Archive for February, 2010

Gekko & Greed – Friedman & Freedom

Gordon Gekko and Milton Friedman

As the old saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same. The topic of greed, fat cat bankers, and political self-preservation is just as prevalent and relevant today as it was three decades ago, as evidenced by Milton Friedman’s past television interview (see video below).  Milton Friedman and Gordon Gekko, the conniving financier from Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street played by Michael Douglas, both may not philosophically agree on all aspects of life and politics but Friedman would likely buy into much of Gekko’s view on greed:  

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

 

Although Friedman held some extreme views on certain issues, fundamentally underlying all his principles was his convicted belief in freedom – political, individual, and economic freedom.

Some things never change – Milton Friedman talks about greed and capitalism with Phil Donahue.

Background

Milton Friedman (1912-2006), one of the greatest economists of the 20th Century was a Nobel Prize winner in economics, Professor at the University of Chicago (1946-1977), and an economic advisor to President Ronald Reagan. Friedman’s laissez-faire economic views coupled with his belief that government should be severely restricted, not only had a significant influence on the field of economics in the United States, but also globally. His body of work was expansive, but some major areas of contribution include his impact on Federal Reserve monetary policy; his written work on consumption and the natural rate of unemployment; and his rejection of the Phillips curve (the inverse relation of inflation relative to unemployment), to name a few.

Political & Economic Firestorm on the Horizon

Although Friedman is tightly associated with his Republican advisor work (including Ronald Reagan), he strictly considered himself a Libertarian at the core. As much as politically left leaning Americans are blaming the 2008-2009 financial crisis on Friedman-backed deregulation and a lack of government oversight, Conservatives and Libertarians are screaming bloody murder at the Democratic controlled Congress when it comes to all the bailouts, stimulus, and entitlement legislation.  If Milton Friedman is looking down upon us now, my guess is that his vote is to flush all the proposed government spending down the toilet, let the failing financial institutions drown, and for Gordon Gekko’s sake, let the greedy,  fat cat bankers thrive.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct position on any security referenced. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

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February 28, 2010 at 11:45 pm Leave a comment

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February 28, 2010 at 11:04 pm Leave a comment

Measuring Profits & Losses (Income Statement)

So far we’ve conducted an introduction to financial statement analysis and a review of the balance sheet statement. Now we’re going to move onto the most popular and familiar financial statement and that is the income statement. One reason this particular financial statement is so popular is because it answers some of the most basic questions, such as, “How much stuff are you selling?” and “How much dough are you making?” With executive compensation incentives largely based off income statement profitability, it’s no surprise this statement is the one of choice. Unlike the balance sheet, which takes a snapshot picture of all your assets at a specific date in time, the income statement is like a scale, which measures gains or losses of a company over a specific period of time.

P&L Motivations

Like a wrestler or an overweight dieter, there can be an incentive to alter the calibration or lower the sensitivity of the financial weight scale. Fortunately for investors and other vested constituents, there are auditors (think of the Big 4 accounting firms) and regulators (such as the Securities and Exchange Commission) to verify the validity of the financial statement measurement systems in place. Sadly, due to organizational complexity, lack of resources, and lackadaisical oversight, the sanctity of the supervision process has been known to fail at times. One need not look any further than the now famous case of Enron. Not only did Enron eventually go bankrupt, but the dissolution of one of the most prestigious accounting firms in the world, Arthur Andersen, was also triggered by the accounting scandal.

Tearing Apart the Income Statement

Determining the profitability of a business through income statement analysis is generally not sufficient in coming to a decisive investment conclusion. Establishing the trend or the direction of profitability (or losses) can be even more important than the actual level of profits. The importance of profit trends requires adequate income statement history in order to ascertain a true direction. Comparability across time periods requires consistent application of rules going back in time. The “common form” income statement (or “percentage income statement”) is an excellent way to evaluate the levels of expenses and profits on an income statement across different periods. This particular format of historical income statement figures also provides a mode of comparing, contrasting, and benchmarking a company’s historical results with those of its peers (or the industry averages alone).  

Shredding through the income statement, along with the other financial statements, often creates insufficient data necessary to make informed decisions. Other components of an annual report, such as the footnotes and Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) section, help paint a more complete picture. Interactions with company management teams and the investor relations departments can also be extremely influential forces. Regrettably, corporate viewpoints provided to investors are often skewed to an overly optimistic viewpoint. Management comments should be taken with a grain of salt, given the company’s inherent motivation to drive the stock price higher and portray the company in the most positive light.

Tricks of the Trade

One way to achieve profit goals is to improve revenues. If the traditional path to generating sales is unattainable, bending revenues in the desired direction can also be facilitated under the GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) rules, or for those willing to risk times behind bars, criminals can attempt to bypass laws.

Due to the flexibility embedded within GAAP standards, corporate executives have a considerable amount of leeway in how the actual rules are implemented.  Covering all the shenanigans surrounding income statement exploitation and distortion goes beyond the scope of this article, but nonetheless, here a few examples:

  • Customer Credit: The relaxation of credit standards without increasing the associated credit loss reserves could have the effect of increasing short-term sales at the expense of future credit losses.
  • Discounts: Offering discounts to accelerate sales is another accounting tactic. Offering  price reductions may help sales now, but effectively this strategy merely brings future revenue into the current period at the expense of future sales..
  • Adjusting Depreciation: Extending depreciation lives for the purpose of lowering expense and increasing profits may temporarily increase earnings but may distort the necessity of new capital equipment.
  • Capitalization of Expenses:  This practice essentially removes expenses from the income statement and buries them on the balance sheet.
  • Merger Magic: Merger accounting can distort revenues and growth metrics in a manner that doesn’t accurately portray reality. Internally (or organic) growth typically earns a higher valuation relative to discretionary acquisition growth. Although mergers can optically accelerate revenue growth, acquirers usually overpay for deals and academic studies indicate the high failure rate among mergers.

Faux Earnings: Fix or Fraud?

The nature of financial reports has become more creative over time as new and innovative names for earnings have surfaced in press releases, which are not subject to GAAP guidelines. Reading terms such as “core earnings,” “non-GAAP earnings,” and “pro forma earnings” has become commonplace.

In addition, companies on occasion include GAAP approved “extraordinary” charges that are deemed rare and infrequent items. By doing so, income from continuing operations becomes inflated. More frequently, companies attempt to integrate less stringent, non-GAAP compliant, one-time so-called “nonrecurring,” “restructuring,” or “unusual” items. These “big-bath” expenses are designed to build a higher future earnings stream and divert investor attention to the earnings definition of choice. Unfortunately, for many companies, these nonrecurring items have a tendency of becoming recurring. Case in point is Procter & Gamble (PG), which in 2001 had recognized restructuring charges in seven consecutive quarters, totaling approximately $1.3 billion – recognizing these as part of ongoing earnings seems like a better choice. On the flip side, some companies want to include non-traditional gains into the main reported earnings. Take Coca-cola (KO) for example – in 1997 the Wall Street Journal highlighted Coke’s effort to include gains from the sales of bottler interests as part of normal operating earnings.

The review of the income statement plays a critical role in the overall health check of a company. From a stock analysis point, there tends to be an over-reliance on EPS (Earnings Per Share), which can be distorted by inflated revenues (“stuffing the channel”), deferral of expenses (extended depreciation), tax trickery, discretionary share buybacks, and other tactics discussed earlier. Generally speaking, the income statement is more easily manipulated than the cash flow statement, which will be discussed in a future post. Suffice it to say, it is in your best interest to make sure the income statement is properly calibrated when you perform your financial statement analysis.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing had no direct positions in PG, KO or other securities referenced. References to content in Financial Statement Analysis (Martin Fridson and Fernando Alvarez) was used also. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

February 26, 2010 at 10:57 am 1 comment

Inside the Brain of an Investing Genius

Photo Source: Boston.com

Those readers who have frequented my Investing Caffeine site are familiar with the numerous profiles on professional investors of both current and prior periods (See Profiles). Many of the individuals described have a tremendous track record of success, while others have a tremendous ability of making outrageous forecasts. I have covered both. Regardless, much can be learned from the successes and failures by mirroring the behavior of the greats – like modeling your golf swing after Tiger Woods (O.K., since Tiger is out of favor right now, let’s say Phil Mickelson). My investment swing borrows techniques and tips from many great investors, but Peter Lynch (ex-Fidelity fund manager), probably more than any icon, has had the most influence on my investing philosophy and career as any investor. His breadth of knowledge and versatility across styles has allowed him to compile a record that few, if any, could match – outside perhaps the great Warren Buffett.

Consider that Lynch’s Magellan fund averaged +29% per year from 1977 – 1990 (almost doubling the return of the S&P 500 index for that period). In 1977, the obscure Magellan Fund started with about $20 million, and by his retirement the fund grew to approximately $14 billion (700x’s larger). Cynics believed that Magellan was too big to adequately perform at $1, $2, $3, $5 and then $10 billion, but Lynch ultimately silenced the critics. Despite the fund’s gargantuan size, over the final five years of Lynch’s tenure, Magellan  outperformed 99.5% of all other funds, according to Barron’s. How did Magellan investors fare in the period under Lynch’s watch? A $10,000 investment initiated when he took the helm would have grown to roughly $280,000 (+2,700%) by the day he retired. Not too shabby.

Background

Lynch graduated from Boston College in 1965 and earned a Master of Business Administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1968.  Like the previously mentioned Warren Buffett, Peter Lynch shared his knowledge with the investing masses through his writings, including his two seminal books One Up on Wall Street and Beating the Street. Subsequently, Lynch authored Learn to Earn, a book targeted at younger, novice investors. Regardless, the ideas and lessons from his writings, including contributing author to Worth magazine, are still transferrable to investors across a broad spectrum of skill levels, even today.

The Lessons of Lynch

Although Lynch has left me with enough financially rich content to write a full-blown textbook, I will limit the meat of this article to lessons and quotations coming directly from the horse’s mouth. Here is a selective list of gems Lynch has shared with investors over the years:

Buy within Your Comfort Zone: Lynch simply urges investors to “Buy what you know.” In similar fashion to Warren Buffett, who stuck to investing in stocks within his “circle of competence,” Lynch focused on investments he understood or on industries he felt he had an edge over others. Perhaps if investors would have heeded this advice, the leveraged, toxic derivative debacle occurring over previous years could have been avoided.

Do Your Homework: Building the conviction to ride through equity market volatility requires rigorous homework. Lynch adds, “A company does not tell you to buy it, there is always something to worry about.  There are always respected investors that say you are wrong. You have to know the story better than they do, and have faith in what you know.”

Price Follows Earnings: Investing is often unnecessarily made complicated. Lynch fundamentally believes stock prices will follow the long-term trajectory of earnings growth. He makes the point that “People may bet on hourly wiggles of the market, but it’s the earnings that waggle the wiggle long term.” In a publicly attended group meeting, Michael Dell, CEO of Dell Inc. (DELL), asked Peter Lynch about the direction of Dell’s future stock price. Lynch’s answer: “If your earnings are higher in 5 years, your stock will be higher.” Maybe Dell’s price decline over the last five years can be attributed to its earnings decline over the same period? It’s no surprise that Hewlett-Packard’s dramatic stock price outperformance (relative to DELL) has something to do with the more than doubling of HP’s earnings over the same time frame.

Valuation & Price Declines: “People Concentrate too much on the P (Price), but the E (Earnings) really makes the difference.” In a nutshell, Lynch believes valuation metrics play an important role, but long-term earnings growth will have a larger impact on future stock price appreciation.

Two Key Stock Questions: 1) “Is the stock still attractively priced relative to earnings?” and 2) “What is happening in the company to make the earnings go up?” Improving fundamentals at an attractive price are key components to Lynch’s investing strategy.

Lynch on Buffett: Lynch was given an opportunity to write the foreword in Buffett’s biography, The Warren Buffett Way. Lynch did not believe in “pulling out flowers and watering the weeds,” or in other words, selling winners and buying losers. In highlighting this weed-flower concept, Lynch said this about Buffett: “He purchased over $1 billion of Coca-Cola in 1988 and 1989 after the stock had risen over fivefold the prior six years and over five-hundredfold the previous sixty years. He made four times his money in three years and plans to make a lot more the next five, ten, and twenty years with Coke.” Hammering home the idea that a few good stocks a decade can make an investment career, Lynch had this to say about Buffett: “Warren states that twelve investments decisions in his forty year career have made all the difference.”

You Don’t Need Perfect Batting Average: In order to significantly outperform the market, investors need not generate near perfect results. According to Lynch, “If you’re terrific in this business, you’re right six times out of 10 – I’ve had stocks go from $11 to 7 cents (American Intl Airways).” Here is one recipe Lynch shares with others on how to beat the market: “All you have to do really is find the best hundred stocks in the S&P 500 and find another few hundred outside the S&P 500 to beat the market.”

The Critical Element of Patience: With the explosion of information, expansion of the internet age, and the reduction of trading costs has come the itchy trading finger. This hasty investment principle runs contrary to Lynch’s core beliefs. Here’s what he had to say regarding the importance of a steady investment hand:

  • “In my investing career, the best gains usually have come in the third or fourth year, not in the third or fourth week or the third or fourth month.”
  • “Whatever method you use to pick stocks or stock mutual funds, your ultimate success or failure will depend on your ability to ignore the worries of the world long enough to allow your investments to succeed.”
  • “Often, there is no correlation between the success of a company’s operations and the success of its stock over a few months or even a few years. In the long term, there is a 100% correlation between the success of a company and the success of its stock. It pays to be patient, and to own successful companies.”
  • “The key to making money in stocks is not to get scared out of them.”

Bear Market Beliefs: “I’m always more depressed by an overpriced market in which many stocks are hitting new highs every day than by a beaten-down market in a recession,” says Lynch. The media responds in exactly the opposite manner – bear markets lead to an inundation of headlines driven by panic-based fear. Lynch shares a similar sentiment to Warren Buffett when it comes to the media holding a glass half full view in bear markets.

Market Worries:  Is worrying about market concerns worth the stress? Not according to Lynch. His belief: “I’ve always said if you spend 13 minutes a year on economics, you’ve wasted 10 minutes.” Just this last March, Lynch used history to drive home his views: “We’ve had 11 recessions since World War II and we’ve had a perfect score — 11 recoveries. There are a lot of natural cushions in the economy now that weren’t there in the 1930s. They keep things from getting out of control.  We have the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation [which insures bank deposits]. We have social security. We have pensions. We have two-person, working families. We have unemployment payments. And we have a Federal Reserve with a brain.”

Thoughts on Cyclicals: Lynch divided his portfolio into several buckets, and cyclical stocks occupied one of the buckets. “Cyclicals are like blackjack: stay in the game too long and it’s bound to take all your profit,” Lynch emphasized.

Selling Discipline: The rationale behind Lynch’s selling discipline is straightforward – here are some of his thoughts on the subject:

  • “When the fundamentals change, sell your mistakes.”
  • “Write down why you own a stock and sell it if the reason isn’t true anymore.”
  • “Sell a stock because the company’s fundamentals deteriorate, not because the sky is falling.”

Distilling the genius of an investing legend like Peter Lynch down to a single article is not only a grueling challenge, but it also cannot bring complete justice to the vast accomplishments of this incredible investment legend. Nonetheless, his record should be meticulously studied in hopes of adding jewels of investment knowledge to the repertoires of all investors. If delving into the head of this investing mastermind can provide access to even a fraction of his vast knowledge pool, then we can all benefit by adding a slice of this greatness to our investment portfolios.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in DELL, KO, HPQ or any other security mentioned. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

February 23, 2010 at 11:45 pm 5 comments

Getting off the Market Timing Treadmill

Most investors have been stuck on the financial treadmill of the 2000s and have nothing to show for it, other than battle scars from the 2008-2009 financial crisis. A lot of running, sweating, and jumping has produced effectively no results.  Most media outlets continue to focus on the “lost decade” (see other Lost Decade story) in which investors have earned nothing in the equity markets. After a decade of excess in the 1990s should the majority of investors be surprised? Investing is no different than dieting and exercise – those topics are easy to understand but difficult to execute.

Where are the Billionaire Market Timers?

The financial industry oversimplifies investing and sells market timing as an effortless path to riches – even in tough times. In the search of the financial Holy Grail, the industry constantly crams new software bells and whistles and so-called “can’t lose” strategies down the throats of individual investors. Sadly, there is no miracle system, wonder algorithm, or get rich scheme that can sustainably last the test of time. Sure, a minority of speculators can get lucky and make money by following a risky strategy in the short-run, but as the global economic disaster caused by LTCM (Long Term Capital Management) taught us, even certain successful trading strategies or computer algorithms can stop working in a heartbeat and lead to a widespread bloodbath.

Are you still a believer in market timing? If so, then where are all the billionaire market timers? Famed growth manager, Peter Lynch astutely noted:

“I can’t recall ever once having seen the name of a market timer on Forbes‘ annual list of the richest people in the world. If it were truly possible to predict corrections, you’d think somebody would have made billions by doing it.”

Certainly, there are some hedge fund managers that have hit home runs with amazing market calls, but time will be the arbiter in determining whether they can stay on top.

Sage Speak on Market Timing

If you don’t believe me about market timing, then listen to what knowledgeable investors and thought leaders have to say on the subject. Larry Swedroe, a principal at Buckingham Asset Management, compiled a list including the following quotes:

  • Warren Buffett (Investor extraordinaire):  “We continue to make more money when snoring than when active.”  He adds, “The only value of stock forecasters is to make fortune-tellers look good.”
  • Jason Zweig (Columnist):  “Whenever some analyst seems to know what he’s talking about, remember that pigs will fly before he’ll ever release a full list of his past forecasts, including the bloopers.” (See also Peter Schiff and Meredith Whitney stories)
  • Bernard Baruch (Financier): “Only liars manage to always be out during bad times and in during good times.”
  • Jonathan Clements (Columnist): “What to do when the market goes down? Read the opinions of the investment gurus who are quoted in the WSJ. And, as you read, laugh. We all know that the pundits can’t predict short-term market movements. Yet there they are, desperately trying to sound intelligent when they really haven’t got a clue.”
  • David L. Babson (Investment Manager): “It must be apparent to intelligent investors that if anyone possessed the ability to do so [forecast the immediate trend of stock prices] consistently and accurately he would become a billionaire so quickly he would not find it necessary to sell his stock market guesses to the general public.”
  • Peter Lynch (Retired Growth Manager): “Far more money has been lost by investors preparing for corrections, or trying to anticipate corrections, than has been lost in corrections themselves.”

Market Timing Road Rules

Rather than make guesses regarding the direction of the market, here are some investment rules to follow:

  • Rule #1: Do not attempt to market time. Statistically it is a certainty that a minority of the millions of investors can time the market in the short-run – the problem is that very few, if any, can time the market for sustainable periods of time.  Don’t try to be the hero, because often you will become the goat.
  • Rule #2: Patiently make good investments, regardless of the economic conditions. It is best to assume the market will go nowhere and invest accordingly. Paying attention to a hot or cold economy leads to investors chasing their tails. Good investments should outperform in the long-run, regardless of the macroeconomic environment.
  • Rule #3: Diversify. In the midst of the crisis, diversification didn’t cure simultaneous drops in most asset classes, however ownership of government Treasuries, cash, and certain commodities provided a cushion from the economic blows. Longer-term, the benefits of diversification become more apparent – it makes absolute sense to spread your risk around.

In some respects, there is always an aspect of timing to investing, but as referenced by some of the intelligent professionals previously, the driving force behind an investment decision should not be, “I think the market is going up,” or “I think the market is going down” – those thought processes are recipes for disaster. I strongly believe an investment process that includes patience, discipline, diversification, valuation sensitivity, and low-cost/ tax-efficient products and strategies will get you off the financial treadmill and move you closer to reaching your financial goals.

Read the Full Larry Swedroe Story

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in BRKA or any other security mentioned. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

February 21, 2010 at 11:30 pm 9 comments

Balance Sheet: The Foundation for Value

Let’s talk balance sheets… how exciting! Most people would rather hear nails scratching against a chalkboard or pour lemon juice on a fresh paper-cut, rather than slice and dice a balance sheet. However, the balance sheet plays a critical role in establishing the foundational value of a business. As part of my financial statement analysis series of articles, today we will explore the balance sheet in more detail.

It’s not just legendary value investors like Warren Buffett and Benjamin Graham who vitally rely on a page filled with assets and liabilities. Modern day masters like Bill Ackman (CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management LP – read more about Bill Ackman) and Eddie Lampert (CEO of Sears Holdings – SHLD) have in recent years relied crucially on the balance sheet, and specifically on real estate values, when it came to defining investments in Target Corporation (TGT) and Sears, respectively.

Balance Sheet Description

What is the balance sheet? For starters, it is one of the three major financial statements (in addition to the “Income Statement” and “Cash Flow Statement”), which provides a snapshot summary of a company’s assets, liabilities, and shareholders’ equity on a specific date. One of the main goals of the balance sheet is to provide an equity value of the corporation (also called “book value”).

Conceptually the balance sheet concept is no different than determining the value of your home. First, a homeowner must determine the price (asset value) of the house – usually as a function of the sales price (estimated or actual). Next, the mortgage value (debt) is subtracted from the home price to arrive at the value (equity) of the homeowner’s position. The same principle applies to valuing corporations, but as you can imagine, the complexity can increase dramatically once you account for the diverse and infinite number of potential assets and liabilities a company can hold.

Metrics

Many key financial analysis metrics are derived directly from the balance sheet, or as a result of using some of its components. Here are a few key examples:

  • ROE (Return on Equity): Derived by dividing the income from the income statement by the average equity value on the balance sheet. This indicator measures the profitability of a business relative to shareholders’ investments. All else equal, a higher ROE is preferred.
  • P/B (Price to Book): A ratio comparing the market capitalization (total market price of all shares outstanding) of a company to its book value (equity). All else equal, a lower P/B is preferred.
  • Debt/Equity or Debt/Capitalization: These ratios explain the relation of debt to the capital structure, indicating the overall amount of financial leverage a company is assuming. All else equal, lower debt ratios are preferred, however some businesses and industries can afford higher levels of debt due to a company’s cash flow dynamics.

There are many different ratios to provide insight into a company, nonetheless, these indicators provide a flavor regarding a company’s financial positioning. In addition, these ratios serve a valuable purpose in comparing the financial status of one company relative to others (inside or outside a primary industry of operation).

Balance Sheet Shortcomings

The balance sheet is primarily built upon a historical cost basis due to defined accounting rules and guidelines, meaning the stated value of an asset or liability on a balance sheet is determined precisely when a transaction occurs in time. Over time, this accounting convention can serve to significantly understate or overstate the value of balance sheet items.

Here are a few examples of how balance sheet values can become distorted:

  • Hidden Assets: Not all assets are visible on the balance sheet. Certain intangible assets have value, but cannot be touched and are not recognized by accounting rules on this particular financial statement. Examples include: human capital (employees), research & development, brands, trademarks, and patents. All these items can have substantial value, yet show up nowhere on the balance sheet.
  • Lack of Comparability: Comparability of balance sheet data can become fuzzy when certain accounting rules and assumptions are exercised by one company and not another. For instance, if two different companies purchased the same property, plant, and equipment at the same time and price, the values on the balance sheets may vary significantly in the future due to the application of different depreciation schedules (e.g., 10 years versus 20 years). Share repurchase is another case in point that can alter the comparison of equity values – in some cases resulting in a negative equity value.
  • Goodwill & Distorted M&A Values: Companies that are active with mergers and acquisitions are forced to reprice assets and liabilities upwards and downwards (inflation, or the lack thereof, can lead to large balance sheet adjustments). Goodwill (asset) is the excess value paid over fair market value in an acquisition. Goodwill can be quite substantial in certain transactions, especially when a high premium price is paid.
  • Write-offs and Write-ups: In 2001, telecom component maker JDS Uniphase (JDSU) slashed the value of its goodwill by a massive $44.8 billion. This is an extreme illustration of how the accounting-based values on the financial statement can exhibit significant differences from a company’s market capitalization. Often, the market value (the cumulative value of all outstanding market-priced shares) is a better indicator of a company’s true value – conceptually considered the present value of all future cash flows.

Some balance sheets are built on shaky foundations. A risky, debt-laden balance sheet can resemble a shoddy home foundation built on sand, along an earthquake fault-line. In other words, a small shock can lead to financial collapse. In the credit-driven global bubble we are currently working through, many companies that were built on shaky foundations (i.e., a lot of debt) are struggling to survive. Survival may be dependent on a company restructuring, selling assets, paying down debt, merging, or other tactic with the aim of shoring up the balance sheet. Using the balance sheet value of a company in conjunction with the marketplace price of the same business can be a valuable approach in establishing a more reliable valuation. Before you make an investment or valuation conclusion about a company, do yourself a favor and dig into the balance sheet to verify the condition and soundness of a company’s financial foundation.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in TGT, SHLD, or JDSU. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

February 18, 2010 at 11:00 pm 4 comments

Money Goes Where Treated Best

“The world is going to hell in a handbasket” seems to be a prevailing sentiment among many investors. Looking back, a lack of fiscal leadership in Washington, coupled with historically high unemployment, has only fanned the flames of restlessness. A day can hardly go by without hearing about some fiscal problem occurring somewhere around the globe. Geographies have ranged from Iceland to Dubai, and California to Greece. Regardless, eventually voters force politicians to take notice, as we recently experienced in the Massachusetts vote for Senator.

Time to Panic?

So is now the time to panic?  Entitlement obligations such as Social Security and Medicare, when matched with a rising interest payment burden from our ballooning debt, stands to consume the vast majority of our country’s revenues in the coming decades (if changes are not made).  It’s clear to most that the current debt trajectory is not sustainable – see also Debt: The New Four-Letter Word. With that said, historical debt levels have actually been at higher levels before. For example, during World War II, debt levels reached 122% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Since promises generally garner votes, politicians have traditionally found it easier to legislate new spending into law rather than cutting back existing spending and benefits.

Money Goes Where it’s Treated Best

If our government leaders choose to ignore the growing upswell in fiscal discontent, then the global financial markets will pay more attention and disapprove less diplomatically. As the globe’s reserve currency, the U.S. Dollar stands to collapse if a different direction is not forged, and interest costs could skyrocket to unpalatable levels.  Fortunately, the flat world we live on has created some of these naturally occurring governors to forcibly direct sovereign entities to make better decisions…or suffer the consequences. Right now Greece is paying for the financial sins of its past, which includes widening deficits and untenable debt levels.

As new, growing powers such as China, Brazil, India, and other emerging countries fight for precious capital to feed the aspirational goals of their rising middle classes, money will migrate to where it is treated best. Speculative money will flow in and out of various capital markets in the short-run, but ultimately capital flows where it is treated best. Meaning, those countries with policies fostering fiscal conservatism, financial transparency, prudent regulations, pro-growth initiatives, tax incentives, order of law, and other capital-friendly guidelines will enjoy their fair share of the spoils. The New York Times editorial journalist Tom Friedman coined the term “golden straitjacket” in describing this naturally occurring restraint system as a result of globalization.

Push Comes to Shove

Push will eventually come to shove, but the real question is whether we will self-impose fiscal restraint on ourselves, or will the global capital markets shove us in that direction, like the markets are doing to Greece (and other financially strapped nations) today? I am hopeful it will be the former. Why am I optimistic? Although more government spending has typically lead to more votes for politicians, cracks in the support wall have surfaced through the Massachusetts Senatorial vote, and rising populist sentiment, as manifested through the “Tea Party” movement (previously considered a fringe group). 

Political gridlock has traditionally been par for the course, but crisis usually leads to action, so I eventually expect change. I am banking on the poisonous and sour mood permeating through the country’s voter base, in conjunction with the collapse of foreign currencies, to act as a catalyst for financial reform. If not, resident capital and domestic jobs will exodus to other countries, where they will be treated best.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including emerging market-based ETFs), but at time of publishing had no direct positions in securities mentioned in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

February 16, 2010 at 11:30 pm Leave a comment

Dancing Elephants in a Challenging Economy

To many, the significant rebound in global equity markets, since the March 2009 price lows, has merely been a dead-cat bounce or simply a temporary “sugar high” from the extraordinary fiscal and monetary measures taken by governments all over the world. John Authers, columnist at the Financial Times, captures that cycnical view in his daily column. He believes we are on the cusp of financial dynamics that will “drive a bear market for another two decades.” Ouch – pretty harsh outlook.

Perception Can Differ from Reality

Throughout much of 2009, the better than anticipated corporate results were rationalized as improvements only coming from discretionary cost-cutting. Well, as of last week, 73% of the S&P 500 companies that reported quarterly results exceeded earnings expectations, with 70% surpassing revenue estimates as well. With the 9.7% unemployment improving (at least temporarily), the recovery cannot solely be attributed to cost-cuts.

In the midst of the economic recovery (+5.7% growth in Q4 GDP), other animals beyond deceased felines have joined the party, including dancing elephants. More than seven million jobs have been lost since the late-2007 recession began, yet a broad set of companies have thrived through this horrible environment. The bubble economy has certainly had a disproportionately negative impact on particular areas of the economy (e.g., housing, credit, and automobiles). However, in the midst of the global credit tsunami that engulfed us over the last two years, the largest global economic engine (U.S.A.) was still churning out about $14 trillion in the sales of goods and services. Many companies that were not reliant on the financial and credit markets used their superior competitive positioning to generate significant piles of cash. Instead of piling on additional debt (or diluting owners through share offerings), certain corporations tightened their belts, invested prudently, and stepped on the throats of other irresponsible and reckless competitors, which were forced to recoil back into their caves and bunkers.

Dancing Elephants

Times are tough, right? If that is indeed the case, let’s take a look at a few elephants that are trouncing the competition, even under extremely challenging economic circumstances:

Apple Inc. (AAPL) – Revenue growth +32% ($182 billion market capitalization):  In the recent quarter, Apple pounded the competition by selling a boatload of electronic goods, including iPhones, iPods, and Mac computers. Next up, the iPad!

Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) – Revenue growth +42% – ($53 billion market capitalization):  In the fourth quarter ending December, Amazon pulverized peers in a cutthroat holiday by selling lots of Kindles (e-reader), growing +49% internationally, and adding a new Zappos.com shoe and accessory acquisition. Organic revenue growth (ex-Zappos) was still incredibly strong at about +23%.

Corning Inc. (GLW) - Revenue growth +41% – ($28 billion market capitalization): Results were buoyed by demand for its liquid crystal display (LCD) glass as consumers continued purchasing LCD televisions, laptop computers, and other electronic devices. In addition, GLW experienced a resurgence in demand for its emissions control products as the auto industry rebuilt supply. Telecom orders in China were solid also.

Google Inc. (GOOG) - Revenue growth +17% – ($169 billion market capitalization):  In addition to the growth in the global search advertising market and YouTube video platform, Google also accelerated the deployment of their mobile platform, including their Android cell phone operating system, and concentrated on the expansion of the display advertising market.

Gilead Sciences Inc. (GILD) - Revenue growth +42% – ($42 billion market capitalization): Growth was catapulted by GILD’s dominant HIV/AIDS product franchise, including Atripla, Truvada, and Viread. Pulmonary arterial hypertension drug Letairis and chronic angina treatment Ranexa also contributed to stellar results.

Intuitive Surgical Inc. (ISRG) - Revenue growth +40% – ($13 billion market capitalization): This cutting-edge surgical equipment manufacturer enjoyed robust expansion from continued robotic procedure adoption and higher da Vinci Surgical System sales.

Intel Corp. (INTC) - Revenue growth +28% – ($113 billion market capitalization): The company’s semiconductor sales growth was fairly broad based across its major segments (Data Center, Intel architecture, Atom Microprocessor/Chipset) as demand recovered and depleted inventories were replenished globally.

Netflix Inc. (NFLX) - Revenue growth +24% – ($3.5 billion market capitalization): Netflix added more than one million new customers in the quarter as they continued to eat Blockbuster’s-BBI (and other competitors’) lunch. In addition, the company’s streaming “Watch Instantly” service continues to gain traction.

Although I do currently own a few of these companies, do NOT interpret this partial list of companies as “buy” recommendations – in fact, some of these stocks may be excellent “short” ideas. Regardless of how sexy growth may be, investors should never ignore valuation (read more about valuation). As stated at the beginning of the article, I mainly want to emphasize that trillions of commerce dollars are being transacted, even in demanding economic times.  It just goes to show, one can turn lemons into lemonade. Or said differently, even elephants can be trained to dance.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and AAPL, AMZN, and GOOG, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in GLW, GILD, ISRG, INTC, BBI, and NFLX. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

February 14, 2010 at 11:36 pm Leave a comment

Banking Crisis Broken Record (1907 vs. 2007)

Like a spinning and skipping broken record, our history has been filled with an endless number of banking crises. And unfortunately, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 will not be our last (read more about rhyming history). Robert F. Bruner, professor and Dean at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, has studied the repetitive nature of banking crises and identified core foundational aspects present in these vicious financial events.

In a period spanning 105 years (1900 – 2005) Bruner references 31 separate crises occurring across the world in various countries. Just in the last handful of decades, Americans have experienced the seizure of the Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company (1984), the S&L crisis (Savings & Loan – late 1980s), the disintegration of Long-Term Capital Management (1998), followed by the recent falling of dominoes in the first decade of the 21st Century (Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Wamu, AIG, etc.).  What do many of these crises have in common?

In comparing the recent global financial crisis, Bruner compares the recent events to the “Panic of 1907” – the last financial crisis before the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913. The last few years have been rough, but a century ago San Franciscans endured the mother of all crises. This is how Bruner described the time period:

“The San Francisco earthquake of 18 April 1906 triggered a massive call on global gold reserves and a liquidity crunch in the United States. A recession commenced in June 1907. Security prices declined. In September, New York City narrowly averted a failure to refinance outstanding bonds. Then, on 16 October, a “bear squeeze” speculation failed and rendered two brokerage firms insolvent. The next day, depositors began a run on Knickerbocker Trust Company…Runs spread to other trust companies and banks in New York City. And the panic rippled across the United States.”

 

Bruner highlights four key factors inherent in these, and other, financial crises. Here is a summary of the four elements:

Existence of Systemic Structure:  In order for a crisis to occur, an economy needs a collection of linked financial intermediaries to form a system. Throughout history, transactions and deposits have connected to multiple systems around the globe.

Systemic Instability: Hyman Minsk, a renowned 20th Century economist, was known for his thoughts on his “Financial Instability Hypothesis.” At the core of Minsky’s crisis beliefs was the idea that economic slumps were caused by the credit cycle. At the late stages of an economic cycle there is a larger appetite to assume additional risk and debt. A spiraling vortex can occur as “Easy credit amplifies the boom, and tight credit amplifies the contraction,” Minsky states. 

Systemic Shock: Beyond an unstable system, a crisis needs a spark. For Bruner that spark must have four characteristics:

  • Real, Not Apparent: The shock must be “real, not apparent.” The disturbance must be disruptive enough to shake the trust of the financial system and be large enough to have a real economic impact (e.g., new technologies, massive labor strike, deregulation, or even an earthquake). 
  • Large:  The trigger of a financial crisis must be large enough to shift the outlook of investors.
  • Unambiguous and Difficult to Repeat: The shock must unambiguously stand out from the standard marketplace news.
  • Surprising: The event must be unanticipated and cause a shift in thinking.

Response and Intervention: Effectively, the response to a shock converts an overconfident boom into fear and pessimism. The reply can often be an overreaction to the existing fundamentals, which flies in the face of efficient markets and rational decision making.

According to Bruner, crises including the one triggered by the earthquake of 1906 carry the four previously mentioned elements.

Solution = Leadership

At the vortex of any financial crisis lies fear and panic, which require leadership to mitigate the damage. John Pierpont “J.P.” Morgan, semi-retired banking executive, orchestrated leadership in 1907 by organizing a rescue of “trust companies, banks, the New York Stock Exchange, New York City, and the brokerage firm of Moore and Schley.”

Time will tell and history will judge whether Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretaries Hank Paulson and Timothy Geithner provided the necessary leadership to sustainably lead us out of the financial crisis. Of course, decisions made by the key U.S. leadership figures are not made in a vacuum, so choices made by our international brethren can impact the success of our monetary and fiscal policies too.

There have been 18 substantial global bank crises since World War II and the recent credit-induced collapse will not be the last as long as Bruner’s four elements of a crisis exist (structure, instability, shock, and intervention). The ultimate outcome of a crisis will be dependent on the nature of leadership, coordinated government intervention, and regulation. The global economic record will continue spinning, but with Robert Bruner’s lessons learned from the Panic of 1907, hopefully the music will last for a very long time before skipping on a crisis again.

Read the whole Bruner article

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and a derivative security of an AIG insurance subsidiary, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in JPM. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

February 11, 2010 at 11:00 pm 2 comments

Beating off the Financial Sharks

There is blood in the water and financial sharks will do their best to consume any weak, floating prey. Now, greater than ever, investors are looking for answers in these perilous economic waters, so it behooves investors to arm themselves with the knowledge and questions necessary in dealing with financial predators.

Unlike other professions, like medicine, law, or accounting, the hurdle in becoming a “broker,” “advisor,” “financial consultant,” or other glorified title is much lower than some other professions. Basically, if you pass an exam or two, you are ready to do business and handle the financial future of virtually anybody.

Not all practitioners are evil, and there is a segment of investment professionals that take their craft very seriously. Separating the wheat from the chaff can be very challenging, so here is a list to follow when reviewing the management of your finances:

1)      Experience Matters: Find an advisor with investment experience. Someone who has actually invested money. Don’t partner with a financial salesperson good at shoveling high-cost, high-commission products and strategies. When you fly in a plane, do you want an inexperienced stewardess or veteran pilot flying the plane? If you were ever to need surgery, would you want the nurse using the knife, or a trained, educated surgeon? Your investment future is a serious proposition, but many investors do not treat it that way.

2)      Education and Relevant Credentials Matter: Find an advisor with credible, relevant investment credentials. Not all investment letters are created equally, and interpreting the alphabet soup of financial industry designations can be thorny. Two credentials in the investment industry that rise to the top are the CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) and CFP® (Certified Financial Planner) designations. Less than 10% of the industry has one of these credentials and less than a few percent have both. An advanced degree like a master’s degree wouldn’t hurt either.

3)      Low-Cost & Tax Efficiency: Find an advisor who uses a low-cost, tax-efficient strategy, including the integration of passive investment vehicles, such as exchange trade funds (ETFs), index funds, and/or individual securities that are invested over long-term investment horizons (read more about passive investing). Not only are low-cost products important, but low-cost activity is vital too – meaning there should be no churning of the account with high commissions or transaction costs.

4)      Find an Advisor Who Eats Cooking: It is important to find an advisor who eats his/her own cooking (i.e., he/she is invested in the same investment products and strategies as the client). Commissions can often be the number one motivation for the advisor, rather than what is best for the client’s future. When offered a new investment product, one way to cut to the chase is by asking, “Oh, that’s great you will make an immediate $10,000 commission off the sale of this product to me, but do you own this same investment in your personal portfolio?” It is crucial to have someone in the bunker with you as you invest.

5)      Fee-Only – The Way to Go: Find a “fee-only” advisor with a transparent fee structure who can honestly answer what fees you are paying. A fee-only investment advisor mitigates the conflict of interests because if the client portfolio declines, then the investment manager’s compensation is also reduced. There is a built-in incentive for the advisor to preserve and grow the client portfolio in accordance with the client’s risk-tolerance and objectives.

6)      Find an RIA (“Fiduciary Duty”): Find out if the advisor is working with an RIA advisory firm (Registered Investment Advisor), which is required by law to have its advisors make investment decisions in the sole interest of the client. Most brokers/advisors/financial consultants (or other euphemism) – working at firms such as UBS, Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo/Wachovia, Edward Jones, and Morgan Stanley/SmithBarney, have a much lower “suitability” standard in managing client money.

7)      Don’t Become Chopped Liver: Find out how many clients the advisor serves. Some brokers attempt to service a client list of 100 or more (many brokers have hundreds of clients). Typically the highest revenue-generating clients are given service, and the smaller accounts are treated like chopped liver or swept under the rug.

8)      Get References: You will likely not be forwarded bad references, but see if you can get beyond, “Johnny is such a nice broker” talk and find out how the portfolios have performed versus the relevant benchmarks. Getting this data can be difficult, but you can ask the advisor for an anonymous sample of an appropriate portfolio that you would be invested in.

9)      Background Check:  With proper research, investors can become more comfortable with the professional chosen and the status of the firm employing the manager/professional. Several government and professional regulatory organizations, such as the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), your state insurance and securities departments, and CFP Board keep records on the disciplinary history of the investment and financial planning advisors. Ask what organizations the professional is regulated by and contact these groups to conduct a background check.

Getting all this information may take time, but protecting yourself from the masses of financial predatory sharks is imperative. Compiling data from the checklist will act as a shark cage, helping safeguard you from potential harm.

Remember, it’s your financial future, so invest wisely!

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in UBS, Merrill Lynch (BAC), Wells Fargo/Wachovia (WFC), Ameriprise (AMP), Edward Jones, and Morgan Stanley/SmithBarney (MS). No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

February 9, 2010 at 11:00 pm 4 comments

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