I sold my Gazprom ADRs yesterday. The shares popped nearly 22% after the company proposed a 60% increase in its 2018 dividend. If you are unfamiliar with Gazprom, it is Russia’s state-owned natural gas behemoth. It is also probably one of the cheapest non-distressed stocks in the world on an absolute basis.
My truest investing self is a Ben Graham-style bottom-feeder who is happiest scooping up feared and loathed investments at significant discounts to book value. This is stuff that’s gotten so cheap all you need is for things not to deteriorate too significantly and you will make some money. Meanwhile, if things break even a little bit your way you stand to make a lot of money. It is the kind of stuff that sometimes actually makes people angry when you tell them you own it.
There are not many places in the world today where you can find non-distressed businesses trading at massive discounts to book value or on 5x earnings or whatever.
But you can find them in Russia.
To me, it is beyond question that Gazprom trades at a massive discount to the value of its net assets. You don’t exactly have to be an accounting wonk to understand that. Gazprom controls almost 20% of global natural gas reserves and supplies nearly 40% of Europe’s natural gas. It trades at 0.3x book value.
The problem you have is that the market has to believe there is a realistic path to unlocking that value in order for the stock to trade up.
Read that again. Slowly.
It is critical to understand Gazprom doesn’t have to actually unlock any value for the stock to work. The market just has to believe it will. In fact, if the market begins to assign even a modest probability to management unlocking value, the stock will start to work.
This is still not straightforward for a company like Gazprom, where it’s pretty obvious the company is being looted and the Russian state is at a minimum complicit in the looting, if not itself the architect of the looting. There was a Sberbank equity analyst, Alexander Fak, who made a compelling case Gazprom is being looted primarily via its capex. (A bit too compelling a case, apparently, as Mr. Fak was fired soon after issuing his report)
Which brings me to the reason I am content to sell my Gazprom ADRs now, despite the fact they may trade up further in the short-term. Because of all its capex, Gazprom is free cash flow negative. By my calculation, management is proposing paying out something like RUB 380 billion of dividends for 2018. Fine and dandy on a net income of RUB 1,456 billion but not so much on free cash flow of RUB -22 billion.
My take on this is that the Russian state is engaged in some first-class financial engineering: loot the company via capex and plug any holes with borrowing. Dividend Recap: SOE Edition!
As an investor, it’s never a good idea to rely on fat dividends that aren’t backed by robust free cash flow to support an investment case. Us bottom-feeders tend to learn this the hard way early on in our investing, by averaging down value traps.
Could Gazprom play this financial shell game forever? Sure. The company is a quasi-sovereign entity. But there is a price above which I am less and less thrilled about entrusting the fate of my investment to the amity and goodwill of the Russian state and for me that threshold was about $5.65 per ADR.
Maybe some day Gazprom’s capex will come down and the financials will make a bit more sense. If so, I may happily own it again. But for now this is one of those cases where “money talks and bullshit walks.”
My Larger Point
For those of you who are also Ben Graham-style bottom feeders, I cannot emphasize the importance of catalysts for these types of investments enough. In this day and age, stuff that gets this cheap tends to be cheap for a reason. To the extent you’re not looking at a value trap you are almost certainly looking at something where there is a major impediment to value realization.
One of the things I spend more and more time thinking about on the up-front now is how those impediments might be cleared. I must admit I didn’t spend enough time thinking about this with Gazprom when I initially invested.
Shareholder activism is one obvious solution. If an activist is involved, congratulations! You’ve got a catalyst. Whether the activist’s agenda is aligned with your own, and whether the activist will succeed in implementing that agenda, are different things all together. But you’re not dead in the water.
Another potential solution is a management team that’s good at capital allocation. Management teams that are thoughtful about capital allocation will take action to close obvious value gaps. In Gazprom’s case, what a thoughtful management team not involved in looting the company would be doing would be cutting back on capex to whatever extent possible and buying back stock hand over fist.
Be wary of situations where a stock is cheap but management is entrenched and is engaged in looting the business. Gazprom is an example of this in Russia. Biglari Holdings is a great example in the US.
Then again, to paraphrase Seth Klarman, everything’s a sell at one price and a buy at another. So maybe sometimes take your chances.