U.S. Markets open in 7 hrs 22 mins

Is Willis Towers Watson PLC (WLTW) A Smart Long-Term Buy?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Vltava Fund, an investment management firm, published its third-quarter 2021 investor letter – a copy of which can be downloaded here. In its Q3 investor letter, Vltava Fund mentioned the two companies they recently owned and provided some updates about the fund's assets as of the end of the recent quarter. You can view the fund’s top 5 holdings to have a peek at their top bets for 2021.

In the Q3 2021 investor letter of Vltava Fund, the management firm mentioned Willis Towers Watson PLC (NASDAQ: WLTW) and discussed its stance on the firm. Willis Towers Watson PLC is a London, United Kingdom-based insurance company with a $31.3 billion market capitalization. WLTW delivered a 13.43% return since the beginning of the year, while its 12-month returns are up by 13.35%. The stock closed at $243.08 per share on October 5, 2021.

Here is what Vltava Fund has to say about Willis Towers Watson PLC in its Q3 2021 investor letter:

"The second position is much larger and was thrown into our hands by an unexpected turn of events. It is the stock of Willis Towers Watson. This is a British company with roots dating back to 1828. WLTW is the third-largest insurance broker in the world. This is a sector with which we are very familiar, as some time ago we held in our portfolio shares of its slightly larger competitor AON.

It was AON in fact that announced last spring it had agreed to merge with WLTW. In the merger, WLTW shareholders would have received AON shares. As is usually the case with such announcements, investors stepped in to conduct what is known as merger arbitrage. In this particular case, they bought WLTW shares and sold short AON shares in order to profit from the fact that the prices of the two stocks did not yet fully reflect the exchange ratio in the merger. Moreover, merger arbitrage commonly makes extensive use of leverage in order to increase profits.

This summer, however, AON and WLTW jointly announced that they were pulling out of the planned merger because they had not received approval from the US Department of Justice. The regulator had feared that in an already quite concentrated industry, a merger of the second- and third-largest players would restrict competition too much. The immediate reaction to this announcement was, of course, closing of positions from the merger arbitrage. This brought an immediate increase in the price of AON shares and decline in the price of WLTW shares. We saw this as an excellent buying opportunity in WLTW stock. (In addition, WLTW had received a USD 1 billion breakup fee from AON.) Because we knew the industry and the two companies well from earlier years, we were able to react immediately, and a new, very attractive investment appeared in Vltava Fund’s portfolio rather unexpectedly and quickly.

Insurance brokerage is a very good business. Simply put, insurance brokers are intermediaries who sell, find, or negotiate insurance on behalf of a client for a fee. They do not bear the insurance risk themselves and thereby do not risk their own capital. They live from commissions and the fact that this is a large and recurring business. Just to give you a sense of this, I will note, for example, that of the 500 companies in the Fortune Global 500 list, more than 90% are clients of WLTW. The entire industry is very concentrated and has relatively high barriers to entry. WLTW is the third-largest global player, has very high free cash flow, low capital investment requirements, and a very valuable client base. The business as a whole also provides some long-term inflation protection, as the speed at which the volume of total premiums grows follows the speed at which the economy and asset prices grow in nominal terms. I have to say we are very happy that circumstances have passed this investment on to us."

Easiest Countries to Become a Lawyer
Easiest Countries to Become a Lawyer

Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock.com

Based on our calculations, Willis Towers Watson PLC (NASDAQ: WLTW) was not able to clinch a spot in our list of the 30 Most Popular Stocks Among Hedge Funds. WLTW was in 70 hedge fund portfolios at the end of the first half of 2021, compared to 66 funds in the previous quarter. Willis Towers Watson PLC (NASDAQ: WLTW) delivered a 3.66% return in the past 3 months.

Hedge funds’ reputation as shrewd investors has been tarnished in the last decade as their hedged returns couldn’t keep up with the unhedged returns of the market indices. Our research has shown that hedge funds’ small-cap stock picks managed to beat the market by double digits annually between 1999 and 2016, but the margin of outperformance has been declining in recent years. Nevertheless, we were still able to identify in advance a select group of hedge fund holdings that outperformed the S&P 500 ETFs by 115 percentage points since March 2017 (see the details here). We were also able to identify in advance a select group of hedge fund holdings that underperformed the market by 10 percentage points annually between 2006 and 2017. Interestingly the margin of underperformance of these stocks has been increasing in recent years. Investors who are long the market and short these stocks would have returned more than 27% annually between 2015 and 2017. We have been tracking and sharing the list of these stocks since February 2017 in our quarterly newsletter.

At Insider Monkey, we scour multiple sources to uncover the next great investment idea. For example, artificial intelligence is one of the fastest-growing industries right now, so we are checking out stock pitches like this emerging AI stock. We go through lists like the 10 best hydrogen fuel cell stocks to pick the next Tesla that will deliver a 10x return. Even though we recommend positions in only a tiny fraction of the companies we analyze, we check out as many stocks as we can. We read hedge fund investor letters and listen to stock pitches at hedge fund conferences. You can subscribe to our free daily newsletter on our homepage.

Disclosure: None. This article is originally published at Insider Monkey.