Monday, February 8, 2010

Portfolio down 2.2% in January; commodity price impact on Noble's earnings

Equities generally had a rather poor January, leading to a 2.2% decline in the portfolio for the month. Assuming the portfolio started 2010 at $1.000, each unit ended the month at $0.979. Still, this was significantly better than the 6% decline in the Straits Times Index, or the MSCI World's 4.3% decline.

SPH  +3.5%

TAT HONG  -6.2%
NOBLE GRP  -11.4%

Berkshire Hathaway was the outstanding performer, jumping 16.5% as investors piled into the stock in anticipation of its addition into the S&P 500 (replacing Burlington Northern). Wells Fargo turned in a respectable performance (+5.5%) while SPH also gained on better-than-expected profits.

Noble Group was the worst performer, falling 11.4% as commodity prices wavered. Noble's dependence on commodity prices is often overestimated by most investors, who choose to lump the company together with other commodity producers who suffer a large hit to earnings when commodity prices decline. Noble's business model involves hedging inventory as it is passed along the supply chain, which involves little exposure to commodity prices. 

Noble's earnings hardly fluttered as commodity prices went from boom to bust in the 2008-2009 crisis, indicating a relatively low dependence on an appreciation in commodity prices. High prices require Noble to post more collateral to hedge, a drain on cash resources, which means that Noble would prefer lower, or at least less volatile commodity prices.

Despite the sharp declines, the stock is not terribly cheap as the market attempts to factor in strong future earnings growth (Richard Elman has been quoted as targeting US$1 billion in profit sometime over the next few years). The company has excellent management and is extremely focused on shareholder value, which has resulted in the stock being the best performer on the STI in 2009. As one of the few companies in the STI with truly strong earnings growth potential, we will want to accumulate more Noble shares, but will wait patiently for a better entry level to add to our existing position.

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