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Week 279: Cautious on trade(s)

Portfolio Performance

Thoughts and Review

I haven’t written a post since my last portfolio update.  Up until this last week I did not add a new stock to my portfolio.  I have sold some stocks though.  Quite a few stocks really.

I have been cautious all year and this has been painful to my portfolio.  While the market has risen my portfolio has lagged.  I have lagged even more in my actual portfolio, where I have had index shorts on to hedge my position and those have done miserably until the last couple of weeks.  In fact these last couple of weeks  are the first in some time where I actually did better than the market.

My concerns this year have been about two headwinds.  Quantitative tightening and trade.

Maybe its being a Canadian that has made me particularly nervous about the consequences of Trump’s protectionism.  With NAFTA resolved I don’t have to worry as much about the local consequences.  But I still worry about how the broad protectionist agenda will evolve.

I continue to think that the trade war between the United States and China will not resolve itself without more pain.  The US leadership does not strike me as one open to compromise.  Consider the following observations:

Peter Navarro has written 3 books about China.  One is called “Death by China”, another is called “Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World” and the third is called “The Coming China Wars”.

In the Amazon description of Death by China it says: “China’s emboldened military is racing towards head-on confrontation with the U.S”.  In the later book, Crouching Tiger, the description says  “the book stresses the importance of maintaining US military strength and preparedness and strengthening alliances, while warning against a complacent optimism that relies on economic engagement, negotiations, and nuclear deterrence to ensure peace.”.  The Coming China Wars, his earliest book (written in 2008), notes “China’s dramatic military expansion and the rising threat of a “hot war”.

Here’s another example.  Mike Pence spoke about China relations last week at the Hudson Institute.  Listening to the speech, it appeared to me to be much more about military advances and the military threat that China poses than about trade.  The trade issues are discussed in the context of how they have led to China’s rise, with particular emphasis on their military expansion.

John Bolton’s comments on China are always among the most hawkish.  Most recently he spoke about China on a radio talk show.  Trade was part of what he said, but he focused as much if not more on the Chinese behavior in the South China Sea and how the time is now to stand up to them along those borders.

Honestly when I listen to the rhetoric I have to wonder: Are we sure this is actually about trade?

Is it any coincidence that what the US is asking for is somewhat vague?  Reduce the trade deficit. Open up Chinese markets. Less forced technology transfer (ie. theft). Now currency devaluation is part of the discussion.

I hope that this is just a ramp up in rhetoric like what we saw with Canada and Mexico.  That the US is trying to assert a negotiating position before going to the table and reaching some sort of benign arrangement.  But I’m not convinced that’s all that is going on.

If this has more to do with pushing China to the brink, then that’s not going to be good for stocks.

I can’t see China backing down.

From what I’ve read China can’t possibly reduce the trade deficit by $200 billion as the US wants without creating a major disruption in their economy.   Never mind the credibility they would lose in the face of their own population.

Meanwhile quantitative tightening continues, which is a whole other subject that gives me even more pause for concern, especially among the tiny little liquidity driven micro-caps that I like to invest in.

I hope this all ends well.  But I just don’t like how this feels to me.  I don’t want to own too many stocks right now.  And I’m not just saying that because of last week.  I have been positioned conservatively for months.  It’s hurt my performance.  But I don’t feel comfortable changing tact here.

Here’s what I sold, a few comments on what I’ve held, and a mention of the two stocks I bought.

What I sold

I don’t know if I would have sold RumbleOn if I hadn’t been so concerned about the market.  I still think that in the medium term the stock does well.  But it was $10+, having already shown the propensity to dip dramatically and suddenly (it had fallen from $10 to $8 in September once already), and having noted that Carvana had already rolled over in early September, I decided to bail at least for the time being.  Finally there was site inventory turnover, which if you watch daily appeared to have slowed since mid-September.  Add all those things up and it just didn’t feel like something I wanted to hold through earnings.

I was late selling Precision Therapeutics because I was on vacation and didn’t actually read the 10-Q until mid-September.  That cost me about 20% on the stock.  I wrote a little about this in the comment section but here is what has happened in my opinion.  On August 14th the company filed its 10-Q.  In the 10-Q on page 14 it appears to me to say that note conversion of the Helomics debt will result in 23.7 million shares of Precision stock being issued.  This is pretty different than the June 28th press release, where it said that the $7.6 million in Helomics promissory notes would be exchanged with $1 shares.  Coincidentally (or not) the stock began to sell off since pretty much that day.

Now I don’t know if I’m just not reading the 10-Q right.  Maybe I don’t understand the language.  But this spooked me.  It didn’t help that I emailed both IR and Carl Schwartz directly and never heard back.  So I decided that A. I don’t know what is going here, B. the terms seemed to have changed and C. it’s not for the better. So I’m out.

I decided to sell R1 RCM after digging back into the financial model.  I came to the conclusion that this is just not a stock I want to hold through a market downturn.   You have to remember there is a lot of convertible stock because of the deal they made with Ascension.  After you account for the conversion of the convertible debt and all the warrants outstanding there are about 250 million shares outstanding.   At $9.30, where I sold it, that means the EV is about $2.33 billion.  When I ran the numbers on their 2020 forecast, assuming $1.25 billion of revenue, 25% gross margins, $100 million SG&A, which is all pretty optimistic, I see EBITDA of $270 million.  Their own forecast was $225 – $250 million of EBITDA.  That means the stock trades at about 9x EV/EBITDA.  That’s not super expensive, but its also not the cheapie it was when I liked the stock at $3 or $4.  I have always had some reservations about whether they can actually realize the numbers they are projecting – after all this is a business where they first have to win the business from the hospitals (which they have been very successful at over the last year or so) but then they have to actually turn around the expenses and revenue management at the hospital well enough to be able to make money on it.  They weren’t completely-successful at doing that in their prior incarnation.  Anyways, I didn’t like the risk, especially in this market so I sold.  Note that this is an example of me forgetting to sell a stock in my online tracking portfolio so it still shows that I am holding it in the position list below. I dumped it this week (unfortunately at a lower price!).

I already talked a bit about my struggle and then sale of Aehr Test Systems in the comment section.   I didn’t want to be long the stock going into the fourth quarter report.  Aehr is pretty transparent.  They press release all their big deals.  That they hadn’t announced much from July to September and that made it reasonably likely that the quarter would be bad.  It was and the stock felll.  Now it’s come back.  It was actually kind of tempting under $2 but buying semi-equipment in this market makes me a bit nervous so I didn’t bite.  Take a look at Ichor and how awful this stock has been.  Aehr is a bit different because they are new technology that really isn’t entrenched enough to be in the cycle yet.  Nevertheless if they don’t see some orders its not the kind of market that will give them the benefit of the doubt.

BlueLinx. I don’t have a lot to say here. I’m not really sure what I was thinking when I bought this stock in the first place.  Owning a building product distributor when it looks like the housing market is rolling over was not one of my finer moments.  I sold in late August, then decided to buy it in late September for “an oversold bounce”.  Famous last words and I lost a few dollars more.  I’m out again, this time for good.

When I bought Overstock back in July I knew I was going to A. keep the position very small and B. have it on a very short leash.  I stuck with it when it broke $30 but when it got down to $28 I wasn’t going to hang around.  Look, the thing here is that who really knows?  Maybe its on the verge of something great? Maybe its a big hoax?  Who knows?  More than anything else what I liked when I bought it was that it was on the lower end of what was being priced in and the investment from GSR showed some confidence. But with nothing really tangible since then it’s hard to argue with crappy price action in a market that I thought was going to get crappier.  So I took my loss and sold.

Thus ends my long and tumultuous relationship with Radcom.  I had sold some Radcom in mid-August before my last update primarily because I didn’t like that the stock could never seem to move up and also because I was worried about the second quarter comments and what would happen to the AT&T contract in 2019.  I kept the rest but I wish I would have sold it all.  In retrospect the stocks behavior was the biggest warning sign.  The fact that it couldn’t rise while all cloud/SAAS/networking stocks were having a great time of it was the canary in the coal mine.  As soon as the company announced that they were seeing order deferral I sold the rest.  I was really quite lucky that for some reason the stock actually went back up above $13 after the news (having fallen some $4-$5 the day before mind you), which let me get out with a somewhat smaller loss.  The lesson here is that network equipment providers to telcos are crummy stocks to own.

Finally, I sold Smith Micro.  This is a second example where I actually didn’t sell this in the online portfolio until Monday because I didn’t realize I had forgotten to sell it until I put together the portfolio update.  But it’s gone now.  I wrote a little about this one in the comment section as well.  The thing that has nagged me is that the second quarter results weren’t really driven by the Safe & Found app.  It was the other products that drove things.  That worries me.  Again if it wasn’t such a crappy market I’d be more inclined to hold this into earnings and see what they have to say.  They could blow everyone away.  The stock has actually held up pretty well, which might be saying that.  Anyways I’ll wait till the quarter and if it looks super rosy I’ll consider getting back in even if it is at a higher price.

What I held

So I wrote this update Monday and Vicor was supposed to report Thursday.  Vicor surprised me (and the market I think) by reporting last night.  I’m not going to re-write this, so consider these comments in light of the earnings release.

One stock I want to talk about here is Vicor, which I actually added to in the last few weeks.  Vicor has just been terrible since late August.  The stock is down 40%.  I had a lot of gains wiped out.  Nevertheless this is one I’m holding onto.

I listened to the second quarter conference call a couple of more times.  It was really quite bullish.  In this note from Stifel they mention that Intel Xeon processor shipments were up significantly in the first 4 weeks of the third quarter compared to the second quarter.  They also mention automotive, AI, cloud data centers and edge computing as secular trends that are babies being thrown out with the bath.  These are the areas where Vicor is growing right now (Vicor described their core areas on the last call as being: “AI applications including cloud computing, autonomous driving, 5G mobility, and robots”).

Vicor just started shipping their MCM solutions for power on package applications with high ampere GPUs in the second quarter.  They had record volume for some of their 48V to point of load products that go to 48V data center build outs and a broader acceptance by data center players to embrace a 48V data center.  There’s an emerging area of AC-DC conversion from an AC source to a 48V bus.  John Dillon, who is a bit of a guru on Vicor, wrote a SeekingAlpha piece on them today.

I know the stock isn’t particularly cheap on backward looking measures.  But its not that expensive if the recent growth can be extrapolated.  I’m on the mind it can.   Vicor reports on Thursday.  So I’ll know soon enough.

The second stock I added to was Liqtech.  I’ve done a lot of work on the IMO 2020 regulation change and I think Liqtech is extremely well positioned for it.  When the company announced that they had secured a framework agreement with another large scrubber manufacturers and the stock subsequently sold off to the $1.50s, I added to my position.

I’m confident that the new agreement they signed was with Wartsila.  Apart from Wartsila being the largest scrubber manufacturer, what makes this agreement particularly bullish is that Wartsila makes its own centrifuges.  Centrifuges are the competition to Liqtech’s silicon carbide filter.  If Wartsila is willing to hitch their wagon to Liqtech, it tells me that CEO Sune Matheson is not just tooting his horn when he says that Liqtech has the superior product.  I’ve already gone through the numbers of what the potential is for Liqtech in this post.  The deal with Wartsila only makes it more likely that they hit or even exceed these expectations.

Last Thought

I took tiny positions in three stocks.  One is a small electric motor and compressor manufacturer called UQM Technologies.  The second is a shipping company called Grindrod (there is a SeekingAlpha article on them here).  The third is Advantage Oil and Gas.  All of these positions are extremely small (<1%). If I decide to stick with any of them I will write more details later.

Portfolio Composition

Click here for the last seven weeks of trades.

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Week 324: Underlying Conditions

Portfolio Performance

Top 10 Holdings

See the end of the post for my full portfolio breakdown and the last four weeks of trades

Thoughts and Review

The late spring and early summer months were a trying time for my investments.

I haven’t written up my portfolio in a while.  Part of that was due to the summer, being away and not having the time to do my usual work.  But I also went through a 3 month period, from mid-May to mid-August, where I lost money and struggled with why. That dampened my spirits for putting pen to paper.

Losing money is hard enough, but it is harder when you have been generally right in your decisions.   I try, like the namesake of this blog, to analyze underlying conditions and let that determine my general bent on sectors and the market.  Where there is a bull market I like to be very long those stocks, and when there is a bear market I like to pull back significantly, retreat into cash, and go short where I can.

Throughout the spring and summer I found myself in a general bull market in US stocks, one that had made me a lot of money throughout the winter.  I was, quite rightly, very long US stocks.  The market kept going up, albeit in fits and starts.  But I began to lose money.  Now I didn’t lose money quickly.  In retrospect that may have been a better route as at least I would have been forced to discover my error.  But instead my losses slowly accumulated over the months of May and June.

What’s more, I did not see noticeably poor performance from any of the stocks I owned.  Sure my names weren’t breaking out to new highs, but my core positions at the time, the likes of Radcom, Silicom, Sientra, Combimatrix, Identiv and Vicor were not by any means breaking down (I leave out Radisys as it is a separate discussion).

It wasn’t until my portfolio was down about 6%, in the middle of June, that I woke up to the fact that something was wrong.  I scoured my list of stocks but found nothing worrisome with the names I held.  I knew that the Canadian dollar had been rising so that must have been having some effect but I had never really quantified my currency exposure.  I had always thought of currency as an afterthought, something that balances itself out in the end.

As I crunched through the numbers on my currency losses, I realized that while in the very long run my theory that currency balances itself out might be correct, in the short run a currency can make or break you.  The Canadian dollar was in the midst of unwinding 2 years of gains in two months.  Measuring my losses from the portfolio top in mid-May, I was 6% down, of which 5% came from currency.

It is here that I made my first big mistake. I was armed with the information I needed to act decisively.  I knew my problem: stocks were in a bull market, but clearly the US dollar was not, and I was, rather unwittingly, very long the US dollar.

So what did I do?  Something that, in retrospect, was absurd.  I made only a token effort towards the problem, taking only the excess US dollar cash in my portfolio and putting it into a Canadian currency ETF.  This effort, while directionally correct,  impacted about 15% of my US dollar holdings and thus did nothing to alleviate the problem.  I followed this up with an even more inexplicable move, even to me looking back on it now.  I put on index shorts to hedge my long positions.

Here I was with losses proving that I was wrong.  I had determined the source of those losses.  And what did I do?  I did something that was likely only to exacerbate them.

It really goes to show how wrong one’s logic can be when you are trying to cling to what you had. The reality, I think, is I didn’t want to do what was right.  What was right was to sell my US stocks.  Not because my US stocks were going down. They were not.  Not because the theses behind these positions was not sound.  They were.  But because I was losing money on those US stocks.

Unfortunately I could not wrap my head around this.  All I saw were good stocks with strong catalysts.  How could I sell my positions?  It’s a bull market!

I spent most of June compounding my problem with band-aid solutions that only dug me in deeper. I fell back on oil stocks as a Canadian dollar hedge.  This had saved me the last few times; in the past the Canadian dollar had risen because oil had risen, so I had gone long oil stocks and my losses on currency were more than compensated with my gains on E&Ps.  I was saved a lesson and left none the wiser to how impactful currency could be.

But this time around the currency was not rising because of oil.  My appraisal that I should be long oil stocks was based on the flawed logic that what works in the past must work again regardless of conditions.  That is rarely the case.  In June and July I bought and lost money on companies like Resolute Energy, US Silica and Select Sands, all the time continuing to hold onto US dollars and lose on them.

I also went long gold stocks on the similar thesis that if the US dollar is weak then one should be long gold.  In this case I was at least partially correct.  That is the right thing to do given conditions. But my conviction was misplaced. Rather than being long gold stocks because I thought gold stocks would go up, I was long gold stocks to hedge my US dollar positions.  You cannot think clearly about a position when you are in it for the wrong reasons even if a right reason to be in it exists.  Thus it was that in late July I actually sold a number of my gold stock positions. It was only a couple weeks later, finally being of a clear head (for reasons I will get to) that I bought them all back, for the right reasons this time, but unfortunately at somewhat higher prices.

As I say it was at the beginning of August that I finally was struck by what I must do.  I’m not sure what led me to the conclusion but I think an element of deep disgust played a part.  I had just seen my biggest position, Combimatrix, get taken over for a significant premium. My portfolio took a big jump, which took down my losses from my mid-May peak from -10% (over 8% due to currency!) to -7.5%.  But then in the ensuing days I saw those gains begin to disappear.  Part of this happened because Radisys laid an egg in their quarterly results, but part of it was just a continuation of more of the same.  Currency losses, losses on index short hedges, some losses on my remaining oil stocks, and the ups and downs of the rest of my portfolio.

I simply could not handle the thought of my portfolio going back to where it was before Combimatrix had been acquired. I was sick of losing money on currency.  And I was reminded by the notion that you never see conditions clearly when you are staked too far to one side.  So I sold.

When I say I sold, I really mean I sold.  I took my retirement account to 90% cash.  I took my investment account to 75% cash.  There were only a couple of positions I left untouched.  And I took the dollars I received back to Canadian dollars.

I continued to struggle through much of August, but those struggles took on a new bent.  I was no longer dealing with portfolio fluctuations of 1%.  The amounts were measured at a mere fraction of that.   This breathing room afforded me by not losing money began to allow me to look elsewhere for ideas.

I don’t know if there is an old saying that ‘you can’t start making money until you stop losing it’, but if there isn’t there should be. When you are losing money, the first thing you need to do is to stop losing it.  Only then can you take a step back and appraise the situation with some objectivity.  Only then can you recover the mental energy, which until that time you had been expending justifying losses and coping with frustration, and put it towards the productive endeavor of finding a new idea.

In August, as my portfolio fluctuated only to a small degree but still with a slight downward slant, I mentally recuperated. And slowly new ideas started to come to me.  It became clear that I was right about gold, and in particular about very cheap gold stocks like Grand Colombia and Jaguar Mining, so I went long these names and others.  I realized that being short the US market was a fools errand, and closed out each and every one of those positions.  I saw that maybe this is the start of another commodities bull run, and began to look for metals and mining stocks that I could take advantage of.  I found stocks like Aehr Test Systems and Lakeland Industries, and took the time to renew my conviction in existing names like Air Canada, Vicor, Empire Industries and CUI Global.

Since September it has started to come together.  I saw the China news on electric vehicles and piled into related names.  Not all have been winners; while I have won so far with Albemarle, Volvo, Bearing Lithium and Almonty Industries, I have been flat on Leading Edge Materials and lost on my (recently sold) Lithium X and Largo Resources positions.  Overall the basket has led to gains.  I’ve also been investigating some other ways of benefiting from the EV shift.  It looks like rare earth elements and graphite might be two of the best ways to play the idea, and I have added to my position in Leading Edge Materials (which has a hidden asset by way of a REE deposit at the level of feasibility study) to this end.  Likewise nickel, which is not often talked about with electric vehicles and has been pummeled by high stock piles, has much to gain from electric vehicles and could see a resurgence over the next couple of years.  I’m looking closely at Sherritt for nickel exposure and took a small position there so far.

I saw that oil fundamentals were improving and got back into a few oil names, albeit only tentatively at first.  Such is the case that once you are burned on a trade, as I was when I incorrectly got into oil stocks in June and July for the wrong reasons, you are hesitant to return even when the right reasons present themselves.  Thus it has taken me a while, but over the last couple of weeks I have added positions in Canadian service companies Cathedral Energy and Essential Energy, and E&Ps Gear Energy, InPlay Oil and even a small position in my old favorite Bellatrix.  A company called Yangarra Resources has had success in a new lower zone of the Cardium, and I see InPlay and Bellatrix as potential beneficiaries.  These newer names go along with Blue Ridge Mountain Resources, Silverbow, and Zargon, all of which I held through the first half slump in oil.

I even saw the Canadian dollar putting in the top, and converted back some currency to US dollars a couple of weeks ago.

Most importantly, got back to my bread and butter.  Finding under the radar fliers with big risk but even bigger reward.  I have always said it is the 5-bagger that makes my returns.  If I don’t get them, then I am an average investor at best.

I found Mission Ready Services, which hasn’t worked yet but I think is worth waiting for.  I found some other Canadian names that I think have real upside if things play out right (in addition to the above mentioned metals an oil names, I added a position in Imaflex). Most profitably, I was introduced to Helios and Matheson after reading an article from Mark Gomes.

I don’t completely understand the reason why, but good things do not come to you when you are mired in a mess of doing things that are wrong.  It is only when you stop doing what is wrong that other options, some of which may be right, will begin to present themselves.

I also don’t know which of what I am doing now will turn out to be right, and what will turn out to be wrong.  I will monitor all my positions closely and try to keep a tighter leash than I have been.  What I do know is that I will not continue to be wrong in the same way I was through the months of May to August.  And that is a big step in the right direction right there.

Portfolio Composition

Click here for the last eight (!!) weeks of trades.  Note that in the process of writing this update I realized I do not have a position in Gear Energy or Essential Energy in the practice portfolio.  I have owned Gear for over a month and Essential for a few weeks.  This happens from time to time.  I miss adding a stock I talk about and own in my real portfolio.  I added them Monday but they are not reflected below.

Note as well that I can’t convert currency in the practice account.  I know I could use FXC but in the past I haven’t, I have just let the currency effects have their way with the practice portfolio. Thus you won’t see the currency conversions that I talked about making in my actual portfolio.  I may change this strategy the next time the Canadian dollar looks bottomy but as I am inclined to be long US dollars at this point, I’m leaving my allocations where they are for now.

Back from vacation and adding to Aehr Test Systems

I am back from vacation and will be providing a few updates over the weekend of what I have done lately in my portfolio.

I will start with Aehr Test Systems.

I am reluctant to add to any position given the market.  My investment portfolio cash position is up to 65%, and is even higher (83%) in my RRSP account.  Nevertheless I did add to my position in Aehr Test Systems.

I’ve been waiting on a retracement in Aehr for some time.  I think that under $3 is a good opportunity to buy the stock.  On July 19th the company announced earnings.  Their fourth quarter revenue, at $6.7 million, beat their own $6 million guidance.  Their current backlog is $17.8 million (including the $1.3 million WaferPak order announced on August 9th), which is almost equal to full year revenue from the previous year ($19 million).  On their fiscal fourth quarter conference call the company said they expect to “exceed” 50% revenue growth in the next fiscal year.

Listening closely to the conference call, it is clear that the upside bound on revenue could be much higher.  There are a number of high volume applications for their test systems that Aehr is being integrated into and where purchase orders are anticipated.  I think its possible that we see a press release event where a large (maybe $10 million plus?) order is announced.  This would send the stock up significantly.

But of course I’m a little worried about the recent weakness in the stock.  Catching a falling knife is never advised and that is what I have done here.  But there have been so many instances of small caps nosediving only to recover the last couple of months that I suspect this is just another one of those.  I think back to a number of stocks that I have owned, Novabay Pharmaceuticals for instance, which had precipitous drops that were followed by recoveries.  There was some insider selling after the move to $4, so perhaps some investors have taken that as a cue to sell.  The stock is so illiquid that it only takes one large, dedicated seller to send the stock down.

One the negative side they sell semi-conductor equipment, which is a lumpy and cyclical business.  Interestingly, on  the last conference call management said that they are still too small to be caught up in the cycles.

We are not necessarily dealing with macro semiconductor cycles here yet. As we are primarily designed in on key new programs with our customers with new products and new applications in many cases, and so it’s very specific to those customers

I note that the other equipment manufacturer I follow, Ichor Holdings, had a dip back at the beginning of August but has stabilized of late.

After the move down the stock trades at a market capitalization of $55 million.  After the recent capital raise there is $18 million of cash on the balance sheet and no debt.  Assuming 50% revenue growth in fiscal 2018, the stock trades at about 1.3x revenue.

That’s too low in my opinion.

Week 304: More on Edge

Portfolio Performance

Top 10 Holdings

Thoughts and Review

In my June update I took space to describe some of the attributes of my edge.  At that time I didn’t define it specifically, and so I wanted to extend that discussion here.  To repeat the definition that I put forth back then:

An edge is essentially the advantage that allows you to beat the market more than it beats you.  For many of these traders understanding their edge; a system, a pattern, a money management technique; has been a major step toward consistent success.

I think I have put up enough years of out-performance to tentatively conclude I have some sort of edge.  Its still possible that I don’t; maybe I will blow up yet and these past years will prove to be a statistical aberration.   But as times goes on those odds become less likely.

So what is it?

First, I do quite a bit of research.  Now maybe I’m not the most exhaustive researcher; I know some folks that will, at minimum, read through the last 5 years of 10-K’s before pulling the trigger, but nevertheless I am on the heavy side of the research spectrum. I think its fair to say that I make decisions on a more informed basis than the average investor.

Second, I’ve come up with a methodology that works, both absolutely and for my personality.  I take small positions that let me be wrong without losing a lot of money.  I rarely add to those positions if they fall and sometimes cut them if they fall too much even if I have no news to suggest anything has changed.  And I add to the positions as they rise and price movement reinforces the thesis.

This works for me because in the real world I’m not very good at making decisions.  Just to give a couple examples from every day life, I don’t like having to choose the TV show we watch at night, what food we will have for dinner, or where we are going to go on vacation.  I would rather have someone else make the decision and just go with the flow.  I am fortunate to have an understanding wife.

I invest in a way that is in tune with this nature.  I rarely commit to an idea unless I am deep into it.  Even with my biggest positions; Identiv or Combimatrix or Radcom, I don’t feel sold on the ideas.  I’m more of a renter.  I am not sure if they will pan out and I am ready to run if something goes awry.  It’s easier for me to pick a stock then what’s for dinner because I know it’s not for good.

The final element of my edge is the type of stocks I look for.  I try to find companies that, while they may only have a small probability of going up, have the chance to go up by multiples if things play out in a certain way.

To put it another way, if I am right 30% of the time and on average my gains are 20% and my losers are 20%, I am going to lose money.   But if my gains can be 100% and my losers 20% then I am going to do quite well even if I’m wrong most of the time.  So I am wrong a lot, I change my mind a lot, but when I’m right its often for a double, a triple or even more.

What I did last month – Aehr Test Systems

Its actually been 5 weeks because we were on vacation for the last week and so I didn’t get this update out on time.  Even with the extra week, I didn’t do too much.  In fact I only made three trades.  One, Catalyst Biosciences, was a fluke that I discussed in my last update.  The stock is back down to where it was and I didn’t actually buy it anywhere but the practice account so who really cares.

The other two were new positions.  The one I’m going to mention in this update is Aehr Test Systems.  They are a fairly tiny company ($90 million market capitalization) that makes testing equipment.  They have a unique design (I don’t believe there is a lot of direct competition) that can test at the wafer level rather than the module level, which eliminates much of the potential for mechanical failure and improves quality controls.  They started selling a multi-wafer testing machine called the Fox-XP system back in July and they have started to see orders come in.  Their test equipment is sold to some large companies, like Apple and Texas Instruments (Apple and TI accounted for 47% and 32% of revenue in 2016) and they have made references to being in talks to sell product to a Korean firm that seems likely to be Samsung.

The stock doesn’t appear cheap at a glance.  Revenues in the last 9 months were only about $12 million so on a trailing sales basis the stock looks wildly overpriced.

What makes it interesting is that we are only starting to see orders for the Fox-XP system.  So far these orders have been for prototypes to verify the concept.  The units sell for $4 to $5 million, so even a trickle of prototypes are incrementally material to the company.  But the orders could scale substantially if the proof of concept testing goes well.  The company doesn’t give a lot of guidance, and there isn’t much of an analyst following to prod information out of them, but on the third quarter conference call management said that if successful with their lead customer (probably TI?) they could ship 10 systems a program and that they are currently working on 2 programs.  So the lead customer alone could amount to a $40 million to $60 million opportunity per program.

If the Fox-XP takes off, the stock is going to move significantly.  Will it?  I don’t know.  It has a chance though, and that is worth a small position.

The dangers of short-term funding

In October of last year I wrote that I was short Canadian alternative lenders and mortgage insurers in the wake of the Federal government mortgage rule changes.  For 5 months these positions did poorly.  I began to think my puts would expire worthless and my shorts would be tax loss candidates.  But last week the bet was vindicated as I took profits after the alleged fraud at Home Capital.

My thesis was not premised on the discovery of fraud.   I thought there was a reasonable chance something would be uncovered as the market unwound but that wasn’t my primary reason for going short.  Instead I thought the measures the government put in place in October would finally cool down the housing market and that, given that many of the measures were targeted at alternative lenders and insurers, these companies would suffer the most.

That hasn’t happened, so in that way I was lucky.  But what I did get right was how things would unravel once the ball got rolling.

It cannot be overstated how precarious a company is if they lend long, borrow short and have a funding source that is easily called away.  If any uncertainty develops about their lending book, the run on funding can be swift and fierce.

The collapse of Home Capital was precipitated by their dependence on high interest deposits to fund part of their loan book.  Those deposits were available on demand, so at the first allegation of wrongdoing, many were pulled.  Why not?  Who wants to take a chance with their money for an extra percent.  Adding to this outflow, there is and will continue to be a slow motion run on their GIC funding, many of which will mature over the next year and almost assuredly not be renewed.

This capriciousness is why I don’t have the stomach to hold non-bank financials through any bouts of turmoil (think back to New Residential or Northstar).  You just never know when the funding side is going to tighten, and when it does an extremely profitable business model can be flipped to insolvency in a heartbeat.  Again, and I know I’m repeating myself, but I don’t think you can over-state how precarious it is to lend-long, borrow short and have funding callable on demand.  Everything is great until it isn’t, and then it’s all over.

As for the Canadian housing market, it continues to tick on.  It will be interesting to see how the events of the last week interact with the price rise of homes in Southern Ontario and coastal BC.  We are all familiar with how the US played out.  There the topping out of prices was the catalyst that collapsed the loans and tightened of credit.  I wonder if it has to play out that way, or whether causality could be reversed in Canada, as lenders for marginal buyers lose their funding sources in the wake of Home Capital?

We’ll see.   We sold our rental property a few weeks ago so I don’t even have that chip in the game anymore.  However that wasn’t driven by macro worry; instead we realized that renting is very time consuming and not very profitable (unless you live in the GTA or the coast and your house can appreciate in value by 30% in a year).  Our last tenant also turned out to be a convicted criminal which didn’t help my stress level last year.

It will be another interesting week.

Portfolio Composition

Click here for the last five weeks of trades.  I had to make two adjustments to the portfolio that show up as trades because of name changes that weren’t automatically updated in the practice portfolio.  Accretive Health recently changed their named to R1 RCM and a while ago Limbach changed their symbol to LMB.  The Limbach situation was brought to me by a reader.  Its been wrong in my update for a while (displaying the old symbol and last traded price of it).  This has been corrected now.