Coho Capital annual letter to partners for the year ended December 31, 2015.
Coho Capital declined 2.9% in 2015 compared to a gain of 1.4% in the S&P 500. It was a momentum led market with only a handful of names driving the index higher. The top 10 performing stocks in the S&P 500 averaged a gain of 44% for the year. Without these stocks, which constitute less than 10% of the S&P’s valuation, the remaining 490 stocks in the S&P 500 would have returned -2.7%.
As we write this, markets have lost their footing with volatility spiking dramatically, a development which we welcome. In any purchase transaction it is always better to buy from a panicked seller.
Coho Capital - Portfolio Activity
We were more active selling equities than buying in the second half of the year, selling shares in a number of long-term (Yahoo, Softbank, and Cott) as well as short-term (Videocon) holdings.
We sold Yahoo because we lost confidence in the leadership of Marissa Mayer and her ability to extract value from the core Yahoo business. Our Yahoo thesis was premised upon the Market’s misappraisal of Yahoo’s ownership stake in Alibaba. Alibaba’s IPO last year highlighted the value of its business and drove Yahoo shares higher. Over a 3.5 year holding period we realized an annualized gain of 37%.
We did not do as well on our investment in Softbank, losing 29% over a period of 17 months. Softbank has four primary stores of value, Alibaba, Sprint, Yahoo Japan and a domestic telecom business along with hundreds of portfolio companies thrown in for free. We are of the view that Sprint is permanently impaired. We do not think the company possesses sufficient liquidity to survive the price war in monthly phone service. Meanwhile, Softbank’s domestic telecom business has not fared much better, losing 35% of its subscribers last year due to aggressive pricing by competitors and the loss of exclusivity with Apple phones.
We are still confident in Alibaba’s prospects but with Softbank’s component parts bleeding value we thought the wisdom of investing in Alibaba through Softbank no longer made sense.
We invested in Cott Corporation because we though the market was not ascribing adequate value to the company’s transformational acquisition of DS Services’ water distribution business. Shares rerated higher with Wall Street willing to pay a higher multiple for a higher quality business. We realized a gain of 58% in a little over a year.
We wrote about Videocon in our 2015 June letter and anticipated holding shares for years to come due to Videocon’s attractive position in India’s high growth satellite television industry. Two things became apparent to us in relatively short order with Videocon; one, management was too promotional for our tastes and two, the economics of the Indian satellite television business were not nearly as attractive as we had envisioned. For example, while we thought average revenue per user (ARPUs) would trend higher over time due to consolidation, we realized that pervasive piracy in India was likely to keep pricing sub-optimal for some time to come. We lost 22% in six months on our position.
Selling is an underappreciated art in investing. Much verbiage has been spilled on buying but little on selling. While it is painful to lock in a loss and be publicly wrong about an investment, we endeavor to invest with the absence of ego. As John Maynard Keynes once quipped, “When the facts change, I change my mind.”
Coho Capital - Story Time
"The power of anecdote is so great that it has a momentum in and of itself. No matter how boring the facts are, you feel inherently as if you are on a train that has a destination.” Ira Glass – This American Life
One of the most significant challenges in investing is keeping simple narratives at bay. The human brain is hard wired to embrace narrative. Story telling is a central feature of the human condition and enables us to sustain culture, illuminate truths and bind us together in common cause. When our brains are bombarded with signals, stories create patterns of the noise and surface meaning.
While stories help us make sense of the world, the allure of narrative interpretation leaves us vulnerable to taking mental shortcuts. Risk management expert, Nassim Taleb referred to this notion as the “Narrative Fallacy.”
“Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense. Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.” – Nassim Taleb – The Black Swan
Let me tell you a story. Traditional television is dead. Streaming options, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu will make traditional broadcast television obsolete. Cord cutting will make appointment television a relic from a bygone era, as relevant as a radio fireside chat.
The supremacy of streaming television services over broadcast networks is a seductive narrative. We can all agree that the unparalleled choice of streaming, coupled with commercial free viewing, has sealed the fate of broadcast television. But what if the rush to frame a narrative around the future of television obscures important facts?
An examination of television consumption habits supports a different view than conventional wisdom. For example, television viewing has remained stable with the average person watching 5:14 hours of TV per day in 2014, relative to 4:24 hours in 2010, according to media ratings firm Nielsen. What’s more, television viewing dominates media consumption by more than two to one, with adults spending 16 hours of their weekly leisure time on smart phones, tablets and computers, compared to 37 hours watching television.
Broadcast content remains a mainstay of America’s living rooms, with most families loath to give up appointment viewing of sports programming, or big event programming such as the Academy awards. While ratings for cable programming have declined precipitously, ratings for local news increased 5% last year according to Nielsen. Compare this to cable news with viewership down 8%.
Not only are viewers not fleeing, advertisers continue to see television as the preferred medium to reach consumers with local television ad revenue up 7% year over year in 2015. Perhaps this is because broadcast television is available in 100% of households whereas cable advertising is only available to subscribers.
In short, while broadcast television is a mature industry, it is not in terminal decline. Naturally, our anti-consensus view prompted exploration of the broadcasting space, which led us to Sinclair Broadcasting (SBGI).
Coho Capital - Sinclair Broadcasting - The Revolution Will Be Televised
Sinclair has been a leading consolidator of local television over the past few years. The company’s network television stations reach 39% of American living rooms with 172 stations in 81 markets. Sinclair’s geographic reach gives the company sizable economies of scale in everything from producing news content to negotiating retransmission fees. Sinclair is the leading affiliate for both ABC and FOX stations and among the largest NBC and CBS affiliates.
Coho Capital - Cord Cutting vs. Cord Shaving
The media narrative on television suggests consumers are cord cutting – replacing cable TV packages with a broadband connection and a streaming service. While cord cutting is indeed a risk, we are far from a tipping point. According to Nielsen, pay TV subscribers only dipped 0.1% in 2015 from the year prior. This is far from the dramatic decline portrayed by the media. We surmise that rather than cord cutting, viewers are electing to cord shave – reduce cable TV content packages to a “skinny bundle” of must have content. The economics of cord shaving make sense since consumers still need a broadband connection to consume over the top (OTT) content such as Amazon Prime or Netflix.
Perhaps paradoxically, cord shaving has highlighted the value of broadcast television rather than minimized its relevance. Instead of paying for hundreds of arcane channels with niche content, consumers are free to choose only the channels most important to them. Viewers are happy to part with Man vs. Food but reluctant to give up local sports programming, news and primetime shows. An acceleration in skinny bundle adoption is likely to concentrate value into a smaller number of content providers. Current skinny bundle offerings highlight the core position of broadcast television with six of the seven skinny bundle offerings containing local network television channels.
Our variant perception rests upon the premise that increasing adoption of skinny bundles is a net positive for broadcast television rather than a negative. Commentary from Sinclair’s 2015 second quarter conference call helps signpost this trend:
“It’s important to differentiate that we are not a cable network. I believe that we are and will continue to be a part of every skinny bundle. ….I like our chances in the skinny bundle because that means we have fewer competitors on the dial.”
As cord shaving gains momentum, broadcasting networks’ ad inventory will become even more valuable by virtue of reduced supply of alternative television advertising outlets. This should enhance the economics of broadcast network companies such as Sinclair.
Coho Capital - Retransmission Fees Have De-risked Broadcast Television Business Models
One of the most significant shifts in the economics of television broadcasting over the past five years has been the growth of retransmission fees. Retransmission fees represent the compensation paid to television broadcasters from cable and satellite providers in exchange for the right to carry local channels. The last few years have seen explosive growth in retransmission fees with aggregate retransmission payments rising from $0.5 billion in 2008 to $6.3B last year. Despite the growth, there is still significant potential for station operators to increase retransmission fees as legacy contracts come up for renewal. Sinclair is particularly well-positioned to ramp retransmission fees with approximately 75% of its cable/satellite subscriber base up for renewal this year.
Media research firm SNL Kagan projects retransmission fees will jump by two thirds over the next five years to $10.3 billion. The case for continued growth in retransmission fees is strong with data showing that broadcast television remains significantly under-monetized. For example, while broadcast television accounts for 40% of television viewership it only accounts for 10% of affiliate fees suggesting there is ample room to raise fees.
Coho Capital - The Best Democracy Money Can Buy
Political advertising is a significant contributor to broadcaster revenues but varies with the election calendar. While political advertising has always been an important contributor to television station owners’ revenues, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 opened the flood gates. The decision removed limits on political spending by corporations and unions resulting in a windfall for local TV stations.
Political ad spending in 2016 is poised to shatter records. Wells Fargo projects $6 billion in spending, a 16% increase over the 2012 election. With television spending on the election through August of last year up 900% compared to the same period in 2012, we think Wells Fargo’s estimate will be handily topped. The gusher of spending will disproportionately benefit TV stations, which have typically captured 66% of political spending according to Wells Fargo. Sinclair should be a prime beneficiary of increased political spending with stations in 21 state capitals and ten swing states.
Coho Capital - Spectrum Provides an Imminent Catalyst
Sinclair’s spectrum assets should provide additional lift to the shares and help provide downside protection. The company believes it can monetize $2 billion worth of spectrum in the Federal Communications Commission’s March 2016 auction. The numbers stem from a station by station independent analysis conducted by investment bank Greenhill. Potential values could be much higher. In 2012, Wells Fargo estimated that Sinclair could sell $3 billion worth of spectrum assets without compromising cash flow. Sinclair has stated that selling $2 billion worth of spectrum will only result in a 3% impact to broadcast cash flow.
There is of course no guarantee that Sinclair realizes $2 billion from its sale of excess spectrum, but if estimates prove correct, the impact on shares would be significant equating to 69% of Sinclair’s current market cap.
Coho Capital - Compelling Valuation
Sinclair’s valuation is compelling. The company has guided to an average of $4.55 in free cash flow per year over the next two years equivalent to a 14.9% free cash flow yield. (Due to the spike in political ad revenues during elections it is best to analyze broadcasters on a two year basis) This is more appropriate for a business in run-off. We think a 10% FCF yield is sufficiently punitive for a business in flux, yielding a share price of $45+. Success in the spectrum auction could tack on another 30-50% to share gains.
While the official narrative says otherwise, broadcast television is not going away any time soon. The shift toward skinny bundles makes broadcast channels more relevant, not less. The acceleration of retransmission fees, industry consolidation and increased political spend have made the broadcast business much more predictable. While we find Sinclair shares attractive for the underlying economics of the broadcast television industry, we like the fact that the FCC spectrum auction will provide a near-term catalyst to realizing value.
Sinclair is an example of how the best investments are found where no one else is looking. After all, we can only find mispriced securities if we face limited competition from fellow buyers. Yale’s Chief Investment Officer, David Swensen, referred to such investments as “uncomfortably idiosyncratic positions.” Such a position can make one uncomfortable, but if there is one thing we have learned in over a decade of investing, it’s that “many great investments start with discomfort.” – Howard Marks
Coho Capital Management