A credit crisis. A volatile stock market. A projected wave of corporate bankruptcies. To most people it sounds like hell. But for investors who specialize in distressed assets it's just the opposite. "Bear markets are often when these guys plant the seeds for their next big winners," says Chris Mayer, editor of Capital & Crisis, a newsletter that focuses on contrarian investments.
Such scavengers scour the market for stocks, bonds, or whole companies to buy on the cheap, paying less than they think the company's assets are worth. A subspecies, known as vulture investors, aims even lower. These investors pick at carcasses of companies in or approaching bankruptcy, often amassing sizable stakes in order to wield influence in a restructuring or liquidation.
While some of these high-risk investments fail, others can be "monster home runs," says Mayer. His favorite "deep value" players—chiefs of little-known companies such as Leucadia National (LUK) and Brookfield Asset Management (BAM)—boast average annual returns of 15% or more over the past 10 years.
The most obvious way to get into the action is to buy a value-oriented mutual fund (tables). A more rewarding approach may be to invest in companies such as Leucadia. Like Berkshire Hathaway, these are publicly traded holding companies run by managers with histories of sniffing out value. Yes, the risks are more concentrated. But returns, on average, exceed those of the typical value fund over the past decade. Patience is crucial, since returns can fluctuate unpredictably, rising in years when managers sell profitable investments and stagnating when they hold a lot of cash.
Because of the stock market sell-off, share prices of many of these players are cheap vs. historic norms. And after largely sitting on the sidelines during the bull market, many of the companies are flush with cash. They are positioned to take advantage of lower stock prices as well as a projected spike in the default rate for U.S. speculative grade bonds. BusinessWeek's guide to leading publicly traded value players is a good place to start your research.
New York-based Leucadia owns everything from a biopharmaceutical company to wineries to a 38% stake in Light & Power Holdings of Barbados. Once weighted toward insurance, the company's portfolio now tilts toward natural resources, including Australian iron ore producer Fortescue Metals Group and Goober Drilling, a Stillwater (Okla.) oil-and-gas concern.
Chairman Ian Cumming and President Joseph Steinberg practice "the epitome of distressed investing," says Steven Rogé, whose Rogé Partners (ROGEX) and Rogé Select Opportunities (RSOFX) funds are shareholders. After Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi, Miss., in 2005, for example, Leucadia bought about half of parent Premier Entertainment Biloxi. In 2001, with Berkshire Hathaway (BRK), it purchased half of bankrupt financial-services company Finova Group. More recently it bought some 25% of subprime auto lender AmeriCredit.
Cumming and Steinberg are often compared to Warren Buffett—and not just for their strict value approach to investing. Like the Oracle of Omaha, the two write engaging letters to investors. "Shareholders who gamble are encouraged to come visit the [Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi] and leave some money behind!" the most recent one reads. "As always, the odds favor the house, but in this case you own the house." Also like Buffett, Cumming and Steinberg tend to be shareholder-friendly. In 2006 each earned a relatively modest $678,362, in addition to stock-based compensation linked to Leucadia's performance. Between the two, they own some 25% of outstanding shares.
Leucadia trades at 46, and Morningstar analyst Ryan Lentell is in the process of revising his fair-value estimate of 39 upward. "If you're going to buy and hold for a long time, you'll do well," he says. Since 1979 the stock price has appreciated a compounded 25% a year, on average.
WHITE MOUNTAINS INSURANCE
White Mountains Insurance Group (WTM) in Hanover, N.H., buys troubled insurers and then engineers turnarounds. The insurance properties throw off cash White Mountains can use to finance acquisitions. But when markets get frothy, management hoards cash rather than risk overpaying. "Intellectually, we really don't care much about leaving our capital lying fallow for years," the company says on its Web site. "Better to...wait for the occasional high-return opportunity. Frankly, sometimes shareholders would be better off if we just all went to play golf."
With insurance experts, including Buffett, predicting an industrywide profit decline this year, White Mountains's stock is down 6% since Jan. 1. It trades at 476, a hair above its per-share book value (assets minus liabilities), a measure often used to value financial-services firms. Consistent with Buffett's outlook on insurance, Berkshire Hathaway recently sold its 16% stake in the company. CEO Raymond Barrette cited the growing rivalry between the firms. Other value investors see an upside: Shareholders include Mutual Beacon Fund. Morningstar analyst Jim Ryan estimates fair value at 625.
Like many in the deep-value camp, Alleghany (Y) shuns publicity. It doesn't hold quarterly conference calls. Wall Street coverage of the New York company is virtually nonexistent, in part because with lots of cash and little debt, it doesn't often hire investment bankers. Alleghany, which focuses on insurance, also has seen its shares beaten down. That has attracted bargain hunters at fund companies Franklin Mutual Advisers and Royce & Associates. At 342 a share, the stock, up an average 20% a year over five years, trades at a hefty discount to its 518 fair value, Ryan figures.
Alleghany, founded as a railroad holding company in 1929, also owns a portfolio of stocks and bonds. A big winner: Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNI), on which it has earned over 500% since 1994. Recently, Alleghany bet successfully on energy stocks, which comprise 32% of its equity portfolio.
PICO HOLDINGS (PICO)
Small-cap PICO started out as a medical-liability insurer in 1981. Now about 70% of assets are in the rights to underground aquifers and other water resources in Southwestern states. "It's one of the better water-asset plays," says Jesse Herrick, who follows alternative-energy technologies for San Francisco institutional broker Merriman Curhan Ford (MERR). PICO also has a portfolio of big-stakes investments that enable it to play a role in management. They include 23% of Jungfraubahn Holding, a railway in the Swiss Alps.
In the 14 years that current management has been at the helm, the stock has delivered compounded average annual gains of 18%—more than twice that of the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index. But housing woes have raised concerns about water demand, sending the La Jolla (Calif.) company's shares down 7% this year, to 31, just above its book value of 27. Herrick puts fair value at 62 to 67.
BROOKFIELD ASSET MANAGEMENT
Over the past five years, Toronto's Brookfield has transformed itself from a wide-ranging conglomerate into a company largely focused on real estate, power, and infrastructure properties. Those include prime London office buildings, millions of acres of timber, and hydropower generating plants around the world. The rationale? Such assets generate steady returns and last a long time without requiring large ongoing investments.
Managing partner J. Bruce Flatt recently invited institutional investors such as pension funds to invest alongside Brookfield. In return for managing the money, Brookfield pockets a small annual fee. The stock, up an average 36% a year since Flatt took over in 2002, has pulled back, partly on concerns about real estate. At 27, it trades below Morningstar's 34 fair-value estimate. Among the shareholders betting on Flatt: vulture Martin Whitman of Third Avenue Value Funds.