Sunday, November 30, 2014

I Just Bought My Second South Africa Stock

In the last year or two the US economy has been looking stronger and stronger. It is quite clear by now that it is in the middle stages of a recovery from the recession that began in 2008. Unemployment is going down as smoothly as a plane coming in to land. The fiscal deficit is down from the abnormal levels at the height of the recession. Housing inventory is no longer full of bank-owned foreclosures. US manufacturing is making a comeback and US is producing record amounts of oil. Consequently the US dollar is at the highest level in four years. The market appears to be fully aware of this and the US market valuation reflects this economic situation. So though the economy still has room to run, US companies are probably fully valued. Indeed, I am finding it harder and harder to find those knock-out bargains of two or three years ago. That is why I have been buying outside the US recently. This is all a drastic change from 5 years ago, when news pundits were saying that the US will become a banana republic. Well I have a saying: You're never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you're never as bad as they say when you lose.

I also find it interesting that the market has taken the opposite view of the emerging markets six years ago and today. In the last year or two, money has consistently flowed out of emerging countries. The headlines are full of bad news everywhere you look. Greece has 20% unemployment. Russia doesn't respect shareholder's and will steal or confiscate at will. China has a colossal property bubble. Hong Kong is too close to China to be immune. In fact that goes for every other country in Asia. Japan is growing old and will forever be in recession. Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa all have their own problems which has resulted in high inflation and capital flight. This juxtaposition of emerging markets and the US may be partially based on fact but I think it is also very much a matter of psychology. Someone always has to be a darling and someone always has to be the dog.

One often overlooked market is South Africa. South Africa is the second largest economy in Africa, which is the most underdeveloped continent. Parts of Africa have the most potential to achieve spectacular growth in the coming decades, possibly like what China achieved in the 80's and 90's. South Africa is also friendly towards foreign shareholders. It has an Anglo-Saxon system of law and corporate governance. All financial documents are in English.

Price R 13.000
Market Cap R 1216.80 M
($ 107 M USD)
P/E TTM 7.8 x
Div yield 6.0 %
P/BV 2.15
ROE27.7 %
ROIC 12.8 %
South Africa does have the drawback that it is a relatively mature economy. Its GDP growth has slowed in the last year. And the country has suffered some major setbacks in the last year. South Africa is known for having a restive labour force. Strikes are common and can get violent. But this year has seen the most damaging strikes in South Africa history. The economy even shrunk in the first quarter because of the strikes. By now, however, the strikes have ended and the media seems to indicate that South Africa will have a more productive coming year. In view of this, I want to maximize my exposure to the South African consumer. And so I bought Combined Motor Holdings (JSE:CMH).

Combined Motor Holdings owns several related businesses, with the majority of revenue and profits coming from car retail. Car retail in a developing country caters to wealthy and upwardly mobile consumers. In any up and coming country, the people yearn for a taste of the luxuries that they have only seen from afar in the past. In addition, they want to differentiate themselves from their less well-to-do peers. Furthermore, cars in South Africa are even more critical than in more developed countries because South Africa has a primitive road and public transport system.

The Group's other subsidiaries are Car Hire, Marine and Leisure, Financial Services and Corporate/Other. These other businesses are 12%, 0%, 13% and 5% of profits respectively. The Marine and Leisure subsidiary is troubled and it accounts for only 1% of total revenue of the group. Management hinted that it may be sold or closed down.

In the the company report, the CEO describes the company philosophy:
The Group’s management style remains one of decentralised operating and marketing complemented by centralised cash flow monitoring, accounting controls and internal audit. Remuneration of management and staff is linked to performance benchmarks, all of which are closely monitored using internally-generated measurements, and peer group review. The Group operates in sectors which produce very low margins, so tight control over expenses and cash flow is vital to success.
This kind of operation reminds me of Buffett's operations and the businesses described in The Outsiders by William Thorndike. The company focuses on cash generation and increasing value for shareholders.

CMH is a company with good profits but also with a large balance sheet. At any given time the company has more than a billion Rand of inventory. But this is still just a month's turnover. The company has an impressive 27% ROE. And I estimate the company's ROIC is 13%. These numbers hint that the company is profitable in part because of a high debt exposure. However, management has said that all debt is short term. Most of the company's R$ 1.5 bil liabilities is accounts payable or short term borrowings. And all the borrowings are in Car Hire division, secured by its car fleet. I take this to mean that the parent CMH does not guarantee the debt. The rest of the liability is mostly payables for their cars held for sale.

I read the annual reports going back the last five years. The management consistently articulates the company's situation well. The CEO and Chairman have run the company since 1976 when it was a single car dealership.  The directors combined own 70% of the company. They have aggressively used cash to increase shareholder value; they pay a high dividend (6%) and earlier this year, the company bought back 15% of the float at R 13. Share buybacks is a second trait that Buffett likes, and it is the MO of The Outsiders . I think it is possible that this company can be the type of exceptional company described in The Outsiders.

The following shows the per share performance of the company:

CMH - units of Rand per share

As one can see, the company does pretty well for all shareholders even though it is very closely owned.

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