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Nicola Guida
Nicola Guida
Articles (32)  | Author's Website |

GrafTech: Hit Hard by the Pandemic, but Still Profitable

The steel company's competitive advantage will prove to be more powerful in bad times

June 28, 2020 | About:

In a previous discussion on GrafTech International Ltd. (NYSE:EAF), I highlighted how valuable it was for the company to have long-term agreement contracts in place, which provide a predictable revenue stream. In addition, the vertical integration into one of the few pure needle coke producers (the fully-owned subsidiary Seadrift) represents a solid competitive advantage.

While the LTAs were clearly put in jeopardy by the Covid-19 pandemic, especially as a consequence of the lockdowns implemented all over the world, the moat provided by Seadrift is still there, and I believe that it will prove even more valuable in periods of recession.

Moreover, the company is quite cheap in absolute terms and also compared to its competitors.

The company has a Greenblatt earnings yield of 24.04, which is quite high compared to the other companies operating in the same industry.

First-quarter results and second-quarter projections

GrafTech closed the first quarter with net income of $122 million, or 45 cents per share, while operating cash flow was $139 million, down from $157 million for first-quarter 2019.

Liquidity as of March 31 was $400 million, consisting of $152 million in cash (and equivalents) and $247 million in available revolving credit facility.

The sales volume was 34,000 metric tons , consisting of 29,000 tons related to LTAs and 5,000 tons of spot sales.

Based on the press release and related conference call transcripts, I was able to “fill in the blanks” to arrive at the final revenue breakdown for the quarter.

Here´s a snapshot of my spreadsheet calculations:

Apart from the above-mentioned volumes, I used the LTA 2020 average graphite electrodes price per kMT and the (disclosed in conference call) spot price for the quarter. Byproducts revenues were obtained by difference. As we can see, both volume and price for UHP electrodes outside of LTAs are lower than the previous quarter; the percentage of UHP electrodes sold on LTAs grew to 86% of total revenues.

Looking ahead to the next quarter, let´s try to make some realistic revenue projections. During the last conference call, management estimated that even if the theoretical LTA contracted volumes for 2020 are set to 130,000 metric tons, given the circumstances, the new volume will be in the 100,000 to 115,000 tons range. Let´s assume it will be 100,000 tons, subtract the already delivered volume from the first quarter and divide by the remaining quarters. Let´s also assume that the electrode spot price will go down to $5,000 per metric ton (volume remaining the same).

Here are the second-quarter revenue breakdown projections:

In this scenario, sales will be $243 million, so down 24% compared to the previous quarter.

Covid-19 impact on the business

Apart from lower realized prices for graphite electrodes (which impacts less than 30% of the production), the effect of this pandemic on GrafTech is all about LTA issues.

The company declared that over 20 LTA customers have submitted force majeure notices, which means they are now forced by reasons outside of their control to suspend production, and try to consequently seek relief from their suppliers on deliveries and payment obligations.

For these customers, provided that they are not at risk of going bankrupt, it means that the LTA contracts will be extended for the duration of the lockdown. Of course, there is also a number of customers that are in serious financial trouble, so for some of them, GrafTech will probably not be able to recover the potential revenues (or the contractual break-up fees). We´ll know more about them in the next quarterly report.

Now that the graphite electrode spot price is below the fixed LTA price, there are also a number of customers trying to renegotiate the LTAs on more favorable terms. GrafTech´s management declared that, in the case they accept the renegotiation (and this can vary case by case), this will be done in a way to preserve the total value of the contract. This probably means shifting some volume to the end of the contract timeline (that is, beyond 2022). I will be disappointed if they change the price tag of the LTAs as this would create a dangerous precedent.

Brookfield-related risk

In my previous discussion, I must admit I overlooked the risk of being a minority shareholder in GrafTech and that the major shareholder, Brookfield Asset Management (BAM), already proved its intent to extract as much capital as possible from its investment (the investment has already been largely repaid for the company).

The real risk here is that Brookfield could want to take the company private again, but at a very depressed price while both the steel cycle and the pandemic have a direct impact on the company. This was less evident a few months ago as Brookfield was trying to sell its shares at a price of around $13 each. As of March 31, Brookfield Asset Management still holds approximately 74% of GrafTech's shares (199 million out of 269 million), so it is pretty much in control of the company.

Brookfield also knows very well the potential of this company as, after acquiring the company, it put in place changes that lead, for example, the Ebitda to increase from a few tens of millions of dollars to more than $1 billion in 2019 (of course, a steep increase in graphite electrode prices was also a big contributor).

Hopefully, they will hold on and let the company pay down its debt instead of distributing big dividends (as they did in the past) as soon as free cash flow starts to go up.

Liquidity and debt reduction

The company ended the first quarter of 2020 with liquidity of $400 million (cash and equivalents of $152 million and $247 of available liquidity under their revolving credit facility).

Let's have a look at the debt. The company has no maturities due until the end of 2021, and only around $300 million to be repaid until the end of 2024. The first big payment is set to around $1.5 billion in 2025.

So there´s plenty of time for both the pandemic and the lower part of the steel industry cycle to make their course and fade away. Moreover, the company also recently declared that the majority of the free cash flow will be used for debt reduction.

During the current quarter, GrafTech has repurchased $30 million worth of shares and paid $23 million in dividends. As share repurchases were put on hold and the dividend was reduced to a penny due to the pandemic hitting the U.S., this is probably (and hopefully) to be the case for at least several quarters.

Is the moat still valuable?

Definitely. This is actually the main reason why I invested in GrafTech in the first place.

I think that GrafTech´s moat (that is, the vertical integration with its owned needle coke producer) will actually prove to be more valuable in bad times than in good.

As the spread between the graphite electrode spot price and the cost of of needle coke decreases (it is estimated to be around $3,000 per metric ton in the first quarter, excluding operating expenses), most of GrafTech's competitors will suffer because of lower margins (in the best case), or will be forced to suspend production to avoid going in the red.

This means that GrafTech could easily come out of this crisis stronger than before, and potentially with a higher market share.


While GrafTech was hit hard by the pandemic (which simply accelerated the already approaching steel market cyclical downside), the company is still profitable, has no imminent maturities and sufficient liquidity to weather the storm.

The risks are more related to how Brookfield, the majority shareholder, is going to handle the situation than to operating potential issues (for this reason, I am simply holding my position and not averaging down).

The next few quarters will be important to understand when and how the steel market is going to recover, and if the company's management will keep their promises (especially on deleveraging).

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 (7 votes)



Praveen Chawla
Praveen Chawla premium member - 8 months ago

The company has 4 years to get back into shape until it has to pay back the bulk of its debt. Hopefully, the recovery will be well entrenched by then.

Nicola Guida
Nicola Guida premium member - 8 months ago

Hi Preveen. Yes, and in theory they could still refinance it but only if they don't waste the cash flows they will earn until then. Thanks for reading the article. BRs, Nicola

premium member - 8 months ago - Edit
Hi Nicola!

As a fellow GrafTech shareholder and a big fan of your articles I especially enjoyed this one. The competitive advantage in form of vertical integration is the main pro and reason why most value investors invested in it, and it
Nicola Guida
Nicola Guida premium member - 8 months ago

Hi Paul!

Thank you for your kind words, I´m happy that you enjoyed it. Actually I can´t say why the stock price is so depressed, but, apart from the above discussed risks, I think that most investors are simply not comfortable with parking some money for the long term even if they think that a company is cheap, and try to jump in when things markedly improve. That I define as market timing and, as I´m not very good at it, I simply stay the course until things naturally improve (or the value is being recognized by the market) or the business case is impaired (hopefully not). BRs, Nicola

Rupert Hargreaves
Rupert Hargreaves - 8 months ago    Report SPAM

Hi Nicola,

As a previous shareholder of EAF, I wanted to share my thoughts here (and I'm keen to be proven wrong with my ideas).

You mention debt, but something I struggled to find was debt covenants for the business? Also, what are your thoughts on the balance sheet negative equity? If the Covid recession/depression lasts until 2022, can the company survive?

Personally, for me, it became hard to estimate EAFs revenue going forward, and for that reason, I gave up. I see you've done a lot of work on that side, which has been informative. Keep up the good work!


Nicola Guida
Nicola Guida premium member - 8 months ago

Hi Rupert, thank you for your feedback. Comments are always welcome, especially if they are constructive like the ones coming from GF readers :)

I think you´ve made a good point here! I did´t give much of weight to covenants as this is a Brookfield-backed company but you triggered me. Here´s what I´ve found (from the 10-Q):

"The 2018 Credit Agreement contains a financial covenant that requires GrafTech to maintain a senior secured first lien net leverage ratio not greater than 4.00:1.00 when the aggregate principal amount of borrowings under the 2018 Revolving Credit Facility and outstanding letters of credit issued under the 2018 Revolving Credit Facility (except for undrawn letters of credit in an aggregate amount equal to or less than $35 million), taken together, exceed 35% of the total amount of commitments under the 2018 Revolving Credit Facility"

EBITDA is currently still not low enough to break the covenant IMO, but this is something to closely monitor. What do you think?

Referring to negative equity, I think that this is the result of buying back a lot of stock in the past years and also paying special dividends. I would have preferred a company that pays down its debt before doing that but we know well why it was done. It´s not necessarily a negative if the company starts to use FCF more wisely.

BRs, Nicola

Bruce Bohannon
Bruce Bohannon premium member - 8 months ago

Nicola, thanks for the article. And YES you are correct in this case about how the negative equity came about. This is not uncommon.

Rupert Hargreaves
Rupert Hargreaves - 8 months ago    Report SPAM

Hi Nicola,

Thanks for the information on the covenants. While interesting, I've been thinking recently that these are not so relevant in this crisis as lenders seem to be happy to wave covenants in the current crisis, but that's never a certainty so always something to consider.

Regarding the negative equity, I think is more an aftereffect of EAF's previous private equity ownership. It's quite common for PE firms to load companies they send to the public markets with debt. That way they get paid at the expense of new stockholders. For example, in EAF's 10-Q for the three months to March 2018 (when it went public) it notes:

"We believe that we have adequate liquidity to meet our needs. As of March 31, 2018 , we had liquidity of $381.2 million consisting of $242.8 of availability on our 2018 Revolving Facility (subject to continued compliance with the financial covenants and representations) and cash and cash equivalents of $138.4 million . We had long?term debt of $1,421.3 million , short?term debt of $52.4 million and stockholder’s equity of $(276.2) million as of March 31, 2018 . As of December 31, 2017 , we had liquidity of $165.2 million consisting of $151.8 million available on our Old Revolving Facility (subject to continued compliance with the financial covenants and representations and adjusting for the $25 million minimum liquidity requirement) and and cash and cash equivalents of $13.4 million . We had long?term debt of $322.9 million , short?term debt of $16.5 million and stockholders’ equity of $613.2 million as of December 31, 2017"

Since then the stockholders deficit has grown from -$276m to -$600m~.

I'm worried that this trend continues in a rough market.

Just some thoughts and I'm happy to be proven wrong.



Nicola Guida
Nicola Guida premium member - 8 months ago

Hi Bruce, thanks for your comment. I´ve been waiting for it ;) BRs, Nicola

Nicola Guida
Nicola Guida premium member - 8 months ago

Hi Rupert, thank you for sharing your thoughts and for the additional info. I will take them into account. Sometimes we can be wrong about our investments, but we´re learning a lot in the meanwhile: this is also a sort of investment for the future. BRs, Nicola

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