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New Position in RumbleOn: Selling Used Motorcycles Online

I wish I had finished this write-up a day early.  I do not like writing up a stock that just went up 15%.  But that’s where we are with RumbleOn.  I’ve been working on the research and writing all week and then the stock goes parabolic today.  I see no news to speak of.  Anyways it is what it is, and like all my ideas I’m in this for the long term (insofar as the thesis holds up).  Having said that, buying a stock up 15% the previous day is generally not a great idea.

I got the idea a month or so ago from a search of stocks at their 3-month high.   When I’m bored and looking for ideas I will go to the 52-week highs or 3-month highs or some other simple price movement screen that gives a signal of strength and I’ll dig into some of the names.

I’ll look for a name that I haven’t heard of, usually keying on one that is small, and I’ll do a bit of work to see if its worth a closer look.

Anyways that’s how I found RumbleOn.

What was fortunate about the timing was that I had just been looking at Carvana.  Carvana operates an online used car business that is similar to what RumbleOn does for motorbikes.   When I looked at Carvana I couldn’t believe how expensive it was.  When I looked at RumbleOn, I couldn’t believe how cheap it appeared in comparison.

Having dug into it further I’m still of that mind.  In fact it seems to me that RumbleOn has a better business model than Carvana.  I’ll give that comparison in a bit, but first let me describe what RumbleOn does.

An Online Motorcycle Marketplace

RumbleOn operates an online marketplace for buying and selling used motorcycles.  They have a website (rumbleon.com) as well as an iOS and GooglePlay app.

The company makes cash offers for bikes to individuals looking to sell.  If accepted, the bike is shipped to one of their regional partners (dealers), inspected and reconditioned and then put up for sale on the site.

Anyone can sell their bike to RumbleOn.  Upload the vehicle info, fill out a form, add a few pictures and RumbleOn will make you a no-haggle offer.  Its good for 3 days and you either take it or leave it.

It’s meant to be the opposite of going to a dealer or selling the bike yourself.  There is no haggle, no pressure tactics, and you won’t deal with tire-kickers or nitpickers.

For a while RumbleOn also bought bikes through auction and had dealer inventory on their site.  However they’ve stopped both as their retail acquisition channel has become self sufficient.   They do buy bikes via some auto-dealers that take them on trade but don’t have a marketplace and just want to get rid of them.

Early on the goal was to insure that the site had adequate inventory.  So the company reached for it from other channels.  They are now focused entirely on generating inventory through consumers.

Buying a bike on RumbleOn is geared to be just as simple.   Pick a bike from the available selection and put down a $250 deposit.  The full price of the bike is paid in cash or financed through an unaffiliated bank or credit union partner shortly after.

Unlike most of the online used car dealers (like Carvana), RumbleOn is agnostic to who they sell the bikes to.  Most of the car selling sites are focused on the consumer channel.

RumbleOn does that, but they also sell to dealer and auction channels.  At the moment dealers are most of the business (via online and through auction).  They made up 91% of sales in the first quarter while consumers made up just 9%.

The company expects to build out the consumer channel as awareness of the brand grows.  This is a new business, a little over a year old.  Marketing of the app and website should grow the percentage of sales coming from consumers.   I expect all the channels will grow but that consumer sales will grow the fastest.

Margins on consumer sales are higher so they are the preferred customer.  With a dealer sale RumbleOn has to share the margin.

In the first quarter dealer sales had an average selling price of $8,874 at a 7.8% margin while consumer sales had a $12,207 selling price and 13.7% margin.

Gaining Traction with Consumers

The website and app are only about a year old.  Consumer momentum takes time.  AppAnnie and Alexa show that both the website and the app are growing in popularity.

AppAnnie Ranking

Alexa Traffic Rank

Bringing retail owners and buyers to the site is all about experience.  RumbleOn needs to make the experience, both for buying and selling a bike, as painless as possible.

Buying or selling a bike is not a lot of fun.  The alternatives to RumbleOn are selling your bike yourself or selling to a dealer.  If you sell yourself then you will inevitably “suffer the tirekickers and hagglers and deal with shaky payments”, in the words of one Harley rider commenting on a forum about the service.  Selling to dealer likely means haggling, waiting onconsignment or a lower price than what RumbleOn can offer.  Buying a bike offers the same problems in reverse.

What RumbleOn has to do is make the experience so effortless that its worth your while to give up a little margin.

It’s a trade-off to bike enthusiasts.  Reading the reviews of RumbleOn and reading through forums where bike riders talk about buying and selling their bikes, its something that potential bike sellers are very aware off.

The most common complaint you hear about RumbleOn is that their offers are too low.  But most bike owners also understand what they are getting in return for the margin they lose (which amounts to maybe $1,000).  They get guaranteed cash and no hassle.  They do not have to live for weeks or months with strangers coming over to their garage, trying to push a lower on price, and dissing their bike on minor issues.  They also recognize that the offer price is usually better than what they’d get from a dealer.

Sales Growth

So far the model is working.  Bike sales went from 355 in the fourth quarter of last year to 878 in the first quarter.  The company said they expected that to double again in the second quarter.

I was a bit worried about how they could double sales when the website/app bike inventory seemed to be stagnating.  At the end of the first quarter inventory was a little above 1,000 units, whereas now it is slightly below that number.

But it turns out this isn’t the case.   Inventory has been rising.  The appearance of stagnant inventory is because of the removal of dealer listings.

Adding Bikes

If you go back to the first quarter call management was asked about the disappearance of the dealer listings:

And then just as a follow up, it looks like you’ve taken the dealer listings off the site, is that a temporary thing or is that a permanent change?

Marshall Chesrown

Yes, I wondered if someone is going to say that. We have a plan – we’re getting ready to launch as we said some really, really interesting enhancements, I will be interested to get everybody’s feedback on them with regards to the website and we do see a huge opportunity to be a significant listener of vehicle both for consumers and dealers but we want to do it in a different format and I won’t get into all the details of it but I would tell you that before the quarter you will see what that plan is as it’s rolled out.

Excluding dealer listings, inventory has grown from ~125 in November of last year, to ~300 in March and now to a little over 1,000 today.

My take is that inventory procurement is the gating factor.  The company has said that themselves.  On the fourth quarter call CFO Steve Berrard had this to say:

This is really a buying product challenge. It’s not selling it. We proved we can sell it by the fact you know, when is the last time you heard a vehicle retailer have days-turns in the 20s, because the market is there to sell it.  It’s buying of it, that’s the bigger challenge for us.

A key metric to watch will be how well they continue to acquire inventory.  The ramp over the last 3 months as well as the confidence they showed by removing dealer listings are positive data points.

Acquiring inventory is all about making lots of offers and getting the owners to accept them.  To expand inventories RumbleOn needs to:

  1. ramp offers
  2. improve acceptance rate

The ramp of offers is all about using technology to streamline the process:

We already which is very early in the cycle earlier than we anticipated we already do not have data people but data is being produced by our system and the data that we have we simply have a supervised whether it is released in those vouchers if you will, those cash offers. We have gone from being able to do about 20 an hour with the new technology enhancements, a single supervisor can do about an 100 an hour

Cash offers were 3,900 in the fourth quarter.  That improved over 200% in the first quarter to 12,000.  On the last call they said they were on pace to double cash offers in the second quarter.

Acceptance rates on those offers have been trending in the right direction as well.  Acceptance rates were 12% in the fourth quarter rising to 14.9% in the fourth quarter.  Chesrown thinks they can get this as high as 20% over time.

So all good signs.  Even so I feel like obtaining the right inventory at the right price is going to remain the big challenge for the business.

Reviews

Case and point: if you look for negative reviews of the company, what you find will almost inevitably be a bike owner complaining that the offer RumbleOn made for their bike is too low.

The business is based on the premise that you are saving enough in terms of time, hassle and getting a guaranteed cash payment to make you willing to give up the $1,000 that you might get if you sold the bike yourself.  And this is an equal or better price, all with less hassle, then you’d get if you went to your local dealer to sell.

You can find reviews of RumbleOn on BBB, Facebook, GooglePlay and on the Harley Davidson forums.

Other than the complaints about the offer prices the reviews are almost all positive.  Customers get paid for their bikes on time, they receive their bikes quickly and they are consistent with what was ordered.  The app is easy to use, it’s a simple process to get an offer on your bike and likewise it is easy to purchase a bike.

Guidance for the year

The company reiterated their full year guidance.  They expect $100 million of revenue in 2018 and “in excess” of 10,000 units for the full year.

They changed the way they are getting to the $100 million from what they said on the previous call.  Management had previously guided to $100 million but on 8,100 units sold.  Their mix has changed. Rather than expecting sales would be dominated by Harley’s they now expect a better balance between Harley’s and non-Harleys.  Harley’s are higher price, lower margin units.

This is a really new business and I don’t feel like management (led by CEO Marshall Chesrown and CFO Steve Berrard) know exactly how all the levers will play out.  They’ve been surprised by the number of non-Harley’s, surprised by the number of dealers buying, and surprised by the strength and margins they are getting from the auction channel.

Nevertheless I’m pretty confident that Chesrown will navigate his way through this.  The guy has a impressive background.

Management

Chesrown started off selling cars first in San Diego and then in Colorado, where he was managing 17 dealerships by the time he was 25.  He started his own dealership chain soon after which was eventually bought out by AutoNation for $50 million.  He has been called the “best used car salesman in the country”.  There is a great biography of his early life in this article in the Inlander.

After making a fortune in the auto business Chesrown tried his hand in real estate development and lost it all in the crash of 2008.  But not to be deterred he went back to his roots and founded Vroom in 2013.

Chesrown was COO and a director of Vroom until 2016, when he left to start RumbleOn.    Though Vroom has hit on harder times this year, it was valued at over $600 million last year.

There are some similarities between the model used by Vroom and RumbleOn but there are also differences.  I get the feeling Chesrown learned there and the learnings are now being applied.  There have also been a number of executives that have left Vroom for RumbleOn.

Steven Berrard, the CFO, also has a pretty crazy history.  He was the CEO of Blockbuster in the 90s, left there to work with (his friend?) Wayne Huizenga as COO of AutoNation, and from there took over Jamba Juice and eventually became CEO.  He also led Swisher, which eventually ran into accounting problems but that was all after he left.

It’s a little nuts to me that these guys are leading an $80 million market cap company.

The management team and directors own a lot of shares.  Together its about 75% of the Class A and Class B shares.  Chesrown and Berrard own 36.5% between the two of them, and together the two own all the (1 million) Class A shares, which have 10:1 voting rights and effectively give them full control over the direction of the company.

Profitability

Buying and selling motorbikes online is new but buying and selling vehicles is not so much.  In addition to publicly traded Carvana and Vroom, there have been Beepi, Shift, Fair, Auto1, Carspring and Hellocar and a bunch of others.

These companies haven’t all been successful.  From what I can see Beepi, Carspring, and Hellocar all ran out of money.  Shift and Fair seems to be doing ok, though Shift has had some bumps in the road by the looks of it.  Auto1 is a German company that seems to be doing well.

I think the basic problem with theses businesses is what you see in Carvana’s financials.  It takes a long time to get cash flow positive.  Carvana has already been around for 5-6 years and yet when I look at the estimates it doesn’t look like they are expected to generate positive EBITDA until 2020.

So these companies need a source of funds to keep themselves going.   When those funds dry up, like they did for Beepi, the business goes away.

RumbleOn has similarities and differences here.  This is low margin and always going to be.  In the first quarter RumbleOn had gross sales profit, which is defined as the difference between the price RumbleOn bought the bike and the price they sold it at, was $1,132 per bike, or 12.3%.  Gross profit, which includes costs associated with appraisal, inspection and reconditioning, was $788 per bike, or 8.6%.

The average margin on a Harley was 7.5% while for non-Harley Davidson’s it was 13.1%.  Non-Harley’s seem to have a higher gross margin than Harleys, which has to do with their lower price point.

So it’s a low margin business and always will be. So RumbleOn needs to be tight on expenses and focused on volume.

That’s why I think the thing I like best about what I hear from Chesrown and the RumbleOn management team is their focus on getting to profitability and inventory turns.

They want to get RumbleOn to cash flow positive quickly.

Breakeven

Berrard laid out where they would be in terms of costs by the fourth quarter.  They also said the goal is to be cash flow positive by the fourth quarter.  Guidance for the year is $100 million of revenue, 10,000 bikes sold.

To get to the unit sales guidance they need to sell 4,500 bikes by the fourth quarter, up from 878 in the first quarter.  I’m assuming they hit their second quarter guidance of doubling bikes sold in the second quarter.

I took all the guidance information and made a few assumptions around consumer sales (expecting it to rise from 9% in Q1 to 25% in Q4) and their warranty financing (expecting uptake/dollar value to rise from 35% in Q1 to 53% in Q4), and I came up with a break-even model (thanks to @teamonfeugo for helping me work the kinks out of the model).

So I don’t know if this model with be accurate.  The business is new, there’s some guessing on my part and I’m just going on what we know from the calls.  But what is clear is that the growth is significant and if they can get there by Q4, then 2019 should be the year of cash generation.

It’s also worth noting that margins so far are primarily driver by the vehicle margin.  Companies like Carvana are generating about half their margin from financing and warranty sales.

Comps

RumbleOn has 12.9 million shares outstanding.  So at $6.25, which is roughly the average price I bought the stock at (I know its ran up the last couple days but I don’t want to redo all of this again), the market cap is about $80 million.

Compare that to Carvana, which has a market capitalization of over $6 billion.  Carvana is of course much bigger.  But on a per unit basis, RumbleOn looks very reasonable.

Carvana has higher gross margins per unit than RumbleOn but that is because of financing, service contracts and GAP waivers.  As sales to consumers grow RumbleOn can expand these other offerings.

On just a pure selling price minus purchase price basis, once scaled RumbleOn has pretty comparable margins to Carvana.  It also took them a lot less time to get there (Carvana vehicle unit margins were only about $600 as recently as last year).

It’s hard to look for comparisons from the other online car companies.  Vroom, Shift and Fair.com are all private and I can’t find much information on valuation or how many cars they sell.   The only somewhat interesting observation I can make is that in terms of unit inventory (this of course being cars for these three companies versus bikes for RumbleOn), they do not appear to be significantly larger.  Vroom has about 2,500 cars on their site, Fair has a little over 7,000 and Shift only has about 800.  RumbleOn was a little over 1,000 at last glance.

Multiples

Here’s a table of what RumbleOn’s market capitalization looks like at different revenue multiples and $100 million of sales.  The 3.4 multiple is based on Carvana’s forward 2018 revenue multiple.

I realize the numbers are high, but it is what it is.  I’m using the company’s guidance and Carvana’s multiple.  Consider that RumbleOn is growing faster than Carvana at this point.

What sort of multiple does RumbleOn deserve?  I’m sure you can make an argument that because the margins are low, the multiple should be low.  That’s one perspective.  But they are also growing like a weed.  And then there is Carvana.  If Carvana gets almost a 4x multiple, I don’t see why RumbleOn shouldn’t get at least something above 1, probably more.   That multiple should grow as they become more established.

I realize that the used car market is way bigger and so maybe there is a premium for that.  But used bike sales aren’t exactly small themselves, especially compared to RumbleOn’s size.   According to their S-1 there were 800,000 motorbikes sold in 2016 and 50% of those are done on a peer to peer basis.  Then there is the eventual expansion into other sports vehicles.   RumbleOn also doesn’t have the 5-10 online and gazillion bricks and mortar competitors fighting with them for share.

What to look for

First, I want to see the website inventory continue to expand.  Offers should continue to grow and acceptance will hopefully increase.  At the same time their days sales are equally important.  That number was 42 in the first quarter versus 38 in the fourth quarter.  Carvana days to sale were 70 in the first quarter, down from 93 year over year.  RumbleOn has focused on turns and needs to continue to do so.

Second, I want to see consumers comprise a greater percentage of sales, and (ideally) I want dealer sales to take place more and more through the website.  But most of all I just want to see sales grow.

Third, I don’t want to see their costs blow up.  Costs are going to increase as the business scales but they should also come down to their targets in terms of percentage of revenue.

Fourth, at some point I expect they will expand into other sport vehicles.  They’ve mentioned expansion into ATV’s, UTVs, snow machines and watercrafts as other targeted areas.

Conclusion

Online used vehicle selling is a tough space to be in.  Carvana has a great chart this year but there was a lot of skepticism (and a high short interest) when it went public.

A lot of other players have ran out of cash.  Beepi, Carspring, Hellocar and now Vroom have all struggled.

But all these guys are all selling cars.  I think RumbleOn has some advantages selling bikes.

  1. They are much easier to transport.
  2. They are a niche market compared to used car sales and thus more difficult to sell yourself via Craigslist or Kijiji.
  3. They don’t have the same level of competition online. And their traditional dealer competition is arguably less savvy than the used car dealer incumbents (remember that a lot of used car dealers take bikes on trade but don’t want to sell them, so they are actually a source of inventory to RumbleOn).

They are also offering a quick cash, no haggle, simple model for buying and selling bikes in a business that has traditionally relied on squeezing extra margin by making the process as difficult and opaque as possible.

The other advantage here is that RumbleOn is 100% online.  On the last call they talked about how they can scale without adding to headcount outside of marketing and technology.  They basically operate out of a single building.  They aren’t even touching the inventory themselves.

The other advantage RumbleOn has over most (not all) of the online car players is that they’ve involved the dealers.  Like I said earlier they are agnostic on the distribution channel.  They will sell to consumer, dealer and auction.

This allows them to ramp sales (albeit it at a lower margin) much faster than if they had to rely exclusively on consumer marketing of the app and website.

Finally, I think these guys have the right idea by focusing on inventory turns.  They don’t care who they are selling to, and they aren’t trying to squeeze every last bit of margin out of the sale.  They just want to get that inventory in and ship it out as quickly as possible.

When they get into power boats, snow machines and ATV’s I think most of these advantages are amplified.

If I’m thinking about this right, growth is gated by how quickly they can acquire inventory.  Given the rate at which cash offers and acceptance are increasing, I think that is well under control.

So it looks pretty interesting.  Nevertheless its a tough business because gross margins are guaranteed to be low. Its all about driving volume, keeping costs down and where possible upselling through warranties and financing.

So far they doing all of this quite well.

As you know I usually take a small position (usually 2% or a little higher) in a stock and then if it works I start adding as it rises.  With RumbleOn, I’m excited enough about the idea to make that higher right from the start.  I think if this works it will have some legs.  So we’ll see.

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Smith Micro: Stealing a Good Stock Pick

So I can’t take credit for this idea.  I also don’t have much to say that hasn’t been said already.  But I added the stock to my portfolio a couple weeks ago so I need to talk about why.

Smith-Micro is a Mark Gomes stock pick.  In fact if you go to his blog you will find so many posts on Smith-Micro that reading them all would keep you busy for a few days.

I’m not going to repeat all the information he provides.  I’m just going to stick to the story as I see it, the reasons that I took a position and what makes me both optimistic and cautious about how it plays out (this is just a typical 2% position for me so I’m not betting the farm).

Yesterdays Smith Micro

Smith-Micro has been a bad stock for a number of years.  But it used to be worth a lot.  This was a $400 million market cap company stock back in 2010.  Revenue in 2010 was $130 million.

At the time revenue relied on a suite of connection management products called Quicklink.  This suite of products maintained and managed your wireless connection as you moved around with your USB or embedded wireless modem (remember those!).  They also had a visual voicemail product that transferred voicemail to text and provided other voicemail management features (in fact they still do have this product).

From what I can tell it was Quicklink that was driving revenue.  They had 6 of the 10 big North American carriers onboard and 10%+ revenue contributions from AT&T, Verizon and Sprint.  It was a cash cow.

Now I haven’t figured out all the details of what happened next, but the short story seems to be that the smart phone happened.  Smart phones had embedded hot spots or mobile hotspot pucks for accessing mobile broadband services.  No more dongles, no more laptops looking to keep their connectivity.  And the connection management product was no more.

That was pretty much it for Smith Micro.  The company never recovered.  2011 revenue was $57 million.  2012 was $43 million.  By 2014 it was down to $37 million.

Today’s Smith Micro

The struggles have continued up until today.  Over the past few years the company has had a difficult time creating positive EBITDA and revenue growth has been in reverse.  Revenues bottomed out at $22 million last year.   It’s gotten bad enough that the company included going concern language in the 10-K.

The company currently has a suite of 4 applications.

CommSuite is their visual voicemail product.  It is still used after all these years and generates about 60% of revenue.  QuickLink IoT seems to be a grandchild of the original Quicklink products but with the focus on managing IoT devices.  Netwise seems like another Quicklink spin-off, managing traffic movement for carriers by transitioning devices from expensive spectrum to cheaper wifi where they can while insuring that an acceptable connection is maintained.

So those are the other products.  But there is only one that is really worth talking too much about and that’s SafePath.

SafePath is a device locator and parental control app.  With the app installed on all devices in a household a parent can keep track of their kids or the elderly (or spouse for that matter) as well as control and limit what apps and access each device has.

Smith Micro gave a rundown of the SafePath functionality in their latest presentation, comparing it these app store based competitors.

Essentially what these apps let you do is a combination of:

  1. Keeping tabs where all the other devices in your network are including geofencing alerts if the location is unexpected (ie. children not in school)
  2. Panic button if a family member is in trouble
  3. Content constraints on what apps can be downloaded onto each device, what websites can be visited
  4. Time constraints and time limits on when apps and web content can be accessed
  5. A history of device usage, location

I think it’s a pretty useful product.  I actually didn’t know that so much functionality was available for parents to control what their kids have access to (my kids aren’t at that age yet but I could see a product like this being a purchase for me one day).

SafePath isn’t a unique offering.  There are several apps on the market that offer a combination of the features.  Each carrier seems to offer some sort of flavor.  And there are freeium products available at the app stores, such as Life360 and Qustodio which are the comps used in the table above.

Both the Life360 and Qustudio apps are not associated with any carriers.  You get them via the app store and you get some reduced version of the product for free (can only track a couple member of the family, don’t have all the controls, etc).  You upgrade to the premium pay version if you want all the features.

For the premium version the pricing on the Qustudio app is between $4.50 to $11 per month depending on the family size.  I believe the Life360 app costs $5 per month but I can’t really find recent information on that, and I would need to sign up to get pricing via the app itself which I can’t do here in Canada.

Before I talk about the SafePath pricing, I want to mention that maybe the most important differentiator for SafePath is the white label.  Rather than providing a product into the app stores, Smith Micro licenses the app to carriers.  They put their own labeling on it and offer it to their clients.

That’s where Sprint comes in.

Why SafePath?

Last fall Smith Micro added Sprint as a SafePath customer.  Sprint obviously is a huge win, with 55 million wireless customers.

Sprint has named their version of the app Safe & Found.  The product was launched near the end of 2017 but didn’t really accelerate until the last couple of months.

Prior to Safe & Found Sprint offered a product called Family Locator that provided location detection for families.  They had a separate app for parental controls called Family Wall.  These products didn’t work at all on iOS.

Combining the functionality into a single app that’s available on all operating systems is likely part of a bigger strategy.  At the LD Micro conference William Smith, the CEO of Smith Micro said this:

[Safe Path is] an enabling platform for a carrier that is looking for a strategy to grow their consumer IoT devices… [such as] wearables, pet trackers, a module that goes in your car and lets you track your teens driving, a panic button that you give to your parents…

Putting together a single product geared at families is about attracting families to the carrier.  Families are low churn and high dollar value customers.

Sprint is selling the Safe & Found app for $6.99 per month, so in-line with the other apps that are available.  Smith Micro has a revenue sharing agreement, taking a cut on each customer.  Apparently, Smith gets about $3/customer/month from Sprint (though I haven’t been able to verify that number).

The Sprint Bump

Ok so now let’s throw out some numbers.

Smith Micro has about 24.5 million shares outstanding.  At $2.50 that gives it a market capitalization of $61 million.  There is about $10 million of cash on the balance sheet (maybe a bit more but they are still burning cash so call it $10mm) and $1.5 million of debt.

TTM revenues were about $23 million and gross margins are 75-80%.

Now let’s look at what Sprint does to those numbers.

On the fourth quarter conference call Smith said:

While the conversion of Sprint’s existing customer base is still underway, it will equal approximately $3.5 million in additional quarterly revenue for the company once it’s completed.

That’s including breakage.  So this is a $6 million revenue per quarter company that is guiding that it can add $3.5 million a quarter on a Sprint ramp?  Obviously, that’s the opportunity here.

The company said that margins on SafePath will be around 80% and that almost all that margin should fall to EBITDA.

Not surprisingly, if you model this out the company becomes much more attractive.

The above assumes 6% operating cost inflation (gets you to $6.2 million per quarter).

An analyst on the fourth quarter call said Sprint’s installed base was about 300,000 customers, so the above would assume a ramp of those customers (with breakage) to Safe & Found (I would really like to have this number verified though, I can’t find evidence of how many Sprint’s Family Locator subscribers there are anywhere else).  Its worth noting that if the 300,000 subs is accurate it is is less than 1% of Sprints installed base.  So there’s clearly lots of blue sky if all goes well.  On the fourth quarter call Smith said that:

I think it is the goal of not only Smith Micro but also of Sprint to see millions of subs using the SafePath product and that’s a goal that, I think, would be echoing in the executive aisles of the Sprint campus as well.

So we’ll see.  The numbers can get quite big when you are dealing with 80% margins and a large installed base.

Can Reality match the Model?

That’s the big question.  Are these numbers achievable?

Look, I take small positions in a lot of little companies that give a good story.  I tend to take management at face value.

This is a bit unconventional.   I get called out for it by more skeptical investors.  When these investors are right, which is more often then not, then they get to gloat and I get to look like a naïve fool for trusting management.

But bragging rights aren’t everything.  There is a method to my madness and that method is that when I am right, I sometimes get a multi-bagger out of it.   The big wins drive the performance of the portfolio and while on a “naïve-fool-basis” I come out looking poorly, I also come out profitably.

Nevertheless, I always try to keep it at the forefront of my mind that there is a pretty good chance that this isn’t going to end well.

With Smith Micro I’m taking management at face value.  If they say they can do $3.5 million a quarter from Sprint, then okay, I’m buying the stock on the basis that they do $3.5 million a quarter from Sprint.  They say the goal is for millions of subs then I say, okay, lets see that happen.

But I also recognize that might not happen.

My Concerns

Honestly my biggest hang-up with the stock right now is the reviews.  The reviews on Google Play could be better.

I recognize you have to take these reviews with a grain of salt.  First, they make up a very tiny percentage of the total downloads so far.  Gomes put together a very helpful table of his estimated downloads and the reviews that have been added.  Reviews are much less than 1% of downloads.

Second, its not clear that the reviews are all legitimate.   I haven’t done this, but some others have dug into the reviews and questioned that they are often coming from locations that aren’t even in the United States.

Third, apart from a few legitimate concerns like battery drain (which other reviewers actually contradict), most of the reviews seem to be more about complaining that the Family Locator app they were used to is gone.  Fourth, the trajectory of the reviews has been getting better.

Nevertheless the reviews are a datapoint and right now a somewhat negative one.

My second hang-up with the stock is that, at least from what I can tell, Sprint hasn’t completely shelved their legacy Family Locator app.  On the first quarter call Smith said this:

The legacy product was originally due to sunset in the first quarter of 2018, but has subsequently been delayed for several months. This change was based solely on Sprint operations and was not a result of the SafePath application or change of our contract status.

Why has Sprint delayed the sunset?  I have no idea.  It could be (probably is) a completely benign reason.  But again, it’s a bump in the road to weigh against the $3.5 million a quarter that I am taking at face value.

My third concern is that management hasn’t been on target with their projections.  Originally they said the ramp on the Sprint installed base would be complete by the first quarter of 2018.   That turned out to be way off. They were also positive on a Latin America carrier win that doesn’t appear to have panned out.

Finally, concern number 4 is that we are dealing with a service provider.  These guys are A. Slow to adopt, and B. not at all loyal.    We’ve already seen point A prove itself out as the ramp has lagged.  Point B is something I’ve already experienced with Radisys, which was dumped unceremoniously by Verizon.  Smith Micro has had this experience multiple times in its history, most recently by Sprint themselves when they dumped their NetWise product after what Smith Micro called a promising launch.

These are all reasons this is a 2% position for me.

On the other hand, Sprint does seem to be moving ahead.  There was a big promotion in May including a joint deal for AAA members (talked about here), reps have been visiting stores and getting the sales staff up to speed, and stores are promoting the app to varying degrees.

One other potential positive is that Sprint might not be the only Tier 1 win.  The CFO, Tim Huffmyer, presented at the Microcap conference in April.  He mentioned a second win with a Tier 1 European carrier.

Huffmyer said that they had already been selected as the family safety application for this carrier but that the contract process was still ongoing.  If they get the contract finalized it would be rolled out to Europe, Asia and the Middle East where this carrier operates.  He didn’t give any more details on size but presumably it would not be a small rollout.

I know from painful experience how slow Tier 1 wins can be.  But quite often they get around to it.  It’s a good sign that they are moving down that road with others.

A Typical Stock for me

This is a Mark Gomes pick and I am stealing it.  But I am stealing it because it fits right in my wheel house.

There is no question the stock could be a dud.  The Sprint ramp might stagnate, Sprint might walk away and go back to the incumbent or to some other option, and then there is the merger with T-Mobile that throws yet another wrinkle into the equation.  Who knows what’s in store?

The one thing I do know is that if the launch is successful and Smith hits their targets, the numbers are big enough to justify a higher stock price.  Viable growing businesses with 80% gross margins and a recurring revenue model don’t trade at 1-2 times revenue.  Simple as that.

So this is a classic stock for my investing style.  An uncertain opportunity that has some positives, some negatives, no sure thing, but an upside that is more than large enough to make it worth throwing your hat in the ring.

How often do these sorts of opportunities pan out?  Definitely somewhere south of half the time.   If it doesn’t then I get to look like a naïve fool for trusting management.  But if it does I get a big winner.  It’s these sorts of moonshots where the 5-baggers come from.  And that’s what drives the out-performance.  Crossing my fingers that Smith-Micro will be next.

Copper stars not quite aligned

Sometimes all the stars align for a trade.  And sometimes there is one star that is way off in its own orbit, throwing off the whole picture.

That’s what I’m thinking about copper right now.

There is a lot I really like about this idea:

  1. The demand picture is premised on what seems like the inevitable adoption of electric vehicles and increasing electrical infrastructure
  2. The supply picture paints a scene of depleted reserves and an empty pipeline that will lead to significant deficits for years to come
  3. The prices of copper equities are reasonable, if not downright cheap, and certainly not pricing in the upside of a rising copper price

It all fits.  Except for one thing.  These damn tariffs.

In my opinion there are reasonable odds that what is to come is more brinkmanship, more anti-ups, and maybe even some sort of climatic event ala Nixon in 1971 that changes the way the world operates for good.

Of course maybe not.  The market is certainly saying its all good.  But the market also rose right after Nixon put a 10% surcharge on imports and pulled the rug out from under Bretton Woods.

The 70s didn’t really go all that well.

I don’t know what is going to happen.  But it’s uncharted territory and it wouldn’t surprise me if the market is as clueless as I am.

Consider the following:

  1. We have a President that was elected, in part, by folks who lost their jobs or had their communities disrupted by the relocation of industries that were allowed to leave because of free trade (yes its complicated and there were other causes, but free trade was definitely part of it).
  2. The President has made it clear he will do whatever it takes to make good on his promise to fight for these people and communities and get those jobs back (whether or not what he is doing is actually going to be in their best interests is not clear but also not really relevant to the line of reasoning here)
  3. It’s not really clear if anything can be done to turn back the clock on these cities, counties and communities that have had the industries they were built on stripped from them, so perhaps regardless of what the President does, the outcome will disappoint

Those 3 points suggest that it is at least possible that we spiral into a vicious circle of escalating actions that don’t have the intended effect and therefore lead to even more escalation.

I’m just not sure I want to own a lot of copper in that environment.

With that all said, the picture for copper supply and demand assuming a “steady as she goes” economy is pretty enticing.

BMO put together a long and very interesting research piece describing the supply and demand dynamics of copper over the next number of years.

The demand side is being driven by electric vehicle demand and the grid infrastructure required to move to a higher amount of renewables.

The simplest explanation of why this will increase the demand for copper is this: An internal combustion engine contains 23kg of copper for wiring, whereas a battery electric vehicle and plug-in hybrid contain between 60-83kg of copper.  On top of that another 20kg of copper is needed for grid capacity and 6.5kg for the charging point.

On the supply side, a combination of declining grade, rising capital costs and a number of years of depressed copper prices have left us with a depleted pipeline of projects.

The conclusion, which is hard to find fault with, is that there is a significant shortage of copper projects in the development pipeline and projects will only be added if the price of copper rises enough to incentivize them.

So how do you play this?  Well maybe you don’t because there is just so much risk in the world.  I’m still trying to figure that out.  But if you do, I certianly think the copper stocks are reasonably priced for it.  Below is a comparison of a few that I have dug into where I just took analyst EBITDA estimates and averaged them to get a rough idea of the EV/EBITDA multiple these companies trade at (note that because Amerigo isn’t followed by any brokerages I have reports for I used the companies own estimates that I found in their presentations).

At the moment I have taken positions in a couple: Copper Mountain and Capstone.  But these positions are really, really small (<<1% each).

For now they are going to stay that way.  I’m just too uneasy about where all this trade stuff is going.

Week 359: Buoyed by the CAD

Portfolio Performance

Thoughts and Review

Another quiet month for my portfolio as I only added and subtracted a few stocks around the edges.  But I had quite a good month.

I can’t take credit for all of it however. I have been getting a boost from the Canadian dollar.  Since March the dollar has fallen from 81c to 77c.  Last spring I talked about this when I was going through a period of massive headwind from a rising Canadian dollar. Now it’s the opposite.

If you do the math, the move in the Canadian dollar has added about $25,000 to the tracking portfolio totals since the beginning of March.  So I’m looking somewhat better than I actually deserve (which is quite the opposite of last spring, when I looked like a schmuck as the CAD rose some 15% in a few months!).

Much of the rest of the move (which I can take credit for) is the move in Gran Colombia Gold.

Gran Colombia

In the last 5 weeks Gran Colombia completed the redemptions of their 2020 and 2024 debentures and announced first quarter results.    The results were great.  AISC of under $900/oz and EBITDA of $27 million.

After accounting for debentures redemptions and share conversions (including all the in-the-money warrants and the not yet converted 2018 debentures) I get about 60 million shares.  So that’s a market capitalization of about $200 million (CAD) or USD$153 million at the current conversion.  There is another USD$98 million of the new debt and they should have about USD$41 million of cash once all the warrants are converted.

The company did USD$27 million of EBITDA in the first quarter.  It seems pretty reasonable that they should do at least USD$100 million of EBITDA in the full year.  So even after the big jump in the stock price, Gran Colombia only trades at 2x EBITDA.  I realize the gold stocks are cheap and unwanted, but even the most unloved get at least 3x EBITDA and some are getting 6-7x.

I think the re-valuation still has a ways to go.

Tornado Hydrovac

Here’s a stock I haven’t talked about in a while.  I took a closer look at it after the first quarter results and had someone on Twitter ask about it which got me thinking about the stock a bit more.

Tornado is a $6 million enterprise value company with almost $5 million of cash.  However, most of the cash ($3+ million) is in China and not readily available for the North American business.  They have an established hydrovac business in North America, and one they are trying to get off the ground in China.

These are the same trucks that Badger Daylighting rents out.  But Tornado’s business is not quite like Badger, as they are primarily building the trucks not renting them out.  Tornado has had a few rentals (1-4 trucks per quarter) over the past year, so its not a significant business.

The first quarter wasn’t great.  I had been hoping for a follow-up on the fourth quarter, where revenue hit a 3+ year high at $9.4 million.  But they only had $4.8 million of revenue in Q1.

So it was disappointing and the stock hasn’t really done much.   But to be fair, the stock has never really done much so let’s not read into that too much.  Still I’m inclined to think the business is turning for the better.

The poor results were partially seasonal – in 2014, 2015, and 2016, there was a significant slip in first quarter revenue from Q4 to Q1 (2017 was a bit of an anomaly because the industry was recovering from the downturn).

Also, inventory ticked up from $6.49 million in Q4 to $9.1 million in Q1.  Inventory has been a pretty good indicator of the next quarter revenue, which I imagine is because of the part procurement and build cycle.  The company said the following in the MD&A.

For the three months ended March 31, 2018, inventory was $9,072 compared to inventory of $6,490 as at December 31, 2017.  The increase in raw materials is due to stocking up for production ramp-up in the second quarter.  The increase in finished goods is due to 3 completed trucks held in finished goods as at March 31, 2018 that were not delivered and sold to customers until early Q2 2018.

The other angle with the company is China.  They are getting closer to generating revenue from China.  Tornado expanded into China over a year ago.  Since that time most of the efforts have been establishing a footprint, starting up a manufacturing operation and developing relationships.

In the first quarter they sent out their first three demonstration units in China.  Overall, China has overhead of $300,000 per quarter and no revenue.

The inventory related to the three demo units was $1.14 million.  Assuming 15% gross margins (margins for the company are around this level), they need to sell about 5 trucks per quarter in China to break even.

But that’s only assuming sales of trucks.  The model is China is both sales and services and I’m not sure about what the economics of the services side will look like.

Bottom line is that the stock is reasonable and I think its not a bad bet that they can have a breakout quarter one of these days.   Book value is over $17 million while the enterprise value is $6 million.

On the other hand, margins are super-thin and the operating history isn’t exactly stellar.  This remains a pretty small position for me, but an interesting one and one worth reviewing from time to time.

Oil Stock sales

I sold out of a few oil stocks last week.  I can’t say that I had foresight into the carnage.  A lot of my selling was done on Friday, so after the plunge had occurred.  I sold Black Pearl, Whitecap and Spartan.

I have to admit, having missed a better opportunity to lighten up earlier in the week, I was a bit reluctant to do so after these stocks sold off.  Nevertheless I had a couple of reasons that led me to decide to sell anyways.

First, I was just getting a little too overweight into oil.  In particular, I took on a big position in Altura, which I wrote about, and hadn’t really sold anything.

I was getting particularly uncomfortable with my exposure to heavy oil.  The Western Canadian Spreads are looking good but I was long Gear, Zargon, Black Pearl, and now Altura.  It was a bit too much exposure.

Spartan was really now a bet on Vermillion and I don’t really know enough about Vermillion to want to take a position there.

Whitecap was just because I was nervous about Canada and Transmountain.   I know Whitecap isn’t heavy oil so maybe my logic doesn’t string together that well, but I didn’t want to sell Gear, Zargon or Altura and yet wanted to get my Canadian exposure down a bit more, so there you have it.

The other consideration I weighed was the build in crude last week.  It was a surprise, to say the least.  It could be a one-off and there seem to be indications that this week will look much better.  My thought was that the crappy number last week puts a lot of pressure on this weeks numbers.   What if, for whatever reason, its another surprise build?

With the Trans-mountain decision out of the way I might look at buying some of these names back.  But I think I will wait until after the Thursday numbers (delayed a day because of Memorial day) come out before doing anything.

Solaris Infrastructure

My services companies aren’t doing that well.  Cathedral has been terrible, down to almost $1.20 and if it goes much lower its going to hit the 52-week lows of when oil was $20 less.  I already gave up on Essential Energy.  Energy Services of America is always a next quarter story.

The problem is that none of these service companies can seem to generate any gross margins.

One story that is not a problem for is Solaris Infrastructure, where gross margins are a pretty amazing 60%.  But the stock is suffering nearly as much as these other names anyways.

Solaris provides a last mile solution for storing and delivering frac sand.  They don’t actually sell sand.   They rent out silos and conveyor systems that are installed on the well site and act as a sand buffer during the completion process.

The silo solution seems like it’s a big improvement over the Sand King trucks that are typically used.  Costs are lower, trucks don’t have to sit and wait, and the footprint on the well site is smaller.

Solaris builds the silo units and rents them out on a monthly basis.  The gross margins are as high as they are because of the rental model of the business.

Solaris is growing like crazy.  Revenue grew at over 205% in 2017.

Here’s my back of the napkin math for a theoretical 2018 exit.  At the end of the first quarter they had 98 systems in operation.  On May 9th, the date of the conference call they had 108.  They are adding systems at 8 per month.

So lets say they have 170 systems at year end.   Solaris gets roughly $100k per month of rental revenue per system so that works out to $204 million of annualized revenue.

There is no reason to think they don’t maintain their EBITDA margin of 60%, which would mean they are annualizing $122 million of EBITDA by year end.

In the first quarter they had $3.2 million of depreciation on an average of roughly 90 systems in operation during the first quarter.  That works out to $142,000 D&A per system or on 170 systems $24 million annually.

There is no debt so that means income before tax is $98 million and after tax is $77 million at a 21% tax rate.   On 47mm shares that would be $1.63 EPS.

If I assume they slow down their build to 6 systems per month in 2019, I get EBITDA of close to $180 million and EPS over $2.50.

None of this includes their new sand terminal in Kingfisher.  Or their sand supply chain management tool Propview.

There are a lot of things I like about Solaris but the one thing that I don’t like, that actually gives me a lot of pause, is the stock performance.  It is such a good environment for oil stocks and here is a fast growing service company right in the middle of it. And the stock price is as dumpy as can be.

That makes me think that maybe I’m wrong about it.  I’m hoping the market is just slow to jump on board, but its also possible that I’m too optimistic.  Maybe margins will decline and growth vanish as competition comes on the scene.  I have to think that’s what the market is worrying about.  Because otherwise the current share price doesn’t make a lot of sense.

One last Buy

The last thing I did was buy a small position in 3 copper stocks.  I’m not quite ready to talk about these, meaning I’m not sure I should have bought these stocks or not yet.  So I’ll leave that for now.

Portfolio Composition

Click here for the last five weeks of trades.

A Game Changing Disposition for Altura

I mentioned Altura last week in a comparison table I made to Zargon and Gear Energy.   As I noted in the comments, I had a position in the stock in another portfolio (my RRSP and my wife’s account) but not in the portfolio I track online so I haven’t talked about the stock outside of that reference.

Well that changed today.  I added to the stock in all my portfolios even though I was getting it up 20% on the day.

I want to give a big hat tip to @BrownMarubozu for bringing my attention to Altura a month or so ago.

Altura announced first quarter results after the market closed last night.  The results were fine, maybe a little weaker then expected actually, but the real news was the announcement of the sales of their Eye Hill, Macklin, Wildmere, Killam and Provost Minor assets.

Altura sold the assets to Surge Energy (here’s their press release on the transaction.  The transaction metrics the company provided are below:

The sale of these assets leaves Altura with about $20 million of cash and no debt.  With the rest of their properties sold off, they are a pure play on their remaining asset: Leduc-Woodbend.

Leduc-Woodbend

They are going after the Upper Mannville formation at Leduc-Woodbend, which is about 1,300 meters deep.  They have amassed 65 sections (41,000 acres) in the area, with 40,000 of those acres considered undeveloped.  The formation produces 17° API heavy oil.

The Leduc oilfield has been around forever and is a well drilled out area using conventional vertical wells.  Given that its not a new area (Altura themselves says there are over 700 vertical wells in the area) I’m not sure if Altura discovered something new here or whether this was a previously uneconomic pool for vertical wells that is now being unlocked by better technology.  At any rate Altura described the pool as “one of the largest conventional oil pools identified in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin within the last 20 years” in their initial press release on the prospect.

This is early in the game in Leduc-Woodbend.   They have only drilled 5 wells in the property so far.  But these wells look quite good.

They started drilling into the Mannville formation in early 2016.  The first well, the 13-15 (see the map below), produced 230 boe/d over the first 30 days and was producing 160 boe/d after 5 and a half months.  It was producing 70 boe/d in July, after 8 months of production (from this news release).

The 13-15 was a one-mile horizontal and cost $1.7 million to drill and complete.

Their second well, the 12-15, was another one mile lateral drilled at the beginning of 2017 and place on production in April 2017.  This well was a full 6 sections north of the initial discovery well but production was inline with the 13-15 (this press release).

You can get an idea of how far apart these wells are in the map below (the 13-15 is the well furthest to the south while the 12-15 is the northern most well).

In their November presentation Altura detailed a reasonably steady decline profile from both wells (they are both one mile laterals):

Since the beginning of the third quarter Altura has followed up with 3 more longer wells, 1.5 mile extended reach horizontals (ERH).  The first two (03-02 and 13-14) were placed on production in October (from this press release).

The third ERH well (02-02) was drilled in January and placed on production in February.  This well averaged 334 boe/d in the first 26 days of production (from this press release).

In the May 15th release the company said the well had produced 10,626 bbl of oil in the first 45 days, which equates to a 236 bbl/d average before being shut in for a month to replace a broken rod.

The company went on to say that they expected 150-175 boe/d over the first 12 months for all 3 of the ERH wells.

My takeaway from all this well data is that the results are consistent.   We only have 5 data points but so far the repeatability looks excellent.  Its particularly exciting that the original discovery well is so far away from the others and yet has yielded comparable results.

I was cautiously optimistic about Leduc before the quarterly release but the numbers presented have added to my confidence.

Guidance

The company obviously has confidence.  In addition to focusing entirely on Leduc they raised guidance significantly even after divesting over half their production.

Right now Altura is producing around 550 boe/d from Leduc, 80% oil.  They expect to exit the year at 1,900 boe/d.

To do this they are increasing their capital budget from $15 million to $33 million and expanding to an 8 well program.  So the cash they are getting on this transaction will be put to use drilling out Leduc.

Based on their presentation it looks like the wells cost $2.65 to drill, complete and tie-in.  They also spent $7.3 million already in the first quarter.  That means the company is spending roughly $7 million on infrastructure at Leduc.

The infrastructure money is going towards a larger oil battery.  They are increasing the size of their oil battery to 3,000 – 3,500 bbl/d.  So that gives you an idea of where they are expecting to take the property to.

They seem undervalued to me

When I forecast ahead at what Altura looks like at year end using the company’s guidance, it looks cheap to me on most metrics.

Here are my estimates of cash flow and EV/CF using their guidance.  I am assuming they use all the cash to complete the drill program which should be conservative.  I looked at two scenarios:  A WCS price consistent with the first quarter (so a low price) and the current WCS price (a high price).

Apart from the valuation, what’s interesting is that at roughly $70/bbl WCS, Altura can cash flow $30 million based on their exit volumes.  So they should be able to fund a similar sized capital program in 2019 (actually a bit higher because they wouldn’t be building an oil battery) without adding at all to debt.  If they get similar production growth from that budget (based on exit guidance growth in 2018 is 1,250 boe/d), they’d grow over 60% and be producing over 3,000 boe/d by the end of 2019.

Considering that sort of growth runway, the company seems extremely cheap to me.  The risk of course is whether the oil price holds up and whether they can meet their target.

It’s still early days so we’ll have to see.  The economics that they present for these wells is impressive.

The wells have IRRs of close to 75%, which is pretty good.  But it looks even better when you notice the price forecast these are based on:

They are essentially using $55 WCS prices for 2018, followed by $61 for 2019 forward.  At last look WCS stood at $74/bbl.

Conclusion

One question that might be asked is why the stock didn’t move even more?  One answer is that I’m totally missing something.  Maybe, but I don’t think so.  Another is that the market isn’t going to de-risk Leduc until they drill more wells.  That definitely accounts for some of it.

A third reason has to do with liquidity.  I know that one of the reasons I didn’t buy more Altura before today was because it was so hard to buy.  The share volumes were anemic and it seemed like my bids would sit for days some times before getting bought up.  The Level 2 liquidity was usually equally sparse and it seemed like I would quickly move the price up to 44c or higher if I bought too much.

With that in mind I wonder how many sellers today are just liquidity sellers.   This is a liquidity event, lots of volume, so it’s a chance to unload shares.  If you have a very big position, you probably want to take some off.

Whatever the reason I took advantage of the volume and bought a decent position.  I’m looking forward to the next operations update.

 

 

Sticking with Zargon

I have owned Zargon Oil and Gas for almost two years now and it has been one of my worst performers.  I bought a small position after the company announced the sale of its South Saskatchewan asset in July 2016.  I added to the stock early in 2017 after the company announced a redemption auction for its convertible debentures whereby they would either redeem the debentures in full or exchange them for longer dated (December, 2019) lower strike ($1.25 per share) debentures.

Neither of those purchases have worked out so far.  I thought the asset sale would reduce debt and bring back interest in the stock.  I thought the debenture exchange would be a catalyst.  Maybe most importantly I thought the environment for oil stocks was improving, so it seemed a reasonable bet that Zargon would benefit.

As it turned out I was about a year too early. The stock languished through much of 2017, falling from 80c to under 40c at one point.

Why Zargon?

Zargon is not my biggest oil position. It’s one of a basket of stocks I have been holding and adding to.  In the last few days I added Black Pearl Resources and ProPetro Holdings to that list.

So why am I choosing to write about Zargon and not my other larger holdings?  Well for one, apart from a few Seeking Alpha articles Zargon doesn’t get much attention.  I could write about Whitecap or Gear Energy but you can get all the information you need from brokerages reports already.

Second. with the prospects for oil improving I decided to really dig into Zargon again a couple weeks ago.  The stock has under-performed for so long and I wanted to come to a conclusion as to whether to keep holding the stock or move those dollars into another E&P.

I decided to stick with Zargon.  Here’s why.

Zargon operates 3 assets.  They produce about 500 bbl/d from their Little Bow enhanced recovery project, another 300 bbl/d of conventional heavy oil at Little Bow, about 400 bbl/d of medium/heavy oil from North Dakota, and another 1,200 boepd from various assets around Alberta.

Little Bow ASP

The Little Bow asset would be considered Zargon’s flag ship.    The company produces 20-21° API oil from the Mannville formation at Little Bow, Some of this production is conventional, and some of it is an advanced waterflood technique called Alkali-Surfactant-Polymer (ASP) recovery.

An ASP is a waterflood recovery where the additional “A-S-P” chemicals are added to the water.  The chemicals thicken the water and turn the oil into a more mobile foam.  Together the thickened water and thinned oil mean that the oil moves more effectively than a traditional waterflood alone.

The problem with an ASP flood is that it’s expensive. The chemical costs alone are $6-$8/bbl.  Zargon has corporate operating costs of $20/bbl and while they don’t break out the cost of the ASP, I am certain its around the same level.  When oil was extremely low in 2016 Zargon suspended Alkali and Surfactant injections at Little Bow and shut in higher water cut producers.

The good news is that ASP at Little Bow is long life and has a low decline.  Zargon has examples in its presentation of a Husky Taber ASP waterflood and Gull Lake ASP waterflood where production has been fairly close to flat for 10 years and counting.  Proved reserves for the Little Bow ASP were a little under 2mmbbl and proved plus probable (which includes the yet to be developed Phase 2) is 3.9mmbbl.  At 500bblpd this is 11 year reserve life index for proved and 21 years for proved plus probable. In their 2017 reserve report McDaniel is forecasting an increase in production in 2018 as Zargon reinstates the full ASP flood and brings back on previously shut-in wells.

Little Bow Conventional

Zargon also has conventional oil production at Little Bow.   This is from the “G” and “U” units in the map below.

Both the G and UW units are targeted as Phase 3 and Phase 4 stages of the ASP development.  But for now the land is produced conventionally.

Together these pools produced 285boepd in 2017, 65% liquids.  The company doesn’t list additional locations anywhere that I can see, so I have to assume this asset is going to continue to decline until the ASP flood is implemented.

Bellshill Lake

Zargon owns 21.5 sections (13,760 acres) of land at Bellshill Lake.  Bellshill Lake is in East-Central Alberta, very close to Hardisty.  They produce out of the Dina sands formation there.

Bellshill Lake produced 409 boepd, 94% oil in the fourth quarter.  Bellshill oil has an API gravity of 27°API, so its firmly in the medium oil category.

This is another low decline property.  Based on the McDaniel decline (below) it looks like the decline on the field is 10-11%.   According to the company the area has aquifer support, which helps support the low decline.

Zargon hasn’t drilled the property since 2014.  The McDaniel reserve report booked 5 undeveloped locations and Zargon says they have 4 more.  I believe these are all vertical locations.  In the fourth quarter Zargon expanded the water handling at Bellshill Lake which will allow multiple “low risk, low cost well pumping optimization projects” in 2018.

Its worth pointing out that before the collapse of the price of oil in late-2014 Zargon was able to keep production at Bellshill relatively flat at 550-600 bbl/d.

Proved reserves on the property are 850,000 bbl of oil.

Taber

It looks like Zargon has about 90 sections of land (57,600 acres) about 30km south of the town of Taber.  I say “it looks” because I’m counting sections of the map so I might be off give or take.

Zargon produces from a part of the lower Mannville Group called the Sunburst Sand.  There are two pools that they are producing from, North and South.  Both these pools are receiving pressure maintenance from waterflood.

The North Pool has a little ligher oil, 20 API, then the South at 16 API so again this is heavy oil.  Both these pools are fairly mature, having produced over 50% of the expected ultimate recovery.

Zargon has drilled 30 wells into these pools since 2007, of which 5 are injectors.   McDaniel has 3 more horizontal locations booked and Zargon has an additional 5 they have identified.  I don’t believe they have drilled any wells here since 2014.  They have also identified a Glauconite oil pool north of Sunburst.

Taber South is another low decline property.  Based on the McDaniel estimate it looks like the decline is around 13%.

Proved reserves at Taber South stand at 1,144mbbl.

North Dakota

Zargon owns a scatter of land across Haas County, Truro County and Mackobee Coulee County in North Dakota.  This was originally part of a larger land package that extended into Saskatchewan, but the Saskatchewan portion was sold in July 2016.

This isn’t Bakken land.  I believe the focus on these lands is the Mississippian but I’m not sure which others are contributing.  They have 97% working interest in 18.78 sections (12,000 acres) of land.

They produce about 400 boe/d from North Dakota.  These are low initial rate, low decline wells.

The decline on existing production is very low, varying between 11% at Mackobee Coulee to only 4% at Haas.

Strategic Initiatives

Zargon initiated a strategic alternatives process in August 2015.  Since that time they have sold the Saskatchewan assets for a pretty good price (at the time) but not done much else.

To be fair, that was perhaps the best choice.  I’m sure that the value of their assets has risen significantly in the marketplace over the past few months.  Even if the stock market doesn’t agree.

With the value of the assets rising, part of my expectation is that we start to see asset sales.

I don’t have many good analogies for the North Dakota assets.  I searched but I didn’t see any sales in Bottineau county.  In September 2017 Halcon Resources sold non-operated Williston Basin assets for $104 million of cash for $45,000 per flowing boe.  But this acreage is in Montrail, Mckenzie and Williams county, and prospective for the Bakken, so I doubt its analogous.

With such low decline base production and a land package that can support more drilling I would think that the North Dakota assets should fetch at least $40,000 per flowing boe in the current environment.  There are plenty of cases of oil assets in general selling for more than this (like the Cardinal purchase from Crescent Point of South Saskatchewan assets for $64,000 per flowing boe which I realize is not a great comparison).

If they can get $40,000 per flowing boe, that would be $20.5 million Canadian.

It might be worth noting (it also might not) that the company took down their February corporate presentation a number of weeks ago and has yet to replace it.

Paying off the Debentures

After the conclusion of the debenture redemption auction Zargon has $42 million left outstanding.  These debentures pay 8% interest (works out to $3.68/boe) and mature at the end of 2019.

The need to work a deal for these debentures in the next year and a half make me think that asset sales are probable.  The North Dakota assets seem like the most likely target.

I think these debentures are a real overhang on the stock.  Zargon has over $40 million of debt but only a $15 million market capitalization.

Paying off a significant portion of the debentures would go a long way towards improving market confidence.

Heavy Oil

A big knock against Zargon is that they are a heavy oil producer in Alberta.  And they are small.  This makes them vulnerable to the swings in Western Canadian Select (WCS) pricing.

It’s also going to hurt their first quarter results.  I am braced for a bad first quarter.  WCS spreads were huge, which means the price that Zargon got for its heavy oil was not very much.  To make it worse, Zargon seems to have hedged WTI on 1,000 bbl/d in the first half but not the spreads.

So it’s something to consider when trying to time a purchase.  On the other hand it should be well known at this point, and spreads have come in dramatically in April.

In fact I’ve been doing some work on heavy oil and drawn some interesting conclusions.  While pipelines are by far the best way to transport oil, rail cars are not a death knell to the industry.  According to an RBC report that came out a few weeks ago, rail transportation costs are $11-$15/bbl whereas pipelines are $8-$9/bbl.   That’s high, but its not crazy, “I have to shut-in my production and go home” high.  Especially at crude prices like what we are seeing now.

In fact with the Canadian dollar at 77c USD or whatever it is at today, these Canadian heavy oil producers are probably doing better now then they were the last time oil was this high, when the CAD was closer to 90c.

The pipeline story gets so much attention that these details get lost.  It made me rethink things, and made me add another heavy oil producer in Black Pearl in addition to Zargon and Gear.

Cheap compared to its peers

The other consideration that made me decide to stick with Zargon is that its quite cheap.  Especially if oil prices can stay at these levels.

I am comparing the stock to two relatively close peers, Gear Energy and Altura Energy.  Neither of these stocks could be considered expensive in its own right.  In fact Gear is owned and touted by a number of funds as a cheap way of playing oil.  GMP recently listed Gear and Altura as two of their cheapest names.  I chose Altura because it does get brokerage coverage and because its roughly the same size as Zargon.

Now for the first half of 2018 Zargon is partially hedged at lower WTI and with no corresponding hedge on WCS spread.  So first half results are not going to look nearly as good as this comparison.

But come the second half of the year, if oil prices and spreads hold, things should work out to about this level.

Yet Zargon appears pretty favorably, even cheaper than these two.  The comparison below is at $65 WCS, so roughly $10/bbl higher than the fourth quarter.  Costs are based on the fourth quarter costs of each company.  I also estimated spreads off of heavy and light oil off of their fourth quarter pricing and for NGL pricing for Gear and Altura I just added $10/bbl to their fourth quarter pricing.  I might be wrong with the royalties, I added $3 to the fourth quarter royalty because I didn’t want to dig into the complicated calculation of figuring out how it escalated with price.

Based on proved reserves and net asset value again Zargon looks pretty good.

Looking at cash flow, on an EV basis Zargon is comparable to Gear and Altura.  On a per share basis, Zargon has a lot more torque.  In fact they trade at about 1x P/CF on these price assumptions.  On a reserve basis Zargon is very favorable, trading well under the value of its proved reserves.

The discount was justified when oil prices were low.  Just look at the operating costs to see that Zargon is by far the higher cost producer.  But if we really believe in these oil prices, I think you can make the argument that it’s time to peel it off.

Conclusion

Look I realize Zargon’s assets are not best in class.  They are high cost operating assets mostly in land locked Alberta.

They are also extremely profitable at current oil prices.  At $65 WCS the stock is trading at 1x cash flow.

Zargon spent $8.9 million on capital expenditures in 2017.  On those expenditures they kept production pretty much flat (in the fourth quarter of 2016, after the sale of the South Saskatchewan assets, production averaged 2,449 boe/d).  In the AIF McDaniel estimated $6.4 million in capex in 2018 in their proved reserves NPV calculation.

With cash flow of nearly $15 million (once the hedges in the first half run off) at $65 WCS, that works out to somewhere between $6-$8 million of free cash flow on a market capitalization of $13 million.

I decided that was worth sticking with.  I actually even added a little more.

Week 354: Winners and Losers

Portfolio Performance

Thoughts and Review

My method of investing generates a lot of losers.  I think it’s a pretty good bet that over 50% of the stocks I pick for my portfolio lose money.

My performance is generated primarily by a few winners that end up being big winners.  When I went through a slump in late 2015 – early 2016 I pointed out how few multi-baggers I had.  I was generating lots of losers of course, but I didn’t see that as a problem.  The problem was that the winners weren’t winning enough.  For my method to work, I need at least 2-3 stocks a year that go up 2-5 times.

The math on that works in my favor.  If I have 2 stocks a year that make up 4% of my portfolio each (I usually start out at 2-3% positions but add as they go up) and they go up 3x then my portfolio gains 24% from those positions.  If they double then I gain 16%.  If I can manage the rest of the portfolio to limit the damage; sell the losers before they get too destructive and have a few other smaller wins to help offset the losses, then overall I’ll do okay.

Anyways, that’s my plan.  Its why I invest in a lot of businesses with high upside but questionable paths to achieve that upside.  I’m fine with those that don’t pan out, as long as a few of them do.

Since last summer my big(gish) winners (this is off the top of my head) were: Combimatrix, R1 RCM, Gran Colombia,  Aveda Transportation, Vicor, Helios and Matheson and Overstock.

Combimatrix was taken over and ended up being between a 2-3 bagger.  R1 RCM was a triple.  Gran Colombia is almost a double so far from my original purchase at $1.40.  Aveda Transportation got taken over a couple weeks ago and was nearly a double.  Helios and Matheson was a little less than a triple (I sold out well before the top, in the $9-$10 range) and Overstock was about a 70% gain.

Both Helios and Matheson and Overstock turned out to be flops in the end, but that’s okay too.  A big part of my strategy is to know what I’m getting into, and not fall in love with it because there is a good chance it ends up going south.  In both those cases I was pretty cognizant of the company’s faults, and I freely admitted there was a lot of uncertainty with both.  As the faults materialized, or as too much optimism was priced in, I reduced my position in each and eventually sold out.

Vicor Results

I had been going through a drought in the new year before I finally got the move I had been waiting years (literally years!) for with Vicor.  Finally the rest of the tech-world is catching up with Vicor’s 48V converter technology.  Applications are popping up all over.  There are the 48V servers, which were the original reason I got into the stock, but also low voltage GPUs (from Nvidia and AMD) requiring power on package, new areas like electric vehicles and AI, and most recently the evolution of a reverse 12V to 48V datacenter application.  All these customers seem willing to pay for Vicor’s superior and patented technology.

I looked at Vicor way back in March of last year and worked out the numbers on an optimistic trajectory for the company.  At the time I pointed out that while the stock didn’t appear cheap on most metrics (it had no earnings and was at a fairly high P/S ratio given the lack of growth), if they could follow through on their growth plan, the earnings they could generate were pretty impressive.

I updated that model recently based on new projections and the fact that after the first $100 million of earnings Vicor is going to have to start paying taxes (they have about $34 million of valuation allowances right now).

It looks to me like a $450 million of revenue run rate gives Vicor about $2.10 EPS when fully taxed.

The first quarter numbers were strong.  Bookings and backlog have been outgrowing revenue.  Backlog grew 23% sequentially.  Bookings grew 15% sequentially.  Revenue grew 11% sequentially.

After the first quarter numbers its looking more like that first $450 million of revenue could happen sooner than you think.  $450 million is roughly what Vicor can do in their current facility.

Vicor is expecting to double capacity with a second facility later this year.    If you assume that Patrizio (Vicor’s CEO) hasn’t gone off the deep end and that they can fill that second facility, the earnings numbers get much higher.  Given that right now they are growing at 10% sequentially and that is before the larger orders that are expected in the third quarter start hitting.

I am inclined to hold the stock with the view that we are just getting started.

What I did in the Last 5 weeks

As I said I will always have a lot of losers.  An important part of the strategy is to sell that which I perceive as not working out.

In the last month I did more selling than buying.  This is partly due to broken theses but also because I remain cautious about the market.  But to be honest, this caution has hurt me more than it’s helped.

Much of my selling has been poorly timed.  For example, I sold Largo Resources at 1.30, only a couple of days before the stock made a run up to $1.90.  I’ve written about the Largo story before: Largo is a great theme play on vanadium but it has always been hard to make the stock look cheap by the numbers.  That has nagged at me and it finally won out.  I took a nice gain on Largo, having bought it at 80-90c, but it still hurt to watch the stock subsequently take off.

I also sold Aehr Test Systems shortly before it ran from $2.20 to $2.60.  With Aehr I took a loss.  I’m still not sure whether I did the right thing selling it.  On the one hand it feels late in a semi-equipment cycle, and the company has had very few announcements of new contracts lately.  On the other hand it appears their relationships with Intel and Apple are intact and so the next big deal could happen at any time.  It’s a tough stock to judge.

I also had poor timing with Essential Energy, which I sold at 55c range after listening to their fourth quarter conference call.  The call painted a depressing picture of drilling in Western Canada.  I didn’t get the sense they had any pricing power and the year over year utilization rate appeared to be flat.  Now maybe that has changed as oil has risen another $10 since I sold.  As well, the lawsuit with Packers Plus is in appeal (so its still not settled), which means a takeover is unlikely.   I decided to focus instead on US leaning servicing companies like Aveda Transportation (which subsequently got taken over for a double, though it was a modest position for me) and Cathedral Energy Services, which I continue to hold.

I had somewhat better timing with my exit of Sherritt International, as the stock sank after I sold.  But even the jury is still out as the share price has come back with nickel skyrocketing.

I likewise sold my position in both Orocobre and Albemarle.  This fits into the “loser thesis” even though I made small profit on Orocobre.  My thesis was that the consensus for lithium had under-estimated demand and over-estimated supply.   However, the more I’ve learned about the supply/demand dynamic the less sure I am.  It’s not so much that I’m a believer in the coming lithium supply tsunami.  It’s just that I’m unsure enough to not want to make the bet either way.   I’ll revisit these names again, especially Orocobre, but I need to study lithium some more and make sure I’m not wrong about it.

I also exited my position in Foresight Autonomous.  I mentioned the stock last month and its just not working.  They are going to need capital at some point and the recent death that was at the hands of an autonomous car isn’t helping.  But probably my biggest reason for the turnaround is that this just doesn’t seem like a good market to be holding many nano-caps in.

Finally I reduced my DropCar position (which is heavily in the red) by about 20%.  I probably should have reduced this stock earlier, but it was a tiny position to begin with (~1%) and so I’ve been more willing than maybe I should have been to give it some leeway.  I still think they could pull off some big growth but the revisions of their option strikes, the share offerings and the lack of news has worn me down.  Being down 40% on the position means at this point it so small that its a bit of a lottery ticket.  Which is really what it always was.

Gold and Oil

What’s been working for me are my gold and energy stocks.  Those that follow the blog know that I’ve been holding a number of gold and energy stocks for months now and that number has been increasing.  Up until recently they have done nothing.

I wrote up my reasons for owning Golden Star Resources a few weeks ago.

I also continue to hold Gran Colombia Gold.  I admit that I am a little nervous about selling pressure in the near term.  I don’t totally understand what the short term outcome of the 2018 debenture conversions will be and whether sellers of those debentures will pressure the stock over the next while.  Nevertheless, I think the company is on track for a re-rating at some point and I’m happy to wait out the weakness.

I also have positions in Jaguar Mining, RoxGold and Wesdome.

The idea with these stocks isn’t really about gold prices.  I don’t feel like I am making a bet on whether gold will imminently go through the roof.  I feel like I’m just buying stocks that are really cheap.

All the miners I mentioned above have EV/EBITDA ratio of between 2x and 5x.  Those multiples are trailing ratios that are based on lower gold prices then what we have now.  Each of the miners  has good growth prospects and an exploration upside if drilling comes up positive.  Apart from Gran Colombia, they are all well off their 52 weeks highs.

I also recently took a small position in Asanko Gold.  The stock has been written up a number of times on the IKN blog.  Gold Fields recently did a deal with Asanko, taking 50% of their property in return for enough cash to pay out their debt.  Otto Rock, who writes on IKN, thinks Asanko should trade back to at least 1x book value now that Gold Fields is available to provide their expertise and hopefully right the ship at the Asanko Gold mine.

So if the gold price breaks out, that’s an added bonus.  But these stocks are more of a play on sentiment.  I think all I really need on the commodity side is for gold not to crash.

I don’t really have a crystal ball with what gold will do.  I will note that the chorus of the gold bears on twitter seems very loud right now.  “It didn’t go up with North Korea”, “It can’t break $1,360”, “It’s setting up a technically bearish formation (a compound fulcrum top?)”, “The Australian dollar, the Canadian dollar are canaries in the coal mine that the rally isn’t real”, and so on.

Who knows?  Maybe they will be right this time.

I have been reading about the 70s, and in particular what Nixon did that led up to the Smithsonian agreement.  The circumstances today are different of course, but not so different, and I was surprised how much of what Nixon did rang true to what Trump is doing now.

Nevertheless,  I own tiny companies that are not in the GDX or GDXJ, typically don’t follow gold prices all that closely (Golden Star went down nearly 40% during the last gold rally!), and have unique attributes that I believe will lead to price appreciation. Gran Colombia, which is up 90% since I bought it last summer, is the poster child for this.

On the oil side I have all my old names: Gear Energy, Spartan Oil and Gas (which got taken over so now I effectively hold Vermillion shares), Zargon Oil and Gas, and InPlay Oil and Gas.  I also bought WhiteCap as another way to play the run.

On the US side I continue to hold SilverBow and Blue Ridge Mountain.  I also added Extraction Oil and Gas, which looks to be generating a lot of free cash in the coming years at these prices.  I’ll write something up on them shortly.

The summary of what I have read on oil is that things are potentially tighter than we realize, that they are getting tighter, and that relying on a small patch of west Texas to supply the world’s growth is likely not the best strategy.

I’ve been surprised by the strength in the oil stocks.  They seem to go up every day, and a lot of days they start down big and recover throughout the day.  It’s hard to see that as bearish.  I’ve read about the big net long positions, and I suppose that means we get a correction here at some point soon.  But I’ve held these stocks for this long, I might as well see it through.

New Purchase: Ideal Power

The one stock I bought that I will mention in some detail is Ideal Power.   This is the perfect example of a high risk, tiny little micro-cap that has a chance (maybe not a big chance but a chance) of being a 5-10 bagger.

Ideal Power sells inverters into the solar industry.  One of their inverter products, called the Sundial, has been built into a Flex solar plus storage offering called NX Flow.  NX Flow, interestingly enough, uses a vanadium battery.

Flex initially had huge expectations for NX Flow.  Leading up to the product launch in December, Flex was saying they could sell 15MW per week of their product.

Now if you do the math on 15 MW per week, considering that Ideal Power sells their Sundial for about $10,000 per unit, that there is one Sundial per  30 KW capacity, you get a very, very big revenue number.

The reason the stock is at a buck and change is that those sales forecasts haven’t materialized.  Maybe they never will. Flex is trying to “educate” their customers on the vanadium battery.   The real benefit of a vanadium battery compared to its lithium-ion competitor is that the vanadium battery doesn’t degrade over time.   The life span can be significantly longer and performance doesn’t suffer.  The problem is that customers are used to buying a battery strictly on a per MW basis.   On that metric alone the vanadium alternative appears more expensive.

Nevertheless Flex is a big company and I don’t believe they just pulled these numbers out of their ass.  I feel like it’s worth a bet that the NX Flow begins to get some traction.

The stock has one other lottery ticket in its back pocket.  Ideal Power has developed an alternative switch for converting between DC and AC power called a B-Tran device.  Pretty much every inverter out there has some combination of IGBTs, MOSFETs and diodes that let you switch power back and forth from AC to DC and vice versa.   The B-Tran can do this too, and it can do it while reducing losses to 1/10th of what an existing IGBT solution will have.  The double-sided nature of the device means that you can replace two IGBT’s or MOSFETs, and two diodes with a single B-Tran.  So there is a cost savings.

The company just finished prototyping the device using their anticipated manufacturing process and it appears to work as advertised.  The power semi-conductor market is $10 billion and the company has said that if all goes well B-Tran could address 50% of that.

Look I have no idea if this concept flies.  It seems to have some merit based on what I’ve read from various electrical sites and papers but its very technical, there is incumbency at play, lots of factors will determine the success.  My main point is if you are going to throw a hail Mary you might as well go for the end zone and that is exactly what this is.

The stock has a $20 million market cap and $12 million of cash, which they are burning as we speak.  I could easily see myself selling this stock at 80c in 6 months time.  In fact, that’s probably the base case.  But the bull case is so big that I believe its worth the risk.

Portfolio Composition

Click here for the last five weeks of trades.