The Problem With "Sum of the Parts"

A version of this essay appeared in Oddball Stocks Newsletter Issue 26. Stay tuned for the upcoming Issue 27 in about a month.

In a finance Twitter discussion about investment theses that revolve around sum-of-the-parts (SOTP) valuations, one astute person pointed out a big problem with these SOTP ideas: the “sum” rarely subtracts the net present value of the corporate overhead.

We have been seeing this problem with a lot of Oddballs recently. For example, Pardee Resources is focused on (mis)-allocating capital to new investments to justify their high SG&A expense, rather than selling timberland at once a millenium high cash flow multiples, cutting SG&A, and buying back stock. The result won't be pretty. Pardee's SG&A expense, meanwhile, is almost $7 million. Is this a perpetuity paid to headquarters staff? What is the appropriate discount rate to capitalize it? Whatever variables you plug into the calculation, the NPV is an unfortunately high fraction of Pardee's asset value.

Or take Avalon Holdings, which we have written about in the Newsletter before. The market capitalization of $7.8 million is only 21% of the book value of $37 million. Avalon is cheap relative to book value, but its assets don't produce much in the way of earnings. The balance sheet shows $73.1 million of assets (of which $46.8 million is property and equipment) financed with $13 million of debt, $21 million of current liabilities, and then the shareholders (and non-controlling interests') equity. These assets only produced $51,000 of operating income (EBIT) for the first six months of 2019!

The pattern at Avalon is that the company has been acquiring properties (like the Boardman Tennis Center last year for $1.3 million) and putting them in a vehicle whose equity trades at 21 cents on the dollar (of book value) and where the cash produced is eaten up by SG&A expense.

In general, these companies at discounts to sum-of-the-parts values (but not cheap based on dividends or cash flows) are suffering from an incentive alignment problem. Managements could stop buying assets, sell overpriced (i.e. low earnings relative to purported asset value) ones to third-parties, and return capital to shareholders. But managements need to own assets to justify being paid. And managers with bigger empires get paid more. (See our post, Small Companies (like Small Banks) As "Jobs Programs".)

With valuations at all-time highs and interest rates at all-time lows, there has never been a better time to sell assets and probably never a worse time to buy them. In Issue 26 of the Oddball Stocks Newsletter, one of our guest writers pointed out reason for the problems at diversified holding companies run by "capital allocators". We are at a cyclical extreme in what people are willing to pay for income generating assets, which explains the dearth of attractive “opcos” for capital allocators to buy. That is ultimately why the book value of Enterprise Diversified dropped to $10.7 million from $19.4 million a year ago.

We continue to see Oddballs – whether land-heavy companies, small banks, or other kinds – that trade for prices below liquidation value if managements sold and yet above the present value, at a reasonable interest rate, of the distributions that shareholders will likely receive over time.

Another problem we see is that investors have abdicated from supervision of their hired managements. Frankly, they are too cheap to engage in “activism” (as shareholder supervision is now known) because they had good results in the past without having to exert control over their investments.

This too shall pass. In the next bear market, micro-cap funds established post-crisis that take too much risk, older investors, and over-leveraged companies themselves will be forced sellers of Oddball shares at much lower prices. That is when it will pay to have studied and read about these companies.

1 comment:

  1. Great post,

    There is another problem I often encounter but is never addressed in SOTP valuations - often investors assume the minimal value that can be attributed to any part of the business is zero, especially if it's a different ltd daughter company.

    In practice, often such companies are pet projects of the management, that want to appear sophisticated and "forward thinking". These projects are money losing, and would probably keep on losing money unless someone buys them out. In SOTP valuations these are often referred to as "free options" but actually, often the true value of such a project should be counted as a negative. Managements very rarely actually pull the plug on such companies, because it makes them look foolish, and they rather just keep throwing cash at it.

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