Longleaf Partners Fund commentary for the third quarter ended September 30, 2015.
Longleaf Partners Fund was down 19.78% in the third quarter, trailing the S&P 500 Index’s 6.44% decline. Year-to-date (YTD) declines were 23.02% for the Fund versus 5.29% for the index. Only three times in the history of the Fund has quarterly performance been down more. Historically, performance rebounded strongly. Since its inception, the Fund has outperformed the index.
Over the last three months, several of our companies’ stocks suffered from the broad fears that China’s slower economic growth would negatively impact parts of their underlying businesses, but our energy investments continued to be a primary driver of underperformance. Oil prices fell more than 50% over the last year—something that has happened less than 2% of the time in the last 115 years.
Longleaf Partners Fund – Performance Contributors: Google, McDonald’s
The portfolio’s largest contributor during the quarter, Google, rose 17% on the back of strong operating results and an announced new corporate structure. The company’s core search and display business demonstrated healthy, accelerating organic revenue growth. The move to mobile search is helping Google, rather than hurting it as some bears had feared. YouTube is also performing well, as its average viewing session per user on a mobile device is over 40 minutes, up more than 50% year-over-year. Beginning in the fourth quarter, Alphabet Inc. will replace Google Inc. as the publicly-traded entity. Google will become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Alphabet, and all outstanding Google shares will convert into the same number of shares of Alphabet. This means the company will report two segments—the search and YouTube core business and all other business lines. Management believes the new structure will allow for more management scale and accountability as each Alphabet subsidiary will have its own CEO. Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Ruth Porat will remain in their same roles as CEO and Co-Founder, Co-Founder, and Chief Financial Officer.
Another top contributor in the Fund, McDonald’s stock gained 5% in the quarter, demonstrating the resiliency we saw in 2008 when it was one of two stocks with a positive return in the Dow Jones. Since taking the helm of the company, CEO Steve Easterbrook has announced initial plans to reshape and turn around the business. Comparable store sales are showing broad signs of improvement in key international markets such as Germany and China. On the capital allocation front, the company continued to repurchase shares at a strong pace (7% annualized) and indicated that pace should continue. The company is also undergoing a review of its capital structure and working to re-franchise stores at attractive values.
Longleaf Partners Fund – Performance Detractors: Murphy Oil, Wynn Resorts, CONSOL Energy, Chesapeake, Level 3 Communications
As one of our energy holdings, Murphy Oil, an exploration and production company with a portfolio of global offshore and onshore assets, was a primary performance detractor, down 41% in the quarter, with approximately half of the impact coming from the equity we hold and the other half from the options. This happened despite beating estimates on production and operating cash flow (OCF) and raising production estimates for the rest of the year. Murphy management is focused on driving costs lower and shortening drill times while improving production efficiency to reduce capex to cash flow levels. Furthermore, after disappointing international drilling results in recent years, the company will not invest in higher risk, higher cost wells at this time; instead, management plans to focus rig commitments and to allocate capital to higher return opportunities near lower-risk existing infrastructure where the company has had prior exploration success. Murphy remains well capitalized with diverse cash flow sources and an investment grade rating. It also has non-core pieces that could be monetized to unlock value. CEO Roger Jenkins continues to repurchase shares at the company level and invest personally.
Wynn Resorts, the luxury gaming and hotel company with properties in the United States and Macau, was down 45% in the third quarter. Wynn Palace-Cotai is expected to open in March, and the company commenced site remediation for Wynn Everett-Boston, yet the stock price reflects no value for these assets before they generate revenues. While gross gaming revenue continues to decline in Macau, bears are extrapolating poor results forward and ignoring the potential for Wynn to gain market share next year upon the opening of Palace. The company sells for roughly our appraisal of its Las Vegas properties plus its Boston concession, after net debt. The stock price implies almost no value for Macau, even though the depressed market value of its 72% stake in Wynn Macau (down YTD from HKD 21.85 to HKD 8.78) is worth around $50 per Wynn share. Even bear case analysts project higher visitors and revenues in Macau over the next five years, but the uncertainty of the next 12 months translates into minimal value for Wynn’s Macau properties today.
CONSOL Energy fell 55% in the quarter after disappointing revenue and earnings on weaker-than-expected thermal coal production and negative natural gas differentials versus the New York Mercantile Exchange. Management is adjusting to lower commodity prices with cost controls and took steps to recognize the value of CONSOL’s coal assets by offering shares in the master limited partnership (MLP) CNX Coal, which generated $200 million in proceeds. We filed a 13-D during the quarter to discuss with third parties as well as management and the board a potential monetization or separation of the valuable Marcellus and Utica gas assets. We believe these assets alone are worth demonstrably more than CONSOL’s total equity capitalization. They are unique, low cost reserves given the company’s fee ownership of many acres. CONSOL is exploring monetization paths for all of its assets, including thermal coal, metallurgical coal, pipelines, and the Baltimore port terminal.
One of the largest producers of natural gas, natural gas liquids, and oil in the U.S., Chesapeake Energy declined 34% in the quarter. In line with our exposure, about 60% of the impact came from the options we own and the remainder from the common equity. Concerns remain over the company’s liquidity profile, but management made major strides to improve realizations by successfully renegotiating two contracts with pipeline operator Williams that reduces transportation costs. Additionally, on October 1 the company announced the renewal of its $4 billion credit facility. Comparable asset sales in overlapping basins, such as Encana’s sale of Haynesville assets, further confirmed our appraisal of Chesapeake. The company’s shares remain more heavily discounted than its peers, yet CEO Doug Lawler is keenly focused on realizing value for shareholders even in this depressed energy price environment. Further reducing costs, including the recently announced 15% headcount reduction, coupled with asset divestitures, should lead to a stock price more in line with intrinsic value, which we appraise at twice the current price assuming the underlying commodity prices remain depressed.
Fiber and networking company Level 3 Communications declined 17% as concerns about near term top-line growth rates outweighed improvement in margins and free cash flow (FCF)