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Nicola Guida
Nicola Guida
Articles (20)  | Author's Website |

GrafTech International: Uncertainty Creates Opportunity

Mr. Market is once again confusing uncertainty with risk

January 27, 2020 | About:


I recently became interested in GrafTech International Ltd. (NYSE:EAF) after reading a June 2019 Mohnish Pabrai (Trades, Portfolio) interview, where he anticipated that he was going to commit a big chunk of his assets to a company he would not disclose because they were still in the process of buying it, but, he added, anyone who was interested could simply check the 13F, which they were going to disclose in August. As I was reading the article in September, I immediately rushed to the Securities and Exchange Commission's website and discovered the name (Dalal Street, his investment vehicle, had a whopping 27% of its funds invested in GrafTech at the end of the third quarter).


To be honest, it was not the first time I had heard of GrafTech. Indeed, a dear friend of mine picked it from Joel Greenblatt (Trades, Portfolio)'s magic formula website (as of writing, GrafTech is still on the list).

GrafTech is involved in the production of UHP (ultra-high-performance) graphite electrodes, used to efficiently produce steel in electric arc furnaces with a low environmental impact. The electrodes are able to sustain an extremely high voltage, which is a key part of the steel production process. The main raw material needed to produce the electrodes is called needle coke (which in turn is produced starting from byproducts of oil refining).

GrafTech's predictable revenue stream

Here is Pabrai's investment thesis: the company has three- to five-year take-or-pay contracts in place with a diversified set of customers, which covers a big part of his average cost (around $12). So whatever is going to happen when the contracts expire represents a low-risk scenario as you're going to get the whole company for almost nothing.

Here is the above-mentioned contract revenue breakdown (from the latest 10-Q):

As you can see, most of them expire by the end of 2022 and allow for more than $1 billion of revenue per year (and around $700 million to $750 million in free cash flow).

This implies an high degree of predictability (even if a customer refuses to buy the planned fixed volume of graphite electrodes, the penalties would practically force them to pay almost 100% of the price anyway).

A solid moat

Another very important aspect of GrafTech is the fact it isthe only vertically-integrated graphite electrodes producer. Indeed, one of its subsidiaries, Seadrift, produces 70% to 80% of the total amount of needle coke needed by the company in production, at a cost that is way lower than the current average cost of the industry. This basically means the company has an unparalleled control on raw material prices: indeed, needle coke costs constitute the bulk of input costs for a graphite electrodes producer. For the remaining 20% to 30%, GrafTech is forced to buy the needle coke on the spot market.

For a company operating in the steel sector, the structural uncertainty of raw material and final products prices, combined with the fact that the industry is typically cyclical, is one of the most difficult headwinds for investors trying to figure out its future prospects, but here we have a company which was able to (almost) fix one of the two variables, making future assumptions easier and, more importantly, leading to a big competitive advantage over its competitors, which are fully subject to the swings of needle coke spot market.

Moreover, needle coke supply is going to be under pressure in the coming years as it is also a key ingredient in lithium ion batteries, which are currently in very high demand from electric vehicle producers.

But what happens when the price of needle coke increases? Either the electrode producers pass the cost on to their customers or, if electrodes prices don´t change, profit margins for GrafTech competitors will shrink and, at some point, they will be forced to reduce or suspend production. This, in turn, will decrease the supply of graphite electrodes. At that point, the only way a customer is going to gain access to them is paying a higher price. So I expect that GrafTech will be able to gain some more take-or-pay contracts at good prices with customers who want to protect themselves from the inevitable (of course, GrafTech only sells on fixed price-volume the production part that is linked to its available low-cost needle coke resources).

GrafTech has also built, over the years, an expertise in high-quality needle coke production. Currently there are only three other companies in the world that can produce it with the same characteristics (the biggest of which is Phillips66 (NYSE:PSX)), and it can take several years before any company can build such a high-tech facility, so this can also be considered an advantage, even if not a permanent one.

Uncertainty and risk

The question is: why is the market willing to assign such a depressed price to GrafTech? Because, as it often happens in these cyclical industries, it's confusing uncertainty with risk.

Here are the main reasons:

  • The 30% of production which is not covered by the take-or-pay contracts is exposed to UHP graphite electrodes spot market prices.
  • Even if it's quite probable, we don't know if the company will be able to secure the same type of contracts (and at the same prices) when they will expire in 2022.
  • The recent rally in graphite electrodes prices flooded the market with an oversupply, so the market will be in destocking mode (according to the CEO David Rintoul, at least for the first two quarters of 2020).

It is evident that the outcome of this story cannot be accurately predicted by one single scenario; there are simply too many variables to consider. But what can be said is that there are not so many ways GrafTech can fail because of its structural advantages, moat, highly skilled employees and market oligopoly status.


Even if it is difficult to assign a precise value to GrafTech (which lies in the $20 to $30 per share range) because of the high uncertainty related to the steel sector, the scenarios which can materialize in the next two to three years are all acceptable.

I see the purchase of the company shares at current prices as a low-risk proposition with a nice margin of safety. In Pabrai´s words, this is a “heads, I win; tails, I don’t lose much” kind of company. As a sign of high confidence in its prospects, in December, the company bought back $250 million worth of stock from Brookfield Asset Managment (NYSE:BAM) (the current majority shareholder).

For investors who have the patience to wait for the market to “destock” and restore more normal supply and demand levels, and for the needle coke price pressures to kick in, the rewards could be huge. Time will tell.

Disclosure: The author owns shares of GrafTech International.

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About the author:

Nicola Guida
I'm a Software Engineer with a big passion for Value Investing. I love looking for undervalued companies both to feed my investment pipeline and to write articles in order to share my investment thoughts.

Visit Nicola Guida's Website

Rating: 4.9/5 (8 votes)



Bruce Bohannon
Bruce Bohannon premium member - 6 months ago

Suggest anyone looking to go long here weigh the Risks of BAM owning nearly 70% as majority shareholder. I'm a Huge Fan of Mohnish however. Don Yactman has material positions in EAF in at least two of his Funds as well.

Next Earnings are set to be announced 2/6/20.

Pps.aujla premium member - 6 months ago
Mohnish Pabrai (Trades, Portfolio) very likly will add some more under $11.50...

Nicola Guida
Nicola Guida premium member - 6 months ago

Hello Bruce,

thank you for your comment!

Brookfield is currently in the process of selling some of their shares (the company took Graftech private in 2015 for around $700M, so they made at least 5x on their investment).

So this adds some temporary downard pressure on the stock, but IMO it's not changing the value proposition. On a positive note, both BAM and the minority shareholders benefit from the huge buybacks.

The real risk for the minority shareholders here is that they could take Graftech private again at a depressed price, but I see this scenario as highly unprobable as it would postpone the realization of its value: they can earn much more just by letting Graftech wisely allocate capital and thrive.

Best Regards, Nicola

Nicola Guida
Nicola Guida premium member - 6 months ago

Hello Pps.aujla,

Pabrai is already quite overexposed to EAF, but we will learn it soon!

Thanks for commenting!

Best Regards, Nicola

TonyTiger premium member - 6 months ago

Hi Nicola, I had a closer look at EAF, too.

The main question I have: the company currently buys back shares from BAM. In addition, the company issued debt and paid dividends, with most of the money flowing to BAM, too.

So it seems the strong current free cash flow is channeled into the pockets of BAM. This might continue for the next few years.

Should the market for graphite electrodes cycle back to normal prices in some years, EAF might be a highly indebted highly cyclic "private equity ruin". Free cash flow close to zero over the cycle and a billion dollars in debt...

Or, in other words: why is BAM selling if EAF is such a steal?

Nicola Guida
Nicola Guida premium member - 6 months ago

Hi TonyTiger,

thanks for your observations!

Referring to the buybacks, I think that, as Mr. Buffett explained, this gives the remaining shareholders a benefit only if the buy price is lower than the intrinsic value of the company (I think that this is absolutely the case at the current prices). All the shareholders are the same, independently from the percentage of the company owned.

BAM is practically both on the buying and selling side, so they are selling a little and cashing a sort of "dividend" and losing share, and on the other side, as Graftech buys back the shares, they (as remaining shareholders) benefit from re-gaining it because of the share count reduction. So they are playing a very smart game of being paid and at the same time not losing almost anything...(BAM has also put some of their directors on Graftech board)

As anticipated, an issue here could materialize if the majority shareholder makes a move which is not in the interest of the minority ones (like taking the company private or selling to another company at a low price).

I must confess that I´m also not so happy about the fact that only a small part of the cash flow is channeled towards debt reduction: I´d give that higher priority if I would be in their shoes.

So, just to summarize, I don´t think that BAM wants to dump the whole amount of shares and cash out because of poor value: they are simply trying to extract as much value as possible taking advantage of their voting power. At least this is my best guess...

Best Regards,

Bruce Bohannon
Bruce Bohannon premium member - 2 months ago

This is probably old news to most here but I believe Mohnish sold his entire position in EAF during 1Q20.

I think Don added nearly 3 Million shares during 1Q20. Best wishes to all believers of this Business.

Nicola Guida
Nicola Guida premium member - 2 months ago

Hello Bruce, thanks for your comment. Yes I know, I think Mr. Pabrai sold basically for 2 reasons: 1) he realized that the contracts-related cash flows were not bulletproof, so he can't 100% count on them anymore 2) opportunity cost: the investment thesis will play out much slower than expected, and he probably found a better opportunity. Having said that, I am still a believer, and will probably explain why in one of my next articles. Best, Nicola

Bruce Bohannon
Bruce Bohannon premium member - 2 months ago

Nicola, I'm still a fan too - but not near as much as previously. I'm also concerned the Management team owns nearly zero shares they were not gifted as compensation,

Looking forward to your work if you write an article. Conversely, I'm keeping my position as a small Risky Business Portfolio (small single digit concentration) and plan to watch if the story changes.

Nicola Guida
Nicola Guida premium member - 2 months ago

Thanks Bruce, I don't have a small position but I'm planning to add more when we'll have more visibility on how the steel industry cycle unfolds. BAM's heavy presence in the capital structure is also something to closely monitor. BRs

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