Most investors who travel through the pink sheets have stumbled upon FRMO Corp (FRMO) at some point. The response is always the same, first disbelief that a company could grow book value at 76% a year for almost a decade, and secondly the thought "what the heck do they even do?" To understand FRMO we need to understand Horizon Kinetics first.
Horizon Kinetics is a boutique investment firm that runs a number of mutual funds, aptly named the Kinetics Funds. They provide institutional strategies, investment advisory, and boutique research. Many value investors will be familiar with the Horizon Kinetics quarterly market commentary. Two of the firms founders are Murray Stahl, and Steven Bregman. Horizon Kinetics is a relatively recent combination with the company being formed in 2011. The company is a merger of the prior companies: Horizon Asset Management, Kinetics Advisors, and Kinetics Asset Management. Lastly Horizon Kinetics has approximately $7b in assets under management.
So what does Horizon Kinetics have to do with FRMO? FRMO is also run by Murray Stahl, and Steven Bregman, and FRMO owns a portion of Horizon Kinetics. In essence an ownership stake in FRMO gives an investor an ownership stake in Horizon Kinetics too. And currently this is the only way to own a piece of the investment boutique. If the story were that simple I probably wouldn't have done a post, there's a lot more to FRMO then a simple ownership stake in Horizon Kinetics.
FRMO started off as a strange structure, the company was a shell that owned intellectual property rights to funds and strategies that Horizon Kinetics employed at the advisory and in the funds. As the funds and strategies did well FRMO received royalty income streams. The Horizon Kinetics products were very successful, and FRMO's share of the revenue streams grew increasingly valuable. At the end of 2002 FRMO had $185,745 in shareholders equity. As of the most recent filing the company's shareholder equity is $55,938,847. Just sit and think about that for a few minutes, in the last decade shareholder equity grew from less than $200k to almost $56m. This clearly shows how valuable the ideas that Stahl and Bregman sold to Horizon Kinetics were.
FRMO isn't a net-net, or a deep value asset/earnings discount stock, it isn't really like much else actually. Even without a deep value label FRMO is clearly an oddball stock. The company is nothing more than a pile of assets, and a lot of raw brain power. The company has no liabilities outside token amounts of accounts and taxes payable. They employ no one, pay no salaries, and don't operate like any standard business. Yet without employees the company continues to grow, which is a great example of how easily capital scales and grows once it reaches a critical mass.
The first question I had, and by extension a few readers will have, is if they've grown at such an incredible pace why are they trading on the pink sheets, and completely unknown? The company ran into some problems a few years back with their unconsolidated holding. The SEC wouldn't let them file without presenting audited statements for the holding because the holding size was above a certain ownership threshold. The problem for FRMO was that they didn't have access to those statements, and as a result couldn't satisfy the SEC's requirements. With the inability to file timely statements with the SEC they were forced off the exchange and into the pink sheets. After the merger that resulted in Horizon Kinetics the FRMO shrunk as it became a holding in a much bigger company. The holding size is now below the threshold that requires audited statements for unconsolidated holdings. The company is working on getting a clean bill of audited financials for a few years so they can re-list.
I want to pause here and say that if you get nothing out of this post I hope you will at least head over to the FRMO website and read the annual shareholder letters, as well as spend some time in the research section. Murray Stahl has published a lot of papers explaining some of his investment ideas, and his investment strategy. One thing I share in common with Stahl is my preference for owner-operator companies. Out of the 50 or so holdings I have 22 are owner-operator companies. The research and shareholder letters contain some truly unique investment thinking, something rare in the markets these days.
Based on the description above FRMO might seem like a complicated story stock. The type where if you don't read three hours of message board history you'll never quite "get it". Or the type of stock that has a book written about it (JG Boswell). FRMO isn't a story stock, they have a small amount of history, but they're very easy to understand. Beyond that their valuation is actually very simple and straightforward.
The company has a $55.9m book value against a market value of $76.32m. The company's assets consist entirely of cash and marketable securities. From these securities, and from the residual revenue streams the company generated $3.2m in net income last year, and $1.05m this latest quarter. The company derives roughly 25% of their revenue from consultancy and advisory fees, 50% from dividends and interest, and another 25% from investment partnerships. The company's expenses are artificially high because they are required to accrue salary expenses even though there are no salaries paid out.
If we take the market value and subtract out the liquid assets we're left with $14.42m as the value the market is assigning to Stahl and Bregman's brain power, and investment acumen. It might seem like there's no way to value this brain power, but I would suggest there is. These two men grew FRMO from under $200k to $55m, and Horizon Kinetics from a firm with zero AUM to $7b AUM. The way I view this is that the two men running FRMO have been extremely successful twice in the past, and their plans for the future are similar to what they've done in the past.
One objection a lot of investors have with cash boxes, which FRMO roughly qualifies is that management might do something stupid with the cash. For most net-nets and lower quality businesses this is certainly true. The opposite is true in FRMO's case, the cash and securities are entrusted to two capable investment managers. You can get an understanding of Stahl and Bregman's investment philosophy through the Horizon Kinetics quarterly letters, and the FRMO research page. After reading through both of these, I'm happy to essentially let Stahl and Bregman manage a small portion of my portfolio.
One last thing I want to touch on is what FRMO might have in their future. This was probably the murkiest topic for investors, the company gave little to no visibility into the founder's plans. This has changed recently, FRMO held their first public annual meeting, and has started to hold quarterly phone calls. I can attest that they'll even take questions from individual investors, I had a chance to ask a question on the last call. There were two things mentioned on the call that I found very fascinating, the first was the mention that FRMO would consider an acquisition if it met strict criteria. Given Stahl and Bregman's track records I don't have much concern they'd overpay. The second item mentioned is that FRMO has been exchanging their revenue streams with Horizon Kinetics for shares in Horizon Kinetics. There was even a brief mention of the possibility that at some point FRMO and Horizon Kinetics could merge somehow, although there are some legal and tax complications to that.
FRMO isn't an asset investment, or an earnings investment, or maybe even a value investment, it's a bet on the jockey investment. At current prices it seems the market, is underpricing Murray Stahl and Steven Bregman's ability to turn pennies into Franklins (for non-US investors $100 bills). Be forewarned, there are not many sellers of this stock, most people buying want to hold for the long term, so getting shares can be difficult.
Talk to Nate about FRMO
Disclosure: Long FRMO