10 reasons why I bother…..

Every now & then, I receive a comment or an email, the gist of which is usually the same. To paraphrase, the message is usually something like “Hi there, I like your writing, but I wonder why you take the time to look at these companies. It seems like a lot of effort, when you could just invest in Tesla, Bitcoin, or an index. Why bother ?”

To be sure, there are many ways to make (and lose) a dollar, but for me, the investing process has never been only about making money. I have always been the kind of person that wants to know how (or why) something works. Personally, there is always a great deal of satisfaction in the understanding of something, as understanding usually leads to confidence, which in turn leads one to repeat the process, and hopefully learn a bit more. For those that are wondering why I “do what I do”, here’s 10 reasons why I continue to take the time to do my own research, and invest in the small, the ugly, and the underfollowed.

The Apple IPO is long gone. As is Netflix, Tesla, and Google…. On any day of the week, you will be bombarded by news about major companies, most of which are the current “darlings” of the market. Don’t get me wrong – I use the services of most of them, and they are fine companies. But I would venture to say that both you and I never had the opportunity to invest in the IPO for any of these. OK, maybe you did, but then I have to ask why you’ve landed here, as it would seem you have more money (and perhaps better connections) than myself. In any case, while these companies have made vast fortunes for those that invested early, most of us “regular folks” will never get the opportunity to “get in early” on companies such as these. While you are unlikely to find the next Apple, it is not impossible to find a company that can provide returns that are 10x, 20x, or even 50x your initial investment in the small cap market. Not only have I seen this happen, but I have seen it happen more than once, and I have been invested in companies like this – more than once.

The small and micro cap market is the home of inefficiency. The flip side to being bombarded by news about Apple and Tesla is the fact that you will almost never see any news about Macro Enterprises, Vitreous Glass, or Pyrogenesis – unless you go looking for it. All of these companies were totally accessible at prices affordable to the smallest retail investor, and were found primarily as a function of “sniffing around” the small cap marketplace for interesting opportunities. Two of these (Macro and Vitreous) signaled their opportunity well in advance, and provided the opportunity to invest at compelling prices for months. Arguably, Pyrogenesis was more difficult to read, but has nonetheless provided investors with enormous upside. While each of these companies are markedly different from one another in both industries and management styles, they were all found in the same place – the small and sometimes very inefficient TSX Venture.

Small company CEOs will actually talk to you. This point should be taken with a grain of salt. Tim Cook will never talk to you – Apple is just way too big, and you are just another peon wondering what the future holds. But that also means that Tim Cook will never tell you gilded tales of future company success – at least not to you directly. The good (and bad) thing about small companies is that you can actually get in touch with the CEO, and he or she will actually talk to you. This I have learned firsthand. Many times, I’ve had to peel myself off the phone, as I get nothing but smarmy proclamations about how awesome the company will be, at some time in the future. But other times have been very interesting, as small company CEOs are often thrilled that an investor is actually calling them. While they won’t offer up “insider” information, sometimes a lot can be gleaned from fairly innocuous conversation. I once recall speaking with the CEO and CFO of a small cap company whose share price had been steadily gaining ground. The shares had risen significantly, but based on fundamentals, they should have been much higher, and were still well under $1.00. I explained that I was a shareholder, that I had a substantial position (for me), and that while I was happy with the share price gain, I was concerned that the market wasn’t recognizing the true value of the company. There was a long pause, and then the CEO asked if I had sold any shares. I said no, as I thought it was too early. He paused again, and then said “good”. This struck me, as in all the calls I had ever made before, nobody asked me how many shares I held, or if I had sold any. He didn’t communicate anything that wasn’t public knowledge, he didn’t talk up the company, and he didn’t say that I shouldn’t sell, he just asked a question that is typically never asked. I don’t remember the rest of the call, but the tone of his answer stuck with me. I held, and was very happy I did. The shares went on to reach much loftier heights, and one of the reasons I held was because of that phone call.

Not only will they talk to you, they may actually give you a tour. I will freely admit that this is not like getting a backstage pass to your favorite band, but for investment geeks, it is pretty cool. At some point in time, you will end up looking at the financials of a company whose operations are actually in (or close to) your hometown. If that company is small, then there is a chance that you can arrange a tour. This is another thing that I have learned from firsthand experience. Sometimes, a tour is superficial, and you learn nothing – but sometimes it gets right into the guts of the operations. I once recall touring a small waste processing facility, and let me tell you, I was right in the thick of it. It wasn’t particularly pretty, but it was small and efficient. The fact that my guide, one of the senior management, owned a sizable chunk of shares made it even more significant. When he was walking through the plant, he wasn’t just looking at a bunch of machinery, he was looking at things that would make his compensation better – or worse.

You will probably learn something that’s not “investment” related. Unless you unfailingly invest in only one industry, you will probably be exposed to different sectors that are new to you. Sometimes the lessons are directly related to the sector that the company operates in, and sometimes they will seem to come out of left field. When I first started investing in small Canadian energy companies, I came across the term “break up”, and had no idea what it meant. Was there a love interest that I was unaware of ? I just needed to ask, and discovered that “break up” and “freeze up” are related terms which refer to how passable the Northern parts of Alberta are on a seasonal basis. Crews are unable to move drill rigs in the latter part of the year until after winter “freeze up”, as the muskeg literally needs to freeze so that the equipment won’t sink. In the spring, if they want to move equipment in or out, they should do so before “break up”, as the muskeg starts to thaw. From the telecom sector (Total Telcom to be specific) I learned that even though one often sees diesel trucks idling for what seems forever, that idling is actually bad for the engine, and causes excess carbon buildup, which in turn causes that ugly black diesel exhaust. One of the products Total has developed controls an ancillary heater that allows the cab and engine to stay warm, without actually running the vehicle. As the saying goes, you learn something new every day – or perhaps with every investment.

You will also learn to recognize errors that are investment related. One thing about learning to manage your own investments is that you will discover (eventually) that big name brokerages and companies with fancy investor presentations will make mistakes. This is not to say that these mistakes are malicious, but at the end of the day, people are human, and humans mess up. This too I have learned this from experience. My brokerage once sent me a tax slip which classified a very large, one time return of capital as an eligible dividend, which had significant tax implications. More recently, take a look at the statement (below) from the audited financials of a company that currently trades on the TSX Venture. If you can make the numbers add up to the circled value, I will send you a prize – seriously, I’m not kidding. If you can make those numbers add up, I tip my hat to you!

It’s your money. Most people reading this post probably work, so most of you can identify with the concept of trading your sweat for a dollar. Regardless of whether you turn a wrench or plunk away on a keyboard, you are using your finite life as a mechanism to gain some of those almighty dollars. Last time I checked, your life (and mine) was worth something, because that money you earn is the result of you giving up some of that finite “life time”. The truth is that once you give that money to someone else, they see it as only money. When you hand over a fist full of dollars to someone to manage it, you have effectively handed over part of your life. Some of those managers are good, and some aren’t. While you might not be the best money manager (to begin with), you will learn, and you don’t have to go full tilt from the beginning. Start small and learn. One thing is certain, and that is the fact that you will always have your own best interest in mind.

Bernie Madoff is still out there. OK, so he really isn’t out there (he is still doing time), but you don’t have to live in New York to fall victim to a good scam. Not that one should be paranoid, but charlatans abound, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Bernie Madoff dealt with all sorts of high rollers, as his client list included none other than Kevin Bacon and Steven Spielberg, but the point is that you don’t have to be famous to lose money to someone dishonest. Take it from me – I know. When I first started out, I briefly subscribed to a newsletter known as “Buy Low, Sell High”, which eventually wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. The publisher of that newsletter, Al Budai, was eventually banned from working in the industry, as he was simply running a better version of the classic “pump & dump”. More recently, a former CFL player was convicted of fraud, as he used his persona & charm to convince people to invest in his “non-profit”. The truth is that if you walk into your local bank and buy index funds, you won’t get ripped off – but there are lots of other folks out there that are interested in doing so, and they are a persistent and charming bunch.

You will release yourself from the yoke of the financial services industry. Let’s face it – the financial services industry has no interest in a “smart” you and is much more interested in the “clueless” you. I recall a meeting I had with a rep from my bank, whose job it was to convince me to invest with them. He showed me all of their mutual fund offerings and told me which ones he thought would be best for me. I then asked him a pointed question about the funds, specifically, had they outperformed any particular benchmarks over the last 10 years? He very kindly pointed me to the annualized return number, and I asked again, did this represent outperformance or underperformance? After a deep study of his own shoes, he admitted that he wasn’t sure. Now, I don’t know if this was just a function of him being really nervous, not actually knowing the answer, or not wanting to admit that the funds had actually underperformed, but the point is that one shouldn’t pay for underperformance. A reasonably intelligent individual who decides to manage their own money will start small, learn from their small mistakes, and eventually know why they are under or outperforming – and they will have learned something. Over the long term, such an individual is just as likely to perform as well or perhaps even better than what their local bank is offering.

Lastly, most of your returns will be normal – but some will make a huge difference. Investing in small and microcap companies is not an immediate ticket to riches, despite what Instagram or TikTok might be telling you. Some investments will make money and some will lose money, but if you are doing your homework, the winners should outpace the losers. However, when one goes long on a small or micro cap company, the really “fat tails” live only on one side – the upside. Yes, you can lose 100% of your capital, especially if you are sloppy and are not really researching and understanding the companies that you invest in. On the other hand, if a small company does well, you can make much more than the typical market return. When one finally crystalizes a gain that pays off the mortgage (or something as impactful), it creates all sorts of options – which is probably “why I bother” to invest in these types of companies to this day.

For those with questions, comments, or their own “Grey Swan” stories, I can be reached at mark@grey-swan.com.

2018 in review….

Given that we are closing in on the end of the year, I thought I would publish a quick recap on those positions that I previously wrote about, namely:

  • Pioneering Technologies
  • Titan Logix
  • Reliq Health Technologies
  • Total Telcom

Unfortunately, like most of the Canadian small cap market, all of these are either in the toilet or treading water. However, each of these has its own particular story. Without further ado, I’ll launch into it….

PTE logo

Pioneering has been perhaps the biggest disappointment of 2018, as not only did it fail to meet revenue targets, it’s share price also cratered catastrophically. As of today (December 12th 2018), Pioneering is trading at $0.10, roughly a  90% drop from its price back in late 2017. The short & not-so-sweet reason for this skid is “over promise and under deliver”. Given the attention and buzz that was created around Pioneering in 2016 and 2017, investor expectations became inflated, and when increased sales didn’t show up, the bottom dropped out of the share price.

For those of you that have been following this story, this is all old news. The real question is “what now” ? Now that the market cap is a shadow of it’s former self, is this company on the scrap heap, or does it have a future ?

Clearly, if I knew the answer to this, I’d already be on my island somewhere. That being said, we can take a look at “what is” to determine “what might be”:

  • The balance sheet (as of June 2018) remains debt free, with $5.7 MM of cash and short term investments.
  • Assuming that sales are still slow to materialize, and cash is still being burned up at the same rate, PTE could be consuming between $225,000 and $360,000 per month, or cash burn of $1.575 MM to $2.52 MM for the 7 months from July – Dec 2018.
  • If this is indeed occurring, then cash and short term investments, as of December 2018,  could be as low as $3.2 MM to $4.1 MM.
  • This in turn means that net equity per share (using the fully diluted share count) could be as low as $0.13 to $0.15 per share, after adjusting for cash consumed.
  • If one eliminates all long term assets, then the Net-Net book value per share (using the fully diluted share count) falls between $0.11 and $0.12 per share.
  • Lastly, if one adjusts for potential cash consumed, the adjusted Enterprise value (using the fully diluted share count)  is between $2.35 MM and $3.25 MM.

So, at todays price of $0.10, you are actually buying Pioneering on a “net-net” basis. Is this a good deal ? It depends – if the Pioneering Smartburner is no longer useful, or has become obsolete, then the value of the company is questionable no matter how low the price gets. However, what if sales do (eventually) show up ? Or better yet, what sort of sales have to show up to make a difference ?

If we take a look at the most recent PTE financials (9 months ending June 2018), PTE recorded about $4.5 MM in total costs. Note that we are excluding any gains / losses due to the derivative liability, as this appears to have worked itself off the balance sheet. If we adjust this $4.5 MM for non-cash costs (stock based compensation, amortization and depreciation), it’s reduced to $3.5 MM of cash costs, which suggest that full 12 month costs should land somewhere in the $4.7 MM range, which we will simply round to $5.0 MM. We also know that PTE has managed to maintain gross margins at 50%, so in order to break even on a cash cost basis, PTE needs to see $10 MM in revenue.

Is $10 MM in revenue a pipe dream ? Well, we know that for fiscal 2017, PTE did indeed record $10 MM in revenue at a 50% gross margin, so the answer is “no, it’s not a dream” – they have done it once, and I find it hard to believe that in fiscal 2017 they sold to every possible customer in North America.

Perhaps the better question is why anyone would buy a Smartburner to begin with. Lord knows I wouldn’t – I have a gas stove, and I like instant heat. However, we need to separate the idea of who has the purse strings from what people want. You’ll recall that at some point in your distant past, your parents told you to wear a helmet when you were biking, skiing, or doing most anything that suggested the potential for injury. You, being the disobedient child that you were, likely fought this edict, until such time that your parents reminded you that “while you live in this house, you live by our rules”. They controlled the purse strings, and regardless of your thoughts, you complied. The same is true here – the people that are going to be cooking on a Smartburner sometime in the future won’t be doing so because they want to – they’ll do so because the owner of that home said so.  That owner believes that the “de-risking” of their rental unit is well worth the annoyance of getting used to a Smartburner, as tenants are now less able to burn down the house. With compliant UL858 stoves already in showrooms (I have seen them), the trend for safer coil top stoves is here to stay. Naysayers would suggest that if compliant stoves are on the market, the landlord will just buy one of those. Well, maybe – if you have the nicest landlord in the world. One thing about landlords is they like to control costs. The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) suggests that a basic coil top stove lasts between 18 and 22 years. If I am a landlord, I’m not shelling out $400 for a new stove if I can make my existing stove (which has another 10 years of life) compliant for half that cost. While you might concede this point, you might also be saying that the vast majority of landlords simply won’t buy a Smartburner, because nobody says they have too – and you are right. Pioneering doesn’t need every coil top stove to be converted, they just need some. To be specific, with over 40 million rental households in the US, they just need a very small slice of some.

So, at the end of the day, I don’t believe Pioneering is heading for bankruptcy. I do believe it was overpromoted (which led to the run to $1.50), but the concept of kitchen fire safety, an aging population, and all those rental households in the US have not gone away. I believe that at the current price of $0.10, PTE may provide some significant upside (assuming sales materialize), and is suitable for very risk tolerant small cap investors. Of course, I may be wrong, and that may cause people to call me various names, some unflattering. That’s ok – I’ve been called many things, and have survived them all. I continue to be long, and have purchased at the current price.

Titan Logix

Some of the things I end up going long on gets lots of press – and others don’t. Titan falls into this category, as despite consistent improvement, it keeps skipping along at basically the same price.

Titan year end numbers, released on November 29th, revealed the following:

  • Revenue up 28% vs prior year.
  • Cost of goods down 3% vs prior year.
  • Gross margin up 90% vs prior year.
  • All other cash costs up 8% vs prior year.
  • EBITDA is still negative but is significantly improved at  -$0.256 MM vs -1.11 MM.
  • The company remains debt free.
  • Book value is $0.51/share, and net-net value is $0.35 per share.
  • Cash & short term investments of $8.27 MM, or $0.29 per share.

While it is true that Titan is still EBITDA negative and burned a whopping $500,000 over the course of the year, this has to be viewed in the context of a recovering energy market. As we all know, commodities are cyclical – when prices are lousy, producers stop drilling, consumers keep consuming, and eventually prices start recovering. Around that time, producers decide to start drilling again, but since bringing new production on isn’t like flicking on the light switch, there tends to be a bit of a lag, at which time price really starts recovering – not exactly rocket science.

So Titan is managing to actually increase revenues (and gross margins)  while keeping a lid on G&A costs – all in the context of an energy market that isn’t running on all cylinders. This begs the question – what will things look like once activity starts to pick up even more ?  While I don’t know the answer to that, I do know that Titan remains a low risk play on the energy sector and has significant upside potential. At this point, the market is valuing a debt free company at slightly more than the assets on the balance sheet, suggesting that any future cash flows will be worth the square root of zero – a proposition which I don’t believe. While I don’t know when the market will notice, I’m glad to wait and potentially pick up more as the price drifts through the low ~ $0.50 range.

RHT image

I had never actually intended to write about Reliq, but when they released their infamous “we have to restate revenues” press release, they provided a textbook case of a company that I try to avoid like the plague. Overvalued, overhyped, and with a balance sheet and an exploding share count that assault the senses.

To be fair, I should point out that I did indeed own Reliq at one point, as I indicated in my prior post.  However, once the valuation of Reliq started to get beyond what I could understand, I sold for a tidy profit. I will freely admit that the company has never been a favorite of mine, and because of this I cannot profess to have the depth of knowledge that I might have with other positions. That being said, Reliq hasn’t given investors much to be happy about recently, so if you are bullish on Reliq, I’m guessing you’ve done your homework, or you are simply comfortable with the implied risk.

All of that aside, the question as always is “what to do today” ? The share price is obviously much lower, so perhaps this represents a reasonable entry point.

Whenever I’m about to take a position such as this, I try to map out where things are today versus where they might go tomorrow, which is not unlike how I view my position in Pioneering Technologies. For Reliq, I took the time to map out the numbers, as shown below:

Reliq valuation at Dec 14 2018

This table shows us the value (in terms of Market Cap and Enterprise Value, or EV) as of the most recent financials, and what the EV of Reliq might be as of December 31st 2018 assuming a low cash burn rate of $427,000 per month, and what the EV might be assuming a high cash burn rate of $1.03 MM per month. Both of those cash burn rates tie back to the most recent financials, where it indicated that Reliq used $1.28 MM ($427,000 per month)  after changes in working capital, or $3.1 MM ($1.03 MM per month) if you exclude changes in working capital.

Some of you may have noticed that I tend to focus on the EV/EBITDA multiple as a general yardstick for valuing a company, as this metric rolls market cap, debt, and cash into one ball of wax. As investors, we are always on the lookout for value, and a company that has high EBITDA and a low Enterprise Value is a reflection of that.

In the case of Reliq, I have shown what the EV could look like as of December 31st, and what sort of EBITDA an investor needs to expect in order to justify some sort of reasonable valuation. For instance, if you believe that Reliq will continue to burn cash at the “low” rate, then estimated year end EV of $23 MM suggests that you need to see EBITDA (at some future point in time) of $2.3 MM in order to justify a EV/EBITDA multiple of 10x.

What we can see is that Reliq needs to book somewhere between $5.75 MM of EBITDA for less aggressive investors who are willing to pay 4x EBITDA, and $1.77 MM of EBITDA for those investors who are very aggressive and are willing to pay 14x EBITDA.  Which leads us to the question – is this possible ? The short answer is maybe – but I’m not holding my breath.

If one takes a quick look at the Reliq financials going back to the year ending June 2016, you can see two things pretty quickly. First , EBITDA has been negative for every year, and not a “little bit negative”, or “negative and trending up”. It has simply been negative every year, and has gotten worse each year. In fact, EBITDA in this last quarter at -3.1 MM is worse than each of the fiscal years ending June 2016, 2017, and 2018.

Secondly, one can see that the cash in the company coffers has arrived as a result of share issuance. So, if you work for one of the firms that underwrote one or more of those share offerings, I must commend you on a job well done, as you managed to raise no less than $18 MM since 2016.

So, while I generally don’t shy away from speculative companies, I will be keeping my distance from this one till further notice. Perhaps Reliq will turn things around – but they’ve got a deep hole to dig themselves out of before that happens.

Total telcom logo

Since my initial post on Total (November 02 2018), not much has really changed, so this will be perhaps my shortest “update”. Nonetheless, Total did issue Q1 financials on the 29th of November ,which were largely neutral:

  • Q1 revenues essentially flat at $346K vs $345K prior year .
  • Cost of goods up 12% vs prior year Q1.
  • Gross margins down 5% vs prior year Q1, at 53% vs 58%.
  • All other cash costs down 6% vs prior year Q1.
  • EBITDA down 11% at $72K vs $81K vs prior year
  • Net earnings of $50 K flat vs prior year Q1.
  • The company remains debt free.
  • Cash on hand of $1.4MM, or $0.057 per share.

As the cop on the street would say, “nothing to see here, move on”, which is what I expect most of the market did. However, there are a few points worth noting that are still interesting. Firstly, its only fairly recently that Total has managed to be EBITDA and cash flow positive (Q1 of 2015), and since hitting this milestone, this is the best Q1 TTZ has recorded since then:

TTZ comparative Q1 since 2015.PNG

With the exception of shares outstanding, which have risen by a measly 1% since 2015, every other metric is improved: the cash balance is consistently growing, and EBITDA, cash flow, and earnings are all the highest they have ever been for a Q1. While this doesn’t necessarily predict the future, it sure doesn’t hurt.

Additionally, overall results for Total last year were muted by the fact that they actually lost some customers in the Environmental services sector (in the US). In addition to this, the heater controller segment was impacted by a shortage of vehicle heaters, which dampened their overall sales in this segment. Despite this, Total exited the year with net income of $476K, or EPS of $0.019.

So, while Q1 numbers weren’t blockbuster, they certainly didn’t make us run for the hills either. Based on what we can see today, barring a major catastrophe, it would seem reasonable that Total can at least repeat last years results. If they do manage to do that, then the current price of $0.18 suggests that an investor might see a flat share price or decline to around $0.14. To be fair, Total has traded as low as $0.12 in the last 52 weeks, but it only traded at that level for less than a month. For the vast majority of its “cellar dwelling”, it has tended to trade around $0.14. So, one could see a worst case loss of 33%, or a more likely loss of 22%.

On the other hand, if Total sees expansion in any one of it’s revenue streams, a lot of that incremental revenue flows straight to the bottom line. In my prior post I highlighted how the company now covers all of its costs from its recurring revenue stream, which means that any increases in existing revenue streams (or any new revenue) is “gravy”. To put this in perspective, for the year ended June 2014, Total booked revenues of $765K, whereas for the year ended June 2018 they booked revenues of $1.78 MM – a CAGR of 23%, all while maintaining gross margins of 50% or more. While last years revenue growth was an anemic 2%, Total previously had revenue growth of 6%, 38%, and 54% for the years 2015, 2016, and 2017. The gist of the argument is that it they have managed very significant growth, and I can’t imagine they recently have thrown up their arms and said “that’s good enough”. With management owning almost 30% of the shares, I’m guessing they have a strong interest in growing the company some more.

With this in mind, we continue to hold our position in Total, given that our cost basis is somewhat lower than the current price, and the fact that liquidity is sometimes limited. Assuming that Total does manage to garner more incremental revenues, we believe this could provide upside of 50% or more.

As always, these are only my thoughts & opinions. If you have questions or comments, I can be reached at mark@grey-swan.com.

Polaris infrastructure: Tuning out today to focus on tomorrow

Having worked at more than my share of “big companies”, I was often subjected to the short term nature of decision making. Quite often, decisions were driven for “optical” reasons that produced sub-par results over the long term, but made one particular group happy over the shorter tem. The company, having boxed itself in by one bad decision, would continue to lurch from quarter to quarter – healthy enough to stave off impending insolvency, but still trying to staunch the bleeding from some poorly executed acquisition.

Companies are not unlike people – they have different motivations, and do things for different reasons. Like people, some have a very short term view of things, while others might be able to see the proverbial “forest for the trees”.

The same is true for investing. Early in my investing career, I was also guilty of focussing on the shorter term picture. While the balance sheet and the income statement of today (and yesterday) provide a clear picture, that picture is only that – the picture of “today”. I was focussed on what had happened, but largely unable to think about what could happen. I eventually realized that my focus on the present (and the past) caused me to eliminate many potentially sound investments because, in their present form, they looked too ugly.

If you are an investor who takes an interest in particular companies, the ability to see beyond the ugliness of today is crucial. For that matter, even if you are an index investor, the ability to see beyond present market conditions when the headlines are screaming panic, is also crucial. The problem with humans is that our brains are still wired for the newsflash about the stampeding herd of wildebeest – better to stay in the cave a little longer, than risk getting trampled like your cousin Larry. In the meantime, the herd is long gone.

Those of you that are familiar with my investment philosophy know that I subscribe to a somewhat unorthodox style. A part of my portfolio is always reserved for the ugly and the misunderstood, as these companies can sometimes provide investment returns bordering on the unheard of. With this in mind, I try my best to look beyond the sometimes dismal financial statements of today, to see if there are any bright spots of future improvement.

Often times, these are small things that don’t scream “improvement”, but require a bit of research. Things like adoption of a particular companies product (or a similar one) by a new market segment, new government legislation that favours the adoption of a particular companies product, or changes in macro economic events can often turn a small companies fortunes on a dime. By the same token, keeping an eye out for similar things that might imply negative impacts for a particular company is also key. Either way, sometimes the most useful investment information about a company is not found in its own present day statements, but in an unrelated press release about another company, the general economy, or shifts in social issues.

An excellent example of this is a company which I had been following for some time, Polaris Infrastructure. Polaris was formed when RAM Power, the predecessor company, was recapitalized, resulting in a significant reduction in debt and the associated de-levering of the balance sheet. The newly formed Polaris Infrastructure was concentrated both with respect to geography and business lines, as they operate geothermal electrical generation in Nicaragua. Add to this fact that the company reported in US dollars, but traded on the Canadian TSX exchange, and you can understand why it may have flown under the radar.

Many investors were distracted (and still are) by the fact that this small company was operating in a foreign jurisdiction, traded on a non-US exchange, and had a chart that looked like the last half of a roller coaster. However, missed in this was the fact that the company is effectively an electrical utility, providing “clean” power via fixed contracts denominated in US dollars. My curiosity in the company was piqued significantly in 2016, as crude oil (and the Canadian dollar) both proceeded to fall precipitously. Polaris, with its contracts denominated in US dollars, also initiated a dividend in US dollars.


For investors in the frozen north such as myself, we could buy Polaris in Canadian dollars, but receive a dividend denominated in US dollars, which would then benefit from the falling Canadian dollar vs the US dollar exchange rate. As one can see, many of the most interesting things about this story were not to be found on the pages of the most recent financial statements, and required a bit of “looking beyond” the current information. I purchased Polaris in early 2016, and have been holding it ever since. Eventually, the CAD-USD exchange rate will move again, but by this time, it’s likely that Polaris will have added more generation capacity, which should increase cash flow & the associated dividend.


In this particular example, the current focus on clean energy and the changing exchange rate landscape were perhaps the two key things that were not to be found on the income statement or balance sheet. These two things pointed to how this companies fortunes might pan out vs what was happening “right now”. If nothing else, it highlights the fact that it never hurts to keep an eye out for “where the puck is going” as opposed to “where it is right now”, as you’re far more likely to make a good play at the end of the day.


Please note – this post is not meant as an endorsement of Polaris Infrastructure, or as a suggestion that the reader should invest at this time (or at any time)  in this company.  The company is mentioned and discussed only in the context of demonstrating a particular investment philosophy or style.


Why pick stocks ?

There are a great many finance blogs out there, and many of them are clear when it comes to “active management”. Various studies have shown that active managers rarely beat the market indexes, so the question is clear: if the professionals are lousy stock pickers, why try to do it for yourself ?

For many of us, that’s the only information we need in order become index investors. Nonetheless, as the saying goes, “variety is the spice of life”, and my approach has always included an element of active investing. To be clear, I am not against indexing. Rather, I’m simply explaining why I still actively seek out and pick individual stocks. To be even more clear, I’m not suggesting everyone run out and do the same (I doubt you will). Think of this as a glimpse into my view of the markets. If it’s entertaining, then I’ve done my job. If you learn something, as unlikely as that might be, then even better.

I follow a two pronged approach in my investment philosophy. I have two “buckets” of money: shorter term liquid investments which I can use for anything, and longer term and less liquid investments which are distinctly earmarked for retirement. Note that short term money can migrate to the long term bucket, but long term money never migrates the other way. Once it is “locked in”, it stays there. I should also clarify that “retirement” means “golden years” kind of retirement. In the meantime, I may not be working a standard 9 to 5 job, but I am not retired either.

The long term bucket is, for the most part, invested in companies that show steady growth and pay steady dividends – think consumer staples (Kraft), pipelines (Enbridge), and REITs. In this bucket, I am far less active, but I keep an eye out for bargains nonetheless. For instance, when oil started to go into a tailspin in 2015, I didn’t look at oil & gas producers, but rather at the pipelines that transported the commodities. The market, acting as it sometimes does, decided that pipeline companies should also be re-priced, despite the fact that pipeline tolls are designed to largely eliminate commodity risk. In any case, this bucket is not unlike an index fund, as it typically holds very large and very stable companies that change very little over time.

It’s in the short term bucket that I am most active. In this bucket, I favor the very small, the misunderstood, and the ugly. When all the stars align, it can be all three. Some of you reading this may be nodding, and you are probably saying that this is a classic deep value approach. This is partially true, as I will explain.

Early in my investing career, I tried various approaches, with various degrees of success. To make a long story short, I discovered that picking large cap value stocks at steep discounts was more difficult than it appeared to be. While there are sometimes bargains to be had, the market tends to be efficient with big names. I also tried momentum investing, with little success, as my charting skills were poor to say the least. Finally, over time I realized what should have been obvious – that the smaller end of the market, and the very small end of the market, was where true inefficiency came to hang out.

At this point, I’m sure many of you are no longer nodding in agreement, but rather shaking your heads in disapproval. Dreaded penny stocks, the veritable scourge of the investment world, are vilified by many, and for good reason. Many of them are over promoted shell companies that are intended only to enrich insiders. However, some of them are real companies with real intentions on making a better mousetrap. The trick is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and then, to separate further.

When I look at these very small companies, I tend to look for specific things such as:

  • A high level of management ownership that has stayed relatively steady or increased over time.
  • Management that has deep pockets. Think of Tesla and the way Elon Musk has backed it.
  • A company that is not just a resource or commodity company.
  • A history of operations. I’m looking for a company that has been at it for a while.
  • Low debt levels.
  • A minimal amount of outstanding options or warrants that will create excessive dilution.
  • A product that is relatively simple to adopt or implement, or clearly solves a problem.
  • A strategic advantage with respect to relationships or location.
  • Hopefully, a reasonable price to book value ratio.
  • No analyst or investment banking coverage. The idea is to be the first person at the party!
  • Lastly, a nice flat lined chart that indicates current investor sentiment is indifferent.

I may have missed some things, but this list encompasses the bulk of the factors I look for. Once I’ve found a potential company, I call them to see how approachable they are and to see if I can glean any more information. I call customers who use the product to ask about their experience with the company, and I call distributors who sell the product. I try and talk to anyone who deals with the company or uses the product to get a better understanding of how good or bad the product (and the company) is.

This process probably sounds time consuming, but I’ve come to consider myself a full time investor. This being said, I can assure you I don’t spend eight hours a day on the phone. Because the company in question is usually not a hot prospect at the time, the share price is usually fairly flat, so there is little risk that something material is going to happen right away. I will have these conversations over long periods of time, and will make notes accordingly. If the research turns up good information, I slowly add to my position. Rarely do I put in a large volume order, as with small companies, one can move the price quickly. Once I have a significant position, I monitor things – and wait, sometimes for a long time.

As you can imagine, this process is not for the faint of heart or for the impatient, so it tends to weed out those shareholders. But the payoffs, when they do occur, are well in excess of normal returns. While there is always the risk that a company can go bankrupt, thereby handing you a 100% loss, when these companies turn the corner, they pay off far beyond ones expectations. It only takes one to move an entire portfolio, as I discovered a few years after starting to pursue this “tiny ugly company” strategy. Over the period of 24 months, I watched the share price of one of my holdings move from under $0.20 to over $6.00. That single holding moved my entire portfolio significantly, and made up for everything else that was just plodding along.

So, at the end of the day, I’m an active investor almost entirely in the darkest, smallest recesses of the markets, as this is where one can truly find companies that may provide abnormal returns. By purchasing a basket of companies like this, risk is diversified. It’s not necessary for all of them to do well, or for that matter, for the bulk of them to do well. While I can never say that “XYZ Corp is going to go from $.25 to $100”, I do know that there is a reasonable probability that some of these will muddle along, some will go bankrupt, and one or two will perform beyond my wildest expectations. My job is to stay curious and keep looking for the small, the ugly, and the misunderstood, as these are the companies that will provide those abnormal returns over the longer term.

Grey what ?

Some of you might be asking this question, concerned that you’ve stumbled onto some really weird bird watching website. Well, don’t worry. This website might yet be weird, but it’s definitely not about bird watching.

Some time ago, I read a book that you might be familiar with, “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The gist of the book is this: that in life, and particularly in the finance world, we as individuals are beholden to impactful & unpredictable events. While we often think we can predict what will happen, we are simply bad at predicting, or we characterize our predictions incorrectly. The net effect is that we, believing we can predict outcomes, get blindsided by what we can’t see, can’t understand, or just don’t understand properly.

These unanticipated events are “Black Swans”. The title refers to the fact that at the turn of the century, people believed all swans were white because no one had seen a non-white swan. The fact that a breed of black swan was eventually discovered highlights the fact that if one has never experienced something before, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

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