The most valuable lessons in high yield investing are usually delivered using a mix of shock, pain and humiliation. A rare exception to this occurred to me a few years ago; however I suspect more recently, similar lessons are visiting Tesla investors, albeit more painfully.

German company Heidelberger Druckmaschinen (HD) is a precision manufacturer of high quality printing presses. In late 2011 it hit a rocky patch where revenues were down, and the high yield market began to seriously worry about its imminent collapse. The timing was lousy. A European high yield market recovering from the Eurozone crisis was in no mood to tolerate any missteps by a CCC rated issuer, and its bonds were duly hammered.

However, taking a closer look, a few things stood out. For one, its lag was entirely predictable as historically orders ALWAYS dipped before the major industry showcase (‘drupa’) which was held every four years, and 2012 was the next one. In addition, there was a view that HD was at the wrong end of the terminal decline of newspapers (what with the internet n’ all), and to make matters worse, Chinese competition was about to take what was left. This nuanced assessment played well to the ‘gut-feel’ view of the world favoured by a certain type of investor. Except it was wrong. HD had actually disposed of its newsprint business many years prior, instead focussing on the growing need for high quality consumer packaging. Chinese threat? Sure, the lower end of the market had been subject to it, however they seemed to struggle to replicate the most advanced presses. Thematic investing is great, but it’s even better when accompanied by some due diligence.

So how does this relate to Tesla? Making ‘stuff’ is hard. The beta version and constant update model of the software industry works well, as their products can be costlessly tweaked after sale. Not unreasonably, software companies are given high valuations based on this high operating leverage. Applying this to the auto industry is more problematic. Tesla is running into problems scaling up production due to the presence of bottlenecks, labour issues, and even difficulty in welding. If this sounds all terribly 19th century, I apologise but it still matters – it is very difficult to sell a car you can’t make. All of this would be manageable except Tesla’s valuation allows for nothing but a non-stop journey to global domination; not a decades-long on-the-job training programme.

Upon visiting HD’s factory I was struck by the huge amount of accumulated skill, knowledge and expertise amongst its many thousands of employees. Not only ‘had’ it accumulated, it was ‘still’ accumulating. I saw first-hand the factory floor work groups that measure absolutely everything and are constantly refining their process to save 12-mins here, reduce 400g of scrap there. To scale up any advanced manufacturing takes this kind of process which simply cannot be replicated – nor should it be dismissed – overnight. Following the visit I invested in HD, confident that it had a significant embedded competitive advantage and that its ability to earn economic profits – and pay our coupon – was intact. I won’t bore you with the details, but it ended very well for the company and the investors who backed it at the time.

Electric cars are certainly the future, but Tesla’s valuation reminds me that the market can sometimes underappreciate the challenges of operating in the physical world, at scale. This can be a great opportunity, as in the case of HD, or it can lead to risks being under-priced by financial markets, as with Tesla’s recent swoon. It’s our job to recognise these factors and it remains a core focus of the way we do things at Kames.

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