Here's What a Hedge Fund That Owns a Town Is Buying

It can pay off to keep an eye on the big guys.

Jan 4, 2014 at 6:15PM

Every quarter, many money managers have to disclose what they've bought and sold, via "13F" filings. Their latest moves can shine a bright light on smart stock picks.

Today let's look at Marathon Asset Management. Founded in 1998, it's a significant hedge fund company, with a reportable stock portfolio totaling $4.1 billion in value as of Dec. 31. Its specialty is distressed and situational investing in the global credit and fixed income markets, and the company often appears on lists of top-performing hedge funds.

Those are not the most interesting things about Marathon these days, though. Instead, it's this: It has found itself the owner of a town in California -- Scotia -- kind of by accident. It was a major creditor of a timber company that used to own the town, and a bankruptcy court awarded the entire town to Marathon.

Interesting developments
So what does Marathon's latest quarterly 13F filing tell us? Here are a few interesting details.

The biggest new holdings are Travelers and Texas Instruments (NASDAQ:TXN). Chip giant Texas Instruments has had a good year, rising almost 40% and hitting a 52-week high. It may have risen too high, though. Analysts at Nomura Securities have downgraded the stock to "Reduce," expecting modest growth and modest share count reduction via buybacks. In its third quarter, reported in October, Texas Instruments posted shrinking revenue and earnings (over year-earlier levels) and last month management narrowed its forecast, citing growth in the automotive sector but weakness in industrials. The stock yields 2.7% and its dividend was raised by 43% in 2013.

Among holdings in which Marathon Asset Management increased its stake was Abbott Labs (NYSE:ABT), which spun off its branded pharmaceutical business as AbbVie a year ago. It hasn't been firing on all cylinders over the past few years, with EPS, revenue growth, and profit margins shrinking. Bulls remain hopeful about its investments in medical devices, while bears worry about questions over the efficacy of stents, as that could adversely affect Abbott's stent business, which recently generated 7% of revenue. Abbott Labs' stock yields about 2.3%.

Marathon Asset Management reduced its stake in companies such as Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU). Intel looks attractive to many with its dividend yield of 3.5% -- though many are waiting for an increase, as it has paid the same sum in the past six quarters. Intel has been hurt by the weakening PC market and its late approach to the mobile market, but some remain hopeful that it can still succeed in the mobile arena and develop sizable alternative revenue streams. 

China-based search-engine giant Baidu has gained some 71% over the past year. Baidu's last quarter featured revenue up 42%, but profit margins shrinking a bit as it invests in further growth. Bulls like Baidu's profitability and growth prospects, such as in video, smart TVs, and mobile apps. Its new security software has been doing well, too. Bears worry that the company's structure could be adversely affected by governmental changes. With hefty revenue and earnings growth rates (topping 50% annually in recent years), Baidu's stock seems attractive, sporting a forward P/E near 20.

Finally, Marathon's biggest closed positions included JPMorgan Chase and Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO). Cisco's stock barely posted a double-digit gain in 2013, significantly lagging the market. It has been having a tough few year, and management cut back near-term expectations, though a recent clarification is more upbeat. For those willing to risk a lot of uncertainty as the company enacts new strategies, the stock is appealingly priced and the company is sitting on tens of billions of dollars in cash that can be deployed in many directions. Cisco Systems recently yielded 3.1%, and it has nearly tripled its newish dividend in the past few years.

We should never blindly copy any investor's moves, no matter how talented the investor. But it can be useful to keep an eye on what smart folks are doing, and 13F forms can be great places to find intriguing candidates for our portfolios.

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjianwhom you can follow on Twitter, owns shares of Baidu, Intel, and JPMorgan Chase. The Motley Fool recommends Baidu, Cisco Systems, and Intel and owns shares of Baidu, Intel, and JPMorgan Chase. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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