Archive for August, 2010
What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, unless it’s a habit of betting, in which case that habit will follow you back to Wall Street. Just as there are a million ways to make or lose money by investing or speculating in the market, the same principles apply to sports betting as well. Anybody who has been to Las Vegas and gone to the sportsbook knows how incredibly and insanely accurate the oddsmakers are – I speak from immature experience having traveled there for a healthy number of investment conferences and vacations. The oddsmakers are so accurate; you could say they are almost “efficient” at what they do.
But like the market, in the sports world too, efficiency has a tendency to breakdown occasionally and form bubbles. This dynamic leaves both a huge threat of substantial losses and a potential for windfall gains. Where there are bubbles forming, you are bound to find a large number of excited individuals jumping on a bandwagon. Now, let’s take a look at how the worlds of Wall Street and wagers collide and see if any lessons can be learned.
Jumping on the Stock Bandwagon
band·wag·on [band-wag-uhn]: a party, cause, movement, etc., that by its mass appeal or strength readily attracts many followers.
Everybody loves a winner and no one more so than a fresh fan jumping on the bandwagon. Living in Southern California, the bandwagon is presently fully-loaded with proclaimed Los Angeles Laker fans and USC fans, although the Trojan wagon is currently undergoing repair. It’s easy to identify bandwagoners in sports – just find the face painter, guy with a rainbow afro, Boston native sporting a Kobe Bryant jersey, or the fanatic betting on the team favored by three touchdowns. In the game of stocks, identifying the fickle but passionate followers is a little more subtle. Bandwagon status is not measured by the extent of point spreads (predicted scoring differential between two opponents), but rather by level of P/E ratios (Price-Earnings ratio) or other valuation metric of choice.
While it is clear sports bandwagoners root for the “favorites,” in the realm of investing this translates into piling onto the “growth or momentum” stocks (see Momentum Investing article) – I hate generalizing terms but that’s what we bloggers do. Value investors, on the other hand, root for (buy) the “underdogs.”
To illustrate my point, let’s take a look at a few past bandwagon momentum stocks:
- JDS Uniphase Corp. (JDSU): In 2000 we saw these bandwagoners valuing investor favorites like JDS Uniphase at a whopping $99 billion – meaning investors were willingly paying over 100x’s revenues and 600 x’s trailing earnings to own the stock. At the time, JDSU was a “New Economy” stock that was going to revolutionize the proliferation of bandwidth around the globe with their proprietary optical laser components. For those of you keeping score at home, today JDSU’s stock is valued at approximately $2 billion ($9.97), or -98% less than the market value in March 2000 (split-adjusted peak share price of $1,227.38 per share). If it wasn’t for a 1-for-8 reverse stock split in 2006, then a share of JDSU would fetch you $1.25 today, or less than the amount needed to cover an out of network ATM penalty fee.
- Crocs Inc. (CROX): Crox is another one of my favorite bandwagon stocks, because this loud plastic eyesore footwear was clearly a fad that couldn’t sustain its growth once popularity waned, despite my wife being a bandwagon-ee. Like other fad product-related stocks, the company could no longer maintain its growth once they completed stuffing the channel and their customers cried uncle from choking on inventory. Making matters worse for CROX, knockoff versions were offered for a fraction of the cost at local grocery stores and mall kiosks. After about 20 months post its IPO (Initial Public Offering), the music stopped and within 13 months the stock cratered from a $75 per share peak to $0.79 in 2008. The stock never traded at the absurd dot-com levels, but the lofty 37x P/E in 2007 quickly turned negative after close to $200 million in losses were realized in 2008 and 2009. The stock has since rebounded to $12 and change, and maybe their new Crocs high-heel line of $99.00 shoes (see here) will propel the stock higher…cough, cough.
Point Spread, Point Spread, Point Spread
In sports betting the three most important factors in making a winning bet are point spread, point spread, and point spread. Unlike the March Madness college basketball pool in which you may have participated, in the real world the participant needs to do more than just pick the winning teams – the participant must determine by how much a team will win by. Let’s take a gander at a few actual examples.
- Florida Gators vs. Charleston Southern Buccaneers (9/5/09): Without knowing a lot about the powerhouse squad from South Carolina, 99% of respondents, when asked before the game who would win, would select Florida – a consistently dominant national-powerhouse program. The question gets a little trickier when asked the question: “Will the Florida Gators win by more than 63 points?” That’s exactly the point spread sports bettors faced when deciding whether or not to place the bet – somewhat analogous to the question whether JDSU was a prudent investment at 600x’s earnings? Needless to say, although the Buccs kept it close in the first half, and only trailed by 42-3 at halftime, the Gators still managed to squeak by with a 62-3 victory. Worth noting, the 59 point margin of victory resulted in a losing wager for anyone picking the Gators.
- USC Trojans vs. Stanford Cardinal (10/6/2007): Ranked as the presumptive #1 team of the country pre-season, and entering the game with a 35-0 home-game winning streak, USC was a whopping 41 point favorite over Stanford. On the flip side, the Cardinal came into the game fresh off of a 1-11 losing season the prior year, and in the previous year the Cardinal lost to the Trojans 42-0. Stanford ended up winning the 2007 match-up by a score of 24-23, not only pulling off one of the greatest upsets of all-time, but also spoiling USC’s chances of winning the national championship.
Beyond the Point Spread
As you can surmise from our discussion, the same point spread standards apply to investing, but when discussing stocks the spread is measured by various valuation metrics based on earnings, cash flows, book value, EBITDA, sales, and other fundamental growth factors.
Of course, in Las Vegas and on Wall Street not everyone follows traditional fundamental analysis. Some gamblers and speculators will transact solely based on less conventional methods, for example quantitative models, technical analysis and trend review (read Technical Analysis: Astrology or Lob Wedge). For example in sports, handicappers may only wager on teams with five-game winning streaks and winning home records. Whereas on Wall Street, speculators may only trade stocks with positive earnings surprises or “head-and-shoulder” patterns. Hot technicians come and go, but very few real investors survive the long haul without using fundamental analysis and valuation as key components of their winning strategies.
As I have argued, there are many ways to make (and lose) money on Wall Street or in Las Vegas, and consistently jumping on the bandwagon is a sure way to lose. For the successful minority whose performance has endured the test of time, a common thread connecting the two disciplines is the ability to determine and profit from a prudently calculated point spread/valuation. History teaches us that the same effective handicapping skills happening in Las Vegas are the same abilities needed to stay on Wall Street and win.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: The undergraduate alma mater of Sidoxia Capital Management’s (SCM) President happens to be UCLA, so although I believe any reference to rival school USC is not provided with any malicious agenda, nonetheless there may exist an inherent conflict of interest. SCM and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in JDSU, CROX, 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.
The concepts of productivity and free trade go all the way back to Adam Smith, widely considered the “father of economics,” who wrote the original capitalism Bible called the Wealth of Nations. Many of the same principles discussed in Smith’s historic book are just as applicable today as they were in 1776 when it was first published.
Economics at its core is the thirst for efficiency and productivity for the sake of profits. Ultimately, for the countries that successfully practice these principles, a higher standard of living can be achieved for its population. For the U.S. to thrive in the 21st century like we did in the 20th century, we need to embrace productive technology and efficiently integrate proven complex systems. To illustrate the benefits of productivity in a factory setting, Smith wrote about the division of labor in a pin factory. Murray N. Rothbard, an economic historian, and political philosopher summed up the takeaways here:
“A small pin-factory where ten workers, each specializing in a different aspect of the work [18 steps], could produce over 48,000 pins a day, whereas if each of these ten had made the entire pin on his own, they might not have made even one pin a day, and certainly not more than 20.”
Dividing up the 18 pin making steps (i.e., pull wire, cut wire, straighten wire, put on head, paint, etc.) lead to massive productivity improvements.
Another economic genius that changed the world we live in is the father of mass production…Henry Ford. He revolutionized the car industry by starting the Ford Motor Company in 1903 with $100,000 in capital and 12 shareholders. By the beginning of 1904, Ford Motors had sold about 600 cars and by 1924 Ford reached a peak production of more than 2,000,000 cars, trucks, and tractors per year. Although, Ford had a dominant market share here in the U.S., the innovative technology and manufacturing processes allowed him to profit even more by exporting cars internationally. This transformation of the automobile industry allowed Ford to hire thousands of workers with handsome wages and spread 15 million of his cars around the globe from 1908 to 1927.
Comparative Advantage: Lessons from Smith & Ford
Foreign trade has continually been a hot button issue – especially during periods of softer global economic activity. Here is what Adam Smith had to add on the subject:
“If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage.”
Smith believed that parties with an “absolute advantage” in manufacturing would benefit by trading with other partners. Today, it’s fairly clear the U.S. has an absolute advantage in creating biotech drugs, Hollywood movies, and internet technologies (i.e., Google), however in other industries, such as industrial manufacturing, the U.S. has lost its dominant position.
David Ricardo, an English economist who authored the famous work On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, is attributed with extending Smith’s “absolute advantage” concept one step further by introducing the idea of “comparative advantage.”
Producing Coconuts and Computer Chips
Let’s explore the comparative advantage concept some more by investigating coconuts and computer chips. As we hemorrhage jobs to other countries that can accomplish work more cheaply and efficiently, increasingly discussions shift to a more protectionist stance with dreams of higher import tariffs. Is this a healthy approach? Consider a two nation island able to produce only two goods (coconuts and computer “chips”), with the U.S. on one half of the island, and the Rest of the World (R.O.W.) on the other half.
Next, let’s assume the following production profile: The R.O.W. can choose to produce 10 coconuts or 10 chips AND the U.S. can produce 4 coconuts or 8 chips.
Scenario #1 (No Trade): If we assume both the R.O.W. and the U.S. each spend half their time producing coconuts and chips, then the R.O.W.’s production will create 5 coconuts/5 chips and the U.S. 2 coconuts/4 chips for a combined total of 7 coconuts and 9 chips (16 overall units).
If we were to contemplate the ability of trade between R.O.W. and the U.S., coupled with the concept of comparative advantage, we may see overall productivity of the nation island improve. Despite the R.O.W. having an “absolute advantage” over the U.S. in producing both coconuts (10 vs. 4) and chips (10 vs. 8), the next example demonstrates trade is indeed beneficial.
Scenario #2 (With Trade): If R.O.W. uses its comparative advantage (“more better”) to produce 10 coconuts and the U.S. uses its comparative advantage (“less worse”) to produce 8 chips for a combined total of 10 coconuts and 8 chips (18 overall units). Relative to Scenario #1, this example produces 12.5% more units (18 vs. 16) and with the ability of trade, the U.S. and R.O.W. should be able to optimize the 18 units to meet their individual country preferences.
If we can successfully escape from the island and paddle back to modern times, we can better understand the challenges we face as a country in the current flat global world we live in. Our lack of investment into education, innovation, and next generation infrastructure is making us less competitive in legacy rustbelt industries, such as in automobiles and general manufacturing. If the goal is to maximize productivity, efficiency, and our country’s standard of living, then it makes sense to select trade scenario #2 (even if it means producing zero coconuts and lots of computer chips). The coconut lobby may not be happy under this scenario, but more jobs will be created from higher output and trade while our citizens continue on a path to a higher standard of living.
The free trade strategy will only work if we can motivate, train, and educate enough people into higher paying jobs that produce higher value added products and services (e.g., computer chips and computer consulting). There is a woeful shortage of engineers and scientists in our country, and if we want to compete successfully in the modern world against the billions of people scratching and clawing for our standard of living, then we need to openly accept the productivity and trade principles taught to us by the Adam Smiths and Henry Fords of the world. Otherwise, be prepared to live on a remote, isolated island with a steady diet of coconuts for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and GOOG, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position 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.
If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then chances are it is a duck. Regrettably, not everything passes the common “duck test” when it comes to judging the state of the economy. The prevailing opinion is the economy is on the brink of falling into another double-dip recession. Driving this sentiment has been the relentless focus on the softening short-term data (e.g., weekly jobless claims, monthly retail sales, daily dollar index, etc.). I’m no prophet or Nostradamus when it comes to picking the direction of the market, but if you consider the status of the steep Treasury yield curve, the perceived sitting duck economy may actually just be something completely different – perhaps one of those oily birds recovering from the BP oil spill.
Pictures Worth Thousands of Words
Despite all the talk of “double-dip”, the curve’s extreme slope is still near record levels achieved over the last quarter century. Here’s what the Treasury snapshot looks like now:
Does this look like an inverted yield curve, which ordinarily precedes an economy falling into recession? Quite the opposite – this picture looks more like a ramp from which Evel Knievel is about to jump. Maybe Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is actually the daredevil himself by setting artificially low interest rates for extended periods of time? If so, it’s possible the economy will suffer a fate like Mr. Knievel’s at Caesar’s Palace, but my guess is we are closer to the take-off than landing based on the yield curve.
I’ve recently harped on the wide range of “double-dip” guesses made by economists and strategists (see “Probably” Wrong article), but if that was not enough for you, here are a few more cheery views taken from this weekend’s Barron’s magazine and a few other publications of choice:
Kopin Tan (Barron’s): “The Treasuries camp is expecting another recession… In reality, with retailers and customers alike eyeing a second recession this year, it’s a season of anxiety.”
John Crudele (NY Post): “We’ll get a correction that’ll put the words ‘double-dip’ back into the headlines… When the final figures are produced years from now, historians might just decide that this was just one long downturn — not a series of dips.”
Jeremy Cook (Chief Economist-World First): “This will further heighten fears that the US economy is careening into the dreaded double-dip recession.”
How can the double-dippers be wrong? For starters, as I alluded to earlier, we are nowhere near an inverted yield curve. The 10-Year Treasury Note currently yields 2.62% while the T-Bill a measly 0.15%, creating a spread of about +2.47% (a long distance from negative).
As this chart implies, and others confirm, over the last 50 years or so, the yield curve has turned negative (or near 0% in the late 1950s and early 1960s) before every recession. Admittedly, before the soft-patch in economic data-points, the steepness was even greater than now (closer to 3.5%). Maybe the double-dippers are just more prescient than history has been as a guide, but until we start flirting with sub-1% spreads, I’ll hold off on sweating bullets. Less talked about now is the possibility of stagflation (stagnant inflation). I’m not in that camp, but down the road I see this as a larger risk than the imminent double-dip scenario.
I’m not in the business of forecasting the economy, and history books are littered with economists that come and go in glory and humiliation. And although it’s fun guessing on what will or will not happen with the economy, I rather choose to follow the philosophy of the great Peter Lynch (see my profile of Lynch):
“If you spend more than 13 minutes analyzing economic and market forecasts, you’ve wasted 10 minutes.”
Along those same lines, he adds:
“Assume the market [economy] is going nowhere and invest accordingly.”
I choose to spend my time hunting and investing in opportunities all over the map. With fear and anxiety high, fortunately for me and my clients, I am finding more attractive prospects. While some get in the stale debate of stocks versus bonds, there are appealing openings across the whole capital structure, geographies, and the broad spectrum of asset classes. So, as others look to test whether the economic animal is a bear, bull, or duck, I’ll continue sniffing away for opportunities like a bloodhound.
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 position in BP 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.
Siegel compares 1999 stock prices with 2010 bonds
Unlike a lot of economists, Jeremy Siegel, Professor at the Wharton School of Business, is not bashful about making contrarian calls (see other Siegel article). Just days after the Nasdaq index peaked 10 years ago at a level above 5,000 (below 2,200 today), Siegel called the large capitalization technology market a “Sucker’s Bet” in a Wall Street Journal article dated March 14, 2000. Investors were smitten with large-cap technology stocks at the time, paying balloon-like P/E (Price-Earnings) ratios in excess of 100 times trailing earnings (see table above).
Today, Siegel has now switched his focus from overpriced tech-stock bubbles to “Bubblicious” bonds, which may burst at any moment. Bolstering his view of the current “Great American Bond Bubble” is the fact that average investors are wheelbarrowing money into bond funds. Siegel highlights recent Investment Company Institute data to make his point:
“From January 2008 through June 2010, outflows from equity funds totaled $232 billion while bond funds have seen a massive $559 billion of inflows.”
The professor goes on to make the stretch that some government bonds (i.e., 10-year Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities or TIPS) are priced so egregiously that the 1% TIPS yield (or 100 times the payout ratio) equates to the crazy tech stock valuations 10 years earlier. Conceptually the comparison of old stock and new bond bubbles may make some sense, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that tech stocks virtually had a 0% payout (no dividends). The risk of permanent investment loss is much lower with a bond as compared to a 100-plus multiple tech stock.
Making Rate History No Mystery
What makes Siegel so nervous about bonds? Well for one thing, take a look at what interest rates have done over the last 30 years, with the Federal Funds rate cresting over 20%+ in 1981 (View RED LINE & BLUE LINE or click to enlarge):
As I have commented before, there is only one real direction for interest rates to go, since we currently sit watching rates at a generational low. Rates have a minute amount of wiggle room, but Siegel rightfully understands there is very little wiggle room for rates to go lower. How bad could the pain be? Siegel outlines the following scenario:
“If over the next year, 10-year interest rates, which are now 2.8%, rise to 3.15%, bondholders will suffer a capital loss equal to the current yield. If rates rise to 4% as they did last spring, the capital loss will be more than three times the current yield.”
Siegel is not the only observer who sees relatively less value in bonds (especially government bonds) versus stocks. Scott Grannis, author of the Calafia Report artfully shows the comparisons of the 10-Year Treasury Note yield relative to the earnings yield on the S&P 500 index:
As you can see, rarely have there been periods over the last five decades where bonds were so poorly attractive relative to equities.
Grannis mirrors Siegel’s view on government bond prices through his chart on TIPS pricing:
Pricey Treasuries is not a new unearthed theme, however, Siegel and Grannis make compelling points to highlight bond risks. Certainly, the economy could soften further, and trying to time the bottom to a multi-decade bond bubble can be hazardous to your investing health. Having said that, effectively everyone should desire some exposure to fixed income securities, depending on their objectives and constraints (retirees obviously more). The key is managing duration and the risk of inflation in a prudent fashion. If you believe Siegel is correct about an impending bond bubble bursting, you may consider lightening your Treasury bond load. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if you do not collect on another “sucker’s bet.”
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including TIP and other fixed income ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position 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.
As you may have noticed from previous articles, I take a significant grain (or pound) of salt when listening to economists and strategists like Peter Schiff, Nouriel Roubini, Meredith Whitney, John Mauldin, et.al. Typically, these financial astrologists weave together convincing, elaborate, grand guesses that extrapolate every short-term, fleeting economic data point into an imposing (or magnificent) long-term secular trend.
With all this talk of “double-dip” recession, I cannot help but notice the latest verbal tool implemented by every Tom, Dick, and Harry economist when discussing this topic… the word “probability”. Rather than honestly saying I have no clue on what the economy will do, many strategists place a squishy numerical “probability” around the possibility of a “double-dip” recession consistent with the news du jour. Over recent weeks, unstable U.S. economic data have been coming in softer than expectations. So, guess what? Economists have become more pessimistic about the economy and raised the “probability” of a double dip recession. Thanks Mr. Professor “Obvious!” I’m going to go out on a limb, and say the probability of a double-dip recession will likely go down if economic data improves. Geez…thanks.
Here is a partial list of double-dip “probabilities” spouted out by some well-known and relatively unknown economists:
- Robert Shiller (Professor at Yale University): “The probability of that kind of double-dip is more than 50 percent.”
- Bill Gross (Founder/Managing Director at PIMCO): The New York Times described Gross’s double-dip radar with the following, “He put the probability of a recession — and of an accompanying bout of deflation — at 25 to 35 percent.”
- Mohamed El-Erian (CEO of PIMCO): “If you wonder how meaningful 25 per cent is, ask yourself the following question: if I offered you that I drive you back to work, but there’s a one in four chance that I get into a big accident, would you come with me?”
- David Rosenberg (Chief Economist at Gluskin Chef): In a recent newsletter, Rosenberg has raised the odds of a double-dip recession from 45 per cent a month ago to 67 per cent currently.
- Nouriel Roubini (Professor at New York University): “As early as August 2009 I expressed concern in a Financial Times op-ed about the risk of a double-dip recession, even if my benchmark scenario characterizes the risk of a W as still a low probability event (20% probability) as opposed to a 60% probability for a U-shaped recovery.”
- Robert Reich (Former Secretary of Labor): According to Martin Fridson, Global Credit Strategist at BNP Paribas, Robert Reich has assigned a 50% probability of a double dip, even if Reich believes we are actually in one “Long Dipper.”
- Graeme Leach (Chief Economist at the Institute of Directors): “I would give a 40 per cent probability to what I call ‘one L of a recovery’, in other words a fairly weak flattish cycle over the next 12 months. A double-dip recession would get a 40 per cent probability as well.”
- Ed McKelvey (Sr. U.S. Economist at Goldman Sachs): “We think the probability is unusually high — between 25 percent and 30 percent — but we do not see double dip as the base case.”
- Avery Shenfeld (Chief Economist at CIBC): “The probability estimate is likely more consistent with a slowdown rather than a true double-dip recession but, given the uncertainties, fiscal tightening ahead and the potential for a slow economy to be vulnerable to shocks, we will keep an eye on our new indicator nevertheless.” This guy can’t even be pinned down for a number!
- National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) : “The probability of seeing a contraction of output in 2011 as compared to 2010 has risen from 14 per cent to 19 per cent.”
- New York Fed Treasury Spread Model (see chart below): Professor Mark J. Perry notes, “For July 2010, the recession probability is only 0.06% and by a year from now in June of next year the recession probability is only slightly higher, at only 0.3137% (less than 1/3 of 1%).”
Listening to these economic armchair quarterbacks predict the direction of the financial markets is as painful as watching Jim Gray’s agonizing hour-long interview of Lebron James’s NBA contract decision (see also Lebron: Buy, Sell, or Hold?). Just what I want to hear – a journalist that probably has never dribbled a ball in his life, inquiring about cutting edge questions like whether Lebron is still biting his nails? Most of these economists are no better than Jim Gray. In many instances these professionals don’t invest in accordance with their recommendations and their probability estimates are about as reliable as an estimate of the volatility index (see chart below) or a prediction about Lindsay Lohan’s legal system status.
I can virtually guarantee you at least one of the previously mentioned economists will be correct on their forecasts. That isn’t much of an achievement, if you consider all the strategists’ guesses effectively cover every and any economic scenario possible. If enough guesses are thrown out there, one is bound to stick. And if they’re wrong, no problem, the economists can simply blame randomness of the lower probability event as the cause of the miscue.
Unlike Wayne Gretzky, who said, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been,” economists skate right next to the puck. Because the economic data is constantly changing, this strategy allows every forecaster to constantly change their outlook in lock-step with the current conditions. This phenomenon is like me looking at the dark clouds outside my morning window and predicting a higher probability of rain, or conversely, like me looking at the blue skies outside and predicting a higher chance of sunshine.
Using this “probability” framework is a convenient B.S. means of saving face if a directional guess is wrong. By continually adjusting probability scenarios with the always transforming economic data, the strategist can persistently waffle with the market sentiment vicissitudes.
What would be very refreshing to see is a strategist on CNBC who declares he was dead wrong on his prediction, but acknowledges the world is inherently uncertain and confesses that nobody can predict the market with certainty. Instead, the rent-o-strategists consistently change their predictions in such a manner that it is difficult to measure their accuracy – especially when there is rarely hard numbers to hold these professional guessers accountable for.
Economists and strategists may be well-intentioned people, just as is the schizophrenic trading advice of Jim Cramer of CNBC’s Mad Money, but the “probability” of them being right over relevant investing time horizons is best left to an experienced long-term investor that understands the pitfalls of professional guessing.
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 position in GS, NYT 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.
Wow, those were the days when money was as cheap and available as that fragile, sandpaper-like toilet paper you find at gas stations. Private equity took advantage of this near-free, pervasive capital and used it to the greatest extent possible. The firms proceeded to lever up and gorge themselves on a never-ending list of target companies with reckless abandon (see also Private Equity Shooting Blanks). Now the glory days of abundant, ultra-cheap capital are history.
Rather than rely on low-cost bank debt, private equity firms are now turning to the fixed income markets – specifically the high yield market (a.k.a. junk bonds). As The Financial Times points out, more than $170 billion of junk bonds have been issued this year, in large part to refinance debt issued in the mid-2000s that has gone sour due to overoptimistic projections and a flailing U.S. economy. In special instances, private equity owners are fattening their own wallets by declaring special dividends for themselves.
Even though some of these over-levered, private equity portfolio companies have received a temporary reprieve from facing the harsh economic realities thanks to these refinancings, the cliff of maturing debt in 2012 is fast approaching. Some have estimated that $1 trillion in maturing debt will roll through the market in the 2012-2014 timeframe. Either the economy (or operating performance) improves enough for these companies to service their debt, or these companies will find themselves falling off these maturity cliffs into bankruptcy.
Junk is Not Risk-Free
Driving this trend of loan recycling is risk aversion to stocks and a voracious appetite for yield in a yield desert. Stuffing the money under the mattress, earning next to nothing on CDs (Certificates of Deposit) and money market accounts, will not help in meeting many investors’ long-term objectives. The “uncertain uncertainty” swirling around global equity markets has nervous investors flocking to bonds. The opening of liquidity in the high yield markets has served as a life preserver for these levered companies desperate to refinance their impending debt. This high-yield debt refinancing window is also an opportunity for companies to lower their interest expense burden because of the current, near record-low interest rates.
But as the name implies, these “junk bonds” are not risk free. For starters, embedded in these bonds is interest rate risk – with a Federal Funds rate at effectively zero, there is only one upward direction for interest rates to go (bad for bond prices). In addition, credit risk is a concern as well. In the midst of the financial crisis, many of these high-yield bonds corrected by more than -40% from their highs in 2008 until the bottom achieved in early 2009. If the economy regresses back into a double-dip recession, many of these bonds stand to get pummeled as default rates escalate (see also, bond risks).
Pace Not Slowing
Does the appetite for high yield appear to be slowing? Au contraire. In the most recent week, Dealogic noted $15.4 billion in junk bonds were sold. The FT sees the pace of junk deals handily outpacing the record of $185.4 billion set in 2006.
The Wall Street Journal used the following deals to provide a flavor of how companies are using high-yield debt in the present market:
“First Data Corp. sold $510 million of 10-year notes this week, at 9.125%, to pay down bank debt due in 2014. Peabody Energy sold $650 million of 6.5%, 10-year notes to pay off the same amount of higher-priced debt due in three years. MultiPlan Inc., a health-care cost-management provider, sold $675 million of notes this week, at 9.875%, to help fund a buyout of the company. Cott Corp., a maker of store-branded soft drinks, sold $375 million of debt at 8.125% to fund its purchase of another company, Cliffstar Corp.”
The roads on the junk bond highway appear to be pothole free at the moment, however a cliff of debt is rapidly approaching over the next few years, so high-yield investors should travel carefully as conditions in the junk market potentially worsen. As we witnessed in 2008-2009, it can take a while to hit rock bottom in the riskier areas of the credit spectrum.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including HYG and JNK), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in First Data Corp., Peabody Energy (BTU), MultiPlan Inc., Cott Corp. (COT), Cliffstar Corp., 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.
I remember intently examining a few magazine covers that former supermodel Cindy Crawford adorned in my prime high school and collegiate years. Like our economy, the resultant recovery in 2009-2010 feels a little like a more mature version of Cindy Crawford (now 43 years old). Things look pretty good on the surface, but somehow people are more focused on pointing out the prominent mole, rather than appreciating the more attractive features. Many market commentators feel to be making similar judgments about the economy – we’re seeing nice-looking growth (albeit at a slowing pace) and corporations are registering exceptional results (but are not hiring). Even Ben Bernanke, our money-man superhero at the Federal Reserve, has underscored the “unusually uncertain” environment we are currently experiencing.
Certainly, the economy (and Cindy) may not be as sexy as we remember in the 1990s, but nonetheless constant improvement should be our main goal, regardless of the age or stage of recovery. Sure, Cindy chose cosmetic surgery while our government chose a stimulus (along with healthcare and financial regulatory reform) for its economic facelift. But the government must walk a fine line because if it continues to make poor decisions, our country could walk away looking like a scary, cosmetically altered version of Heidi Montag.
Our government in many ways is like Cindy Crawford’s former husband Richard Gere – if the Obama administration doesn’t play its cards right, the Democrats risk a swift divorce from their Congressional majority come this November – the same fate Richard suffered after a four year marriage with Cindy. Like a married couple, we need the federal government like a partner or spouse. Fortunately, our government has a system of checks and balances – if voters think Congress is ugly, they can always decide to break-up the relationship. Voters will make that decision in three months, just like Cindy and Richard voted to separate.
The Superpower Not Completely Washed Up
We may not have the hottest economy, but a few factors still make the equity markets look desirable:
- Corporate profit, margins, and cash levels at or near record levels. S&P profits are estimated to rise +46% in 2010.
- Interest rates are at or near record lows (Fed Funds effectively at 0% and the 10-Year Treasury Note at 2.74%).
- The stock market (as measured by the S&P 500 index) is priced at a reasonably alluring level of 13x’s 2010 profit forecasts and 12x’s 2011 earnings estimates.
Multiple Assets & Swapping
I don’t have anything against the institution of marriage (I’ve been happily married for thirteen years), but one advantage to the financial markets is that it affords you the ability to trade and own multiple assets. If a more mature Cindy Crawford doesn’t fit your needs, you can always swap or add to your current holding(s). For example, you could take more risk with a less established name (asset), for example Karolina Kurkova, or in the case of global emerging markets, Brazil. Foreign markets can be less stable and unpredictable (like Kate Moss), but can pay off handsomely, both from an absolute return basis and from a diversification perspective.
Money ultimately goes to where it is treated best in the long-term, so if Cindy doesn’t fit your style, feel free to expand your portfolio into other asset classes (e.g., stocks, bonds, real estate, commodities, etc.). Just be wary of stuffing all your money under the mattress, earning virtually nothing on your money – certainly Cindy Crawford is a much more appealing option than that.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including those with exposure to Brazil and other emerging markets), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security directly 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.
Photo source: 1Funny.com
Discussing the BP oil spill is not exactly cutting-edge, fresh news at this point. However, now that the 5 million barrel gaping gusher of black sludge has been plugged, many of the uncertain variables are beginning to come in focus. From mid-April this year, right before the disaster occurred, the equity value of BP’s stock peaked around $189 billion. The value of the company subsequently shed over $100 billion in value over the next two months, before rebounding to a level about -35% below the April highs today. BP is not out of the woods yet, even though the discussion has migrated from potential bankruptcy scenarios. The question now is whether purchasing BP stock currently is a sweet opportunity or just a sloppy mess that will drag value down for years to come?
Whitney Tilson, whom I profiled last year in Fat Lady Housing article, is the founder and Managing Partner of T2 Partners LLC who decided to tackle the tough BP questions. Tilson compiled his bullish thesis on BP at the 7th Annual Value Investor conference when BP’s share price was trading at $36.76. Why is Tilson so optimistic about BP’s stock price appreciation potential? He uses a few approaches, but his number one approach is a walk down catastrophe memory lane. If previous stock calamities resulted in opportunities due to investor overreaction, then certainly the same principal should apply to BP (or so Tilson believes). Here are some of the previous train wrecks Tilson highlighted in his presentation:
Pretty convincing evidence that the bark was bigger than the bite for these examples, but Tilson chose to save his best precedent illustration for last…Merck (MRK). In 2004, the pharmacy company came under assault after it was revealed the drug Vioxx increased the likelihood of patient heart attacks. What fanned the flames of panic were the allegations that Merck had known about these detrimental risks for years, but the company did not disclose this valuable knowledge. To make a long story short, the initial $50 billion liability estimate attributed to Merck actually came in closer to $5 billion and the stock rallied from a low of $26 in 2005 to $60 by the end of 2007. Tilson however, conveniently neglects to mention that the company’s stock shortly thereafter collapsed, before bottoming at $20 per share in early 2009 and settling in at a price around $35 today.
Regardless, Tilson’s points are well taken. Often these major catastrophes that sprawl across media headlines become overdone and offer an opportunity to those investors with thick skin and a stomach that can withstand severe heartburn.
Besides having history on his side, Tilson provided additional supportive bullet points to bolster his sanguine view on BP:
- BP is a Cash Cow: The average estimate of BP’s liability (approximately $30 billion) is less than the $34 billion in operating profits ($20 billion in net income) expected to be realized by BP in 2010.
- Financial Flexibility: BP has access to over $20 billion in access to cash and liquidity, not even counting the more than $100 billion in property, plant, & equipment (PP&E) on the balance sheet. Asset sales provide BP with even more flexibility.
- Small U.S. Footprint: BP’s Gulf of Mexico operations, home of the Macondo well disaster, represent only about 15% of BP’s total global oil production, so the inference is BP would do just fine without access to the Gulf.
All, in all, Tilson provides a perspective with logical arguments to support his case. The analysis, however, does not give a lot of weight to political consequences that can cause this situation to go from bad to worse. Specifically, some pundits are using a more negative legal precedent of the tobacco companies to explain the downside potential of this situation (see legal pay-out table).
The 1998 master tobacco settlement agreement with the tobacco industry resulted in a whopping $206 billion in pay-outs to be made by the tobacco manufactures over 25 years (Financial Times). This is significantly greater than the $20 billion escrow account that BP has verbally committed to funding (and BP has already funded the account with a $3 billion initial deposit). What’s more, the spill volume estimates are a moving target, and as a result, BP just raised its oil spill cleanup costs from $3.95 billion to $6.1 billion. These numbers can have a way of becoming their own monsters over time.
As you can see, Whitney Tilson makes some pretty compelling arguments for BP, but not many arguments can be made against his long-term performance at the T2 Accredited Fund, which is up +202% since 1999 through mid-2010 (versus +7% for the S&P 500 for the same time period). If you believe Tilson, BP may turn out to be a sweeter kiss than the sloppy mess we constantly hear about.
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 position in BP, MRK, XOM, 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.
In most professional industries – whether you are talking about a doctor, lawyer, dentist, accountant, or other respected field – a comprehensive and rigorous multi-year schooling and examination process is required to gain entrance into the club. Unfortunately for those working with professionals (I use the term loosely) in the investment and insurance fields, all that most advisors need to do is have a pulse and spend a few hours or days studying for an exam. Our structurally flawed and loosely cobbled together financial regulatory system is like a shell game that is constantly moving and hiding different conflicts of interest.
Left in the wake of the financial crisis, the public has been left picking up the pieces from the rating agency conflicts, Madoff scandal, Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, AIG collapse, Goldman Sachs hearings, golden parachute bonuses, billions in fees, commissions, and investor losses. Rather than watch the backs of investors, the system has favored financial institutions and penalized investors with fees, commissions, transactions costs, fine print, and layers of conflicts of interests. Andy Warhol described the amassing of fees like the prices of art – under both circumstances you collect “anything you can get away with.” So unless investors do their own thorough homework, there’s a good chance they will end up with a failing grade.
One of the major deception components is the creation of many worthless, pathetic lettered credentials that in many cases are worth less than the paper or business cards they are written on. Now, I’m sure some of these multi-letter credentials are worth more than others, but as a practicing professional in the industry for more than 15 years, it feels like I come across some new three letter designation every week. I know I am not alone with my sentiments, because respected professionals and colleagues I work with chuckle at many of these lettered credentials, and like me, have no clue what they stand for. When receiving a new business card with some of these strange letters, I often don’t know if I should cover my mouth while I burst out laughing, or if I’m supposed to be genuinely impressed?
Perhaps for hardworking parents, like a Joe and Mary Smith, it may mean something, but unless a multi-year curriculum (for example, the CFA Chartered Financial Analyst or CFP® – Certified Financial Planning programs) is put behind the alphabet of letters on a business card, please do not be offended if I yawn. Investors deserve better and fairer representation from someone managing their life savings, much like they get from a MD performing a surgery, a JD protecting a proprietor’s business, a CPA shielding a tax return from the IRS, or a DDS performing a root canal.
While it may sound like I am demonizing the broker/salesmen/advisors that are swimming around in the investment waters looking for commission opportunities (see Financial Sharks article), I understand some of them have genuine intentions and do not purposely misrepresent their credentials. As a matter of fact, many of the brokerage firms that hire these individuals require them to add funny letters to their business card for marketing purposes.
Here is a list of finance-related credentials other than the aforementioned:
- AAMS (Accredited Asset Management Specialist)
- AFC (Accredited Financial Counselor)
- AWMA (Accredited Wealth Management Advisor)
- CAIA (Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst)
- CASL (Chartered Advisor for Senior Living)
- CCFC (Certified Cash Flow Consultant)
- CFS (Certified Fund Specialist)
- CIMA (Certified Investment Management Analyst)
- CIMC (Certified Investment Management Consultant)
- CMA (Certified Management Accountant)
- CMFC (Chartered Mutual Fund Counselor)
- CMT (Chartered Market Technician)
- ChFC (Chartered Financial Consultant)
- CCFC (Certified Cash Flow Consultant)
- CDFA (Certified Divorce Financial Analyst)
- CEBS (Certified Employee Benefit Specialist)
- CDP (Certified Divorce Planner)
- CLTC (Certified in Long Term Care)
- CLU (Chartered Life Underwriter)
- CPCU (Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter)
- CRPC (Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor)
- CTFA (Certified Trust and Financial Adviser)
- FRM (Financial Risk Manager)
- MSFS (Master of Science in Financial Services)
- PFS (Personal Financial Specialist – awarded by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA))
- QPFC (Qualified Plan Financial Consultant)
- REBC (Registered Employee Benefits Consultant)
- RFC (Registered Financial Consultant)
When it comes to these and other industry credentials I am open to being enlightened on the relative merits…I’m all ears. And even if you trust the CFP® and CFA designations as the gold standards in the investing field, holding those credentials alone are not sufficient to make someone a good adviser. However, until I gain a better understanding of the dozens of other confusing credentials, I will continue to scratch my head and wonder which ones are worth more than the others, and which ones are not worth squat.
Healing the Wounds
It will take a long time for the financial industry to gain back the trust of investors, but it will require a multi-prong effort from regulators, financial industry executives, and investors themselves (who need to do better homework). If we want to more specifically dissect the professional service industry, then why not form one certification for each segment –not dozens.
What’s more, rather than pulling the wool over the public’s eyes with meaningless titles and credentials, let’s establish a fiduciary duty and designation that is demanded of all investment professionals. Moreover, let’s make the filtering process more rigorous in weeding out the dead-weight before handing the precious keys over to a professional. Unless changes are made, the corrupt system will remain structurally flawed, ripe with conflicts of interest, and aggressive salesmen calling themselves professionals –even if meaningless credentials are flaunted around to garner fees and commissions from the unsuspecting public.
Not everyone in the industry is a crook, but make sure you follow the ball very closely, so you do not lose in the investment shell game.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® <— Don’t worry if you are not impressed by these letters…my wife and friends are not either!
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 position in Lehman/Barclays, GS, or AIG (but do own derivative position in subsidiary) 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.