Riding on coattails

Here’s a list investors and/or investment firms I have respect for, from whom I seek investing ideas. Why do every ounce of heavy-lifting when there are people way smarter than me giving me a hand in terms of  investing ideas and wisdom?

  1. Adam Wyden of ADW Capital
  2. Scott Miller of Greenhaven Road Capital
  3. Douglas Foreman of Kayne Anderson Rudnick
  4. Bill Nygren of Oakmark Funds
  5. Robert Vinall of RV Capital
  6. Sean Stannard-Stockton of Ensemble Capital
  7. Morgan Housel of Collaborative Fund
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If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it

I want to gain financial freedom thorough investing. The price is to create a system to turn over enough rocks, and to have discipline in investing correctly and consistently.

By saving and investing over the past 8 years, I’ve accumulated about S$250,000 in cash and stocks. The first milestone I am working towards is S$500,000 followed by S$1,000,000.

To get to S$500,000 in the perfect world, I would need 3 years.  In 2021 by the age of 35, compounding my investments at a 25% rate and adding all the cash savings accumulated should get me there with some buffer. From S$500,000 to S$1 million, with the same rate of compounding, it would take me another 3 years and theoretically get there by the age of 38 in 2024.

I know I sound naive. It took me 8 years to get to S$250,000 and I expect to get another S$250,000 in less than half the time. Oh and 25% compounded annual returns? Wow, I must think I’m better than Warren Buffett. It is a tall order and to achieve this would, in my definition, be success. I know the price of that success and that is why I need to pay the price. Today will be the day I throw guesswork out of the window and really work consistently on the system to get myself where I need to be – Financial freedom through investing. This will be my very own experiment which I need to track and ensure its success.

Let me lay out everything first as a form of record keeping and for accountability purposes and I’ll get up and running.

  1. Most of my investments are held under Interactive Brokers (“IB“) so my performance recorded on IB since creating it about 3 years ago in April 2016 is a pretty good proxy of my investment returns. I love IB for a variety of reasons but especially for the fact that it can easily generate reports of my overall portfolio returns in a single click unlike other brokerages. I can now know exactly how good or lousy as an investor any time without guesswork. Happily, so far, from the time I created my IB account, I fared pretty well vs the benchmark. I’ve included the screenshots of my performance as extracted from IB below for reference. Fortunately, my compounded investment performance over the past 3 years was been decent at about 28.6%. I know for sure it will be hard, if not next to impossible to maintain that kind of returns, which makes it even more urgent for me to get serious about having an investment system in place.

    1 Apr 2016 – 31 Dec 2016

    1 Apr 2016 - 31 Dec 2016

    1 Jan 2017 – 31 Dec 2017
    1 Jan 17 - 31 Dec 17

    1 Jan 2018 – 31 Jan 2018
    1 Jan 18 - 31 Dec 18
    1 Jan 2019 – 12 Mar 2019
    1 Jan 19 - 12 Mar 19

  2. I’ll be transparent about the names of the stocks I have in my IB portfolio, for accountability purposes and in one single view, provide ease of reference of my holdings at a point in time. You can visit the link to my portfolio here: https://leithstreetblog.wordpress.com/myportfolio

Book I’m reading currently – A Man For All Markets (Ed Thorp)

I haven’t been writing on Leith Street for a couple of reasons as listed below:

  • Lack of good investment ideas
  • Busy with my day job
  • Busy with my entrepreneurial pursuits

Of the 3 , the lack of investment ideas is the key reason for not writing as often as I should.

That said, I do post short tweets on Twitter alot more often, particularly on thoughts I have about business, investment and interesting quotes I read. The tweets are on the side bar of the desktop version of Leith Street. Unfortunately, they are not viewable on the mobile view of the site.

My favourite pastime of reading has slowed down considerably in the last 6 months to a year, but I’m slowly trying to adjust myself back to the habit. With nothing much to be excited about in the market given the lack of buying opportunities, I am hoping to shift into higher gear with reading if time permits on the day job end.

I’m currently reading the book, A Man For All Markets by Ed Thorp, the father of Blackjack card counting. It’s a long read but a fantastic one and I recommend it, even to those who have heard of him and know of his methods. Beyond the field of gambling – in which he beat the the casinos at Blackjack and Roulette – he made a fortune through stock market investing. Ed Thorp and his Princeton Newport Partners hedge fund was the original quant fund that precedes Jim Simmons’ Renaissance Technologies and Ken Griffin’s Citadel. Interestingly, he tried his hand at beating the casinos even though plenty of great mathematicians before him and the conventional wisdom on the street said it can’t be done. Eugene Fama and gang said the same about the stock market. Ed Thorp and Warren Buffett didn’t buy conventional wisdom and look where it brought them.

I guess the moral of the story is to never take conventional wisdom at face value, trust but verify and that the biggest money is almost always made from taking a calculated and informed contrarian stand against the crowd. It’s usually lonely and uncomfortable but that’s how the real world works.

An update on MOMO

I don’t typically like to measure investment returns of a stock so soon after taking a position. However, there was an interesting corporate development about 2 weeks ago which I deserves a quick update.

So far, MOMO has worked out relatively well. I started accumulating MOMO at around US$25 and dollar cost averaged up and down along the way. It last traded at US$32.89 on Friday. Overall, while the position is up just 14%, I believe MOMO is still a good investment prospect.

Acquisition of TanTan

About 2 weeks ago, MOMO announced that it acquired TanTan, a Chinese Tinder equivalent for about US$700 million, of which the bulk will be paid in cash. MOMO had about US$950 million in cash and short term investments as at 31 Dec 17 so while the acquisition is certainly going to make a dent in its war chest, MOMO can well afford it. Better that the cash is deployed within a space it is highly familiar with than left fallowing to earn miserable interest on.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much details such as TanTan’s revenue, user base or profitability announced yet. TanTan was founded only in 2015. Not bad for the founders and investors of a company that’s barely 3 years old. Can’t be sure if it’s going to turn out great for MOMO with the US$700 million splashed on TanTan but I believe the acquisition certainly makes sense.

Roll it up like IAC/Match

The deal reminds me of IAC, listed in the US, which spun off Match not too long ago. Match is the holding company of dating platforms, which not only includes its own namesake brand but also Tinder, OKCupid, Plenty of Fish and several others which dominate the dating platform market. In other words, Match’s roll up strategy means it holds a near-monopoly in the US. From what I’ve checked out online, it appears that TanTan and MOMO are neck to neck as the top dating apps in China.

What I think of the acquisition

In a nutshell, I think it’s a good move.

What’s really interesting here is that although MOMO started off as a dating app, the real cash gusher is the livestreaming business it diversified into about 2-3 years ago. The US$950 million in cash is probably entirely due to the profits from the livestreaming business. There’s plenty of competition in the livestreaming space, including YY Inc which I also own, and MOMO may have some concerns on how it’s going to solidify it’s position in the livestreaming space. An interesting tidbit is that YY owns a part of TanTan and its selling out to MOMO. Quite a bit of interesting/incestuous relationships going on here.

My thoughts are that MOMO is utilising the massive cash generated from livestreaming to consolidate its lead and position in the dating app space, which I believe is stronger than it’s current position in the livestreaming space. The irony is that MOMO’s less profitable business is the one with a stronger competitive position in. I doubt TanTan is profitable at this point or if it is, just barely.

That begs the question – Instead of focusing on the more profitable livestreaming business that has a weaker competitive position, is MOMO throwing good money after bad on dating apps that are barely profitable but which it has a stronger competitive position in? Looking at how Match turned out with its near-monopoloy portfolio of dating apps, I am of the opinion this is a good move. Investing in a space where you are already close or are at number one when your moat is wide given the network effects, and will be wider thereafter, is unlikely to be a bad move, unless you grossly overpay for it. The acquisition will without doubt, gives MOMO a much wider lead as the most dominant player in the dating platform space. On whether MOMO overpaid, I can’t be sure, given the lack of information but I’ll give management benefit of the doubt and there’s real comfort it isn’t paid taking on debt and little shares were issued.

I don’t think livestreaming is a fad. I see it as a new form of entertainment, like how people consume videos on YouTube or Netflix. If I turn out to be dead wrong and livestreaming is indeed a fad, MOMO’s dating platform dominance and potential roll up strategy in the space are going to be a great buffer. At this point in time, I doubt anyone in this day and age is going to call online dating a fad.

What I’m going to do with MOMO

The short answer is I’m going to hold on to it and see how it plays out, particularly checking out next quarter’s filings which will definitely elaborate more on the acquisition. Even without the TanTan acquisition, with MOMO’s growth rates just from livestreaming and the moat it has built up in that space, I would argue MOMO is at the inexpensive to at the most, fair value range.

If MOMO truly becomes the Match of China, backed by a livestreaming cash engine used to fuel its rampage in snatching up dating platform rivals, MOMO will likely be be worth much more than its current price today. From how Match has monetised its dating platforms as they achieved scale, my opinion is that MOMO won’t have too much trouble doing the same at some point in the future even if their portfolio isn’t yet profitable now.

Momo Inc. – Livestreaming (A sustainable new form of entertainment or fad?)

A little over a month ago on 14 Dec 17, I did a short pitch to a group of friends on Momo Inc. as a potential investment. Momo is often called the Tinder of China. It started out as a location-based dating app but has since morphed into a livestreaming platform and it’s this business of livestreaming that makes Momo particularly interesting.

Origin of idea 

I first came across Momo in early 2016 while reading the excellent newsletter I subscribe to – Value Investor Insight (“VII”), Feb 2016 issue. Momo was pitched by FM First Hong Kong Fund in that VII issue and it was a special situation idea hinging on the publicly announced plan to buyout shareholders and relist Momo in China instead of the US. At the time the VII issue was published, Momo’s stock price on NASDAQ was about $12 and the buyout offer price was $18.90.

It piqued my interest enough to check the 10K but I was never big on special situations so I eventually passed. I did remember revenues growing like weeds but overall, the company was unprofitable.

Sometime in Nov 2016, a friend mentioned in passing about a company, YY Inc., a livestreaming platform which allows patrons to gift entertainers with virtual gifts that are exchangable for cash.  I checked it out almost immediately and found the business model interesting, quite different as compared to the western model of video content creators and platforms relying on advertising as their main source of revenue. What made the situation even better was the low valuation given the crazy amount of cash generation and growth rates. At that point, YY was generating hundreds of millions in free cash flow (USD), had hundreds of millions in net cash, and was trading at an EV/FCF of somewhere around 12-15x if my memory serves me right. I started to invest in YY and started to understand a little more about the livestreaming industry.

Coming back to Momo, at that point in late 2016, it still wasn’t attractive to me though revenue growth rates were high – much higher than YY – I felt that cash flow generation had not caught up with the valuation the price demanded. By that time, Momo’s livestreaming business was in full swing and had eclipsed it’s original business of being a dating app.

What changed

In Nov/Dec, Momo’s stock price fell more than 20% on fears that growth has slowed. On a sequential quarter basis, growth had indeed slowed as the number of paying customers for the livestreaming services stagnated. In fact, by the time I got interested, the stock price had roughly halved from the peak of US$45 reached in August 2017.

I felt that may have created a buying opportunity and revisited the situation. This time, at least optically, Momo’s valuation started to look interesting.

What I think about Momo

I’ve taken a contrarian view towards Momo, which is essentially a bet against the market at large, and started to invest in Momo in late Nov 17.

I’ve uploaded the Momo pitch I made to friends here for reference.

Missing in action, Yihai

Though I jot down quick thoughts quite often on Twitter, which appears on the sidebar of Leith Street, I’ve been out of action in terms of updating Leith Street for a long time.

My feeble excuse is that I’ve been pretty busy with work and business. It’s a pretty lousy excuse I know.

So now I’m back with a post to update on what’s been going. For my own good, I hope I’ll continue on Leith Street. Well, actually hope isn’t a strategy so what I’ve done is set a recurring alarm on my phone every Saturday to remind me to update the journal. Sure, I won’t have always be in the mood or have topics to write on but the alarm should be a good reminder and help spur me on.

THOUGHTS

The last 6 months to a year have been ideal for my portfolio. It’s a little too ideal and I’m starting to get quite concerned, especially with the frothy stock market in general. The multiples of some of my holdings have definitely expanded quite significantly during this period. The silver lining to this is that the underlying growth engines of the businesses appear good. Perhaps for a start, I’ll get into discussing about my largest holding in my portfolio.

YIHAI INTERNATIONAL HOLDINGS

Background

Yihai is listed in Hong Kong. It is the exclusive condiment supplier to Haidilao and came to the market by way of a ‘spin off’ by Haidilao, though Haidilao remains a private company. Haidilao is of course the Chinese high-end hotpot chain famous for their unparalleled service, with outlets across China. Haidilao is particularly popular in Singapore.

The largest shareholders of Yihai are the co-founders of Haidilao while Yunfeng Capital, an Alibaba-linked company, is also a significant shareholder.

I first came across Yihai when I read a Bloomberg article in April 2017. While I’ve visited Haidilao in Singapore and China, I had no idea the condiment part of the business is listed.

The food at Haidilao is not bad. But as a penny pincher, I sure as hell wasn’t going to splash that much money too often to dine there. It typically costs me S$40 to S$50 each time I visit Haidilao and probably goes higher for others. That said, the service at Haidilao is impeccable with snacks and manicure provided to diners waiting for their tables to be ready. Oh, did I mention the queues are long. To have the privilege of dining there during peak hours, on average, you’ll need to wait up to 2 to 3 hours to. Talk about crazy. Even at midnight, there are still groups of people awaiting for their turn to dine.

Business model

One might ask, what has this got to do with Yihai? The answer is, everything. Yihai spins money if Haidilao is perpetually full and remains in consumers’ favour, since every single group of customers walking in are sure to include as part of their meals, Yihai’s condiments. Yihai also sells its soup base in packet form to be consumed at home. They retail those in supermarkets, even in Singapore, and also on online platforms like the highly popular Taobao – thus the Yunfeng / Alibaba connection.

The fantastic thing about Yihai’s business model is that its cost base and capex requirements are much lower than Haidilao itself. All Yihai needs to do when Haidilao expands with more outlets is to put in extra shifts to utilise existing machines or buy more machines to house within existing premises. OK, that’s over simplifying matters as Yihai likely needs to sometimes build new factories in far flung regions in China when Haidilao does expand to other provinces. But the set up cost for a new factory is largely one-time.

Yihai is essentially a manufacturer and the key idea is that Yihai has the ability to scale up without great difficulties and can ride on the coattails of Haidilao almost for free since the bulk of marketing expenses and building of goodwill among customers will be borne by Haidilao.

Dollars and cents

Income statement

Revenue grew 57% in the 6 months ended 30 June 2017 to RMB631m while net profit grew 99% to RMB70m. This is taking into account RMB24m in forex losses which is largely out of the company’s control.

Cashflow

Operating cashflow paints a different picture. It dropped from RMB63m to RM28m. In my opinion, it’s not a big cause for concern. The reason for the drop is mainly due to working capital changes. Specifically, trade payables dropped 38% by RMB27M. In my opinion, this is more of a timing issue. If it had grown in accordance with revenue growth, an extra RMB65m in cash flow would have been added back and the normalised figures would have seemed less scary. Payable turnover days were at 31.2 days, which is reasonable.

On the receivables end, things look right, with a 43% increase in trade receivables that took up RM29m and a 50% increase in prepayments that took up RMB19m in operating cashflow. That’s in line with the revenue increase over the last 6 months. The good news is, inventories level remained stable, meaning there’s less risk of expiry and obsolescence.

Capex and land use rights were reasonably low at RMB8m.

In short, when when the cash flow figures are normalised, I’m comfortable that there is a low risk of financial shenanigans going on in Yihai’s financial statements.

Balance sheet

The business sits on a mountain of cash. To be exact, it’s RMB975m or 69% of total assets of RMB1,422m as at 30 June 2017. If that’s not good enough, Yihai also has zero debt and it’s total liabilities stands at just RMB119m.

Growth

Past performance isn’t indicative of future performance. We all know that caveat. Just because revenue and earnings grew more than 50% over the past 6 months doesn’t mean it will do the same 6 months later.

But consider this. According to the Bloomberg article I mentioned earlier, Haidilao has about 180 outlets in April 2017 and it intends to open another 80 in 2017 – a 44% increase. Considering the fact that Haidilao was established in 1994 or 23 years ago, the historical pace of outlet opening equates to an average of about 8 a year. 80 in less than a year does sounds quite out of wack.

The first Haidilao in Singapore opened in
2012 and has grown to 5 currently in 5 years, with another 1 on the way. That’s unexciting, but the much larger markets in China and the region are likely to hold plenty of promise for Haidilao and correspondingly Yihai, given the relatively low base in terms of outlet count they are at. This is despite being in business for 23 years.

Opening 80 outlets in a year does sound unbelievable but there seems to be a case to be made here in terms of a faster pace of outlets opening. As at 31 Dec for 2014, 2015, 2016, the total number of outlets in China alone were 111, 142 and 167 respectively. In just the first 6 months of 2017, they opened 25 in China alone. Haidilao does seem to be accelerating its growth pace.

A clue to their plans is in an announcement made by Yihai on 18 September 2017. There is a revision in the sales and volume caps in Yihai’s products to be sold to Haidilao, with an increase of 38% in FY2017 and 61% in FY2018. Another clue that these plans are more action than talk is the RMB300m in capital commitments to be spread over 3 years which they have earmarked for a factory in Hebei to ramp up production. The factory is currently under construction and is set to open in different phases through 2020.

If they somehow manage to pull it off, plenty of things can still go wrong in between. For example, Haidilao got into hot soup in China after getting caught in a sanitation scandal http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/popular-eatery-haidilao-under-beijing-food-safety-watchdog-probe

But even after all this, friends around me continue to flock to Haidilao. At a bunch of friends’ urging, I was supposed to go for a round at Haidilao this week. We got a queue number hours before hand and it only got shelved at the last minute because a few friends called in sick (not too ideal to be dipping chopsticks into a communal hotpot shared among friends who are ill, no matter how much people try to convince you hot boiling soup will kill all germs). Sure, the same sanitation scandal brush that tainted Haidilao in China may not have the full effect on the minds of consumers in Singapore. Nevertheless, I think this anecdote goes to show the strength of the confidence consumers have in Haidilao.

What’s good for Haidilao is good for Yihai. And we aren’t even talking about the potential of third party sales, which includes online and supermarkets, accounting for 31% of total revenue in the first half of 2017.

ROIC

Yihai has a high ROIC of 77% in FY2016 and 68% in the trailing 12 months period ended 30 Jun 2017. Due to its cash exceeding equity and lack of debt in FY2015, ROIC was infinity in FY2015.

Clearly, Yihai has a superior business that’s able to generate high returns on capital. The great thing about the high ROICs is that Yihai does indeed have avenues to reinvest its capital, which it will do so in the RMB300m factory it is building.

Moats

Brand – On the retail sale of its condiments, Yihai derives its brand power directly from Haidilao. The more popular Haidilao is, the better its retail condiments, as well as its prepared condiments at Haidilao’s outlets sell. It’s beyond doubt Haidilao has a strong brand as among the most premium of hot pot chains in Asia that stands for quality and service. For a competitor to come in, it will take an almost insurmountable effort and time to capture the mindshare of consumers, not to mention the money to be spent on advertising and marketing. I can’t say for certain how long it will take a competitor to reach that brand recognition Haidilao has but I suppose we will need to bear in mind it took Haidilao 2 decades to get to where it is today.

Economies of scale – Yihai’s advertising and marketing expenses are essentially free since it coat tail rides on Haidilao to sell its retail condiments. On the wholesale side, Yihai doesn’t have to market itself to its biggest customer. Yihai’s symbiotic relationship with Haidilao means Yihai has an obligation to set up a factory to supply to more and more outlets as Haidilao expands. This results in fixed costs of the factory being spread out over time. I would also imagine that the incremental cost of additional machines is small compared to the large volumes it can potentially supply to a newly opened Haidilao, which typicaly ramps up quite quickly given Haidilao’s popularity.

I can definitely foresee Haidilao’s staying power in the region and beyond for the next 10 years.

Pricing power

Despite having products that are key components of Haidilao’s hotpot experience, I doubt Yihai’s pricing power in its largest segment – selling to Haidilao – is strong. Yihai likely has agreed pricing policies with Haidilao and is unlikely able to charge prices at will. That said, Yihai’s fast growing segment in selling to third parties could be a different. The prices for Haidilao soup base condiments at a supermarket in Singapore retails at a rather reasonable price as compared to its competitors products sitting on the same shelf. I was surprised as I thought a brand as strong as Haidilao could easily charge a much higher premium and consumers would still be willing to pay for it. Between Haidilao condiments and its competitors, I would choose the Haidilao brand any time for the perceived quality and taste assurance. Several friends who came across the retail packets had the same conclusion.

A quick check on Taobao showed that the authentic retail packets are retailing at a similarly low price point of USD3 or less.

Because of how small the cost component is compared to the meat ingredients that goes with the hotpot, I reckon that even a 20% increase in prices (USD0.60) will do little to reduce demand.

Valuation

Since I’m comfortable that Yihai’s earnings aren’t fudged, here goes an attempt to value the business.

Projecting revenue to be generated from just condiments to Haidilao in FY2018, assuming Yihai reaches just half of the 61% increment in the revised cap of condiments to be sold to Haidilao, revenue would be RMB1,238M in FY2018.

To check the reasonableness of it, on a historical revenue per outlet basis, I’ve worked out some sums and arrived at RMB3.2m per outlet in FY2015, RMB3.6m per outlet in FY2016. If Haidilao does open a total of 80 outlets in FY2017, the store count on 31 Dec 2017 would be 247 and the corresponding revenue for FY2017 would be RMB889m based on RMB3.6m per outlet. This is 39% away from the RMB1,293m to be achieved by FY2018 if everything goes well and according to my estimates.

For the rest of the business segments such as sales to third parties and other products to Haidilao and third parties, assuming Yihai obtains the same growth rate achieved in the first half of FY2017 and has zero growth in FY2018 (very unlikely to be zero), these would add another RMB842m to revenue, for a total of RMB2080m. This is nearly double of what was achieved in FY2016 or just 58% away from trailing 12 months revenue. It’s a high number that I’m not usually comfortable with projecting or believing most companies can achieve but I think given how resilient Haidilao and Yihai have been, I don’t think it’s an overly far-fetched target for them.

Margins wise, historically, it improved from 15% in FY2015 to 17% in FY2016 while for the first half of FY2017, it improved to 11% from 9%. This is having taken into account a relatively significant forex hit of more than RMB20m to its operating profit of RMB127m in the first half FY2017. I’ll conservatively assume margins for FY2018 to stay the same as that in FY2016 at 17% and to also account for the depreciation of the investment of RMB300m for the factory being built in Hebei.

Rounding it all off, we get a projected net profit of RMB354M for FY2018 or HKD415m. Just to see gauge what the further upside could be if things go really well on the production execution, I think an extra 2 percentage points in met margins wouldn’t be unreasonable. Should that happen, net profit goes up to RMB385m or HKD465m.

Given that the payment terms of receivables appear to be on a one month basis, the receivables growth rate checks out in the previous analysis and the seemingly reasonable historical capex, I’m comfortable with the estimated net profit as a proxy for free cash flow.

With a cash balance of RMB975m or HKD1,144m as at 30 Jun 17, and a market cap of HKD7,464m as at 27 Oct 17, the EV works out to be HKD6,320m. I did not subtract the factory investment costs of RMB300m since Yihai should be able to generate much more than the RMB300m by the time 2020 rolls in.

All in all, EV to net profit that’s projected out in FY2018 on a 17% and 19% net margin comes up to between 13.6x to 15.2x or a yield of 6.7% to 7.3%. For a company with such a good growth profile, strong brand name (by way of Haidilao), scalability and most importantly, largely undisruptable by new technology, I think 13.6x to 15.2x is a very reasonable valuation range. Even one of the worst situation that can befall on a F&B business – a sanitation scandal – seemingly failed to make any long lasting negative impact on the perception of consumers.

Risks

Plenty can happen. Let’s explore a few key ones that would have the largest impact.

– Financial downturn – Dining at Haidilao is an expensive affair. If there is a financial downturn which leads to people tightening their belts to go for cheaper hot pot rivals, it will surely affect Haidilao. The upside to this is, if the next financial crisis doesn’t end the world, a financial downturn that affects Haidilao and Yihai is unlikely to kill it and would likely bounce back once it blows over. This is a clear risk and the only antidote to this risk is to make sure a low to fair price is paid when purchasing Yihai’s shares

– Bird flu and epidemics – Consumers are going to shut themselves at home instead of visiting Haidilao. This has a precedent. During the SARS outbreak years ago, that was exactly what happened at Haidilao. The number of diners dropped dramatically. What Haidilao did was to do home deliveries of their hotpots so customers can enjoy the good at home. In a stroke of genius, they turned a crisis into opportunity. Should an epidemic hit Haidilao, it’s out of Haidilao’s control anyway and there’s little help in worrying about something that will affect just about every single retail business out there

– Another sanitation scandal or worse still, fake food at Haidilao – entirely possible but I’ve got a certain degree of trust that management will see to it that it will not happen. The name of the game for Haidilao is the quality and service standards. It’s game over without that legendary reputation Haidilao built up. From the way they’ve handled the last scandal, by owning up outright within hours, the board taking responsibility for it, and inviting diners and the media to inspect their kitchens, there’s at least some comfort level things will change for the better

– Growth plans stall – This can happen for any number of reasons but I think the biggest risk to cause this would be another sanitation scandal or food scares at Haidlao, which can then lead to regulatory actions to forcibly shut the outlets down or simply cause a loss of confidence among consumers. Without the trust of consumers, there won’t be demand and growth for Haidilao and corresponding, for Yihai’s products

– Mismanagement – Unlikely to happen as Yihai is a rather simple business and the biggest shareholders of Yihai are the same people that run Haidilao. To mismanage Yihai is to mismanage Haidilao. That said, there is the possibility of Haidilao driving Yihai a bad bargain for its products since Haidilao is privately owned and is more valuable of the 2. Of course the major shareholders are naturally inclined to favour Haidilao more and have an incentive to squeeze Yihai for the best possible deal to benefit their more valuable enterprise. The largest shareholder of Haidilao has a 63% stake in Haidilao and a 36% stake in Haidilao. The second largest shareholder is a co-founder of Haidilao and also holds a 17% stake in Yihai. While there isn’t much that can be absolutely enforced in corporate governance, I think there is an indicator hidden in the financial reports. In my opinion, the average selling price of its products to Haidilao and related parties versus that to third parties would be a good indicator of whether Yihai’s shareholders are getting the shorter end of the stick. From the Jun 2017 financial report, it seems that related parties are getting just a 5% discount to the average selling prices for hot pot soup flavoring products sold to third parties. This contrasts with the volume to related parties versus third parties – almost 4 to 1. With that much bargaining power, one would think the discount to Haidilao would be larger, but it isn’t. As such, I think this indicator gives comfort that Yihai’s shareholders are well taken care of by management

Variant perception

I don’t have too strong a variant perception as over the past few months, the market seems to have realised and priced in part of growth potential. I believe the market has not fully priced it in yet though for the reasons below.

– Not well followed – While there’s occasional news flow on Haidilao, Yihai doesn’t seem to garner much attention from the media on its financial results, at least not from any Google searches in English I’ve made. After all, the market cap is less than USD1b and was much smaller just a few months ago. Interestingly, Fidelity holds a 6% stake, which means there’s some institutional interest but apart from that, the free float of less than 50% likely discourages big names from joining the party
– Growth – The market doesn’t fully believe Haidilao can execute on its growth plans on 80 outlets for FY2017 and even if that does happen, the growth in FY2018 and beyond remains a question mark. In my mind, even if outlet openings by Haidilao slows dramatically in FY2018 and beyond, the impact will be well mitigated by the growth in its sales to third parties. This segment of the business is somewhat less unhindered by Haidilao’s rate of outlet growth, and has room to grow as long as the Haidilao brand stays intact.

Conclusion

Yihai should trade at a higher multiple given the high quality and growth profile of the business. Overall, my opinion is that 13.6x to 15.2x for Yihai’s FY2018 earnings is a reasonable multiple to hold and add a little more of. A fair valuation multiple would be nearer to 18x to 20x (HKD8.20 to HKD9.00) for the current expected growth rates till 2018, and anything above that, I would strongly consider selling down at a good pace.

I first bought Yihai sometime in May 2017 and dollar cost averaged up. To date, my position in Yihai has generated 57% in returns.

All in all, l’ll be holding on to Yihai for now. I find it hard to add Yihai to my portfolio only because of how heavily concentrated Yihai is in my portfolio at about 14%. That said, I’ll be keeping tabs on its financial performance for FY2017 to see how well it keeps pace with its growth plans. Of course, by investing in Yihai, it provides a good excuse to visit to Haidilao for a scuttlebutt. 🙂

Shopify case study – No earnings, negligible cash flows but one hell of a moat

A few days ago, I read an excellent Fortune article on Shopify, the Canada-headquartered company that allows business owners to easily and quickly set up their digital e-commerce presence. It got me thinking about plenty of things on business and and investing.

 

My experience with choosing e-commerce platforms

I’ve known about Shopify for years, since at least late 2013. Back then, I was planning to set up a simple e-commerce store and was choosing between a number of platforms. These ranged from free ones like WordPress to paid platforms like Wix and of course, Shopify.

I actually quite liked Shopify as it seems fuss-free and powerful enough. What turned me off was the pricing. Well, at US$29 a month for the basic plan, it was not exactly unaffordable. But when I first started out, every cent counts. Besides, the margins of the products I was intendinf to sell were relatively lower and I guess it was just the penny pinching mindset that was part of the package as a value investor.

I ended up on the WordPress platform which is more robust than Wix or Shopify but requires a certain level of technical and programming expertise (of which I had very little of). Although I had to install it myself, the most crucial factor of deciding on WordPress was that it is largely free! Over the years, whenever I need technical expertise to upgrade or if the site breaks, I had to seek external help by turning to gig platforms like Fiver. For minor issues, Googling DIY solutions had been most useful. While the overall explicit costs from using WordPress were definitely lower, if I had known beforehand that I could have avoided all the headaches, struggle to learn how to use it, time spent to resolve issues, security fears, inability to utilise new functions due to obsolete underlying system, lost revenue when the site is down, minor errors faced by customers, I would probably have opted for Shopify instead.

Fast forward about 4 years later today in July 2017, Shopify is now a public company listed on the NASDAQ, with a stock price that’s climbed from US$17 to about US$89 since it’s listing in 2015.

Financials wise, Shopify remains unprofitable even though revenue has continued growing like a weed. In fact, it seems to be that the higher the revenue generated, the greater its losses. Cash flows from operations were barely breakeven and would have been negative without adding back stock-based compensation. The dismal quality of its financials stopped me from exploring further and from considering investing in Shopify. But the stock price keeps marching upwards. What is it that the market knows that I don’t? Could it just be a bunch of loonies pushing prices up? Turns out, the closer I read the article, the more I realised there could indeed be substance behind the skyrocketing stock price.

 

A tech startup’s snake oil – “We can be profitable if we want to”

It has been argued that Shopify can be profitable if it wants to. It just has to cut marketing costs. I viewed it with great scepticism. After all, all tech firms are saying exactly the same thing. There’s alot of Kool-aid being passed around and I thought this was one of it.

Well, it turned out there is truth in cutting down marketing expenses to gain profitability but it only applies to very specific business models. It only applies to businesses with strong recurring revenue, of which a complete reduction in marketing expenses would not lead to its existing customer base bailing out. Shopify’s business model is a prime example of this phenomenon. In my opinion, the function of its marketing costs is really to grow and acquire new customers rather than retaining existing customers.

The moment a customer signs up with Shopify, sets up shop and gets some revenue streaming in, you can be quite assured he will stay with Shopify for some time as long as his operations remain profitable. After learning how to use it and having invested effort into optimising his storefront and utilising value-adding third party plugins from riding on Shopify’s platform, he gets locked in to the system.

Contrast this with a fashion retail brand like Abercrombie & Fitch (“A&F”). Once a consumer purchases an item from A&F, that’s the end of the transaction. To induce the same consumer to spend at the store, he has to be convinced that down the road he will be perceived to be cool when people see him wearing a new piece of A&F apparel. That’s where marketing and advertising expenses come in for A&F – to not only attract new consumers but also retain existing ones.

**High switching costs**
The point on Shopify’s third party plugins is what makes the customer lock-in extra powerful. Over the years, Shopify has built an ecosystem of app creators not unlike Apple’s app store. Shopify is no longer just a web host and template provider. It is an ecosystem which app vendors can build onto Shopify’s underlying platform and integrate their functions with customers’ stores. As an example, Mailchimp, a highly popular marketing email automation tool layers onto Shopify’s platform, allowing store owners to automatically send emails to re-activate customers who have not made a purchase for 60 days by encouraging them to make a purchase, perhaps through discount codes. Customers pay a small fee to Mailchimp, but the returns can potentially be way more exponential. The more extra tools (plugins) customers use, the more app vendors Shopify sign up and the more innovative they are, the more locked in Shopify’s customers become. And of course, Shopify gets a cut of all those fees flowing through.

I’ve used the same web host, same WordPress platform, same domain name host for 4 years and I sure as hell am not uprooting from it, given all the hassle I’ll face if I do so.

Although I’m not on Shopify, if I am and they take care of all my traffic load, security matters, create value for me with additional functionalities to bring in more sales and better track inventory, etc, you can rest assure I’ll stick with Shopify for a long long time.

In short, I believe the marketing expenses are truly and largely for growth purposes. Customers who sign up and gets the first dollar of revenue rolling in likely stays for a long time. In other words, these customers have long lifetime values. On the topic of lifetime value, it is also important that it drags on as long as possible. As an example, say dating apps like Tinder, there is a natural attrition when a user enters into a serious relationship with a new partner. In most cases, he or she is not likely to utilise it again during the relationship until a breakup occurs. They may never use it again if the parties get married. Each iteration of marketing and advertising efforts serves to retain a certain customer count and the business is left running on a treadmill. In fact, the irony is that the better the dating app is at matching, the faster users drop off from the platform. Qualitatively, Shopify undoubtedly has a better business model and greater staying power from these perspectives.

The other consideration of the switching costs or likelihood of customers being retained on Shopify or any other platform would be the repercussions if they stopped using it. If Shopify customers want to move their sites elsewhere and recreate the previous site experience which their users are used to, to an extent, they may be able to export or recreate certain segments of their site but overall, the effort will likely be Herculean, if not a total nightmare especially for customers without the technical expertise.

Financials and valuation

Financials wise, revenue and gross profit grew almost 90% and 85% respectively between FY2015 and FY2016. Revenue was US$389m and gross profit was US$209m in FY2016. Losses widened from US$19m in FY2015 to US$35m in FY2016.

Sales and marketing expenses were US$129m in FY2016 and makes up the largest part of operating expenses of US$247m. This will not be a direct and most accurate comparison but if we take a peek at Verisign’s sales and marketing expenses, it makes up about 8% of revenue as compared to Shopify’s 33%. Verisign holds the monopoly to the .com and .net top level domain, has a quality of customer retention that is probably among the strongest I know and has a very slow and steady revenue growth pace. At 8% of revenue in sale and marketing expenses, I would think it probably is a good floor reference. Assuming Shopify requires a normalised equivalent of 10% to achieve a slow steady rate growth, that would translate to US$39m in sales and marketing expenses. R&D for Verisign makes up about 6% of revenue. Verisign, as the .com and .net monopoly hardly needs R&D so it probably is a lowball percentage. Shopify definitely needs a much higher percentage and this is arbitrary but I believe 10%, which is double that of Verisign’s should be fair for Shopify to achieve a slow steady rate growth. That translates to US$39m in R&D expenses for Shopify.

Assuming minimum sales and marketing expenses of US$39m and R&D of US$39m, would give us US$88m in normalised operating profit. There will probably be quite alot of NOLs for claims given the accounting losses Shopify made over the years. This would mean that Shopify may not need to pay taxes on incoming profits for some time. Assuming Shopify incurs effective Canadian tax rate of about 26%, it would generate about US$65m in normalised net profit or a net profit margin of about 17%. Not so unprofitable now eh?

This is where things take a much more arbitrary turn. Shopify had been growing at crazy rates and has near-guaranteed growth in the future given the secular trend of rising e-commerce volume. By exactly how much, it’s hard to tell but I do think 30% compounded over the next 3 years isn’t out of the question since the existing infrastructure has been built out and the incremental cost of a new customer who signs on isn’t that high. In fact, 30% CAGR over 3 years is probably conservative. I would slap on a 25 times EV multiple as a reasonable exit multiple down the road to pay for such a high quality, strong moat and high growth business.

Assuming earnings for the next 3 years grow at the 30% CAGR, at the end of year 3, earnings will be US$143m. At 25x exit multiple, That comes up to an EV of US$3,575m. To get the equity value, I’ll also add back 75% (arbitrary again – I assume the company needs about 25% for working capital) of net cash (US$296m) as at 31 Mar 17, and we get an equity value of about US$3,871m.

This is way below Shopify’s current market cap of US$7,800m and I could be too conservative about Shopify’s prospects in terms of financial projections. Sometimes, one does need to take a leap of faith to invest in compounder businesses with a wide moat. However, I am still pretty much a value and numbers driven investor as opposed to a story driven investor. As such, I find it hard to jump in with both feet into an investment with too high a valuation.

 

Conclusion

Ultimately, I may not be buying Shopify anytime soon. Nevertheless, I thought this was a great exercise to pen my thoughts down and build a framework to uncover potential investment gems with similar high quality moats and earnings that are obscured by expenses largely relating growth.