PRO Weekly Digest: Leaning Into All-Time Highs From A Short Perspective With Dale Wettlaufer


Welcome to the latest issue of the PRO Weekly Digest. Every Saturday for Seeking Alpha PRO subscribers and Sunday for all other Seeking Alpha users, we publish highlights from our PRO coverage as well as feature interviews and other notable goings-on with SA PRO. Comment below or email us at pro-editors at seekingalpha.com to let us know what you think. Find past editions here.

Feature interview

Dale Wettlaufer has been since January 2016 the Chief Investment Officer of Charlotte Lane Capital. He has been an institutional investor since 1999 and was for 11 years an analyst and portfolio manager at Legg Mason Capital Management. In that role, he was a generalist for much of his tenure and led the Consumer & Real Estate group from 2008 through 2010. Prior to his investing career, he was involved in industrial manufacturing for 15 years. Dale served for two years as an adjunct member of the faculty at Columbia Business School, teaching Security Analysis. We emailed with Dale about the lack of value in surveys, opportunities on the long and short side in the consumer staples/discretionary sectors and the problem with hedge fund hotels.


Seeking Alpha: What do you look for in an ideal long or short idea? Are you finding more longs or shorts in this market? Are there more opportunities in a particular industry/sector?

Dale Wettlaufer: I will quote Lawrence “Larry the Liquidator” Garfield from Other People’s Money, one of the top two movies ever concerning Wall Street: “You don’t care if they manufacture wire and cable, fried chicken, or grow tangerines! You want to make money!” What I mean by that is I don’t care what the company does, where it is in its life cycle, what the valuation metrics look like, whether it’s widely esteemed or reviled, or whether it’s in a “good” or “bad” industry. As long as the NPV of the thing, as I assess it (ah, and there’s the rub), is sufficiently different than the available quotes for its equity and other capital structure elements, I’ll take it. That is the only unifying characteristic across my portfolio, which is why Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) can cohabitate peacefully in the long portfolio beside Under Armour (NYSE:UAA), a shipping container leasing company at 72% of tangible book, PayPal (NASDAQ:PYPL), a company that collects on charged-off credit card accounts, and Jack Daniel’s producer Brown-Forman (NYSE:BF.A) (NYSE:BF.B).


Some common themes that run through the long book are: significant hard-dollar insider ownership (where insiders own their security interest outright or put cash on the line to begin with, not options-derived ownership), less cyclicality, and less leverage than average. Common themes on the short side are cyclically-peaked margins on cyclically-expensive companies, historically low returns on capital, dying moats being attacked by lower-cost solutions, and industries seen as entering “new eras” of efficiency and capital discipline, which I think we may touch on later in this discussion.


SA: You frequently post detailed macro charts or other data on your Twitter feed. Do you start with that top down approach, or is it something you use for context on ideas you’re already looking into?

DW: I believe individual equities are quintuple-levered derivatives. The US economy is a derivative of the global economy, industries are derivatives of the two, firms are derivatives of industries, enterprise value is a derivative of firm performance and outlook, and equity is a derivative of enterprise value. One cannot form an opinion on an equity without forming an opinion of the firm; one cannot form an opinion of the firm without an opinion of the industry; and one cannot form an opinion of the industry without forming an opinion of the economy, and so on.


I prefer our micro and macro reasoning to be explicit. One can audit the reasoning trail as a consequence and one can improve with an audit. The asset manager who thinks about macro (and instantiates that view in a portfolio, implicitly) yet tells you they don’t is fooling themselves and attempting to fool investors. A portfolio that instantiates implicit macro reasoning allows little room for auditing.

When you look at a company like Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) or Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B), their financial statements are some pretty complex abstractions of underlying realities. The financial accounts of the United States or an industry aren’t more abstract, in my opinion. If class 8 truck sales peaked at 74,000 per quarter in 2006 and troughed at 22,000 in 2008 and I can get a good regression between class 8 truck sales and real goods-based GDP over time, that helps me figure out how to forecast the long term for a company like Kenworth/Peterbilt/DAF trucks producer Paccar (NASDAQ:PCAR). Why not use those base rates in valuing a company?


Or let’s think about new home sales. You could regress new home starts vs. US population for the period 1970-2005 and it’ll spit out the number 1.6 million as the number of starts we should expect this year. The number for 2016, 2015, and 2014 would not be much different. So why have they been below that number for so long? Here’s where I think the widespread ahistoricism on Wall Street can really hurt one’s investment outcomes. From 1940 through 1999, the population per housing unit in the United States dropped from 3.5 people to 2.3 people while the population grew from 132 million to 279 million. Those are massive numbers compounding on one another to drive demand development over 60 years.


What happened between then and now? Well, first, all our major industrialized competitors lay in ruins from 1945 and it took them 15 years to start to approach prior potential output. In the interim, we enjoyed massive increases in output partly because of that, partly due to technology innovation, an explosion in birth rates and total population, and an unshackling of consumption that had been pent up by a Depression and a global war. The concept of a household changed greatly from 1900 to that point and from that point until today. There used to be 2-3 generations living under one roof. The old would care for the young and then the young would care for the old and the efforts of multiple people would go into generating income for the household. The idea that one wage could support one family under one detached roof is curiously American and curiously Anglo-Saxon. Everywhere else in the world I have traveled, that’s not the case. Now we’re at a point where we realize it’s not really tenable.


US GDP claimed in 1965 38% of global gross output and, today, it claims less than 25%. US GDP per capita is $58,000 and global output per capita, ex US, is $10,700. We have a giant target on our backs and the idea income per capita growth and increased consumption is predestined is really perverse. That drives Fed policy, political aims, and people’s self-conceptualizations of how they should act economically, so here we are back at personal savings at 3.1% of disposable personal income. When was the last time that happened? 2007. While household liabilities as a percentage of disposable income have declined since the 2007 peak, that has taken place because the government has levered up, which is now stimulating a new round of debt lust through asset price inflation.


The US system as a whole is more levered than at the close of World War II and systemic leverage has been increasing for close to 50 years. Is there a point of maximum leverage? I don’t know, but I believe we’re redlining the system when young people coming out of college are being strangled by debt, low savings by retirees are forcing very poor financial risk management choices, and dependence on government cash and services has reached a point where personal current transfer receipts (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) per household now equate to 41% of median household income. It’s at this point where I believe density of people per household in the US will start to increase for a long, long time as we look more like the rest of the world by financial necessity and by dint of the fact a multi-generational household works well.


That forms an important element in my outlook for homebuilding. 1.6 million starts is unrealistic, not to mention the fact median home price to median household income is now a hair off the 2005-2006 peak. Given the Federal Reserve, US Treasury, and the major central banks of the world are working in concert to misprice credit, debt service capacity in this country and elsewhere makes that tenable at the current moment. One of the dumbest things we can do as investors is to capitalize at a big multiple something that is tenable in the moment but untenable long-term. So, I know you’re going to ask for favorite positions later and I’ll express one now, which is short tract home builders and long manufactured home producers. I’ll detail why later.


SA: It seems that you’re not optimistic about the current prospects of the market based on those posts. In a market like this, what sorts of characteristics stand out for ways to protect capital and generate decent returns? Are there patterns as compared to past market cycles that you’re leaning on right now?

DW: I’ve been on average 20% short for 23 months in Charlotte Lane and before that, for about 20 months in incubation, since Q1 2014. The incubation returns were very much helped by the 6.4% pullback in the S&P 500 in Q3 2015. Since then, it’s been a historically thin gruel on market pullbacks. To-date, as an independent L/S strategy, the net P&L is positive and I’m pleased with the alpha generation, but the raw returns vs. my primary benchmark, the S&P 500, are wanting, to say the least. This doesn’t bother me at all, as I believe the market from this point forward will deliver 0% real return over the next 4-5 years and 2.5% real over the next decade. That is a massive mispricing I not only want to protect clients against specifically but also against which I want to protect them due to its quite negative systemic implications. We’re short because I believe the market will equilibrate to my outlook at some point within our investment time horizon. If it does so immediately, great – that’s about 20-30% downside. If it takes a while to unwind, the excess return I generate will be smaller but still more than acceptable.


I don’t know about “patterns,” but it’s quite inescapable the long-run rate of real EPS growth in the US since 1870 has been about 1.7%. You can take samples of 10, 15, and 20 years or just compound the whole thing and that number is incredibly stable. Now, I’m a big believer in base rates as the first step in forecasting the future growth rate of a company, the economy, or the stock market. For instance, since about 1997, my colleagues and I have looked at Wal-Mart’s (NYSE:WMT) penetration of global personal consumption expenditures as an overlay for forecasting Amazon’s future revenues. That has served us pretty well. For the market overall, if I plug in that base rate of earnings growth (which was achieved largely in an era of US global hegemony and outstanding, perhaps non-replicable conditions) and then I compare against a base rate of average duration of competitive advantage (PDF link), I believe the market is grossly overvalued. I can also look at market cap/GDP, historical multiples, leverage, and a host of other series to conclude we’ve over-cooked the bird. I don’t need to pick the exact point at which the rest of the market will get it, and I’m not a catalyst-driven investor. I think it’s a great time to be short, and I believe that’s far more supportable a position than the long arguments I’ve evaluated over the last two years.


SA: What are some of the best (and/or hardest) lessons you’ve learned in your almost 20 years’ experience on the buyside?

DW: The best lessons come from losses. They are usually the result of under-estimating the likelihood of some adverse outcome or the severity of that outcome. Each negative outcome should sharpen your ability to forecast more accurately the future. I appreciate that whetstone very much, as it makes me a better investor whose advancing age should be a weapon, not a burden.

The worst mistake one can make is adopting others’ investment hypotheses without deep critical analysis or sharply skeptical exploration of the antithesis. We’ve all done it, particularly perhaps as youngsters, and the first one or two times one does it should be last. I see PMs in their 40s, 50s, and 60s do it and it’s such a facepalm it’s incredible. The other day I watched in disbelief as a very wealthy senior PM threw his analyst under the bus for a position that basically ruined the PM’s firm. If a person worth $250 million hasn’t learned the value of personal responsibility for investment decisions over which he has sole discretion, I would never as an allocator give that guy a dime. Self-reliance and ego control are paramount risk management and return drivers in industry where it’s incredibly simple to express $50 million change in viewpoint with the push of a button.


SA: Can you discuss the usefulness (or lack thereof) of sentiment surveys and what investors should focus on instead if the latter?

DW: Those surveys are the Hallmark cards of the market – they express sentiment, not position. “Most hated bull market” is really funny to me when you compare against the historically maxed out positioning of investors across the spectrum. I don’t care what people say in reaction to a survey; I care how they’re positioned, as that’s the only thing that really matters on this topic.

SA: What are the key trends you’re seeing in the consumer sector in terms of operating results vs. valuations?


DW: Consumer staples has been great for Charlotte Lane – there have been a lot of tremendous smaller special situations in a sector that has otherwise been becalmed by poor secular trends. Those have included Twinkies producer Hostess Brands (NASDAQ:TWNK) and frozen potato products company Lamb Weston (NYSE:LW). I’d say under the large cap indexes, if one keeps one’s ear to the ground on this kind of thing, there is often idiosyncratic opportunity.


I maintain long positions in some fairly banged-up companies I believe possess decent brand equity, growth opportunities, attractively higher private market values, and committed hard dollar insider ownership. Those include things like Under Armour and Boston Beer (NYSE:SAM). I’ve avoided tired large caps like Campbell Soup (NYSE:CPB) or Kellogg (NYSE:K), where the “Buffett/3G puts” were egregiously overpriced and eventually collapsed.


In terms of cyclical consumer discretionary items, I’m short things like the cruise lines. The delivery cycle for new builds has been significantly attenuated by the industry putting orders on hold in 2008-2010, which brought supply and demand into closer balance in the last couple years. We will see a large wave of deliveries in the next few years, which will hurt the oh-so-luscious 9-10% ROIC of the one cruise line operator I love to rank on. I believe that particular company’s asset write-offs that get downstreamed to JVs only to bubble back up into equity income are a bit ridiculous, not to mention the 13-21% annualized rate of interest it produces on its liquidity portfolio. Those Venezuelan and Nigerian liquidity portfolios are so fun until they go poof. Then there’s the $500M+ in OCI income from energy hedges that will get amortized into the income statement in coming quarters while bunker spot goes nuts. That income statement tailwind will come to a screeching end, in my opinion. This position has gone against me, but one can’t manage down every drawdown in a long/short strategy and one can’t have zero losers in a portfolio. In my second year managing an independent strategy, my hand is much looser on the tiller, and my turnover is approaching maybe 20% annualized. The game has really slowed down for me (that’s a football analogy, I know it’s not a game to manage money) in my second year as a starter, which is really exciting for me.


Finally, when you look at disposable personal income growth, savings rates, spending composition among households, and net charge-off developments in the financial system, the US consumer is wheezing. I can see that as well in the combination of the S&P 500 Consumer Staples and Consumer Discretionary sectors. ROIC topped out five years ago, FCF has been stagnant since 2015, short-cycle return on incremental capital is below WACC and longer-cycle ROIIC topped out and started into a long decline three years ago, and gross valuations are near 1999 highs. Below the line, financial jiggery has been helping EPS growth and net income, but watch out when the top of the income statement continues to deteriorate.


SA: What stocks are currently “hedge fund hotels”? How can investors take advantage of this? What other factors do you look at besides HF ownership before putting on a position?

DW: An allocator asked me early this year, “What do you do differently from others?” That always gives me pause because I really don’t pay attention to what others do. My dad was an internationally-competitive golfer and told me at a young age, “don’t look at the other guy’s swing in competition,” because you don’t want to adopt their bad habits. Now, if I want a refresher on my swing, I watch Ben Hogan videos or Sam Sneed’s, but I just think it’s bad practice to pay too much attention to 13-Fs. If I can talk to people like my pal Dan McMurtrie at Tyro Capital or some of my friends on the buyside whose names I won’t mention, that’s great. We can hash out the pros and cons of a situation, set up company calls, share research inputs, etc. But look at the people who were long DaVita (NYSE:DVA) because Ted Weschler owns it. That crushed and rightly so. If you outsource your work to someone you can’t access, you deserve every bad outcome you get.


The one hedge fund hotel that makes laugh now is Bank of America (NYSE:BAC). That’s the best people can come up with in spread-based financials? BofA? Given the yield curve is collapsing and the capital markets pop coming out of the lows of 2016-2017, I think people are way behind the curve in banks. Q1 2016 was the time to get bulked up in those, not after the giant MAGA pop of a year ago.

SA: Care to throw in your $0.02 USD on the always controversial Tesla?

DW: There’s not too much more to say. It’s worth $80 and I’ve inched up the short to 3.5%. I began the short in Q1 2016 believing Elon Musk is really smart, but expectations embedded in the stock were just too high. I’ve been shocked every quarter at the disorganized state of the company’s engineering, production, finances, strategic planning, business line selection, and capital allocation. Elon Musk may be a smart guy in certain spheres, but I think he’s a disaster in the way he has run this company. There is spectacularly good downside in this in the present environment, and in a bad capital markets environment, the equity will be a zero. This is one of those situations that will illustrate how wrong the dictum is “You can only make 100% on a short.” Not if you average it up in size as the equity goes down. I think that’s what we’ll get here.


SA: In what stocks are investors ignoring off-balance sheet liabilities? What are the most common liabilities and how can investors find/adjust for them?

DW: Seven years into bull markets in just about every asset class, investors have become complacent on corporate pensions and municipals as well. The liabilities accrete like clockwork and the ROA assumptions in so many places are daft. We’ll get a reminder at some point, soon enough I think, that stuff matters. The most egregious example is in companies exposed to Multi Employer Pension Plans. The accretion of those liabilities, for which exposed companies are jointly and severally responsible, doesn’t hit their income statements and many of these companies are bold enough to claim they’re only “contingent liabilities.” I would ask them if the beneficiaries view their future income from these plans as “contingent.” I don’t think. This is a nuclear bomb that lies off-balance sheet for trucking companies, supermarkets (please, please, please, Cerberus, bring Albertson’s back out), and companies as blue-chip as UPS (NYSE:UPS) and Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO).


SA: What are two of your highest conviction ideas right now?

DW: Totally separate from Charlotte Lane, I have been working for the last year with behavioral economist Dan Ariely and David van Adelsberg, a Philadelphia entrepreneur, on a systematic strategy based entirely on behavioral science inputs. Our firms name is Irrational Capital, applying the same processes and insights Dan has put to work in his groundbreaking work in a wide variety of pursuits in behavioral sciences and entrepreneurial ventures.

We have obtained long-term rights to a human resources database that has been around for decades and has not seen the light of day in financial markets. The database allows us to understand what behaviors in a workplace (employer-to-employee and employee-to-employee relationships, mainly) and what changes in those behaviors have to say about future single-name equity prices. Developing a strategy like this is a lot of work and weve had a superstar team working on it for the last year.


Key questions are how do you avoid data mining and p-hacking? How do you know what worked historically will work in the future? So its one thing to form hypotheses and see them work in backtests. Its another thing entirely to validate statistically the results, under real-world liquidity conditions, to satisfy ourselves and allocators we have something that is repeatable and non-arbitragable. After a year of work, we are satisfied we do and were bringing Irrational Capitals strategies to select investors, mainly in long-short equity market neutral form, in 2018. So thats a very high conviction endeavor.


Elsewhere, I love the cruise line short and I love Under Armour as a long. I’ve covered Nike (NYSE:NKE) since 1996 and the parallels between Phil Knight and UA CEO Kevin Plank are striking. They are both insanely competitive, can-do people and they both grew their companies in similar fashion. They both have/have had massive personal hard capital on the line as well. UA’s earning reset is incredibly similar to resets Nike took a number of times from 1980s forward. In real (inflation-adjusted terms), UA is about where Nike was in 1991, so there’s a lot of runway for UA and I believe Plank can execute on a path similar to Nike. Taking into account a fraction of that, UA is worth $26, giving my clients a 5-year IRR of 26%.


I mentioned manufactured homes vs. tract builders. We own a small position in Cavco Industries (NASDAQ:CVCO), which is the second-largest producer of manufactured homes behind Berkshire Hathaway’s Clayton Homes. We’re short a large tract builder, which really are land development companies more than builders. The business model for tract builders is very poor – it takes years to get a payback on a development as you lay out a bunch of money upfront to acquire the dirt and then wend it through a Byzantine entitlement process with local politicians before you even break ground. Once you’ve started a community, you can’t just walk away from it if the economy turns sour, given you’re obligated by that entitlement process to finish it wholly or substantially.


You’re captive to really decisive things beyond your control, such as interest rates, demographics, and economies/industries within the localities in which you commit capital for 5-10 years per project. Those things can change a lot from the time at which you underwrite it and the project breaks into positive IRR. As you grow, you consume capital and when these things do generate free cash flow, it’s often in an economy in which they’re too scared to commit capital and in which their lenders want their principal back.

One of the more idiotic moments of my career was recommending these things in 2005 when they were trading at 5-6x forward EPS because they were cheap if home prices just held their plateau. If only I were an analyst in Canada or Australia ca. 2015! I remember asking the CEO of one of these companies “what rate of home price appreciation is reasonable to expect in the US?” That guy shilly-shallied about and came up with a bogus answer, which I should have immediately examined to the nth degree but didn’t. What I would have found is a fascinating study of the Herengracht in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The Herengracht is a large group of housing along the Herengracht canal and has been an upper-middle class set of homes since the 17th century. From an economic history perspective, this hedonically stable data set is a total aberration. Petri dishes like this, which control for so many factors, hardly exist.


The study I found indicates real home price appreciation over the centuries is no greater than 20-40 bps annually. So, the idea we should underwrite, with real price appreciation in mind, drywall, Hardie Board, and granite counters with iffy craftsmanship, which all sit on an undifferentiated piece of land 20 miles from the central business district, is really not a solid position. But here we are a dozen years later and these companies are trading at 2-3x times the multiple they were then. Sure home prices are going up, but so is their major input, which is dirt and entitled land. I’m not even building in the potentially wicked deduction effects of H.R. 1 legislation, which would crimp home prices badly, in my opinion. So, bad business model plus high valuation plus all macro inputs pinned at the redline or worse = luscious short for us.


Which leads us to Cavco. Stop by a dealer and check out what a manufactured home looks like. It’s not the trailer you might think of. These homes are almost indistinguishable from site-built homes and they’re far more affordable. Furthermore, this subsegment of shelter provision has been shrinking for nearly 20 years, thanks to Green Tree, the financial crisis and the death of shadow banking, and home price appreciation overall. Now that consumers are as stressed as I believe them to be and the “American dream” is outrunning people’s savings, the gears on this sub-sector are catching. There are manufacturing efficiencies to be harvested, the top dog in the industry is not a price aggressor, there are many business model opportunities to be realized by manufacturers, and the increased throughput in the industry should result in benefits to both capital turns and margins. Both of those individual elements drive returns on capital, but when combined, the tag-team effect on equity returns can be magnificent.


***

Thanks to Dale for the interview. If you’d like to check out or follow his work, you can find the profile here or on Twitter here.

PRO idea playing out

Planet Payment (NASDAQ:PLPM) is up ~100% since Inefficient Market shared their bullish thesis in May 2015, as this payment processor enjoyed high recurring revenue/operating leverage, a strong balance sheet/FCF, a buyback program and could be acquired. In an update comment Inefficient Market noted that Fintrax agreed to acquire PLPM and they were bullish on 3Pea International (OTCQB:TPNL).


PRO Weekly Digest idea playing out

In an interview with the PRO Weekly Digest, Yale Bock said Remark Holdings (NASDAQ:MARK) was one of his highest conviction ideas as its stake in Healthscape covered the entire market cap, giving investors the rest of the assets for free. Four months later the stock is up ~200%.

Call from the archive – NGD

New Gold (NYSEMKT:NGD) is down ~10% since SomaBull shared their bullish thesis in August 2017. However, as NGD recently reported that Rainy River achieved commercial production ahead of schedule and reiterated its guidance for full-year production due to strong YTD results, and the target price represents ~35% upside, this thesis may be worth revisiting.


Noteworthy PRO articles

We wanted to highlight a few of our PRO editors’ favorite PRO ideas this week:

SA Editor John Leonard, CFA: John Zhang makes the bullish case for Ceragon Networks (NASDAQ:CRNT), as it is emerging as a profitable, lean and technologically superior company with strong growth prospects following a prolonged industry downturn; a re-rating from the distressed 3.3x EBITDA multiple results in 85% upside.

SA Editor Marc Pentacoff: Dane Bowler makes the bullish case for Farmland Partners (NYSE:FPI), a misunderstood real estate company that is a recession resistant diversifier and inflation hedge with ~40% upside and a healthy dividend. Rental rates should recover as farm profitability is on the cusp of a rebound and FPI should finally be able to cover the dividend.

New Seeking Alpha contributors to watch

The Prudent Student shares a bullish thesis on RISE Education (Pending:REDU), a broken IPO trading at a discount to peers despite superior fundamentals and exposure to a structurally high growth market.

Idea screen of the week

Each week we use the PRO Idea Filter to find potential ideas based on a recent news event. This week, PRO Editor John Leonard, CFA looks at companies exiting bankruptcy.

While investors have long been aware of the opportunity from the long side in companies exiting bankruptcy (e.g. new equity is underfollowed and unloved due to stigma from bankruptcy); however, investors should not ignore the short side. I ran a screen of PRO long and short ideas with Exiting Bankruptcy as the Investment Opportunity.

One idea turned up in this screen that might be of interest (prices as of November 22 close):

Ocean Rig UDW (NASDAQ:ORIG) by Henrik Alex: Published on October 2, 2017, up ~5% since publication; author’s price target offers up to ~40% downside. ORIG has a mostly cold-stacked fleet focused on the heavily oversupplied ultra-deepwater space, trades above even the most optimistic DCF valuation scenarios and faces a large share overhang.

About the PRO Weekly Digest

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Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Additional disclosure: Check with individual articles or authors mentioned for their positions. Dale Wettlaufer is long UA, PYPL, BF/B, AMZN, SAM, CVCO and short TSLA, UPS.

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