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Steven Romick Comments on Hewlett Packard, Google, Interpublic, WPP

February 02, 2012 | About:
Holly LaFon

Holly LaFon

277 followers
Steven Romick made valuable remarks on several of his holdings in his fourth-quarter letter:

Hewlett Packard (HPQ) We purchased a small position in Hewlett Packard (HPQ) as part of a tech basket in 2011. Although the tech basket performed reasonably well, HPQ was a mistake – not just because we have lost money thus far, but also because we allowed rationalization to creep into our process. We established a small, toehold position at an average price just over $40, believing that the P/E was just 8x, that the printing business was an annuity, and that the services business had sustainable cash flow at current (or better) levels. Subsequent research revealed that neither business was as resilient as we thought. Instead of selling our stake at that time, though, we argued that the stock price remained cheap enough to stay in the basket. We were wrong. HPQ management made a series of reckless decisions, including a multi-billion dilutive acquisition; a publicly announced commitment to WebOS that was retracted within a month; and declaring their intention to sell their PC business without having a buyer lined up (leaving customers to worry about who would stand behind the products in the future, and undermining sales efforts aimed at IT departments).

Nevertheless, we do not believe Hewlett Packard is a Wang Laboratories. The stock ultimately declined to $21.50, but we added to our position at lower prices, and the stock increased to $25.76 at year-end. We are mindful that when a big asset bubble finally bursts, the ramifications are large, and the time to resolution is usually long. Take housing for example. The drinking binge of easy money has created a five year hangover, and counting. The housing market remains weak, but does seem to be bumping along a bottom. We have made a number of investments exposed to the housing sector, e.g., Lowes, mortgage whole loans, and some small bank positions.

On the emerging economies front, economic growth has been reasonably good, but the performance of their respective bourses has not (they declined far more than their U.S. counterparts). It’s ironic that our debtor nation is still viewed as a safe haven, while the creditor nations are viewed as more risky. We suspect that such accepted wisdom of today will be turned on its ear tomorrow. In general, smaller domestic businesses don’t have much of a foreign footprint; as a result, faster growth overseas disproportionately benefits the larger, global companies, and it’s in those companies that we continue to maintain a greater concentration. We do not do much in emerging markets directly, but we do continue to seek those investments domiciled in more developed markets that have exposure to up-and-coming economies (typically, those are bigger companies).

In the second half of the year, Crescent established new positions in a few companies that have more such global footprints. We initiated investments in Google, as well as the advertising agencies Interpublic and WPP. The fortunes of all three are tied directly to the level of global advertising spend, and they all saw their shares prices decline due to concerns of a recession-related slowdown. At our purchase price, we believe we were buying each at roughly 11-13x our estimated earnings for 2012 should the fears of a macroeconomic slowdown prove correct. This strikes us as a very reasonable multiple to pay for asset-light global businesses that generate strong free cash flow across the business cycle and have the capability to grow earnings greater than GDP in a normal economic environment.

Of the three, we expect Google to grow revenue the fastest, IPG to demonstrate the greatest improvement in operating margins, and WPP to fall in the middle on each measure. Regardless, at the prices we paid, the market was according little progress to any of these prospects, and that allowed us to purchase each position at a price that provided an attractive margin of safety in all but the most pessimistic of outcomes. Should the valuations of any of these names retrace over the coming year we would expect to accumulate on weakness and increase our position sizes. In fact, at the right price, we would very much like to see this collection of companies account for a demonstrably greater exposure than where the weighting currently stands. We continue to focus our long equity book on larger, higher-quality businesses that trade at reasonable valuations and that have great balance sheets, as well as attractive dividend yields (when possible). The portfolio characteristics listed below reflect the current direction, with a weighted average P/E, Price/Book, and Debt/Capital at less than our historic average, while the fund’s Market Capitalization, Return on Equity and Dividend Yield are above average.

Google, Interpublic and WPP

In the second half of the year, Crescent established new positions in a few companies that have more such global footprints. We initiated investments in Google (GOOG), as well as the advertising agencies Interpublic (IPG) and WPP (WPP). The fortunes of all three are tied directly to the level of global advertising spend, and they all saw their shares prices decline due to concerns of a recession-related slowdown. At our purchase price, we believe we were buying each at roughly 11-13x our estimated earnings for 2012 should the fears of a macroeconomic slowdown prove correct. This strikes us as a very reasonable multiple to pay for asset-light global businesses that generate strong free cash flow across the business cycle and have the capability to grow earnings greater than GDP in a normal economic environment.

Of the three, we expect Google to grow revenue the fastest, IPG to demonstrate the greatest improvement in operating margins, and WPP to fall in the middle on each measure. Regardless, at the prices we paid, the market was according little progress to any of these prospects, and that allowed us to purchase each position at a price that provided an attractive margin of safety in all but the most pessimistic of outcomes. Should the valuations of any of these names retrace over the coming year we would expect to accumulate on weakness and increase our position sizes. In fact, at the right price, we would very much like to see this collection of companies account for a demonstrably greater exposure than where the weighting currently stands.

We continue to focus our long equity book on larger, higher-quality businesses that trade at reasonable valuations and that have great balance sheets, as well as attractive dividend yields (when possible). The portfolio characteristics listed below reflect the current direction, with a weighted average P/E, Price/Book, and Debt/Capital at less than our historic average, while the fund’s Market Capitalization, Return on Equity and Dividend Yield are above average.

See Romick's complete portfolio here.


Rating: 3.3/5 (11 votes)

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