Judges Scientific: A Textbook on Value Creation

Disclosure: I have an interest in Judges Scientific shares

 

History

Judges Scientific – in your author’s humble opinion – is one of the best companies on AIM. How do we define ‘best’?

Here’s the share price performance over the last 10 years, overlayed with the normalised diluted earnings-per-share. The first measure shows how the market perceives the company. The second shows their delivery in growing shareholder wealth in a more tangible way.

JDG_SP_EPS

As the caption at the bottom shows you, Judges has a phenomenal track record. I spend most of my waking hours looking for companies that compound wealth in this way, and I don’t find many. Assuming that the history of the company has whetted your appetite, we’ll go a step deeper.

Political Odds

I have more of an interest in all the kerfuffle leading up to the election than the actual election itself… which is either a sad reflection on political apathy, or of my love of markets and probabilities. I’m not sure which.

That interest was somewhat dampened, it must be said, by having had the misfortune of watching the BBC Panorama program a couple of weeks ago where Nate Silver (the renowned US statistician) trucked around dreary English towns in a pantomime-esque attempt to drag out a forecast of the UK election.

That aside, the game of trying to figure out what will happen in the next election is a fascinating one from the point of view of a market watcher. London related shares moved when Labour announced their proposals around res non-doms (a nice tax structure for wealthy ‘foreigners’, basically), which investors saw as a threat to the status quo at the top end of the London market. The journalists also have a field day, since it gives them a nice event they can attribute market movements to – ‘the FTSE dropped 20 points as fears of a Labour-led Government grew..’ and the like.

So how to think about what is likely to happen?

As always, the best thing to do is probably to follow the money. For those who aren’t familiar with Betfair, it’s a betting site whereby the bets you place aren’t taken up by the house (which is adversarial - when you win, they lose), but instead by other people. It’s a functioning market, where the opinions of participants are aggregated to create at price at which you can back the bet – take the bet on – and a price at which you can lay it – bet that the outcome will not happen.

Berkeley Group: A builder, but not as we know it

Last time, I laid out my framework for thinking about housebuilders. It was convoluted and a bit mixed, frankly, but in that it did quite a good job of reflecting my thinking. I suspect it also captured some of the market’s struggle to value these assets. I left by saying that Berkeley Group and Bovis were particularly interesting to me, for different reasons. Bovis is a volume housebuilder – I’ll cover them in a separate post – but Berkeley is a law unto itself.

So for this post: welcome to London!

Berkeley Group

Valuing housebuilders

I have a warm affection for housebuilders. This is unusual among value investors, who (if the blogs I read and the people I talk to are anything to go by) typically tend to see them as horribly cyclical, commoditised land banks run by executives with an uncanny knack for leveraging into recessions and mis-timing the market. There is certainly some truth in this.

I’d probably hate them too, if it wasn’t for the good they’ve done me. My first ever investment was in Barratt Developments in the depths of the recession when, armed with only a notebook of valuation metrics and the sort of blind confidence only a true rookie could muster, I stuck the vast majority of my (admittedly meagre!) savings on the beleaguered builder. Sure enough, it was a blow-out bet, and probably has a small part in me being here today. Had the coinflip come up tails, I’d probably have quit and become a dentist. I’m thankful for my early fortune - ‘Expecting Dentures’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

But let me lay out the discussion in this post. This is that, in my eyes, housebuilding is one of the few sectors the market understands well. It values housebuilders in a way fairly consistent with what I’ve highlighted in the first paragraph above. How is this? Typically, it is on a book value basis. A book value basis makes sense in a commoditised industry where your biggest input is capital; because the capital you employ in your operations will be the best guide to how much profit you make. It is difficult to see how any one player could earn a supernormal return on capital – the biggest chunk of your cost base (land) is subject to intense competition from other builders, and the margins on your finished project are inherently constrained by the availability of other houses nearby… which is doubtless the basis on which the acquired land was priced. Consider that Bovis called the biggest challenge in 2014 ‘the availability and cost of subcontract labour’. This bears all the hallmarks of a commoditised sector, where the economic profits flow through to the inputs.

Homebuilders

Next PLC – An early indicator of quality

I was browsing Stockopedia the other day and came across an article on Next. I like Next – it’s a clear success story and an excellent company. Aside from the interesting article itself, there was also a fascinating comment about the quality of the team and processes at Next, with evidence taken from their Annual Report.

I’ve never actually taken the time to read one of their annual reports – which is a failing of mine, as I think you get a lot from reading the annual reports of demonstrably successful companies. It’s subject to a lot of hindsight bias, of course, but given how many annual reports of pretty poor companies a value investor will usually end up reading, there might be something of a benefit in a ‘compare-and-contrast’!

There’s lots of good stuff there – click through and read it – but I’ll just focus on one. I’ve reproduced the figure from the annual report here:

The explanation itself is pretty elementary – it’s just a simple observation that you have alternative uses for your cash, and optimising shareholder returns is always about using your cash in the best way. There’s lots that can be added to the above analysis, and criticisms you can level at it, too – notably that Next is a company with such great returns on tangible capital that, in reality, share buybacks are significantly worse than organic growth. On that front, actions speak louder than words – buybacks have been fairly restrained, and investment in organic growth has been substantial, accretive, and careful enough that (unlike so many) growth has been executed consistently and without the usual bloating of central costs, diminishing returns on marginal capital and general organisational ‘fatigue’ that you see so much elsewhere.

But aside from that - even aside from the fact that Next have successfully executed their buyback plan to the great enrichment of long-term shareholders – there’s an even more fundamental point that comes to mind.

I think you significantly beat the market over a 5-10 year period if, with absolutely no other criteria, you just invest in companies which actually talk about the benefits and reasoning behind good capital allocation. It’s deeply worrying how few companies either acknowledge or consider the possibility of share buybacks, or actually spend any time talking about logical investment planning in acquisitions, with respect to return on investment and what else they could do with the money. One piece of logic; (which seems scarily prevalent in US companies) that any acquisition which is earnings accretive must automatically be a good thing, is so ridiculous it doesn’t even bear considering. Some of these discrepancies doubtless come about from the principal-agent problem; the fact that CEOs have a much more vested interest in enriching their personal domain and building their legacy than conservatively maximising long-term returns.

My little suspicion – that management teams which talk about capital allocation deliver better returns – is interesting from the perspective that it might not even need good capital management to be true. I suspect that simply the fact that management acknowledge its importance is well correlated with management being switched on and alert in other respects.

The argument is more or less unprovable, I guess, and again I note that it is subject to a great deal of survivorship and hindsight bias. It’s easy to pick up an annual report of Next, a great company, and then essentially ‘data mine’ for variables which you then suppose are positively correlated with that success.

Still, it’s my hunch. Good capital allocation is much, much rarer than I would hope, and I think that makes it a particularly valuable asset.

The Franc blow-up & the dangers of ‘crowdsourcing’

Earlier today I saw a picture of a trader on Zulutrade, a crowdsourced trading platform. It’s a bit like eToro, which I’m more familiar with, mostly because it spams me with adverts on Twitter. Here’s the blurb of Zulutrade:

There was a time when trading was a headache. Not anymore! You don’t have to study or monitor the market, because hundreds of signal providers from all over the world are doing it for you. All you have to do is pick the Signal Providers you like, and ZuluTrade will quickly convert their advice into live trades in your trading account directly with the broker. And the best of all, it’s completely FREE!

and of eToro:

Social Trading is about opening the markets to everyone. At eToro we encourage people to connect with one another to discuss, trade, invest, learn and share knowledge across the network. From now on, you can copy the traders you like with a “click” of a button

Basically, you copy other people’s trades. Presumably you think they’re doing something smart, and something you can’t be bothered or are unable to do yourself. Anyway, here’s that picture of the Zulutrade trader I promised earlier: