Bruce Berkowitz's Top Stock Picks
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Bruce Berkowitz, who runs Fairholme, initiated a position in Mercury General (NYSE: MCY) and added to his holdings in Sears (NASDAQ: SHLD), Jefferies (NYSE: JEF), and Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC). Below we examine his picks.
Mercury General: MCY writes risk classifications for automobile insurance. We view MCY as a turnaround story given a tough last few years. In December 2011, the company implemented a change in its personal auto rating plan in California (its biggest market) and changed its business mix, resulting in a 16% y-o-y bump in new California personal auto business, which reflects better pricing and cost trends in the CA personal auto market. That type of growth number is not bad at all.
Further good news came from the cost side of the business. If MCY is able to continue to tightly control expenses, the combined ratio should improve and yield more profitable underwriting results. MCY’s expense ratio improved 26.8% y-o-y, and management has noted that it expects a long-term 27% expense ratio. Effective expense management and the company's ~5.4% dividend yield are bright spots, but we remain wary of a decline in future rate increases and continued adverse reserve development (last quarter was MCY's seventh straight quarter of adverse development). In our opinion the risk-reward skew is in the investor’s favor, but only slightly so.
Sears: SHLD is a troubling stock, namely because you need to factor in all of the corporate restructuring activities led by Eddie Lampert. Ostensibly, quarterly earnings indicated impressive improvements, but dig a little deeper and you’ll note that the performance was driven by favorable weather and store closings. The weather helped the apparel and home improvement sales, though non-apparel comps were still negative, and margins were up due to store clearouts, which we point out is non-recurring. Since we identify these two items as the main source of the quarter’s outperformance, we think that sustaining this will be a challenge moving forward.
That being said, we think that when looking at SHLD the focus should be on cash flow and asset value as opposed to quarter to quarter operating performance. The company is selling assets—SHLD’s partial Canada spinoff occurred last quarter and a liquidity event for the Lands’ End brand seems on the horizon. However, in spite of these sales/spinoffs, we believe that cash flow will stay negative in the next couple of years. The question for investors is whether or not they believe that the fundamental asset values (i.e., liquidation value) warrants a higher stock price. We are not of that opinion.
Jefferies: JEF has been aggressively expanding the company. Last quarter, JEF acquired Hoare Govett, the U.K. corporate brokerage house, and bulked up its Bache platform. Management has its eyes on Europe for near-term expansion opportunities as new regulatory schemes in the US (e.g., Dodd-Frank) have propelled banks to turn their efforts toward home markets.
JEF has made significant strides in gaining market share in new product groups. Fixed income trading saw a nice rebound with increased customer order flow and favorable spreads. Importantly, leverage has been managed effectively, down from 9.9x in FY 2011 to 9.5x. We note that JEF’s average total assets were 22% higher q-o-q; we think that it is reasonable to assume that management will continue to be aggressive in acquiring companies. At 13.5x forward earnings, JEF already trades at a premium to bulge bracket competitors like Goldman Sachs (consensus estimates of 9.5x) and Morgan Stanley (consensus estimates of 8.6x). Therefore, we think upside potential is limited.
Wells Fargo: We took away many positives from the quarterly results. For one, WFC is in a position to make strategic asset acquisitions. It acquired between $5 to $6 billion in loans in Q1 and the latter half of last year. WFC boats high liquidity and a strong balance sheet (credit metrics include an improving FICO score mix and the loan to value (LTV) mix), leaving it with what we think is ample capacity to buy more loans.
WFC also lowered its estimates for litigation losses in excess of reserve from $1.2 billion in Q4 to $927 million. For background information, the Department of Justice is bringing about claims for monetary damages and civil penalties under fair lending laws. We share investor concerns of slipping revenues (down 4% to 5% in the past couple of years), which can potentially be mitigated by tack-on acquisitions, and declining mortgage origination market share. In the last few years, the company was able to capitalize de-risking institutions but maintaining the current 34% market share will be difficult in part due to the shift to more purchases. And finally it's the likelihood of net interest margin (NIM) decline that keeps us from buying the stock. Currently, WFC’s NIM stands at 3.9%, above the 3.6% average for the top 15 banks, but we think it will not hold. We calculate NIM as investment returns less interest expenses divided by average earning assets. Warren Buffet, Mohnish Pabrai, and Patrick Degorce are among the investors who are bullish about Wells Fargo.
Fool blogger Meena Krishnamsetty has a long position in Morgan Stanley. The Motley Fool owns shares of Wells Fargo & Company and has the following options: short APR 2012 $21.00 puts on Wells Fargo & Company, short APR 2012 $29.00 calls on Wells Fargo & Company, short OCT 2012 $33.00 puts on Wells Fargo & Company, and short OCT 2012 $36.00 calls on Wells Fargo & Company. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Wells Fargo & Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.If you have questions about this post or the Fool’s blog network, click here for information.