Buybacks (part 2)

To follow a theme outlined a couple of weeks ago, my going forward intent in my random musings segments is to view some of the issues of the 2020 presidential campaign under discussion.  My investing rationale has always been that to be successful, one has to understand all possible outcomes which means digging through a lot of crap to discern viable opportunities. It would appear at this early stage that much like 2016, 2020 will have plenty of that to wade through.  As an added bonus, I don’t want to disappoint my newest audience demographic by suppressing my irreverence. As always, these are only observations awaiting an investing opportunity that may never present itself.

The Pitchfork Economics series on buybacks continued on February 26th with Sen. Cory Booker (one of the multitude of Democratic presidential contenders) as a guest discussing his new bill, Workers Dividend Act.  Evidence cited to support his cause is twofold.

  1. American Airlines (AAL) wage increase was roundly panned by analysts.   Booker states the analyst opinions were misguided – which is true. To parlay these opinions into supporting rationale against buybacks is equally misguided as these were partially collectively bargained.  (i.e., benefit to unionized employees which is a goal of the bill.)
  2. His use of Walmart (WMT) as the proverbial case of buyback greed ignores some aspects that are detrimental to his position.  Walmart offers its’ employees matching 401K plans, stock ownership plans with a 15% discount and HSAs, of which some – if not all – allow employees to share proportionately in the “wealth” gained through buybacks.  The choice resides with the employee as to participation.

In an attempt to frame rhetoric with reality, I chose my oldest 15 holdings to identify what happened over the past three years.

Company201820172016
Comcast3.05% decline1.83% decline 3.18% decline
WEC Energy 0.09% decline .09% incr. 16.21% incr.
Chevron0.46% incr.1.33% incr.0.11% decline
Kimberly-Cl.1.77% decline 1.6% decline 1.26% decline
Norf. Southrn3.48% decline 1.93% decline 2.76% decline
Clorox1.19% decline 0.11% decline 0.8% decline
Prosperity B.0.51% incr. 0.28% decline 0.53% decline
Sysco0.5% decline5% decline 3.26% decline
Owens & Minor0.0% change 0.16% decline 0.16% decline
Walt Disney1.51% decline 3.72% decline 4.1% decline
Home Depot2.81% decline 3.82% decline 4.68% decline
PepsiCo0.9% decline 0.96% decline 2.22% decline
Kimco Realty0.62% decline 1.03% incr.1.66% incr.
Towne Bank0.13% incr.0.08% incr.1.05% incr.

Data from MacroTrends

In this scenario (excluding increases denoted bold/italic), the buybacks – as a percentage of the stock outstanding – actually decreased during each of Trump’s years as president despite the tax plan (from 2.1%/1.94%/1.45%).  Companies increasing their share count did so generally to use as currency in lieu of debt. In Chevron’s case this was to fund capital expenditures. Most of the others were for acquisitions.  It’s only slightly ironic that a merger cutting jobs and increasing capital concentration (banking sector) would be viewed more favorably due to an expanding share count

This discussion topic has also been picked up by Mr Tako Escapes who elaborates more skillfully than I.  I don’t dispute two points here, 1) Companies tend to have poor judgement in the timing of these transactions (buy high) and 2) the dollar amounts being expended.  But a dose of reality has to exist as well, I mean – realistically how many capex dollars should be spent to further the worldwide glut of steel (as one example)?

At least this exercise has been interesting but to draw any real conclusions requires a larger sample size.  More questions will also arise such as, ‘Are buybacks more prevalent in the overall S&P universe moreso than the DGI slice?’ or ‘Is my portfolio a large enough sample to be reflective of the stats bandied about by the Democratic candidates?’.  As usual in this blog, more questions than answers. I intend to complete this exercise for all of my holdings during the year

Other concepts will likely hit the garbage heap prior to getting much traction including a wealth tax (constitutional issues) and Modern Monetary Policy (hyperinflation).  As an aside, these concerns, per David McWilliams piece entitled Quantitative easing was the father of millennial socialism as presented by Ben Carlson makes for an interesting case. It certainly appears that the 2020 election season is off to a rousing start. Bottom line, I suspect some candidates will use this issue as a cry to rally the base with minimal substance to follow – similar in many ways to “Build the Wall” of yesteryear.  A reflection of what little has been learned over the last two years. In my mind not an investable theory.  

As always, opinions are welcome!

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Bank Strategy – 2017/2018 Review

During the 2007/2008 financial crisis, bank stocks were one place many investors fled from – like herds of lemmings.  I can’t say this was unreasonable as these companies sustained blow after blow – some deserved and some not.  When a company such as Lehman collapses,  mortgage  GSEs are federalized and mortgage lending comes to a grinding halt one has to consider the Chicken Little scenario – is the sky really falling?  From this systemic failure emerged a new dawn on the heels of legislation, notably Dodd-Frank.  Though far from perfect, this bill in 2010 established a floor from which the system could be rebuilt.

To paraphrase Warren Buffett, my view was this fear and dysfunction presented an opportunity.  With the dust beginning to settle, in early 2013 I dipped my toes back into Financials.  With the exception of Prosperity Bank (PB), which I classified as a Core position at that time along with a few others, these holdings – peaking at about 32% of the total portfolio in aggregate – didn’t exceed the 1% threshold individually.  Financials currently hold 29.9% and are trending down.  Truth be told, this group did provide the octane enabling my portfolio to consistently exceed the benchmark.

The Dividend Diplomats employ a similar small bank strategy but our approaches differ.  Whereas their baseline is the dividend screen process, I rely more on size and geography.  This is due primarily to embedded distortions in a TARP (and post-TARP) world as well as historical factors regarding bank failures.  For example, Lanny’s Isabella Bank purchase wouldn’t make it onto my list as I consider Michigan banks inherently risky due to the number of failures within the state during the last crisis.  You could posit a macro versus micro view in our perspectives.

Since I began this strategy I’ve periodically reported my results with my 2015 and 2016 reviews.  I was remiss earlier this year as the pace of significant mergers decreased in the post-Trump world.  This activity is now accelerating due to two factors, I think.  The first being the Dodd-Frank modifications enacted in May making it less onerous for banks of a certain size to combine.  The second being rising interest rates.  This one is less obvious as rising rates should be a boon to banks.  However, the spread between long and short rates is compressing (perhaps inverting soon?) which is where much of the profit is derived.  So the results, please?

Bank Strategy
YEAR TTL FULL PREM REVERSE % NOTES
2014 6 1 2 21.9% 41 positions
2015 16 3 0 38.7% 49 positions
2016 8 2 0 13.8% 58 positions
2017 16 1 0 25.8% 62 positions
2018 15 5 1 19.23% 78 positions

Note: through 7 Oct 2018

Of interest is that the majority of 2017 was mostly a year of consolidation with smaller banks (usually thinly traded or private) being acquired by one of my holdings.  2018 is interesting in that a number of mergers have a cash component which adds to the complexity of determining the ‘real’ valuation resulting in some initial pricing or recommendation assessments by firms on Wall Street.  I bought into two of these before the assessment changed in my favor (resulting in an unanticipated unrealized gain).

Now that this sector is pretty much fairly valued unless some compelling opportunity presents itself I’ll hope for some of the remaining 73 to be acquired and place my cash elsewhere. 🙂

Harvey

Hurricane

Mother Nature certainly is a beast at times.  Watching her ongoing treachery on the television is heartbreaking to say the least.  Looking out the window, I see sporadic rain – which will continue for a few days – but nothing of the magnitude being experienced just a couple hundred miles away.

As my mind wanders a little due to the same images being replayed over and over, I can’t help but thinking of the economic impact of Harvey.  Being resident in Texas, my portfolio has a little bias towards my home state.  In a similar vein, which companies stand to lose – or gain – from this tragedy?  I figured I’d lay out my thoughts – which probably are incomplete – as a basis for determining whether my portfolio can weather (pun intended) a storm of this severity.

Continue reading

Small Banking Revisited

Periodically I encounter an article that hits at the core of one of my strategies.  As many of  you know, I’m currently a little overweight financials with an emphasis on regional banks.  This was not always the case as I (fortunately) exited the sector in late 2007  reentering only in early 2013.  My five year pause was bookended by what Richard J. Parsons refers to as the Great Panic of 2008-2009.  His article, Finding Alpha In Reliable Dividend Banks(14 June 2017) struck a chord with me and illustrated some of the style I came to embrace for a time. Though I’m not selling my banks, other than special situations, I’m currently not a buyer either.  If you are a bank investor (or considering being one) I’d recommend reading his article.

His article highlights 30 regionals that actually raised dividends during the Panic.  By comparison, my hypothesis was segmented into three ‘buckets’ which were:
1.Good dividend payers
2.Stock dividend payers
3.Acquisition candidates

Although he includes some stock payers (CMBH, AROW, SBSI, and FLIC (roundups on splits)) this is not his article’s focus.  I’ve written on these before so I’ll exclude them.

His article also points out that only one of the original 30 was acquired which is a slight disappointment when one of my goals is to obtain a merger premium.  Several on his list were acquirers which kind of proves my rationale to expand the universe to include potential acquisition targets in my bank holdings a couple of years ago.

Leaving us with his list.  One notable point is his geographic analysis.  “Certain states are more likely to be home to these reliable dividend banks: Indiana, Texas, California, Kentucky, Missouri, and upper state New York.”  This melds with my findings though I attributed this to state regulatory agencies as certain states had disproportionate numbers of bank failures.  Therefore I excluded western (California) and southern US banks.  To his mix, I found Pennsylvania to be a viable candidate as well.  This difference could be that mutual conversions (notably preeminent in PA, NY, NJ, VA and MA) were identified as likely targets by my study.

Another note on his analysis, “…a few critical factors influence long-term success in banking: hands-on expert management…”  In fact he elaborates a little on this in the comment stream.  A tidbit is both Missouri banks on his list were established by the Kemper family.

So the actual question is how do my portfolio holdings stack up against his list?  Half of the thirty are owned.  Of the nine owned by Richard, seven are owned (one obtained via a merger).  One being in California was excluded by geographic screening.  I’m not sure offhand though, why I excluded CBU out of New York.  My primary takeaway from his article was a validation of my strategy and I need to further investigate a few.

His complete list follows:

Access National ANCX 1.4B VA
Arrow Financial Corp. AROW 2.7B NY
Auburn National Bancorp AUBN .8B AL
BancFirst Corp.   BANF 7.2B OK
Bar Harbor Bankshares  BHB 3.4B ME
Bank of Marin Bancorp BMRC 2.0B CA
Bryn Mawr Bank Corp. BMTC 3.3B PA
Bank of Oklahoma   BOKF 32.6B OK
Commerce Bancshares   CBSH 25.3B MO
Community Bank System CBU 8.9B NY
Cullen/Frost Bankers CFR 30.5B TX
Community Trust Bancorp CTBI 4.0B KY
First Capital  FCAP .8B IN
First of Long Island Corp.  FLIC 3.6B NY
Farmers & Merchants Bancorp  FMCB 3.0B CA
Horizon Bancorp   HBNC 3.2B IN
National Bankshares NKSH 1.2B VA
Norwood Financial Corp.  NWFL 1.1B PA
Bank of the Ozarks OZRK 19.2B AR
Prosperity Bancshares  PB 22.5B TX
People’s United Financial, Inc.   PBCT 40.2B CT
Stock Yards Bancorp  SYBT 3.0B KY
Tompkins Financial Corp.  TMP 6.3B NY
United Bankshares UBSI 14.8B WV
UMB Financial Corp.  UMBF 20.6B MO
Westamerica   WABC 5.4B CA
Washington Trust  WASH 4.4B RI
First Source  SRCE 5.5B IN
First Financial THFF 3.0B IN
Southside Bancshares SBSI 5.7B TX
Bold-owned by Richard, Italics-owned by me