Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Bitcoin - The View From Lagos

In my research and investing I stress three things: people, structure, and value.  I look for companies that are controlled and managed by quality people, have corporate structures that align minority and majority shareholder interests and trade at valuations that are below fair value if not outright cheap.

This note is actually not about any of that and instead just a quick one about bitcoin and how my initial skepticism may have been wrong.  I usually dont write macro” or ‘thought piecesbut I heard some interesting news about bitcoin and how its gaining traction in Nigeria.  I use "bitcoin" in the generic sense in this article, much like Nigerians use 'coke' to refer to all soft-drinks, as in 'what kind of coke do you have?'.

I never took bitcoin seriously but Im now rethinking it.  My rethinking is due to a by-the-way comment  on a recent trip to Lagos.  It came from Ugodre Obi-Chukwu, a partner at Nairametrics, a Nigerian data provider and consultancy.  He mentioned that Nigerians are increasingly buying bitcoins.  Not for speculation or transactions, but as a way to store wealth (Nairametrics' website can be found here).

This was news to me.  I never considered something paying no interest, and with no government support, control or oversight to be safe. However, if the possibility exists that government policies and actions may destroy wealth, then perhaps its safer to store hard-earned money outside the system.  Many people in mismanaged developing economies may be feeling this way.  People are mostly rational.  Physical gold in the old days and now; bitcoin now and in the future?

Apparently, Nigerians, and Venezuelans, are turning to bitcoin for this and other reasons (for related article see here).

A similar characteristic of both countries is the big difference between the official and ‘parallel’ rate exchange rate. In Nigeria, the parallel rate vis-a-vis the USD is some 30% higher than the official rate.  In Venezuela its even worse.  The official rate is USD1 = VEF10, but Google-sourced news sites put it closer to VEF1,500 to 1,700 (or even VEF3,000+!).

I did some quick research on bitcoin and cryptocurrencies and found that they have a lot of positive qualities that make them particularly attractive to savers and others in the developing world.

Store of Value: Volatility.  A key argument for not storing wealth in bitcoin form is that bitcoin prices are volatile.  But so are many currencies in developing countries.  Most of bitcoin's volatility has been positive, with its price rising more than falling.  This is the opposite of many countriescurrencies vis-à-vis the defacto USD standard.  Egyptians who held bitcoin likely did very well versus their countrymen who stuck with the Egyptian pound (which is down by 51% in the last five months).

Store of Value: Gold. Gold is one of the few stores of value that is mostly outside government control.  Its not entirely so however.  In 1934 under the Gold Reserve Act, Americans were forced to sell it to the US Government.  However gold is not a ‘fiat’ currency that can be printed at the will of government.  Like gold, bitcoin does not pay a return. However its much easier to buy, sell and store than physical gold.

Less Fees. Banks are charging a lot of money for their services.  Despite incredibly large net interest margins (10+%), Nigerian banks charge a central bank mandated 0.1% fee on current accounts called Commission of Turnoverand a Naira50 fee for all non-current account transactions.  These are good for bankers, but not for savers.  Bitcoin does not charge these fees.

Easier, Faster and Cheaper. Changing money in Nigeria requires going to the bank and filling out forms, supposedly a lot of them.   It takes 3-5 days to transfer the funds through the bank versus seconds or minutes using bitcoin.  It also involves paying stamp duties, and telex charges. And it’s expensive.

Transferring money can cost up to USD100 in Nigeria.  Bitcoin charges 0-2% of the transaction from what Ive read.  (Even in Asia its not cheap to transfer funds.  Transferring money via large banks located in Hong Kong and Singapore costs about USD35.  If done monthly this adds up to USD420 per annum. If weekly, close to US$2k.  I thought large, too-big-to-fail banks were supposed to have lower fees, not gouge their customers.  It's like a regressive moral hazard tax).

Freer. Nigerians are capped at transferring a maximum of US$10,000 per day.   Bitcoin does not have this restriction.  (Even  my big, supposedly very well-capitalized bank in Hong Kong has transfer caps and restrictions). 

Transferable. Bitcoins are increasingly being accepted as payment for other items.  According to a very well-written article on bitcoin published on Nairametrics, bitcoins can be used as a means of payment for many hotel and travel expenses, one of the key uses for USD presently by Nigerians.

More trustworthy?  Bankers dont have a good reputation.  Nigeria had a banking crisis in 2008.  Lehman went bust and HSBC is under heavy scrutiny from US regulators. Look at the long-term share prices of Greek banks.  Cypriot banks took a large haircut from their savers.  Is bitcoin a reasonable option?

Once burned twice shy. 

Developing countries have a good habit of starting with the latest technology rather than upgrading. Leapfrogging is the term most people use.  With such a young demographic, I wonder if today's Nigerian teenagers will ever know what foreign exchange forms look like, just like they may never use a 'land-line'.

Better, faster, cheaper is a a powerful hat trick.  It has worked well with new in the past and there's no reason to think it won't in the future.  Wither the banks?
(Many ideas for this article were taken from Manasseh Egedegbe's post on Nairametrics where he explains both the rationale and practicalities of using bitcoin in Nigeria.  His article is here)

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Contrarian Signals (Or Why Romania May Be the World’s Best Performing Market This Year)

In my research and investing I stress three things: people, structure and value.  I look for companies that are controlled and managed by quality people, have corporate structures that align minority and majority shareholder interests and trade at valuations that are below fair value if not outright cheap.  This post is mostly about valuation and how bankers and financial experts take away the punch bowl just when an investment becomes attractive.  

I've written before how doing the opposite of what large financial institutions are doing and recommending can lead to higher returns (see here). This post is in the same vein
The reason I think Romania has a good chance of being one of, if not the best, performing stock markets this year is that the broker I use to access Eastern European stocks informed me that it will stop service there.  Earlier this year I had to transfer or sell all my Romanian shares.  To me, my broker’s closing operations is a large buy signal. 
The broker is ultimately owned by a large Belgian bank.  It’s likely that back in their corporate headquarters the stuffy-suited managers decided that all group companies would stop offering their clients access to Romanian equities.
This could likely be a very logical decision as it sounds like they have few clients trading Romania equities. My Prague-based account manager noted that I was one of four.
However, it is also short-sighted as there are many positives.  Romania has one of Europe’s fastest growing economies at 4.6% last year.  The country appears to be serious about political reform.   Its stock market is also one of the world’s better performing ones, having increased by close to 16% year-to-date. Despite the increase, many of its large cap stocks pay good dividends with yields north of 6%. 
While logical, it still stinks.  It took a long time to find a broker who provided access to most Eastern European markets and took US citizens as clients.  Part of the onboarding process was flying to the Czech Republic to sign account opening forms in person. (It was actually not much of a burden - Prague in June is actually quite nice.  But I’m still angry about it).
The situation reminds me of other instances where bank and financial product withdrawals and shutdowns turned into good contrarian signals. History doesn’t repeat, but it can rhyme, to paraphrase a famous quote. 
Consider the following:
  • Brazil – the EGShares Brazil Infrastructure ETF (BRXX) was closed and delisted at the end of October 2015.  At the time headline news in Brazil was pretty abysmal.  However Brazilian equities were starting to flash buy signals based on my screens.  Stocks in the BRXX were the least expensive among the handful of Brazilian ETFs.  Since its delisting, its top ten holdings have increased by an average of 64% in USD.  Many had good dividend yields which would have likely pushed total returns closer to 70%.  Not as good as the Bovespa’s 84% during the same time period, but not too shabby. (ETFs are like mutual funds that track a specific index or strategy and can be bought and sold like stocks.  More information is can be found here).
  • Greece - in 2012 HSBC sold its Greek securities business.  This was at the same time that I wanted to buy Greek shares, as they were trading at valuations similar to Korean stocks at the depths of the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis.  The bank that I’ve had an account with for almost 30 years took away a service just when I wanted to use it.  Over the next two years the headline Athex index rose by close to 200%.
  • Russia – in mid-December 2014 when the Ruble was floated and Russian securities and its currency plummeted, my European broker decided to suspend dealing in Moscow listed shares.  I was locked-out just when I wanted to buy.  Many share prices of quality companies I earmarked to buy are since up 2-3 times in USD.
  • South-East Asia – around 2001 HSBC closed and/or vastly curtailed its research operations in South-East Asia.  It was during this time that many of those markets started a multi-year bull run.  Since then, Indonesia’s and Thailand’s headline indexes are up by over 12x and 5x respectively in USD.
To be honest I really don’t know if Romania will do well this year.  Nobody does.  As I wrote in a previous post, the country’s stocks seem to be perennially cheap (see here).  Like all articles on investments, consider this article as an idea and interesting information, rather than advice. 
In addition to Romania, other Eastern European stock markets look attractive with several among the world’s best performing so far this year.  Czech stocks are some of the world’s least expensive. Polish stocks seem to be rebounding from political uncertainty since Poland’s late 2015 change in government.  And there’s even life in Ukrainian stocks as that country’s economy starts to stabilize.  Its GDP grew by 2.3% in 2016, rebounding from a 15% decline in the previous two-years. 
Index% Change Year-To-Date
Czech RepublicPX8.7

Bankers and their management are not known as visionaries.  They are known to stop lending and pull products when the market or economy is faltering and their clients need them the most.  This has happened before and it will happen again.  To me these are good, qualitative contrarian signals that are not easily programmable by the quants and algos.  Let’s call it ‘qualitative alpha’ or, my favorite, ‘Research Alpha’ (see here).

It doesn't look like I'll be part of the Romanian party unfortunately, but I hope there are some readers who can make some decent money on this.  Buy me a bottle of wine if you do. One from Transylvania will do nicely.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Taiwan Trip Report – Don’t Forget the Boring Stuff (Re-Post)

I've always wondered why everybody likes to invest in tech shares.  They can be multibaggers, but returns from non-tech shares are many times just as good, if not better.  Most importantly investors in older, staid companies usually don't have to worry about product obsolescence as much - or as quickly - as in tech companies (think Blackberry and HTC). 

An example is Taiwan.  It has some of the most cutting edge and best tech companies in the world. Almost everybody I know in Taiwan is somehow involved in it.  However returns from non-tech shares have many times been higher as I show in the re-posted article below. 

The article below was originally published on Quamnet.com in February 2015, but it has since been removed from their site.  It's one of my better observations and one that I don't want to lose sight of. I've written in the past that profitable investments are typically found where others are not looking and this is in the same vein (see here). 

The reminder that I wrote this came from a recent Quartz article that points out that since they both went public in the summer of 2004, non-tech Domino's Pizza has returned 2,400% which is a bunch more than tech high-flyer Google's 1,555% (see here). 

Finally, here's the article:   

I was in Taipei the week before the Chinese New Year. I’m a big fan of Taiwan. Nice people, clean cities, good infrastructure, and I can practice my bad Mandarin on unsuspecting taxi drivers.

I can also talk about Taiwanese stocks with locals who closely follow the market.  Most of this centered on which Taiwanese companies will do well by supplying to Apple. Several felt that TSMC will take core chip supply contracts from Samsung. Others speculated on how much of Apple’s new products will be manufactured by Hon Hai/Foxconn.  Not many were talking about UMC on the latest trip, but around 10 years ago it seemed like it was all about the two fabs (i.e. the two large semiconductor manufacturers in Taiwan- United Microelectronics and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing).

Nobody mentioned some of my favorite Taiwanese companies – Hotai Motor, Giant Manufacturing and Taiwan FamilyMart.  I’ve been a fan of them since my 2005 research trip to Taiwan when equities there were not so expensive.  At that time, very few people were looking at these companies and I could easily arrange management visits and factory tours.

All of them operate fairly straight forward businesses.  Giant manufactures and sells some of the world’s best value bicycles, Hotai distributes Toyota and other vehicles, and Taiwan FamilyMart owns and runs convenience stores throughout the island.

They all had pretty similar characteristics when I looked at them in 2005.  Good dividend yield, a net cash or low debt balance sheet, a simple shareholding structure with organic rather than acquisition-led growth.  They fit into my people, structure and value model that I’ve been developing over the last several years (although looking back they were a bit more expensive than what I typically like).

None of them are tech companies. None of them were followed by more than a handful of analysts.  None of their CEOs or owners were in the press.  None of them had secondary or overseas listings.

However returns of all three of these low-tech boring companies have outperformed the highflying tech and electronics firms that were so popular back then. Hotai’s 10-year total CAGR was 32.1%, Giant’s was 26.1% and Taiwan FamilyMart’s was 19.5%. The average CAGR of the three was 25.9% which means that an investor would have doubled their money every 2.8 years by holding an equal weight in these stocks and collecting dividends.

Holding three of the more popular and biggest companies in Taiwan 10 years ago would not have led to as good returns.  Holding a basket of TSMC, UMC, and Hon Hai and collecting dividends would have left one with an average CAGR of 8.6%.  This means that an investor could have made 17.3% more every single year on average by holding the boring stocks rather than the exciting, cutting-edge ones.

In addition to their low-profile management the three companies share another classic characteristic.  All three directly sell to end consumers.  This is in contrast to many high-tech firms that sell their products to other manufacturers or branded product companies.  Apple’s customer ownership and very high margins means that their suppliers operate on thin margins.

Taiwan equities today are not as inexpensive as they were in the mid-2000s.  While Taiwan is not as expensive as other countries in Asia such as Indonesia and the Philippines, there are few companies in these later two that are trading at valuations I consider attractive. 

It’s fun to read about and imagine the wondrous things that high-flying, cutting-edge technology companies can do for us.  But – as for profitable investing in Taiwan and elsewhere – it pays to look where others don’t.  

Click to Enlarge

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Investment Confessional - Getting It Wrong In Ukraine

In my research and investing I stress three things: people, structure and value.  I look for companies that are controlled and managed by quality people, have corporate structures that align minority and majority shareholder interests and trade at valuations that are below fair value if not outright cheap.  This post touches on all three and is about one of my worst investments– at least so far

"We learn nothing from our winners", was how popular market commentator and interviewer extraordinaire Barry Ritholtz put it on a recent Masters in Business podcast (see here). I’ve read similar things in other investment books and articles.  It basically boils down to the fact that nobody's perfect and that it's best to learn from your mistakes.  Traders I know call it tuition.  We need to pay money (lose) in order to learn a skill.

Warren Buffet’s partner Charlie Munger, put it another way: “It's a good habit to trumpet your failures and be quiet about your successes".  This blog post is me tooting my own broken, bandaged, tail-in-between-my-legs, trombone. 

I wrote about Ukraine in two posts. They were based on my February 2014 trip to Kiev (see here and here).  I came away from my trip thinking that the uncertainty caused by the Ukraine/EuroMaidan Revolution marked an economic and stock market bottom.  This was not the case and both have fallen even further.

In mixed company and presentations I mostly blame the currency.  And numerically that accounts for most of my loss.  The Hryvnia declined by 67% vis-à-vis the USD since my initial investments in March 2014.  In contrast my portfolio of Ukrainian stocks is down about 50%.  The 17 percentage points of ‘alpha’ (or excess returns) is little solace when I’m down by half  at a time when other markets have risen.

However the currency decrease hides the fact that I made some real investment blunders.  The biggest mistake was not sticking to my investment process.  If I had, I would be wealthier and have slept much better.

Here is how I screwed up:

Inexpensive without quality is just plain cheap
I could see from my Hong Kong base that Ukrainian stocks were cheap on almost all traditional valuation metrics.  The key reason for the trip – indeed all trips - was to determine if the cheap stocks were of any value. 

It’s like buying clothes on the Internet. They may look like a bargain online, but if the size is wrong, the material cheap, and the stitching poor, it’s just plain cheap.  Cheap is the inexpensive shirt that hangs unused in your closet.  Value is the inexpensive shirt that makes you look good and feel confident. 

Moving from the cheap to value category is where my people and structure factors come into play.  Instead of sticking only to companies run by good people and have simple corporate structures, I invested in companies that were very inexpensive on many valuation measures, but were owned/controlled by people who are not likely to be good to minority shareholders.

One example is the country’s largest oil and gas company, Ukranafta.  It was jointly held by the government and the Privat group.  The Privat group is headed by Igor Kolomoyskyi, one of Ukraine’s richest men and an archetypical "oligarch", meaning he has both economic and political power.  He has a less-than-stellar-reputation according to Kiev locals who described him in much more colorful terms.  Despite this I thought that it being Ukraine’s largest energy company and its cheap valuation made it a good investment.  Its shares were at 3x EV/EBITDA when I bought it in early March 2014 (EV/EBITDA  is one of many financial ratios used in an attempt to value a company.  Generally a low ratio is preferable to a high ratio.  More information can be found here). 

Since then, the Privat group is believed to have stifled company reforms, blocked dividend payments, and transferred profits out of the listed company and into other group companies.  In March 2015 Kolomoyskyi used his privately-funded armed guards to defend against a "raider attack", after Ukraine’s parliament passed a law that took away Privat’s veto power at the company (see here).

The share price reflects a lot of these problems and is down some 80% in USD terms since I bought a stake.  Another way to look at this is that the same stock now has to increase five times for me to just break even. 

Sunk cost
Sunk cost is cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered.  In investments it typically refers to irrationally sticking with a stock that’s already gone down despite better choices.  If we have committed to something, our brain has a fierce resistance to believe it made a mistake and we are inclined to go down with the ship.

I stayed invested in Ukraine despite Russia taking over Crimea and a bloody war in Eastern Ukraine.  As a reminder, almost 10,000 have been killed and over 20,000 injured in Eastern Ukraine, which likely makes it the largest number of people killed in a European armed conflict since World War II. 

The old Rothschild attributed-adage, "buy when there’s blood in the streets", did not work.  After spending time and money going there, I felt I needed to recoup my investment.  It would have been better to cut my losses, and just think of my trip and expense as tuition.

In fact I increased my investments after elections were held in the Spring of 2014 and the person I thought would do a good job, Petro Poroshenko, was elected. 

Reputation / Pride
I was warned about the folly of buying Ukrainian stocks before I went.  This only increased my desire to go as I was told the same thing before I went to Greece the previous year.  My investments did very well there, with several more than doubling. 

Thinking like a trader rather than as an investor, I forced myself to buy stocks in companies I normally would not have, as all the market signs pointed to Ukraine as being the ultimate contrarian play. 

I thought I would look like a fool if I missed the boat in Ukraine after telling people I went there.  Instead I look like a fool now.  A poorer fool.

Listened to others instead of myself
Virtually all the financial people I met there were way too optimistic, especially after the end of the Maidan protests when local brokers really pushed Ukraine stocks.  Nobody expected the currency to fall so much despite it being very weak.

Only one investor – a very smart man from Minsk – correctly hypothesized that Russia would not let Kiev get closer to Europe without some sort of response.  Even an educational trip to the national museum where I learned that Ukraine was part of Russia for a long time and that it is essentially a Soviet creation, did not dissuade me.  Nor did an ex-military friend who correctly pointed out that there is no significant natural barrier between Ukraine and Russia.   Locals in Kiev – even those whose first language was Russian – were convinced Ukraine is clearly a European country and would soon be in the EU if not NATO.

Ukraine’s cheap prices and investment success in Greece the previous year made me greedy.  I remember sitting in my Kiev hotel room salivating at the low valuations of Ukrainian stocks.  But even low valuations don’t mean much if the quality is not there.

I essentially made things work in my mind.  I justified poor quality by thinking that at these valuations things can only get better, and put my blind faith in what brokers told me, rather than insisting on meeting management and doing my own work.

Lack of patience
Ukraine’s cheap valuations made it hard not to invest, and I did not wait for the currency to depreciate further.  I did not wait for poorly managed companies to work out their problems.  I did not keep money on the table to invest at lower prices.  Greed made me impatient.

Sticking around when one’s not wanted
Ukrainian companies are not investor friendly.  Only one locally-listed company wanted to meet.  It wasn’t just me; almost no companies were interested in meeting with investors.  Even the "blue-chips" were not investor friendly.

One of my worst ever meetings was with Ukraine’s largest pharmaceutical company.  “I don’t have to answer you!” was how the head of business development sternly put it when I asked pretty standard investor questions.  Even after explaining that I was already a small shareholder and I wanted to better know the company because I was thinking of increasing my stake, he must have thought I was engaging in corporate espionage.  When he found out I was not interested in buying products, he abruptly ended the meeting and cancelled the plant visit.

I should have sold immediately and taken the 10% loss.  Instead I waited and the shares are now down over 50%.

Some companies in Ukraine are shareholder friendly, and these seem to all be listed someplace else, mostly on the Warsaw and London stock exchanges.  Many have dedicated investor relations professionals who are keen to explain their companies.

Learning from one’s mistakes
While I've taken it on the chin, my Ukraine experience actually reinforces my belief that my investment strategy and process work.

One of the few companies I found that fits my people, structure and value model turned out to be my best investment there.  Kernel is a Warsaw-listed, Kiev-based agricultural company that is open to meetings, has good investor relations, a simple corporate structure and a solid owner/management that’s been buying shares.  Its valuation was higher than most Ukraine-listed companies, but it was certainly not expensive. Since then it’s started to pay dividends and its share price is up close to 60% in USD.

Hope springs eternal
I still hold my shares in the same handful of Ukrainian companies. Things are starting to look better for Ukraine so I’ll stick to my guns for the time being. Consider the following:

      Widespread reforms. The European Commission calls Ukraine’s reforms unprecedented (see here).
      Cleaning up the banks. A recent Financial Times article noted that cleaning up Ukraine’s banking system has been one of the country’s most successful reforms since the 2014 revolution.  Its central bank, The National Bank of Ukraine, has closed 80 out of 180 banks.  It’s too early to say that cleaning up the banks will lead to a positive credit cycle but it’s certainly a large step in the right direction (see here).  Just before Christmas government nationalized PrivatBank, the country’s largest, due to large scale-related-party lending.  PrivatBank is owned by two oligarchs, one of whom is the same Kolomoyskyi who controlled the oil company where I lost so much.  The authorities estimate that about 97% the bank’s corporate loan book was to parties related to its owners (see here). 
      Clipping oligarch wings? Taking away two large assets from a powerful, well-connected (and many believed to be well-armed) oligarch is a bold move and a sign that government institutions could be growing stronger and, hopefully, fairer.
      Return to growth. GDP grew in 2016 and is expected to increase by 2.3% in 2017.  Not rapid growth, but certainly better than the 6% and 10% respective decreases in 2014 and 2015 (see here).
      Rising market. The UX, the country's main stock market index, is up over 40% in USD terms from its April 2016 low.  Stock market performance tends to precede economic performance.  One of the best performers during this time was Centranergo, the country’s largest listed utility.  Its share price more than doubled when it was announced that it will be privatized.
      Geopolitical stalemate?  The eastern Ukrainian conflict seems to be a stalemate.  It could flare up again and remains a key risk.  But it seems to have reached some sort of ugly, unresolved détente.
      Getting easier to do business.  Between 2014 and 2016 Ukraine climbed from the 152nd to the 80th position in the World Bank’s Doing Business Report. This was mostly under President Poroshenko’s leadership.  A businessman himself, he wants Ukraine to climb another 30 positions (see here).
      Increasing tourism. Flights to Lviv are up 30% since last year.  I’ve not been there, but from what I’ve read it seems like the Kyoto of Ukraine with a modern yet traditional vibe (see here).
      Improving companies? More importantly for equity investors, such as yours truly, Ukraine’s companies are showing some green shoots. 
     The pharmaceutical company that refused to answer my questions joined the Ukraine Corporate Social Responsibility Development Centre in early December 2016; and brokers say one of their lenders is putting pressure on management to honor minority shareholder rights (see here).
     The ex-oligarch-controlled oil company’s top management is all new since 2015, oil prices have increased, and Ukraine is determined to break its dependence on Russian energy.
      Political stability for now. But has anything changed?  With nobody going to jail for past misdeeds one wonders if anybody in Ukraine has the power, will and means to clean up the system.  The next election has to be held before November 2019 so there will hopefully be some stability and further progress before domestic politics starts heating up (interesting article here).  

If anything this experience has made me believe in my process more.  My biggest mistake of all was deviating from my investment rules. If I had stuck to my simple focus of investing only in companies owned and run by good people, that have a structure that aligns majority and minority shareholder interests and that have value, I would not have made the many mistakes described above. 

One reason I now repeat the same first paragraph in all blog posts is to remind myself to focus on three things that matter – people, structure, and value.

It’s been a tough lesson.  Hopefully I’ve learned from my mistakes. 

Monday, December 12, 2016

Trip Report: Cairo, Egypt, October / November 2016

In my research and investing I stress three things: people, structure and value.  I look for companies that are controlled and managed by quality people, have corporate structures that align minority and majority shareholder interests and trade at valuations that are below fair value if not outright cheap.  This post is about a recent trip to Cairo, Egypt and touches on people, structure and value – as well as lots more - in that country. 

The purpose of the trip was to generate a short list of quality companies I’d like to own stock in if/when the currency is revalued.  Egyptian equities appeared on my value screens back in March, but corporate responsibilities kept me tied to home.  

I was also concerned that Egypt’s currency was going to be devalued.  There was a large and growing gap between the official and black market rate.  Russian stocks popped higher soon after their currency was floated in early December 2014, and I wanted to get my ducks in line in case the same thing happened in Egypt. 

Readers are advised to note that it was my first time in Egypt as well as my first time in the Middle East.  Most of what’s not referenced below comes from on-the-ground meetings rather than from verified sources.  The people I met were mostly financial and corporate professionals, who are generally more conservative, educated and less willing to rock the boat.

Meet the New Boss. Same as the Old Boss?
One of my first impressions of Cairo was the heavy security presence on the way from the airport to my hotel.  There were suited ‘undercover’ security men standing every 400 meters or so on the access road’s median strip and straight through the tony Heliopolis neighborhood.  Toward the end of my trip I was politely told not to take pictures at a major intersection near my hotel by a serious, well-dressed man with a walkie-talkie.

Despite having one the world’s oldest continuous parliaments, the country has been basically under military control since the 1950s.  Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak and now Sisi all come from the military.  And this doesn’t seem likely to change.  Nobody I talked to had anything positive to say about Morsi’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s short stay, and there does not seem to be any other decent sized and well organized opposition.  I was told that most Egyptians feel that the military provides welcomed stability in volatile region.

While nobody I met had anything good to say about Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief government, I’m sure this view is not shared by all.  Members of Hasm, reportedly a new group aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, certainly don’t feel this way.  They recently took time and effort away from more productive activities to bomb and kill six police who were stationed on the road leading to the pyramids (see here).

Much of the outward appearance of stability could be due to suppression of the press and dissidents.  The government is not shy about keeping the press under control by jailing journalists, and some reports note that the present government is more repressive than previous ones (see here, here and here).

Foreign Exchange Nirvana
Virtually all discussions on the economy focused on the currency.  Egypt imports a lot and virtually all trade is done in USD (United States Dollars).  It’s one of the world’s largest wheat importers for instance.

Virtually every meeting with corporate executives began with a discussion of the currency - how they are sourcing dollars from the ‘parallel’ market, how much of the higher costs they can pass onto customers, and how and when the situation will end.  All were adamant that the situation was unsustainable and had to change.  None thought the change would come so quickly. 

It happened when I was there which, for an emerging markets geek like me, made it a super exciting week!!  So please forgive me if this section is a bit long-winded.

When I arrived on Sunday USD1 bought EGP8.88 at the official rate (EGP stands for Egyptian Pounds). However, the black market rate was EGP15, up from about EGP12 just a few months ago.  This means that people who exchanged their USD to EGP on the black market could buy twice as much as if they exchanged their currency at the official rate. 

It also means that companies that import raw materials, equipment and finished products needed twice as many EGP to buy the same thing when using the black market rate.  Few non-government companies could get enough USD at the official exchange rate so they relied on the parallel market.

By Tuesday – just two days after I arrived - the black market rate shot up 20% to EGP18, before falling by 33% to EGP12 the next day (Wednesday).  The dramatic one day fall foreshadowed the next day’s news that the currency was going to be set free (Thursday).  It fell to EGP15 by the time I left (Saturday).  It has declined further and, as this is being written, is trading a little over EGP18.

To put this in perspective, my daily breakfast at the Hilton cost EGP205.  At the old official rate of EGP8.88 to one USD, my breakfast cost USD23.08.  By the time I left it cost USD13.53, and at the current rate it cost USD11.39, or 50% less than it did at the old exchange rate.  Not as cheap as I’d like, but certainly not as expensive as before. 

Second cheapest Big N' Tasty meal in the world?
USD3.20, Cairo, 5 November 2016
After the change, prices in Egypt are not very expensive.  In fact, after Ukraine it has the least expensive Big Macs in the world.  At the hotel across the road from my hotel it cost EGP26, or about USD1.50 at current exchange rates.  (Link to The Economist's Big Mac index is here).

A quick stop at Carrefour confirmed this.  A 1kg bag of pasta cost EGP10 (US$0.66), pre-cooked large salami pizza EGP22 (USD1.46), and a French baguette, EGP5.75 (US$0.38).  This was a month ago and right after the devaluation, and with inflation expected at 25-40% next year, it’s unlikely they’ll stay so cheap. 

Stocks on Sale Too
Carrefour's Inexpensive Pasta
Cairo, 5 November 2016
Another way to look at this is that all the stocks were at a 50% sale for USD investors on Thursday as compared to Wednesday.  And who doesn’t like a sale? 

Investors certainly do and have bought heavily with the headline stock index increasing some 30% in the month since the currency was freed.

For foreign investors there is an additional problem of getting your money out and into the currency you want.  It’s easy to transfer USD into Egypt, but it may take a while to get it out as government approves all foreign currency outflows.  There have been signs of this improving, and with the currency now freely exchangeable, theoretically there should not be any problems.  However, governments everywhere are loath to give up power and fiddling with the currency exchange plumbing may be around for a while.  

Other potential inflationary reforms have also been implemented.  In August Egypt’s 150-year old parliament approved a 13% VAT tax, and more recently the government halted many subsidies on food and oil which had been in place for decades. 

In addition to freeing its currency, the central bank raised interest by 300 basis points (i.e. 3 percentage points), and Egypt now has some of the world’s highest interest rates at over 15%.  This was done in a bid to shore up the currency and in an effort to stem inflation.  

Long term these reforms should be good for the Egyptian economy, but there’s going to be a lot of short term pain.

Going Underground
One saving grace may be Egypt’s large underground economy.  It’s believed to be as large or larger than that tracked by official statistics.  Senior bankers note that only about 10% of Egyptians have bank accounts, which means that for the vast majority, Egypt remains a cash based economy.  Except for the minority very few Egyptians had access to the official exchange rate, so one could argue the dramatic fall in Egypt’s currency had already been absorbed by the majority of the population.  The new rate reflects what most Egyptians are already dealing with.

Meeting with consumer goods companies seemed to confirm this.  They have been steadily raising prices to cover USD purchases of raw materials like sugar and wheat.  Several noted that there was little decrease in demand despite higher prices.  Perhaps the economy is more resilient than the official figures suggest. Hope springs eternal.

Crowded House
One big problem could be crowding out by Egypt’s state and military owned companies.  Egypt's largest fertilizer producers, telecommunications company, and its tobacco monopoly are government owned.

I’ve not come across any credible figures but it’s speculated that the military and the companies they control account for 5-40% of the economy and that they crowd out private enterprise (see here). 

This is not unusual in developing countries.  China’s PLA and Indonesia’s ABRI were also heavily involved in business not that long ago.  Troops need to be paid and if the government doesn’t have the budget, smart generals do what smart people all over the world do – make do.
An example of this is the military backed cement plant that’s being built by a subsidiary of China government owned Sinoma (see here).  According to meetings with cement company executives, Egypt’s cement supply is already in surplus and a new plant that doubles capacity is not needed. Governments and state-owned-companies are typically bad at allocating capital and I doubt that two together will be any better.

In addition to curtailing the government and military’s business ambitions, Egypt can do a lot more to level the playing field for entrepreneurs and business people.  It’s ranked 122 out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s “2016 Doing Business Report”, which looks at the factors that impede or assist in business formation, construction permits, etc.  Big macro reforms like those written about above make the headlines, but making it easier to do business by cutting down on the time and costs of starting and running a business is just as much if not more important.

The Only Thing to Fear is Fear Itself
Egypt’s reputation is not very good these days.  Before my trip literally everybody said I should be very careful there.  Between the bombing of a Russian plane last October, continued problems in the Sinai, and fighting in nearby Syria, Iraq and Yemen one will naturally feel nervous.  The recent bombings near the pyramids and a Coptic church certainly won't help (see here).

Selfie With the Locals,
Giza Pyramids, 4 November 2016
Tourism is way down and I was told it’s not just the Russians and Europeans who are staying away. Regional visitors have curtailed trips for the same reasons.  According to the locals, Cairo was a fun destination where Arabs from stricter countries used to go to let their hair down.  Alcohol is available, there are no dress restrictions, and the Internet is free and open from what I can tell.

So my guard was up when walking around Cairo and visiting the pyramids. But I encountered no problems besides the usual pesky salesmen. The only people who approached me were overly friendly teenagers wanting to practice English and take selfies with a foreigner.  This reminded me of traveling in China some 30-years ago when foreigners were a rare sight and nervous kids yelled a friendly hello to the passing ‘laowai’.   

My fears seem to have been misplaced.  Egypt was recently taken off the US State Department’s travel warning list.  According to their ranking, traveling in Egypt is safer than anyplace in Europe, if recent reports are accurate (see here).

For US investors Egyptian stocks are not very expensive.  Measured in USD, its headline index, the EGX30, is bumping along close to the 10-year low levels it reached in 2009 and 2011.  However, when measured in EGP the index is at a 10-year high.

Egypt reminds me a lot of Indonesia, a country I’ve written about before (see here, here, here, and here).  Like Indonesia its demographics are very young with about 30% of its population below 14.  Both are the most populous countries in their respective regions.  Egypt is the largest in the Middle East and third-most populous in Africa.

Both are overwhelmingly Muslim – about 90% in Egypt.  Both are moderate Islamic countries.  An example of this is its current domination of women’s squash where all three top spots are held by Egyptians (see here). 

While parts of society seem modern, one is also reminded that Egypt has one of the world’s highest rates of FGM – female genital mutilation.  Despite laws against it, many websites report that it’s still widely practiced (see here).

While Egyptian stocks are now close to the cheapest they’ve ever been for USD investors, it does not feel like the fat pitch of Indonesia in Sep 1998. This is when the Indonesian index reached its lowest point ever in USD terms.  It fell a stunning 93% from July 1997 when the Thai Baht and Indonesian Rupiah collapsed.  The low point coincided with widespread riots in Jakarta and other cities, and the stepping-down of then long-term president and military strong man Suharto.  One should note here that there were 14 months between the initial currency fall and when the market and currency hit bottom.  It’s only been one month since Egypt changed its exchange rate, and instead of the market falling, it’s increased.  With more inflation to come to an already frustrated and increasingly poor population, political and societal uncertainty are still high and may not be fully reflected in the market.

A big difference is that Indonesia’s depreciation was unplanned.  All the business people I met in Cairo were anxiously waiting for the currency change so they could get back to business instead of spending time skirting the law in a search for USD.

The change can also help Egypt to become more competitive.  I was impressed with the managers I met at one of the world’s largest carpet manufacturers, and the lower and free currency means that they can compete very favorably with their biggest competitors in Turkey.

Wrapping Up
I was impressed by the people I met in Cairo as well as the numerous Egyptians I met during a short stay in Dubai.  The country has a lot of educated and switched-on people.  It should be to Egypt's benefit if their government and military is there to support rather than compete with them.

I don’t envy the changes, struggles and hardships that my Egyptian brothers and sisters will likely go through in the next few years.  Saying that short term pain leads to long term gain rings hollow when parents have to tell their children they can't afford meat, or to attend the university they expected to go to, or even delaying marriage because there’s not enough money.

But as we’ve seen before, economic reforms can and do work.  Indonesia’s per capita income fell from USD1,100 to US$560 between 1997 and 2000, and its poverty rate increased from 17% to 23% over roughly the same time according to the World Bank.  Now at USD3,440, Indonesia’s per capita income is more than 5 times higher and its poverty rate at 11% has never been lower (see here).


For a very good discussion of the recent currency change, other reforms, and Egypt's economic and political structure, readers are encouraged to watch/listen to the very good Al Jazeera episode, "Can Egypt's currency devaluation boost its economy" (see here).