US health insurers

US health insurance stocks have performed extremely well.  Even if you had bought the worst ones, performance would have been similar to the S&P 500.  Why?

While the overall US healthcare system is dysfunctional relative to those in other developed countries, a broken healthcare system doesn’t explain why insurance stocks have done better than hospital stocks.  While hospitals engage in abusive practices such as surprise out-of-network medical bills (balance billing), hospital stocks have been mediocre investments.  A better supported explanation is scale.  One manifestation of scale is in dialysis treatment, a unique market where Medicare is the biggest negotiator with at least 90% of patients.  Commercial payers, with their lack of scale in this situation, are charged many times what Medicare pays.  SIRF’s analysis puts it at roughly $1,050 per treatment versus $250.  Of course, no health insurer enjoys 90%+ market share so their scale advantages are smaller.

Here’s a look at how market cap (a proxy for size) correlates with return on assets:

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Defense contractors- a world full of politics, corruption, and incompetence

Arms manufacturers are capable of making weapons that help win wars- but surprisingly enough, their customers don’t care about that.  The root of the problem is with political leaders- their interests tend to lie in buying votes.  As well, the skillset of getting elected does not overlap with the skillset of choosing competent military leaders.

As a result, the world’s richest nations often purchase weapons without any realistic testing and later discover that they do not work.  The Patriot missile defence system likely did not shoot down any Scud missiles from Iraq.  Worse still, they likely increased overall casualties as stray Patriot interceptor missiles hit civilian apartments (see page 9 of “Evaluating Weapons: Sorting the Good from the Bad“).

From an investing perspective, the history of corruption is interesting as it stretches back for decades.  During the Vietnam war, the US Army’s ordinance bureau intentionally sabotaged the M16 rifle with ammunition that would cause the rifle to jam more frequently (see page 3).  Since then, abuses have continued despite exposure in mainstream media.  Chuck Spinney was on the cover of a 1983 TIME magazine; the 1998 TV movie Pentagon Wars explained issues with the Bradley Fighting Vehicle (clip).  This suggests to me that the corruption in the US is fairly resilient, entrenched, and will likely continue to grow at a slow pace.

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Equifax: a quick accounting note on capitalizing expenses

It’s possible that Equifax is pulling on accounting levers to juice its earnings and the Adjusted EBITDA that it reports.  Capitalizing expenses (e.g. software development costs) creates profits now and losses later- it changes the timing of when expenses are recognized.

  1. On the balance sheets, capitalized internal-use software grew from 212.5M to 307.0M (an increase of 44% per year, or 94.5M).  This area of accounting is subjective- should software development costs be amortized over 3 years, 10 years, or somewhere in between?  What expenses should be considered capex?  Should these expenses even be capitalized?- some software companies don’t capitalize software development costs at all.  The answers are not clearcut.  However, accounting distortions can occur if a company were to suddenly aggressively capitalize expenses that it previously expensed.
  2. While capitalized internal-use software grew 94.5M, consolidated income before income taxes grew 91.6M in the same timeframe.  So it’s possible that Equifax’s growth is not as fast as it seems.

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Thoughts on mining (2017 edition)

Some key lessons on mining companies:

  1. They regularly withhold key information from investors.
  2. Technical reports should not be relied upon because many of them are disconnected with reality.

Without key information on a mine’s economics, these companies cannot be accurately valued.  So… mining stocks aren’t a great place to look for longs.  You might spent a lot of effort trying to value a mine and still fall short of being able to find reliable information on that mine.

On the short side, there are some opportunities.

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The Chipotle Mexican Grill way

(This is not an actionable idea or writeup.)

What makes Chipotle different is how small its menu is.  With a barebones menu, the restaurant can turn over its food quickly.  This allows Chipotle to make food before a customer orders, allowing customers get freshly-cooked food without having to wait for that food to cook.  This means high-quality food with a very short wait, making Chipotle an attractive choice for workers on their lunch break (or anybody who wants a quick meal).

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Scumbaggery matters, but only up to a point

When researching a stock, sometimes I stop caring about how shady the insiders might be.  The quality of a business usually overpowers insiders’ shadiness.  For example, Steve Madden (SHOO) is an example of terrible corporate governance.  It originally began as a ‘chop stock’ (similar in concept to a pump and dump).  Many of the people behind the scam went to jail or were barred from the securities industry.  Steven Madden, the founder of the company, went to jail.  But even after many people went to jail, the shenanigans continued.  While in jail, Steve Madden was paid a high six-figure salary even though he admits that he didn’t work while in jailDespite all of this… the stock did incredibly well since its IPO.  In many cases, the underlying business can make far more money than insiders end up stealing/siphoning/wasting.

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Quickly estimating the DCF of oil and gas reserves

From what I can tell, practically all stocks’ oil and gas reserves will have a Net Present Value of roughly 2-7 times the trailing twelve months’ cash flow.  One relevant article is titled: “The Valuation of Oil and Gas Properties: Are They Really Worth 3x Cash Flow?“.  For conventional wells, the 3X rule of thumb should come fairly close to the NPV in most cases.

I use this shortcut to get a quick sense of whether or not an E&P is massively overvalued.  Currently I only short E&Ps and am not seeing any undervalued E&Ps even though these stocks have fallen a lot.

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