Archive for July, 2011

Plumbers & Cops: Can the Debt Ceiling be Fixed?

The ceiling is leaking, but it’s unclear whether it will be repaired? Rather than fix the seeping fiscal problem, Democrats and Republicans have stared at the leaky ceiling and periodically applied debt ceiling patches every year or two by raising the limit. Nanosecond debt ceiling coverage has reached a nauseating level, but this issue has been escalating for many months. Last fall, politicians feared their long-term disregard of fiscally responsible policies could lead to a massive collapse in the financial ceiling protecting us, so the President called in the bipartisan plumbers of Alan Simpson & Erskine Bowles to fix the leak. The commission swiftly identified the problems and came up with a deep, thoughtful plan of action. Unfortunately, their recommendations were abruptly dismissed and Washington fell back into neglect mode, choosing instead to bicker like immature teenagers. The result: poisonous name calling and finger pointing that has placed Washington politicians one notch above Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the list of the world’s most hated leaders. Strategist Ed Yardeni captured the disappointment of American voters when he mockingly states, “The clowns in Washington are making people cry rather than laugh.”

Although despair is in the air and the outlook is dour, our government can redeem itself with the simple passage of a debt ceiling increase, coupled with credible spending reduction legislation (and possibly “revenue enhancers” – you gotta  love the tax euphimism).

The Elephant in the Room

Our country’s spending problems is nothing new, but the 2008-2009 financial crisis merely amplified and highlighted the severity of the problem. The evidence is indisputable – we are spending beyond our means:

Source: scottgrannis.blogspot.com

If the federal spending to GDP chart is not convincing enough, then review the following graph:

Source: blog.yardeni.com – A graph a first grader could understand.

You don’t need to be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist to realize government expenditures are massively outpacing revenues (tax receipts). Expenditures need to be dramatically reduced, revenues increased, and/or a combination thereof. Applying for a new credit card with a limit to spend more isn’t going to work anymore – the lenders reviewing those upcoming credit applications will straightforwardly deny the applications or laugh at us as they gouge us with prohibitively high borrowing costs. The end result will be the evaporation of entitlement programs as we know them today (including Medicare and Social Security). For reference of exploding borrowing costs, please see Greek interest rate chart below. The mathematical equation for the Greek financial crisis (and potentially the U.S.) is amazingly straightforward…Loony Spending + Looney Politicians = Loony Interest Rates.

Source: Bloomberg.com via Wikipedia.com

To illustrate my point further, imagine the government owning a home with a mortgage payment tied to a 2.5% interest rate (a tremendously low, average borrowing cost for the U.S. today). Now visualize the U.S. going bankrupt, which would then force foreign and domestic lenders to double or triple the rates charged on the mortgage payment (in order to compensate the lenders for heightened U.S. default risk). Global investors, including the Chinese, are pointing a gun at our head, and if a political blind eye on spending continues, our foreign brethren who have provided us with extremely generous low priced loans will not be bashful about pulling the high borrowing cost trigger. The ballooning mortgage payments resulting from a default would then break an already unsustainably crippling budget, and the government would therefore be placed in a position of painfully slashing spending. Too extreme a shift towards austerity could spin a presently wobbling economy into chaos. That’s precisely the situation we face under a no-action Congressional default (i.e., no fix by August 2nd or shortly thereafter).  To date, the Chinese have collected their payments from us with a nervous smile, but if the U.S. can’t make some fiscally responsible choices, our Asian Pacific pals will be back soon with a baseball bat to collect.

The Cops to the Rescue

Any parent knows disciplining teenagers doesn’t always work out as planned. With fiscally irresponsible spending habits and debt load piling up to the ceiling, politicians are stealing the prospects of a brighter future from upcoming generations. The good news is that if the politicians do not listen to the parental voter cries for fiscal sanity, the capital market cops will enforce justice for the criminal negligence and financial thievery going on in Washington. Ed Yardeni calls these capital market enforcers the “bond vigilantes.” If you want proof of lackadaisical and stubborn politicians responding expeditiously to capital market cops, please hearken back to September 2008 when Congress caved into the $700 billion TARP legislation, right after the Dow Jones Industrial average plummeted 777 points in a single day.

Who exactly are these cops? These cops come in the shape of hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, endowments, mutual funds, and other institutional investors that shift their dollars to the geographies where their money is treated best. If there is a perceived, heightened risk of the United States defaulting on promised debt payments, then global investors will simply take their dollar-denominated investments, sell them, and then convert them into currencies/investments of more conscientious countries like Australia or Switzerland.

Assisting the capital market cops in disciplining the unruly teenagers are the credit rating agencies. S&P (Standard and Poor’s) and Moody’s (MCO) have been watching the slow-motion train wreck develop and they are threatening to downgrade the U.S.’ AAA credit rating. Republicans and Democrats may not speak the same language, but the common word in both of their vocabularies is “reelection,” which at some point will effect a reaction due to voter and investor anxiety.

Nobody wants to see our nation’s pipes burst from excessive debt and spending, and if the political plumbers can repair the very obvious and fixable fiscal problems, we can move on to more important challenges. It’s best we fix our problems by ourselves…before the cops arrive and arrest the culprits for gross negligence.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Performance data from Morningstar.com. 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 MCO, 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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July 30, 2011 at 2:41 pm 2 comments

No Respect: The Rodney Dangerfield of the Investment World

Source: Photobucket

Ask any average Joe off the street what investment category is at or near record all-time highs, and a good number of them will confidently answer “gold,” as prices recently eclipsed $1,600 per ounce. But of course this makes perfect sense, right? The Fed is printing money like it’s going out of style, the dollar is collapsing like a drunken sailor, inflation is about to sky-rocket to the moon, and China is on the verge of becoming the world’s new reserve currency. Never mind that Greece, Portugal and Ireland are in shambles with the Euro on its death bed. Or Japan has achieved a debt to GDP ratio that would even make U.S. vote grubbing politicians blush. A sub-3% 10-Year Treasury Note doesn’t appear to discourage fervent gold-bugs either.

No Respect

While gold has experienced an incredible sextupling in prices over the last decade and hit new-all time highs, believe it or not, there is an unlikely asset class that is reaching new historic highs and has outperformed gold for almost 2.5 years. Can you guess what asset class star I am talking about? If I said U.S. “stocks,” would you believe me? OK, well maybe I’m not referring to large capitalization stocks like Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), Wal-Mart Stores (WMT), Intel Corp. (INTC), and AT&T Inc. (T), all of which have effectively gone nowhere in the 21st Century. However, the story is quite different if you look at small and mid capitalization stocks, which have received about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield.

 

As a matter of fact, the S&P 400 (MidCap Index) and S&P 600 Index (SmallCap Index) have more than doubled gold’s performance since the lows of March 2009 (SmallCap +149.0%; MidCap +145.1%; Gold/GLD +71.0%). Given the spectacular performance of small and mid-sized companies, I’m still waiting with bated breath for a telemarketer call asking me if I have considered selling my small and mid cap stock certificates for cash – since everyone has melted their gold chains and fillings, a new hobby is needed.

S&P 400 MidCap and S&P 600 SmallCap (Source: Yahoo! Finance)

What Next?

Has the fear trade ended? Perhaps not, if you consider European sovereign debt and U.S. debt ceiling concerns, but what happens if the half empty glass becomes half full. The early 1980s may be a historical benchmark period for comparison purposes. An interesting thing happened from 1980-1982 when Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker began raising interest rates to fight inflation – gold prices dropped -65% (~$800/oz. to under $300/oz.) from 1980-1982 and the shiny metal lived through approximately a  25 year period with ZERO price appreciation. Since there is only one direction for the Fed’s zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) to go, conceivably history will repeat itself once again?

In hindsight gold was a beautiful safe haven vehicle during the panic-filled, nail-biting period during late-2007 throughout 2008. Since then, small and mid cap stocks have trounced gold. Like stocks, Rodney Dangerfield may have gotten no respect, but once fear has subsided and rates start increasing, maybe stocks will steal the show and get the respect they deserve.

See also Rodney Dangerfield’s perspective on Doug Kass and the Triple Lindy

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Performance data from Morningstar.com. Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including small cap and mid cap ETFs), and WMT, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in JNJ, MSFT, INTC, T, 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.

July 22, 2011 at 3:11 pm 1 comment

Stretching Rubber Band Creating More Value

Concerns over debt ceiling negotiations, European financial challenges, and overall economic malaise has reached a feverish pitch in the U.S., yet in the background, a valuation rubber band  has quietly been stretching to ever more attractive levels. Regardless of whether seniors might not receive Social Security checks, troops not obtain ammunition, and investors not collect credit rating agency love, corporations keep churning profits out like they are going out of style (17%+ growth in 2011 estimated earnings). We have barely scratched the surface on earnings season, and I’m sure better than expected earnings from the likes of Google Inc. (GOOG), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), FedEx Corp. (FDX), Nike Inc. (NKE), and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. (BBBY) will not sway the bears, but in the meantime profits keep chugging along. Although profits have more than doubled in the last 12 years, not to mention a halving in interest rates (10-year Treasury yield cut from 6% to about 3%), yet the S&P 500 is still down approximately -4% (June 1999 – June 2011).

What Gives?

Could the valuation stretching continue as earnings continue to grind higher? Absolutely. Just because prices have been chopped in half, doesn’t mean they can’t go lower. From 1966 – 1982 the Dow Jones Industrial index traded at around 800 and P/E multiples contracted to single digits. That rubber band eventually snapped and the index catapulted 17-fold from 800 to almost 14,000 in 25 years. Even though equities have struggled in the 21st century, a few things have changed from the low-point reached about 30 years ago. For starters, we have not hit an inflation rate of 15% or a Federal Funds rate of 20% (4% and 0% today, respectively), so we have a tad bit more headroom before the single digit P/E apocalypse descends upon us. If you listen to Peter Lynch, investor extraordinaire, his “Rule of 20” states a market equilibrium P/E ratio should equal 20 minus the inflation rate. This rule would imply an equilibrium P/E ratio of 16-17 when the current 2011 P/E multiple implies a value slightly above 13 times earnings. The bears may claim victory if the earnings denominator collapses, but if earnings, on the contrary, continue coming in better than expected, then the sun might break through the clouds in the form of significant price appreciation.

Another change that has occurred since the days of Cabbage Patch dolls has been the opening floodgates of globalization. The technology revolution has accelerated the flattening of the globe, which has created numerous new opportunities and threats. Creating a company like Facebook with about 750 million users and an estimated value of $80 billion to $100 billion couldn’t happen 30 years ago, but on the flip side, our country is also competing with billions of motivated brains lurking in the far reaches of the world with a singular focus of sucking away our jobs, resources, and dollars. Winners recognize this threat and are currently adapting. Losers blind to this trend remain busy digging their own graves.

Future is Uncertain

As famous Jedi Master Yoda aptly identified, “Always in motion is the future.” The future is always uncertain, and if it wasn’t, I would be on my private island drinking umbrella drinks all day. With undecided debt ceiling negotiations occurring over the next few weeks, political rhetoric will be blaring and traders will be hyperventilating with defibrillator paddles close at hand. If history is a guide, stupid decisions may be made, but the almighty financial markets (and maybe a few Molotov cocktails at a local protest rally) will eventually slap politicians in the face to wake up to reality. Perhaps you recall the attention the markets earned from legislators when the Dow fell 777 points in a single September 2008 trading session. Blood on the streets forced Congress to approve the Troubled Asset Relief Program hot potato four days after the initial vote failed. And if that wasn’t a gentle enough reminder for Democrats and Republicans, then a few lessons can be learned from the interest rate sledgehammer that capital markets vigilantes have slammed on the Greeks (10-year Greek yields are hovering above 17%+).

Down but Not Out

The stories of debt collapse, hyperinflation, double-dip recessions, plunging dollar, secular bear markets, and government shutdowns are all plausible but remote scenarios. As Winston Churchill so eloquently stated, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” Voter moods are so venomous that if fiscal irresponsibility is not changed, politicians will be voted straight out of office – even hardcore, extremist elected officials understand this self-serving point.

Suffice it to say, as the political noise reaches a deafening pitch in the coming weeks and months, a quiet rubber band in the background keeps stretching. When the political noise dies down, you may just hear a noise snapping stock prices higher.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Performance data from Morningstar.com. Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, GOOG, and FDX, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in JPM, NKE, BBBY, Facebook, 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.

July 15, 2011 at 12:17 am Leave a comment

Innovative Bird Keeps All the Worms

Source: Photobucket

As the old saying goes, “The early bird gets the worm,” but in the business world this principle doesn’t always apply. In many cases, the early bird ends up opening a can of worms while the innovative, patient bird is left with all the spoils.  This concept has come to light with the recent announcement that social networking site MySpace is being sold for a pittance by News Corp. (NWS) to Specific Media Inc., an advertising network company. Although Myspace may have beat Facebook to the punch in establishing a social network footprint, Facebook steamrolled Myspace into irrelevance with a broader more novel approach.  Rather than hitting a home run and converting a sleepy media company into something hip, Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp. struck out and received crumbs for the Myspace sale (News Corp. sold it for $35 million after purchasing for  $540 million in 2005, a -94% loss).

Other examples of “winner takes all” economics include:

Kindle vs. Book Stores: Why are Borders and Waldenbooks (BGPIQ.PK) bankrupt, and why is Barnes and Noble Inc. (BKS) hemorrhaging in losses? One explanation may be people are reading fewer books and reading more blogs (like Investing Caffeine), but the more credible explanation is that Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) built an affordable, superior digital mousetrap than traditional books. I’ll go out on a limb and say it is no accident that Amazon is the largest bookseller in the world. Within three years of Kindle’s introduction, Amazon is incredibly selling more digital books than they are selling physical hard copies of books.

iPod vs. Walkman/MP3 Players:  The digital revolution has shaped our lives in so many ways, and no more so than in the music world. It’s hard to forget how unbelievably difficult it was to fast-forward or rewind to a particular song on a Sony Walkman 30 years ago (or the hassle of switching cassette sides), but within a matter of a handful of years, mass adoption of Apple Inc.’s (AAPL) iPod overwhelmed the dinosaur Walkman player. Microsoft Corp.’s (MSFT) foray into the MP3 market with Zune, along with countless other failures, have still not been able to crack Apple’s overpowering music market positioning.

Google vs. Yahoo/Microsoft Search: Google Inc. (GOOG) is another company that wasn’t the early bird when it came to dominating a new growth industry, like search engines. As a matter of fact, Yahoo! Inc (YHOO) was an earlier search engine entrant that had the chance to purchase Google before its meteoric rise to $175 billion in value. Too bad the Yahoo management team chose to walk away…oooph. Some competitive headway has been made by the likes of Microsoft’s Bing, but Google still enjoys an enviable two-thirds share of the global search market.

Dominance Not Guaranteed

Dominant market share may result in hefty short-term profits (see Apple’s cash mountain), but early success does not guarantee long-term supremacy. Or in other words, obsolescence is a tangible risk in many technology and consumer related industries. Switching costs can make market shares sticky, but a little innovation mixed with a healthy dose of differentiation can always create new market leaders.

Consider the number one position American Online (AOL) held in internet access/web portal business during the late nineties before its walled gardens came tumbling down to competition from Yahoo, Google, and an explosion of other free, advertisement sponsored content. EBay Inc. (EBAY) is another competition casualty to the fixed price business model of Amazon and other online retailers, which has resulted in six and a half years of underperformance and a -44% decline in its stock price since the 2004 peak. Despite questionable execution, and an overpriced acquisition of Skype, eBay hasn’t been left for complete death, thanks to a defensible growth business in PayPal.  More recently, Research in Motion Ltd. (RIMM) and its former gargantuan army of “CrackBerry” disciples have felt the squeeze from new smart phone clashes with Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android operating system.

With the help of technology, globalization, and the internet, never in the history of the world have multi-billion industries been created at warp speed.  Being first is not a prerequisite to become an industry winner, but evolutionary innovation, and persistently differentiated products and services are what lead to expanding market shares. So while the early bird might get the worm, don’t forget the patient and innovative second mouse gets all the cheese.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Performance data from Morningstar.com. Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, AAPL, AMZN, and GOOG, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in BGPIQ.PK, NWS, YHOO, MSFT, SNE, AOL, EBAY, RIMM, Facebook, Skype, 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.

July 7, 2011 at 11:50 pm Leave a comment


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