Our top share picks for the brave investor: Finding opportunities in times of adversity

By Stephán Engelbrecht, Fund Management

The world is entering an unprecedented time and there is no historical playbook for what happens next. While not our base case, calamity risk is increasing (mass infections across South Africa [SA], with dire economic consequences), and nobody knows how to quantify this risk. We have many requests from clients asking for investment opportunities in this crash and we are happy to share our fundamental views. However, investors in any equities must bear in mind that, in the shorter term, cheap shares can get even cheaper and wild swings are likely. Our views are based on a 12-to 24-month timeline, with a base case scenario of the world normalising during this time period. So, risks have to be taken into account and any investment in equities should be considered in this context. Shares only become this cheap when risks are extremely high.

In times of extreme market volatility (and corrections), it is often unnecessary for investors to look far down the quality curve to find attractive opportunities that will generate significant returns in future. This is oftentimes the correct strategy as those economic uncertainties causing market volatility can have far more dire consequences for lower-quality businesses. This can make a company look inexpensive on the surface, but the upside might be limited as the business first has to struggle through an earnings trough, or raise equity to shore up its balance sheet which will, in turn, dilute current shareholder returns.

However, sometimes it is worth taking the risk. During market corrections, fundamentals are often ignored, and some market participants will sell a share at any price. It is at these prices where, we believe, the risk-return profile is so attractive that these counters deserve a small allocation in a diversified portfolio. These calculated risks may just turn out to be some of the best performers in an investor’s portfolio.

With that as background, we have scoured the SA market for some very exciting investment opportunities. We concede that these opportunities do come with some risks, whether it be debt, currency, regulation, liquidity or, in some cases, a combination of these factors, associated with them. Nevertheless, we believe that, at current valuation levels, the investor is more than compensated for such risks. So, put your hard hat on and prepare for some volatility although, at the end of the day, we are confident that a portfolio of these shares will reward investors handsomely.

MTN Group

If one were to draw up a list of countries where it is notoriously difficult to do business, and that also have extremely volatile regulatory and economic environments, the chances are that a large number of these nations will be among the 21 countries in which MTN operates. Initially, with major global mobile operators reluctant to enter these markets and regulations being fairly light, these countries held the appeal of attractive emerging market (EM) growth potential, with limited competition, for MTN. While this worked well in the beginning, over recent years MTN has appeared to stumble from one exogenous shock to the next – wars, extreme currency volatility, sanctions, exorbitant regulatory penalties and various lawsuits – but the company has weathered all these setbacks. MTN’s vulnerability to these exogenous events means that it is typically sold off, particularly aggressively during periods of risk aversion. This time around, the market sell-off was amplified by the collapse in the oil price, to which a number of MTN’s markets are vulnerable (especially Nigeria). With MTN’s share price falling below R40, the counter has now declined >85% from its 2014 peak and it is currently trading at levels last seen in 2005.

In an industry where scale is critical, the significance of MTN being a top-two market share operator across all the markets in which it operates should not be underestimated. Where the telecommunications sector globally has largely been consigned by investors to the status of an ex-growth utility, MTN stands apart for several reasons. First, many of the Group’s markets still have further opportunities to increase penetration of mobile telecommunications and the potential to migrate those users to smart devices and drive data adoption. Second, while most developed market (DM) operators are confined to the provision of commoditised voice and data services, MTN is capitalising on opportunities to also add digital and mobile financial services.

Although MTN CEO, Rob Shuter has announced that he will be leaving the company at the end of his contract in one year’s time, he assembled a very competent management team during his tenure. Shuter has set the Group on a self-correction course. This includes the disposal of non-core assets, with proceeds being used to pay down debt (R14bn in sales were raised in the first year, with guidance of a further R25bn to be realised over the next few years) and paying particular attention to turning around some of the Group’s underperforming business units.

Since many of MTN’s new revenue streams do not require significant capital investment and are delivered through over-the-top platforms already in place, it has enabled the company to provide guidance of low double-digit revenue growth, margin expansion and relatively flat capital expenditure over the next 3-5 years. With the strong double-digit growth in free cash generation that this guidance implies, MTN is targeting annual dividend growth of 10%-20%.

Even at the bottom of the dividend guidance range, the prospective dividend yield is 15%, while the price as a multiple of expected earnings in 12 months’ time is 5x. No doubt, Brent Crude oil at below $30/bbl poses risk in the short term of foreign exchange availability and currency devaluation in Nigeria (MTN’s largest profit generator in FY19, accounting for c. 40% of group EBITDA). However, we are mindful of the oil industry saying, “the best cure for low oil prices, is low oil prices” and it is unlikely that the current situation will be sustained long term. At current levels, we believe there is now enough of a margin of safety in MTN’s share price to compensate for the risks it presents, with the potential for a strong recovery as current headwinds abate.

Investec

Over the past four decades, Stephen Koseff and Bernard Kantor created an institution. Built on the foundation of entrepreneurship and being agile and nimble to service its customers, the distinctive zebra logo became one of the most widely recognised symbols in SA financial markets.

In the early 2000s, Investec started to expand offshore with the UK being a key target market. Unfortunately, the UK’s highly competitive banking environment, ever more draconian and complex regulation and a global financial crisis (GFC) that hit just as Investec started to expand aggressively in the UK, made the experience far more lacklustre than the firm’s local successes. However, the company stayed the course, and, over time, Investec has built a strong UK presence.

Nevertheless, the UK remains a considerable drag on the Group’s profitability and ROE. Since the disastrous acquisition of Kensington in 2007 and the harsher regulatory environment post the 2008 GFC, Investec’s UK division has struggled to achieve a ROE greater than its cost of capital. This has resulted in Investec rightfully trading at a discount to its book value for significant periods since the GFC.

This discount to book value reached extremely low levels during the current sell-off, trading at close to 0.3x book. In addition, it coincides with some real positive changes taking root at Investec. The old guard has moved on and the new management team have taken decisive steps to improve the profitability of the bank.

Management unbundled the asset management division to make the structure less complex, committed to improving the cost-to-income ratio in the UK and promised that there were no sacrosanct segments of the business that will not be cut in the event of underperformance. We are still at the initial stages of the new regime and it will be interesting to see whether management can indeed improve the UK division’s ROE.

Although we acknowledge that Investec is not the highest-quality bank in the world and its earnings growth and ROE profile are far more volatile than its SA peers, we believe that the current share price provides an opportunity to enter at depressed multiples that more than sufficiently reflect the lower quality. And, the investor may yet benefit from an improvement in operating metrics as the new management team start their work.

Redefine

In recent years, many SA (and global) conservative investors squirrelled their savings away in property shares to earn an attractive, growing income. This bubble burst over the last few months and even the highest quality property companies have seen their value decimated. Selected YTD (to 25 March) declines among local property counters include Growthpoint (-45%), Redefine (-74%), Resilient (-46%), Nepi Rockcastle (-40%), Vukile (-63%), Attacq (-58%) and Hyprop (-60%). This follows already steep share price drops across the board in 2019.

The dire economic outlook for SA had already impacted Redefine’s share price hard when the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) hit and the whole property sector is now in crisis. These are unprecedented times and the world has changed in the last few weeks. Some tenants (especially in the retail sector) will earn little or no turnover for some time, and we have no doubt that they will want to renegotiate rentals with landlords. Some smaller tenants will go bankrupt. It is clear to us that the property sector will be reset after panic around the virus has subsided. Thus, the fate of many property companies is largely dependent on SA banks, who have very strong balance sheets and who, we believe, will be very co-operative in working with these companies to navigate the way through the current crisis. Although loan-to-value (LTV) ratio levels are all stated in the debt covenants for property companies, we think that the credit providers’ focus will turn from LTV ratios to interest cover, cash flow and sustainability. It is not in the interests of the banks to “pull the plug” on some of their biggest clients. We expect Redefine to work its way through this scenario together with the banks, with “reset” value emerging.

Management have acknowledged that they have no idea where rentals will settle, and they will largely depend on the health of the economy and the tenant. About 30% of retail turnover is from “safe” companies such as food retailers, cellphone companies and banks. Many office tenants will remain robust and industrial/logistics rentals will depend on tenant quality. So, it is not a disaster across the board, but months of hard negotiations will follow.

However, for investors, LTV ratios will remain a key metric and something which Redefine will have to address. At its last results presentation (FY19), Redefine had an LTV ratio of 43%. To highlight the spiral, if we assume the company had R100 of book value and R43 of debt – that 43% LTV is only just within its debt covenants. If the book value is written down by 25%, the LTV ratio goes up to 57%! Asset sales are usually a partial solution, but this looks increasingly unachievable. Withholding dividend payments becomes the next, and most likely, scenario. If a company can generate an 8% yield on book value (we are assuming no tax payable, which may be contentious), ploughing this back into debt repayments (as opposed to dividends), with a two-year dividend holiday, can reduce the LTV ratio from 57% to 41% – back into the covenant zone. We note that Redefine has already announced a delay in its interim dividend payment.

A big issue with withholding dividends is taxation. REIT (Real estate investment trust) legislation allows companies designated as such, to not pay tax and to distribute income to shareholders who receive the distribution as taxable income. If REITs do not distribute 75% of their income, then the current rules say they must pay tax on their income. We believe the property sector is in the process of negotiating with Treasury in an attempt to waive this rule – at least for a once-off time period.

We conclude that in a base-case scenario, the adjusted book value will be well below current book values, but higher than the share prices. We calculate that Redefine is fundamentally worth 50%-100% more than its current share price (unless Armageddon prevails!). But there is a high risk of shareholders not getting dividends for one, or even two, years. The share price is factoring in a far worse scenario than our base case. But investors should focus on the balance sheet and track closely the progress the firm makes in degearing.

There is a long road ahead, but we believe that, in the end, we will look back at this as a great opportunity to buy the share.

Northam Platinum

The platinum group metals (PGM) miners were the talking point of 2019. After being priced for bankruptcy in 2018, the price of the PGM basket recovered in 2019 resulting in the share prices of these miners rallying by 250% or more. The higher basket price helped these miners reduce their leverage with some of the mining companies going into a net cash position. It was a remarkable turnaround and highlighted just how cyclical the fortunes of these businesses are. Which begs the question, do you want to buy into such a cyclical industry in these uncertain times?

It is a fair question, and the answer very much depends on the risk tolerance of the investor. The reason why we are comfortable with a small position in Northam is due to the precarious demand-supply balance which the industry faced going into the COVID-19 crisis.

Prior to 2019, the threat of electric vehicles (EVs) caused the PGM basket price to remain below the breakeven price for mining companies and they battled to survive. Capital expenditure was cut across the board, with mining firms struggling to pay for maintenance capex, not to even mention expansionary capex.

Then, in 2019, the combination of a greater focus on carbon emission worldwide, the more enhanced testing after the VW scandal and the lack of R&D in combustion engines over the preceding few years forced vehicle manufacturers to just add more and more PGMs in their respective catalytic converters as emission standards became more onerous. With the costs of PGMs  a small fraction of the total vehicle production cost, they had the luxury to do this. Demand for these metals surged and the miners were not in a position to increase supply. This caused PGM prices to rally, with rhodium and palladium hitting all-time highs.

In our view, this situation will not change in the short- to medium-term, despite the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent decline in global vehicle sales. We expect demand to remain strong due to higher emission standards. Importantly, the threat of EVs, which are expected to be close to 50% of global vehicle sales by 2030, will prevent PGM miners from investing in new mines, thus keeping a constraint on the supply response.

Northam is one of the few PGM miners that will see strong volume growth over the next few years. Due to some tough decisions taken by management during the lean years, the company was able to shore up its balance sheet and it continued to invest in operations. As a result, we expect Northam’s annual production volumes to increase from c. 600k ounces this year to 1mn ounces over the next few years. Northam’s mines are also of a very high quality, operating at very low operating costs due to mechanisation. Trading at very attractive valuations and offering significant earnings (at spot PGM prices) and production growth, Northam is a high-quality operator in a very cyclical industry.

Alviva Holdings

Alviva Holdings is not an exciting company! But it is one of the Africa’s largest providers of information and communication technology (ICT) products and services. The Group has three business segments – ICT Distribution, which imports ICT hardware and software and sells it into sub-Saharan Africa via resellers, Services and Solutions, which provides system integration and ICT solution services, and Financial Services, which provides leasing finance to small-, medium- and micro-sized enterprises (SMMEs) for their ICT products.

The risks to this business are real. It is difficult to see Alviva continuing to operate in the same verticals and products as it is currently working, in five years’ time. This is due to the ever-changing industry in which it operates. For example, cloud storage and processing will, likely, fundamentally change the role ICT service providers play in the lives of their customers. To survive, ICT service providers will have to adapt their business models quickly and also ensure that they have a balance sheet strong enough to absorb any shocks.

We believe that Alviva has both these traits. It has a very experienced and conservative management team, which have navigated through some very turbulent times in the past and we maintain that management should be able to continue to do so in future. In addition, management have also been conserving cash. Over the past few years, they have adopted a very conservative dividend policy, paying out only 10% of earnings in dividends.

At our last engagement with management, they conceded that the operating environment is very tough at the moment, adding that they were very disappointed in the company’s performance but that it should improve in the second half. Management have guided that they will first look to retire around R400mn in preference shares, after which they will engage with shareholders regarding potential share buybacks. Admittedly, this was before the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, Alviva’s valuation is ridiculous – it is currently trading at a historic PE ratio of c. 2x and a normalised free cash flow yield of 50% (and we believe that we are being conservative here), so the risk-reward profile for investors is very much skewed to the upside. Liquidity is a concern and we highlight that investors should be patient if investing in this counter.

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