Starvine Capital investment commentary for the second quarter ended June 30, 2016.


  • Outlook: Buying opportunity still persists for bottom-up pickers
  • Switching costs: the most common moat
  • The big money is not in the buying and selling…

Starvine Capital Corporation

Dear Starvine Capital Corporation Client:

In Q2 2016, accounts open and fully invested since the beginning of the quarter were relatively flat (-0.50% to -0.63%). During the quarter, the S&P TSX Total Return Index increased 4.74%, while the S&P 500 Total Return Index increased 2.46% (2.15% in Canadian dollars). The Starvine Capital selection process is strictly bottom-up and therefore pays no attention to what is or isn’t held in the indexes. As a reminder, “bottom-up” as used here means choosing companies based on their individual merits versus allowing big picture macro analysis to influence decisions.  However, it is worth noting that the omission of gold stocks and REITs (real estate investment trusts) from the Starvine Capital strategy accounts for much of the difference in performance relative to the Canadian indexes. Also, accounts dropped ~5% in the last five trading days of the quarter following the referendum that decided the U.K.’s fate in the EU. Several holdings generate a portion of sales in the U.K.; it is these companies whose stock prices were affected most, though I do not think the extent of the sell-off is at all warranted given the overall exposure of the portfolio to the U.K. (~7% using company sales as the basis). In fact, I am not averse to more volatility within the portfolio if it means being able to buy more of something at a discount that is only temporarily available.

Starvine Capital – Outlook

In hindsight, Brexit was more of a heart palpitation across a few trading days than a sustained sell-off. As recently stated in my memo on Brexit (which was quoted by MarketWatch), business will carry on just fine in the U.K. and Europe at large for most industries, regardless of uncertainties that may fester in headlines.

Value investors are primarily concerned with finding stocks priced sufficiently below their true weight. In other words, what is a company reasonably worth if we tune out all the noise?  The Starvine Capital strategy is trading below 10x cash flow (or at a 10% free cash flow yield); the indexes are certainly more expensive, but by being willing to own out-of-favor companies or those whose issues I deem temporary, I can find decent bargains in quality companies. If the market as a whole is expensive and at some point corrects (i.e. drops significantly), would the Starvine Capital strategy be spared because it is more defensively valued than the indexes? It’s hard to say, but as we are talking about equities here, it’s likely that most stocks will temporarily fall to some degree.

The opportunities I’m seeing are pretty much the same as last quarter, with the exception of a few new spin-offs that are on the watch list. Companies with emerging markets exposure, healthcare, and/or those that grow via acquisition are still largely out-of-favor. Moreover, the share price performance of small- to mid-sized U.S. companies has significantly lagged large companies since early 2014, as can be seen by comparing the S&P 500 Index (larger companies) versus the Russell 2000 Index (smaller companies). These market trends may be headwinds in the near-term, but I am confident investors with a long time horizon will be rewarded from the strategy’s moderate exposure to these areas. It goes without saying that ongoing demographic shifts (e.g. ageing, the rise of emerging market countries) will serve as long term tailwinds to the earnings growth of several companies in the portfolio. I estimate that accounts have 17% exposure to emerging markets, accomplished via U.S. companies whose management teams have excellent track records.

Switching Costs: The Little Man’s Moat

Warren Buffett has spoken much of moats, or characteristics that allow a business to enjoy above average profits over a long time period despite the constant threat of competition. As investors, we can sleep better if assured that our companies have characteristics that give them immense sticking power with customers even in the worst of times. Pat Dorsey’s 2008 publication, “The Little Book That Builds Wealth”, is an excellent piece of work on moats – and accessible to the layman. Dorsey expands on four key moats:

  • Intangible assets (things you can’t touch like brand power, patents, and licenses)
  • Cost advantages (process, scale, low-cost inputs)
  • Switching costs (things that make it troublesome to switch to a competitor’s product)
  • Network effect (when a product’s value-add grows in tandem with a growing user base)

Most companies do not have moats, and are thus likely to generate mediocre returns over the long haul. Without barriers to entry, competitors are free to copy or improve on the product and then lower prices to gain share.  There is no systematic method I’m aware of to screen for moats, but their presence can be detected by finding companies with a consistently high ROIC, or Return on Invested Capital. ROIC is simply annual profit as a percentage of the money invested in a business – it’s a crude gage of how efficient each dollar of cash is at generating profit. The logic here is that if a business can earn an attractive return on its capital for a long period, it must possess something that is keeping competition at bay.

I think it is correct to generalize that most “strong moat” businesses tend to be large companies. However, switching costs is the one moat that does not seem to discriminate on the size of the business. The beauty of switching costs is that they can be created through ingenuity, and perhaps that is why they are more abundant (in my view) across a wide spectrum of businesses relative to the other moat types. Most of the Starvine Capital strategy is invested in small/mid size (i.e. less than $5 billion market cap) and switching costs have a strong presence in more than half of the portfolio.

Unless you are a customer of a product or service that is tough to change out of, it can be difficult to identify switching costs from the outside. That’s because the essence of this moat is psychological. For example, have you ever thought about changing your cable subscription to another provider? Your first thoughts about doing so will probably be the time and financial burden. The process will likely involve a good 30-45 minutes on the phone while being transferred from rep to rep, and the company will put up a fight by offering concessions. There is also the prospect of financial penalties attached to leaving a bundling package previously entered by agreeing to certain discounts on condition of purchasing broadband, wireless and cable services in one. Suffice it to say if these mechanisms weren’t in place to discourage you, the cable business would be less profitable.

Where switching costs carry even more power is in certain business-to-business (BTB) situations. A great example from Dorsey’s book that would resonate with business owners is Quickbooks, which is software that small businesses widely use for bookkeeping. Speaking from personal experience, once accustomed to using Quickbooks, the bonds are hard to break. By encouraging the automatic

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