OpenTable’s Surge Lures Shorts After Best U.S. IPO

By Nikolaj Gammeltoft (Bloomberg)

OpenTable Inc. short sellers are placing record wagers against the online restaurant-reservation company, betting it will slump after posting bigger gains than every other U.S. initial public offering in the past two years.

The San Francisco-based company’s shares jumped 230 percent through yesterday since the IPO almost 18 months ago. The rally convinced investors to sell short 15 percent of its shares outstanding, the most since OpenTable began trading in May 2009 and more than twice its average level, according to data compiled by Data Explorers, a New York-based research firm.

Rady Asset Management LLC and T2 Partners LLC are betting OpenTable’s prospects don’t justify a price-earnings ratio of 122, or eight times higher than the valuation for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index. While analysts estimate the company will post 51 percent growth in per-share profit in 2011, OpenTable may run out of room to expand its business, said T2’s Whitney Tilson, who lost money when the shares jumped 11 percent on Nov. 3 following the company’s quarterly earnings report.

“It’s one of the most overvalued stocks we’ve ever seen,” said Whitney Tilson, who oversees $214 million with Glenn Tongue at T2 in New York. “It’s a well-run company, but it’s stretching for growth and the earnings report was misinterpreted as a spectacular report, when it was only OK.”

Tiffany Fox, a spokeswoman for OpenTable, declined to comment.

Fourfold Profit Gain

OpenTable, which posted a fourfold increase in third- quarter income last week, makes money from restaurants that install its system and collects monthly subscriptions and a fee for each guest seated through online bookings. Diners schedule reservations for free through OpenTable’s website or applications on devices such as Apple Inc.’s iPhone.

The stock, which has at least five analyst “buy” ratings and seven “holds,” peaked at $69.61 on Nov. 4 after the third- quarter earnings announcement. It closed at $65.95 yesterday, and fell 1.5 percent to $64.94 at 10:09 a.m. in New York.

OpenTable has one of the best management teams among small Internet companies with strong growth opportunities, according to Citigroup Inc. analyst Mark Mahaney, who increased his share- price estimate to $80 this month. The stock has risen 16 percent since he boosted his rating to “buy” from “hold” on Sept. 13.

“What OpenTable has proven is that it has created a dominant transactions platform on which in can layer in new, high-margin revenue streams,” the San Francisco-based analyst wrote in a note to investors last week. “Impressive.”

Adding to Bet

Tilson said his firm started betting against OpenTable several weeks ago and added to the wager after the quarterly report drove the shares higher. Short selling is the sale of borrowed stock in the hope of profiting by buying the securities later at a lower price and returning them to the shareholder.

OpenTable reported third-quarter earnings excluding some items of 23 cents a share, beating the average analyst estimate by 54 percent, Bloomberg data show. The number of restaurants using its software rose to 15,246 as of Sept. 30, up 31 percent from a year earlier. The company is expanding its web-based Connect service, a lower-cost alternative for restaurants that take fewer reservations.

“They are cutting their prices to customers in order to maintain the growth in restaurants that investors want to see,” said Tilson, whose Tilson Focus Fund has outperformed 93 percent of peers in the past five years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “You can cut prices to help growth, but that will eventually hurt your profit.”

Short Interest

The proportion of OpenTable shares that were sold short climbed to 15 percent on Nov. 3, according to Data Explorers. That compares with a low of 1.5 percent in December. The company’s 230 percent rally since it sold shares in May 2009 is the most among companies that conducted initial public offerings since Jan. 1, 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“We would argue that the stock price could be 50 percent lower,” said Harry Rady, chief executive officer of Rady Asset Management in La Jolla, California, which runs a long-short fund that is betting against OpenTable. “The stock is ahead of itself and is priced for perfection.”

OpenTable has created a service called Spotlight that offers coupons to restaurants. It competes with Groupon Inc., the owner of a coupon website with 20 million subscribers that’s seeking venture funding in a deal that may value the company at about $3 billion, according to people familiar with the matter. OpenTable has a stock-market value of $1.52 billion.

“OpenTable is a pure valuation trade for us,” said Rady, who manages $270 million. “The stock is too expensive, even using the most optimistic assumptions, which therefore makes it vulnerable.”

Updated Short Case for OpenTable (OPEN)

The short presentation on OpenTable has been updated with the latest quaterly numbers, which were  reported on November 2nd.

‘Dumb Money’ Returns to Stocks

By Kelly Evans (WSJ)

Individual investors are wading back into the U.S. stock market. That ought to make super-bulls think twice.

Positive forces including strong corporate earnings, improving economic data and more bond buying by the Federal Reserve have fueled a 17% rally in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index since late August. The market has now punched through its prior 2010 highs, set in April, to reach levels last seen in 2008 before the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Predictably, that has also triggered a rebound in bullish sentiment and helped coax investors back into the market. The American Association of Individual Investors finds 48% of investors surveyed are bullish on stocks as of last week—the highest level since February 2007. Bearish sentiment, at 27%, is at its lowest since January 2006.

And it appears their money is following suit. Roughly a quarter of recent flows into U.S. equity funds, including exchange-traded funds, have come from individual investors, according to EPFR Global. Since early September, such retail investors have poured about $2 billion into these funds, which have taken in about $8.4 billion. That is a marked turnaround from the $23 billion yanked out of equity funds in August, when double-dip fears raged.

For now, this support could help the market extend its recent run. Yet it may also mean it is late in the rally game. Retail investors are usually a lagging indicator, reacting to past performance rather than predicting future gains. Their flows, says Harvard University lecturer Owen Lamont, can create “a short-term lift” but it rarely lasts beyond a few months. He and Andrea Frazzini of AQR Capital Management have written a series of papers together on this “dumb money” phenomenon.

Admittedly, the flow of money from individual investors back into the market has been more a trickle than a flood—from January 2009 through August, individuals pulled around $162 billion from equity funds.

Even so, a return of retail investors argues for caution. The prior high in sentiment this year came in late spring, just as the market was headed for a bruising selloff. It may not be wise to fight the Fed, but it can be just as ill-advised to follow the crowd.

Performance of ValueHuntr Stocks

The table includes all  investment opportunities we have discussed since the inception of our website. All statistics exclude the effect of VNDA, which we got lucky on. Our batting average is 80% so far, with a pre-tax average return of 27%, excluding dividends and assuming equal allocation weight on each stock. On the past 600 days we have chosen 20 investments, which amounts to 1 investment pick per month.

OpenTable Inc. (OPEN) Q3 2010 Update

A few points about Opentable’s Q3 numbers, as it is up 17% pre-market…

1)    The Q3 effective tax rate was 17%–without which EPS does not beat (it was 39% in Q2). It certainly helps to have lower taxes. If you consider greater shareholder dilution and tax adjust EPS, income only rose $0.006 per share from last quarter. 

2)    Revenue beat of $1.2M (~5%) on a $1.6B market cap company is insignificant. 

3)    Although the number of seated diners was up 54% and its installed restaurant base increased 31%, average monthly pricing declined  YOY in US from $268 to $252 and average  international subscription revenue  declined from $204 to $171.

4)     Although the number of installed restaurants is increasing, it is clear that the subscription revenue per restaurant is consistently lower every quarter.

6) Additionally, both the number of diners per installed restaurant and the reservation revenue per seated diner are both flat. This means that 100% of the company’s growth depends on the expansion of installed restaurants. The low hanging fruit restaurants have easily swang in Opentable’s direction, but it is extremely unlikely that they will be able to sustain this growth in the future.

7) But maybe installed restaurant growth is accelederating at a rate that justifies the extremely high expectations. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

8)    OpenTable still sells for more than 100 times this year’s expected earnings, and 17 times estimated sales. Such multiples leave little room for missteps, even as the competition grows.

 As some say, playing musical chair is all great and fun while the music is playing, but the fun always ends when the music stops. It will not take a day or a month, but eventually, Opentable’s music will stop, and my guess is that investors will be late at realizing this.

November Issues Published

The November issues of ValueFocus and ValueEdge have been published. For more information regarding our monthly newsletters see HERE.

Common Sense Investing: The Papers of Benjamin Graham

It took me over a year to do this, but after many trips to the NYC research library I’ve finally compiled over 40 papers originally written by Benjamin Graham into an easy-to-read book format. These papers are not part of either Intelligent Investor nor Security Analysis. The papers range from 1930 to 1974, basically Ben Graham’s entire professional life. Enjoy!

Short Idea: OpenTable Inc. (OPEN)

Warren Buffett Names New Investment Manager

Berkshire Hathaway, the holding company run by Warren Buffett, announced Monday that hedge fund manager Todd Combs has been hired as an investment manager.

Buffett said in a brief statement that he and vice-chairman Charlie Munger had been “looking for someone of Todd’s caliber to handle a significant portion of Berkshire’s investment portfolio” for three years.

Todd Combs, 39, had been managing a Connecticut hedge fund called Castle Point Capital for the past five years, according to the statement. He sent a letter Monday to the partners of Castle Point announcing his decision to move to Berkshire.

The move comes amid speculation about an eventual successor for Buffett. The 80-year old Buffett has consistently ranked as one of the world’s richest men. His assets totaled $45 billion this year, making him America’s second richest man after Bill Gates, according to Forbes magazine.

Indian Billionaire Investors Go On Buying Spree in`Last Frontier’ Africa

Indian billionaire Ravi Ruia flew to Africa every month for the past 18 months, buying coal mines in Mozambique, half an oil refinery in Kenya and a call center in South Africa for his Essar Group.

This month, executives of his Essar Energy Plc. attended a conference hosted by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan to attract investors in the power grid. The officials, backed by $2 billion the company raised in an April listing on the London Stock Exchange, also mulled other “business opportunities” around Africa, the company said.

Ruia, who controls the $15 billion Essar Group with his older brother, Shashi, is not alone. Billionaire countrymen Sunil Mittal, chairman of India’s largest mobile phone provider, Bharti Airtel Ltd.; Adi Godrej, chairman of Godrej Consumer Products Ltd.; and Harsh Mariwala, founder of Marico Ltd., have fueled a $15.8 billion buying spree in Africa since January 2005.

“Africa looks remarkably similar to what India was 15 years ago,” said Firdhose Coovadia, director of Essar’s African operations. “We can’t lose this opportunity to replicate the low-cost, high-volume model we’ve perfected in India.”

‘Last Frontier’

Indian companies acquired or invested in at least 79 companies in Africa, chasing business in less crowded markets after growing in a home economy that expanded by an average 8.5 percent since April 2005.

Africa’s gross domestic product expanded 4.9 percent a year from 2000 to 2008, McKinsey & Co. said in a June report. The continent’s GDP will rise to $2.6 trillion by 2020 from $1.6 trillion in 2008.

Consumer spending may double to as much as $1.8 trillion by 2020 as infrastructure is built and farm output increases, the report said. That is the equivalent of adding a consumer market the size of Brazil.

“Africa is seen by the investing community as the last frontier,” said Walter Rossini, who manages $330 million in an India fund at Aletti Gestielle Sgr Spa in Milan. “There is a higher risk, but then there is greater reward if the political situation remains stable over the next 10 years.”

Africa is new territory for Bharti, which paid $9 billion in June for mobile phone operations in 15 countries and will rebrand them by year’s end.

500 Million Roses

This month, Bharti executives sought advice at the Kenya offices of Bangalore-based Karuturi Global Ltd., the world’s largest rose-grower. Sai Ramakrishna Karuturi, the managing director, said Africa is driving his company’s success.

Six years ago, as he struggled to compete against flower growers in Africa and Europe with lower freight costs and larger tracts of land, he bought a small plot in Ethiopia. Sales since have grown 11-fold to $112.7 million in the fiscal year that ended March 31.

He leases 311,000 hectares of land — larger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island — in Ethiopia and Kenya, and his company sells more than half-a-billion roses a year.

“I got in on the ground floor, others got in on the second floor, but there’s a lot of floors left to go in Africa’s economic cycle,” Karuturi said. “Africa offered us a scale we could never reach in India.”

26 Deals

Indian acquisitions in Africa peaked in 2008, when companies closed 26 deals worth $3.1 billion. Those include the state-run Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Ltd.’s $721 million purchase of Industries Chimiques du Senegal, an idle phosphates producer that once was the country’s largest industrial plant. New York-based Ernst & Young LLP handled 11 deals since 2005.

“We are seeing Indian companies look at Africa in a major way,” said Anuj Chande, the London-based head of the South Asia Group at advisory and accounting firm Grant Thornton U.K. LLP. “Compared to India, valuations are quite attractive. We’re expecting to see a lot of midsize deals across a variety of sectors.”

Apollo Tyres Ltd., India’s second-biggest tiremaker by market value, bought Durban, South Africa-based Dunlop Tyres International Pty for $62 million in April 2006. That gave Gurgaon-based Apollo two manufacturing plants and a retreading unit in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and brand rights to 32 African countries.

‘Tata, Ambani’

“If tomorrow the Indian economy was to take a U-turn, then at least you have other markets which are growing,” said Neeraj Kanwar, Apollo’s vice-chairman and managing director. “I can’t survive on the Indian market alone.”

The company aims to triple sales to $6 billion in five years, with 60 percent of revenue coming from outside India. In the fiscal year that ended March 31, 62 percent of its $1.7 billion in sales came from India.

Adi Godrej bought a hair-color company in South Africa and a soap and body-lotion maker in Nigeria. His Mumbai-based Godrej Consumer Products gets 23 percent of its total sales outside India, including Africa.

Marico paid 520 million India rupees ($12 million) to buy the consumer division of Durban-based Enaleni Pharmaceuticals Consumer Division (Pty) Ltd. in October 2007. Two months ago, it bought South African health-care brand Ingwe for an undisclosed price.

Dabur India Ltd. started shopping on the continent in 2004, when it bought a hair-care brand in Egypt and then a Nigerian cosmetics company.

“We need to now seek avenues of growth outside of India because India’s becoming saturated and hugely competitive,” Dabur Chief Executive Officer Sunil Duggal said.

One reason why smaller Indian companies ventured into Africa is that their budgets still attract attention in countries trying to woo foreign investors, Karuturi said.

“I am not even a fly on the wall in India, but in Ethiopia I am the largest investor, the second-largest employer after the government,” said Karuturi, whose company owns professional soccer and volleyball teams. “To do that in India, you have to be a Tata or an Ambani.”