I know the annual meeting excitement today is in Florida (J.P. Morgan), but I went to the “boring” one today in midtown. Again, I am not the greatest note-taker and this is not meant to be a comprehensive summary although I tried to jot down most major points. There may also be some errors too, obviously. But anyway, you get what you pay for…
After Ian Cumming went through the annual meeting business (votes etc…), Justin Wheeler, the new COO went through the results of each business. There wasn’t anything new that wasn’t in the annual report (or the 10Q), obviously (due to Reg FD 8K requirement if there was new disclosure).
Wheeler said that his first day at LUK was at the 2000 annual meeting and he mentioned two questions asked by shareholders. One of them was a shareholder complaining about LUK’s pepsi bottling assets in Russia and Cumming said that the shareholder should sell his shares (if he didn’t like it). And then someone asked what they thought of the LUK stock price and Steinberg said that the shares were 25% overvalued. (By the way, on May 15, 2000, the stock price closed at $23.25/share. The BPS at 12/30/1999 was $19.75/share and $20.16/share at March 31, 2000).
Some very short comments about business segments:
Garcadia: Positive perfect storm with less dealerships now due to industry restructuring, strong sales per dealership (and strong auto sales) and low interest rates (for attractive financing).
Berkadia: Waiting for commercial refinancing opportunity which they feel will come
Mueller: Focus on efficiencies, upside when construction recovers
Idaho Timber: Just had best quarter in a long time, even though it might not mean much in this environment.
Crimson Wine: Has scale, size, reach and should grow. Should be cash flow positive going forward.
Sangart: Data they are getting back are positive. It’s still a bimodal outcome play, but information they are getting is good.
Premiere: Took longer than they thought, but is profitable. Hotel has 99% occupancy. They are contemplating adding another tower to the hotel to draw more customers to the casino.
With this done, the Q&A session started around 10:30 or so (meeting started at 10:00 a.m.)
A shareholder asked about the situation in Argentina; do they still own CRESY? What do they think of what’s going on there? Cumming passed it to Steinberg who said LUK still owns just a few shares. They had no further comment. They obviously didn’t want to talk about it as one of them said “Next!”.
Someone asked for more color on Cumming’s nonrenewal in 2015 (when he turns 75). Cumming said that he has two sons that have been begging him for a long time to quit LUK to help them start their own LUK. He said that when he is 75 years old it’s the right time. (So how do we invest in the son’s new LUK?!)
Steinberg said that he is four years younger than Cumming. He mentioned that they are lucky to have a terrific COO that he really enjoys working with. He said that this COO appointment is not the end of the succession issue. They will continue to work on it.
Someone asked about the shipping industry; has LUK looked at deals/assets in this area? Cumming said that they have looked at many deals in the area. “Ships can sink”, he said and they never had the courage. Steinberg added that they have looked at many deals but it always seems that the Greeks are smarter when it comes to ships (although they have other problems).
Next Generation at LUK
Someone asked what LUK will look like in the future, in the next generation. What are they looking for to deal with the succession issue?
They are looking for a business (or looking to create a business at LUK) that can earn $200 million per year but in a bad year still make $50 million (they may have meant they want LUK to be such a company). They want to make LUK durable, a fortress. The process of business is simple, but people in business are nuts and do stupid things (implying that LUK will simply do business without doing stupid things). Cumming said there is a big cloud over us so may not make a lot of money in the near term.
LUK is an Inflation Play
In answering the above question about the future of LUK, Steinberg said that they started first and foremost as opportunists. He then went on to say that LUK is now a bet on future inflation. As they wrote in the annual report, there is no way out of this predicament other than inflation. The assets owned by LUK; Inmet, Berkadia, Jeffries, Idaho Timber etc… all benefit when inflation finally comes.
He said that if you don’t believe inflation is coming, you should sell your stock.
That’s how LUK is positioned now. It wasn’t some strategy or plan that led here, but that’s the way it is now. The assets of LUK will benefit from inflation.
Scale of Business / Culture
Someone asked about the diseconomies of scale; does LUK suffer from it? Also, how to think about culture at LUK for the next generation.
Cumming said you can’t buy culture. Culture depends on the people at the top of the firm. Nothing more to say about that. Cumming never thought of diseconomies of scale at LUK. They just always have been looking for 15% pretax returns.
Steinberg said there are some diseconomies of scale. There are odds and ends in the closet they are selling off (Cumming said, “It’s junk”).
Someone asked about the energy business (gasification etc…). Tom Mara who runs the business answered some questions. Some of this stuff doesn’t work with so low a natural gas price. Tom recommended to shareholders to check out a petro-engineer named Arthur Berman who did a lot of research on shale. Berman thinks that natural gas prices have to be $7.00/mcf or so for shale gas to work over the long term.
I think he said that there will be some activity within the next six months.
Fortescue Metals Note Litigation
Someone asked about what they think of the litigation on these notes. Cumming said he would be “appalled” if they didn’t win. “I think we’re going to win”, he said. Steinberg said that they wrote what they think in the annual report and he hasn’t changed his mind.
There was a question about the gold/farmland comment in the annual report; if this means that they will buy gold/farmland for LUK. Cumming said that he and Steinberg disagree on this but gold and farmland are personal investments; not for LUK. Cumming said that he likes farmland as it’s a producing asset and people have to eat, whereas he said Steinberg bought a lot of gold.
Cumming said he bought 27,000 acres of farmland (commercial agricultural stuff). Cumming said “Gold is lethargic”. Steinberg said, “I still like gold”.
Book Value/Valuation of LUK
Cumming ranted about the accounting (deferred tax assets written up and down, up and down twice) and how meaningless it is. Steinberg said it’s not that difficult to figure out what LUK is worth (he seemed annoyed by the question). Just look at what’s happening in the world, what the various assets LUK owns can do and figure it out yourself.
Cumming said that he disagrees on this with Steinberg (not sure what he meant; maybe Cumming wants to repurchase shares?). Steinberg said LUK is deleveraging now. They did repurchase shares in the past and they may yet do so in the future (implying that they are not in such a rush to do so now).
Most Upside in the Portfolio
Someone asked where the most upside is now in the LUK portfolio. Steinberg said that he doesn’t want to answer that. They explained that if they said something new, because of Reg FD, they would have to file an 8-K, so they don’t want to comment on that. Cumming joked that they have lots of new news but you can’t have it (well, this is true so not really a joke).
Is Harvard MBA worth it?
Cumming has a Harvard MBA and he said it’s a ticket. It’s not about whether you learned anything or not. That’s not important. A Harvard MBA is a ticket.
Copper Spot Price Prediction?
They can’t see the future. Gravity will cause growth rate in China to slow, but copper is not just China; it’s all of the developing world that need copper for various purposes. It can’t be replaced in many situations. Cumming joked that if they can predict spot prices, “We wouldn’t be wasting time here with you guys…”.
Steinberg said that it’s difficult to predict spot prices. Copper asset fits the inflation scenario. The copper business actually started as a gold project (bankrupt or distressed) but it turned out there was no gold. But they found copper. It took 15 years. It took a long time, but it’s been very profitable.
They talked about how you need a wind at your back. Just like protein. Changing dietary habits around the world means more protein consumption (beef etc…), so that’s a wind at your back. Same with copper and inflation. The inflation or potential inflation is a wind at your back for the copper business.
How was National Beef Bought? Structure of Deal?
It was a cash deal. Not an auction.
Leucadia Energy Potential; How Material Could it be for LUK Future?
Natural gas is very low so not making money now, but it can make a “hell of a lot of money”.
There will be some real activity in the next six months.
Investment in Italian Company?
Cumming said it’s a startup. It’s a bet. It’s a very interesting bet (no more explanation than that).
Someone mentioned Buffett’s article in the 1970s about how inflation is not good for stocks and it’s not good for asset heavy / capital intensive businesses. He also asked about how Jeffries (JEF) is an inflation play and how we know that JEF won’t have a Dimon-like situation ($2 billion loss).
I guess the questioner was trying ask them if it wasn’t better to invest in high return on capital, high-moat businesses rather than capital intensive, mining-type businesses if they are so worried about inflation.
Steinberg said that he would rather own Coke stock rather than the companies in LUK’s portfolio for himself. He said that Buffett is way better, smarter, saner and less prone to do insane things than they are. Steinberg would be “very satisified” just to keep up with inflation in LUK’s portfolio. LUK is simply not in the business of buying Coke stock. He said maybe the questioner should own Berkshire Hathaway instead.
(My comment: I think people keep forgetting that LUK is a distressed asset / special situations investor. They are not going to compete with BRK and other blue chip investors, mutual funds etc… They don’t have a history of buying healthy, strong, listed companies at full price and beating the S&P 500 index; that’s just not their game. If KO was bankrupt, then sure, I bet LUK would buy up the bonds and try to get equity on reemergence etc…
Also, note that even though Cumming/Steinberg are bullish inflation, they are not buying gold and farmland in LUK. They are distressed asset investors, not a commodity fund. Buying gold would not be within their area of expertise.
Steinberg explained that they want to own assets with the wind at their back, and they believe their portfolio now reflects that.
As for JEF, they didn’t comment but I’ll just say that JEF is a play on Handler. LUK has known Handler for many years so it’s a bet on the CEO. He is a conservative CEO and one of the best in the business. As for JEF play as an inflation play, I think part of the play is that JEF specializes in high-yield bonds and there will be plenty of opportunities going forward due to so much debt in the world. The opportunity may come from refinancing needs (JEF can participate) and also if many borrowers have trouble, they can participate in restructuring etc…) So JEF can play in many different areas)).
Decreasing Leverage Contrary to Inflation Play?
Steinberg said they are deleveraging, so someone asked if that wasn’t contrary to their inflation outlook. Isn’t having debt better in that scenario?
Debt is good in inflation, but Steinberg said that you can get killed along the way in rocky times. He said they are taking a moderate approach. They can borrow $1 billion at 8%, but “it just doesn’t feel right”.
Advice for Research, Finding Ideas to People Who Aspire to Do as LUK Did
Cumming said you should sit on a porch, watch the world go by and then if you see something succulent, jump on it.
And that’s about it. The whole thing ended a little after 11:00 am, so it was pretty short but they got through a lot of questions. That’s pretty efficient. The questions seemed to be to the point and on topic for the most part, and the answers were pretty straight forward too. Good meeting.