In episode 26 of Stocks Neat Co-Portfolio Manager Harvey Migotti, Analyst Nicholas Plessas and CIO Steve Johnson sit down to discuss the year just passed in markets, most notably a strong rally in uranium and the small cap recovery at the end of 2023.
The uranium story grew throughout 2023 with the spot price increasing through the year. This was discussed in detail in Stocks Neat episode 22, where Harvey and Steve explored factors leading to a recovery in this market. Since then, the uranium spot price has continued to rise and has now reached over 100 USD/lbs for the first time since 2007.
The small cap recovery towards the end of 2023 came as inflation eased across the US and other developed economies. However, the recovery domestically has been largely limited to profitable small caps thus far.
Listen to the full episode to find out more about Steve and Harvey’s views on the year.
Explore previous episodes here. We’d love your feedback. If you like what you’re hearing (and what we’re drinking), be sure to follow and subscribe – we’re doing this every month.
[00:00:03] ANNOUNCER: Just a quick reminder, this podcast may contain general advice, but it doesn’t take into account your personal circumstances, needs or objectives. The scenarios and stocks mentioned in this podcast are for illustrative purposes only and do not constitute a recommendation to buy, hold or sell any financial products. Read the relevant PDFs. Assess whether that information is appropriate for you. And consider speaking to a financial advisor before making investment decisions. Past performance is no indicator of future performance.
[00:00:39] SJ: Hello, and welcome to episode 26 of Stocks Neat. It’s 2024. Happy New Year. Merry Christmas. Hope you had a great break. I’m joined by Harvey Migotti, Portfolio Manager on our international fund. Hello, Harvey.
[00:00:53] HM: Hi. How’s it going?
[00:00:54] SJ: Very well. Thanks. How was the break?
[00:00:56] HM: It was good. Just spending some time with family over in the US. And it was relaxing. Just what I needed.
[00:01:02] SJ: Is the election dominating everything over there yet? Or is it still a few months –
[00:01:06] HM: Not yet. I think not yet. I think focus was on Christmas and still chatter about inflation and all that jazz. But I can see it slowly starting already year-to-date given all the emails I get from the sell side.
[00:01:19] SJ: First, caucuses in Iowa. And it looks like it will be highly likely. It’ll be Donald Trump running again and actually favorite to win the next presidency of the United States of America. Time to start thinking about that if you’re managing your portfolios and what it might mean if you’re watching this on YouTube. We’ve got analyst and podcast producer extraordinaire, Nick Plessas sitting in the corner. We do have a whiskey today. We were originally going to record this earlier in the week and had some technical problems and weren’t going to drink. But it’s Friday afternoon. Now we get to have a whiskey with our podcast. This is a present from my cousin that I was given over Christmas. Very, very kind and generous offer. Tasmanian whiskey called LARK. This is their Christmas cask. And it’s a pretty flowery description on the back of the bottle. We’ll give that a taste and see what it is like. Another one of these.
They’re all getting better and better at producing young whiskies that they can sell. We’ve talked about the economics of whiskey before. You have to store it for 10 years. The cost of capital in today’s interest rate environment is quite high over that 10-year so you can sell this young stuff –
[00:02:25] HM: It’s interesting because that’s generally in Scotland and places where it’s colder. But given the climate, especially around here in New South Wales in Sydney, in a couple of years you get the same effect almost. That’s because of what happens in the barrel due to the heat.
[00:02:40] SJ: They’re certainly happy to tell you that when they’re trying to sell you the whiskey.
[00:02:43] HM: I mean, some of them are really tasting fabulous. And LARK’s one of the most popular ones coming out of Australia. It’s certainly one of the biggest brands I would say. And you can see across around the world and they are commanding or trying to command a premium price.
[00:02:58] SJ: Yeah. Looking forward to it. Had a couple of great wines – I was in South Africa for Christmas with my mother-in-law. And there are some great wines over there that are really, really cheap. Producing some great chardonnay. And, yeah, worth shipping some of those. And you can buy them in Australia for about four times the price of what they cost you in South Africa. But some very, very good wines from that part of the world.
Harvey, I thought we’d kick off today with a bit of a reflection on 2023. I was looking back through the previous podcast. It was only four episodes ago back in September that we did our Now’s the Time for Uranium Podcast. And it’s been a pretty extraordinary 4 months there certainly in terms of price movements. Probably played out better than or at least as well as we could have expected so far. It’s been happening out there.
[00:03:41] HM: Certainly faster. Yeah. It’s largely the things we discussed. But I think the broader market is starting to get a better understanding of that. There’s talk about Russia and US potential ban on either importing Russian uranium. And Russia’s talking about potentially stopping exports to the US. And lots of the enrichment happens in Kazakhstan and Russia and it’s kind of causing a bit of scramble to get your hands on the stockpile as you can.
Obviously, the financial platforms like Spratt and Yellow Cake in the UK are actually buying up the physical commodity, which is also sweeping up a portion of that spot market. And the spot market as part of the overall market is very small when it comes to uranium. A lot of it is some long-term contracts that goes straight to utilities. That’s all happening. A lot of buzz. And I see it mentioned more and more in emails from generalists’ sales guys and whatever else.
[00:04:37] SJ: For context for the listener, I mean, what was the price? 65 or 70 when we recorded that last podcast? That was already up.
[00:04:42] HM: That’s right. It’s up 50% since then.
[00:04:44] SJ: Quite a bit. And another 50% since then. Over $100 a pound now. And a pretty short market. I mean, there’s no reason in the short term. I think it’s going to take some time for supply to respond to higher prices here.
[00:04:57] HM: We had our first announcement actually a couple days ago from UEC in the US. They’re restarting – I believe it was their Wyoming plant. I need to double-check that. You certainly need prices like this to even restart old mothball capacity. And it does take time. It’s not like turn the on switch on and you’re producing. It’s a longer process.
[00:05:20] SJ: Yeah. A few ASX-listed companies here in Australia bringing mothball assets back online. Boss Energy. Yeah, it’s a fairly big source of supply potentially coming. But even there, not till June this year. It’s an interesting period here.
We talked about it on the previous podcast. But the companies that are purchasing this have run their inventories down to record low levels. You can imagine some panic starting to set in there about where the supply is going to come from over the next 12 months at least.
[00:05:51] HM: Yeah. That’s right.
[00:05:53] SJ: We’ve seen in the past 12 months a lithium bubble price turn into a bust as supply has responded much, much more quickly than most people anticipated. Particularly in Chile, there’s been a lot of supply coming to the market there. And demand hasn’t quite been what people thought it was going to be in terms of electric vehicles. What’s the supply response look like in your view for uranium here? How long does it take for production to ramp up?
I think I remember from our previous podcast, you said it’s actually fairly ubiquitous in terms of supply of it. It’s just getting it out of the ground.
[00:06:27] HM: It is. It’s getting it out of the ground. And then it’s enriching it and all that jazz. And obviously, it’s one of those not in my backyard type commodities. You don’t exactly want to be told that three miles away they’re starting to take up uranium from underground and then drive it past your house. It’ll take some time.
And you also have production problems at existing facilities. Kazatomprom, the biggest producer in the world based in Kazakhstan, they already announced a few months ago that they’re going to miss 23 production targets. Now they said they’re likely to miss 24 and 25 as well.
[00:07:02] SJ: You sent me a really interesting note on that. And I think it’s actually a bit of a model for some of these cycles. And this one has been – on the downside, has been particularly long and deep. But talking about the companies that have been able to produce through that downturn in prices really high grading their operations. Trying to get their cost of production down dramatically by mining all of the most prospective areas.
[00:07:25] HM: Of course. That’s right.
[00:07:26] SJ: And now that they’re trying to ramp up production, it gets very difficult because the quality of the oil that they have or the easy stuff has been mined is the short way.
[00:07:35] HM: Yeah, the best example of that is copper where ore grades have been declining for the better part of the last decade. And yeah, your costs as ore grade goes down, your costs go up and naturally tends to push the price of the commodity higher. Because the marginal cost of extraction is higher.
And we shouldn’t forget that there has been inflation across all mining categories. Labor, et cetera, equipment, costs have gone up and so forth. We’re starting to see some restarts now. But on the other side, we have demand that should continue to go up. I think we mentioned this in a few of our writeups and reports. But the amount of nuclear plants out there are set to double over the next decade.
China and India are building a ton of new reactors and seeing this as a really good clean source of energy as they develop their economies. That side can keep supporting healthy prices over the longer term.
[00:08:28] SJ: Now, this podcast is not financial advice. I will reiterate again. And I keep getting in trouble for talking about things that I shouldn’t. How are you thinking about the investment here? It has been great for us over the past 12 months. I mean, we’ve owned that Sprott Physical Uranium Trust for a couple of years now.
[00:08:44] HM: Yeah. Two years or so. Yeah.
[00:08:45] SJ: Really taken off over the past sort of four or five months. How are you thinking about the investment itself?
[00:08:50] HM: Yeah. We’ve taken some profits off the table. Obviously, it’s slightly smaller waiting than it was this time last year. Having said that, we’re still long. We think that there is a chance. Not saying it’ll happen. But there’s a chance that there’s a proper scramble from these utilities. And more panic starts to set in. And you could easily see a spike to higher levels even though that’s over the near term. But since we’re on the physical commodity, we can take advantage of that.
I think when it comes to companies themselves, the longer-term price, there’s more of a question mark there. Where does it settle? And what can you actually underwrite in a 10, 20, 30-year mine life model?
[00:09:28] SJ: Yeah. Especially these companies that are only just starting to take the covers off the mines. It’s going to be 12, 18 months for a lot of them until they start producing even. It doesn’t really matter what the price is –
[00:09:39] HM: And the ramp isn’t immediate either, you know?
[00:09:40] SJ: And there will be problems. And there’ll be cost overruns. And there’ll be all those issues that you get on the mining side of things.
[00:09:48] HM: That being said, I think we’re across both funds. We’re looking for opportunities there. It’s not that easy. Because as you said, a lot of these guys, they own a bunch of mines. Some have been mothballed. There is some existing facilities there, et cetera. They probably sold off a lot of the equipment, however. And it’s not an immediate turn-on effect. By the time that’s done, where is the price in two, three years as you said? That’s the bigger question. I think we’re happier to keep writing the physical commodity for now while we do work on some of these opportunities.
[00:10:20] SJ: Yeah. It’s been so far so good. There will be some – I’m sure the equity stubs of these companies can be worth 10, 20 times their money. But so far, certainly, since we recorded that last podcast anyway, the physical has done better than the equity listed in the producers of uranium over the past few months.
[00:10:38] HM: Yeah. Because people are seeing it as potentially a temporary spike, right? But now, over the past kind of week or two, once you kind of started reaching 100 ore a pound, I think that’s when you finally start to see the equity. Say, “Oh, you know what? This looks good because that maybe means that the long-term price over the next few years is actually 70, 80, which makes my business profitable. And this is worth more than the market’s pricing.” And so, you started to see them finally move higher.
[00:11:07] SJ: Again, that was episode 22 if people want to go back and listen to it. Some longer, more detailed discussion there of the underlying dynamics driving what we think is a good long-term opportunity.
Nick is sitting there nodding. Why don’t you pour us all the whiskey while we move on to the next segment? Enjoy the effects, the sound effects. Whoa. Whoa. That’s enough.
[00:11:32] HM: Jesus. It’s a limited edition, mate.
[00:11:36] NP: Oh, sorry.
[00:11:39] HM: Hey, I’m not complaining.
[00:11:40] SJ: Harvey, the other big topic you and I discussed at the start of 2023 was the case for small caps. I’d say October, that was looking foolish. And I think you changed the wording in my final CIO letter to what – what was it? Relatively wrong rather than foolish to put it by the end of the year. Because we had seen some recovery of the small-cap underperformance. But it was still net-net for the calendar year. Pretty significant underperformance at the small-cap end of the market. Is it something that you still think has potential? Do you think there was some encouraging signs in those last few months of the year?
[00:12:20] HM: I definitely think. You can clearly see what the market is going to do as rates stabilize or as you get more confirmation that there is no hard landing in countries such as the US. It’s a good signal for what can continue to happen here. We still see a lot of really good value across small caps.
That being said, I think the easy money, which was the quick re-rate from multiples that in some cases were extreme or ridiculous, that’s happened. It’s about picking stocks and getting earnings right. And if the companies continue to perform, they’ll do very well. And you’ll potentially get a valuation uplift as well. I think we feel really good about that exposure into the small and mid-cap space for the most part.
[00:13:10] SJ: I mean, it’s particularly in the US. But your comment there about the easy sort of re-rate at the start happens so quickly. I mean, I just know so many people that are seeing this and, “Oh, well, when the inflation dies down, I see the case for small caps. And I think about investing in them then.” And you look and that index is up 25% or something in the space of 6 weeks. And the opportunity is not what it was before.
I completely agree with you though. I think here in Australia, things have been slower to move in general. But quite a few of the same dynamics at play in terms of what is working and what’s not working. And I do think that is going to be a good playbook for these next couple of years. I mean, it’s always a good playbook to own a profitable business that’s growing, right? Because time is your friend. You don’t really care how long it takes for the market to come along and re-rate your stock if, in three, or four, or five years’ time, the value of that business is significantly higher than it was today.
But I think what we’re seeing the market rerate first is those businesses that have done a good job of managing their way through a difficult environment that are profitable and that have shown some growth. They’ve moved first. And I think lots of the good opportunities over this year and through the reporting season that we’ve got coming up are going to be businesses where you’re seeing the financial results from the companies that show everyone that the share price is stupid and stupidly low. And you’re seeing those things react first.
[00:14:38] HM: No. Definitely. And we should mention there’s a big difference between profitable and unprofitable small caps. I saw a very interesting chart the other day that took the Russell constituents and kind of separated them by profitable versus unprofitable. This is since kind of December 2019. And the profitable group for small caps has actually done well. They’ve gone up since then. The unprofitable group is still down. Not all small caps are created equal as well. You really have to be careful about where you pick your spots, I would say.
[00:15:13] SJ: Yeah. You called that little cohort in our portfolio that did really well through the back end of 2023 are quality compounders.
[00:15:20] HM: Well, actually, throughout most of the year. If you look at the start as well, well let’s say API Group and so forth, they actually had a really good start the year. Then flatline. Then as soon as rates started going down in Q4 and inflation, they started to cool. You got another rally. But they had done pretty well throughout the whole year. I think they’re a bit more defensive businesses by nature and more well-known quantities. But some of the smaller things that have less broker coverage and so forth, they still have. There’s a lot of opportunity ahead for a lot of those.
[00:15:57] SJ: Yeah. And I think even more cyclical businesses like the housing-related IBP that we own, they’ve still managed to do what? 10%, 15% maybe growth in earnings per share for them over the course of these past 12 months?
[00:16:10] HM: They had an upgrade every single quarter. It’s been an impressive set of results. Hopefully, that continues. But it just shows that this is a really strong business. They’ve also managed to do some good M&A tuck-in acquisitions at attractive multiples. And that’s why we like it. It’s a roll-up story cornering the market and one of the two large players in a very fragmented marketplace. We think that there’s more potential. Or the multiple is back to kind of historical averages. But certainly, there’s certainly more potential for EPS growth there.
[00:16:44] SJ: And that’s why it’s a great example of what I’m talking about. Because the market got super pessimistic about it. The share price went down. Comes back up. And then it trades at the same sort of multiple that it used to trade at. But all of a sudden, the earnings per share here are 15% higher and they’re guiding some similar growth into the next year. You’ve picked up that growth in the business as well as had an opportunity to buy it on a pessimistic market. Worried about the housing cycle sort of late 2022 in terms of when the opportunity was at its best. But I think it’s a really good example of the type of businesses that you really want to own as people start to return their attention to small caps. And the performance starts to look better, more people are drawn to it. They are going to be drawn to those businesses first. And I think that’s just – it’s not just true of participating in this recovery. It’s true of what you want to try and do in investing full stop. And you can own businesses that grow their value over time. Then you’re less dependent on Mr. Market in terms of realizing your profits.
[00:17:39] HM: Yeah. 100%.
[00:17:41] ANNOUNCER: Stay tuned. We’ll be back in just a sec.
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[00:18:23] SJ: Before we move on to the next segment, Harvey, what do you make of the whiskey?
[00:18:27] HM: Well, let’s give it a try.
[00:18:30] SJ: I’ve already tried mine.
[00:18:32] HM: Delish. You can see why LARK has the reputation it does, you know? And kind of put Aussie whiskies on the map. I mean, what was your sense when you first had a gulp of this? Is this at the higher end of what you usually drink?
[00:18:45] SJ: I’ve been coping a lot of grief for making up stuff about the whiskies I drink. I’ll just say that it’s very nice to get yourself a bottle and try it yourself.
[00:18:53] HM: Well, if you can. I mean, it’s – what? They only made two-and-half thousand.
[00:18:57] SJ: 2024 is the year of not opining on things that we don’t know anything about. I’ll start with whiskies.
[00:19:02] HM: Yeah. Just enjoy.
[00:19:03] SJ: Speaking of which, reporting season kicking off as we sit here and record this today. Couple of the banks already out. Quite a few companies pre-releasing – what are you looking forward to? What are you expecting as we go through late January and end of February?
[00:19:16] HM: Yeah. I mean, everyone’s got their eye on Q4 and 24 guidance as you can expect. It’s interesting, TSMCC reported yesterday. And the stock was up 10% overnight in the US. They are guiding to a nice solid growth number for the year. And so, after kind of two years of a bit ofa slow down –
[00:19:37] SJ: It’s the world’s biggest semiconductor manufacturer for people who don’t know the business.
[00:19:40] HM: Yeah. That’s right. It’s really kind of gotten people. I mean, the sector performed tremendously last year. But it’s gotten people even more energized. You have stocks like Nvidia hitting an all-time high again. Other names like the semi-cap cap equipment names that we’ve been tracking also back to kind of 20, 21, 22 highs. That’s been a very positive early sign in certain parts of the market. AI is a part of what’s driving this. But also, you did have a bit of a pullback D stock and all that stuff happening last year.
[00:20:13] HM: Just quickly. We’ll do a semis podcast on a different day perhaps. But TSMC coming out with a two-nanometer chip that they’re saying they’ve got really good orders for.
[00:20:23] HM: Amazing, huh?
[00:20:24] SJ: I don’t know if you can somehow put that into context for people that don’t know. But the size of that, you’re getting down to the size of atoms in terms of how small they’re making these things these days and now stacking them on top of each other as well.
[00:20:34] HM: That’s right. Yeah, it’s incredible. How fast we’ve moved forward, you know? But yeah. That was yesterday overnight. And then over the past kind of week and a half, we had some pre-announcements from – or announcements and pre-announcements from companies that we own. Crocs reported a slightly better-than-expected Q4. The stock was up over 20%.
Flutter yesterday reported inline revenues. Had some positive commentary about market share. And that was up 15. It’s very clear to me that there’s still pockets of the market that have a lot of pessimism priced into the share prices. And I think we brought this up, I believe, in the last podcast. We might have. But consumer discretionary is I think the opportunity this year. And consumer discretionary stocks where people have derated them very heavily. And some are just very high-quality businesses where the trend or the brand is driving growth in an environment where a consumer might be pulling back on spending. Yes, it is tougher out there for people. And inflation is biting. And it takes time for that to normalize. If you pick the right stocks, you’ll continue to grow.
[00:21:49] SJ: Yeah. I touched on this in the quarterly report as well. I think it’s always been there. But the short-term money is having a bigger influence on markets than we’ve ever seen before. I mean, the amount of cycles that we had last year in the course of 12 months just – everyone’s super pessimistic because interest rates are going up, up. They’re going down and the market’s up 20% over the space of two months. And it’s just all very directional. If the news is on the negative side of the ledger, you sell no matter what. And if the news is on the positive side of the ledger, you buy no matter what. And there’s just not a lot of what is this business actually worth? And how much difference does this piece of information make? It’s very much directional trading.
And that’s why these stocks – Flutter had a pretty weak back half of the year because its Q3 result was a bit worse than DraftKings. They lost a little bit of market share. And, all of a sudden, the market can’t own Flutter because it’s losing market share. And that’s the end of the story. It doesn’t matter what price it is. And then you get – I mean, it wasn’t anything extraordinary in terms of the result. And I couldn’t believe it when I got up this morning and the share price was up 15%. But it’s kind of just was.
[00:22:56] HM: Exactly. It’s recovered, that D rate that we saw in Q3 on the back of a small market share blip I would say. And it just goes to show you can’t time these things to perfection. I think there are some funds that do that. They do that well. They do a lot of surveillance, and research and all sorts of stuff and have huge, huge, huge budgets for that. But I think the way for us to make money, the simple way is you buy a good company, you hold on to it. You stomach some volatility. And if you’ve gotten the kind of five-year path right on earnings on the ability to compound and, well, the business’s profitability and what it’s going to do, then you should do well.
[00:23:39] SJ: Yeah. And you can actually just use this volatility. And I think Flutter is a perfect example. We’ve talked about it in the quarterly report. I’m not saying anything I shouldn’t here. But we’ve taken money off at the top and we’ve added a bit back at the bottom. And it’s just been a nice way to add to what we think is a great long-term story by having bigger weights at lower prices.
[00:23:57] HM: That’s right. You just have to actively manage it. I guess that’s what people pay active managers to do, you know? We’ve been doing it across the board throughout last year and rotating and changing position sizing depending on what’s happening with the companies we own. I think we’ve done pretty well overall. Maybe we could have swung the bat harder a bit on certain things, especially housing-related stuff at the start of ’23. But pretty happy with how we ended the year, especially given that mid-caps dramatically underperformed. And we didn’t really have much in the magnificent 7 that drove most of the returns.
[00:24:30] SJ: Well, you certainly did better than we did in the Aussie fund where we wrote all the research on the housing-related stuff and didn’t swing at all. And James’ heart doubled. That share price is doubled over the space of the past 12 months. Reliance worldwide, we talked about it on the podcast, we had it all lined up and ready to go. I never get too worked up about that. I think, in general, patience and waiting for great opportunities in this game is a good thing. And it’s not about what you don’t do. It’s about what you do and how that works out rather than stressing too much about things you miss out on.
But yeah, that recovery has been extraordinary. And I think that is going to be – again, it always is. But probably a stronger theme even than usual of reporting season that the companies that do well provide a decent outlook for 2024. There’s still plenty out there that have got a lot of pessimism in their share prices. And you can see some pretty violent reactions to that the way the market – there’s plenty of people willing to buy a business that’s on the right trajectory. I think if the company can get itself into that category, then there’s plenty of money to be made for those willing to be there waiting for it.
[00:25:34] HM: Yeah. And probably plenty of money to be lost if you get things wrong.
[00:25:37] SJ: No. That’s exactly right.
[00:25:37] HM: And I think it’s going to be quite a volatile earning season. We’re going to see some big news to the downside as well, especially after that 25% rally that we had in certain stocks that might have been unjustly founded.
[00:25:52] SJ: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely right. If you go back and say all that pessimism was justified, then your share prices are back where it was exactly three months ago. And, yeah, it’s pretty standard reporting season for us. It’s never all going to be perfect.
[00:26:04] HM: So far so good though.
[00:26:05] SJ: So far so good on the pre-releases. And it’s normally the bad news that comes out first. Last year anyway.
[00:26:11] HM: It’s still early.
[00:26:12] SJ: Yeah. That’s very true. It’s about time for you to be having your January board meeting for all these companies to get the results in. And that’s when the downgrades come. We’ve seen quite a few on the Aussie market as well. Been doing a bit of work on some new stocks there that have downgraded results and been punished very, very harshly over the past couple of weeks. Not just existing holdings. But I think all this volatility has the potential for some new opportunities as well on the stuff where people can overreact to what’s some temporary news. Great. Harvey, thank you for joining us today. We’ll wrap things up there and keep today’s podcast nice and short.
Thank you for tuning in. Thanks for joining us. As always, don’t forget to send any thoughts, comments, suggestions for topics through to [email protected]. I’m Steve Johnson. Thanks for tuning in.
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