Francis Chou Comments on Resolute Forest Products

Resolute Forest Products (“RFP”)

As of June 30, 2020, the market price of Resolute Forest Products (NYSE:RFP) was US$2.11 per share, down 50% from the price at year end 2019. RFP has been a huge disappointment since our initial purchase some eight years ago. It shows how tough it is to turn around a troubled company despite the best efforts of management. Having said that, it is quite comical to experience how a commodity stock can be hammered beyond all logical comprehension. RFP paid a special dividend of US$1.50 a share in 2018, and it was trading as low as US$1.17 per share in April 2020. Back in March 2020, the company announced that it would buy back 15% of its common shares for US$100 million. At the lowest year-to-date price of US$1.17, the whole market capitalization would be approximately US$99 million. In other words, instead of buying back 15% of the company with US$100 million, it could repurchase 100% of the company at one point. RFP shares have since recovered 300% to US$4.69 as of August 25, 2020.

One bright spot has been their lumber operations. The high prices for lumber should make up the declines in newsprint and specialty papers. The COVID -19 pandemic has shifted the focus more towards lumber/pulp/tissue operations and I believe that should generate greater cash flow in the future.

In general, our experience with a commodity business that has virtually no pricing power is to be cautious when management talks about investing in new equipment or upgrades that would significantly lower the cost structure compared to its competitors. That may be true for six months to a couple of years, but in time, competitors will have a new cost structure that is as competitive if not superior to the company. It is the same treadmill where hardly anyone in the industry can make a decent return on the assets invested in the company. The same story can be seen repeatedly in various commoditized industries. There is no sustainable long-term advantage in a mediocre business with no pricing power. It is important not to get seduced by discount to book value. If the company cannot generate a decent return on book value over a long period of time, that book value is not worth much.

From Francis Chou (TradesPortfolio)’s Chou Associates Fund semi-annual 2020 letter.