Friday, 29 July 2016

Global Investment House: The Future is Now and Likely to Remain So

For Some Now May Be the Only Future They Have
As promised in my first postsome thoughts on Global’s future.

As detailed below, Global faces a variety of very real constraints to growth—the primary one being control by its creditors. If it doesn’t or can’t grow, Global’s net income will remain modest, likely be volatile, and its ROE subpar. These obstacles are formidable and AA has a hard time seeing Global finding a way out of this challenge.
First a recap to set the scene.

In my previous post I identified a structural problem with Global’s revenues and expenses.  The latter (adjusted to exclude impairment and loan loss provisions) average roughly KD 14 million a year – 140% of the revenues from its core Assets Under Management (AUM) business.  Other lines of business (LOBs) then have to generate enough revenue to cover remaining expenses and produce a profit.

That’s a problem because Global’s other LOBs lack the scale to consistently generate enough revenue to do this –either in absolute or ROE terms.
Profitability is cobbled together from these “hobby” businesses plus one off items such as FX translation gains from a depreciating dinar or loan loss provision reversals—items whose persistence is unlikely.  
By way of example, if these latter two items had not been present in 2015, Global’s net income would be 10 percent of the reported KD 6.5 million.  Additionally, the non-AUM fee-generating LOBs (chiefly brokerage and investment banking) are market sensitive and thus add unwelcome volatility to earnings.
Strategic Options

In the face of this structural problem, Global can either: 
  1. Accept its current position. 
    • Live with the volatility. 
    • Or rationalize its expense base to reduce the volatility. Without detailed information it’s not possible to determine if cutting what appear to be “hobby” operations – Bahrain and Oman brokerage, for example—would result in significant cost reductions without disturbing the AUM business.  
  2. Seek to materially change its fate by significantly growing revenues as a way of eliminating volatility, increasing ROE, and making itself a more credible partner for clients and a more compelling opportunity for equity investors.
As my framing of options indicates, I think growth is the preferable path. 

Shrinking oneself to greatness is not really a business strategy.  Growth will also facilitate the sale of the creditors’ 70 percent stake which as argued below is the major current constraint on the firm’s development.
One caveat about growth.

FGB/NBAD is unlikely to challenge ICBC 'sor JPMorgan’s position.  Nor will Global rival the likes of Blackrock.  That’s fine.  There’s nothing wrong with being a fish in a small pond.  But even a fish in a small pond needs to grow to keep up with the other fish in the same pond. 
There is a third option: a sale to another institution that can fold Global’s business into its own, cut costs, and reap the benefits of scale. 

Two things would be required.  
  1. A sale price that would satisfy the creditors.  This probably would be the main sticking point to this scenario.  This early in the life of the debt settlement there probably would be creditor price resistance to a “bargain” sale.  
  2. A transaction that does not disturb the current client relationships, i.e., that maintains the KD 1.1 billion in AUM.  That is perhaps easier to achieve if current legacy management and board representation is retained.
If Global doesn’t increase revenues, net income is likely to be volatile, remain relatively modest, and ROE subpar.  As outlined below, Global faces some very real growth constraints. It’s hard for AA to see a way forward for the firm out of this conundrum.

Constraints on Growth
Current Majority Shareholders (Creditors)

The primary current constraint on growth is the majority shareholder (Global’s creditors) who by virtue of their 70 percent equity stake control the firm.  Their self-interest is directly at odds with a pro-growth strategy.    
In the best of times, bank creditors like other “bond” investors focus on return of capital and not like “equity” investors on growth and increasing return on capital.

A debt restructuring typically intensifies this tendency.  Cash extraction from the debtor becomes even more urgent and is imposed through aggressive repayment schedules and rescheduling covenants that severely constrain spending and business development.   
But Global wasn’t a typical restructuring.  Creditors normally don’t take assets to settle debts because they know that their track record in realizing assets is much worse than in underwriting loans.   

The fact that creditors demanded 70% of the rump firm’s equity and existing shareholders gave it is a very clear sign that a serious shortfall from asset sales was expected. That deficit and the need to maximize recovery have no doubt exacerbated the impulse for cash extraction.   
When equity in the borrower is taken, creditors cash out by selling the firm to investors or collecting dividends.  When a sale at an acceptable price is not possible, then dividends become “favorite”. 

At this time, price expectations of seller and buyer are probably far apart.
Since we are only three years into the settlement, an acceptable price for creditors is probably one that is no less than the value ascribed to the equity when the “expected” loss on the settlement was calculated.  To sell for a lower price would require booking a loss.  Over a longer period, the creditors’ price discipline could wane, if earnings prove volatile and that volatility requires a revaluation of the carrying value of the equity.

Given its current condition, Global is not a particularly exciting investment prospect for new investors.  Legacy shareholders probably haven’t changed their minds from 2012/2013 when they turned down an opportunity to infuse new cash.      
If creditors won’t let Global spend “precious cash” to build the business, what other ways could they help grow revenues?

Creditors could shift AUM from their own firms to Global.  They could solicit new AUM for Global.  But if they did, they would share the resulting profit with other creditors and the 30 percent “legacy” shareholders in the firm.  Little economic sense in that, particularly because relatively large amounts would be required and creditors have already taken a “hit” on the debt settlement, no doubt exhausting whatever minute amounts of generosity they may once have had.    
Global’s strategy confirms this analysis. It’s clear that the firm is being managed not for ROE or growth, but for cash extraction.   That involves retaining the “cash cow” KD 1.1 billion in AUM, keeping a firm control on costs, and following a conservative risk acceptance policy. 

“Souk legend” (the Gulf equivalent of urban legend) is that GIH’s KD 1.1 billion in AUM-the main driver of current revenue—is largely (almost all?) comprised of KIA funds that Ms. Maha played a key role in obtaining.  The creditors are smart enough to recognize that they need legacy management to keep current customers in place and perhaps incrementally add to AUM. This probably explains her continued presence in the board and in executive management as well as the retention of other “key” legacy managers.
As regards expenses, a glance at note 16 (2015 annual report) shows no evidence of significant investment in new assets, including computer equipment which would involve relatively small amounts.   Assets are almost fully depreciated.  While accounting useful life is not the same as economically useful life, this does suggest some replacement is likely needed.  That it has not occurred at any measurable level is revealing. Directors’ fees are also being kept at modest levels.  Usually, in the old boy (and in this case one girl) world of boards, cost control is not an urgent imperative.  The amounts are not just that large.  Clearly expense control is a key business focus.

In terms of risk aversion, the overconcentration in cash and cash equivalents is a very clear sign of heightened risk control and husbanding cash for dividends.  With 50% of assets in low ROA banks and cash despite there being no material debt obligations, it is clear the firm is being managed for cash not ROE.
Other Actors – Private Clients

Could other parties step up to deliver needed growth?
Retail investors aren’t going to provide the revenue required.  Too many small ticket transactions and portfolios would be required to change Global’s fortunes.  Many new retail customers would increase operational costs offsetting some of the revenue gain.

Large institutions and HNWIs could drive material change at GIH.   But what is their incentive to shift their portfolios? Global doesn’t appear to have any compelling investment product or products that differentiate it from its competitors and make it a “must have” for such an investor.  Why would such an investor select Global over NBK or another major regional or international firm?  
Global also still carries some remaining baggage from its 2008 difficulties, particularly in the treatment of investors in AlThouraia/Mazaya Saudi and Global MENA Financial Assets. This probably exacerbates non Kuwaiti GCC nationals’ general concerns about Kuwaiti business practices as well as the appetite of those Kuwaitis who invested in these funds.

But there’s another constraint. Assuming there are private institutional and HNW investors (and these are likely to be Kuwaiti rather than other GCC investors) willing to do business with Global, where would the funds come from?
As discussed in my post about the NBAD/FGB merger, the GCC is a minor financial market when measured in terms of assets and earnings and is highly likely to remain so for a variety of reasons (demographics, the nature and size of local economies, etc.). 

With GCC asset managers this is even more the case.  Major world firms have AUM in the trillions (Blackrock at $4.6 trillion) and net income is measured in billions (Blackrock north of $3 billion) or hundreds of millions. 
Currently, Global is mid-tier behind NBK Capital and KAMCO each of who have at least 3.5 times Global’s AUM.  A significant shift in Global’s fortunes would require a major shift away from these other firms.  Something that doesn’t seem highly probable to AA.  “Losing” 10% of your clients is a rare occurrence.  “Losing” 30% or more even less probable.     

Other Actors-Official Institutions
What would motivate a government-related entity to place investments with Global when 70% of the profit on the relationship will go into the hands of creditors, who include foreign banks?  And very likely include some investors who have acquired their positions at a discount.  Few like to feed vultures.

Another constraint is that non-Kuwaiti official institutions are unlikely to shift business to Global.  They have their own national firms to support and sad to say many in the GCC have a dim view of Kuwaiti business practices.
All in all a rather bleak strategic cul-de-sac.

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