My trading objective: To increase net worth as a function of book value

Yesterday we attended a seminar with Jason Ayers of on how to create cash flow using options.  He spoke a little about his trading and how his company has taken their holdings to 50% cash before this recent downturn and how they plan to buy back in at reduced rates.  Sometimes I regret not being a better trader and having such superb market timing.  Kudos to Jason!  If you have an opportunity to learn from this guy, it’s really worthwhile, for he’s an excellent speaker and knows his stuff.

I have a different trading strategy.  If you ask me if my portfolio is up or down, I’d have to admit that my “net worth” based on market capitalization is down 7% since February peak.  Ouch!  But what if my goal is not to increase my net worth in market capitalization–but instead to increase it in book value?  Book value is itself not an indicator of the market value of a company, which is really about the profitability of that company in the years to come, but of the total assets (cash, real estate, lands, equipment, inventory) minus liabilities.  Book value is much more stable than market capitalization because it points to the value of the company as a company:  i.e., if another company were to buy out your company you would expect that company to pay book value plus a premium based upon the future profitability of the company:  you will only sell if you think that the premium–i.e., the cash in hand today is more valuable to you, for whatever reason, than your own ability to extract profits from the company in the future.  If the potential buyer offers less than book value then either there is something terribly wrong with your company (Nortel) or you just simply show them the door.  Why would you sell your company at less than book value?  You would only do that if you were insolvent and were forced to sell.

I like junior oil companies and I discovered a means to de-risk them–pay attention to the book value.  This requires looking at the quarterly reports because it changes regularly–as the oil companies use cash to develop their lands.  If the reported book value is higher than the market capitalization, then you are buying the assets of that company at a discount while obtaining its future profits for nothing.

As a strategy, buying junior oil and gas companies at below book value has worked for me with Midway Energy, Crocotta Energy, Prospex (just bought out by Paramount) and Great Plains Exploration (bought out by Avenex).  These were the first junior oil companies that I bought and their share prices are now all well above what I paid despite the recent weakness in junior oils.  Each one was originally purchased below book value.

So while I am down 7% in terms of net worth as a function of market capitalization, as a result of averaging down on junior oil companies, I now own more book value than ever before.  So I consider myself to be doing well despite the current market.

Dennis Gartman’s first rule of trading: A commentary

Dennis Gartman’s first rule of trading:  “Never, under any circumstance add to a losing position…. ever! Nothing more need be said; to do otherwise will eventually and absolutely lead to ruin!”

Horizens AlphaPro Gartman Fund (source TD Waterhouse)

Dennis Gartman is a colorful media figure who apparently has a trading business on the side.  Fabrice Taylor, in an article in the Globe & Mail, “Dennis Gartman needs less talk, more action“, points out that for all of Gartman’s media presence, he doesn’t do all that well as a fund manager.  The Horizens AlphaPro Gartman Fund ( closed at $9.00 yesterday.  Fabrice Taylor, critical that Gartman’s fund was still at only $9.12, wrote almost a year ago (Nov. 30, 2009):

But the market is up 30 per cent since the fund launched. What’s up with that? Mr. Gartman didn’t get back to me, but the people at Horizons AlphaPro tell me the fund is intended to be market neutral, meaning it won’t move with the market. Why? Because it’s long and short, and supposedly constructed in such a way that the market’s performance has no net effect on the returns. The only thing that does have an effect, in theory, is the manager’s skill. It may be early days, but Mr. Gartman’s performance has been found wanting.

He’s expected to return between 6 and 12 per cent regardless of the market. Eight months in, he’s nowhere near that. …

Nearly a year later, he’s still nowhere near that point.  I thus view Gartman with a great deal of skepticism, particularly because he shorted Berkshire Hathaway, calling Warren Buffet an “idiot” on account of his (Buffet’s) buy and hold strategy.  Gartman explains his first rule:

Averaging down into a losing trade is the only thing that will assuredly take you out of the investment business. This is what took LTCM out. This is what took Barings Brothers out; this is what took Sumitomo Copper out, and this is what takes most losing investors out. The only thing that can happen to you when you average down into a long position (or up into a short position) is that your net worth must decline. Oh, it may turn around eventually and your decision to average down may be proven fortuitous, but for every example of fortune shining we can give an example of fortune turning bleak and deadly.

By contrast, if you buy a stock or a commodity or a currency at progressively higher prices, the only thing that can happen to your net worth is that it shall rise. Eventually, all prices tumble. Eventually, the last position you buy, at progressively higher prices, shall prove to be a loser, and it is at that point that you will have to exit your position. However, as long as you buy at higher prices, the market is telling you that you are correct in your analysis and you should continue to trade accordingly.

With all due respect, I doubt that averaging down is what killed those companies.  Usually what destroys investment companies is unwise use of leverage.  In my view, the goal of business is to be in business tomorrow.  So I don’t tend to use leverage for momentum stocks but for income stocks.  That way, short of a dividend cut, I will always be able to pay the interest and I won’t have to go bankrupt.  In addition, it is probably unwise to depend on the margin in your account to cover the leverage.  More credit (such as a HELOC) has to be laying in wait to cover a margin call, if God forbid, the market drops to that point.

Averaging down vs. Gartman

So Gartman says never to average down.  Never buy more of stock when it goes down–the market is telling you that you are right when you buy stocks on the rise.  Yet my experience teaches me that this is wrong.  Consider the following positions that I averaged down on during the last two years since the beginning of the crisis:  Western Gold Fields (, now NGD) up 252.33%; Crescent Point ( up 37.28%, plus 7% dividend; NAL Oil and Gas ( up 16% plus 8.6% dividend; Barrick Gold (ABX) up 45%; Midway Energy (, formerly TFL) up 294%; Great Plain Exploration ( up 30%.  Some of my picks are still weak, but nothing is losing me any substantial capital.  Overall, the current positions in the portfolio are up over 62.3% above my book value.  By Gartman’s rule, I should pick my own style of trading over his, since his fund is still in a net zero position over the same period.

Why does averaging down work for me?  Here are some rules for averaging down:

(1) It is not a good idea to average down on stock that is in trouble. I did not average down on BP.  Nor Nortel.  Nor would I have averaged down on BreX or Enron. I sold my Enbridge ( after the first oil pipeline spill (though that turned out to be wrong); I dropped Centerra Gold ( after the coup in Kyrgyz Republic (also wrong).  And I am thankful that the stocks collapsed before I began trading, but I doubt seriously I would have been caught in that mania.

(2) Begin with an appreciation of the value of a company. Perhaps it is an income stock like or  Perhaps a junior oil company with a good team of proven oil men (like  I like commodities because my hunch is that fiat money will diminish in value while commodities will retain their value.  So I like trading gold mining stocks.  I now begin by easing into a long position or selling a put option to reduce the cost of entry.

(3) Understand that the market is not only sometimes wrong but often wrong.  Gartman’s point that a trader should let the market tell him whether he is right must be refined.  The market may be right over the long haul but in the short run, it is usually over buying or over selling.  The dictum of Buffet is better, “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful”.  This is clearly saying a contrary message to Gartman’s first rule of trading.  The reason Buffet’s advice works is that, as  he learned from Benjamin Graham the author of The Intelligent Investor, publicly traded companies have two values:  (i) the value that the market places on it; (ii) the value it has based upon an evaluation of its balance sheets and its potential earnings going forward.  This second value, which is the most overlooked during periods of market insanity, represents the worth of the company if it were to be bought in a private sale.

(4) Pay attention to book value. Book value (a.k.a., shareholder’s equity) is an very important consideration.  Graham recommends that a defensive investor never buy stocks that are selling at a price to book of more than 1 1/2 times. He also taught that buying a company at a  price to book ratio of 1.0 means that the buyer is getting the company for nothing, for the buyer pays only for the shareholders’ equity, at a one to one value, but pays nothing whatsoever for the company’s future profits.  During the 2008 market crash, many stocks were selling at below shareholders’ equity.  An averaging down strategy makes it possible to take advantage of such deals.  But paying attention to book value saves the investor from sinkholes like the companies which often had negative book values.

(5) Maintain sufficient cash or credit to be able to average down.  When I first started trading I would shoot my wad and then there would be nothing left with which to average down.

(6) It is permitted to “average back up”; i.e., to take profits from the stocks as they come back up, especially when it helps to reduce leverage.

Calculating book value: Case study, Petrobakken (PBN)

The value investor should pay attention to book value (assets-debt). I aspire to be a value investor, but I depend on stock analysts to do part of the work for me. Here is my dilemma. The discount brokerages make some of the research available to their clients to encourage their clients to invest in stocks. This generates revenue for them, as they depend on commissions. This is one reason to hold in suspicion their recommendations, since they will often be more optimistic than they should. If I always obtained the 52-week target price that they suggest, I would be probably be fabulously wealthy. That being said, their information is nevertheless very useful to me.

But what happens when their numbers don’t appear to agree, either with each other or with the reports from the company in question. Consider the case of Petrobakken, which both TD Waterhouse and Scotia Capital give a high rating. A couple of days ago I blogged that I would buy some shares, and I did, though the stock has continued to drop. Not to worry, I calculated that this growing oil-weighted company was selling at less than shareholder’s equity/book value; typically, if a private investor wanted to come in and buy the company, they would have to offer the shareholders premium on the book value in order to convince the majority of shareholders to relinquish the company. That means that Petrobakken is selling at a discount. I calculated the book value based upon  their quarterly report (in billions) as 5.5 (assets)-0.698 (net debt) / .188 (total shares)=$25.54 per share.

Now it is interesting to me that on TD Waterhouse website under markets and research, PBN is listed as having a book value of only $17.18:

Analyst Jason Bouvier for Scotia Capital lists PBN’s “value” at 4.467 billion and its net debt at 0.902 billion. Analyst Roger Serin at TD Newcrest (TDSI Morning Action Notes, August 11, 2010) reports PBN net debt as 1.642 billion. He provides the following explanation:

Balance Sheet – At the end of Q2/10, the company had net debt of $1.48 billion, with $557 million drawn on its recently revised covenant based $1 billion credit facility (previously $900 million reserve based). At year-end 2010, we forecast net debt of 2.5x trailing cash flow and 14% available on its current facility, or 30% with working capital deficit. Net debt includes US$750 million convertible debentures due 2016. We also note PetroBakken pays annual dividends of ~$180 million, providing additional flexibility.

I see. The debentures are added to the debt which is only correct. Using this measure we arrive at the following book value (in billions): 5.507-1.448/.1886=$21.52 per share. This is higher than the book value indicated on TD Waterhouse’s Markets and research page, and it is the price at which I purchased shares earlier this week.

Of course Petrobakken at the end of their report explain how they calculated “net debt”:

Non-GAAP Measures. This press release contains financial terms that are not considered measures under Canadian generally accepted accounting principles (“GAAP”), such as funds flow from operations, net debt and operating netback. These measures are commonly utilized in the oil and gas industry and are considered informative for management and shareholders. Specifically, net debt is used to evaluate financial leverage and includes bank debt plus and accounts payable and accrued liabilities, less current assets. Operating netback is determined by dividing oil and gas revenue less royalties, transportation and production expenses by sales volumes. Management considers operating netback important as it is a measure of profitability per barrel of production. Net debt and operating netbacks may not be comparable to those reported by other companies nor should they be viewed as an alternative to net income or other measures of financial performance calculated in accordance with GAAP.

There is no mention here of debentures. And this could explain the difference. Thus, there seems to be different ways that debt is calculated, and the DIY investor must be aware of this and dig a little deeper to make sure that the data being reported is accurate.

Book value as a determinant for buying a stock: The case of Petrobakken

At the current time, I am investing in the oil and gas industry for a number of reasons:

(1) Oil is a commodity based upon a US dollar price.  As the US dollar inflates, commodities will maintain their value.  As a result, there is likely a coming surge in the commodities in the market as everybody and his brother starts looking for value as they catch on to the severe devaluation of the US currency.  Already the Chinese, who are usually huge investors in US treasury bills, have begun to establish enormous positions in the Canadian oil sector.

(2) Current prices in the Canadian oil sector are mostly well below their 5 year highs.

(3) Canadian oil and gas companies pay really good dividends or distributions.

(4) Canadian oil companies, particularly in the junior oil sector, are often selling below “book value” or what is also called “shareholder’s equity”.

Today, for example, Petrobakken (PBN)  in their quarterly report stated that their total assets were 5.5 billion; their net debt 0.698 billion.  This means shareholder’s equity per share (total shares outstanding, 0.188 billion) = 5.5-0.698/.188=$25.54 per share.  I am not a stock analyst, so my calculations could be incorrect (and I would appreciate anyone correcting me on this).  Despite this report, because of the net loss during Q2, PBN shares fell to as low as $21.28 today, as disappointed shareholders dumped the stock.  Others like me were obviously establishing long positions.  I established long positions at an average of $21.56, which in my view means that I immediately gained equity of nearly $4 per share.  Meanwhile, before yesterday’s financial report both TD Waterhouse and Scotia Captial had given PBN excellent ratings, with a $30 and $31 52-week target price respectively [Update:  I learned that the book value of Petrobakken is probably closer to 21.52, and TD Waterhouse has lowered their 52 week target to $25].

I’ve read that Warren Buffet, the value investor par excellence,  does not like too much the commodities sector.  I comfort myself with the fact that there have been other billionaires who have made fortunes on black gold.