Wednesday, February 20, 2008

2007 Look-through earnings

As usual, I have to wait for Warren Buffett to release Berkshire's earnings before I can tabulate mine:

EPS              2008* 2007  2006  2005  2004  2003  2002
Oracle           0.15  0.27  0.13  0.21  0.30  0.44  0.34
Canon            0.37  0.31  0.28  0.49  0.34  0.08 
Select Comfort   0.18  0.19  0.19  0.27   
Berkshire        0.22  0.30  0.25    
Alberto-Culver   0.02  0.02  0.08    
Sally Beauty     0.05  0.04  0.00    
First Marblehead 0.41  0.14     
Look-through     1.00  1.13  0.93  0.97  0.64  0.52  0.34

* 2008 numbers are consensus analyst estimates.

I keep track of my IRA like an open-ended mutual fund and this is the look-through earnings per "share" of my IRA "fund". As I buy and sell stocks, my portion of their earnings fluctuates and when I add cash, it alters the percentage of portfolio's total value comes from look-through earnings. So when I sold Oracle shares over the year, I reduced the earnings I give myself credit for and when I bought Select Comfort, I increased my share of earnings.

Thanks in very large part to Oracle, my look-through results actually improved. When you add in call option premiums and capital gains on selling shares, my results are even better. But my relative share of the company has been reduced and I won't get anywhere near those returns in 2008.

My two troubled positions look ok in this table, but that is mostly an illusion because I've increased my holdings to a large degree. In his just released letter, Mr. Buffett lays out four criteria he looks for in buying a business: "a) a business we understand; b) favorable long-term economics; c) able and trustworthy management; and d) a sensible price tag." The CEOs First Marblehead and Select Comfort have earned my respect anew by taking voluntary pay cuts for poor results that are largely out of their control. Also, the stock market has cut share price of these companies from cheap to practically free, in my opinion. The reason in both cases is largely a result of worsening economic conditions. In both cases, there are internal changes that need to be made if the companies are going to thrive, but they continue to have advantages compared to competitors that are not likely to disappear. If I weren't already up to my ears in these companies, I'd be buying at these prices.

Canon and Berkshire continue to earn about what is to be expected. They are both too large to grow quickly, but have very wide and clear moats that ought to preserve the businesses for decades to come. Unlike Oracle, the market has not come close to recognizing these company's intrinsic values, so I have not been tempted to sell.

Sally Beauty earned very little this year because it has needed to pay so much in interest expenses since splitting with Alberto-Culver. This year and next ought to be pivotal for the company, so it's very encouraging that directors have bought $3 million of shares to the $1 million worth they purchased with their own money last year. When the restrictions on selling agreed to by the principals of the spin-off transaction expire at the end of the year, I expect management will begin to trumpet business growth instead of underplaying it. I've noticed there are plenty of mom-and-pop beauty supply shops here in Southern California, and I expect there will be plenty of opportunities to consolidate the industry while paying down the debt.

Interestingly, 2007 looks similar to what analysts predicted last year, but that result is misleading because I'm more invested in these stocks than I was at that time. Looking at operating earnings, which includes various cash returns and costs, shows a fuller picture of my results:

Interest    0.01    0.03    0.16    0.01    0.03    0.02    0.00
Dividends   0.00    0.08    0.06    0.08    0.03  
Costs      (0.01)  (0.14)  (0.19)  (0.04)  (0.06)  (0.22)  (0.12)
Arbitrage   0.00    0.50    0.41    
Options     0.07    0.14     
Operating   1.07    1.79    1.37    1.01    0.65    0.32    0.23
Gain      -38.18%  25.76%  35.66%  56.70% 100.59%  41.50% 

I'm fairly pleased with these results, but I can't expect them to continue into the future. In particular, I likely will not have any arbitrage earnings this year, since I've invested most of my cash into businesses that I feel are too cheap to pass up and which might not pan out for a few years. Finally, here are my net results juiced by large realized gains that will not be repeated this year:

Realized Gain           2.88                            1.79 
Special dividend                2.99    
Net              1.07   4.60    4.37    1.01    0.65    2.11  0.23
Gain           -76.79%  5.41% 331.08%  56.70% -69.39% 827.21% 

Friday, February 08, 2008

Portfolio news

First, has some details on the Oracle/BEA merger and gave First Marblehead a gold star.

In worse news, Select Comfort has again disappointed shareholders, though it seems the market is overreacting a bit. Now that it's clear air beds are not immune from recession the way Tempur-Pedic memory foam beds seem to be, no one should be surprised by slowing sales in the quarters ahead. There is no reason the company can't survive and come back much stronger. At these prices the risk is minimal and I suspect that recent price drops have more to do with institutions dropping losers and "penny stocks" than real analysis of the business.

That said, there are some huge opportunities that the company has missed. Having established their brand and product as legitimate, they should have addressed the question of why buy from them. The competition, in my opinion, is regional mattress stores and traditional mattresses, not other premium mattresses like Tempur-Pedic. Now that Select Comfort has established stores all over the country, the network needs to be leveraged.

Here's my idea for a new ad campaign:

A sleazy looking salesman in a wrinkled suit is standing in front of a mile of mattresses next to a guy in a bear costume.

Salesman: Come on down to Miles of Mattresses! If we can't get you the cheapest bed, I'll wrassle this bear!

The picture jumps and slows down as if it were on a film projector that is starting to die. The scene fades to a clean Select Comfort store with three beds or so and a clean-cut salesman in a polo shirt and slacks. There might be another salesman helping a couple try out the bed in the background, but the store should not look cluttered.

Spokesman: Why buy an outdated spring mattress that needs to be flipped every year? Springs start to sag after a while in cheap mattresses and become uncomfortable. Select Comfort sells only modern Sleep Number beds that support sleepers with their exclusive adjustable air chambers. And unlike foam or water beds that are difficult to move, the a Sleep Number bed can be emptied and packed in a matter of minutes. Why buy from this guy, when you can sleep on a layer of air for a lot less than you might think. Come to one of our X locations in Y.

As the spokesman talks, cut to the standard "pressure point and support" image or, if there are customers in the store, show them adjusting the bed to minimize pressure. When the spokesman says, "this guy", cut to the salesman and bear wrestling or cycling each other. Finally cut to a map of the Y region with X stores clearly marked.

These ads should be short, well produced and run constantly. They need to be shown in the cheaper time-slots at night, during the day, and on weekends so that they get seen by people who are ready to buy a new bed. Hopefully everyone who has a TV will see them at least occasionally. I think retail partners are a mistake unless Select Comfort has no locations in a region, and even then, they should make sure the retailer's ads put Sleep Number beds in a good light.

I don't think the financials are nearly as bad as they appear, especially if you allow for a recession. I also don't think it will be too hard to turn this ship around. In fact, I think they are one good TV spot away from returning to high growth, since they have cultivated a number of advantages over regular beds.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Why I bought yet more First Marblehead

After the most recent First Marblehead release, the market gave me an offer I couldn't refuse. According to my calculations, the current liquidation or run-off value of the company is $9.80 a share. That number assumes shares will be diluted 20% according to the Goldman Sachs deal. Then I calculated a conservative guess of the company's value assuming it is able to return to some sort of stable business. I'm guessing the company is worth $38 or more if they are able to convert some of their loans on the balance sheet into earnings. Note that I'm not assuming they will get the same sort of securitization deals they received a year ago—just that they find buyers or financing to turn their loans into earnings at some point.

Personally, I think this whole crisis will blow over in a year or two and Marblehead and Sallie Mae will survive as a bunch of competitors will disappear. As survivors, their earnings power will dramatically increase and $38 will seem laughably cheap. But for the sake of argument, let's use that number. I also expect survival has a better than 90% chance, since Goldman Sachs has a stake in the company. But to prove the point, I'll assume the survival odds are 50%. My expected price, therefor, is $24 and my Kelly ratio is 39%. So I bought more shares at $14.95 to boost my First Marblehead position and reduce it's cost basis.

In my opinion, First Marblehead will be able to continue as a going concern whether or not it is able to securitize loans. Those loans will provide consistent, high-return cash flow to someone over the next few decades, so someone will buy them or finance Marblehead to keep them. It's not dissimilar from Microsoft shifting from selling shrink-wrap software to collecting service reviews. Either way they are selling something valuable and it's just a matter of how to collect profits. So this purchase is not a bet on the securitization market, but a bet on First Marblehead's business.