant event over the past year. Another 18 sought and consummated an acquisition of some significant size. While surely these acquisitions had several strategic reasons, they were presumably pursued in part to help these companies grow out of their small cap valuation problems. Larger firms will, in theory, gain more recognition, additional liquidity, and higher valuations. However, for both the acquirers and the firms without any deal activity, the result was largely the same: little benefit for shareholders was provided.

Management teams and directors of many small cap companies have viewed the last few years as an aberration in the markets. “Interest in small caps will return” is a common refrain. We disagree, and our statistics prove us right thus far. Without a major change, we believe the shares of these companies will continue to meander. For the 53 Darwin’s Darlings that did not pursue any major activity in the last year, 80% are still below their 1998 high and 60% have underperformed the Russell 2000 over the last year. These are results, keep in mind, for some of the most attractive small cap firms.

This is the fabled “two-tier” market beloved by value investors. While everyone else was chasing dot coms and large caps, small cap companies with excellent fundamentals were lying around waiting to be snapped up. The authors concluded:

The public markets continue to ignore companies with a market capitalization below $250 million. Most institutional investors have large amounts of capital to invest and manage, and small caps have become problematic due to their lack of analyst coverage and minimal public float. As a result, these “orphans” of the public markets are valued at a significant discount to the remainder of the market. We do not see this trend reversing, and therefore recommend an active approach to the directors and management teams at most small cap companies. Without serious consideration of a sale to a strategic or financial buyer, we believe these companies, despite their sound operating performance, will not be able to deliver value to their shareholders.

Tomorrow, the 2001 Endangered species update.


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Empirical Finance Research Blog has a review of a new paper, Repurchases, Reputation, and Returns, which finds that long-run stock returns are higher for companies announcing buybacks that had substantially completed a previous buyback. In other words, companies with a track record for following through on announced buybacks enjoy higher returns following a subsequent buyback announcement than companies that did not follow through on a previously announced buyback. While that might seem obvious, the paper makes two observations that we find particularly interesting in the context of our investment strategy:

  1. Past buyback completion rates are predictive of future buyback completion rates.
  2. Stocks with high completion rates but low stock returns following previous buybacks enjoy abnormally large returns following a subsequent buyback announcement.

It’s worth remembering that a buyback announcement does not bind a company to undertake a buyback, a situation we encountered recently: RACK suspends buyback and enters agreement to acquire Silicon Graphics; Greenbackd exits position. Companies frequently fail to follow through on announced repurchase plans. Empirical Finance Research cites a 1998 study by Stephens and Weisbach that found that firms on average repurchase only about 80% of the sum announced.

Empirical Finance Research summarizes the paper as follows:

This author measures the level of completion of previous buybacks, as measured by the shares bought as a fraction of the amount specified in the announcement, then uses this to explain how well various stocks do after subsequent buyback announcements. What she finds is that companies that had low completion rates on a previous share buyback experience much lower returns upon the announcement of another buyback. She interprets this as evidence of the company’s credibility, that investors don’t really believe a company about a share buyback when the company has failed to complete one in the past.

First the author confirms that past buyback completion rates are predictive of future buyback completion rates. Next she shows that the stock returns to a company making a buyback announcement are much higher for those with high past completion rates. Companies in the 90th percentile of past completion rate see returns 2.5% higher than those in the 10th percentile of past completion rate in the three days after a the new announcement.

Despite the size of these returns, this isn’t a very good trading strategy, because buyback announcements are clearly unexpected. However, in the next part of the paper the author finds that long-run returns are also reliably higher for repeat buyback companies with high past completion rates. Two year returns are 13.64% for those companies with above-median past completion rates versus 7.43% for those below the median. We should be leery of these results, however as they are not statistically significant.

Next the author splits her sample of repeat buyback companies into quintiles based on the return to the stock during the previous buyback. The two-year abnormal returns to companies in the lowest quintile (those with the lowest returns after their last buyback) are 17.33% after their subsequent buyback. This result is very statistically significant too.

But if we split this quintile in half based on past completion rates, and buy only those stocks with above-median past completion rate, the returns explode to 27.13% for the two year period.

Empirical Research Blog’s takeaway?

The value of this paper is not necessarily in a specific investment strategy but rather in the insight it provides in to a trading strategy we already knew about. I would be hesitant to implement this stand-alone for the practical difficulty in doing so. But any trading strategy that already uses share buybacks as a signaling factor might benefit from an augmentation that accounts for past buyback completion rate.

(Emphasis added)


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Following on from our earlier post, Seth Klarman on Liquidation Value, we present the second post in our series on Klarman’s Margin of Safety: Risk-Averse Value Investing Strategies for the Thoughtful Investor.

As we discussed in our first post, Klarman is the founder of The Baupost Group, a deep value-oriented private investment partnership that has generated an annual compound return of 20% over the past 25 years. Klarman detailed his investment process in the iconic Margin of Safety. The book is required reading for all value investors, but is long out-of-print and notoriously difficult to obtain.

In today’s extract, drawn from Chapter 10 Areas of Opportunity for Value Investors: Catalysts, Ineficiences, and Institutional Constraints, Klarman discusses the importance of the catalyst in the investment process:

Once a security is purchased at a discount from underlying value, shareholders can benefit immediately if the stock price rises to better reflect underlying value or if an event occurs that causes that value to be realized by shareholders. Such an event eliminates investors’ dependence on market forces for investment profits. By precipitating the realization of underlying value, moreover, such an event considerably enhances investors’ margin of safety. I refer to such events as catalysts.

Some catalysts for the realization of underlying value exist at the discretion of a company’s management and board of directors. The decision to sell out or liquidate, for example, is made internally. Other catalysts are external and often relate to the voting control of a company’s stock. Control of the majority of a company’s stock typically allows the holder to elect the majority of the board of directors. Thus accumulation of stock leading to voting control, or simply management’s fear that this might happen, could lead to steps being taken by a company that cause its share price to more fully reflect underlying value.

Catalysts vary in their potency. The orderly sale or liquidation of a business leads to total value realization. Corporate spinoffs, share buybacks, recapitalizations, and major asset sales usually bring about only partial value realization.

Value investors are always on the lookout for catalysts. While buying assets at a discount from underlying value is the defining characteristic of value investing, the partial or total realization of underlying value through a catalyst is an important means of generating profits. Furthermore, the presence of a catalyst serves to reduce risk. If the gap between price and underlying value is likely to be closed quickly, the probability of losing money due to market fluctuations or adverse business developments is reduced. In the absence of a catalyst, however, underlying value could erode; conversely, the gap between price and value could widen with the vagaries of the market. Owning securities with catalysts for value realization is therefore an important way for investors to reduce the risk within their portfolios, augmenting the margin of safety achieved by investing at a discount from underlying value.

Catalysts that bring about total value realization are, of course, optimal. Nevertheless, catalysts for partial value realization serve two important purposes. First, they do help to realize underlying value, sometimes by placing it directly into the hands of shareholders such as through a recapitalization or spinoff and other times by reducing the discount between price and underlying value, such as through a share buyback. Second, a company that takes action resulting in the partial realization of underlying value for shareholders serves notice that management is shareholder oriented and may pursue additional value-realization strategies in the future. Over the years, for example, investors in Teledyne have repeatedly benefitted from timely share repurchases and spinoffs.

Tomorrow we present the final installment in the series, Seth Klarman on Investing in Corporate Liquidations.

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A stock buy-back is a great way for a deeply undervalued company to quickly increase its per share value. After identifying an undervalued asset situation, we look through the company’s filings to see if it has any existing plans authorizing it to buy-back its stock. On the rare occasions when we do locate such plans, we are often struck by (a) how few shares the company is authorized to buy back and (b) how few of the shares the company has actually bought back. InFocus Corporation (NASDAQ:INFS), which we posted about on Friday, is a classic example of this phenomenon.

INFS is trading at a big discount to its liquidation value, it has heaps of cash on hand and no debt, all of which makes it a prime candidate to undertake a big buy-back. Given the substantial discount to its current asset backing, any shares bought back at these levels have a huge positive effect on its per share value. It has just initiated a buy-back plan to repurchase over a three-year period up to 4M shares out of 40.7M on issue. As of September 30, the company had repurchased only 50,000 shares at an average price of $1.53 per share. 50,000 shares is simply too little to have any meaningful impact on the company’s value. We’d argue that even 4M (less than 10% of the outstanding common stock) isn’t enough. Why? Let’s look at what happens if the company repurchases many more shares, say 50% of its issued stock.

In our last blog post, we argued that INFS had a liquidation value of around $1.15 per share, 70% higher than its Friday close of $0.67. The company has cash and equivalents of around $55M and no debt as the summary financials demonstrate (the “Carrying” column shows the assets as they are carried in the financial statements, and the “Liquidating” column shows our estimate of the value of the assets in a liquidation):




If INFS was to repurchase 50% of its stock (20M of its 40.7M shares currently on issue) at $0.67, it would cost INFS only $13.4M, leaving it with nearly $42M in cash on hand:

after-infs-summaryAfter the buy back, INFS’s per share liquidating value increases from $1.15 to $1.61 (a 40% increase).

There are very few investment opportunities that so quickly increase a company’s per share value. Given that management should know the company’s value better than the value of any other investment opportunity, it is also the most assured way of increasing a company’s per share value. There is simply no better way for an undervalued company to invest its excess cash than in its own stock.

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