Hertz is on its Way to a New Driver

Sometimes being invested in a stock can feel like being trapped while the enemy takes shots at you from all sides. You were expecting reinforcements to arrive at this exact spot, and while you know you can hang on it sure would be nice to not be fighting this battle alone.

Then, out of nowhere arrives the U.S. Cavalry and although the fight’s not over, you finally believe that victory might be at hand. The stock in question is Hertz (HTZ), which we own, and right now Carl Icahn looks a lot like the U.S. Cavalry.

When an industry has two big publicly traded competitors, comparing their performance is an obvious element of researching their investment potential. HTZ and Avis (CAR), along with privately held Enterprise, dominate the North American car rental market. Consolidation has dramatically improved the prospects for the surviving firms, by reducing competition and thereby allowing price hikes. Rental firms are also making better use of their biggest asset, which is cars. HTZ for example owns Dollar Thrifty and can recycle cars from the Hertz brand whose customers expect a newer car downstream to a lower price point, thereby getting more use out of their cars before selling them. HTZ and Avis are also experimenting with hourly rentals which turn out to be complimentary to their traditional business (business travelers rent for days during the week while hourly renters are typically on weekends). In short, the fundamentals for the business are great.

To examine the periodic public comments from HTZ and Avis you would think they operate in completely different environments. Avis introduced their 2Q results with the following summary, “Our strong second quarter results were driven by our continued growth in both volume and pricing in North America and our relentless focus on accelerating growth in our most profitable channels,” said Ronald L. Nelson, Avis Budget Group Chairman and Chief Executive Officer. “Summer volume and pricing have continued the trends we saw in the first half of the year, and we expect to post record results in our third quarter.”

Meanwhile HTZ, which hasn’t filed a comprehensive financial report this year due to accounting software issues, recently said, “The Company now expects to be well below the low end of its 2014 guidance due to operational challenges in the rental car and equipment segments…”

The operational challenges in the rental market are self-inflicted. The company has been wrong-footed by higher than expected demand combined with recalls on some of their models, with the odd result that, as noted in their recent 8-K filing “Fulfilling advance reservations and contracted business consumed the majority of available fleet. This left the company without inventory to capture more of the higher-rate leisure close-in rentals, which typically generate greater ancillary sales.”

HTZ is a company begging for new leadership. They’re shooting themselves in the foot when their biggest competitor is growing its EBITDA by 19% and expecting a record 3Q. As well as performing poorly, HTZ keeps requesting more time to produce restated financials for 2011-13. It increasingly looks to be just a matter of time before some adult supervision gets involved.

That’s the beauty of investing in public companies. You’re not alone. Carl Icahn has a wonderful quote on his blog from comments he made at a 1988 Texaco annual meeting: “A lot of people died fighting tyranny. The least I can do is vote against it.”

Icahn doesn’t appear to have lost any appetite for a fight during the subsequent 26 years. In the 13D disclosing his 8.7% holding in HTZ, “… lack of confidence in management” was listed as one of the reasons. We share that view. Other notable investors include Glenview (run by Larry Robbins) and Fir Tree (run by Jeffrey Tannenbaum). They’re also fed up with the ongoing mistakes. Tannenbaum recently said that HTZ CEO Mark Frissora, “has completely lost credibility.” We look forward to some fireworks, and to Mark Frissora devoting more time to his golf game.

 

Another Activist Exposes a Weak Board with a Lousy CEO

It’s an odd phenomenon that, although capitalism as a philosophy is built around the meritocracy of free markets, in the area of corporate governance the power of profit maximization has often failed to dump ineffective boards of directors and/or management in favor of more competent people.

Boards are usually made up of invited friends, and sometimes their supervision of senior management resembles that of golf partners where it’s good manners to ignore others’ poor shots while offering congratulations on the good ones. The pressure to avoid rocking the boat is felt by everyone.

Hence the Economist this weekend noted an innovative solution to the issue of weak, sometimes unqualified board members. Why not outsource the function to companies whose business it is to provide such services? This currently happens with audit and legal work. Board members are hardly engaged full-time by any one corporation. Why not develop specialists who are truly independent and full-time?

It struck me as quite a clever suggestion. It ought not to be necessary, but the many failings we see week after week highlight that capitalism is often coming up woefully short in this important area of corporate governance, or how the very stewards of capital are managed and evaluated. Even Warren Buffett punted when a few months ago he was asked about the egregious compensation plan recommended by Coke’s (KO) management.

Although Berkshire (BRK) is KO’s biggest shareholder and Buffett about as vocal on investor rights as anybody, the great man meekly abstained rather than vote against a plan he freely admitted was needlessly generous.  “If you keep belching at the dinner table, you’ll be eating in the kitchen,” was his typically folksy and non-combative explanation. He understands as well as anybody the duty of board members to be only occasionally critical and then in the nicest possible way.

Other examples include ADT, which as I’ve written before is busy demonstrating the ham sandwich test (invest in a company that could be run by a ham sandwich, because one day it will), as shown by their buyback of Corvex’s position in ADT stock last year at $44 just before disappointing earnings took its price eventually below $30. Activists are often a force for good as they seek to expose management failings, but Keith Meister’s Corvex is a negative since he’ll readily throw other investors under the bus for a quick profit. We own ADT in spite of its leadership since we think anybody could run it as badly as current management and many could do better. It’s an option on executive suite change.

Currently the role of using capital to improve management is taken by activists such as Carl Icahn. He just provided a stark reminder of how shareholders often need activists to correct some of their self-seeking behavior. Family Dollar (FDO) just the other day agreed to sell itself to Dollar Tree (DLTR), an unlikely partnership since they operate different business models and would continue to do so afterwards.

FDO CEO Howard Levine noted that no discussions had taken place with the more obvious and bigger merger partner Dollar General (DG), to whose steadily improving operating metrics FDO eternally aspired but never reached. DG’s CEO Rick Dreiling flatly contradicted this by noting that DG had expressed interest in a combination multiple times in recent years. Carl Icahn backed this up, recounting a dinner with Levine at which the subject of a combination with DG was discussed. With DG, Howard Levine will lose his job to the superior operator, whereas with DLTR he’d keep it. As Icahn memorably noted, Levine thinks that because his father founded the company the son owns it. But he doesn’t. FDO’s stock has consistently underperformed DG’s in recent years as has its business. As close competitors it’s been helpful for investors as well as the companies themselves to compare their relative operating performance which has invariably favored the larger, better run DG (we are currently invested in DG, and were until very recently invested in FDO).

DLTR was a better merger partner for a CEO putting his own job ahead of his fiduciary obligation to his shareholders, and the FDO board passively acquiesced. Levine even agreed to a $300 million break-up fee in the DLTR transaction, a final slap in the face to those stockholders who thought he had their interests at heart.

Investors though should be far more assertive. If well-run boards with good corporate governance were more highly valued, they’d arrive more quickly. The more a poorly run company’s stock is shunned the quicker activists or competitors can buy a stake and fix it. The best solution to poor corporate governance is to invest with competent management and avoid the poorly run, at least until they’re cheap enough to draw in an activist. FDO had at least met this test in the last couple of years. Even institutional investors don’t have to own every publicly listed large cap company. Until investors become even more discriminating in their allocation of capital, activists will continue to correct perhaps the biggest weakness in contemporary capitalism – the management of the executive suite.

Valuing Kinder Morgan in its New Structure

The Kinder Morgan transaction announced Sunday night represents a new paradigm for Master Limited Partnership (MLP) investors. Like any new paradigm, digesting its impact takes some time. Rich Kinder, CEO and largest owner of the eponymous firm that controls Kinder Morgan Partners (KMP) and El Paso (EPB) was one of the early users of the MLP model. He recognized the power of the partial tax shield the structure provides its investors to lower his cost of capital, thereby supporting a growth strategy as this funding advantage allowed the accumulation of additional assets.

MLPs are liked for their steady, tax-deferred yields. The consequent K-1s are generally worth it for investors with $500K or more to allocate. Low turnover is key, because selling an MLP invariably results in the recapture of taxes previously deferred. In our view this directs the investor towards MLPs with stable, predictably growing cashflows. A strategy that involves regular switching out of “rich” names and into “cheaper” ones can create tax consequences that swamp any perceived positive impact on the portfolio. If your money manager is personally invested in the same securities that his clients own, you’ll find he’s acutely sensitive to after-tax returns and as a result is a miserly user of brokers while letting the tax advantages compound over time.

While stable, tax-deferred returns are a well known feature of MLPs, an element that receives far less attention is the weak governance rights and preferential position of the General Partner (GP). Although MLPs are publicly traded, unitholders (as MLP investors are known) have very limited rights compared with traditional investors in corporate equities. Not all MLPs have a GP, but those that do place most of the power with the GP. Read through the prospectus of a typical MLP and you’ll find out just how hard it is to fire a GP. That’s why you don’t see activists buying MLPs. Unitholders don’t get much say in its operation.

Meanwhile, the GP is entitled to a split of the Distributable Cashflow (DCF), basically defined as earnings plus depletion and depreciation less maintenance capex (the cost of keeping existing assets in good working order). The 50% share of DCF that most GPs enjoy represents a significant drag on returns that unitholders get. In the case of KMP, it had long been understood that this limited their ability to grow, and consequently KMP’s distribution yield was around 6.8% prior to this transaction, 1-2% above its peers. Because MLPs don’t retain earnings, they have to raise additional capital by issuing debt and equity for each new capital investment. KMP’s high yield plus the Incentive Distribution Rights (IDR) drag to which its GP KMI was entitled was making it hard to find projects that would cover its cost of capital. KMP was too big to make investments that could cover its funding cost and drive growth. In addition, the 50% GP share continues as cashflows grow while the GP doesn’t have to fund the capital required to grow those cashflows. Just as a hedge fund manager’s 1.5% management fee assures that asset growth is profitable, so it is for the MLP GP.

Rich Kinder complained that the market wasn’t fully valuing KMP’s opportunities, but the price stayed stubbornly low. Given Kinder’s bullish view of M&A activity in the energy infrastructure space, his inability to participate with an expensive currency was frustrating. He concluded that, as good as the MLP structure is, there were limits and the growth of the Kinder enterprise was testing those limits.

Some years ago we began shifting our MLP strategy away from GP-controlled MLPs and into the GPs themselves (as more became publicly available) as well as into MLPs who have no GP (some have bought the GP back in, simplifying their structure and eliminating the drag of IDRs which makes them more competitive acquirers). So although we did once own KMP, we shifted into KMI. We gave up the tax deferral since KMI is a C-corp, paying corporate income tax like any other U.S. corporation and providing investors with a 1099 rather than a K-1. We felt sharing in the 50% IDR split of KMP’s DCF was preferable to having to pay it away as a KMP unitholder. As we’ve written before, it’s analogous to investing in the hedge fund manager (for whom asset growth is always positive) rather than the hedge fund (for whom asset growth may or may not be good). The fact that Rich Kinder concentrated his ownership in KMI rather than KMP was an additional factor we considered.

Now that KMI has simplified its structure, eKMI Peer Group Comparison August 14 2014liminated its IDR and cleverly created $20BN of tax savings, it has a higher dividend with better growth prospects than before. Conventional valuation of KMI compares it with other C-corps that own their GP and have an MLP underneath on which they rely to fund capital investments and funnel cashflows back up to the GP. KMI’s peer group in this regard includes Oneok Inc (OKE), Williams Companies (WMB), Targa Resources Corp (TRGP) and Plains GP Holdings (PAGP). Generally, faster growth prospects (defined here as 5 year estimated Distribution Compounded Annual Growth Rate) dictate a lower yield, and so the chart to the left  illustrates where these securities lie. KMI-Old (i.e. before the announcement) was on a regression line linking its peers, but we liked it because we felt there was the possibility of a transformational transaction such as the one we’ve just seen, KMI-New appears to be a relatively more attractive security because its better growth prospects don’t appear to be fully reflected in its yield. If KMI’s yield dropped down to the regression line its price would be around $50 versus its current level of $39.50 (we’ve assumed they buy back the outstanding warrants at current prices and adjusted their sharecount accordingly). So we still own KMI.

But here’s the point. There’s a good case that KMI should no longer be compared with the other C-corps (technically, PAGP is a partnership but for tax purposes they issue a 1099). What they all have in common is an entity that controls the GP to a publicly traded MLP. This used to apply to KMI but once tKMI C Corps Peersheir simplifying transaction closes later this year that will no longer be the case. KMI will actually look more like a different peer group, consisting of MLPs that no longer have a GP. This peer group includes Buckeye Partners (BPL), Enterprise Products Partners (EPD), Markwest Energy Partners (MWE) and Magellan Midstream Partners (MMP). The revised Yield vs Growth chart comparing KMI with this new peer group is on the right. If KMI was on the new regression line its price would be around $61.

None of these firms is a perfect comparison. BPL’s yield remains high because of challenges to its tarrifs in the NY area as well as its recent mis-step in Merchant Services. EPD has an exceptionally well regarded management team which depresses its yield. Markwest has more cashflow variability because of its gathering and processing business. Nonetheless, the fair value yield for KMI on this basis is even lower than using the more conventional method. We believe it’s warranted due to a now more competitive cost of capital with which to fund acquisitions.

KMI has been a long term holding of ours. We used the weakness caused by Hedgeye’s negative report last year to add. We continue to think it represents an attractive investment, and believe the announced restructuring has made it substantially more attractive than is currently reflected in its market price.

The Tax Story Behind Kinder Morgan’s Big Transaction

On Sunday evening Rich Kinder, CEO of Kinder Morgan Inc (KMI) announced the transaction that many had been expecting as a response to the persistently low price of Kinder Morgan Partners (KMP) and El Paso (EPB), two MLPs in which KMI owns the General Partner (GP). The problem was that Kinder expects an increasing amount of M&A activity in the energy infrastructure space they inhabit, and his ability to participate has been greatly hampered by the high distribution yields on KMP and EPB. Their high yields (i.e. low prices) make them an expensive source of capital should he wish to acquire any assets by issuing new securities to the seller. He’s long complained that the market didn’t fully recognize the value in the Kinder Morgan complex.

The deal greatly simplifies Kinder’s structure in that four existing public equity securities will be collapsed into one. The drag of Incentive Distribution Rights (IDRs), which direct half of the distributable cashflows to the GP, will be gone and the new KMI will offer a higher dividend and faster growth than the old one. Much has already been written about the transaction. What hasn’t received much attention is the tax issue.

Because KMI is acquiring assets at above their carrying value, they’ll be able to use the new, higher purchase price as their cost basis for taxes. This is quite different than when one corporation buys another. If A buys B for $100 and B’s equity value is $70, A holds $70 of assets and $30 of goodwill. You can’t do much with goodwill. You can’t depreciate it; you can’t write it off against taxes and from time to time you have to test it for impairment. You certainly can’t borrow against it. Many businesses are worth more than their book value equity, which is why goodwill as a concept exists in the course of an acquisition. But the accounting definition of goodwill plays no role in this transaction.

Because Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) are pass-through vehicles, the LP unitholders own a direct, proportionate share of the underlying assets (rather than shares in a corporation which in turn own the assets). If KMI was acquiring another corporation, they’d wind up with an asset of goodwill equal to the difference between the purchase price and the book value of the acquired company.

Because KMI is buying the underlying energy infrastructure assets directly (since MLPs are pass-through vehicles) the newly acquired assets go on KMI’s balance sheet at the new purchase price. It means they can be depreciated from this new higher value, and depreciation is tax-deductible. KMI used to benefit from depreciation of these assets before the transaction, but only from their lower, original purchase price. And over time the difference between depreciated value and actual value grows, since many pipelines increase in value. For example, Williams Companies (WMB) owns a pipeline network that runs down the east coast from NY to Texas called Transco. On an investor call recently a WMB executive commented that they had once tried to estimate what it would cost to build Transco today if it didn’t already exist, and had come up with a number of $100 billion. To put this in perspective, WMB’s entire enterprise value is $58 billion. It doesn’t mean Transco is worth $100 billion, but it illustrates that easements with perpetual ownership are much harder to replicate in today’s America of 310 million people than they were 30 or 50 years ago.

KMI’s tax savings through the higher depreciation afforded through a higher asset value is worth, they estimate, $20 billion. This is an important source of the higher dividend and the faster, 10% annual dividend growth they now forecast.

Meanwhile, taxes work in a different way for KMP and EPB unitholders. MLP investors pay less tax today on distributions than if the same cash was a dividend, but owe the tax not paid when they eventually sell the MLP. Some investors hold their MLPs for a long time, and maybe even until death (when their heirs are not liable for the taxes). As an MLP investor you’re trying to put off paying taxes as long as possible. The Kinder Morgan transaction is a taxable event for the KMP and EPB unitholders. KMI estimates that the typical KMP unitholder will owe from $13.81 to $18.16 per KMP unit owned, depending on the closing price of the transaction later this year.  That’s more than the cash component of the deal and makes it substantially less attractive for some unitholders (the longer you’ve been an investor the worse off you are). Even if you assume that the taxes would have been paid in 10 years (and assume a 10% return on the money* that would have been invested in KMP but now has to go to the IRS) it still eats up $8.49 to $11.16 of value.

So although the deal was priced at a 12% premium to Friday’s close (in the case of KMP) or a 15.4% premium (in the case of EPB), the impact of having to pay taxes now rather than later gets the typical KMP investor roughly back to where they were with no transaction. KMI though has better prospects, in part due to the tax savings from higher depreciation.

It’s not always appreciated how much control GPs have over their MLPs. Although KMP’s high dividend yield represented a high cost of equity, this never actually precluded them making new acquisitions. The GP, KMI, could have directed KMP to raise capital at a cost above the return on the assets acquired which, while it would have diluted the LP’s returns would still have been good for KMI which would have shared in 50% of the increased DCF without having to put up any extra capital. A GP who so wished could exploit the LPs in his MLP by issuing equity to make acquisitions no matter how bad it was for the LP unitholders because the GP would still get its IDR-based share of the additional cashflows.

So while the transaction may look slightly less attractive to LP unitholders once taxes are considered, they could have received far worse treatment from an unscrupulous GP. Rich Kinder is not like that.

So the lesson here is, to invest alongside the people who run the businesses, which is in the GP. Rich Kinder’s a taxpayer and you can be sure that he gave careful consideration to what his own tax outcome would be. This is why we’ve long been owners of KMI, but had avoided KMP, EPB and indeed most other MLPs where a GP has a claim on the cashflows. If you invest in the GP at least your tax situation will receive more careful consideration from the billionaire alongside whom you’re investing.

 

*There is a theoretical case for using the investor’s borrowing cost to discount the tax liability. This results in a lower set of numbers and makes the tax analysis less adverse for the KMP unitholder.

The Trading Risk Confronting Some MLPs

Barron’s has one of their by now regular articles on MLPs this weekend as they interview their “MLP Roundtable”. These write-ups are invariably constructive, and the most recent one is no exception. As well as noting the many opportunities offered to build out infrastructure in support of America’s shale boom, General Partners (GPs) received a mention. Roundtable member Douglas Rachlin of Neuberger Berman pointed out that, “GPs are not required to contribute capital to the organic-growth projects or acquisitions their MLPs make; yet they benefit in a disproportionate manner through their ownership of distribution rights.”

Becca Followill of U.S. Capital Advisors added, “Some MLPs don’t have a general partner, which makes them easier to take out and can make a deal more accretive more quickly.”

These are both features of MLPs that we’ve long identified and reflected in our own MLP strategy.

Quite a few names reported quarterly earnings last week. The numbers were generally good and MLPs are overwhelmingly reporting increases in future capital investment which for GPs at a minimum assures continued growth in distributed cashflow received and therefore in dividends paid. But not everything was good. Buckeye Partners (BPL) issued a surprisingly disappointing report which included losses in their Merchant Services division. We’re investors in BPL and have been for years.

The most attractive businesses for MLPs are fee-based whereby they earn recurring income from storage and pipeline assets. BPL largely does this, but like a handful of other MLPs they also have a marketing division which incurs basis risk on its underlying products on behalf of customers, often in exchange for quite narrow margins.

These activities can be quite tricky to manage. MLPs face a principal-agent problem here, in that their desire is to generate a return through using their inside knowledge and control of product to charge more than the cost of the basis risk incurred. However, there is inevitably judgment involved, and while the MLP wants to exploit an additional element of its franchise, if not properly managed the traders involved will seek to make money from the risk taking side of this. In fact, risk-averse basis trading maximizes the firm’s franchise value and minimizes the value added of the trader. The trader’s incentive can therefore be to minimize the apparent value of the franchise so as to maximize the apparent value of his skill-based activities. It can lead to excessive risk-taking, since profits from properly exploiting the MLP’s position in the middle of all kinds of information about supply and demand can appear to value the trader less than trading profits generated through his own skill/judgment.

It’s not only banks that can get themselves into trouble with risk. And in BPL’s case, it appears that a poorly constructed hedging strategy went wrong during the 2Q, causing the Merchant Services unit to swing to an operating loss.

Positions were liquidated, people fired and a more modest business model adopted. But it shows that unwelcome surprises can come from units that appear to offer steady if unspectacular returns, if the principal-agent conflict described isn’t carefully managed.

Another Crooked Untraded REIT

Unlisted registered REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) have a well deserved reputation for enriching their sponsors more readily than their investors. A recent case in point is Strategic Realty Trust, Inc. (formerly TNP Strategic Realty Trust, Inc.), a REIT once run by Tony Thompson (who recently closed his broker-dealer and handed in his securities license). Although Strategic Realty raised around $100MM equity in 2009, directly following the financial crisis and seemingly a good time to buy almost anything, they’ve managed to lose their investors’ money. It’s not that the properties they bought didn’t appreciate, but that appreciation was more than wiped out by fees.

One of the selling points of untraded REITs is that they don’t experience the volatility associated with listed products. Somehow the absence of a public market and the ability to exit your investment is supposed to be a good thing in the minds of those who push such things. It doesn’t mean that the assets aren’t changing in value of course, simply that investors don’t know it from the company’s financial statements.

Strategic Realty recently announced its NAV had dropped from $10 to $7.11. Adding insult to injury, its by now former CEO had sold his holdings to an affiliate for $8 earlier this year.

Transaction costs, offering fees and organization costs on Strategic Realty added up to over 27% of investors’ capital, substantially accounting for the losses suffered by investors. Underwriting fees of 10% and more are common in this sector. Since there’s no index on unlisted registered REITs there’s really no coherent basis on which to make an allocation to the asset class at all. And although Strategic Realty pays an annual dividend of 24 cents, its operations don’t generate enough income to fund this so it’s in effect a partial return of investor’s capital rather than a result of profitable operations. Still, it looks like about the only way to get any of your money out of this company.

Meanwhile, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) filed a complaint against former CEO Tony Thompson last year alleging fraud on a related transaction.

Investors should be warned – any broker-dealer recommending such an investment may well be placing his interests in high fees ahead of the client’s desire to earn a fair return.

Why Are Investors Mistrustful?

In reading the July/August edition of the CFA Institute’s magazine, an article called “Fragile Trust” by Susan Trammell caught my attention. There’s no doubt that popular confidence in financial services firms was sorely shaken by the 2008 crisis. But it’s still sobering to consider the results of a 2013 survey by Edelman Trust  showing that only 46% of respondents expect financial services firms to do the right thing, dead last out of 18 industries considered.

A survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit last year asked financial services executives about the benefits of improving ethical conduct at their firms, and the most popular choice was that it would improve their ability to “withstand unexpected and dramatic risks”. People who work in Finance recognize the value of high ethical standards, and yet the public doesn’t perceive that the industry operates in this way.

Part of it relates to confusion or simply misunderstanding of the difference between brokers-dealers versus investment advisors, or “sell-side” versus “buy-side” in Wall Street parlance. And indeed, why should non-institutional investors even need to know the difference? The structure of  U.S. financial regulatory oversight need not be a concern of those outside it. Most investors simply want to invest their money through people whom they can trust. And while that does qualify a pretty healthy majority of finance professionals, the lower standard applied to broker-dealers (sell-side firms) versus investment advisors (buy-side) can expose unwitting investors to abuse.

Broker-dealers don’t have a fiduciary obligation to their clients, simply a requirement to meet a lower standard of suitability and disclosure. Their clients are regarded as being responsible for their own decisions, so while a broker can offer advice (“I think this is a good investment”) he’s not under the fiduciary obligation of an advisor to put the client’s interests before his own.

Many investors find this subtle distinction meaningless or are unaware of it. But it’s what enables, for example, unlisted registered REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) to be sold to clients in spite of underwriting fees that can reach 15% of the invested amount. I wrote about just such an example, of Inland American Realty and its underwriter Ameriprise, last year. The fees were in the prospectus so deemed to be disclosed, although it’s expecting a lot to think people will wade through 100+ pages of a legal document. And the regulators were not totally absent as subsequently Massachusetts settled civil claims with Ameriprise on just this security, complaining of high fees and conflicts of interest. The conflict of course comes from the fact that the broker recommending (i.e. selling) the security to their client is receiving the egregious underwriting fees. A fiduciary standard would disallow such a transaction. Such applies to investment advisors but not to broker-dealers.

It seems to me that for the financial services industry to raise itself from being 18th out of 18 industries in surveys of public trust, more and more individuals will need to willingly behave as if the fiduciary standard applies to them even if it does not. Every profession needs to retain the trust of its clients, and Finance needs to as much as any other. The CFA Institute’s Future of Finance Initiative is a good place to start, and professionals on both the sell-side as well as the buy-side can choose to conform to its principles voluntarily. Many already do – the rest ought to.

How Fund Managers Who Invest Elsewhere Exploit Their Clients

If you didn’t have the data, you might reasonably assume that any fund manager worth his salt was heavily invested in his own fund. This ought to apply to an overwhelming percentage of all the actively managed funds out there. In fact, as a recent article in Barron’s points out, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Using data from Morningstar, they find that almost half the funds tracked were led by a manager with no money invested at all. This sorry bunch may think they’re good, and their marketing materials presumably make the case, but by investing their own money elsewhere they tell you what they really think.

And of the 7,700 funds tracked by Morningstar, only 910 had a personal investment by the manager of at least $1 million. This isn’t a high hurdle; less than this threshold either means the manager doesn’t have $1 million to invest, a paucity of personal resources that should give any potential client pause, or chooses not to.

It’s not just that it feels right to know your manager is invested alongside you. For the client, this is the only way to ensure alignment of interests and protect themselves from the principal-agent problem so prevalent in finance. If you’re a fund manager only managing OPM (Other People’s Money), your compensation is fully linked to the size of the fund you manage. The most reliable way to grow your fund is to outperform your competition. A seductively simple way to outperform is to take more risk than the others. Because if you take more risk in a rising market, you will assuredly do better than most and money, which chases performance, will follow. If the market goes down and you underperform, you haven’t lost much because it’s only your clients that suffer the returns. And if performance is really bad, you can always start a different fund.

The money manager who’s invested elsewhere has a free option at the expense of his clients. He has far more to gain from outperforming than he has to lose from underperforming. For the investors, their risk is linear. Bad returns hurt, and good returns help.

The analysis of the Morningstar data supports other research which shows that active managers in aggregate take more risk than the overall market. They are biased towards stocks with more volatility than average, and as a consequence their actions underpin the Low Beta Anomaly, the tendency of low volatility stocks to outperform over the long run. This is because high volatility stocks draw more demand from active managers which raises their prices, thereby depressing future returns. An active manager owning low volatility stocks is failing to exploit the optionality that his role as agent provides at the expense of the principal (i.e. client). It’s one of the reasons we like low volatility stocks – because although they’re widely owned, they’re not widely owned by active managers. And we think that active managers under-invested in their own funds are likely to continue exploiting their advantage which will cause the low volatility bias to persist.

For the investor, it’s not a bad rule to simply eliminate from consideration any investment manager not personally and significantly invested in his own strategy. It makes intuitive sense but it also provides for an alignment of interests. Don’t let the uninvested take advantage of you.

Why Dividend Payers Aren’t Boring

Recently the Financial Times (FT) noted that the number of U.S. companies raising their dividends had hit the highest level since 1979. Much research has been done on the merits of companies that pay out a large percentage of their profits in dividends (high payout ratio) and those that retain most of their earnings so as to reinvest in their business. Payout ratios have been falling steadily for decades and currently the FT notes that S&P500 companies pay out only 36% of their profits. However, share buybacks have increased over that period so one can’t conclude that the total cash returned to shareholders as a percentage of profits has fallen.

Buybacks are a more efficient way of returning cash because they create a return (through a reduced share count and therefore a higher stock price) without forcing each investor to pay tax on the cash distributed (as is the case with a dividend). Theoretically, publicly listed companies need never issue dividends since any shareholder desiring, say, a 2.5% dividend can always sell 2.5% of his holdings.

One might think that companies with low payout ratios are retaining more of their earnings so as to invest in the high return opportunities they see in their business. This ought to lead to faster dividend growth in the future as the projects provide their payoff. I’m currently reading Successful Investing is a Process by Jacques Lussier, PhD, CFA. The author kindly sent me a copy as I’ll be speaking at a CFA event in Montreal he’s organizing later this year. Mr. Lussier notes some interesting research by Arnott and Asness in 2003 that sought to compare low dividend payout ratios with faster subsequent growth.

In fact, they found just the opposite, that low dividends don’t lead to higher dividends later on. In too many cases it seems that managements are overly optimistic about the opportunities to deploy capital either internally or on acquisitions. And in fact this is the real power of stable dividends with a high payout ratio. Rather than suggesting the company has few interesting projects and therefore nothing better to do than return capital to owners, it imposes a level of capital discipline on management that ultimately leads to higher returns. Companies that return more cash to shareholders have less to squander on ill-judged investments, and the shareholders ultimately benefit.

Incidentally, Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) represent an extreme case of this. Since they routinely distribute around 90% of eligible cashflows they have very little retained earnings and therefore have to raise new debt and equity capital for any project. This imposes a wonderful discipline on MLP managements in that they’re always having to explain to underwriters and investors what exactly they’re planning to do with the proceeds of a debt or equity offering. It’s one of the reasons MLPs have had such consistently strong performance; so many of their management really focus on return on capital.

It’s all part of the Low Beta Anomaly, the concept that low volatility (or low Beta) stocks outperform on a risk-adjusted basis and even on a nominal basis. So far this year the returns to low volatility investing have been good (for example, the S&P500 Low Volatility ETF, SPLV, is +8.6% through June) as many of the high-flying momentum names crashed during the first quarter. Slow and steady dividends with growth may not appear that exciting, but boring is often better where you’re money’s concerned.

How Central Banks are Ruining the Insurance Business

Denis Kessler, CEO of Scor, a large reinsurer, is the most recent critic of today’s low interest rate environment. It’s not only the stereotypical retiree clipping bond coupons that is suffering from current interest rate policy. Insurance companies typically hold substantial amounts of their investment portfolios in bonds, both because of regulatory requirements as well as the need to respond to claims whose timing is often unpredictable. Kessler claimed that central banks were “ruining” the insurance industry, and claimed that insurers were the unwitting victims of the aftermath of the financial crisis even though they didn’t create it (AIG and its credit derivatives portfolio presumably notwithstanding).

Warren Buffett has described an insurance company’s “float”, that is, the premiums they receive in return for making payments in the future, as akin to being paid to borrow money. This is true to the extent that insurance companies can operate with a Combined Ratio below 100% (that is, the sum of underwriting losses plus operating expense as a % of net earned premiums). If they spend more than their premiums then of course the float costs money and the difference needs to be made up on the investment side.

Most insurance companies either through poor underwriting or competitive pressure slipped into just this model, whereby positive investment results were needed to cover a Combined Ratio above 100%. One of the capital disciplines practiced by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (BRK) in its insurance business is to separate out the management of the float from the underwriting, so as to prevent success at the former from compensating for poor execution of the latter. BRK’s insurance businesses have generated a net underwriting profit for eleven straight years. One clear benefit of separating underwriting from investing is that the insurance executives at BRK have  little incentive to grow via unprofitable business expecting to rely on strong investment results as support.

However, for many insurers persistently low interest rates have heaped pressure on one side of this equation. One might have expected the market to adapt, through a “hardening” market (insurance-speak for rising premiums) given lower investment returns, and while this has happened to a degree pricing hasn’t adjusted as much as needed. This is why so many insurance companies trade at a discount top book value – because while profitable, they’re not yet earning an appropriate return on equity.

Aspen Insurance (AHL) is one that we have liked in the past because of their well regarded management but it still trades at only 87% of book value (we don’t currently own AHL). Another name we have owned in the past but don’t at present is CNA also at 87% of book value. We continue to own AIG which is valued at 83% of book value excluding unrealized investment gains (or only 76% of book value if you include such mark-to-market gains, which isn’t an unreasonable approach). And we also own BRK, which trades at around 140% of book value but is of course a diverse conglomerate with  large operating businesses and a substantial investment portfolio. You don’t often hear them complaining about low interest rates, either.

Our Hedged Dividend Capture Strategy is designed to extract dividend income from equities while mitigating equity market risk through hedging. It’s designed for investors used to better returns from high grade bonds.