Wedgewood Partners client letter for the third quarter ended September 30, 2016; titled, “Is Indexation Investing the New Momentum Speculation?”
“Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!” — Mae West
Wedgewood Partners – Review and Outlook
Our Composite (net-of-fees)i gained +3.07% during the third quarter of 2016. This gain compares unfavorably with the gain of +4.58% in our benchmark, the Russell 1000 Growth Index and the S&P 500 Index’s gain of +3.85%.
[drizzle]Top performance contributors included Apple, Qualcomm, Priceline, Visa and Charles Schwab. Absolute performance detractors during the quarter included Stericycle, Cognizant Technology, Core Laboratories, Mead Johnson and Express Scripts.
During the quarter, we trimmed our positions in LKQ and Mead Johnson, and we added to Core Labs, Visa, and Alphabet. We also initiated a new position in TreeHouse Foods.
During the quarter, Apple was a top contributor to relative performance. Apple has been in portfolios for nearly a decade. Even though Apple is one of the most visible and widely followed businesses in our investment universe, we believe it has long suffered from the incorrect market perception that its customer relationships are largely transactional in nature. We see evidence of these “hit-driven” fears embedded in the systematic contraction of Apple’s forward price-to-earnings (P/E) multiple. Apple’s P/E multiple peaked in the fall of 2007 at about 38X (not long after the iPhone launched and the S&P 500 P/E peaked for that cycle) and has contracted to around 12.7X, albeit up from the 9X and 10x multiples seen earlier this year and in 2013. We earnestly admit that Apple probably does not deserve to trade at the 38X forward earnings2, yet we believe that Apple’s iOS franchise and “annuity-like” ecosystem has demonstrated an exceptional ability to retain and obtain repeat customers, while commanding over 90% of the profitability generated by smartphone manufacturers—qualities we think should help the stock generate extremely attractive returns at the current multiple.
Priceline was another top contributor to performance during the quarter. Despite its strong performance, in our view, Priceline’s stock has underperformed its corporate fundamentals. Over the past three years, earnings per share are up a cumulative +60%, while the P/E multiple has contracted about 15%, to around 19X the next 12-month earnings. Further, if we assume that all stocks receive some kind of multiple expansion benefits due to currently low interest rates,3 then Priceline’s multiple contraction looks all the more stark. Thus, although Priceline has executed torrid value creation relative to the benchmark, the stock has posted a fraction of the outperformance. We continue to think Priceline’s competitive advantage consists of scale on both the supply and demand side of the hospitality industry. With over 90% of the Company’s profitability coming from non-US markets, particularly from Europe, we believe their strategy of foregoing low-margin US bookings in favor of bookings in higher-margin, fragmented markets is a sensible one.
Qualcomm was also a top contributor to performance over the past three months. We saw Qualcomm make meaningful progress on its technology licensing (QTL) front after several quarters of patiently waiting for the Company to capture unpaid royalties in China. Although Qualcomm’s chipset franchise (QCT) usually garners most of the attention for the Company, its high-margin QTL segment actually generates two-thirds to three-quarters of consolidated profitability. So while revenues at Qualcomm grew 4%, operating income grew almost 30%, year-over-year. Although it has taken several quarters to eventually materialize, we think that the “lumpy” nature of QTL revenues does not make Qualcomm’s long-term prospects for monetizing its prolific research and development spend (cumulative $16 billion over the past three years), any less attractive. In our opinion, Qualcomm shares remain underappreciated by the market, trading at just 14X next 12 month earnings. In addition, the Company maintains a fortress-like balance sheet with about $20 billion in net cash. As a valuation thought-experiment, if Qualcomm levered its balance sheet to be at parity with the average S&P 500 company’s (excluding financials) net debt-to-operating earnings ratio4, the Company would have close to 35% of its market cap available for redeployment. We continue to expect that the long-term growth of the business will drive the stock higher and help close that gap, but our conviction in the stock is reinforced by the Company’s excellent financial health, which is a byproduct of their superior profitability.
Stericycle underperformed during the quarter as headwinds related to their core, regulated medical waste (RMW) segment began to emerge. Prior headwinds to the Company were limited to non-core businesses or are short-term issues that should be remedied over the next few quarters. While the stock has become cheap, historically and relatively, we did not add to positions during the quarter, as we continue to evaluate the extent of the pressure the Company is seeing in its RMW business.
Core Labs was the third largest detractor from our relative performance during the third quarter. While “energy” continues to be a four-letter word at this point in the cycle of U.S. growth investing,5 we continue to think that Core Labs’ value proposition is worthy of multi-cycle consideration. We estimate that roughly 85% of the Company’s revenues are generated by providing equipment and services for the upkeep of their customers’ existing carbon producing fields. As such, the majority of the value that Core Labs provides its customers is not directly predicated on the activity of drillings rigs, or even on the shortterm price of oil. For instance, the Company’s Reservoir Description business generated over 60% of consolidated revenues during the trailing 12 months. Reservoir Description revenues have declined just -16% from their trailing 12-month peak (set during late 2013 through mid 2014 – when oil traded at twice today’s levels). A significant portion of Core Labs’ revenues are generated outside the United States, so we estimate revenues in Reservoir Description have probably fallen by a high single digit percent, constant currency – despite the E&P industry (Core Labs’ customers) drastically cutting budgets by between – 30% and -75% during that timeframe. Thus, a significant portion of Core Labs’ business is very well insulated from the vagaries of short-term oil price fluctuations. Although the margins of this segment have suffered more than revenues, we expect that margins have bottomed and should rapidly rebound with E&P spending budgets, as Core Labs’ management has prudently balanced costs without sacrificing personnel capacity.
Cognizant also detracted from overall performance during the quarter, due to management’s cautious commentary related to the demand environment in two of their core customer verticals. Management’s caution about IT spend in Cognizant’s BFS (Banking and Financial Services) segment trace back to the prolonged low interest rate environment along with increased uncertainty in the macro environment—particularly attributed to the “Brexit” vote, which was relatively fresh news at the time of management’s comments. We do not think this weakness has materialized in the nearterm, at least to the extent that management was implying. In addition, but not necessarily new, Cognizant has four clients in the HMO (health-maintenance organization) industry, all attempting to merge with or acquire the other. Though the extended timeline of these M&A deals likely pushes out the timing of expected work for