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  • Writer's pictureEric Cinnamond

Undateable

<May 1, 2024>




You can learn a lot about the financial markets by watching Seinfeld. In season 7 episode 114, Jerry and Elaine have a conversation about the lack of dating opportunities. Although they were talking about the percentage of people they consider dateable, by making some minor changes to the script, their conversation fits the current stock market perfectly.


Jerry: Elaine, what percentage of people [stocks] would you say are good looking [attractively priced]?


Elaine: 25%


Jerry: 25%? No way. It’s like 4% to 6%. It’s a 20 to 1 shot.


Elaine: You’re way off.


Jerry: Way off? Have you been to the motor vehicle bureau [screened through stocks]? It’s a leper colony down there [horrendous opportunity set].


Elaine: Basically, what you’re saying is 95% of the population [the stock market] is undateable [overvalued]?


Jerry: Undateable [overvalued]!


Elaine: Then how are all of these people getting together [why are all these people buying stocks]?


Jerry: Alcohol


As if our dating scene couldn’t get much worse, the S&P 600 soared 15% in the fourth quarter of 2023. Encouraged by the Federal Reserve’s year-end pivot, investors piled into stocks, attempting to front run the return of easy money.


At the time, we were baffled as to why the Fed was in such a rush to cut rates. For the most part, corporate earnings remained inflated. Financial conditions were already loosening, with equity valuations elevated and credit spreads tight. Home prices were also rising and remained out of reach for millions of Americans. And while the rate of inflation had declined, many of the items helping inflation moderate were plateauing, and in some cases, reversing. Further, accumulated inflation remained a serious problem, putting pressure on middle- and lower-income consumers and keeping inflation expectations elevated.


Unsurprisingly, by pivoting before the inflation battle was won, the Fed unleashed another round of asset inflation, bolstering demand and pricing power. Instead of declining back to the Fed’s 2% target, inflation bottomed and is on the rise again. To date, the Fed’s 2023 preemptive pivot is aging about as well as its “inflation is transitory” assurances in 2021. 


Instead of declaring victory on inflation, we believe the Fed prematurely signaled rate cuts to head off building threats to asset prices and the economy. While there are many risks to defuse, we believe refinancing risk was, and remains, near the top of the Fed’s list of concerns. With each passing day, the amount of low-cost government and corporate debt nearing maturity grows.


Extremely low interest rates allowed the U.S. government to borrow aggressively, supporting massive fiscal deficits and artificially inflating economic growth. Corporations also benefited from elevated government spending and lower rates. Low-cost debt allowed companies to acquire, fund generous dividends, and turbocharge earnings per share (EPS) through buybacks and depressed interest expense.


As accumulated inflation continues to build, along with a seemingly endless supply of U.S. Treasuries, we believe the era of ultra-low interest rates has ended. With interest rates remaining higher for longer, a growing number of businesses are facing difficult refinancing decisions as their maturity walls approach. While some are pushing off the decision—hoping rates will decline—the market isn’t waiting and is beginning to sniff out companies that require funding over the next 1-2 years.   


As we search through our opportunity set of small cap companies, many of the stocks that have performed poorly have bonds approaching maturity or have refinancing risk. For example, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store’s stock (symbol: CBRL) has fallen 45% over the past year and 61% from its 2021 high. Cracker Barrel operates restaurants that are typically located along interstate highways. We know their home-style country food well, as we hold Palm Valley’s annual founders meeting at a local Cracker Barrel (and yes, we all order from the value menu!).



Similar to many consumer companies that cater to the middle class, Cracker Barrel’s traffic growth has slowed and has recently turned negative. Accumulated inflation has placed stress on discretionary spending and many of the casual dining companies we follow. Management expects industry and traffic challenges to continue. Based on analyst estimates, adjusted EPS is expected to decline from $5.47 in fiscal 2023 (ending July 31) to $4.60/share in fiscal 2024.


Even as operating results have weakened, Cracker Barrel has remained committed to its generous quarterly dividend of $1.30/share. If maintained, the $5.20/share in annual dividends will exceed this year’s expected net income. The company has also been an active buyer of its stock, purchasing $184 million over the past three fiscal years (2021-2023). Combined, dividends and buybacks have consumed $447 million in cash over the past three years versus $461 million of free cash flow.


With practically all of Cracker Barrel’s free cash flow being consumed by dividends and buybacks, debt reduction doesn’t appear to be a priority. As of January 26, 2024, debt was $452 million. Based on 2024 estimated EBITDA of $242 million, debt to EBITDA is 1.87x, or slightly above the high-end of the company’s target range of 1.3x to 1.7x.


On June 18, 2021, Cracker Barrel opportunistically issued a $300 million convertible bond with a 0.625% coupon. At the time of issuance, its stock was trading at $150.51. With a conversion price of $188, the bonds had a conversion premium of 25%. Currently, Cracker Barrel’s stock is trading near $59; therefore, the odds of the bond converting to equity before maturity are low. With a maturity of June 15, 2026, refinancing will likely become an increasingly important issue for the company and investors.



Cracker Barrel has $511 million available on its $700 million credit facility that could be used to fund its convertible bond maturity. However, the weighted average interest rate on the credit facility is currently 6.96% versus the 0.625% coupon on the convertible bond. Assuming the credit facility is used to fund its bond maturity, at current rates, Cracker Barrel’s interest expense would increase $19 million, causing a meaningful hit to earnings. For reference, earnings before interest expense and taxes (EBIT) in 2023 were $120.6 million. Like many companies with debt, Cracker Barrel’s cost of borrowing has shifted from an earnings tailwind to headwind.


We classify Cracker Barrel as a cyclical business. To consider cyclical businesses for purchase, we require a debt to normalized free cash flow ratio of 3x or less. Based on our free cash flow estimate, Cracker Barrel currently has too much financial leverage for our absolute return strategy. Nevertheless, its substantially lower market capitalization has caught our attention, and we’ll monitor its balance sheet closely for potential deleveraging catalysts, such as a cut in its dividend or sale-leasebacks of owned properties.


The small cap dating scene remains unattractive, in our opinion. However, for many consumer discretionary companies with debt, equity prices have fallen sharply, and valuations have become more attractive. That said, these aren’t dream dates! Cyclical companies with debt often come with a lot of baggage and potential drama. Before committing and getting too serious, we recommend stress testing the balance sheet and cash flow by including periods with high unemployment and tightening credit conditions. And if alcohol is needed to stomach the risk, we suggest patience and waiting for a better match. When it comes to leveraged cyclicals, there are plenty of fish in the sea!

 

Eric Cinnamond

 

The Palm Valley Capital Fund can be purchased directly from U.S. Bank or through these fund platforms.


Index performance is not indicative of a fund’s performance. It is not possible to invest directly in an index. Past performance does not guarantee future results. Current performance of the Fund can be obtained by calling 904-747-2345.


There is no guarantee that a particular investment strategy will be successful. Opinions expressed are subject to change at any time, are not guaranteed, and should not be considered investment advice.


Fund holdings and allocations are subject to change and are not recommendations to buy or sell any security. Current and future portfolio holdings are subject to risk. Click here for the fund’s Top 10 holdings. 


Mutual fund investing involves risk. Principal loss is possible. The Palm Valley Capital Fund invests in smaller sized companies, which involve additional risks such as limited liquidity and greater volatility than large capitalization companies. The ability of the Fund to meet its investment objective may be limited to the extent it holds assets in cash (or cash equivalents) or is otherwise uninvested.


Before investing in the Palm Valley Capital Fund, you should carefully consider the Fund’s investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses. The Prospectus contains this and other important information and it may be obtained by calling 904 -747-2345. Please read the Prospectus carefully before investing.


The Palm Valley Capital Fund is distributed by Quasar Distributors, LLC.

 

Definitions:

S&P 600: The S&P 600 is an index of small-cap stocks managed by Standard & Poor's. It tracks a broad range of small-sized companies that meet specific liquidity and stability requirements.

Conversion price: The conversion price is the price per share at which a convertible security, such as corporate bonds or preferred shares, can be converted into common stock.

Conversion premium: A conversion premium is an amount by which the price of a convertible security exceeds the current market value of the common stock into which it may be converted.

EBITDA: EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, is an alternate measure of profitability to net income.

Debt to EBITDA: Debt-to-earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA) is a ratio that measures the amount of income generated and available to pay down debt before a company accounts for interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization expenses. A high ratio result could indicate a company has a debt load that might be too high.

Free Cash Flow: Free cash flow represents the cash that a company generates from operations after accounting for cash outflows to support operations and maintain its capital assets (cash flow from operations – capital expenditures).

Sale-Leaseback: An arrangement in which the company that sells an asset can lease back that same asset from the purchaser.

Earnings per share (EPS): is a company's net income subtracted by preferred dividends and then divided by the average number of common shares outstanding.

Maturity wall: The period in which many existing debt arrangements come due or approach maturity.

Credit spread:  The difference in yield between two debt securities of the same maturity but different credit quality; most often the difference between U.S. Treasuries and corporate bonds. Credit spreads are measured in basis points, with a 1% difference in yield equal to a spread of 100 basis points.

Coupon: The annual interest rate paid on a bond, expressed as a percentage of the face value and paid from issue date until maturity.

Weighted average interest rate: The aggregate rate of interest paid on all debt. The calculation for this percentage is to aggregate all interest payments in the measurement period, and divide by the total amount of debt.

Debt to normalized free cash flow ratio: Total debt divided by the average annual free cash flow of a company. The ratio is used to determine the level of debt relative to free cash flow and provides investors with a financial risk measurement of a business.

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