London Capital Group - Worth a (spread) bet

Friday, Jan 25 2013 by
London Capital Group  Worth a spread bet

OK, so the title isn't winning any awards for the terrible pun but hopefully the rest of the post will compensate. I'm a fan of London Capital Hldg (LON:LCG) as I believe it's a business that is fundamentally very attractive and is suffering from a number of headaches in the short term which don't really impair the long term value anywhere near as significantly as the market is pricing it to.

So, what's the story? LCG are a spread betting firm, a mix of their own brands and white label to other big names such as TD Waterhouse, Betfair, Bwin.Party and Saxo bank. They offer a number of products but by far the most significant is their UK Financial spread betting service (£26.6m revenues in 2011) followed by their Institutional FX business (£8m revenues in 2011). Whilst you might think this business is something similar to a stock exchange in characteristics I see it far differently; the economics share far more similarities to the gambling sector, an area I used to work in and know fairly well. The vast, vast majority of clients do not use spread betting like true 'investors' but instead they speculate heavily on margin - and they don't speculate very well. Nearly all the clients end up as net losers. A few people have asked me how such a model is sustainable, how does the business survive if the customers keep going bust? It's simple really - the same way William Hill & co survive, through a combination of recruiting new accounts and having old accounts redeposit. You'd be amazed at the gamblers who deposit year in, year out and somehow convince themselves that they are actually 'winners' and 'the sharp money'. Spread betting is, as the name suggests, gambling. The average revenue per user is much higher than traditional gambling too, at ~£1.4k per annum compared to more like £300 for a bookie.

At the end of 2008 LCG were riding high with their share price touching 400p. Now they are hanging just over 33p. What happened? The classic case of high profit multiple (20x in 2007) meets profit collapse in the 2009 recession. Since then the company has lurched from disaster to disaster; first the FSA forced them to pay a significant fine on grounds that seem very harsh, then the company had to write off millions of pounds worth of software assets after they proved unsatisfactory. To top if off, the most recent trading statement shows that profits for this year have collapsed to a loss after revenues took a big dive. How can this happen? Well, spread betting revenues are inherently more volatile than that of traditional betting as they depend on volatility in the markets. Big swings in the markets encourage clients to trade more and generates high revenues. Having a quiet year in the markets is the equivalent of William Hill having half the football matches they'd normally get in a season.  To get an idea of this volatility, here's a graph I lifted from the last annual report:

Looking at the graph, it's almost pure fluke that revenue growth has been so smooth for the past few years - good half years can be almost double bad ones. IG Group, LCG's much larger listed competitor (LCG are number 2) also reported significant drops in revenue for the past six months so this is clearly an industry issue rather than just an LCG issue. This is a big crux of my argument for this share - I believe this is not a structural decline but rather a cyclical one. It's folly to value a cyclical business on one year's results and a far better method is to look at average earnings over a decent period. Joel Greenblatt calls this kind of investing 'time-arbitrage', I'm able to 'arb' the difference between the price now, caused by investor's short time horizons, and the price sometime in the distant future due to my long time horizon.

Given everything is so terrible with LCG, why do I like it the share today? Essentially it all comes down to valuation. The market has looked at the most recent result and decided the company will never make a profit again, as the company now trades at a discount to the net cash on the balance sheet (£20.3m of cash against a £17.7m market cap) and about half of book value (which contains intangibles - it trades at 0.84 of tangible book). This is for a company which has, historically, earned an average of 20.7% ROE for the past five years even including all the disasters.

The business also has a number of qualities that are very attractive. For one, it's number 2 in it's main market (although the number 1 is 10x larger in revenues) which is still growing overall. LCG has achieved a huge CAGR of 35% in sales for the past five years and IGG has also done 27%. Whilst I don't think this level of growth can be achieved in the future I don't see why double digit revenue growth, on average, shouldn't be achieved. This is a growth company in a growth industry. Secondly, the company has a number of competitive advantages. Whilst regulation is a burden for this company it does massively increase the barriers to entry - if you want to be another FSA regulated spread better you'd have to comply. Whilst it's possible to relocate offshore (and a number of their competitors do) the FSA badge of approval is valuable in it's own right. It'd be especially tough to come in and try and win the white label contracts that LCG already have. Also the product is not a commodity - it has to be good to attract and win clients and a new competitor would need to reach their standard to compete. The competitive advantages LCG and IGG enjoy are reflected in the very good economics of their businesses: Both are non-capital intensive and generate high average ROEs despite the large cash regulation requirement and both have huge margins. So we have a growth company with good competitive advantages earning a huge return on capital and enjoying high margins (key phrase here - on average) - what's not to like? :)

Some more tasty facts and figures: Including the broker's expected profit for 2012 (-0.4p), the 4 year average profit of the business is 4.53p. Given the current share price, that's an average P/E of only 7.36. An average of 2.18p was paid in dividends over the period too (assuming no final dividend this year) giving an average yield of 6.53%. Now, I've chosen the 4 year time period to be as harsh as possible as it excludes the good 2008 & 2007 results. The same figures for a 6 year period are 8.94p of average earnings for an average P/E of 3.7 and an average dividend of 4.36p for an average yield of 13.11%. Even going on just the horrible 4 year numbers though, which includes two years where essentially no profit has been made, the share price still looks excessively cheap. It's worth pointing out that I don't include the net cash at all in my valuation. This is because almost all of it the company is required to hold under FSA regulations and so it's more like working capital than free capital - don't expect any IND style large special dividends any time soon.

The way I see it, even if things carry on being terrible the company is still going to earn a decent return, on average, for shareholders at the current price. The other thing to remember is that margins have come down from a high of an average of 44.7% for the four years 2005-2008 to an average of 18.1% (on adjusted profit figures) for the past three years. Profit growth hasn't come close to matching the revenue growth because of this margin contraction. IG Group have managed to hold their margins in the 40%s over this period so clearly LCG have under-performed in this regard. This is due to a number of factors: First, management have launched a number of smaller products that have more or less all made losses so far and so dilute the margin. Secondly, costs in the core business have also shot up without a corresponding rise in revenue. This is something management are now taking action about and are looking to trim back the cost base & try and get the smaller divisions to focus on achieving profitability. They believe they've found some 15% of the cost base that could be taken out and Simon Denham mentioned at the Mello meeting that IT costs should be dropping after a period of investment anyway. This is a source of further upside - if the company can execute on their cost cutting promises profits should recover.

Another factor to consider is the current interest rate environment. LCG benefit hugely from higher interest rates because they carry so much gross cash they can't do anything with (cash from customers and regulatory capital) other than invest at close to base-rate levels. At June 2012 they had £67.3m of this gross cash so each 1% rise in interest directly adds an extra £0.67m of profit to the bottom line - it's that simple. Not only that, but LCG also charge their customers financing charges to hold bets open based on LIBOR. Again, an interest rise plays nicely in to generating extra revenue here. This is yet another potential source of significant upside should interest rates begin to rise.

One last thing that stood out to me in the presentation Simon did. I knew from my time in the gaming industry that the customers tend to follow an extreme pareto distribution - 50% of your revenues come from the top few % of your customers. The big 'whales' as they are known are very important. However, when I asked Simon about his customer concentration he replied that his top ten customers account for no more than a handful of % of his revenues. This was pretty surprising to me, so I asked how this was the case. It turns out it's a deliberate risk management strategy, which makes sense, but it does mean LCG are turning away their biggest and most profitable customers! Again, I see further potential upside here should they decide to change this policy.

In the dream scenario here, revenues recover, margins go back to historical highs & interest rates rise. Any combination of these three would see PBT shoot back up and trigger significant multi-bagging from the current price. The downside is fairly well protected due to the very strong net asset position, of which a large chunk is held in cash. In my mind, this creates a really attractive risk/reward proposition. Simon mentioned at the Mello talk that a number of potential acquisition suitors had come knocking after the share price decline which I take as a good sign - people who know the industry well are coming around making opportunistic bids. I doubt a bid will take place around the current price any time soon though, LCG has big insider ownership from the three co-founders who will demand fair value for any purchase (which they believe, as I do, is significantly above the current market price). Personally, I'd much prefer a slow but big recovery than a quick 30% gain from a bid and am happy that my incentives are closely aligned with management.

So what are the big risks? Well, cash has fallen significantly over the past 6 months - down from £25.5m to £20.3m, far more than the actual profit loss. I remember Simon Denham saying something like only £4m of that £25.5m was 'excess cash' so it must mean they are close to eating in to regulatory capital (although in the 2011 annual report they say that, of the £25m of net cash, they had £10.7m of surplus regulatory cash requirements so maybe I'm misinterpreting him?). I'd expect that the company have anticipated such liquidity needs and are prepared accordingly. Another big red flag is the COO, who is also a major shareholder, has quit to 'pursue other interests'. This is a big worrying although the optimist could interpret it the other way, that after a number of years of poor margin performance we are seeing a replacement in a very significant senior position. There's also regulatory risk present, as we saw when LCG had to pay a large fine to the FSA. I see this kind of risk as an unpredictable cost of doing business, which decreases my valuation of the business but not in a significant way. A more serious regulatory risk would be if the government changed the rules to remove the tax advantages of spread betting, which would be very harmful to the industry.

The other really big risk is that I've completely mis-read the revenue decline and it's the start of a serious structural collapse. If that's the case, the assets could become significantly impaired by losses and the downside protection would be eroded. However, I personally believe the odds of this are pretty low given the obvious cyclical history of the company. There's also a bit of a stigma for these companies recently after the MF Global and Worldspreads frauds with the companies both dipping in to client funds. I think this risk is in reality very, very tiny due to the insiders owning such a large proportion of the company. Why ruin a great long-term business by engaging in short term fraud? I don't see the incentive here and as Charlie Munger says "Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives".

With all that in mind, I've made LCG a 4.8% portfolio allocation (down from last time due to the price fall and appreciation of the rest of the portfolio) and I'm tempted to top up after even more recent falls. As for the rest of my portfolio, since my last post I've sold out completely of FCCN and redirected the proceeds in to KENZ and MGNS (which have both gone up since, nice to have a bit of good luck!). The losses at FCCN were worse than expected and due to the high operational gearing of the company the risk here is too high for me. Against weak comparables from last year the company still reported a revenue fall. The company has net cash of ~£25m, granted, but they burned £10m of cash last year. Even if things don't get worse, which there's no reason why they couldn't, they'd burn through that pile pretty quickly. Operational gearing could make the situation either very, very good or very, very bad here - it's kind of an all or nothing punt. Since I'm an investor who likes to be fairly concentrated and I can't protect the downside here it's one I'm going to pass on.

This could well turn out to mistake and a number of investors are still bullish here, including Paulypilot who knows the sector far, far better than I ever could given he's worked in it but I don't feel like I'm able to calculate the upside/downside scenario probabilities here. If the upside scenario materialises I won't kick myself, there's always plenty of other opportunities out there. I will, however, be paying close attention to this graph on Google trends as it's probably a useful indicator of any turnaround success. The current graph direction isn't all that pretty though...

For the record, here's my portfolio as it currently stands now:

Disclosure: I am long LCG, KENZ & MGNS

Filed Under: Value Investing,


As per our Terms of Use, Stockopedia is a financial news & data site, discussion forum and content aggregator. Our site should be used for educational & informational purposes only. We do not provide investment advice, recommendations or views as to whether an investment or strategy is suited to the investment needs of a specific individual. You should make your own decisions and seek independent professional advice before doing so. The author may own shares in any companies discussed, all opinions are his/her own & are general/impersonal. Remember: Shares can go down as well as up. Past performance is not a guide to future performance & investors may not get back the amount invested.

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London Capital Group Holdings plc is a United Kingdom-based company that operates through its principal subsidiary, London Capital Group Limited. The Company's core activity includes provision of spread betting and contracts for difference (CFD) products based on financial market products, such as futures, equities and foreign exchange. The Company provides online trading to private, retail and professional clients. The Company's operating segments include financial spread betting and contracts for difference (CFDs), the United Kingdom, and institutional foreign exchange (FX). The financial spread betting and CFDs, United Kingdom segment is engaged in the provision of the spread betting and CFD products, commission income, exchange gains and interest. The institutional foreign exchange segment earns commission income generated from the clients' FX trading. more »

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16 Comments on this Article show/hide all

shipoffrogs 26th Jan '13 1 of 16

An interesting find, and a great write up. Do you have any take on whether they take on the investment risk when white labelling?


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CantEatValue 26th Jan '13 2 of 16

In reply to shipoffrogs, post #1

What do you mean by investment risk? Start up costs for new white labels should be relatively low as they just leverage existing facilities. As for the risk from the bets themselves I believe they manage the white labels the same as their own brands - their partners typically just get a revenue share from the clients they provide

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shipoffrogs 26th Jan '13 3 of 16

Hi - I meant the second one, that's what I guessed, too. Thanks

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Paul Scott 31st Jan '13 4 of 16

Good article, thanks.

I've also looked at this company recently, and am intrigued.

My main worry is that spread betting companies are intrinsically very high risk - it would only take one major IT malfunction to potentially bankrupt them, if their systems go haywire and fail to lay off risk correctly.

Also, as has been proven by some collapses in this sector, the people who run SB companies can sometimes be big gamblers themselves. So who knows what they are doing with their own funds, and look what happened with MF Global - supposedly the biggest & safest of the lot, yet their management were doing insane, multi-billion punts with company funds, which took them under.

I might have a punt on London Capital Hldg (LON:LCG), but am going to keep it a very small part of my portfolio, just in case!

Very competitive sector too, with profit margins being squeezed.

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Jonniegul 3rd Feb '13 5 of 16

It's a nice write up, particularly interesting as London Capital Hldg (LON:LCG) was a share I held until Nov last year. I like the company, but I don't see a short term recoevery, particularly in the current (bull?) market. They need some volatility in my view.
This is what I wrote back then (over on TMF):
I’ve used my time usefully to review my LCG investment (oh dear!)
Bottom line, I’ve decided to sell.

These are the numbers:
Year to December 31 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Turnover (£000) 18,890 28,878 27,645 34,491 38,963 25,000e
Operating profit (£000) 8,440 10,449 5,699 -140 5,890 -25 (to Jun)
Exceptional/other items (£000) - - - 6,394 743 1900e
Net interest (£000) 134 401 149 85 248 350e
Pre-tax profit (£000) 8,574 10,850 5,848 -56 6,141 0,6 (to Sept)
Shares in Issue (m) 39 39 39 39 48.8 48.8
Earnings per share (p) 15.7 19.9 10 -0.09 8.64 Not much!
Dividend per share (p) 6.5 11 2.5 1 3.9 1.3e (1.3 Paid)

I should emphasize 2012 is my estimate based on nothing more than a finger in the air! Well OK, I did have a look at the numbers from H1 but guessed the rest from the last trading statement.
The first half was flat (compared to 2011) and I was hopeful of a similar full year to 2011, but the last trading statement suggests to me that will not be the case. Unless activity (i.e. market volatility) picks up, I don’t see any recovery in the short term.

Longer term, I do like the company. Yes management have made mistakes, but I’m still inclined to give some benefit of doubt here given the holdings they still have and indeed the strike price of options held. And surely they are learning by now!
Happily, LCG was a mere 1.5% of my portfolio. Less happily, it’s only 1% today! The only question remaining is where to put that 1% to work? I think I’ll put it with the other 99% of the portfolio invested in dodgy O&G shares!! :-)
I received in region of 8% of my purchase cost in divi’s along the way, so my loss on this is approx. 21%. Ah, it’s not a disaster.

I could have sold out at something like 30% profit and that was an acceptable outcome

I’m going to keep my eye this one and may buy back in, but for now it is to be sold.
The thought does occur that they may become a takeover target, though at what price that might be, I wouldn’t want to guess.

Anyway, thanks for putting it back on the radar and starting a discussion. Always interesting.


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Asagi 3rd Feb '13 6 of 16

I would have expected that a bull market would be very good for London Capital Hldg (LON:LCG)

We know that spread betters (bettors?) are nearly always long.

LCG needs them to be long and wrong.

Retail investors are notorious for having appalling timing. Strong equity markets will attract punters to the company's leveraged products. They will then bail out on any pullback (providing a win for LCG) or get greedy and place more bets.

Now you might think that there is a flaw to this logic but gamblers are overwhelmingly too short of discipline to walk away with their winnings. In the meantime of course, LCG will be winning on any shorts. Don't underestimate the size of the herd vs. the smarts. LCG identifies the smarts and hedges them.

Nice (!) febrile markets and the time honoured tradition of greedy, dumb punters should serve LCG very well.

Let's keep discussing this. In my opinion LCG is one of the very best 'hold for recovery' plays on the market today.

Asagi (no position)

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Jonniegul 3rd Feb '13 7 of 16

Hi Asagi,
"Retail investors are notorious for having appalling timing."
Yeah, that'd me...
I haven't looked at the numbers again since I wrote that post originally back in October and I'm not sure if/when the 2012 results are out - perhaps I better go check.


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CantEatValue 3rd Feb '13 8 of 16


Indeed one big IT cock up would cause major problems but I see this as being highly unlikely, it's the kind of obvious risk that needs checks and balances in place to prevent as well as detect should they occur. Given they've gone this far without problems I'll give management the benefit of the doubt here and trust them to have anticipated this risk and prepared. Arguably almost all companies have some kind of "black swan" type risk in them - a few very low probability events that could happen to seriously impair the business - but that's what diversification is for.

As for the MF Global type risk I don't think you'd have seen Jon Corzine making such crazy bets if he'd had a significant percentage of his net worth invested in the company's stock. Three of the founders still own a large share of LCG and two of them are still on the board. Their incentives are very much aligned with my own - if they want to go crazy it will only wind up hurting themselves in the end.

As for your profit margin comments, I discussed what I think is causing the current low margins in my post but even over the last few years of what I'd call "poor" performance margins were still in the high teens to twenties - I'd call that decent. IG Groups are even more impressive, being up in the forties! I still believe LCG have scope to improve margin for the reasons I outlined.


Sad to hear the investment didn't work out for you but I'm positive on the share from the current price. I'm always interested in the long term and I think the company has a lot of potential to improve from this relatively low base. I'm happy to wait for the years it'll probably take for LCG to reveal the true earnings power of the business here.


Indeed I hope that the bull market starts to draw more interest in shares in general and hence allows LCG to grow their business even further. If you look at their historical revenues in the graph I put in the post you can see there's volatility but it's around a trend of general growth. I see the volatility as offering a very attractive entry price at the moment as the market prices in no allowance for regression to the mean.

I agree with your general sentiments around the gamblers - the human tendency for a gamble isn't going away any time soon and speculation in stocks has been around as long as stocks themselves, in that sense I see it as being a business that will last and isn't just a fad. Eventually volatility will swing the other way again and earnings will return, especially as management now will be looking to take an axe to the cost base.

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CantEatValue 12th Feb '13 9 of 16

Anyone know if there's any news that's causing the current rise? I can't find anything of significance

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CantEatValue 12th Feb '13 10 of 16

....and I spoke too soon! This came out just now.

As I said in my thesis (and Simon mentioned in the Mello presentation) there's likely to be a number of bidders around for the company given it's so undervalued right now. I reckon that management will bat away any bids that are too opportunistic so it'll be interesting to see what happens now.

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dangersimpson 12th Feb '13 11 of 16

3 bidders clearly helps maximise value and management have a big enough stake to refuse low-ball offers, IIRC there was a big trade a week or so ago so I wonder if any of the bidders has been doing a little bit stake building while the SP was low. I guess we'll find out when the 1% announcements start coming in.

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shipoffrogs 12th Feb '13 12 of 16

Thanks CEV,
intrigued by your article I did some more research and seeing the price rise again this morning bought in and was mighty tickled when the takeover announcement came a couple of hours later. Fascinated to see three parties in the race from the off - looks like management are keen to unload it.

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CantEatValue 12th Feb '13 13 of 16

Here's a cross post I did from TMF on what a potential acquirer might pay:

Well this is interesting! Not one but three bidders for the company. Given the access to cheap capital companies have and the M&A 'animal spirits' that appear to be stirring it's not surprising opportunistic bids have arisen.

Now, what might a bidder pay? I must admit I hold a very different view to the market here and think the company is significantly undervalued - but how much? Let's consider a few valuation scenarios and see what they come out with.

First, the bear scenario valuation: Let's assume that the £28m revenue is the 'new base' going forward and growth will be off this. I think this is wrong, but we're being bearish. If we assume that margins here will forever be weak relative to history let's say they can only make an average of a 10% margin. This gives PBT of £2.8m. Put on a low multiple of 8 (which I think is very harsh given the high ROE qualities of this business, but we're being bearish) and we get 43p per share.

Now, the middle case scenario valuation: Let's take the average revenue of the last 5 years and call that the base - £31.7m. Assume an average margin of 20% (still not ridiculous, the business has averaged 28.8% excluding exceptionals over the last five years and did 40%+ before 2009) for a PBT of £6.35m. For a multiple of 8 still, we arrive at a valuation of 97p.

Now for the optimistic scenario valuation: Let's take assume the revenue base is the average of the last 3 years: £33.8m. Now, let's assume the business can bring margins back to an average of 30% through cost cutting and efficiency (remember margins were consistently above 40% pre 2008, so this isn't ridiculous) for a PBT of £10.15m. Giving a more generous multiple of 10 (remember a well run IGG is on a P/E closer to 15 so we're still on a decent discount here) we'd get a valuation of £1.94

So we arrive at a range of 43p-97p-194p. Now, I know that even my middle case scenario looks optimistic compared to the current market price but this is just how I see the business and why I liked the investment so much - I felt that even under poor operating conditions the business was worth far more than the current market price and if they managed even a relatively mild turnaround there's significant multi-bagging potential with the downside heavily protected. Now, the fact that not one but three competitors have come out the woodwork implies to me they see the value too.

The other major thing to consider here is this: LCG are the 2nd biggest CFD provider in the market and any acquirer here not only has the potential for major synergies (which they should pay a premium for) but the increased scale from combining two smaller players should allow them to dominate the number 2 position in the market and hence be valued on a higher multiple as well as achieve higher margins from the efficiency of scale. The 30% margins I used in my optimistic case don't look so hard when you consider the synergies possible and the fact 40%+ was achieved pre-2008 and IGG consistently do 40%+. Given you also have three competitors that know this I could see a bidding war erupting and LCG getting taken out for a good price given the arguments I've set out here. Assuming these strategic and synergistic effects are worth a 30% premium to the acquirers then we get a range of 55.9p-126p-252p

Am I being optimistic? Possibly, the market loves to focus on near term problems rather than long term earnings power but any realistic valuation should be focusing on the long term earnings ability and I've tried to be conservative in my assumptions for calculating this and I still come out with big valuations. This is why I'm bullish on what the business is worth (and even more bullish on what a strategic acquirer in a bidding war could pay for it). I'd actually kind of prefer for this bid to fail now and the price to drop back down to ~33p as I'd be more interested in holding until true earnings power was revealed and the share re-rated significantly but I don't blame the three firms for trying to snag a bargain. I'm now annoyed this offer has come before I had a chance to increase my stake as I'm very keen on this share - as you can see by my valuation range!! Ah well, we can't win 'em all.

Thinking about it more I find it highly unlikely that not one of the three bidders will be willing to stump up a price that is more reasonable for the business (and above the level at which the three founders will accept) that isn't above the current market price even after the rise so for those who like to speculate on bidding wars I'd definitely be tempted to top up even now - I think the risk/reward ratio is pretty good.

Final thoughts: Bull markets are awesome fun.

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shipoffrogs 13th Feb '13 14 of 16

CEV - your valuation process seems to ignore the cash on the balance sheet. I would have thought that merits adding to your valuations based on future cash flows.

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CantEatValue 14th Feb '13 15 of 16


I actually deliberately excluded it and here's why. I only include cash in my valuations if it's excess cash - cash above and beyond the working capital needs of the company and could be paid out. Because basically all that cash needs to be retained by the company for regulatory needs it cannot be paid out or used for acquisitions or whatever - it's essentially working capital. Of course, one could always shut down the business and return this cash to shareholders but so long as the business earns a decent return on the capital employed then it's worth carrying on keeping it as regulatory capital. An alternative analysis based on liquidation value would of course consider the value of this cash but I think the business has far more value as a going concern and so liquidation analysis is inappropriate.

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About CantEatValue


Part-time private investor predominantly in micro-cap UK equities or anywhere I can find inefficiencies.


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