Wedgewood Partners letter to clients for the third quarter ended September 30, 2015.
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Wedgewood Partners - Review and Outlook
Be careful what you wish. In our more recent Letters we have bemoaned the lack of downside volatility and the concomitant opportunity to put our outsized cash to work as the stock market marched on to higher highs over too many consecutive quarters to count. That all changed in August. And our cash is fully invested too.
Horace Greeley surely popularized the phrase "Go West, young man, go West” in the 1860’s, but the stock market’s Manifest Destiny is surely looking to the East to all things China. China’s economic health, or lack thereof, is very much front and center on the minds of the chieftans at the Federal Reserve. The Master’s of the Bond Universe have received the memo too.
The market began fretting over China by mid-??August. It has been said that when China catches a cold, the world sneezes. While there is certainly truth to such thinking, China’s weakness is more likely a symptom, not a cause, of global recessionary trends. Worries of China may in fact be old, fully discounted news.
The S&P 500 Index first reached the 2,000 level back in early September 2014. As the market crawled along this year a high was set on July 20 at 2,135. Worries over China began perculating in mid-August when the S&P 500 was still around the 2,100 level. That level didn’t last long when on August 24 the stock market’s fears cumulated into a market rout of -588 points in the Dow Jones, after plunging -1,000 at the opening. Fears dissipated quickly as the stock market bottomed the next day and has rallied (as of this writing) about 8%. All told, the S&P 500 declined a swift -13% in just six
Our portfolio not only did not escape the recent volatility, but is was actually buffetted more. For the 3lrd quarter our Composite (net-of-fees) declined -7.38%. The S&P 500 Index and the Russell 1000 Growth Index declined -6.44% and -5.29%, respectively. We’ll see what the rest of October will bring, but if the stock market continues rallying in October it will mark 50 consecutive months without three down months in a row.
Our best performers were both classes of Google, Priceline, Visa and Cognizant Technology.
Google was a top contributor during the quarter after posting 18% revenue growth in constant currency, which led to 13% year-over-year growth in earnings per share. Google's top-line continues to outpace its bottom-line, not necessarily because of weakness in their core ad-based business, but rather because management is aggressively investing in non-core businesses that do not have the same attractive economics as advertising. The Company (now called Alphabet) also announced a reorganization to separate the core Google business segment from some of their emerging, likely less profitable segments. Internally, we continue to debate the long-term merits of Google's non-core investments, so we welcome any increased transparency on this front.
Priceline was also a top contributor during the quarter and we had an opportunity to add to existing positions, which we discuss further below. Visa and Cognizant round out our top contributors. Both companies continue to put up solid growth numbers despite significant foreign currency exposure in the midst of an ever appreciating US. Dollar. We think Visa is on the cusp of acquiring the privately held Visa Europe and believe it could produce double-digit accretion, but only at the right price. Visa remains a top conviction idea as we see the conversion of cash to plastic and e-commerce as secular growth drivers.
Cognizant was volatile, but contributed to performance. Most of the volatility was related to a large client that was taken private and would not need Cognizant’s services going forward. The stock's negative performance was reversed later in the quarter after they released record second quarter results with year-over-year revenue growth of over 22% and nearly 20% earnings growth. And to further shrug off investor's fear that the Company was losing a large client relationship, management raised full year revenue and earnings guidance.
Our worst performing stocks on a performance contribution basis were Qualcomm, Schlumberger, National Oilwell Varco, Apple and Mead Johnson.
Our energy holdings continued to meaningfully detract from relative performance during the quarter, particularly Schlumberger and National Oilwell Varco. We have owned both companies since 2011. Along with our current investment in Core Labs, National Oilwell Varco and Schlumberger are the only energy companies we have owned in the past 15 years. Far from being traders of the underlying commodity, we are convicted that all three businesses are superior in adding value for customers and capturing it for shareholders, over a full boom-bust cycle, but concede their stock prices will follow oil's volatile moves in the shorter-term. In that vein, oil entered its third -20% bear market over the past 15 months. With our company's stocks following closely in-tow, we continue to be patient and expect significant pent-up revenue and earnings power to emerge over the next few years as we earnestly believe that world-wide oil production base has never been more neglected. On that score, during the quarter, we added to shares of Schlumberger.
We’ve been asking Mr. Market for more downside volatility. He delivered. And we have been quite busy of late with this bounty. Our portfolio activity did an about-face during the third quarter as equity market volatility re-emerged, bringing with it a slew of investment opportunity for the Portfolio not seen in several quarters.
All told, during the 3rd quarter we sold a stock (EMC), bought two new stocks (Kraft Heinz and PayPal) and added to six existing positions (Apple, Berkshire Hathaway, Mead Johnson, Priceline, Qualcomm and Schlumberger). More company comentaries at the end of this Letter...
While we certainly welcomed the recent downside volatility, the recent snapback in stock prices renews our valuation concerns.
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