Friday File — Real Money Update, Watchlist, and more

by Travis Johnson, Stock Gumshoe | April 14, 2017 6:09 pm

Notes on Skyworks, Orocobre, Shopify, Blackbird Energy, NI Holdings, Northern Dynasty, and Qualcomm, among others

We’ve seen some real shift in the dollar, interest rates, and gold over the past week or so, driven, it seems, mostly by the geopolitical risk that is headlined by Syria — I don’t have any idea how that will resolve itself, but under President Trump and his ability (and seeming inclination) to create “black swan” events overnight, it’s pretty clear to me that investor complacency remains quite high among institutional investors (individual investors are still pretty skittish and afraid despite rising consumer confidence, as a whole, and they’ve been afraid and under-invested for many years, but institutions are quite bullish if you believe the surveys).

Does that mean anything for our portfolio positioning? Not unless you’re a lot smarter than I am, or want to do more rolling of the dice. I continue to keep more of my portfolio in cash than usual, but I also continue to make small investments every month, and to opportunistically nibble on (or spit out) positions as company-specific stories percolate in my brain.

That trend of falling dollar/falling rates/rising gold has certainly helped the same segment of my portfolio that it always helps — the REITs are keeping quite a bit of air under their prices, and the gold stocks have gotten a bit of a rosy sheen on their cheeks, but nothing has really changed for those companies just because gold might be two or three percent higher than before, or because the 10-year note has dropped from a yield of 2.5% to 2.25% over the past month. Such moves are neither hugely portentous nor particularly predictable, better to own a portfolio that can handle fluctuations and not worry so much about a month’s worth of gold or dollar movements. I haven’t changed anything in my portfolio from a “big picture” perspective this week…. though I did make a few “small picture” changes, and we’re really just hitting earnings season again now so I’m keeping quite a bit of cash on hand as I look for (and hope for) earnings-related dislocations.

And I did my monthly update of the Real Money Portfolio this week, which you can see here[1]. So… jumping right into company-specific stuff, here are my updates, thoughts, and portfolio adjustments for the week:

This week, I sold my Shopify (SHOP) call options after a wave of “maybe someone will buy SHOP” rumors swirled around the market on Thursday and drove the shares up a bit — since I’ve only a week to go before expiration on those, and I’ll be vacationing and not watching the market most of next week, it seemed a good opportunity to convert that from a “watch it like a hawk” near-term option position to a small equity position, so you’ll see reflected in my Real Money Portfolio[2] that I took profits on the SHOP options and opened a small position in SHOP common stock. I won’t go into more detail about why I’m willing to speculate on the shares, you can see my longer piece about that here from a couple weeks ago[3] if you’re interested.

I don’t necessarily expect Shopify to be acquired, part of what makes it appealing is the focus and vision of their founder and my sense is that it would take a huge premium to get him to endorse an acquisition (and no one would probably attempt a hostile acquisition), but they’re small enough that the range of possible outcomes is quite wide — SHOP reports in about three weeks, so the story will change a bit fairly soon. There’s also a good chance that they’ll talk up their capital investment requirements, downgrade earnings forecasts, and cause the stock to drop a bit, as quite often happens with growth-focused companies who care more about building their business than they do about profitability in any given quarter… so, fingers crossed for a meaningful drop in the share price that provides a better buying opportunity to begin to fill out a more meaningful position. They are on a trajectory that could easily lead to profitability within a year or so, though I suspect they’ll probably eschew profitability and continue to push all the levers to “growth.”

And it sounds like Blackbird Energy (BBI.V, BKBEF OTC in the US) is being teased again by Marin Katusa. I took a small position in Blackbird warrants last year after reading up on them for a previous Katusa pitch, and that position is down a little bit for me but it’s one I’m willing to let ride for a while — the warrants have about four years to run now, they expire in May of 2021 and have a strike price of 30 cents (Canadian), so they are in the money, which reduces both the leverage and the risk a little bit (BBI closed at 53 cents, so the warrant should be worth at least 23 cents because it could be exercised to generate that return today… it closed at 30 cents, so warrant holders need the stock to get to about 60-70 cents before the warrant becomes a better buy than the common stock at current prices).

Blackbird has not exactly been soaring of late, they did another substantial capital raise to continue to pay for drilling and to expand their land holdings in the Montney Basin, but it’s early days yet — my hope is that Blackbird is able to get cash flowing in a meaningful way with their first few condensate-heavy wells over the next six months or so, and reduce the need for further capital raises, letting them reinvest in more drilling that expands cash flow and helps them build a larger company. It’s still risky, and I have nowhere near the level of confidence that Marin Katusa does (he has visited the sites and participated in the private placements, and is a 10%-ish shareholder in the company), but I like the potential — and having Marin Katusa and Frank Curzio telling everyone they know to buy shares, and a pretty promotional conference-hopping CEO, helps to offer some support to the shares when you’re dealing with pre-profitability junior resource companies.

This is what Katusa says in his latest email tease — the only reason I’m confident that this teaser pitch is about Blackbird is because he goes into some detail about the value of the condensates they produce, and repeats information from his past (more detailed) teaser pitch for Blackbird:

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“I’m So Confident This Stock Will SOAR by at Least 50% in the Next Year, I’ll Pay You $3,500 If I’m Wrong

“I normally tell people to be conservative with their position sizes.

“In this case, I’m worried you won’t buy ENOUGH.”

Them’s dangerous words, to be sure, so I’ll stick on the “tell people to be conservative” side. And I won’t pay you anything if I’m wrong. What else does Katusa say about Blackbird this time out? Here’s a little bit:

“… you can buy this company today for less than the value of its oil in the ground….

“The company only surveyed a small slice of its land and found that much oil. And it’s still worth more than the firm’s current market cap. Anything else the company finds in the remaining part of its vast land package is just a bonus. But I’ll bet it finds a lot more oil.”

That’s true, the current market cap is less than the net present value that the company has calculated for their initial resources, which are deep (and liquids rich) gas in the Montney Shale… but that’s pretty much the case for all energy and natural resources companies, the net present value of what they might produce certainly OUGHT to be worth more than the company’s current valuation, since oil and gas resources that are deep underground and not yet drilled are worth a heck of a lot less than oil and gas sitting in a tank above ground and ready to sell.

Katusa says he believes the Montney could contain 10 billion barrels of oil equivalent (mostly natural gas) and valuable liquid condensates, which would make it larger than the recoverable reserves the Eagle Ford and the Permian. I don’t know if that’s going to be true or not, but it’s possible — Blackbird is a bet both on natural gas prices and, perhaps more importantly, on oil prices. Even though they don’t produce oil, the condensates and natural gas liquids they produce are in high demand from oil sands producers (they add condensate to heavy oil to help it flow through pipelines) and are otherwise often priced more like oil than like gas. So if oil or gas surge higher in price, Blackbird ought to do well… if they fall considerably, Blackbird will not do so well.

They are showing substantial increases in reserves[4], which is what you would expect for a company that’s still early in the drilling process — they boosted their proved reserves by 913%, including booking reserves on almost 8% of their net acreage in the Pipestone/Elmworth area of the Montney, and the number that Katusa is presumably referring to when he says the reserves are worth more than the company’s market cap is in this new reserves calculation — I assume he’s using the 2P (proven and probable reserves) number, which Blackbird says is valued at C$455 million on a NPV10% basis (that is, the value of the reserves, using forecasted prices, based on a 10% discount rate).

That’s not something you can put in the bank or feed to the widows and orphans, of course, but it’s a reasonable forecast of what the fields should produce and, if they’re right about what will happen with gas and condensate prices, how much that production will be worth in the future. I think there’s a reasonable chance that Blackbird gets rerated higher over the course of this year, as they get further along in drilling their first dozen wells, tying them in to the pipeline network, and generating some real cash flow… and perhaps, along the way, also upgrading their reserves as they get more data about production (if you add in their estimate of “Risked Best Estimate Contingent Resources at NPV10%, that’s another C$437 million… so if that all emerges as real and is accepted as such by investors, Blackbird would have to rise 200% for the market cap to match the value of those reserves and estimated contingent resources (assuming, of course, that they don’t sell more shares — which they might well do).

So I agree that Blackbird has some good speculative potential here (of course — that’s why I own some warrants), but I am still cautious of a company that is quite promotional, is still priced at a stiff premium to their actual production and cash flow, and is dependent on oil and gas prices… so I think keeping this a small position is still the prudent course. I don’t have any other oil and gas exposure in my portfolio right now, so I’m fine with this being leveraged exposure, particularly given my penchant for picking up long-term warrants that tend, I think, to be underpriced. Frank Curzio had Blackbird CEO Garth Braun on his podcast back in February[5], which is worth a listen if you’re interested (though don’t get yourself too revved up, Braun is a great salesman and might have you champing at the bit to buy — that’s a CEO’s job, your job is to be the skeptic and think it through for yourself) — don’t triangulate this info too much and get over-excited because two newsletter guys both like the same junior gas stock, I think Curzio learned about it from Katusa and the two are friends and often collaborate on private placements.

And as long as we’re talking about speculative little stocks that are also constantly in the crosshairs of Marin Katusa, we should note that Northern Dynasty Minerals (NAK, NDM.TO) took a huge leap this week.

Why is that? Well, mostly it was a relief rally because something good happened — it’s not the real good stuff that Northern Dynasty shareholders are hoping for, that will be when Northern Dynasty is cleared to begin the environmental permitting process (either because the EPA, under new management, stops blocking them, or because Northern Dynasty wins in court). This week, what happened was that Northern Dynasty received a preliminary land use permit for the exploratory and prep work they’re doing in order to try to get the environmental permitting restarted. So, essentially, the State of Alaska told them they can keep moving forward, but not very far — they still need to get the green light to start the permitting process and have their application reviewed by regulators, and that has not happened yet. And, of course, even after they start the permitting process there’s every chance that they won’t get a permit, or that they won’t get a permit to build as large a mine as they would like — that’s a worry for another day, years down the road, for now any step forward is celebrated and any possible sign that their steps forward will be halted will hurt the shares.

As I’ve noted before, I took most of my profit off the table on these shares earlier this year, before and after the short attack brought down the stock, but I do still own a position in the warrants. That position popped up on the positive move in the stock, of course, but I’m intending to hold this smaller warrant position until there’s something more substantial in the way of news — I still think there’s potential for a huge move if permitting moves forward and/or Northern Dynasty gets a development partner to pony up the mega millions to move through permitting, so even though I think the odds of the mine being built are less than 50/50, the reward if it moves forward is likely to be more than enough to justify risking a huge loss if the permitting doesn’t begin, or they don’t get a funding partner within the next year or so, and I’ll leave open the possibility of waiting for some time on this one because of the fact that the warrants, like those Blackbird Energy warrants, don’t expire until 2021. This is what I said in response to a reader question earlier this week:

“I still have a small position in NDM warrants (NDM is the Canadian ticker for Northern Dynasty), and I agree that there’s a chance the EPA will either drop their block on the permitting or lose in court. If Northern Dynasty does indeed get cleared to proceed with the permitting process, which would take several years, it’s quite possible that they could get a big miner to partner with them at that point, which could, depending on the deal, be positive for Northern Dynasty’s stock price. The real catalysts I see as possible this year are a return to the “normal” permitting process, and a possible partnership deal that could be a billion-plus dollar commitment, and I do think there’s a possibility for the stock to pop up by a couple hundred percent if they get good news on those fronts.

“The risk, of course, will come in what you consider the odds to be. This is not really a ‘fundamental’ investment — we don’t know what the production of the mine might be because we don’t know what the permitting process, if it begins, will allow for in terms of mine size and location, and we’ll need to get updated numbers about what kind of capital investment would be required to build the mine. You can’t say, with a straight face, that the company is definitely worth $500 million or $5 billion, there are too many unanswered questions.

“So what you’re doing here, really, is either closing your eyes and holding for a while with the hopes that the massive size of the deposit will lead to some kind of good outcome and a large and profitable mine in ten years… or you’re betting that the market will get more excited about the potential when good news comes, and you’ll sell then. I’m in the latter camp, I have already taken a lot of profit off the table after the huge post-Trump rally in NDM/NAK shares, but I’ve left a part of my speculation on the table because I think there’s a decent chance, though probably less than a 50% chance, that the stock could rise dramatically on positive news over the next six months, and that there is a pathway to this becoming a dramatically larger company if gold and copper are rising, they move out of the courts and through to permitting, and they get a strong partner in to help them push through the permitting process. Depending on the day and how much coffee I’ve had, I’d probably assign that a probability somewhere in the 10-30% range over the next year and a half, so for me that’s worth a small speculation on the warrants — a 10% chance of a 500% or 1,000% gain in a short period of time might be appealing for a speculation, as long as the 90% chance of a 100% loss reminds you to keep your position sizing under control.”

My largest recent acquisition, the converted mutual insurance company NI Insurance (NODK), which controls Battle Creek Insurance in Nebraska and Nodak P&C and crop insurance operations in North Dakota, among other subsidiaries, filed its first 10K[6] this week, after a short delay — and, as expected, there were no real surprises. 2016 was not a great year for NODK in terms of their profitability, the insured losses were fairly high, and the combined ratio was over 100 (103.5), which means that their profits, which were fairly small, came entirely from realized and unrealized gains on investments.

But that’s an aberration year, I think — their target, on which incentive bonuses are based for management, is a 95% combined ratio and 8.5% return on equity, both of which they are far from hitting for 2016… but both of which are within shooting distance of past years and feasible targets in the future. Importantly, all of the named officers received much smaller incentive compensation in 2016 than they did in 2015, and none received a bonus in 2016 — so I don’t know whether or not their compensation levels are necessarily fair or appropriate, but the incentives are in place for them to improve the profitability and be much more highly compensated if they’re successful, which is important. Incentives don’t make a company better by itself, particularly an insurance company that faces competitive markets and weather risk, but they have a huge impact over time.

So I’m going to continue to hold on to my NODK shares, and since the management team is incentivized to improve return on equity I expect that they’ll be acting fairly quickly to deploy the large surplus capital position they now enjoy after the IPO and conversion — huge cash piles are a big drag on ROE (since the “E” is thus artificially high), so there’s some risk because they could pay too much for the growth they seek, or make dumb acquisitions, but right now the valuation is still reasonable and I expect to see both some action on the acquisition front and the initiation of a (probably small) dividend over the course of the next year or so. They did not issue a press release about the annual report release, or hold a conference call, so it’s hard to have any detailed sense of their short-term plans, and they have not, so far, issued any forecasts. My intention is to hold this for a few years unless it gets drastically overvalued or I don’t like the direction they go with their growth plans, we’ll see how it goes — so far the insiders and initial conversion buyers who bought at $10 haven’t taken profits and put pressure on this thinly-traded stock, though that’s possible as well and might present the next buying opportunity.

Is Apple (AAPL) going to buy Disney (DIS)? That was the scuttlebutt around the market this week, though it’s not exactly “new” news, folks have been guessing at that for ages and Apple has reportedly toyed with buying big media companies before (most recently, they considered bidding for Time Warner). Still, the analyst update that inspired the rumoring was really just that there’s “more than a 0% chance” of it happening.

That “it’s not impossible” notion is not exactly something that should be taken seriously, but who knows — buying Disney at almost any price would be hugely accretive to Apple, but so would essentially any large investment, because Apple doesn’t earn much on their cash or get much credit from investors for its huge cash hoard… any acquisition of a profitable operation (as Disney assuredly is) would be accretive to revenue and earnings (though it could also easily depress profit margins, since most companies have lower margins than Apple). I’d cheer if this comes to pass, but for now will just keep holding these two dominant consumer brands — I mentioned my concerns about Apple last week, and Disney obviously has its own worry points (primarily ESPN, which still generates close to half of earnings and is suffering from acceleration in the “cord cutting” trend), but neither has worries that are big enough, in the end, to justify selling these dominant and profitable companies. I still have both of them down with “hold” ratings in my mental notes right now.

That accretive possibility of an Apple acquisition brings to mind the acquisition of NXP Semiconductor (NXPI), which, as I’ve noted, should be hugely accretive to Qualcomm (QCOM) earnings when it goes through… as is seeming more and more likely as time passes (also, in part, because of cash — using underappreciated surplus overseas cash to buy a profitable company generates a lot more money than earning 1% returns on that cash).

On that front, I should acknowledge that my decision to sell NXPI at around $100 and move some of that investment into Qualcomm, the eventual (probably) acquirer has turned out to be an error — I could have simply tendered my shares at $110 if I had waited a bit, or waited until the acquisition closed (probably late this year), and that would have worked out better than investing in Qualcomm.

The reason that’s an error, of course, is not the acquisition itself — it’s Qualcomm’s drop over the past few months (mostly) because of their legal fight with Apple (which, in turn is again creating some controversy over Qualcomm’s licensing might and their alleged abuse of that power, and giving some investors the fear that the NXPI acquisition will not get government approvals).

I don’t want to over-commit to an investment that includes a substantial litigation risk, and Qualcomm took yet another hit this week because they lost a different lawsuit and had to pay Blackberry a bit over $800 million as compensation for royalty overpayments, but at these prices Qualcomm is very tempting — it just dipped low enough so that it’s now paying a 4% dividend yield, it can easily cover that dividend, and it trades at a substantial discount to the market despite the big boost in earnings they should see from the NXPI acquisition next year (and despite the general attractiveness of the business, both their wireless royalties and their chip revenue, including the Snapdragon mobile processor business as well as the leading position NXPI has in automotive chips).

So yes, the litigation risk and the risk of damage to their relationship with Apple, a major customer, is real… but Apple is also a major customer of their most bloodthirsty and oft-sued rival, Samsung, so I don’t think we should overreact to the “story” of this. I finally tipped over the edge and bought a few more QCOM shares this week, in recognition of the pretty severely undervalued price they’re trading at now IF the litigation doesn’t turn out to be overwhelmingly damaging. It’s a small increase to my position, and QCOM remains a small position overall in my portfolio (it’s just over a 1% position now, my Real Money Portfolio was updated this week here[7]), but I think there’s a good chance that QCOM is getting beaten down too much because of the headline lawsuit risk… and with the US regulators giving antitrust approval to the NXPI acquisition last week, that’s at least one good indication that their very accretive business combination will keep moving forward (the risk, of course, is that European or Chinese regulators might be less amenable to the deal… but an approval from the US is a good start).

The market has taken at least $20 billion in value out of QCOM shares recently — and that is primarily, I think, because of the Apple lawsuit… whatever happens in this legal battle, I think the chance of it actually decreasing the value of Qualcomm’s business by $20 billion in the end is very unlikely… and I get paid 4% to wait it out, so that seems like a reasonable risk/reward scenario to me. There is real danger to the value of Qualcomm’s assets, particularly their patents, but they’re also continuing to move forward and develop technologies for the Internet of Things and the next generation of wireless networks and they will be an even more hugely powerful company when NXPI is under their umbrella… assuming, of course, that the deal goes through.

This is not a comfortable position, and Qualcomm is not a popular stock — which probably means it’s a good buy. It’s down more than any other big chip stock this year, and there is still substantial uncertainty, so I’ll try to be clear and reiterate that this was a very small incremental buy, and it’s a small position, partly because Qualcomm is reporting next week and the story could change quite quickly depending on what they say about the Apple relationship and about their outlook for the year. Apple and its suppliers are withholding some portion of their royalty payments[8] to Qualcomm while they’re in litigation, which could be meaningful depending on what “some” means. And, of course, I have a much larger position in Apple — so to some extent I’ll be protected a bit if Apple does extremely well at Qualcomm’s expense… I just think the likeliest outcome is much less negative for QCOM than investors fear right now. We’ll know a bit more after they report next Wednesday. But in my experience, stocks that are this painful to watch because of headline risk and high-profile disputes are better buys than they are sells — if you congratulate yourself for buying, the headlines support your decision, and your friends are envious, you probably paid too much.

And now for some updates to the watchlist:

I have two new stocks to add to the watchlist, and one stock that will be added to my portfolio when the week begins on Monday. I’ve also added the watchlist to the bottom of my Real Money Portfolio [9]page, so you can always see which stocks are there, when they were added to the list, and a brief note about them. As my thoughts change about these I’ll change those notes, and if I either buy one of those stocks or remove it from the watchlist I’ll note that as well.

I will be buying an initial position in Skyworks Solutions (SWKS) sometime on Monday (assuming something ludicrous doesn’t happen over the Easter weekend, like an accounting scandal that crushes the shares or a buyout offer that drives a 30% price pop on Monday morning).

This will be roughly a 0.5% portfolio allocation for me as I begin to build a position in the shares of this semiconductor company. I noted above that I have increased my Qualcomm position, but I intend to build up my semiconductor holdings a bit more to capitalize on the increasing volume of wireless-connected devices in the world… and while Qualcomm is a good play on that, given the “hair” that you have to swallow along with a Qualcomm investment today I’m also diversifying a bit away from that with a position in Skyworks, which I took a look at for the first time in a long time after Frank Curzio pitched it earlier this week.

Skyworks is very much an iPhone play, though it also is trying hard to build a strong position in the Internet of Things in general, and should have some success given their continued development of both amplifiers and power management equipment and multi-network wireless chips, all of which should be in demand. The question in the near term is whether they can build big revenue volume on the back of the iPhone again, leading up to the expected success of the iPhone 8 this fall, and that will likely drive the stock more than anything else — but I like management’s focus, they are profitable enough here to justify an investment (though not dirt cheap, the trailing PE is about 20 and the 2017 PE is 16), they are expected to have steady margins that show no sign of undue pricing pressure from Apple and Samsung (a major fear for any mobile phone chipmakers), and they are small enough to be nimble and grow quickly, or, alternatively, to be acquired by any number of major chip companies if they’re interested (the market cap is about $17 billion). I think the valuation is more than fair given the earnings growth, but this one is a volatile and too-iPhone-dependent stock, so there is certainly risk. I’ll be watching it more closely once I have a small position.

Orocobre (ORL.TO, ORE.AX, OROCF), which I mentioned briefly in a piece about a different teased lithium stock earlier in the week, has taken a huge fall — which is what brought it to my attention again. The company’s operational performance has been OK, they are closing in on getting production capacity up to their expected levels, but it seems that the shares dropped primarily because of fears that Orocobre’s announced expansion plans will require a lot of capital.

That’s true, but it appears, if the management is telling the truth, that their next expansion will be funded with debt from Japan and their Japanese partner, which should be supportable given the profitable production levels they are already hitting (they’re already paying back debt now — unlike a lot of corporate debt, they’re actually amortizing their construction debt and paying back principal). Orocobre is still not cheap, but it has good growth and a lot of exposure to rising lithium prices, assuming prices continue to rise as battery demand increases, and they are strategically both doubling their production and participating in building a processing plant for higher value-added products in Japan with their partner.

I don’t want to rush into this one, but it has, for a while, been the only smaller lithium stock that gives me a little confidence because they’re actually producing, and building even the relatively simple evaporation pond complexes that supply much of the world’s lithium (from the Andes, mostly in Chile and Argentina) is more time consuming, difficult, and expensive than most juniors would have you believe.

And that, my friends, is all I have for you today as we ease into the Easter weekend. I will be out of the office for most of next week, so there will likely be one or two new articles but we will not have a Friday File next week unless there’s something urgent that has to be done to my portfolio while I’m lounging on the beach with the little Gumshoes. Have a wonderful weekend, a fantastic Easter, Passover or conclusion of Holy Week if any of that is part of your life, and I’ll be back to blather at you some more before you know it.

  1. you can see here:
  2. Real Money Portfolio:
  3. my longer piece about that here from a couple weeks ago:
  4. substantial increases in reserves:
  5. Blackbird CEO Garth Braun on his podcast back in February:
  6. first 10K:
  7. Real Money Portfolio was updated this week here:
  8. Apple and its suppliers are withholding some portion of their royalty payments:
  9. Real Money Portfolio :

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