Interview Excerpt: Charles de Vaulx Shares Insights on ‘Eclectic’ Portfolio

Published on September 27, 2012 at 11:21 am

Charles de Vaulx joined International Value Advisers in May 2008 as a partner and portfolio manager, and serves as chief investment officer, partner, and portfolio manager. Until March 2007, Charles was portfolio manager of the First Eagle Global, Overseas, U.S. Value, Gold and Variable Funds, together with a number of separately managed institutional accounts. He was solely responsible for management of the Sofire Fund when it won an Absolute Return Award for “Fund of the Year” in the global equity category in 2005 and 2006. Charles graduated from the Ecole Superieure de Commerce de Rouen in France and holds the French equivalent of a Master’s degree in finance.

Investors will soon have the opportunity to learn from and meet Charles de Vaulx at European Investing Summit 2012, the largest fully online investment conference.

In his keynote address, Charles will share his time-tested approach, explain the processes that have enabled him to navigate past crises, and provide guidance on how investors can avoid the pitfalls of the eurocrisis and position their portfolios to preserve and grow purchasing power. You’ll benefit from exclusive insights by one of the greats in the investment business and have the ability to ask live questions of this legendary investor.

Exclusive Interview Excerpts

The following never-before released excerpts are from an exclusive interview with Charles de Vaulx.  The interview, conducted by The Manual of Ideas and Value Conferences, highlights many important aspects of Mr. de Vaulx’s “eclectic” investment style.  To hear more from Charles de Vaulx and other great investors, secure your spot at European Investing Summit 2012 today at a 40% special discount that expires on Friday, September 28.

Q: You describe your investing approach as cautious and opportunistic. How is that reflected in security selection and overall portfolio construction?

A: Well, I think I’ll try to answer your question in a sense of how that cautious and optimistic approach is reflected today, as we speak, in the overall portfolio construction of our funds and the way we pick stocks.

I think that our portfolio today is truly eclectic and multi-cap. Of course, if you look at the top ten holdings you’ll find mid-cap or larger cap stocks.  But if you look at our holdings in Asia, where statistically today the small cap stocks are much cheaper than the large cap stocks, you will find a wide array of stocks. We also hold some mega-cap stocks: Total [TOT], I don’t know if Berkshire Hathaway [BRK] qualifies as one (probably) as well as tiny, little stocks in Japan, Korea or Switzerland. We own a billboard advertising company in Switzerland called Affichage [Swiss: AFFN], and it’s quite small.

You also see our cautious and opportunistic approach reflected in the fact that we own some bonds. In the IVA Worldwide Fund here in the U.S., we have a little less than 9% in high-yield corporate bonds, mostly a residual from a lot of bonds we were buying late ’08-’09. So, as a result, many of these bonds will be maturing shortly in the next year or two or three or four. So it’s short-duration, high-yield corporates. The yield is not huge. Today, we’re talking about 4%, but these are what we deem extremely safe instruments and because the duration is short, there’s no interest rate risk there.

You also will notice the eclectic nature by the fact that we have some sovereign debt, and it’s approximately 5.1% of the portfolio. It’s mostly short-dated government debt from Singapore. The coupons, the yields, are de minimis. Here the attempt on our part is to hopefully get an equity-type return out of the underlying currency. The hope is that the Singapore dollar will keep appreciating over time and, of course, in two years from now when those bonds mature the idea is to just roll them over and buy new similar short-dated bonds and to remain exposed to the Singapore dollar. Because that country doesn’t have much of a fiscal deficit, there’s not much of a long-dated government bond market to begin with.

You’ll see the eclectic nature by the fact that we hold some gold in the portfolio, both bullion and gold-mining shares. I am happy to have convinced Jean-Marie Eveillard in late 2001 that gold-mining shares were so obscenely expensive, overpriced, that if we wanted exposure to gold we had to modify our prospectus to give ourselves the right to hold gold bullion. It’s been a great move!  We own a few gold mining shares, but it’s really de minimis and only in our U.S. registered mutual funds.  Our preference remains, by far, towards holding gold bullion.

You’ll notice that at the end of June [2012] we had 12.4% in cash. In some ways you may want to view those short-dated, Singapore dollar bonds as quasi cash in Singapore dollars. The fact that we’re not fully invested tells you that we are worried that we think that, by and large, stocks are not dirt cheap enough to be fully invested.

If you look at the kinds of names we own in stocks or at least if you look at the top-ten holdings, you’ll notice that the balance sheets of the companies we own are very strong. We are very fond of the expression Marty Whitman coined a while back, which is that it’s not enough for a stock to be cheap, it also has to be safe – “safe and cheap”.  Safety starts with the balance sheet.

The cautiousness of the portfolio is expressed by the fact that we are making some negative bets. We have virtually no financials except for a few insurance brokers, except for – and we may talk about it later – some tiny positions in Goldman Sachs [GS], UBS [UBS]. Financials in the U.S. are slightly too expensive and in Europe we think that most banks remain grossly undercapitalized.

Another negative bet you’ll notice is that, other than a few stocks in South Korea, we have virtually no exposure to emerging markets.  We have no direct exposure to the BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India and China – because even though these stocks have come down a lot last year and some of them this year, we believe that these stocks are dead. We are cautious and worried about what’s going on in China. We believe that a soft landing is in the cards, and hopefully that will not become a hard landing.  Any sharp slowdown in China will have major consequences for commodity prices, which in turn will hurt many emerging countries.

Some specific countries like India have obvious issues with inflation and current account deficits, not to mention problems with their electricity. We’ve seen in Brazil over the past year-and-a-half how government intervention has had the ability to hurt investors. Investors in Petrobras [Sao Paolo: PETR] have seen President Rousseff, basically ask the company to think more about what’s good for Brazil Inc. as opposed to doing what’s right for the company’s shareholders.

Also, we worry about what’s going on in Europe. We’re not sure what the outcome will be. It’s a big unknown and the way we express our skepticism towards what’s happening in Europe is by being 65% hedged on the euro.  We are willing to hold quite a few European stocks because we believe that many of them are multinational and not necessarily that Euro-centric.

Conversely, let’s not forget that quite a few American companies have a lot of their revenues in Europe.  Also, even in the instances when some of our European stocks are quite Euro-centric in terms of where their business is conducted, we think that some of these businesses may not be as cyclical as others, or if they are, the price of the stock may already reflect that it’s going to be a difficult economic environment for a long time in Europe. So, in other words, there are many stocks in Europe where we think the bleakness of what’s going on has already been priced in.

Q: You state that you seek investments in companies of any size that typically have one or more of the following characteristics – financial strength, temporarily depressed earnings, or entrenched franchises. What are some examples of these temporary challenges, temporary depressed earnings for otherwise financially strong and entrenched businesses?

A: I’ll give you an example from the past and a more recent example. I remember in the late ‘90s we bought McDonald’s [MCD], the fast food company. Why? Because we were impressed by how global they were, much more global than some of their competitors. We also, early on, understood what Bill Ackman saw a few years later, which is the real estate angle, the fact that they own so much real estate, a lot of it they rent out to franchisees.  Addressing your question of temporary challenges, the reason why that stock became so cheap back then is that the company was suffering because the food had become very bad — much worse than the competitors. And the service — there were many complaints about the quality of the service.

We felt that those two issues were fixable. Once those issues were recognized by top management, they were eventually able to fix them and the stock over time has gone up extensively. A more recent example would be was last summer, News Corp. [NWSA], Murdoch’s media company. They had the scandal associated with their tabloids in the UK. The stock came down and, yet, we were comfortable building a decent-sized position. The company had a very strong balance sheet, so we thought that they could suffer having to pay some fines.  With hindsight, the balance sheet was so strong that, in fact, the company has been very aggressive buying back their own shares since then. On a sum of the parts basis, a year ago, the stock fell as low as $15 or $16. We had, on a sum of the parts basis, a value of around $30.

News Corp. is a very different company than it was 20 years ago. News Corp. almost went bankrupt in the early ‘90s and at the time it was mostly newspapers, magazines, but today’s businesses, BSkyB, Fox, there’s very little print, in the sense of being threatened by the Internet. These are very powerful businesses— one of the businesses is 20th Century Fox, which is a decent business, so pretty un-cyclical businesses with no major immediate sort of threat to their businesses – high margin businesses, a very strong balance sheet.

The way we interpreted the scandal is, we thought it had a silver lining because via some super-voting structure, Murdoch controls the company. We thought that the scandal – because it’s such a public business– he would be forced to improve corporate governance, which I think he has. We felt the Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Carey, was very competent as was the predecessor, Mr. Chernin. We realized that the super-voting control allowed him to make some mistakes in the past, but small mistakes.

He lost a lot of money when he overpaid for Dow Jones, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal. He overpaid for MySpace, but in the grand scheme of things these were small deals and, conversely, to his credit as a media guy, he saw the changes that were happening in the newspaper industry and moved away from that over the years. Today, the stock is at over $24. I think that was a good example of what we thought was a temporary challenge and one that was limited to just one part of their empire.

One stock that we’ve bought over the past six, nine months is a French-based company called Teleperformance [Paris: RCF]. They run corporate call centers, and that’s a case where all of the earnings pretty much come from the United States. They’re very powerful in the U.S. In fact, for all practical purposes, the company should be headquartered and listed here. It’s sort of an accident that it is listed in France. The French founder happens to live in Miami, and it’s an interesting case where the French operations are losing a lot of money.

It’s much harder in France than in the U.S. to fire people and so they are not able to stop the bleeding right away in France, and I think we feel that we can quantify what those losses will be. Worst case, the company can hopefully shut down the business over time, and I think those losses in France mask the quality of their earnings in the U.S. Historically, there have been many instances where we have dabbled a lot in what we call high quality, yet, cyclical businesses.

If you think about temporary staffing companies – Randstad, Manpower; if you think about the freight forwarding companies –  Kuehne + Nagel, Panalpina, Expeditors International… If you think about the advertising companies, billboard advertising, they are good businesses in the Warren Buffett sense of return on invested capital — service businesses, high returns on capital, high free cash flow. They are cyclical because, oftentimes, other investors have a shorter-term horizon than we do. Whenever the economy goes south, in the world or in the country, these stocks go down, sometimes excessively so, so that the stocks implicitly forget that there’s a prospect that it’s just a cyclical downturn, not a secular change in the business. So we’ve often been doing some of this in the past.

Q: When it comes to Europe, most of your investments there are in companies headquartered in France and Switzerland. Why not more in Germany or peripheral European countries?

A: Again, great question. Let me start with Germany. In the past, we have had quite a few investments in Germany. We used to own in the early 2000s, late 1990s-2000s, Buderus [formerly Frankfurt: BUD]. It was our largest holding. Buderus is a boiler manufacturer. We’ve owned shares such as Vossloh [XETRA: VOS], Axel Springer [XETRA: SPR], Hornbach [XETRA: HBH3], the DIY retailer and so forth, but the reality is that most companies in Germany are not listed. If you think about industry, industrial companies in Germany, they are not listed because they belong to what the Germans call the mittelstand. The mittelstand are those thousands and thousands of basically small and mid-size companies, many of which are family-owned, and these companies are not listed. All those great German industrial companies basically are not available in the stock market.

Now, among the companies in the stock market, many have been recognized as good companies and so the stocks are no longer cheap — if you think about some of the auto manufacturers like Volkswagen. So for the time being, we don’t have much in Germany, although we did buy, a month ago, a large industrial German company.

Switzerland is an interesting country where there are many quality companies. Even though we’re value-oriented, we start our process with trying to identify not so much cheap-looking stocks, but quality businesses. We like quality and then we hope and pray that somehow, one way or the other, we can get it for cheap.

Switzerland has so many great businesses, whether it’s Kuehne & Nagel [Swiss: KNIN], which is an even better freight forwarding company than Expeditors International here in America. Nestle is a wonderful food company, better in my mind than Kraft [KFT]. Geberit [Swiss: GEBN] makes great plumbing products. Lindt & Sprüngli [Swiss: LISN], as I’m sure you know, makes delicious chocolates, and so it’s our bias to its quality that oftentimes has led us to Switzerland. Adecco [Swiss: ADEN] is a leading temporary staffing company, has much higher margins than Manpower [MAN], has higher margins than Randstad [Amsterdam: RAND]. They just have top-notch companies in Switzerland, and sometimes we are lucky to get them cheaply.

France is an interesting country because even though France has had and today has those socialist tendencies, France has an amazing number of great businesses, which oftentimes are global leaders. Think of Pernod-Ricard [Paris: RI]. Pernod-Ricard started as a little family-controlled business in the south of France and through astute management and acquisitions they have become a leader in the sale of liquor competing very well against Diageo, which is best-in-class in that industry. Think about L’Oreal — what a wonderful, global consumer company.  And of course everyone knows that France is the home of stocks such as LVMH and Hermes, the luxury good companies.

In France, we own Sodexo [Paris: SW] a food catering company. They compete against Compass [London: CPG] in the UK. Sodexo is a very well-run, global company. They have a huge subsidiary here in America, Marriott Services, which they acquired a long time ago.

There’s a stock we don’t own now but we’ve owned in the past. It’s become somewhat of a darling, Essilor [Paris: EI]. They are, by far, the leading company worldwide that manufacturers lenses for glasses. We’ve owned in the past Bureau Veritas. It’s a little bit like ISS [Group] in Switzerland. It’s an inspection service company and they have big market shares in many specific niches. It’s a service business, non-capital intensive. France has companies such as Legrand [Paris: LR]. Legrand is the leader worldwide in electrical switches.

France does have those global companies that are very good at what they do and, at the same time, many of these companies are family-controlled. We at IVA believe that more often than not family-controlled businesses do better than other types of business and could not agree more with Tom Russo from Gardner Russo & Gardner on that topic.  One of his big themes is that he loves, for the same reason we do, family-controlled companies because they have a long term vision and often times do great things.

The final point I want to make about France, and it’s important from a protection of minority shareholders standpoint, is that France is a pretty good place to be a minority shareholder. When there are takeovers in places like Germany or Switzerland, not to mention Italy, you often, as a minority shareholder, can be abused.

In France, especially now, compared to 20 years ago, minority shareholders are well treated when there are squeeze-outs and takeovers. The protection of minority shareholders is pretty high in France. That’s important because it just so happens that quite a few of our companies, not by design, get taken over, and when that happens we want to be well protected.

If you look at places like Italy, there aren’t that many listed companies, sort of the same reason as Germany. All these companies, like industrial companies based in northern Italy, most of them are family-owned and not listed. So there’s not that much available in the stock market, and some of the other countries in Europe — Spain, Portugal, Austria — oftentimes the biggest stocks are just the big banks and insurance companies. Most of them are, especially on the banking side, grossly undercapitalized. They may look cheap, but they are certainly not safe. Again, not a lot of quality stocks are available in the Greek stock market, or the Portuguese or Spanish one.

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