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Investors in the stock market are often encouraged to invest at the point of maximum pessimism: "Buy when there's blood in the streets" was the advice of Baron Rothschild at the time of the Napoleonic wars. More recently, Warren Buffett exhorts us to be "fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful."

With the S&P/TSX composite index close to its record high, it is difficult to argue that the overall stock market is beset with pessimism, but in my portfolio, one sector is deep under water and out of favour: oil-service stocks. Here, it is easy to find stocks trading at half of book value, which have proven that they can survive with oil at $30 (U.S.) a barrel and with a balance sheet strong enough that the bank has not called the loan. For a risk-tolerant investor, this is a fertile research universe.

So, I recently took a field trip to Calgary and Edmonton to visit nine companies that are in my portfolio or candidates for purchase (Bri-Chem Corp., Cathedral Energy Services Ltd., Entrec Corp., Essential Energy Services Ltd., InPlay Oil Corp., McCoy Global Inc., Petrowest Corp., Titan Logix Corp. and Western Energy Services Corp). My first observation is that management of small-cap companies in out-of-favour sectors do not get many visits from investors or research analysts. In fact, several of them said that they had abandoned the quarterly conference call because no one on the line asked any questions.

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This is music to the ears of a value investor, because some academic studies suggest that the superior performance of small-cap stocks is not a result of their smallness, but of investor neglect, which correlates highly with small cap. Whatever the linkage, all these companies are small cap and neglected, so they check both boxes.

As a value investor with a widely diversified portfolio and a high risk tolerance, I freely admit that I often have only a rudimentary understanding of the product or service offered by the company: If it is cheap enough based on the financials, I can live with my uncertainty of the product offering. My relaxed attitude on this topic is based on long experience with sell-side analysts who are experts on the industry but clueless on valuation. Consequently, I am often surprised during company visits to discover I own shares in a company with a lot more technology content than I realized.

Case in point, one of the companies I visited: TSX Venture Exchange-listed Titan Logix, which markets a line of fluid-level gauges and controllers for mobile tanker trucks. These include oil-field hauling, aircraft refuelling, chemicals, waste oil and vacuum trucks. I originally purchased the stock because it traded below the iconic Ben Graham net-net working capital per share value (current assets minus all liabilities), probably as a result of its exposure to the oil-field sector and a microcap market value of about $16-million (Canadian). At 57 cents, the stock trades at a small premium to the net-net value of 54 cents (which I calculated based on the balance sheet for the most recent reported quarter ended Feb. 28) in spite of a pristine balance sheet with only $30,000 in total debt and a cash balance of $13.8-million.

My company meetings alerted me to the new oil-patch environment where data capture is critical for companies to prove that they deliver on schedule and to specification. This permits speedier customer billing and a product-liability defence if problems arise.

In that context, the Titan Logix product is more than a simple mobile-tanker fluid-measurement device: It is a management-control software system to measure driver productivity, delivery times, spillage and safety records. In spite of a huge decline in revenue to an annual rate less than $4-million, Titan Logix has continued to spend on research and development, so the output is now digitized and can be accessed remotely by clients on the cloud.

With only 28.5 million shares outstanding, Titan Logix is not on the radar screen of any institutional investor, but the product line is state of the art with the potential for entering new markets. It will be some time before revenues regain momentum because huge overbuilding in the tanker truck market during the oil boom created an inventory overhang that first has to be absorbed, but the cash-rich balance sheet favours survival. In the interim, the cash balance makes it an attractive candidate for acquisition or going private.


How to calculate 'net-net'

To calculate the net-net working capital for any company, simply go to the balance sheet and identify current assets. From this, deduct all liabilities. If this number is positive, then the company has net-net working capital. Divide this by the number of shares outstanding to derive net-net working capital per share. If the stock price is below net-net, then you are looking at a deep-value stock possibly trading below liquidation value of the current assets alone. No value has been given to the fixed assets or intangibles. At this point, you need to do your own research to decide whether it is a bargain or a value trap.

Disclosure: The author owns shares of Titan Logix.

Robert Tattersall, CFA, is co-founder of the Saxon family of mutual funds and the retired chief investment officer of Mackenzie Investments.

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