In this week's installment of Industry Focus: Financials, host Jason Moser and Fool.com contributor Matt Frankel, CFP, discuss the latest results from Markel (MKL 0.09%) and why we're so excited about the company's future. Then, Matt Frankel discusses four of his favorite ways to invest in retail through the real estate industry. Plus, we read some more of our listeners' most recent stock purchases, and reveal the stocks we're watching this week.
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This video was recorded on Feb. 10, 2020.
Jason Moser: It's Monday, Feb. 10; I'm your host Jason Moser. On today's Financials show, we're going to dig into the latest earnings report from Markel. We're going to take a bit of a deeper dive into REITs, real estate investment trusts; we're going to look at some specific ideas in the space for you today. We've got some more of "The last stock you bought and why." Of course, we have our ones to watch this week. And of course, as with most weeks, I've got my man Matt Frankel, certified financial planner, joining me via the magic of Skype. Matt, you're back in Colombia this week. How's everything going?
Matt Frankel: Pretty good. Yeah, back in Colombia this week, and next week this time, I will be right where you are. Probably the seat next to you; that would be weird if I was exactly where you are.
Moser: Well, you know, we'll just take it one at a time there, Matt. [laughs] But we've got some good interviews lined up for next week. I'm really excited about that. We're not going to tell anybody what the interviews are, who the interviewees are. Okay, got to keep some secrets, but I do think that our listeners will be very excited about these interviews we have lined up. And so, yeah, I'm excited to see you again, man, looking forward to that.
Let's dig into Markel's results here real quick. Markel released earnings last week. And Matt, you and I got a message on Twitter from Warren Kiesel. He asked: "Hey, guys, love the podcast. Thanks for your great work. Can you please, please" -- two pleases, Matt -- "Can you please, please take a deeper look at Markel on an upcoming episode? They mentioned a second successive year of higher catastrophic losses; should shareholders be concerned? Thanks, Warren Kiesel." Warren, your wish is our command: We're going to take a look at Markel here today. First thing, this is a company that I still own shares in. Matt, do you own shares of Markel?
Frankel: I do. Actually, after this earnings pop I think it's my biggest holding -- it's between that and Apple -- but I think that put it over the top.
Moser: All right, well, this is coming from a couple of guys who own the stock, a couple of guys who like the stock and continue to recommend it here at The Fool; [it's] been one that we paid a lot of attention to here over the years.
Let's go ahead and take a look at the quarter; really, I should say, let's take a look at the year. Because they tend to -- Markel management -- the one thing I really like is, when you get their fourth-quarter report, it really focuses on the year and not the quarter. And I think that tells you a lot about the management team and their focus, anyway. But it was a big week: The stock was up over 11% last week, and all of that came after this earnings release.
But to Warren's question there, regarding catastrophic losses, we can focus on the good and the bad, but what stood out to you in the quarter, Matt?
Frankel: Well, the catastrophic losses, first of all, come from the company's reinsurance division. Markel, as you know, the primary function of the business is an insurance company. And it has substantial operations in both regular property casualty insurance as well as reinsurance -- which you could think of is kind of insurance for insurance companies. As in, if a bad storm comes, an insurance company will purchase reinsurance to kind of limit their loss possibility. In that sense, yes, Markel did have a ton of reinsurance losses. I think their combined ratio was 120% reinsurance for the quarter, which means that they actually lost $20 for every $100 in premium. But when combined with the excellent results from the rest of their insurance business, they actually ran a 93% combined ratio, which means they had 7% underwriting profit, which is awesome for an insurance company.
Insurance companies generally want to break even on the underwriting and make money by their investments. So, if an insurance company can make 7% on underwriting and then have money to invest, you know it's a big win. So, reinsurance, it was -- I don't want to say ugly -- but it wasn't a high point for Markel. But it kind of balanced out with the rest of their business, and the year actually looked really good from an insurance perspective.
Moser: Yeah. I mean, that's the nature of insurance, right? This is ultimately a business that's based on losses, on damages, on helping make people whole, and that costs money. But to your point there, in regard to breaking even on the insurance operations, so that they can really shine on the investment side: Whenever I look at Markel's results, you go in and you look at the three drivers of the business, what they call the operating engines of the business -- and that is the insurance business, their investments, and also their ventures business. And the Markel Ventures business, it's a really neat one. It's still fairly young, but it's grown considerably through the years.
One thing I wanted to call out, because to me this was the part that stood out to me in the earnings call, and the main reason is because it really lines up with the way we invest here. It encapsulates Foolish investing philosophy to the core. And it was this passage in the beginning of the call where they talked about looking over the last 10 years, taking a look at a 10-year window of this business and looking at what they've done in the past 10 years, since 2009. And just to put some numbers around this, they talk about the fact that the total revenues of Markel back in 2009 were $2 billion. In 2019 they were $9.5 billion. And of that $2 billion 10 years ago, the earned premiums for their insurance operations were $1.8 billion. In 2019, that number was $5 billion. Ten years ago, the recurring interest and dividend portion of their investment returns were about $250 million. In 2019, that number was $450 million. And then finally, looking at that Markel Ventures side of the business: Going back to 2009, Markel Ventures produced revenue of $86 million, and in 2019, that number was $2 billion.
So, I think that gives you a good window into not only how this management team thinks about the business in such long time periods, but it also really shows that when you do that, you can bring some great results down to the bottom line there. And you look at any stretch of time for this stock and it's been a good one to own. You have some periods where it sort of lulls, and maybe even lags the market, but that's not really the point in investing in a company like this. We call it that a baby Berkshire [Hathaway] (BRK.A -0.42%) (BRK.B -0.56%) for a reason; you invest in it so you can own it for a really long period of time. And given Markel's size today, it's still fairly small. I feel like there's a lot of growth still to be had there from this company.
Frankel: Yeah. And you got to realize that, well, over that past 10-year period, just those numbers you said, their investment division has kind of grown tremendously. It was barely a drop in the bucket 10 years ago. But having said that, they're still getting the majority of their revenue from insurance. So, the investment division [is] still in its very early stages. I think Berkshire hasn't gotten the majority of its revenue from insurance in a long time. Because over time the investment activities kind of take over, but we haven't seen that yet with Markel, they're still in the very early innings. I call them a 1975 Berkshire.
Moser: Yeah. And I mean that's a little bit of the magic of compounding, right? I mean you hit a point in time where that compounding really starts to take over. And we probably just haven't gotten to that point with Markel -- at least as it compares to something like a Berkshire Hathaway -- but you scroll through their investment holdings. I mean, some of the companies that they own, that's one of the things I like about Tom Gayner, the co-CEO of the company, he's very forward-looking. And where Buffett and Munger tended to eschew tech, I'll tell you, Gayner seems to really embrace it, he kind of gets it. And so you see them owning companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet in their portfolio, which -- I think that's so important for investment portfolios over the course of the next five and 10 years, because those are the companies that really are dominating not only our lives, but in many cases the economy as well.
Frankel: Yeah. And it's worth mentioning, also, the Ventures division is really not capable of making big acquisitions yet, but that won't be the case forever. I could see them building, kind of how Berkshire has built a portfolio of stable, steady businesses, but in kind of a tech-focused way. So, Markel could truly be the Berkshire for the 21st century.
Moser: I totally agree. That's why I own the stock and I've added to it recently. Yeah, Markel Ventures, it's just amazing to me in 10 years. Well, I remember vividly when they started this business, it was kind of like, OK, well, maybe this could lead to something -- $86 million in revenue in 2009, over $2 billion in 2019, just goes to show you the effort they've put into it. And it is having a material impact on the business today. And we can only assume that it is going to continue to be a point of focus for the business for management going forward. So there's a lot to be excited about here. I certainly appreciate and understand Warren's concern there on the cat[astrophic] side, but [it] seems to me to be just one part of a very big picture. And overwhelmingly, everything seems to be headed in the right direction.
Frankel: Yeah, I agree. I have no plans to even trim my holdings anytime soon. And I wouldn't be surprised to see my position grow. I think I'll add to it more over the next year or so.
Moser: Maybe we'll have a new "What's the last stock you bought and why?" for me and you, Matt. Maybe we'll have something to report there of Markel, we see a little bit of an opportunistic window.
Frankel: Maybe so. I've been on a buying drought lately, so we'll see.
Moser: Me too. Well, let's pivot over to this REITs discussion, because this is one I was really excited to be able to jump in to today with you. Because, you're a real estate guy, with all the work you're doing with Millionacres and Mogul. I talk to Matty Argersinger all the time, the stuff that you guys are doing is really, really cool.
And this report that you all recently published focuses on, partly at least, this Bloomberg report from back in 2017, titled "America's 'Retail Apocalypse'." And I remember reading that report and thinking, "Wow! There is some stark data in there that really made you wonder about the future of retail." This report that you all put out focuses on the real estate side of that retail apocalypse, and while there are some problems out there, I guess you could say some headwinds, there are also some opportunities. And so, we want to dig into some of those opportunities.
But first, for our listeners, real quick, can you just remind our listeners what a REIT is and why they can make good investments?
Frankel: Sure. REIT stands for "real estate investment trust." It's a special type of company meant to own real estate. It gets a nice little tax advantage, as long as it distributes most of its income to shareholders. It doesn't pay any corporate taxes. So it kind of works like an LLC or an S-corp, like a pass-through corporation for real estate. And it gives everyday investors the chance to invest in property types that they just normally wouldn't be able to, like shopping malls, office buildings, apartments. So, it's just a really nice kind of a mutual -- think of it as a mutual fund for real estate with a nice tax benefit.
Moser: Okay. So, the report that you guys wrote digs into four particular different real estate investment trust opportunities. So, we wanted you to just take a few minutes with each company there, with each REIT, give you a chance to talk a little bit about them and tell our listeners why you like them. So, first up is EPR Properties (EPR 1.65%); the ticker on that is EPR. This is a REIT that is focused on entertainment properties, right?
Frankel: Right. Entertainment is one of the areas of retail that really isn't really disruptable by e-commerce. EPR invests in a variety of properties. Their biggest component right now is megaplex movie theaters -- if you think [about] these newer movie theaters with the comfy seats and more food than you would typically find in a movie theater, things like that. So, that's one of them. Topgolf is a big tenant of theirs. If anyone's been to a Topgolf, it's a whole lot of fun and really a high-end --
Moser: Yeah. Topgolf is actually looking to IPO [have an initial public offering], I think not too terribly far down the road, aren't they?
Frankel: They are. Which would likely lead to a period of faster growth after the IPO and the need for more properties. So that would be a nice catalyst for EPR too.
They own a bunch of water parks, ski resorts, things like that, things that really can't be replicated from Amazon or any other internet retailer. So, entertainment is one of the most -- I don't want to say safest, but definitely one of the most e-commerce-resistant types of real estate. And EPR is a great way to play it, because it's kind of been beaten down a little bit, thanks to the retail weakness in general.
Moser: Yeah, I do like that idea. I mean, entertainment, to me, is so far-reaching these days. I mean whether you're streaming something on your phone or going to a Dave & Buster's or Topgolf, for that matter. I mean, I think you're right, in most cases: Unless you're streaming content on your phone, you're probably going to need to go somewhere for that entertainment. And so, to see a company out there focused on that, in particular -- I think that's also beyond just e-commerce, just a resilient market in good times and in bad. Folks are looking for some form of entertainment, one way or the other.
Frankel: Sure. I mean, people are going to obviously trim back their spending on luxuries in bad times, but people still need to occupy their time. No one's just going to sit at home. So, entertainment is a pretty resilient property type. The entertainment business is one of the most recession-resistant type of businesses out there, just because it's always in demand.
Moser: Well, we'll take a look at that, and we'll keep an eye on the Topgolf IPO. That'll be something -- certainly, I'm interested in just the Topgolf IPO alone, but I'd also be fascinated to see how that could potentially impact EPR.
Okay, let's move over to the next name in the space here in the report, Seritage Growth Properties (SRG 0.85%). This is ticker SRG. Tell the listeners what you like about Seritage Growth Properties, Matt?
Frankel: Well, not only is it a Buffett REIT -- I'll get to that in a second -- but it's kind of an under-the-radar retail name and it's a unique approach to real estate. Seritage was created specifically to buy a portfolio of Sears properties. Now, nobody wants to own a Sears property, right?
Moser: [laughs] Well, I mean maybe not in its Sears form, but there's got to be some value there, right?
Frankel: Sears doesn't even want to own Sears properties -- that's why they sold them to Seritage. [laughs]
Moser: [laughs] That's a good point. Okay, go on.
Frankel: So, the point is that as these properties...Sears, as we all know, went bankrupt. As Sears closes stores and things like that over time, Seritage was created to take these spaces, which are often massive retail spaces in excellent areas. Because if you remember back in the '70s and '80s, Sears was the retailer, so Sears were built in top-notch locations. So, now you could have redeveloped modern retail assets in top-notch locations. Seritage is getting five times the rent for its renovated properties as they were to start with. And it's got some pretty impressive backers, notably, Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire Hathaway is the lender to Seritage. They provided them with a $2 billion credit line to complete their renovations.
Moser: That's such a Buffett thing to do, man. I mean, he's got that move down, doesn't he?
Frankel: Right. And in addition to that -- this is kind of less publicized -- Warren Buffett, himself, owned Seritage in his personal portfolio, and he's the company's largest shareholder. That's less publicized. It's listed in their annual report: Buffett owns more than 5% of the company. So it's backed by some pretty impressive names. And it's under the radar now because, one, it doesn't pay a dividend, they're choosing to reinvest all their capital back into growth; they're not making a profit, so they don't have to pay out money to shareholders. And it just has a whole lot going for it. And the majority of their properties, they haven't touched yet.
So, this is a lot of opportunity to create value out of essentially nearly worthless properties in terms of rentability. I mean, no one wants to re-rent the Sears as is. So now they're going to create these, and they have the opportunity to add square footage and density to some of these developments. There's a lot of unused land around a lot of Sears properties, so it's just a really great long-term growth opportunity. This is probably, I'd say, the most long-term-looking of all of them, in the sense that they're not going to make a ton of money overnight. But there's a ton of value to be created in this portfolio, and the market is really overlooking it, I think.
Moser: Well, I definitely don't just do whatever Warren Buffett does, but anything he does makes me take note. And so I think investors would be wise to certainly take a look at Seritage, and try to understand better what he sees in it, because clearly, he sees something.
Let's talk a little bit about Simon Property Group (SPG 1.55%), the third name in this report, ticker SPG. Simon is an interesting company because it has a very heavy exposure to malls, isn't that right?
Frankel: Right. And I've mentioned Simon on the show before. Simon is one of the biggest REITs of any kind in the market. They have something like $40 billion market cap. They have a big portfolio of some of the most valuable shopping malls in the world. They own the Mills brand name, if you've lived near any of the Mills properties. I know there's one in Baltimore by HQ, but they're all over the country. In Vegas they have some of the biggest malls on the Strip. The Forum Shops at Caesars are a Simon property, just to name one example. And they also are in the outlet-mall business. They have the Premium Outlets brand name, so anywhere you see a Premium Outlets property, that's a Simon property.
Simon's approach is similar to Seritage, in the sense that they want to have mixed-use spaces. They want to modernize the retail experience, have non-retail elements in their offices, hotels. A lot of Simon's malls have hotels right in the mall, apartment buildings -- the one in Baltimore has a casino attached to it. So, just to kind of bring foot traffic in, make them places people want to go to; even if they can buy the products online, having a shopping destination creates an experience. Which is kind of what we were saying with EPR, that it becomes an experiential thing. And that itself can kind of withstand the test of time.
And one of the most interesting things about Simon recently is that while you're seeing all these little strip malls and retailers going out of business, losing sales, things like that, the average Simon retailer actually sold 4% more in 2019 than they did the year before. So sales are actually going up at Simon's properties, because they're adding all these entertainment venues and mixed-use spaces, and really doing a great job of attracting people in.
And Simon's -- they're targeting online retailers, in the sense [of] places that only have online presence -- Simon's saying, "Hey, why don't you open an exclusive retail location in one of our malls to boost your sales?" UNTUCKit is a good example that I could think of; there's some UNTUCKit stores in some of Simon's malls, which is historically an online-only business. And Simon was in the news today -- I'll wrap it up after this, but Simon keeps getting bigger. They're taking advantage of the slowdown in retail by acquiring some of their struggling peers -- Taubman Centers, at some of the most productive mall assets in the country, and Simon just announced they're buying them, or 80% of the company today. They kind of expand even further and bring its...Simon is the most financially flexible mall company in the world. And if there's anyone who could add value to a new portfolio of malls and bring them into the 21st century, it's Simon.
Moser: Well. I mean, maybe, that's just a good example of one of the strongest getting stronger. But, yeah, I've looked into Simon before, and agree with what you're saying there.
Okay, let's take a look at the last company on the list here. Now, this is STORE Capital (STOR), and STORE is an acronym for Single Tenant Operational Real Estate. So, STORE Capital, the ticker here is STOR. They say in the report here, this is one of the safest REITs of any kind, not just in the retail space. Tell us a little bit about why?
Frankel: Right. And I know I've mentioned Buffett already, but this is the only REIT that Berkshire owns in its portfolio directly, in terms of just owning the stock.
So, STORE Capital, they're a retail REIT, but they specialize in properties that fit a few basic characteristics. Either they're service-oriented businesses -- think auto repair shops, things like that, that people have to physically go to. Or they are discount-oriented businesses. Or they're businesses that sell things people have to buy. Think, like, gas stations; you can't really, you know, call Amazon and fill your car with gas. So that's why I say it's one of the safer ones. These are properties that the tenants sign long-term, think 15- to 20-year leases, with annual rent increases built right in. And these are businesses that really have no risk of being disrupted by e-commerce, and also are [at] very little risk to being disrupted by recessions.
Drugstores are a good example of a property that people have to buy from. People still need their prescriptions, no matter how bad a recession is. People still need to put gas in their car, if there's a recession. So these are very recession-resistant businesses, that also, because of this lease structure -- where they're locked in for over a decade at a time -- STORE Capital doesn't have to worry about whether they're going to renew their lease next year, the following year, or whatever. They're locked in; all they have to do is get a high-quality tenant in place, and enjoy year after year of worry-free income.
And STORE, one of their big differentiators is they require their tenants to provide property-level financials. So, they know well in advance if a company is struggling or if one of their properties might become vacant, and can take steps to remedy that much quicker than any of their other retail REIT peers can.
Moser: Wow! Okay, so I'm going to put you on the spot here, as I like to do, Matt. And I know that you like all four of these. If we take all four of these and I ask you to take the two that you like the most today, of the four, what are the two that you really like the most out of these four?
Frankel: Probably Simon and Seritage. I like all four. STORE is obviously the best bet if you're a risk-averse investor.
But Seritage, I think, it's a phenomenal value that's really being overlooked by the market. And Simon is trading at its 52-week low, roughly. And they just agreed to pay a 50%-something premium for Taubman, and if that tells you anything, it's that there's a lot of undervaluation going on in this space. So, I think Simon's properties are worth a whole lot more than the market's giving them credit for. And they're going to be around for years and years and years to come. And if anything, as these smaller regional malls and strip malls get shaken out, their market position is going to get even stronger. So if I had to pick two to buy today, it would be Seritage and Simon.
Moser: All right. Well, great stuff as always, Matt. I know our listeners love being able to get some new investing ideas on their radar, particularly in this REIT space with those nice dividend yields that so many are looking for. Appreciate you going through those four REIT ideas for us.
Before we continue, I want to remind listeners that if you're looking for more stock ideas and recommendations, make sure to check out our Stock Advisor service. You'll get recommendations from David and Tom Gardner every month, Best Buys Now, and a whole lot more. So, just go to if.fool.com, and we've got a special 50% discount for our listeners. Make sure to check it out at if.fool.com.
All right, Matt, we're going to jump in real quick to another installment of "The last stock you bought and why." I got a really nice email here from Vikas. Vikas, I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. But he writes in, says: "I'm an absolute fan of the Industry Focus podcast, and I wanted to talk to you about the last share I bought, DocuSign." Love it, Vikas, already; you know I own that stock and I love it. Vikas says:
I recently visited a nearby Bank of America branch to help my sister open a bank account. All of the account signatures were automated by DocuSign. I did some digging to understand when Bank of America started using DocuSign. And the branch official seems to indicate that there was a rollout in the last few months. One of my worries with DocuSign's revenue was its strong exposure to the mortgage market; its diversification into banking provides me with great comfort. Also, as someone in finance myself, I can tell you, if every signature in the financial services industry gets covered by DocuSign, that's a lot of signatures in SaaS [software-as-a-service] revenue. Promptly went on to buy the shares.
Thanks, and keep up the good work.
Vikas, thank you so much for that email. Thanks for telling us your thinking behind why you bought DocuSign. I agree with what you said there. I just think it's the way of the future; it makes business a lot easier. And as you are aware, it seems you got to sign something for everything nowadays. And if we can make it a little bit easier with DocuSign, well, we win as consumers and we win as investors as well. So, congratulations.
Okay, Matt, let's go ahead and wrap this week up. We're going to talk about our ones to watch. What's the stock you're watching this coming week?
Frankel: I know I talk about it all the time, but my stock I'm watching is Green Dot (GDOT -2.07%). And there's a reason for it this time.
Moser: [laughs] Well, there's a reason for it every week, man, don't worry.
Frankel: [laughs] Well there is, and my reason is not just because it went down and it's a value. I normally don't have too much great news to report about Green Dot, but this week's an exception.
Moser: All right. Well, lay it on me.
Frankel: Green Dot is actually about up about 50% since last time I talked about it. And one of the big reasons is that Starboard Value, the big hedge fund, took almost 10% ownership stake in it. They specifically said they might push for changes within the company, including either a sale of some assets or an overall, you know, an acquisition by somebody else. So it just shows that I'm not the only one who thinks Green Dot is undervalued right now. [laughs]
And I mean, Starboard, they have a pretty good track record. So, if they see something in Green Dot, then there must be something to it. And I think this banking-as-a-service [BaaS] business really has a lot of future potential. So, I'm glad to see that some moves are happening there.
Moser: Well, that sounds like good news; I'm glad to hear it and I appreciate your bringing it up. I don't hold anything against you. You could talk about Green Dot every week, and that would be OK with me, Matt. Just remember we have listeners to accommodate as well. And so, I'm just speaking on behalf of them: You better be right. I'm just kidding. [laughs]
Okay, well, I'm going to revisit really quickly just my one to watch; last week, if you remember, it was Chipotle. I just wanted to touch on this briefly, because I was talking, really, about the digital sales growth for the company. And they reported earnings. It looked like a really good quarter, but the number that I was watching was that digital sales growth. We saw a growth of 78% there year over year; it represents now 19.6% of total sales for the year. Digital sales of just north of $1 billion, which was up 90% versus the prior year. So, that's what I was watching, was Chipotle. I just wanted to go and let listeners know, that's what came off the earnings release -- which, I've got to say, I was pretty happy with that.
But my one to watch this week: I'm watching Shopify (SHOP 0.29%). Earnings come out on Feb. 12, so I believe that will be on Wednesday. Shopify is the e-commerce platform, but in e-commerce and helping their merchants build out their businesses on Shopify, it's more than just building a website. Their subscription solutions revenue for the business grew 37% last quarter, and that that was driven primarily by growth in monthly recurring revenue, and that's really an attractive part of the business.
But I also focus on the gross payments volume side of the business, the GPV, which is a metric we follow with a lot of these payments companies. Last quarter, they recorded $6.2 billion in gross payments volume. And the reason why that matters is, because that's what's going through that Shopify Pay, the Shopify Payments part of the business. And that actually is connected to Stripe. So, you know we love PayPal and Square. Stripe is not a publicly traded company. But if you want exposure to something like a Stripe, you could look at Shopify, and that could be a way to get it.
For me, personally, I own shares of Shopify. Part of it is because of the payments future I think the company has, but also just what Tobi Lutke is doing with the business, and the tailwinds in e-commerce. It just seems like there's a lot to like about Shopify. So, looking forward to seeing how that earnings release comes out on Wednesday.
So, Matt, I think that's going to wrap it up for us this week. I appreciate you joining us again, as always.
Frankel: Yeah. Always fun to be here. I'll see you guys next week in person.
Moser: Yes, sir. And as always, people on the program may have interest in the stock they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear.
Thanks to Dan Boyd, behind the glass, for making us sound good this week. For Matt Frankel, I'm Jason Moser, thanks for listening and we'll see you next week.