Small-Midcaps: Stock-specific Sizzle?

Stock specific actions i.e. momentum in small and midcaps so to say, are nothing new. This is the phenomenon that has been shaping market movement over past months, primarily driven by deluge of flows into domestic mutual funds. What is new is the expected acceleration of this phenomenon because of continued delay in earnings recovery in the top end and increased disenchantment of FIIs with Indian markets. This has caused lackluster movements in the top end of the market (large caps), while broader markets exhibit continued stock specific actions because of heightened domestic flows. For the first time ever, domestic flows surpassed FII flows by multiple times. To be precise, it is over 3+ times FII flows in this year (because of aggressive FII selling amid huge domestic buying over last three months). This, coupled with the fact that India macro is losing part of its luster on hardening crude and on weakening prospects for twin deficits (fiscal and current account), will strengthen this trend of stock specific actions further in the coming months.

As has been argued by this column for a while, the GST and DeMo impacts are transitory and will fade away sooner than later. That does not mean that the economy will break out of the range (6 to 7% range) any time soon, though it will be off its first quarter low of 5.7% soon on GST restocking and on low base effect in Q3. The break out to the 8%+ level can happen only if the investment demand recovers (capex cycle), prospect of which has improved though on the recent bank recapitalization move, one has to watch out closely the metrics of utilization and surplus capacity to sense the early signs of such a recovery. Until then, both economy and the markets are unlikely to break out of the range, while stock specific action will sizzle the small and midcap space. This, in a way means extended phase of time correction (with intermittent volatility of course) for top end of the markets, if not for the entire markets.

The key downside risk to the above prognosis is likely to come from potential acceleration in Fed action on monetary tightening. So far under Yellen’s chairmanship, market has been pricing-in a gradual and moderate tightening from Fed. Market will be watching closely on the new Fed chairman’s appointment for cues on the direction and for the pace of monetary tightening which in turn will dictate the global market’s trend.


What is the real story on the Economy?

Narrative has changed since the time the GDP and current account data-points were released for the June quarter. Shocked by the sharp slowdown in growth numbers coupled with surging deficit in current account, business media and policy commentators have started to beam with breathless commentary on how India’s macro has suddenly lost its magic on fallout of demonetization and on poor implementation of GST. Feeling vindicated on their criticism on some of the policy measures of this administration, esp. on DeMon, the mainstream channels have joined the chorus to magnify this quarter muddle into a mega trend of sharper slump. Yes, the GDP growth which came at 5.7% for June quarter was shockingly low and the CAD (current account deficit) at 2.4% belied even the most pessimistic projections. That said, placing the complete onus on some of the transient factors like GST and DeMon, will be akin to missing the woods for the trees.

Closer look at the data points will tell us that the economy has been slipping steadily since March  2016,much before the DeMon struck on 8th Nov’16. As can be seen in the below exhibit, the core GVA (growth measured in Gross Value Added metric excluding agriculture and govt. expenditure) peaked in March’16 quarter at 10%+ and has been sliding since then to sub 5% in March’17 quarter, before marginally recovering to 5%+ level in June quarter. This, seen in the context of structurally falling numbers both in private investment growth and in GFCF i.e. Gross Fixed Capital Formation (as reflected in the charts below), will make one understand that the root of the malaise is not in the transient factors like GST etc, but  in the secular slowdown in investment demand. Of course, sharp appreciation in Rupee over past several months in real effective exchange rate basis (ref chart below) has added to the woes. With current account slipping, adjustment is on cards with Rupee beginning to lose its shine and thereby providing much needed relief for the exporters. That leaves us with the bigger challenge which is, how to stem the rot in capex cycle?. Without reviving private capex cycle, it is near impossible for the economy to cross the 7 to 8% hurdle, though it can recover to high 6% when the transient factors fade in couple of quarters. This is because, private capex constitutes over 30%+ of GDP (over $600 Bn) which if remains sluggish, can scuttle the much brandished India Story, leave alone the scary job prospects. Govt’s ill advised plan to splurge on public investment by relaxing fiscal norms (thro fiscal stimulus), can barely move the needle on growth, while could upset the portfolio flows (esp to debt) and hence Rupee, if bond investors start fleeing on the prospect of rising market borrowings (hence Gsec yield). Hope Govt. doesn’t compound its macro problems by yielding to the increased noise on fiscal stimulus.


But reviving investment demand is not going to be easy. Govt. has been struggling with this for last two years. What ails the private capex, is not so much to do with supply of credit than to the demand for credit. Given this, neither the rate-cuts nor the balance sheet cleanups in PSU banks can revive the investments meaningfully, though can help incrementally. Given the surplus liquidity that is sloshing in the global monetary system, capital or the cost of it is the last thing that worries corporate chieftains, though they continue to clamor for rate-cuts as part of their diversionary tactics. India Inc is not investing, not for lack of capital, but because of the gross under-utilization in much of the sectors. High capital intensive sectors such as Energy, Metals, Oil & Gas etc. suffer from serious surplus capacity globally too. Add to this, the surge in buy-out opportunities for the Indian corporates because of balance sheet stress in much of the capital intensive sectors. Why would any corporate invest in green-field projects if ready capacities are available at distressed levels. The solution lies in the consumption demand. Sustained rise in consumption can improve utilization and hence the need for additional capacity which will in turn revive the investments. Greenshoots across global economies of course will help in reducing spare global capacity while strengthening private consumption in India will over time compel chieftains to open their purse strings. Till then, it is going to be sub-7% reality, which the Govt. and investors have to make peace with. 


Money is made in waiting!

That said, the hard part is, it will be an agonizing wait…

Value investing is simple, yet isn’t easy. The wait for value to emerge and the subsequent wait for value to unlock, in most cases, is a protracted and a painful one. What makes it worse (emotionally of course) is when value emerges, the slide doesn’t stop just because it is undervalued, given market’s manic tendency to undershoot. After all the wait for markets to come off the overshoot, the notional portfolio erosion during the under-shoot after initiating value buying, makes even the staunch value investors shaky. To digest the erosion and still have the nerve to add during the undershoot, knowing well the long wait ahead for the value to rerate (unlock), is what makes the whole process gut-wrenching. Similarly, even the rerating ride (upward value unlocking journey) is equally rocky and bumpy with many false starts and vicious falls. If one adds client’s expectations/pressure into the equation, hardly can anyone envy the money manager who has taken the road-less-travelled path of value investing. If this is not hard enough, such money managers have to go thro’ this cycle multiple times to create value over long-term.

Add to these, the challenges that come frequently while deploying cash in a falling market. After holding cash for a reasonably long time while the market kept rising, when the market turns and cracks, it will be tempting to quickly deploy when valuation turns attractive. If the market undershoots further, as it normally does, depleting cash too quickly tempted by attractive valuation could hurt the portfolio. Alternatively, if the market bounces quickly without undershooting further, decision to deploy quickly could prove to be a genius one. Both are possible outcomes in any market (irrespective of the economic fundamentals at that point of time) depending on to what extent the fear cycle plays in the given point of time.

Let us illustrate this vide an example. Given below is the price-chart that captures this dynamics for a stock that has moved into the deep value zone recently. In the below chart, point A represents the point of overshoot, point B represents the time from which value starts emerging, point C represents the point of undershoot where it becomes a deep value and point D representing the beginning of rerating. As one would infer, the overall time for the entire cycle to play out, from overshoot to undershoot and then to rerating, goes even beyond three long years. In some cases, the wait could be even longer if the undershoot turns ugly or rerating gets retarded, depending on the extent of bearishness in the market.


The above chart is not an imaginary one. It is a real one (except for the dotted segment) for a stock that has turned deep value in the ongoing correction. It is a price chart of a company that is into renting high tonnage cranes for the wind sector.  With the wind sector suddenly losing shine on serious short-term setbacks, this stock is on a free fall, thereby providing a fat-pitch opportunity for value pickers.

Value opportunities are not limited only to few stocks. With bubble popping out in small and midcaps in the ongoing slump, many stocks have sunk to new lows, thereby providing entry opportunities. For anyone who is willing to invest on the emotional capital of “Waiting”, these are great time to load up one’s shopping carts.

Investing isn’t easy. Superior skill and extra-ordinary nerve are required to achieve above average results in investing. To quote from Howard Marks memo, “So, in the end, there is only one absolute truth about investing. Charlie is right : It isn’t easy”

Happy Value Investing!

Seller’s Strike…

With Nifty flirting around 10K milestone, it is busy time for business channels and financial portals. All of them compete with each other with screaming headlines on how so and so stock has multiplied so many times in such a short time. Number of such stocks that have skyrocketed keeps growing by leaps and bounds. It is no accident that much of these stellar stocks are from the infamous group of tiny or micro caps. The reasons are not difficult to fathom.

In many cases, the surge in prices is more to do with lack of sellers than to do with aggressive buying. Incessant rise in price has led to sellers going slow on fear of premature exit, leaving many counters with few buyers driving up the prices. As a result, stocks are soaring amid thin volumes. In such a scenario, even a small selling when it comes, could leave a deep crack in some of these celebrated multi-baggers.

Though this trend is more prevalent in tiny caps, the rub-off of this trend on wider small and midcaps is one of key reasons for elevated valuations in the broader markets. As anyone who had attempted to sell even marginal quantities would know, the prices are very unreal and portfolio value could see a big erosion even on small selling. Given such a fragile nature of valuation, one should be very careful not to take the sharp rise in portfolios at face value. Tide does turn and when it turns (no one knows when), it will be a turn for the buyers to strike. When that happens, the whole momentum game  could play in reverse, esp. for tiny and micro caps. It is time for caution for the overall market, esp. when it is driven by surge in liquidity rather than by ever-elusive earnings upgrades.

Pockets of Pessimism

banner-octIndian Pharma: Fat pitch in sight, get ready for a hard swing!

It may seem odd to talk about a fat pitch when Nifty is at a striking distance from a five digit mark (sorry, struck and gone well past that mark is another matter). It is no secret that Sensex has been soaring to stratospheric valuations on surging liquidity from both domestic and foreign investors. If anything, stocks are simmering at frothy levels for a while now. Yes, this is true for much of the sectors where it is a story of trumpets blaring amid ever-rising list of multi-baggers. But that hasn’t stopped the markets to punish prices in certain select pockets to seductive levels on growing uncertainties in the short-to-medium term. If one looks around for sectors where drums are beating amid plunging stock prices, it is unlikely that one would return empty-handed.

No prizes, of course, for guessing the sectors that have been the laggards in this bull run. It is widely known that the top stocks that have spectacularly soured the sentiments are from the infamous group of three sectors, namely IT, Telecom and Pharma. While all of them are going thro’ sectoral short-term setbacks, on measure of mis-pricing relative to long-term business fundamentals, Pharma seems to be more promising.

In a rare instance of unfortunate coincidence, confluence of factors have miraculously come together to conspire a deadly blow to the fortunes of pharma industry. The sector that helped India to build global prominence is suddenly facing huge set of headwinds on account of following developments:

  • Increased regulatory scrutiny (Increasing cases of warning letters and import warnings from US FDA).
  • Consolidation of distributors in US resulting in pricing pressures for generics
  • FDA’s increased focus on fast-tracking drug clearances leading to more competition in generics and hence putting pressure on prices.
  • NPPA (National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority) bringing more drugs under price control in domestic market.
  • The risk of dictum from Indian govt. on generics prescription in the local market.
  • To top it all, GST hiccups couldn’t have come at a worse time i.e. destocking and delay in restocking in domestic formulations.

Very rarely, such a series of setbacks suddenly surround a particular sector and cause stock prices to get mis-appraised in a disproportional degree. Pharma is going thro such a painful period in this so called perfect storm. Are these setbacks structural or cyclical? If anything, FDA’s vigorous vigil will play a vital role in streamlining the quality process which is positive in the long-term to achieve bigger business scale in generics. Similarly, accelerated drug clearances by FDA, while putting pricing pressures, will also help small and medium players to gain faster access to US generics. In our recent meeting, CEO of one of the promising mid-tier pharma companies, echoed this long-term view. Moreover, much of the domestic challenges listed above should not dent the long-term prospects for the sector, except the dictum of generic prescription, which many industry insiders don’t see it coming given the practical challenges in implementation. With govt. going slow on this, the noise around it has subsided significantly.

As someone wise said, great investment opportunities come around when excellent companies are surrounded by unusual circumstances that cause the stock to be mis-priced manically. Pharma seems to be offering that classical value opportunities to those who have lots of patient capital. More so with small and mid-cap pharma (stock specific, of course) where relative undervaluation can give additional kicker.

Happy Value Investing!

Elevated Equity Placements!

Market Overview..

Story on domestic flows is still going strong with monthly MF investments in equity market sustaining at a record level of 10K cr. But that hasn’t stopped the markets to turn weaker this month too. For the second consecutive month, markets are staring at a negative return in June, marginal though. What explains this divergence? With strong domestic flows, one would have expected the markets to sustain strength. Is it something to do with short-term challenges expected in GST implementation? While markets expect short-term pain in GST, it does not fully explain the sudden weakness in the broader markets. Where did the domestic liquidity go, if not into buying stocks in the secondary market? The answer seems to lie in what is happening outside the secondary markets. The heightened action in the primary probably holds the key on why the markets have turned subdued in secondary. Liquidity seems to have found an outlet in the primary placements.

As per estimates by Prime Database, Indian companies have raised nearly Rs 13,800cr so far through IPOs & FPOs (Follow on Public Offer) and nearly Rs 34,000cr through QIPs (Qualified Institutional Placements) so far in the current calendar year. Two infrastructure investment trusts have raised about Rs 7300cr in the current calendar year. The industry estimates suggest, close to $20Bn will be raised from equity placements alone this calendar year, exceeding last year’s numbers by more than double. With this level of elevated placements in primary market, secondary seems to have lost the vigour it had shown in the earlier months.

So much so for liquidity and bulls can’t rely on that alone for further strength. This coupled with subdued expectation on Q1 earnings from GST related challenges, has turned the sentiment weak and could result in more volatile times ahead. For value investors, this loss of momentum is a welcome opportunity as it provides a brilliant window to add to their portfolios with value emerging in select pockets and in select sectors. Watch out for volatile weeks!

Finding Refuge in Arbitrage

Indian market: Is there a way to ride this reckless phase without taking too much risk?

In normal times, bargains come in broader markets, not in blue chips. Broader small and midcaps quote at a meaningful discount to larger blue chips given their low scale and poor liquidity. But when mercury rises and when market moves up manically into a frothy zone, this equation turns upside down to drive valuation multiples into a bizarre zone. Currently we are going thro’ one such phase where small caps are sizzling at a significant premium to large caps. In an intriguing equation, smaller the size, spicier has the valuation become in this new bull-run. Below chart brilliantly captures this valuation conundrum by plotting the multiple across the market-caps. Micro caps have become the new masters when comes to multiples. On one year forward basis, BSE small cap index is at a scary multiple (of over 40+) while their bigger cousins are peevishly behind at 20+ level. As to be expected, the tiny ones (SME platform) are trading at the top of the table.


hese vagaries in valuations are not without any reasons. Changing composition of flows has contributed to this new found charm for the lower and middle rung of the markets. Earlier, flows were dominated by FIIs and hence the skew towards large caps as FIIs usually fancy larger market cap companies. With domestic flows taking the centre stage now, small and midcaps have started shining in a spectacular fashion. Given the long-term drivers for a structural shift in household savings from physical assets to financial assets, dazzle in domestic flows is unlikely to diminish, esp. when the other avenues for savings (fixed income) are much less attractive.

In such a situation, when excess domestic liquidity is expected to keep the valuation elevated for small and midcaps, how does one navigate this reckless run without taking too much risks (till eventual correction sets in).

Here goes the most interesting way one can handle investments in an overvalued market such as the current one:

Go tactical with asset allocation thro’ Arbitrage:

As any value investor would understand, building long term positions in a rapidly rising market, while would make the portfolio shine in the short-run, will dent its long-term performance without exception. As is often said, long-term outperformance comes from short-term underperformance. But there are ways by which one can make the short-term performance little more palatable. The trick is to tout for tactical short-term opportunities, but without taking the market risks. Event based arbitrage is one such tactical model that can help to add glitter to the portfolio without carrying the MTM (mark-to-market) risks. They are primarily short-to-medium term opportunities driven by event based corporate actions like buyback, open-offer and other special situations including mergers, demergers and delisting. The most interesting aspect of this tactical allocation model based on arbitrage is that, while it enhances the portfolio returns in the short-term by serving as a superior substitute for cash parking, it releases the cash at the most opportune time (during corrections) for enabling long-term portfolio building.

Besides arbitrage, there are two other critical ways one can deal with expensive markets. Bull market provides a brilliant opportunity to exit from positions that may not hold huge promise at reasonable prices, so to say to cleanup the past mistakes. Similarly, it also provides a huge window to prune profitable positions by booking profits. Both these actions help raising cash levels which can come handy during the market correction that eventually follows any one-way bull run.

Happy Value Investing!