The UAE’s Equity Market Performance Bank deposits have a place in your portfolio

My last article regarding the effect of rising interest rates on the UAE’s equity markets sparked quite a bit of debate on LinkedIn and got me to thinking about how the equity markets have been performing. So I looked at the year to date (YTD) return for Abu Dhabi’s market at found out it is 9.82% as of today (source Bloomberg). For Dubai’s financial market the YTD return is -12.62% (source Bloomberg). This doesn’t tell me much about the overall equity performance on a national level. Continue reading

You Can Learn to Invest From Bitcoin’s Mistakes Mature sectors will usually beat shiny tech investments

Bitcoin has recovered a bit this past week, but has still lost over 40 per cent of its value in the past two months. This isn’t going to be an “I told you so” column; it is simply heart breaking watching so many people who invested in the cryptocurrency for fear of missing out, only to lose so much of their savings. What I’d like to do instead is to try to use this shock to look at how to build investment programmes that are more robust. Continue reading

The Investing Edge: The Win / Pay Odds Gap

Investing is too often looked at using a handful of academic models. Successful investing involves thinking about the investment process in as many different ways as possible. This article takes a look at investing using alternative views.

From Betting to Investing

Many of the ideas used by the investment community are adopted from the horse track and casino betting communities. Much of the failure that has dogged the investment community is due to rocket scientist PhDs misunderstanding the successful models of plebeian punters. The use of betting as an example is not an endorsement, just history.

To understand how the securities markets work you have to look no further than the horse bookies. Bookies take bets from the bettors. This is the first point that the public begins to misunderstand how betting, and therefore investing, works.

There are two potential misunderstandings:

  1. Assuming that each horse has a uniform probability of winning, i.e. they are all just as likely to win.
  2. Assuming that the bookie offers one to one payout odds, i.e. pays $1 for each $1 that is bet.

Grasping the significance of these statements is the key to successful investing. The bookie, equivalent to the investment bank or broker, will always make money. Always. They do this because they do not set payout odds depending on which horse they think will win, they set payout odds based on how people bet. Continue reading

Dubai Financial Markets Investor Structure Improving

My foray into DFM’s historical data unearthed some interesting nuggets, both of which I consider positive.

For the first half of this year, Arab investors, including from the GCC, withdrew a total of AED 1.6 billion from the market while UAE citizens invested a total of AED 421 million. Here is the first interesting bit, the total investments by non-Arab investors was AED 1.2 billion. That is remarkable and exactly the kind of statistic we want to see, a more balanced and broader foreign investment profile.

In essence what the above indicates is that the UAE has managed to increase foreign non-Arab investment at a time when oil prices have dropped from historical levels. This is not only a vote of confidence, it is a positive trend.

The second statistic is type of investor, with individuals selling AED 628 million to institutions. This, too, is positive as increased institutional investing is key to developing a market, not least because they have a higher tendency to impose corporate governance.

This article was originally published in The National.

Investors are falling into a liquidity trap in the GCC

I am increasingly hearing of people investing into positions in the markets because they think that the price of a share is cheap due to a decline in the price. The price is not cheap, it is low for a reason.

Worse, when these investors enter the market and buy the shares they think they have made a great decision when they see prices immediately rise. But prices in such situations usually rise because the shares are illiquid and the buying just pushes up the price artificially.

To understand this we first have to define liquidity, which in this case is how quickly one can buy or sell shares without affecting the price. This alone is not specific enough, because there is a difference between selling one share and selling a million shares. This brings us to the concept of average daily trading value (ADTV), or the total value of the shares of a particular stock traded every day averaged over some period. If we look at the trading size as a percentage of value traded we can get a better picture if trading a certain size in a single day is liquid or not.

So, for example, if the trading size is 1 per cent of ADTV then it is usually safe to assume that it is liquid. However, if the trading size is, for example, 20% of ADTV, then doing it all in one day without affecting price is difficult. Looking at the Dubai Financial Market (DFM), as an example, in the second quarter the value traded for Emaar Properties was AED 3,227,999,534 which gives, using an estimate of 64 trading days, an approximate ADTV of, AED 437,493. This would indicate that buying AED 1 million shares of Emaar Properties, representing about 2% of ADTV, in the open market on a single day should not impact the price. On the other hand, the same calculation on Shuaa Capital gives an approximate ADTV of AED 2,452,726 indicating that an equivalent size trade to Emaar of AED 1 million Shuaa shares in a single day would constitute about 40% of ADTV and would likely affect the market price.

This means that for the investor who buys a relatively illiquid stock and sees a price rise, it is most probably a phantom profit as once the investor tries to sell the price appreciation will reverse or worse.

This is completely unfair if this is being done by an asset manager who is charging a fixed fee on assets under management (AUM). Let’s say the manager buys AED 100 million of an illiquid AED 0.50 share in a block-trade from a distressed seller. This won’t move the market. But if the manager then buys AED 1 million of the shares in the open market then he can easily move the price to AED 1 per share, increasing the position to AED 151 million with a profit of at least AED 50 million on paper.

If the manager is charging a 1% management fee, then doing so on the inflated valuation of AED 151 million is equivalent to charging 1.5% on the actual value of AED 100 million. Of course these outsize returns can be made bigger by pushing the price further.

Worst of all, when the manager tries to exit, if he can’t find another investor to sell to in a block-trade, then unloading all those shares will obliterate the stock price. The asset manager would make outsize fees on inflated valuations and then walk away free.

Some will argue that the performance fees that asset managers usually charge would help to align their interests with their investors. But remember, performance fees are contingent and charged to profit whereas management fees are guaranteed and charged to the assets.

The idea of announced values being much higher than actual values is not new.

For this reason it is imperative that investors demand from their asset managers certain liquidity guidelines, or at the least apply management fees retroactively after exit. The risk is ending up with a highly illiquid portfolio that looks good on paper but you only find out the truth when you try and sell into the market.

This article was originally published in The National.

Board drama, and crunching the numbers on oil

A few weeks ago I pointed out that Etisalat generated earnings of Dh0.97 per share and paid out Dh0.80 per share, which is a payout ratio of 82 per cent. I further pointed out that paying out such a high percentage of profits was consistent with a status quo strategy and inconsistent with an expansion strategy, which would need to use the earnings to expand. Last week Etisalat bid for Oman’s third mobile operator license.

The question is, is it rational to pay your shareholders nearly all of your profits and then to go on to expand? Etisalat saw its revenue drop in the first quarter although it managed to grow profit by cutting expenses. Still, with revenue falling, earnings being paid out and an expansion strategy, one is walking a tight rope.

I also recently analysed the 2016 financial performance of Gulf Finance House (GFH), a financial services group, in particular with respect to announced discussions with Shuaa Capital for a merger. The analysis showed a large loss from normal operations of about US$230 million masked by a one-time litigation award to show a profit. I was curious to see why Shuaa would be interested in GFH and so reviewed GFH’s Q1 2017 financials that were recently released. Perhaps GFH could engineer a miraculous turn around in normal operations.

The report showed that GFH has indeed achieved a profit of $33.5m for the quarter. An astounding achievement. I dug deeper. Financial services can have notoriously volatile earnings but one thing caught my eye: a profit of $25.6m from the sale of a subsidiary.

Upon closer examination, the profit came from selling a stake in a school.

The shares were received as part of the litigation settlement in 2016 and GFH valued this part of the stake at $29.4m. A year, or less, later they sold the stake for $55m for a profit of $25.6m. That is a return on investment of 87 per cent in at most one year. Did GFH generate a fantastic 87 per cent return in one year by its skill in operating the school?

Perhaps the whole market went up 87 per cent? Possibly the buyer and their advisers are clueless and overpaid by nearly double?

This one-off extraordinary transaction explains 76 per cent of the profit. I considered analysing if the other 24 per cent was one-off or normal recurring business, but why bother?

Union Properties last week announced that three of the directors of the board had resigned right after an AGM that appointed them. The three directors publicly denied resigning. There could be some chance that this is just a big misunderstanding. The more likely scenarios are less than salubrious.

Board drama is a red flag suggesting serious internal issues at a company. The number of such incidents in the market, along with going concern warning, capital injections at loss making companies, and law suits, will be a gauge of how much the oil price drop from 2014 is affecting our economy.

On Thursday, the price of oil dropped to its lowest level in five months. The main benchmark Brent fell below US$50 a barrel, followed by a modest comeback on Friday to about $49; as of Monday afternoon it was still at that level.

One reason for the drop was reported in a Financial Times article that quoted Jamie Webster, a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University: “Opec extension is baked into market expectations, but roaring shale growth makes the sizeable but too small a cut completely lose its potency.” A separate FT article stated that although the agreed Opec production cuts amount to 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd) the actual cut to exports might be as little as 800,000 bpd.

It is a little worrisome that Opec cuts production and oil prices pop up for only a short while. We keep hearing how oil prices will go up because of a lack of investment in oil infrastructure. Oil prices might pop up, but they keep dropping back down. If what you are hearing is different than what you are seeing, which should you believe?

In the investment world we have a phrase, “talking one’s book”. This describes the natural human trait of speaking positively about something beneficial to you, in this case the investments an investor has made. As investors and individuals who must make a myriad decisions based on the economy we should ask ourselves: if doing the same thing but expecting different results is a sign of insanity, then what is listening to the same thing and expecting different results a sign of?

This article was originally published in The National.

Venture Capital Lessons from India, Lebanon and Ireland

In a recent article I pointed out the failure points in the UAE’s venture capital ecosystem, in particular the lack of support for entrepreneurs and start-ups. In this article I’d like to review some of the initiatives other countries have launched that could be useful in upgrading our ecosystem.

Given the recent visit to India of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, let us start with that government’s efforts, and in particular the Startup India initiative. This initiative is comprehensive, starting with a streamlined registration process. Importantly, it has a streamlined bankruptcy process that seems to be fair – no extra-judicial imprisonment if an entrepreneur cannot financially meet a liability. There are also tax breaks for the company as well as investors in the company.

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Sharpe Enough to Cut You: Misunderstanding Investment Models

Investment management when done with funds appears to have developed permanent blind spots. By being unaware or unconscious of these blind spots, investment managers using funds have quite often performed poorly. The greatest of these blind spots is a set of tools developed by Professor William Sharpe, a Nobel laureate and professor at the Stanford School of Business.

Prof Sharpe introduced three main tools into the investment world – the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM), the Sharpe ratio and Style Analysis.

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China Crisis? Risk-parity meltdown? Or financial gravity at work?

The last few weeks have seen equity markets around the world register significant losses. Sudden downward price movements can be stressful and the conflicting analysis and advice can be confusing. Although I cannot give specific advice on what to do, perhaps I can point out some issues that might have been overlooked and would be useful to consider.

The general consensus is that the current market woes began with a crash of China’s equity markets on Monday, 24 August. The 8.5 per cent drop in the Shanghai Composite Index is what many market commentators agree triggered the global wave of selling. What is not made clear is why the Shanghai tanked and why this would trigger a global crash. The answers proffered are that China’s economy is slowing, and that this in turn will trigger a slowdown in the global economy. This is puzzling because the slowdown has been common knowledge for quite a while now, and anyway Chinese growth is still running at about 7 per cent a year. So what news came out to trigger the price plunge? Nobody seems to have an answer.

Even more perplexing is the effect of China’s economy on the world. The narrative that a brake on China’s economy would slow down global growth has things backwards. China is a supply side economy and depends on robust global demand. It is only if global demand, in particular the United States, were to slow down that we would expect a slowing in the global economy, including China.

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Investment Valuation Lessons III: Discounted Cash Flows versus Peer Group Comparison

The debate of whether discounted cash flows or peer group comparisons are the better business model has raged ever since M&A became vogue. Let me put an end to the suspense right now: both are useless as effective valuation tools. Let’s find out why and what might work.

Discounted Cash Flow

The problem with discounted cash flows (DCF) is the sensitivity to a large number of parameters especially since DCF is usually used to predict high-growth. It is hard enough to predict the future performance of stable businesses. Trying to predict the performance of companies in a growth phase is indistinguishable from guessing.

So how should you go about valuing the company that is about to go into a high-growth phase? The short answer is you use a value based on the scenario that the company continues as is. In other words the high-growth is as much a result of your cash as it is of the company’s business. Therefore the growth phase piece should be treated as if it is a complete start-up where everything is valued at book value and therefore there is no premium on the current business.
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