Dec 242016
 

Tempus fugit. It has been two years since I wrote about Ferrexpo, and more than three since I presented it at the valueconferences.com’s European Investment Summit. (By the way, Meyer Burger’s pearl status turned out to be short-lived. Barratt Developments stock price, on the other hand, proceeded to grow 40% in 2014 and another 40% in 2015, to a peak of 6.6 pounds. This year it fell like a stone after Brexit to as low as 3.3, but it is now back at 4.8 – market efficiency for you).

My point two years ago was to show how wrong I had been on Ferrexpo and to try to explain – first to myself – why. My main argument was that I had underestimated the negative consequences of the big three iron ore producers’ decision to continue to expand their production capacity. This had caused a steep drop in the iron price from 130 dollars per ton to 70, which the market was regarding as permanent, thus taking all iron ore producers – the big three as well as smaller companies like Ferrexpo – to very low valuations. My decision to stick with the investment was predicated on the assumption that the iron ore price drop would turn out to be cyclical rather permanent, and that valuations based on a permanently low price would eventually be proven wrong.

Here is what happened since then:

Ferrexpo ended 2014 at 0.5. But then, in the first half of 2015, it started to look as if I was right: the stock price climbed back 60% to 0.8. Alas, not for long. In the second half, the iron ore price resumed its fall, and by the end of the year it was as low as 41 dollars, taking Ferrexpo’s price all the way down to 0.2.

In the meantime, the company had been chugging along, reporting lower but overall solid results. Its profile was as low as ever, and the message invariably the same: we are doing as best as we can in the current adverse circumstances, but there is nothing we can do other than sit tight and weather the storm. Brokerage analysts took notice and kept pummelling the stock.

To my increasing frustration – there were things to do: share buybacks, dividend suspension, divestments, insider buying, strategic alliances – a stone-faced IR would, each time I saw her, give me the same ‘don’t look at me, I just work here’ message, the CFO kept sighing, and the CEO would not even meet me.

The attitude could not have been more different at Cliffs Natural Resources, the largest US iron ore producer. Here, after a fierce shareholder and management clash, a new CEO had been appointed in August 2014. Lourenço Gonçalves, a burly, ebullient Brazilian with a long experience in the mining industry, was as far as you could get from the amorphous Ferrexpo people. I had taken a position in Cliffs in 2013 and added to it in 2014.

Gonçalves’ first public foray, the Q3 2014 earnings call in October, was a stunner. The stock price was at 9 dollars, down from 17 in August. But Gonçalves was adamant: he was going to turn the company around, restore profitability and reverse the decline. The old management – he said – had been driving the company to the ground by pursuing the same aggressive, China-focused expansion and acquisition strategy that the big three producers had adopted. He warned that the strategy was reckless and self-destructive, and that the big three’s shareholders would eventually see the light and throw out the management responsible for it. His plan was to concentrate on the domestic market and sell everything else. He said brokerage analysts – who were almost unanimously sceptical about his plan and were ‘predicting’ more iron price weakness – were all wrong, and he was determined to prove them wrong. The company was buying back its stock and he and other company insiders were buying too on their personal account.

What a refreshing contrast to Ferrexpo’s lethargy! Here is a most memorable exchange with one on the analysts in the Q&A. And here is Gonçalves’ presentation at a Steel Industry conference in June 2015, where he effectively and presciently articulated his analysis and outlook:

The stock had gone up 22% on the day of the Q3 earnings call. But it had soon resumed its downward trend, ending 2014 at 7 dollars. On the day of the June ’15 conference it had reached 5, and a month later it was down to the beaten-up analyst’s 4 dollar valuation target. Lourenço would have none of it – but being in the midst of all this drama was no fun.

A value investor is used to endure the pain when things go the wrong way – but there is always a limit, beyond which endurance becomes stubbornness, valiance turns into delusion and composure into negligence. I had bought Ferrexpo in 2012, added to it in 2013, when I also bought Cliffs, to which I had added in 2014. I just couldn’t do more. All along I had kept doing the Blackstonian right thing – trying to prove myself wrong. But there was no way: I agreed with Gonçalves one hundred percent. Giving up was surely the wrong thing to do.

But there is one thing I did in 2015: I moved out of Ferrexpo and concentrated entirely on Cliffs. Realising a loss is never a pleasant experience, but resisting it when there is a better alternative is a mistake. The loss is there, whether one realises it or not – and selling creates a tax asset. I was not giving up the fight, but I reckoned that, if I had to keep fighting, I might as well seek comfort in Cliffs’ enthusiasm rather than remain mired in Ferrexpo’s apathy. If I was ever going to be proven right, it was more likely – and more fun, though admittedly the company’s name didn’t help – to be on Cliffs’ side:

We are squeezing the freaking shorts and we are going to take them out one by one: I’m going to make them sell everything to get out of my way and they are going to lose their pants. How am I going to get there? The toolbox is full. (Gonçalves, Cliffs Q1 Earnings call, 28 April 2015).

Fun, but tough. The shorts kept winning, and winning big, for the rest of the year, which Cliffs ended all the way down to 1.6 dollars. But, in the meantime, things had started to change. Exactly as Gonçalves had predicted, the big three’s shareholders lost their patience and forced a radical change in management strategy. The first to go was the Head of Iron Ore at BHP Billiton, who had been the most vocal advocate of the supposed virtues of lower iron ore prices – BHP’s stock price halved in 2014-15 – soon followed by Rio Tinto’s CEO and its own Head of Iron Ore – Rio’s price went down 40% in the same period. The new management put a halt to the misconceived policy of big actual and planned production expansion, which by the end of the year had driven the iron ore price down to 40 dollars. As a result, lo and behold, at the beginning of this year – two full years later than my Ferrexpo post – the cyclical upturn in the iron ore price began in earnest. And, unlike the year before, it didn’t stop: the price has now doubled to 80 dollars.

Right, at last. And freaking shorts on the run, as Cliffs’ stock price blasted to a peak of 10.5 dollars earlier this month – five and a half times where it ended last year. Thank you, Lourenço, great job. So here is the graph I showed in July at this year’s Italian Value Investing Seminar, where, alongside their stock picks, speakers are asked to talk about a past mistake.

My big mistake was – what else? – Ferrexpo, one of the three stocks I had presented at the 2014 Seminar (the other were two Italian stocks, Cembre and B&C Speakers, which went up 39% and 34% in 2015). Ferrexpo had by then gone up merely 50% since year-end, from 0.2 to 0.3, while Cliffs was already at 6. It was the silver lining of a bad story, and a vindication of my 2015 move – enhanced, ironically, by the post-Brexit dollar appreciation versus the pound.

Little was I expecting that, right after the July presentation, Ferrexpo’s own price would start a mighty catch-up, bringing it to a peak, earlier this month, of 1.5 pounds, basically in line with Cliffs, which is still a bit ahead from my pound perspective only because of the currency move:

There might be a perverse correlation between Ferrexpo’s stock price and my talking about it in Trani – but I doubt I will collect a third data point to test the hypothesis. The move had nothing to do with the company, which this year continued to be its dreary self. And very little to do with a change in brokerage analysts’ views – the Eeek analyst, bless him, still has a 0.26 price target. As it is clear in the first graph, it has all to do with the iron ore price correlation.

Be as it may, I am very happy for the few friends who followed me on this roller coaster. This has not been a successful investment (so far!) – and no, I did not increase my Cliffs position at the end of last year. So I hesitate to categorize this post under ‘Intelligent Investing’. But then ‘intelligent’ doesn’t always mean ‘successful’. Investing implies risk and must be judged on the intelligence of ex ante reasoning rather than the success of ex post outcomes. At the same time, however, it is wrong to indulge in self-forgiveness. We should learn from our mistakes: there is no right way to do the wrong thing. So, what did I get wrong?

When I first bought Ferrexpo at 1.7, back in September 2012, I saw it rapidly appreciate to 2.7 in February 2013. It was at that time that the first big downward revisions in iron ore price estimates started to surface, first from BREE (the Australian Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics), then from Rio Tinto’s chief economist, then from about everybody else and becoming consensus. As a result, in less than a month Ferrexpo’s stock price was back to where I had bought it. There I made my big mistake. The lower price forecasts were based on slowing Chinese demand and increased supply from the big three producers. But I dismissed the second point, on the assumption that the big three would not be so irrational. Therein lies the big lesson: it is wrong to assume that the turn of events will necessarily follow its most rational course – we’ve had a flood of evidence on this from this year’s major political developments!

Once it became clear, by 2013, that the big three were set on their expansion strategy and were not going to change their mind any time soon, I should have changed my mind and get out of Ferrexpo at close to par. I didn’t: neglecting my own precepts, I failed to acknowledge the multiplicative nature of evidence accumulation, whereby even a single piece of strong disconfirmative evidence can be enough to overwhelm any amount of confirmative evidence on the other side of the hypothesis. Confirmation Bias, right there in my own face! Going public with my Ferrexpo pick – first at valueconference.com in October ’13 and then at the Trani Seminar the following summer – did not help. So I have promised myself not to fall in that trap again, not by avoiding public picks, which are a useful and worthy exercise, but by refusing to abide by them (so far so good with my subsequent picks).

I am still invested in Cliffs. I was right in expecting the iron price upturn. But iron ore futures are still predicting a drop to 50-60 dollars in the next couple of years. China is likely to slow down steel production and the US likely to limit steel import – notice the big jump in Cliffs’ stock price after Trump’s election: one more irony in this mind blowing saga. The pellet premium – both Cliffs and Ferrexpo produce energy-efficient iron ore pellets, rather than lump and fines – should stay up, given China’s impelling need to combat air pollution.

But please don’t take my word for it.

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