A highly-skilled former value colleague of mine used to say that there are no bad businesses–there are just bad companies. What he meant was this: let’s call any revenue-generating activity as a business; when revenue generation establishes a desire for a product or service, there is always a way to make a profit. What stands in the way is most often bad management, although it might also be a poor configuration of assets. (There are also highly cyclical firms, which are typically viewed through lenses that are too shortsighted, and firms that have temporarily stumbled. Let’s put cases like those aside for now.)
In the US, it is legally and culturally acceptable to call bad companies into account. This is usually done either by replacing management or by causing the company to be sold and returning the proceeds to shareholders.
Because of these factors, it makes sense to hold the shares of firms where the share price is substantially below asset value, even if the company is doing poorly.
As reader Alan Kaplan points out in a comment to last Thursday’s post, however, change is occuring at such a rapid rate in the current globalizedl and Internet-connected economy that it’s more difficult to make an assessment of how much assets are worth than it was when the tenets of value investing were being laid down almost a century ago.
a plummeting stock
Anyway, I recently noticed a holding that was sinking like a stone in a fund I’ve recently taken a small position in. The stock is down about 60% over the past year in a market that’s up by 16%. The portfolio manager, who doesn’t seem to have had much of a plan where this company is concerned, managed to lose two-thirds of his (i.e., my) money before kicking the stock out.
The stock in question is Seaspan (SSW), a container ship leasing company.
My first reaction was to think the stock should never have been in a portfolio, based on the industry it’s in. My experience of shipping is that it’s a snake pit of public subsidy and private double dealing in which an outsider like me will be lucky to escape with any of the clothes on his back.
On the other hand, my experience is also that people who are as horribly wrong about buying a stock as the pm I mentioned above end up also being horribly wrong again when they sell it. I used to console myself when I was in this position by thinking that the stock would never bottom as long as I held it, so, yes, I was helping new buyers by selling–but I was helping my portfolio as well. In any event, the last bull capitulating is usually an important positive sign.
SSW is now trading at $6.67. Book value is $16+. The dividend has recently been cut but the stock is still yielding 7%. By the way, that’s not a good thing, in my view. My preference would be for the payout to have been eliminated entirely, but I’m willing to give management the benefit of the doubt.
I’m still working myself through the financials. There are potential issues with new ships now being built that SSW has contracted to buy but has as yet found no one to lease them. There’s also the worry that existing customers will return ships before charters end and simply refuse to pay amounts still owed. On the other hand, there’s some chance SSW will be able to refinance its existing debt. And to some degree–not a great degree, but some–book value for older vessels is underpinned by the ability to sell them for scrap.
In sum, this is high-risk deep-value stuff that I would never recommend anyone else should consider.
Still, I’m surprised and intrigued to find a–to me, at least–plausible value story in such an unlikely place.