Archive for May, 2010

Gravity Takes Hold in May

Warner Bros. picture of Wile E. Coyote’s failed apprehension of Roadrunner

Wile E. Coyote, the bumbling, roadrunner-loving carnivore from Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes series spends a lot of time in the air chasing his fine feathered prey. Unfortunately for Mr. Coyote his genetic make-up and Acme purchases could not cure the ills caused by gravity (although user error was the downfall of Wile E’s effective Bat-Man flying outfit purchase). Just as gravity hampered the coyote’s short-term objectives, so too has gravity hampered the equity markets’ performance this May.

So far the adage of “Sell in May and walk away” has been the correct course of action. Just one day prior to the end of the month, the Dow Jones Industrial and S&P 500 indexes were on pace of recording the worst May decline in almost 50 years. If the -6.8% monthly decline in the S&P and the -7.8% drop in the S&P remains in place through the end of the month, these declines would mark the worst performance in a May month since 1962.  

Should we be surprised by the pace and degree of the recent correction? Flash crash and Greece worries aside, any time a market increases +70-80% within a year, investors should not be  caught off guard by a subsequent 10%+ correction. In fact corrections are a healthy byproduct of rapid advances. Repeated boom-bust cycles are not market characteristics most investors crave.  

It was a volatile, choppy month of trading for the month as measured by the Volatility Index (VIX). The fear gauge more than doubled to a short-run peak of around 46, up from a monthly low close of about a reading of 20, before settling into the high 20s at last close. Digesting Greek sovereign debt issues, an impending Chinese real estate bubble bursting, budget deficits, government debt, and financial regulatory reform will determine if elevated volatility will persist. Improving macroeconomic indicators coupled with reasonable valuations appear to be factoring in a great deal of these concerns, however I would not be surprised if this schizophrenic trading will persist until we gain certainty on the midterm elections. As Wile E. Coyote has learned from his roadrunner chasing days, gravity can be painful – just as investors realized gravity in the equity markets can hurt too. All the more reason to cushion the blow to your portfolio through the use of diversification in your portfolio (read Seesawing Through Chaos article).  

Happy long weekend!  

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 SCM had no direct positions in TWX, VXX, or any other security referenced 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.

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May 28, 2010 at 1:24 am Leave a comment

Soros & Reflexivity: The Tail Wagging the Dog

Billionaire investor George Soros, who is also Chairman of Soros Fund Management and author of The Crash of 2008¸ is well known for his theory on reflexivity, which broadly covers political, social, financial, and economic systems. Soros built upon this concept (see also Soros Super Bubble), which was influenced by philosopher Karl Popper. With all the fear and greed rippling through global geographies as diverse as Iceland, California, Dubai, and Greece, now is an ideal time to visit Soros’s famous reflexivity theory, which may allow us to put the recent chaos in context. With the recent swoon in the market, despite domestic indicators trending positively, a fair question to ask is whether the dog is wagging the tail or the tail wagging the dog?

The Definition of Reflexivity

Simply stated, reflexivity can be explained as the circular relationship that exists between cause and effect. Modern financial theory teaches you these lessons: 1) Financial markets are efficient; 2) Information flows freely; 3) Investors make rational decisions; and 4) Markets eventually migrate towards equilibrium. Reflexivity challenges these premises with the claims that people make irrational and biased decisions with incomplete information, while the markets trend toward disequilibrium, evidenced by repeated boom and bust cycles.

Let’s use the housing market as an example of reflexivity. By looking at the housing bubble in the U.S., we can shed some light on the theory of reflexivity. Americans initial buying love affair with homes pushed prices of houses up, which led to higher valuations of loans on the books of banks, which allowed the banks to lend more money to buyers, which meant more home buying and pushed prices up even higher. To make matters worse, even the government joined the game by adding incentives for people who could not afford homes. As you can see, the actions and decisions of an observer can have a direct impact on other observers and the system itself, thereby creating a spiraling upward (or downward) effect.

Now What?

Now, the reflexivity tail that is wagging the dog is Europe…specifically Greece. The bear case goes as follows: the Greek financial crisis will brew into a stinky contagion, eventually spreading to Spain and Italy, thus hammering shut a U.S. export market. The double dip recession in the U.S. will not only exacerbate the pricking of the Chinese real estate bubble, but also topple all other global economies into ruin.

Certainly, the excessive sovereign debt levels across the globe have grown like cancer. Fortunately, we have identified the problem and politicians are being forced by voters to address the fiscal problems. More importantly, capital flows are an unbiased arbiter of economic policies. Over time – not in the short-run necessarily – capital will move to where it is treated best. Meaning those countries that harness responsible debt loads, institute pro-business growth policies, remove unsustainable and insolvent entitlements, and incentivize education and innovation will be the countries that earn the honor of holding their fair share of vital capital. If the politicians don’t make the correct decisions, the hemorrhaging of capital to foreigners and the painfully high unemployment levels will force Washington into making the tough but right decisions (usually in the middle of a crisis).

Reflexivity, as it pertains to financial markets, has been a concept the 79 year old George Soros has passionately espoused since his 1987 book, The Alchemy of Finance. Perhaps a better understanding of reflexivity will help us better take advantage of the tail wagging disequilibriums experienced in the current financial markets. Time will tell how long this disequilibrium will last.

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 SCM had no direct positions in any other security referenced 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.

May 26, 2010 at 1:21 am 1 comment

Stocks…Bonds on Steroids

With all the spooky headlines in the news today, it’s no wonder everyone is piling into bonds. The Investment Company Institute (ICI), which tracks mutual fund data, showed -88% of the $14 billion in weekly outflows came from equity funds relative to bonds and hybrid securities. With the masses flocking to bonds, it’s no wonder yields are hovering near multi-decade historical lows. Stocks on the other hand are the Rodney Dangerfield (see Doug Kass’s Triple Lindy attempt) of the investment world – they get “no respect.” By flipping stock metrics upside down, we will explore how hated stocks can become the beloved on steroids, if viewed in the proper context.

Davis on Debt Discomfort

Chris Davis, head of the $65 billion in assets at the Davis Funds, believes like I do that navigating the “bubblicious” bond market will be a treacherous task in the coming years.  Davis directly states, “The only real bubble in the world is bonds. When you look out over a 10-year period, people are going to get killed.” In the short-run, inflation is not a real worry, but it if you consider the exploding deficits coupled with the exceedingly low interest rates, bond investors are faced with a potential recipe for disaster. Propping up the value of the dollar due to sovereign debt concerns in Greece (and greater Europe) has contributed to lower Treasury rates too. There’s only one direction for interest rates to go, and that’s up. Since the direction of bond prices moves the opposite way of interest rates, mean reversion does not bode well for long-term bond holders.

Earnings Yield: The Winning Formula

Average investors are freaked out about the equity markets and are unknowingly underestimating the risk of bonds. Investors would be in a better frame of mind if they listened to Chris Davis.  In comparing stocks and bonds, Davis says, “If people got their statement and looked at the dividend yield and earnings yield, they might do things differently right now. But you have to be able to numb yourself to changes in stock prices, and most people can’t do that.” Humans are emotional creatures and can find this a difficult chore.

What us finance nerds learn through instruction is that a price of a bond can be derived by discounting future interest payments and principle back to today. The same concept applies for dividend paying stocks – the value of a stock can be determined by discounting future dividends back to today.

A favorite metric for stock jocks is the P/E (Price-Earnings) ratio, but what many investors fail to realize is that if this common ratio is flipped over (E/P) then one can arrive at an earnings yield, which is directly comparable to dividend yields (annual dividend per share/price per share) and bond yields (annual interest/bond price).

Earnings are the fuel for future dividends, and dividend yields are a way of comparing stocks with the fixed income yields of bonds. Unlike virtually all bonds, stocks have the ability to increase dividends (the payout) over time – an extremely attractive aspect of stocks. For example, Procter & Gamble (PG) has increased its dividend for 54 consecutive years and Wal-Mart (WMT) 37 years – that assertion cannot be made for bonds.

As stock prices drop, the dividend yields rise – the bond dynamics have been developing in reverse (prices up, yields down). With S&P 500 earnings catapulting upwards +84% in Q1 and the index trading at a very reasonable 13x’s 2010 operating earnings estimates, stocks should be able to outmuscle bonds in the medium to long-term (with or without steroids). There certainly is a spot for bonds in a portfolio, and there are ways to manage interest rate sensitivity (duration), but bonds will have difficulty flexing their biceps in the coming quarters.

Read the full article on Chris Davis’s bond and earnings yield comments

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and WMT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in PG,  or any other security referenced 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.

May 24, 2010 at 1:17 am Leave a comment

Membership Privileges: Cheese Tubs & Space Travel

With Senate proposals pushing to cap debit card fees earned by the credit card companies (Visa Inc. [V] and MasterCard Inc. [MA]), you better hurry up and take advantage of underappreciated membership privileges while you still can. The card companies are not too happy, but maybe they deserve some legitimate sympathy. I mean, supporting banks that gouge customers at rates reaching upwards of 20% can be challenging for any card network oligopoly to handle. So before Congress strips away the card companies’ God-given right to siphon away fees from millions of Americans, you have the obligation to utilize the membership privileges of your credit card – even if those benefits include using Visa’s concierge services for purchasing a giant tub of nacho cheese or booking a space travel trip. Unfortunately, many cardholders are unaware they carry the power of a personal servant in their wallet or purse. Tim Ferriss, creator of Experiments in Life Design, on the other hand chose to repeatedly use his personal servant to handle some of the most mission critical responsibilities you could imagine…for example:

1)      Punch Bowl Tub of Cheese: Ferriss didn’t make his request for a tub of cheese completely uncompromising, but rather he was flexible in his demands. When the Visa concierge, David, asked Ferris what size cheese container he wanted, Ferriss reasonably responded, “Can, jar, tub, I don’t care. I just want liquid cheese, and a lot of it.”

2)      Crossword Magicians: Why get flustered with a USA Today crossword clue (“Blue Grotto Locale”) when you can simply ring Maurice, your trusty Visa crossword concierge to solve the puzzle? Ferris used this approach and found the method much classier than using a computer or phone to find the answer. The answer to 62 across: ISLE OF CAPRI.

3)      Feeling Blue? No problem, daily affirmations are just a few keypad strokes away from your fingertips. Getting told he was “good enough” by Jamie the concierge was a little ambitious, but Ferriss was satisfied by receiving a third party affirmation service along with a gratuitous note from Jamie letting him know what a good person he was.

4)      Going Galactic: Now that he was getting warmed up, Ferriss had loftier goals (no pun intended). Specifically he requested the concierge to “book a trip to space.” Ferriss was not let down – the Visa Signature concierge came through with a $200,000 price quote from Virgin Galactic.

5)      Looking at Limitations: Overall, the concierge service delivered on its mission of fielding random requests and answering questions. Nonetheless, Visa Signature needed a  little more time to complete a self assessment of the services Visa could NOT perform (e.g., plan a wedding, call a friend, or write an article). Eventually Ferriss received an adequate response and went on to complete his prank-a-thon.

 Believe it or not, some financial institutions provide services to you without charging you an arm and a leg. Maybe the card companies already have enough arms and legs to keep themselves content, but given political pressure on Visa and MasterCard, you better book that space flight and place that cheese tub order ASAP.

Read Full Tim Ferriss Article on Concierge Services  (post was originally published on Credit Card Chaser)

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 SCM had no direct positions in V, MA, Virgin,  or any other security referenced 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.

May 21, 2010 at 12:41 am Leave a comment

Seesawing Through Organized Chaos

Still fresh in the minds of investors are the open wounds created by the incredible volatility that peaked just a little over a year ago, when the price of insurance sky-rocketed as measured by the Volatility Index (VIX).  Even though equity markets troughed in March of 2009, earlier the VIX reached a climax over 80 in November 2008. With financial institutions falling like flies and toxic assets clogging up the lending pipelines, virtually all asset classes moved downwards in unison during the frefall of 2008 and early 2009. The traditional teeter-totter phenomenon of some asset classes rising simultaneously while others were falling did not hold.  With the recent turmoil in Greece coupled with the “Flash Crash” (read making $$$ trading article) and spooky headline du jour, the markets have temporarily reverted back to organized chaos. What I mean by that is even though the market recently dove about +8% in 8 days, we saw the teeter-totter benefits of diversification kick in over the last month.

Seesaw Success

While the S&P fell about -4.5% over the studied period below, the alternate highlighted asset classes managed to grind out positive returns.

 

While traditional volatility has returned after a meteoric bounce in 2009, there should be more investment opportunities to invest around. With the VIX hovering in the mid-30s after a brief stay above 40 a few weeks ago, I would not be surprised to see a reversion to a more normalized fear gauge in the 20s – although my game plan is not dependent on this occurring.

VIX Chart Source: Yahoo! Finance

Regardless of the direction of volatility, I’m encouraged that even during periods of mini-panics, there are hopeful signs that investors are able to seesaw through periods of organized chaos with the assistance of good old diversification.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including AGG, BND, VNQ, IJR and TIP), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in VXX, GLD,  or any security referenced 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.

May 19, 2010 at 12:28 am 3 comments

Ball & Chaining the Rating Agencies

After sifting through the rubble of the financial crisis of 2008-2009, Congress is spreading the blame liberally across various constituencies, including the almighty rating agencies (think of Moody’s [MCO], Standard & Poor’s [MHP], and Fitch). The Senate recently added a proposed amendment to the financial regulation bill that would establish a government appointed panel to select a designated credit rating agency for certain debt deals. The proposal is designed to remove the inherent conflict of interest of debt issuers – such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), Morgan Stanley (MS), UBS, and others – shopping around for higher ratings in exchange for higher payments to the banks. The credit rating agencies are not satisfied with being weighed down with a ball and chain, and apparently New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is sympathetic with the agencies. Cuomo recently subpoenaed Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, UBS and five other banks to see whether the banks misled credit-rating services about mortgage-backed securities.

Slippery Slope of Government Intervention

Many different professions, inside and outside the financial industry, provide critical advice in exchange for monetary compensation. In many industries there are inherent conflicts of interest between the professional and the end-user, and a related opinion provided by the pro may result in a bad outcome. If government intervention is the appropriate solution in the rating agency field, then maybe we should answer the following questions related to other fields before we rush to regulation:

  • Should the government control which auditors check the books of every American company because executives may opportunistically shop around for more lenient reviews of their financials?
  • Perhaps the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) should dictate which investment bank should underwrite an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or other stock issuance?
  • Maybe the government should decide which medicine or surgery should be administered by a doctor because they received funding or donations from a drug and device company?  

Where do you draw the line? Is the amendment issued by Al Franken (Senator of Minnesota) a well thought out proposal to improve the conflicts of interest, or is this merely a knee-jerk reaction to sock it some greedy Wall Street-ers and solidify additional scapegoats in the global financial meltdown?

In addition to including a controversial government-led rating agency selection process, the transforming regulatory reform bill also includes a dramatic change to ban “naked” credit default swaps (CDS). As I’ve written in the past, derivatives of all types can be used to hedge (protect) or speculate (e.g., naked CDS).  Singling out a specific derivative product and strategy like naked CDSs is like banning all Browning 9x19mm Hi-Power pistols, but allowing hundreds of other gun-types to be sold and used. Conceptually, proper use of a naked CDS by a trader is the same as the proper use of a gun by a recreational hunter (see my derivatives article).

Solutions

Rather than additional government intervention into the rating agency and derivative fields, perhaps additional disclosure, transparency, capital requirements, and harsher penalties can be instituted. There will always be abusers, but as we learned from the collapse of Arthur Andersen on the road to Enron’s bankruptcy, there can be  cruel consequences to bad actors. If investment banks misrepresent opinions, laws can lead to severe results also. Take Jack Grubman, hypester of Worldcom stock, who was banned for life from the securities industry and forced to pay $15 million in fines. Or Henry Blodget, who too was banned from the securities industry and paid millions in fines, not to mention the $200 million in fraud damages Merrill Lynch was forced to pay.

At the end of the day, enough disclosure and transparency needs to be made available to investors so they can make their own decisions. Those institutional investors that piled into these toxic, mortgage-related securities and lost their shirts because of over-reliance on the rating agencies’ evaluations deserve to lose money. If these structures were too complex to understand, then this so-called sophisticated institutional investor base should have balked from participation. Of course, if the banks or credit agencies misrepresented the complex investments, then sure, those intermediaries should suffer the full brunt of the law.

Although weighing down the cash-rich credit rating agencies (and CDS creators) with ball and chain regulations may appease the populist sentiment in the short-run, the reduction in conflicts of interest might be overwhelmed by the unintended consequences. Now if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to do my homework on a naked CDS related to a AAA-rated synthetic CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation).

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 SCM had no direct positions in MCO, MHP, GS, MS, JPM, UBS, BAC, T or any security referenced 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.

May 17, 2010 at 12:42 am Leave a comment

Cockroach Consumer Cannot be Exterminated

We’re told that cockroaches would inherit the earth if a nuclear war were to occur, due to the pests’ impressive resiliency.  Like a cockroach, the American consumer has managed to survive its own version of a financial nuclear war, as a result of the global debt binge and bursting of the real estate bubble. Although associating a consumer to a disease-carrying cockroach is not the most flattering comparison, I suppose it is okay since I too am a consumer (cockroach).

Confidence Cuisine

Cockroaches enjoy feasting on food, but they have been known to live close to a month without food, two weeks without water, and a half hour without air while submerged in water. On the other hand, consumers can’t live that long without food, water, and oxygen, but what really feeds buyer purchasing patterns is confidence. The April Consumer Confidence number from the Confidence Board showed the April reading reaching the highest level since September 2008. On a shorter term basis, the April figure measured in at 57.9, up from 52.3 in the previous month.

Where is all this buying appetite coming from? What we’re witnessing is merely a reversal of what we experienced in the previous years. In 2008 and 2009 more than 8 million jobs were shed and the fear-induced spiraling of confidence pushed consumers’ buying habits into a cave. With +290,000 new jobs added in April, the fourth consecutive month of additions, the tide has turned and consumers are coming out to see the sun and smell the roses.  Recently the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) revealed real personal consumption expenditures grew +3.6% in the first quarter – the largest quarterly increase in consumer spending since the first quarter of 2007.

Sure, there still are the “double-dippers” predicting an impending recession once the sugar-high stimulus wears off and tax increases kick-in. From my perch, it’s difficult for me to gauge the timing of any future slowing, other than to say I have not been surprised by the timing or magnitude of the rebound (I was writing about the steepening yield curve and the end of the recession last June and July, respectively). Sometimes, the farther you fall, the higher you will bounce. Rather than try to time or predict the direction of the market (see market timing article), I look, rather, to exploit the opportunities that present themselves in volatile times (e.g., your garden variety Dow Jones -1,000 point hourly plunge).  

Will the Trend End?

Can this generational rise in consumer spending continue unabated? Probably not. To some extent we are victims of our own success. As about 25% of global GDP and only 5% of the world’s population, changing directions of the U.S.A. supertanker is becoming increasingly more difficult.

Source: The New York Times (Economix)

However, more nimble, resource-rich developing countries have fewer demographic and entitlement-driven debt issues like many developed countries. In order to build on an envious standard of living, our country needs to build on our foundation of entrepreneurial capitalism by driving innovation to create higher paying jobs. With those higher paying jobs will come higher spending. Of course, if uncompetitive industries cannot compete in the global marketplace, and a mirage of spending is re-created through drug-like credit cards and excess leveraged corporate lending, then heaven help us. Even the impressively resilient cockroach will not be able to survive that scenario.

Read full New York Times article here

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 SCM had no direct positions in any security referenced 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.

May 14, 2010 at 12:20 am 2 comments

King of Controversy Reveals Maverick Solution

Mark Cuban, provocative and brash owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and #400 wealthiest person in the world ($2.4 billion net worth), according to Forbes, has never been shy about sharing his opinion. In fact, this multi-billionaire’s opinions have been discouraged on multiple occasions, as evidenced by the NBA (National Basketball Association) slapping Cuban with more than $1.6 million in fines for his outbursts.

Cuban doesn’t only provide his views on basketball, as a serial entrepreneur who cashed in his former company Broadcast.com to Yahoo! (YHOO) for $5.9 billion, he also is providing his thoughts on Wall Street and the 1,000 point “fat finger” trading meltdown from last week. What does Cuban say is the answer to the rampant speculation conducted by idiot financial engineers? “Tax the Hell Out of Wall Street,” says Cuban in his recent blog flagged by TRB’s Josh Brown.

A Taxing Solution

Specifically, Cuban wants to tax investors 25 cents per share (and 5 cents per share for stocks trading at $5 per share or less) in hopes of encouraging myopic speculating traders to become longer-term shareholders. Cuban believes this approach will weed out the day traders and investment renters who in reality “don’t add anything to the markets.”  Seems like a reasonable belief to me.

According to Cuban’s math, here are some of the benefits the tax would bring to the financial system:

“If the NYSE, Nasdaq, Amex and OTC are trading 2 Billion shares a day or more, like today, thats $ 500 Million Dollars PER DAY. If there are 260 trading days a year. Thats about 130 Billion dollars a year. If volumes drop because of the tax. It is still 10s of Billions of dollars per year. Thats real money for the US Treasury. Thats also an annual payment towards the next time Wall Street screws up and we have a black swan event that no one planned on.”

 

Practically speaking, a flat rate 25 cent tax per share is probably not the best way to go if you were to introduce a transaction tax, but the crux of Cuban’s argument essentially would not change. Creating a flat percentage tax (e.g., 1%) would likely make more sense, even if complexity may increase relative to the 25 cent tax. Take for example Citigroup (C) and Berkshire Hathaway Class A (BRKA). Cuban’s plan would result in paying 1.2% tax on a $4.17 share of Citigroup versus only 0.00022% tax for a $116,000.00 share of Berkshire Hathaway.  Simple accounting maneuvers such as reverse stock splits and slowing of stock dividends, along with reducing company dilution through share and option issuance, may be methods of circumventing some of the tax burden created under Cuban’s described proposal.

Politically, adding any tax to investing voters could be re-election suicide, so rather than calling it a trading tax, I suppose the politicians would have to come up with some other euphemism, such as “charitable administrative fee for speculative trading.” The financial industry has already become experts in taxing investors with fees (read Fees, Exploitation and Confusion),  so maybe Congress could give the banks and fund companies a call for some marketing ideas.

Step 1: Transparency

The murkiness and lack of transparency across derivatives markets is becoming more and more evident by the day. Some recent events that bolster the argument include: a) New CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation) derivative allegations surfacing against Morgan Stanley (MS); b) The SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) charges against Goldman Sachs (GS) in the Abacus synthetic CDO deal (see Goldman Sachs article); c) The collapse of AIG’s Credit Default Swap (CDS) department and subsequent push to transfer trading to open exchanges; and d) Now we’re dealing with last week’s cascading collapse of the equity markets within minutes. The brief cratering of multiple indexes points to a potential order entry blunder and/or absence of adequate and consistent circuit breakers across a web of disparate exchanges and ECNs (Electronic Communication Networks).

The mere fact we stand here five days later with no substantive explanation for the absurd trading anomalies (see Making Megabucks 13 Minutes at a Time) is proof positive changes in derivative and exchange transparency are absolutely essential.

Step 2: Incentives

In Freakonomics, the best-selling book authored by Steven Levitt, we learn that “Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life,” and “Economics is, at root, the study of incentives.”  Incentives are crucial in that they permeate virtually all aspects of financial markets, not only in assisting economic growth, but also the negative aspects of bursting financial bubbles.

Michael Mauboussin, the Chief Investment Strategist at Legg Mason (read more on Mauboussin), also expands on the role incentives played in the housing collapse:

“Many, if not most, of the parties involved in the mortgage meltdown were doing what makes sense for them—even if it wasn’t good for the system overall. Homeowners got to live in fancier homes, mortgage brokers earned fees on the mortgages they originated without having to worry about the quality of the loans, investment banks earned tidy fees buying, packaging, and selling these loans, rating agencies made money, and investors earned extra yield on so-called AAA securities. So it’s a big deal to watch and unpack incentives.”

 

Regulation, penalties, and fines are means of creating preventative incentives against improper or unfair behavior. Just as people have no incentive to wash a rental car, nor do high frequency traders have an incentive to invest in equity securities for any extended period of time. Adding a Cuban tax may not be a cure-all for all our country’s financial woes, but as the regulatory reform debate matures in Congress, this taxing idea emanating from the King of Controversy may be a good place to start.

Read full blog article written by Mark Cuban

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and an AIG subsidary structured security, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in YHOO, C, AIG, LM, GS, BRKA, or any security referenced 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.

May 12, 2010 at 1:29 am Leave a comment

Riding Out the Financial White Waters

After the dam burst in 2008 with the collapse of Bear Stearns (JPM), and subsequently Lehman Brothers and AIG, the financial waters began to finally settle in early 2009. Equity markets experienced relatively uninterrupted, smooth sailing over the last year – the exception being some tame Class I rapids occurring in late spring last year and early in 2010. Now sovereign debt risk is rolling throughout Europe and a cascading wave of trading errors last week left traders and investors thrashing for their lives. So now that the white waters have intensified to Class IV rapids, can we navigate through this turmoil to reach stable waters? Or will we be tipped into the icy cold waters, left to fend for our lives?

 

De Ja Vu All Over Again

As Hall of Famer baseball player Yogi Berra said, “This is like deja vu all over again.” Crises are nothing new, but the emotion of the moment can feel worse than reality. Getting continually bombarded with data in this globally interconnected world with 24-hour non-stop news cycles contributes to this lost perspective. The fact is our country has survived multiple wars, assassinations, banking crises, SARS, mad cow, swine flu, widening deficits, recessions, currency crises, and yes, even breakdowns in exchange mechanisms – witness the October 1987crash (Black Monday) drop of -22% caused by an overused and flawed portfolio insurance strategy. Today, the rise of the high frequency trading machines and fragmented exchanges are being blamed as causes for last week’s dislocations.

Rather than put current events in proper context, misrepresented facts and irresponsible, knee-jerk conclusions are often spread like a virus. Extremism has pervaded all aspects of our culture, especially in throughout our media and politics. In this sour environment, nothing can seemingly carry shades of gray…it must be either black or white. The events of the last few days, weeks, months, and years are nothing new. We have seen this financial crisis movie before, even if it is a different title, with different actors, and shuffled characters. These messes start with a great, profitable idea, thereby attracting other participants, which breeds speculation and greed, and eventually stimulates a bubble to burst. This negative cycle in turn manifests itself into a manmade fear machine, which leads to panic and recession. At that point, inefficient capital eventually becomes weeded out, people go to jail, and rules get created to prevent similar bubbles from forming again.

These cycles can be slowed or delayed, but not stopped. Greedy capitalists are creative and they have a proven track record of planting new seeds of growth in the soil of our democracy. Our system may not be the best, but as Winston Churchill stated, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others forms that have been tried from time to time.”

 The European Crisis: Where from Here?

A lot has been going on in the markets, so much so that investors shrugged off the news that +290,000 jobs were added in April (and numbers were revised higher the previous month). Market participants instead chose to focus on the escalating Greek headlines. Currently the consensus thinking believes there is a significant probability of Greece defaulting with the financial downdraft spreading to neighboring countries as evidenced by widening interest rate spreads (see chart below).

Chart from The Financial Times

Much attention has been directed towards the PIIGS countries (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain) due to their poor fiscal criteria, but not all PIIGS are created equally. Although, I am less worried about Portugal and Ireland due to their minimal contribution to European GDP (Gross Domestic Product), I am concerned about the potential deterioration in Italy and Spain’s ability to pay back there borrowers or refinance their debt. Time will tell.

If you want to compare Europe’s debt and deficit problems with the United States, I encourage you to read my past article on D-E-B-T: The Four-Letter Word

 
 

Source: Barclays Capital; OECD via The Financial Times

Surviving the Choppy White Waters

Although the Federal Reserve and the government came to the country’s rescue by implementing massive monetary and fiscal stimulus, the “great bounce” of 2009 has recently lost some steam. A recent -10% correction should not be surprising considering we have just undergone a +100% & +83% explosion in the Nasdaq and S&P 500 indexes, respectively, last year from the March lows. In fact, the correction should be viewed as healthy. After gorging on a large, heavy meal, one needs some time to digest the provisions (just as time is necessary to absorb large financial gains).

Presently, there’s a tug-of-war going on between an improving economy and legacy structural issues (e.g., debt, deficits, entitlements, taxes, healthcare, regulatory reform, etc.) If I had to guess, with all the major national issues we face, I expect trading to be choppy for the next six months until we make it through the mid-term elections (relieving some uncertainty). Until then, take a deep breath, put current events in historical perspective, so you will be able to profit from the rough waters (volatility), rather than react late and become hostage to it. If you correctly follow these guidelines, you too can survive the rough financial waters.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and an AIG subsidary structured security, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in JPM, Lehman Brothers, AIG, or any security referenced 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.

May 9, 2010 at 10:35 pm Leave a comment

Making +457,425,000% – 13 Minutes at a Time

I love investing, but sometimes the shear boredom can get a little tiresome. I mean, a puny little -500 point collapse in the Dow Jones Industrial Average every five minutes can be so 1987.  Thank goodness for yesterday’s largest, intra-day point-drop in history (almost 1,000 points) because without out such a meltdown, I might fall asleep at the trading desk and there would be no way to make an annualized +457,425,000% (~457 million percent) trade in a single day. Earning a well-deserved return like that will not only exceed the rates achieved on T-Bills, but will also likely outpace inflation as well. Making that kind of money is not bad work, if you can get it.

Executing the Tricky Trade

Sound difficult to do? Well, not really. All you need to do is find a stock or security that has fallen more than 99% in a single day, then buy the security for 10 cents per share and then sell it immediately, minutes later at $61.09. Repeat this process another 390 times per day for 52 weeks, and you’re well on your way of turning $1 into $4.5 million over a year.

IWD Chart (Source: Yahoo! Finance)

Take for example, the iShares Russell 1000 Value Exchange Traded Fund (ETF), IWD, which yesterday traded for pennies at 3:47 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST) and skyrocketed over +600x fold in the subsequent 13 minutes. Fortunately (or unfortunately), depending on how you perceive the situation, the irregular trading activity was not limited to IWD.  Other securities showing severe abnormal trading patterns include,  Accenture (ACN), Boston Beer (SAM), Exelon (EXC), CenterPoint Energy (CNP), Eagle Material (EXP), Genpact Ltd (G), ITC Holdings (ITC), Brown & Brown (BRO), and Casey’s General (CASY). In full disclosure, I did not take advantage of any 99% pullbacks yesterday, but now that I know how the game works, I will be on full alert.

What the F*%$# Happened?

Initially reports pointed to a Citigroup (C) trader who entered into an inadvertent $16 billion (with a “b”) E-Mini futures trade order, when the trader meant to enter a trade for $16 million (with an “m”)…ooops! This alleged transaction purportedly triggered a wave of selling, culminating in a select group of stocks temporarily trading down to pennies in value. There is a related, yet more plausible, potential explanation. Quite possibly, as a function of excessive trading volume overwhelming the New York Stock Exchange, the overflow of trades migrated to less liquid ECNs (Electronic Communication Networks) and over-the-counter markets. Chances are the high frequency traders were not blindly jumping in front of the train. Whom really got screwed were the retail investors that had stop loss orders at “market” prices, which likely were triggered at unattractive prices.

I’m not sure if we will ever find out what truly happened, but whatever explanations are provided, rest assured there will be multiple more conspiracy theories on top of the legitimate guesses. The top 5 conspiracies I’m pushing are the following:

1)      Frustrated by the fraud charges filed by the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission), Goldman Sachs intentionally tripped over a power cord at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), which triggered a wave of bogus trades.

2)      High Frequency Traders (see HFT Article) were upgrading their computers from Windows Vista to Windows 7 and experienced an outage causing global disruption.

3)      In order to pay for the potential upcoming lawsuit liabilities and SEC fines, Goldman shorted the Dow Jones Industrial index at 10,800 and then went long once the index broke 10,000.

4)      Warren Buffett was rumored to suffer a heart attack, but after realizing belching relieved his chest pain, the markets recovered dramatically.

5)      Worried that regulatory reform may not pass, a secret group of Congressmen shorted stocks (see Do As I Say, Not As I Do article) to push stocks lower, then distributed TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) assets to voters minutes later in order to buy November votes and push stock prices higher.

Political Aftermath

Click To Hear Senators

Politicians will be frothing at the mouth or be pressured into approving financial reform. Even if markets manage to stabilize in the coming days and weeks, the pressure to ram regulatory reform through Capitol Hill will be mind-numbing. Mary Shapiro, Chairman of the SEC, and politicians will also be pushing to produce a clear scapegoat to throw under the bus, whether it is a trader at Citi, a high frequency traders at Goldman Sachs, the CEO at the NYSE (Duncan Niederauer), or a talking baby from the E-TRADE commercials. Regardless, depending on how quickly a credible explanation is unearthed, we will know how much, if any, reform is needed. If the markets are genuinely transparent, following the paper trail of responsibility to the stocks that dropped to $.00 or $.01 a share should be a piece of cake. If the systems are too complex to explain why handfuls of stocks are trading to $0, then even I am willing to look up to the skies and say heaven help us with some tighter oversight.

Over the last few years, there have been very few dull, financial moments and the markets did very little to disappoint yesterday. Irrespective of the political mudslinging, scapegoating, or irresponsible behavior, the SEC needs to get to the bottom of these issues rapidly in order to protect the integrity and trust of global players in our markets. What we don’t need is a political knee-jerk reaction that merely creates unintended, negative consequences. No matter what happens, I will at least be equipped to test a new strategy designed to make +457,425,000%.

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 SCM had no direct positions in GS, IWD, C, BRKA/B, CNP, EXP, G, ITC, BRO, and CASY, or any security referenced 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.

May 7, 2010 at 1:56 am 2 comments

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