Category Archives: General

BNCCORP’s 2014 Results

Some twelve months past we briefly profiled BNCCORP’s 2013 results. Casting aside the convention of geographic contiguity, BNCCORP, Inc. “operates community banking and wealth management businesses in North Dakota, Arizona and Minnesota, and has mortgage banking offices in Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, Arizona and North Dakota.” (PR)

Initially it was the attractive price that drew my interest (uncovered frauds tend to provide such), but over the last few years, BNCCORP has also pleasantly surprised its investors with strong core banking results.  And 2014 offered more of the same.

As of 12/31/14, BNCCORP had a book value per common share of $18.28, and it produced a return on average assets and equity of  0.94% and 12.37%, respectively, through the year 2014.  Non-performing assets decreased to $317k at 12/31/14, compared to $6.7 million at 12/31/13.  For that performace, today’s buyer is willing to pay $15.75 per share, or roughly, .86x BV.

Last year I expressed some disappointment with BNCCORP’s modest loan book ($351 million in total loans at 12/31/13, vs. $436 million in securities), and the fact that they hadn’t yet redeemed their preferred stock and subordinated debt.  In 2014, progress was made on both fronts: the loan book increased to $408 million at 12/31/14 (vs. $449 million in securities), and the subordinated debt was redeemed in Q314.  Coupled together, these moves helped to prevent some of the net interest margin compression that peers have endured.

This year, one additional potential negative is the effect of lower oil prices on BNCCORP’s North Dakota loan book and demand deposits.  Though BNCCORP’s North Dakota loan book represents only $233 million of their $947 million total assets, it was the portion that many thought would offer the quickest and most profitable growth.

Disclosure: No position.

[P.S. On Seeking Alpha, Chris DeMuth has offered BNCCORP as his best long idea for 2015.]

Hingham Institution for Savings 2014 Results

We have found a new year, and what better way to begin than to digest the feast of community bank earnings?

Last year at this time we profiled the Hingham Institution of Savings (Hingham, MA).  Though already much admired, Hingham has seemed to only bolster its reputation further in 2014–retaining its spot as the #1 thrift in the East, and moving up to #2 in the US (per SNL Financial [PR]).

The close of 2013 found Hingham with a book value per common share of $48.49, a return on average assets of 1.07%, and a share price of $77.50 per share, or roughly, 1.6x BV.

2014 saw them improve nearly every operating metric of significance. [PR] Return on average assets and equity rose to 1.13% and 14.32%, respectively (after adjusting for a large one-time life insurance death benefit).  Non-performing assets decreased to 0.20% of total assets, compared to 0.46% at December 31, 2013.  And non-interest expense as a percentage of average assets settled at 1.37% in 2014, vs. 1.40% in 2013.

Book value per share reached $57.08 at 12/31/14, and today’s price of $88 represents a multiple of 1.54x BV.

Like last year, the most impressive aspects of 2014’s performance were Hingham’s large loan portfolio (i.e., as a percent of total assets) and low efficiency ratio (37.19%).  The most obvious negatives remain their relatively high cost of funds (now 0.78% in 2014, down from 0.93% in 2013), low level of demand deposits, and low level of non-interest income (when excluding the one-time insurance death benefit).

Disclosure: No position

California Water Rights

I have found a few more data points to add to my list of water rights sales in California and Arizona.

Some snippets:

1) “This year the market is unbelievable,” said Thomas Greci, the general manager of the Madera Irrigation District, which recently made nearly $7 million from selling about 3,200 acre-feet. “And this is a way to pay our bills.”

2) “Now everyone’s mad at me saying I increased the price of water. I didn’t do it, the weather did it,” said Etchechury, who manages the Buena Vista Water Storage District, which netted about $13.5 million from the auction of 12,000 acre-feet of water.

Disclosure: No position.

Investing at Any Price

“There are no bad bonds, only bad prices.”  So says the old and odd adage that gets kicked around trading floors from time to time.

Of course, once you start there, the adage subtly twists upon itself, becoming “there are no bad assets, only bad prices.”  Or perhaps worse, “there are no bad stocks, only bad prices.”

The truth that lurks somewhere therein is uncontroversial.  For any asset worth X (i.e., its “intrinsic value”), investment returns increase as the discount from X increases.  Perhaps more interestingly, the increase is not linear.

However, our seemingly innocuous adage seems to hide the way in which it breeds and feeds confidence and security.  The inner monologue quickly follows: “as long as I buy a security at a big enough discount to X, I’ll make money.”  Subtly the mind fixates on the discount, and comfortably takes the X as a given.

Given the prevalence of the adage, and the investment justifications it seems to elide, I was ever so grateful to stumble upon Robert Vinall’s May presentation, entitled “Mistakes of Omission.” (Hat Tip to ValueInvestingWorld)

It would be hard to overstate the profound elegance of the presentation, but even the barbarian would appreciate the simplicity of slide 14.

To me, it seems to suggest that there is no price too low for some equities, and conversely, almost no price too high for others.  The crux that differentiates the two–the quality of the underlying business.

Thoughts?

Seanergy’s Unrealized

Q: What do you call a $SHIP with no ships? (PR)seanergy maritime

A: A company “…now focused on pursuing growth through accretive transactions.”

Since the Seanergy saga made an appearance here in the past (1/21/10, 6/7/10), I suppose I feel compelled to mark its ending.

Good night, and good luck.

Disclosure: No position.

Norfolk Southern Capex

NorfolkLogoI spent some time today with Norfolk Southern’s recently filed 2013 10-k.  With a $28 billion market cap and 6.7% trailing after-tax earnings yield, it bears a striking resemblance to that former target of Mr. Buffett’s “elephant gun“.

Now suitably reloaded, it doesn’t require much imagination to see how elegantly the Norfolk lines would fit with Burlington’s.

Norfolktrack

Of course, one should not let the imagination linger too long, for regulators have effectively preempted such a union, noting in 2001, that any future merger between Class 1 railroads would “bear a heavier burden to show that a major rail combination is consistent with the public interest.” (546)   Most simply, the STB merger policy “disfavors mergers that reduce competitive options for shippers absent substantial overriding public benefits.” (550)

So let us assume then that Mr. Buffett’s elephant gun is safely stowed.  The question remains–should we take aim, particularly since Mr. Buffett might be similarly inclined, but cannot?  After all, imitating or “cloning” has served many investors well.

Norfolk’s financial performance over the last three years has been strikingly consistent–revenue ton miles between $186 and $194 billion, freight train miles between 74.8 and 76.3 million, and revenue per ton mile between $0.0581 and $0.0595. (K5)  Those loads were good enough to produce $3.1-3.2 billion in net cash from operating activities in each of the last three years. (K46)

And where did the money go?  2011 saw $2.16 billion in capex, $576 million in dividends, and $2.05 billion spent repurchasing stock (extra debt was raised that year to fund the excess).  2012 saw $2.24B in capex, $624MM in dividends, and $1.29B spent on stock (again, extra debt was raised).  2013 saw $1.97 billion in capex, $637MM in dividends, and $627MM spent on stock.

So I guess that you can see the theme.  Norfolk’s business gushes cash at a remarkably consistent rate, but every year, nearly two-thirds of that cash is just as consistently reinvested in capex (i.e., track, railroad ties, locomotives, freight cars, etc.).  In itself, that fact is not necessarily bad, for reinvested cash may create opportunities for growth and productivity improvements in the future.  However, in the case of railroads (or at least, Norfolk), it just seems that desired future never arrives.

To be fair, cash flow from operations has grown at Norfolk over the last decade.  In 2004, cash flow from operations tallied $1.66 billion.  Recall that 2013 saw cash flow from operations of $3.08 billion.  So growth of $1.4B.  But to get there, Norfolk had to invest $13.32 billion over the last nine years, or roughly $1.5B every year.  So there was a return on all that capex, and not an indecent one.  After all, everyone knows that railroads are capital-intensive businesses, and a regulated “utility” of sorts.

Yet, it is a bit surprising to see free cash flow at Norfolk in 2005 at $1.08 billion, and to see it at $1.11B in 2013.  After all, it almost sounds like a boast when I see Mr. Buffett write: “We are not, however, resting on our laurels: [Burlington Northern] will spend about $4 billion on the railroad in 2013, roughly double its depreciation charge and more than any railroad has spent in a single year.” (2012 Letter to Shareholders)

Perhaps tomorrow will shine brighter on the railroads than today.  Then at last, the seeds of yesterday’s capex will fully blossom.  Until then, count me as too impatient or unimaginative, or worse.

Disclosure: I own shares of Berkshire Hathaway.

Alaska Airlines and Rewards

Alaska Air Group filed their 2013 10-k yesterday, and even that fickle Mr. Market seems impressed.

2013 saw Alaska Airlines expanding rapidly into new markets, acquiring nine new aircraft (“new 737-900ER’s with the Boeing Sky Interior”), buying back $159 million in stock, increasing their social engagement (“We saw healthy increases in both of our primary social communities with Facebook growing by 45.9% and Twitter by 43.2%”), and enhancing their culinary flair [ok, that last one is a project for 2014].

From my seat, I was struck by the huge growth in per-share GAAP earnings (from $4.40 per diluted share in 2012, to $7.16 per share), as well as the large proportion of those gains attributable to a “one-time, non-cash Special mileage plan revenue item.”  As they advise:

“Our consolidated net income for 2013 was $508 million, or $7.16 per diluted share, compared to net income of $316 million, or $4.40 per diluted share, in 2012. Significant items impacting the comparability between the periods are as follows:

• Both periods include adjustments to reflect the timing of net unrealized mark-to-market gains or losses related to our fuel hedge positions… 

• In 2013, we recognized a one-time, non-cash Special mileage plan revenue item of $192 million ($120 million after tax, or $1.70 per diluted share) that resulted from the application of new accounting rules associated with the modified Bank of America Affinity Card Agreement, and the effect of an increase in the estimate of the number of frequent flier miles expected to expire unused.” (p. 29)

Of course, I mean not to suggest anything nefarious here, and their disclosures are quite consistent and explicit.

However, the gears of the mind begin to turn, for it reveals that the most impactful thing an enterprising airline executive could do in 2014 to boost GAAP earnings would be to modify their reward program.  In fact, if one were clever, such modifications–suitably tempered–could be a consistent, recurring, valuable treasure trove.  You could take $192m today, though would it not be more useful to take 40m each year over the next 5?

Disclosure: No position.

MFC Industrial and IAT Reinsurance Settle

In the Friday evening news dump, there were some interesting tidbits, including, and with no particular relation to one another, a mine safety disclosure from Berkshire Hathaway, and a settlement agreement between MFC Industrial and IAT Reinsurance.

Peter Kellogg of IAT (who controls 33% of MFC’s shares) was ultimately elected to MFC’s Board after an interesting proxy fight this past December.  Friday’s settlement indicates that the MFC Board size will now increase from five to seven:

“On or prior to the date hereof, the Board has passed a resolution fixing the number of directors of the Company at seven (7), subject to the filing of the Notices of Dismissal of All Claims With Prejudice pursuant to Sections 8(a) and 8(b) hereof. The Company covenants that during the Term, the number of directors of the Company shall not be increased from seven directors unless such increase is approved by at least 6 of the 7 directors of the Company. The vacancy on the Board resulting from the increase in the number of directors of the Company to seven shall be filled within one hundred and twenty (120) days from the date hereof by a person who is qualified to act as a director of the Company and who is selected and approved by mutual written agreement of the Company and IAT.”

Mutual agreement on two names?  Mark me intrigued.

Disclosure: I own shares of Berkshire Hathaway and MFC Industrial.

eBay’s Bill Me Later

eBay’s 2013 10-k came out on Fridaylogoebay_x451, and much there is worthy of comment.

For the last few years, I have followed the growth of Bill Me Later within the eBay portfolio, and over that time, my skepticism has increased commensurately (though perhaps ‘exponentially’ would be more accurate).

eBay acquired Bill Me Later in those interesting times of October 2008 for roughly $1 billion USD.

Basically, Bill Me Later offers promotional credit for eBay purchases.  From the 10-k:

“We also provide credit products through our Bill Me Later service. Currently, when a consumer funds a purchase using Bill Me Later, a chartered financial institution extends credit to the consumer, funds the extension of credit at the point of sale and advances funds to the merchant… Although the chartered financial institution continues to own each of the customer accounts, we subsequently purchase and retain most of the consumer receivables related to the consumer loans made by the chartered financial institution and are also responsible for servicing functions related to the customer account…  U.S. consumers may be offered an opportunity to defer payments under some promotional arrangements offered on select merchant sites. Interest on such purchases can be deferred for up to 18 months.”

In 2008, the receivables for Bill Me Later were more or less immaterial to eBay’s balance sheet.  In 2013, eBay purchased $794 million of consumer loan receivables, up modestly from the $727 million purchased in 2012.

In aggregate we find: “as of December 31, 2013, the total outstanding balance of [Bill Me Later’s] pool of consumer loans was $2.9 billion, of which the chartered financial institution owns a participation interest of $65 million, or 2.25% of the total outstanding balance of consumer receivables at that date.”

And apparently, I am not the only observer to have an eye on Bill Me Later, for:

“On August 7, 2013 and January 13, 2014, we received Civil Investigative Demands (CIDs) from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) requesting that we provide testimony, produce documents and provide information relating primarily to the acquisition, management, and operation of the Bill Me Later business, including online credit products and services, advertising, loan origination, customer acquisition, servicing, debt collection, and complaints handling practices.  We are cooperating with the CFPB in connection with the CIDs.”

Disclosure: No Position

BNCCORP’s 2013 Results

‘Tis the season for polar vortices and community bank earnings.  Following Tuesday’s theme, today we receive BNCCORP’s 2013 financial results. (PR)

BNCCORP has a more colorful recent past than Hingham, having been subject to fraud, insurer litigation, and preposterous capital raising plans.  With all that now behind, we find today’s BNCCORP producing strong returns on assets and equity.

As of 12/31/13, BNCCORP had a book value per common share of $14.45, and it produced a return on average assets and equity of  1.07% and 15.15%, respectively, through the year 2013.  For that performance, today’s buyer is willing to pay $13.14 per share, or roughly, .9x BV.

From my seat, the most impressive aspects of 2013′s performance were BNCCORP’s declining non-interest expense (down 10% in Q4 YoY) and strong non-interest income (despite the headwinds in mortgage banking).  The most obvious negatives were their relatively small loan book (351m in total loans at 12/31/13, vs. 436m in securities), and the fact that they haven’t yet redeemed their preferred stock and/or subordinated debt.

Disclosure: I am long shares of BNCC.