Going from A to Z I will attempt to cover all Belgian listed companies.
Inspired by the upcoming Olympic Games I will nominate any stock that I think is the very best of the ones already covered to the “hot seat”.
So far, mediocre real estate holding Accentis is holding the hot seat due to a semi-special situation.
Maybe the letter “B” will finally throne a true and just ruler for the Hot Seat ?
Who will dispute that the Red Devils are
the hottest National Soccer Team on the planet right now ?
“When the floor underneath your feet is crumbling down, think Balta”
Activity: carpet flooring
Once upon a time, in what we now call Belgium, several cities were notorious for their mastery in the making of tapestry. Those “narrative” tapestries fought of cold and damp in the rich men’s medieval castles.
More then 500 years later there was still a thriving textile business in the countryside between Ghent and Kortrijk (Courtrai). Most of those businesses were family-owned Hidden Champions. Flemish textile producers were considered top-notch, innovative and good value for money.
But cheap competition from China (and Turkey and Egypt), ruined it for a lot of companies. To survive in this new reality, there were two scenario’s: go niche and keep your margins or go big and keep your volume. Those who couldn’t do one of those things, sold out or went bankrupt.
Balta chose growth. But in 2004 the founding family sold out to equity firm Doughty Hanson. In 2015 Texas equity fund Lone Star stepped in.
In an attempt to “take the money and run” Lone Star pushed in 2017 for an IPO, but it hasn’t been a success. 82% of market value evaporated.
All IPO’s since 2015 on the Brussels stock exchange.
Not a lot of success stories…
It’s easy to see why. Loaded with debt and faced with a shrinking market the real decision makers at the helm of Balta are the bankers. They forced Balta to sell buildings, sell divisions and reduce costs. That was a short sighted strategy, which cut of the legs of any turnaround scenario.
As a result Balta is even more vulnerable to the shrinking carpet market (other groups diversified with floor tiles, parquetted, laminate…) and market swings in the price of raw materials.
All flexibility and all gun powder to react to changing trends is gone.
2022 might prove to be the final storm for Balta : over 200 million of debt is due and according to people clos to the matter the financial markets are de facto closed for Balta. If Marty Whitman ever had a ideal company in mind to invest in, Balta is the exact opposite of that.
Needless to say : Balta is a no-go for me.
The only hope for existing shareholders might be that they are bought out. Rumor has it Lone Star still likes Balta for its parts and that they are planning to sell each division as their own entity.
“Cheap compared to peers”
Activity: real estate development – offices
Like Atenor, Banimmo is one of the listed Real Estate Developers, although one that has disappointed in the past and ran into trouble. Trading at 0.85 of Book Value, they are in bargain territory compared to their peers (e.g. Atenor trades at 2.85 times Book).
In 2018 insurer Patronale Life bought 60% of Banimmo at a price of 3,3 per share.
I will look at them as a group, to determine which one might be our next Hot Stock.
“A legacy tech company that finally hit the sweet spot”
Barco is our new hot stock, meaning I consider it the best idea covered so far in this series.
Activity : high-tech imaging products
Barco has been a company that sparked my interest, for as long as I can remember. Even when I was a child Barco was a household name, that signified quality. They used to make beamers, projectors and screens.
Now they have a range of products, all springing from that legacy : a laser projector for digital cinema ; video walls for control rooms ; screens and imaging solutions for the operation room ; video walls for events ; and a tiny little device called “ClickShare” (aka their golden egg).
According to the “magic formula” of Joel Greenblatt, Barco is the best Belgian stock at the moment (January 2020).
Barco carries a Greenblatt ROC of +60% and an EBIT/EV of circa 23.
Now, this might let you believe Barco is a no brainer. People in Belgium must be rioting to be able to buy it, right? It is part of my personal portfolio? It surely MUST be?
First of all, I am reluctant to pay a P/E of 30 for any stock. I am biased that way. That might be foolish in some cases and I am the first to admit I might miss out on some nice opportunities.
Second of all: ROC hasn’t been this great all the time. So, the Magic Formula status runs the risk of being very short lived.
Since time eternal, winners have always been walking hand in hand with laggards in Barco’s product portfolio. For what seemed like an aeon, Barco struggled to monetize the “engineering quality” of their products. They clearly had the best screens in the market – but not enough people would buy them. They would buy cheaper, lower quality Asian screens, instead.
For outsiders like me, Barco had a reputation of a sleepy, un-dynamic company, although with great engineers.
Untill 2014, that is. At that moment, Charles Beauduin steps in as a minority shareholder and becomes owner-operator Barco so desperately needed. (Beauduin is one of the owner-operators who runs a struggling “champion” in the Flemish textile industry and invested in Barco as way to diversify away from textile) Beauduin cuts costs, he renews the focus of the company, and he timed his entrance surprisingly well.
You see, also in 2014, Barco launches a new product, called ClickShare (a device to wirelessly share a presentation to all the screens in the room).
Developed for internal use, Clickshare turned out to be the high margin, popular product Barco was in desperate need for.
Result? Barco’s share rockets from 50 in 2014 to 224 at the time of writing. The bad news? I was totally aware of it and failed to convince myself of the prospects and bright future of Barco, at the time. So, I missed out on big gains, unmatched by other positions in my portfolio.
The good news for Barco continues in 2019, though: about a half year ago they entered in a deal to install 1000 projectors in the theatres of cinema group Cineworld.
Moreover, they are actively developing a more “service” or “subscription” based business model with Clickshare and other products.
Foolishly enough, I am still in doubt today.
What will my return be when I buy in at this price? Should I pay 4.3 times book, for a ROE of 15%?
Even so, price is my excuse, here. Will I ever be able to pull the trigger when it comes to Barco?
I am still biased by their cobbled past. Will the future shine as bright for Barco as it shines right now? Will ROC stay elevated? Are they not forced to re-invent themselves every new technology innovation S-curve? And is that cycle not accelerating? Are they vulnerable for disruption?
In short: are they actually cyclical?
I like niche companies, with strong shareholders behind them. But only in certain situations: they have to dominate the market as a quasi-monopolist. Being the mere market leader doesn’t cut it for me. What is the point of being in a niche, when competition is fierce? Especially when clients have a low-ish barrier to switch vendors?
Of course, history has proven me very wrong in the case of Barco.
Still, this is how I look at it :
risk can be defined as the degree of uncertainty of a range of outcomes.
According to this mindset, there is no real risk in, for example, Balta Group: we know what will happen. No surprises there.
According to the same mindset, Barco is high risk : although there is a low probability of many possible outcomes, I can see no degree of certainty anywhere.
What if the competition suddenly comes with a cheaper, better product? What if disruption happens?
I am pretty sure history will prove me wrong on this one, but I seem unable to take the plunge.
Does that make sense to you? Or have I just proved once again I am the biggest fool in this saga?
“A dividend stock in a cornered market”
Activity : Real Estate – offices
Befimmo is a “GVV” or “Regulated Real-Estate Corporation” – a special Belgian juridical vehicle for Real Estate companies. There are 17 listed companies with this status and I will cover them all together…
“a capital intense industrialist vulnerable to global calamities”
Activity: steel wires
Oh boy ! Around since 1880, Bekaert is a company where everybody is just doing the best job possible – but it just isn’t meant to be. The stars are not aligned. External forces are just too strong and are about to amputate any effort to regain former glory.
It’s a shame, but it’s the rule of the jungle. Dura lex, sed lex.
Bekaert makes steel wire you find in tires for vehicles, in fences or in concrete. Some of it actually seems high tech. One of their engineers was even lauded as “Belgian Inventor of the Year”.
Despite those innovations, steel wire proved not a great industry to be in, the last couple of years.
So, what happens when you are a great company, but you operate in a declining sector, with low margins, you are vulnerable to the price of raw materials, you took on debt to grow and diversify and you face strong competition?
You have to cut costs, close factories, disappoint employees and shareholders. You look for solutions through joint-ventures, you relocate to lower wage countries, you fire your celebrity chairman.
You try to turn the wagon around. 30000 hardworking people are counting on you. The aristocratic families who are your legacy shareholders (circa 30% – some of them are also involved with AB Inbev) are counting on you.
And you succeed, sort of. You stay competitive, you stay profitable, you keep your revenues.
But what you don’t do, is convince us that out of all the companies we can chose from, we have to pick your stock. That’s is a stretch even steel cable can’t muster.
“the wheel of family fortunes”
Activity: family controlled investment holding
Belreca used to stand for “Belgian Real Estate Company of Canada”, but is neither Canadian, nor a Real Estate Company. It’s a investment holding company, 65% owned by affiliates of the Van de Put family. In time, the name was changed to “Belgian Resources And Capital Company”.
Once upon a time they developed real estate (you guessed it right: in Canada) and owned a local bank, but those days are gone.
Since they sold the bank to AXA, they are conservative stock pickers.
Don’t expect double digit growth here. I guess their first concern is “preservation of capital” and then snowball the capital at a nice enough clip.
They pay a dividend of about 2% netto (now 2,24/share), that is increased a tiny bit each year.
Equity in 2011 was 23,7 million. By the end of 2019 that has grown to 40,16. That makes up for a CAGR of give or take 6%.
With the annual dividend, the family can count on a 8% yearly return.
Beats your bank account interest rates and most mutual funds, I reckon.
Date, equity, dividend payed, and bruto dividend per share
– this list goes all the way back to 1976.
All is very neatly presented on their website. They are not “dark” and provide all the information you need.
They even disclose their entire portfolio:
So, you can copy them if you like. As you might know by now, I am not the biggest fan of every position in there – but who am I to judge a family that has preserved and grew their capital for over 4 decades now?
The key question remains: how cheap is Belreca ?
Market cap is around 34 million right now, so they trade at around 0.87 Price-to-Book. The discount would have to be much bigger for me to step in, say around 0,65 P/B.
UPDATE: sympathetically, reader An Tipati (kudos!) pointed out to me that the discount to Intrinsic Value is closer to 0,63. Book Value is no proxy for intrinsic value in the way they do their accounting. The Annual Report indeed says: “Intrinsic Value is estimated at 170,95 EUR per share” (31/12/2019). So, we are looking at a 12% “direct yield” at the moment when they can keep up the historic performance of 8% ?
I keep an eye out, though. Whenever the margin-of-safety would be too big to ignore…
UPDATE: So, I have some thinking to do. Do I want to own this collection of stocks at this discount ?
A nice little quirk: Belreca is listed on the “Fixing Market”.
That’s a tiny stock market that only lists quotes once or twice a day.
So, good luck picking up shares, if you like them !
“a baby white whale – fat with cash”
Activity: micro investment holding
Although tiny and illiquid, the Brussels Fixing Market can be the source of great gains – as any other market.
Shares of Beluga surged more then 100% in 2019, but are still cheap now the market cap has risen to …2 million euro.
(It also shows you just how cheap it is to be listed on the Brussels Euronext – since the fees are variable)
If I would give a bronze “hot seat” medal, they would receive it. Maybe even silver.
History of Beluga goes back to 1838, when a foundry in Haine-Saint-Pierre started to make steam locomotives, like this one:
as an aside:
Belgium had the first railroad on the European continent, since 1835.
What remained of the foundry in 1998 (long after the end of commercial activities) converted itself into investment holding Beluga, in an effort to monetize the value of the buildings and land owned by the old foundry.
CEO Bruno Lippens is a private equity consultant. I wouldn’t say we are talking about a hidden investment genius at the helm here.
He bought a specialty egg producer called Columbus in 2016 out of bankruptcy for 0.8 million. Columbus eggs are objectively more “healthy” and Lippens saw an opportunity to ride the health trend. And yes, you can buy Columbus eggs in every supermarket in Belgium. They ain’t cheap.
Despite the higher margins, Columbus struggled to make any profit. But revenue kept up and Lippens was able to sell Columbus eggs last year for 1.9 million euro.
The half-year report after the sale (june 2019) gave us a NAV of 3,74 per share – but since then some legacy real estate was sold, which should add another 50 cents per share.
At a price of 2,9 you are looking at a discount of about 30%.
Chairman of the board and majority shareholder Philippe Weill increased his position from 50% to 65% by the end of the year 2019.
So, essentially your are buying cash for 70 cents on the dollar.
But, what will they do with that cash? Chairman Weill: “the times are uncertain and that requires us to be careful.”
I haven’t been impressed by Beluga in the past. Will I be in the future? Is this the time to step in?
My fingers are aching at the discount, but when I’m true to myself, I have to admit there are too many uncertainties to tickle my fancy.
“A success story, treated like a failure”
Activity: medical diagnostics
Trivia question : what has Disney tv series “Siren” to do with a Belgian biotech company?
Let’s find out.
Biotech is popular in Belgium. Even more then real estate. 14 young health-care companies are listed on the stock market. Previous success stories make that the Belgian market welcomes development stage companies with open arms.
Unlike the specialty real estate companies, though, it makes no sense to treat them as group. Each and every one of them are way to different.
That popularity is no coincidence either ; there is a tradition. Belgium has been fertile ground for the development of medicines and health care products, ever since Jansens Pharmaceutica was founded in the fifties and acted as a research lab for Johnson & Johnson since the sixties.
Even today, Jonhson & Jonshon is a 9.7% shareholder of Biocartis.
Biocartis has a proven product since 2014 and is listed since 2015. They help patients, they save costs and they save time.
Founder and scientist Rudi Pauwels has a stellar track record in biotech.
Moreover, Biocartis has 180 million in the bank. They grew their subscription business with 30%. And still the share price crashed form 11/share to below 6.
What’s up with that?
Biocartis makes mobile mini-labs called Idylla, who help determine oncologists the DNA of tumors, so they can fine-tune treatments. The lab comes with a subscription model: it works with cartridges where the tumor culture is analyzed.
Smart, effective and with a path towards diagnosis of multiple diseases – in cooperation with a.o. Bristol-Myers Squibb. Founder Pauwels even developed an mobile Idylla with an ebola-test to be used in rural Africa. All great, no ?
Problem is perception. Biocartis made promises (always a bad idea). They promised to grow their cartridge business by 60%, after entering the US market. To fund that growth they issued equity (11,1/share) and took on debt in the form of bonds (15O million à 4%, due in 5 years).
And then: the growth didn’t happen. They grew 32% instead of 60%, the fired their distribution firm in the US, sentiment turned and the price crashed.
It didn’t help that founder Pauwels left in 2018, admitting he had hit the wall of the Peter Principle. He was no longer the right man with the right energy at the right place.
To give you some numbers: operating income for the HY 2019 was 17 million (including mile stone payments by collaborators) ; operating expenses (including R&D) were …43 million.
Gun to my head I guess they would have to sell about 1 million cartridges a year to become profitable. So revenue has to multiple like times 5 ?
Nobody questions the technology. Nobody questions the business model. It all comes down to timing.
When will Biocartis be able to grow itself out of the red numbers?
Are you willing to take the leap of faith ?
Now, now – I can hear you: what about the trivia question? What has Disney to do with all this?
Guess who is the leading lady of Siren?
Eline Powell, actually Pauwels – a Belgian actrice and daughter of …Biocartis founder Rudi Pauwels.
BANQUE NATIONALE DE BELGIQUE – BELGISCHE NATIONALE BANK
“A Belgian Freddie and Fannie story ? “
Activity: Central Bank.
Where can you find a stock that has all its annual reports on it’s website, all the way back since 1851? In Belgium, of course ! How marvelous is that?
Besides those frivolities, BNB has all the makings of the ultimate hot stock. At first look, anyway.
Clearly, the Bank has a monopoly. They are the Central Bank of Belgium, bounded by law since 1850 – and that’s not gonna change any time soon.
Plus, the Bank is by far the most undervalued stock in the Belgian stock market.
At price/book of 0.14 and a P/E of 1.26 it is a screaming buy.
You would think.
Only when you look at it in a certain way, though. See, BNB hasn’t been very shareholder friendly when it comes to “normal” shareholders. In fact, according to activists Erik Geenen and Jaak van der Gucht they have been outright criminal in their treatment of the common shareholder.
In my layman’s view, the activists have convincing arguments that not only the dividend policy is an abomination of good stewardship, but also that the accounts are inconsistent and thus borderline illegal.
But will the activists ever win the argument? That might be wishful thinking.
The Bank was incorporated in 1850 as a vehicle to manage the gold reserve owned by the Belgian State, to issue bank notes (correlated to the gold reserve back then), government bonds, etc.
Ever since the Belgian state is 50% shareholder and 50% of the capital is free float.
Comparable to the lawsuits concerning American mortgage securers Freddie and Fannie, the main question concerns the rights of the State in the entity versus the rights of the rest of the shareholders.
Again like Freddie and Fannie, the State has been an beneficial receiver of dividends – compared to the minority shareholders.
The first big question is: who owns the gold? The Bank or the Belgian State? Is the gold Assets-Under-Management or is the gold an Asset of the Bank (and thus all the shareholders)?
The own accounting of the Bank is conflicted in that respect. De facto, profits of the sale of gold and profits of other activities of the bank have been given to the Belgian state and not to other shareholders.
Up until now, all law suits have been fruitless. Most judges rule the Bank is a special vehicle, that doesn’t have to abide the regular law of listed companies.
Common shareholders only receive a dividend based on 50% of the profits made by the bond portfolio of the bank. The bond portfolio carries circa 6 billion in assets and the Bank paid out 138,47 as dividend per share (before taxes) in 2019.
If all shareholders would share equally in the profit (comparable to the Belgian State now) the shares are indeed way undervalued.
For example: in 2018, the Belgian State received 317 million, on top of the dividend of 138,47 bruto per share. If this amount would be paid out to all shareholders, that would amount to an extra dividend of 792 per share… Hence the 1.2 P/E.
Now, what are the odds this argument can ever been won? What are the odds ordinary shareholders would ever be paid at equal terms to the State? Close to zero.
That doesn’t mean there is no value in BNB. There is.
Question is: how to unlock the value inside the vault ?
Let’s have a look.
When you look at it from a quasi-technical trading standpoint, there are arguments to be made that 2000/share as a good entry point to buy the BNB stock.
What do you get for 2000 a share?
Well, the bond portfolio reaping in profits for all the shareholders with an invested amount of 15000 per share (6 billion for 400k shares)
At 2000 a share, this brings in a netto dividend of almost 5%.
The low interest environment is the reason the share price declined. Selling shareholders believe the income from the bond portfolio is under stress or will be in the foreseeable future. And they were right: net dividend has declined from 124/share in 2014 to 96/share in 2019.
Some of the selling shareholders are very high profile: the Asset Management branch of private Bank Delen (owned by Ackermans & Van Haaren) dumped almost 50% of its shares. Other (pension) funds sold out completely.
One of the fund managers: “The dividend can only shrink. I see no reason at all why the share price would rise. We compare the share of the National Bank as a vault the private investor cannot open”.
My hunch is 2000 is a reasonable entry price when you treat the share as an income stock. At that moment your share is backed with a rich enough asset in the bond portfolio. (Although I would have to look at the duration and exact composition of the portfolio in more detail).
And with the added probability of a future “normalized” rate environment, where I can see the stock return to 4000/share ; you get paid a 5%-ish yield to wait.
Will rates ever go back to normal? Will activist shareholder win any of their lawsuits against management and current payout policies ? Or will BNB maybe tweak it’s dividend policy? If you think any of this scenario’s is probable, BNB seems like a well enough stock to park your cash.
If not, yield (and the share price) can continue to drop.
All I think there is a very low probability of permanent loss of capital in this one. The risks are clear and known. Sentiment is below zero. Hell, rates are zero. This leaves room for optionality.
And that’s why I have BNB in fluo marker on my watchlist.
Beats the hell out of a savings account.
“Early stages or already the end game?”
Activity: bone stem cell therapy
In contrast to Biocartis, who have a commercial viable product in the market, biotech company Bone Therapetics still has some work to do.
Estimates are it will take another 3 years before they come to market. In a meanwhile, alarm bells are ringing loud, since they had to announce futile results for their most mature trial.
Now, not all is bad. Some early stage trials are producing good results so far. With a little shift in focus towards the healing of bone fractures, they might still prove to be a hit.
If they don’t run out of money first.
All in all, it’s a lottery ticket. Not for me.
“A monopolist on a melting ice cube”
What are my rules, exactly? Can I give a bronze Hot Seat ?
There are quite a few monopolies on the Belgian stock market. Not all will prove to be excellent investments, though. Bpost might as well be a decent investment – but only at today’s prices.
Bpost is obviously the Belgian Postal Service. Again, they are owned for 50% by the Belgian State.
Since their IPO in 2013 it has been a great stock for shareholders. Free Cash flow is lush, dividends were generous. (The Belgian state is particularly dividend hungry.)
Biggest challenge of Bpost is the shrinking of the high margin letter post delivery. They have been able to do this with cutting cost, investing in automatisation and raising prices.
Still, realizing they were merely buying time before the Golden Goose of the analogue letters would finally lay it’s head, Bpost was looking for growth and diversification.
Convinced they had to stay on trend their aim was to become the dominant package delivery service in the Benelux (= Belgium + The Netherlands + Luxembourg). That’s where the future is.
Alas, a very public discussed acquisition attempt of the Holland Postal Services (a perfect merger candidate) failed due to local Dutch politics and then… mistakes started to happen.
Eager to pull the acquisition trigger, Bpost bought American Radial – but results have been very underwhelming. Due diligence seemed to have missed quite some skeletons in the closet. Shareholders also question the sanity of an acquisition so far from the home territory. Different culture, different competition, different customers.
As a result, Free Cash Flow suffered and the stock crashed.
Maybe they can still right the ship at Radial, but that is uncertain at the moment.
Now, all is not that bad for Bpost. With their state-of-the-art new distribution center they are, IMHO, best placed to stay the most cost effective package delivery company in Belgium and maybe even the Benelux.
There is still enough free cash flow to rather quickly pay of debts, if necessary. There are still a lot of possibilities in the future with all the real estate they own.
So, all in all Bpost is in a rather great position and you can pick it up for a very decent price, right now.
I did buy some at the height of the panic selling – but mostly as a teaching instrument for my kids (so I can tell them: “we own part of the Postal Service now and every year they give us 1 euro per share as part of the profit”)
When I thought about growing the position to a “full position”, this is what I wrote in my journal: “Problem with Bpost is the quality of the shareholders and the other stakeholders. The CEO is not married enough into the business and is a mere passer-by ; how long before they put an idiot at the helm? Also, there is no way to tell whether the unions are going to behave in the long-term interest of the company or not”.
If you want to ride the online sales trend and want to dip your toes in postal companies, maybe the profile of Post NL will be more of your liking?
My guess is you won’t hurt your returns too bad with owning Bpost. Not at all. But maybe that is setting the bar too low?
Anyhow, I am still on the lookout for an owner-operated postal service, with distribution power and modest debt – so any tips are helpful…
CONCLUSSION AFTER THE LETTER “B” ?
We have a new hot stock in Magic Formula stock Barco , but I wouldn’t pick it up myself at these prices.
We have two suffering monopolists, who might have a stronger position long term then the market suspects right now.
And a promising growth biotech story in Biocartis – without guarantees.
Also, I promise I will try to be brief and more concise when it comes to the letter “C”.
I can tell you this already: the letter “C” has more Belgian beer, my favorite microcap stock and a few family-owned operators. Will any of them prove to be Hot Seat worthy ?
Let’s find out.