Archive for January, 2010

Short-Termism and the Destruction of Wealth

Oscar Wilde, famous Irish playwright, is known for saying “People know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” In a new book titled the Value of Nothing, Raj Patel questions the efficacy of pure capitalism and builds on that idea that many of society’s major economic problems relate to the lack of focus on value. For example, the cost of a $2 greasy burger or $1 candy bar is actually much higher once you factor in the health costs associated with obesity and diabetes – not to mention indirect charges like trash management or environmental costs.

Patel focuses a decent amount on the social damage caused by the consumerism culture for cheap goods. I think this is certainly relevant when you consider our energy policies. Whether you are a “greenie” or not is almost irrelevant from a strategic or security standpoint. Since we import more than 2/3 of our oil  from abroad – much of it from countries that wish to do us harm – it seems almost like a no-brainer to have government create incentives to wean us off our addiction to oil (see Thomas Friedman article). Since pure independence will take decades to achieve, I firmly believe we must simultaneously expand our pool of domestic available fossil fuel resources without getting into holy wars over the environment. If there is a shared focus for energy independence and lower-cost, long-term solutions, then surely there can be space for some common ground.

Short-Termism in the Investment World

In the world of investing, instant gratification, short-termism and the “Cramer-ization” of America have served as fuel behind the housing and credit induced binges that have dragged down our economy. I think Jack Gray of Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo nailed it when he said, “Excessive short-termism results in permanent destruction of wealth, or at least permanent transfer of wealth.”  Decisions made based on the short-term concerns regarding today’s price may have longer lasting impacts, if the consequences of short-termism are not balanced with the probable outcomes discounted into future values. Short-termism merely creates useless churning and transaction costs that make Wall Street intermediaries a fortune, at the cost of investors.

Gray has a great chart from John Bogle data at Vanguard providing a historical perspective on portfolio turnover percentage basis (the inverse being the average investment holding period in years for fund managers):

As you can see from the data chart, the average holding period for equity mutual funds has gone from about 5 years (20% turnover) in the mid 1960s to significantly less than 1 year (> 100% turnover) in recent years. Advancements in technology have lowered the damaging costs of transacting, but the increased frequency, coupled with other costs (impact, spread, emotional, etc.), have been shown to be detrimental over time (Bogle).

Congress would do taxpayers a favor too if they focused on the long-term, rather than piling on debt and building deficits for future generations. If Raj Patel and Jack Gray can get our leaders and investors to strategically think about long-term value, then I know I can sleep more comfortably at night.

Listen to NPR Raj Patel Radio Interview

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

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

January 13, 2010 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

Cash Pile Still Growing

Despite the sluggish economic reports, corporate cash piles have been expanding (see “Nest Egg” chart), thanks to aggressive cost-cutting, stabilization in GDP numbers, and meager capital programs. As part of stingy CFOs and executives controlling expenses, companies have been slow to hire despite an expected two quarters of economic growth. Job hiring is likely to remain scarce since capacity utilization and capital expenditures will probably remain priorities before job payrolls expand. It may be that jobs were the first area cut as the crisis unfolded and the last aspect to rebound in the economic expansion.

Source: The Wall Street Journal and Capital IQ

As the saying goes, “A bank only lends to those people whom do not need it.” Common knowledge has it that most jobs are created from small and medium sized businesses (SMBs). Unfortunately, the inaccessibility of loans for these SMBs has contributed to the lackluster job recovery. The hemorrhaging of jobs has slowed to a trickle, but sustainable recovery will eventually require new, substantive job creation. Rather than fund what appear to be risky loans to SMBs, banks are choosing to repair their weary balance sheets to reap the benefits of a very steep yield curve (borrowing at low short-term interest rates and lending at relatively high long-term interest rates). Bankers are not the only people stockpiling cash (see other article on cash). On the capital raise side, larger corporations have had more success in tapping the capital credit markets since bond issuance has been flowing nicely.

Source: Haver Analytics and Gluskin Sheff

As multi-national corporations continue to benefit from a relatively weak dollar and Wall Street persists to underestimate the trajectory of the U.S. corporate profit rebound, banks are hoarding more capital, which is leading to a larger cash pile. When will all this cash reflow back into the marketplace? The timing is unclear, but if the profitability and hoarding trends continue, the low-yielding cash piles spoiling on the balance sheets are likely to be released into the economy in the form of capital expenditures and rehiring. Job seekers will breathe a sigh of relief once these corporate wallets become too uncomfortably fat.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

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

January 12, 2010 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

Lessons Learned from Financial Crisis Management 101

For many investors the financial crisis over the last 24 months was an expensive education. Rather than have to enroll and take the courses all over again, I am hopeful we can put that past education to good use. Here are some valuable lessons I learned from my two year degree in Financial Crisis Management 101.

Investors Don’t Get Paid For Emotions: In investing, emotional decisions generally lead to suboptimal decisions. Over the financial crisis, despite the market rebound last year, many investors fell prey to fear. This queasiness (see Queasy Investors article) resulted in money being stuffed under the mattress – earning subpar yields – and asset allocations dramatically shifting towards bonds. Not surprisingly, the Barclays Aggregate Bond Index fell -1% in 2009 as the herd piled in. On the flip side, those willing to brave the equity markets were rewarded with a +23% gain in the S&P500 index. Certainly this bond-equity picture looked different in 2008, but unfortunately many mainstream portfolios lacked adequate bond exposure then. As famed Fidelity Magellan fund manager Peter Lynch points out, fretting about your portfolio can work against you:  “Your ultimate success or failure will depend on your ability to ignore the worries of the world long enough to allow your investments to succeed.”

Martin Luther King Jr. put anxious emotions into perspective by expressing, “Normal fear protects us; abnormal fear paralyses us.” Prudent conservatism makes sense, but panicked alarm can lead you astray. Behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky punctuated this idea by showing the impact that “loss” has on peoples’ psyches. Through their research, Kahneman and Tversky demonstrated the pain of loss is more than twice as painful as the pleasure from gain. Euphoria, whether for homes or for other forms of credit-induced spending, is not a desirable emotion when investing either – just ask any house-flipping Florida or California resident looking for work. The moral of the story: plan for a rainy day and don’t succumb to the elation of the herd. Create a disciplined systematic approach that relies less on your gut. Emotional decisions, as we’ve seen over the last few years, generally do not fare well.

Quality Doesn’t Die in a Crisis: Good companies with solid growth prospects don’t disappear in a bear market. On the contrary, they typically are in much better position to invest, step on the throats of their competitors, and steal market share. Many of the quality companies left for dead last year have risen from the ashes. Leveraged financials and debt laden companies were hit the hardest, and bounced nicely last year, but the market leaders are the companies that endure through bull and bear markets.

Buy and Hold is Not Dead:  Catching fish can be difficult if one constantly dips their line in and out of the water. Academic research falls pretty bluntly on the shoulders of “day traders,” and I’m still searching for a Warren Buffett equivalent to show up on Oprah or Charlie Rose espousing the virtues of speculation – oh wait, maybe Jim Cramer qualifies?

Long-term investors are a rare but dying breed – just look at the average fund manager’s holding period, which has dropped from about five years in the 1960s to less than one year today. The 1980s and 1990s weren’t too bad for buy and holders (about a +1,400% increase), but the strategy has subsequently gone in hibernation for a decade. Warren Buffett may be pushing a bit too far when he says, “Our favorite holding period is forever,” but directionally this posture may actually work well over the next ten years. Patience can pay off – even if you arrive late to the game. For example, if you bought Wal-Mart shares (WMT) after it rose 10-fold during its first 10 years, you still could have achieved a 60x return over the next 30 years. I, myself, believe there is a happy medium between high frequency trading (see HFT article) and “forever” investing. Regardless of your time horizon, I agree with late Sir John Templeton who said, The only way to avoid mistakes is not to invest – which is the biggest mistake of all.”

Cyclical is Not Secular: Party crashers may be optimistic about the prospects of a gathering, but if they arrive too late to the event, there may be no more food or wine left. The same principle applies to investment themes, as well-known value manager Bill Miller states, “Latecomers are usually persuaded that the cyclical has become the secular.” Over the last few years, the secular arguments of “real estate prices will never go down nationally,” and the belief that emerging markets like China would “decouple” from the U.S. market in 2008, simple were proved wrong. Time will tell if the gold-bugs will be right regarding their call for continued secular increases, or if the spike is a crescendo on a return to more normalized levels. On the whole, I much rather prefer to arrive at a big party prematurely, rather than showing up late sifting through the crumbs and scraping the bottom of the punch bowl.

Turn Off the TV: Fanning the flames of our daily emotions are media outlets. Thanks to globalization, the internet, and the 24/7 news cycle, we are bombarded with some type of daily fear factor to worry about. Typically, an eloquent strategist or economist pontificates on the direction of the market. In many instances these talking heads don’t even manage client money or are not held accountable for their predictions (see Peter Schiff article). I like Barron’s Michael Santoli’s description of these story-telling market mavens, “A strategist’s first job is to have a plausible, defensible case to shop around client conference rooms globally. Being right is gravy.”  Although intellectually stimulating, I advise you to limit your consumption and delivery of strategist commentary to cocktail parties and don’t let their advice sway your portfolio decisions. You’ll be much better served by listening to veteran investors who have successfully navigated choppy market cycles. Famed growth investor William O’Neil shrewdly chimes in on the subject too, “Since the market tends to go in the opposite direction of what the majority of people think, I would say 95% of all these people you hear on TV shows are giving you their personal opinion. And personal opinions are almost always worthless … facts and markets are far more reliable.”

Bad Loans are Made in Good Times: Markus Brunnermeier, a Princeton economist known for studying financial bubbles, declared this observation regarding loans. Hindsight is 20-20, but it’s no wonder that boat loads of no-doc, no down-payment, teaser rate subprime loans and overleveraged risky private equity loans were being made when unemployment was at 5% — not today’s 10% rate. Now with the loan spigots shut, the tables have been turned. Relatively few loans are now being made, but with a massively steep yield curve, surviving financial institutions are in a golden age for bringing on new wildly lucrative assets onto their balance sheets. Sure, the industry is still saddled with toxic legacy assets, but the negative impact should begin fading in coming quarters if the economy can continue building a firmer foundation.

Diversification Matters: Contrary to current thinking, which believes diversification didn’t help investors through the crisis, owning certain asset classes like treasuries, certain commodities, and cash did help in 2008. Certainly, the correlations between many asset classes converged in the heat of the panic, but I’m convinced the benefits of diversification provide beneficial shock absorbers for most investment portfolios. Princeton professor and economist Burton Gordon Malkiel sums it up succinctly, “Diversity reduces adversity.”

The Herd is Often Led to the Slaughterhouse: The technology and housing bubble implosions serve as gentle reminders of the slaughterhouse fate for those who follow the herd. Avoiding consensus thinking is virtually a requirement of long-term outperformance.  As Sir John Templeton stated, “It’s impossible to produce superior performance unless you do something different from the majority.” John Paulson can also attest to this fact. If aggressively shorting the housing market and loading up on CDS insurance was the consensus, his firm would not have made $20 billion over 2007 and 2008.

These are obviously not all the lessons to be learned from the financial crisis, and by following a philosophy of continual learning, future mistakes should provide additional insights to help guard against losses and capitalize on potential opportunities. Having freshly graduated from Financial Crisis Management 101, I hope to immediately implement this education to land on the financial market’s Dean’s List.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including fixed income ETFs and FXI). Also at time of publishing SCM and some of its clients had a direct long position in WMT, but no position in BEN or BRKA/B. 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.

January 11, 2010 at 12:40 am 2 comments

Financial Engineering: Butter Knife or Cleaver?

Recently, former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker blasted the banking industry for innefectual derivative producs (i.e., credit default swaps [CDS] and collateralized debt obligations [CDOs]) and a lack of true innovation outside of the ATM machine, which was introduced some 40 years ago. In my opinion, the opposing views pitting the cowboy Wall Street bankers versus conservative policy hawks parallels the relative utility question of a butter knife versus a cleaver. Like knives, derivatives come in all shapes and sizes. Most Americans responsibly butter their toast and cut their steaks, nonetheless if put in the wrong hands, knives can lead to minor cuts, lost fingers, or even severed arteries.

That reckless behavior was clearly evident in the unregulated CDS market, which AIG alone, through its Financial Products unit in the U.K., grew its exposure to a mind boggling level of $2.7 trillion in notional value, according to Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book Too Big to Fail. The subprime market was a big driver for irresponsible CDO creation too. In The Greatest Trade Ever, Gregory Zuckerman highlights the ballooning nature of the $1.2 trillion subprime loan market (about 10% of the overall 2006 mortgage market) , which exploded to $5 trillion in value thanks to the help of CDOs.

Derivatives History

However, many derivative products like options, futures, and swaps have served a usefull purpose for decades, if not centuries. As I chronicled in the Investing Caffeine David Einhorn piece, derivative trading goes as far back as Greek and Roman times when derivative-like contracts were used for crop insurance and shipping purposes. In the U.S., options derivatives became legitimized under the Investment Act of 1934 before subsequently being introduced on the Chicago Board Options Exchange in 1973. Since then, the investment banks and other financial players have created other standardized derivative products like futures, and interest rate swaps.

Volcker Expands on Financial Engineering Innovation

In his comments, former Chairman Volcker specifically targets CDSs and CDOs. Volcker does not mince words when it comes to sharing his feelings about derivatives innovation:

“I hear about these wonderful innovations in the financial markets, and they sure as hell need a lot of innovation. I can tell you of two—credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations—which took us right to the brink of disaster…I wish that somebody would give me some shred of neutral evidence about the relationship between financial innovation recently and the growth of the economy, just one shred of information.”

 

When Volcker was challenged about his skeptical position on banking innovation, he retorted:

“All I know is that the economy was rising very nicely in the 1950s and 1960s without all of these innovations. Indeed, it was quite good in the 1980s without credit-default swaps and without securitization and without CDOs.”

 

Cutting through Financial Engineering

The witch-hunt is on for a financial crisis scapegoat, and financial engineering is at the center of the pursuit. Certainly regulation, standardized derivative contracts, trading exchanges, and increased capital requirements should all be factors integrated into new regulation. Curbs can even be put in place to minimize leveraged speculation. But the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. CDSs, CDOs, securitization and other derivative products serve a healthy and useful purpose towards the aim of creating more efficient financial markets – especially when it comes to hedging. For the majority of our daily requirements, I advocate putting away the dangerous cleaver, and sticking with the dependable butter knife. On special occasions, like birthday steak dinners, I’ll make sure to invite someone responsible, like Paul Volcker, to cut my meat with a steak knife.

Read Full WSJ Article with Paul Volcker Q&A

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct position in any company mentioned in this article, including AIG. 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.

January 8, 2010 at 12:08 am 4 comments

TMI: The Age of Information Overload

In raising the issue of TMI (“Too Much Information”), I’m not referring to your parents talking about their sex life, but rather the explosion of data that is flooding our society.

How much data is creeping into our daily lives?  The issue impacts all professions, but is especially acute in the investment world. A recent study, co-authored by Roger Bohn and James Short (Directors at the Global Information Industry Center at UC San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies), tackles this elusive measurement problem of TMI.

Everyday Life1

One need not become a rocket scientist to figure out we are being inundated with information. The average household already receives 120 TV channels, with no signs of slowing. I love sports just as much as the average person, but do I really need six flavors of ESPN? Or seven different HBO channels? Our TVs (a.k.a., “god box”) even carries the “GOD TV” channel. Does this mean I don’t have to go to church anymore?

Data is permeating other areas as well. Microchips are infiltrating our microwaves, refrigerators and automobiles. The average car now contains more than 50 processors, including a butt-warming car seat chip. Suffice it to say, information is becoming pervasive.

Gorging on Information – Zettabytes at a Time

I think most reasonable people would agree the typical person is consuming more information, but exactly how much? Through Bohn and Short’s rigorous study, they determined Americans consumed 3.6 zettabytes in 2008. A zettabyte is equivalent to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes (21 zeroes), equating to about 10,845 trillion words. This statistic translates into the consumption of approximately 34 gigabytes (about 1/5 the storage in a standard laptop) per day by each American.

Put another way, Kathleen Parker at the Washington Post, calculated the total amount of data produced in 2006 was 3 million times more data than the information contained in all the books ever written.

Investor Dilemma: Paralysis from Analysis

There’s no question in my mind that data can become overwhelming in the investment world. Focusing on the endless concerns spewed over the media can lead to investment paralysis. Each in every day I hear why the world is going to end, or why an investment du jour will rocket to the moon. Not only are the messages schizophrenic, but the quantity is unending. As I mention in my book, while I managed a $20 billion fund, I could receive 500 e-mails, 100 voicemails, and hundreds of pages of hard copy reports and faxes on a daily basis. Completely reviewing the data received in a day’s work could theoretically take weeks, if not months.

Today, the voluminous flow is not retreating, but instead we are seeing new avenues of information distribution, including, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, instant messaging, YouTube, LinkedIn, and numerous other social networking outlets. With the 24/7 daily news cycles, and instantaneous transferability of information, the internet has become a convenience but also a source of heightened anxiety levels. Rather than giving up and throwing in the towel, I willfully accept the challenge to navigate through the masses of data. Automated spam filters, topic alerts, and aggregated news readers are a few basic examples of managing data through technology.

The Surplus Solution

The simple solution to TMI is ignoring and filtering the data. This objective is easier said than done, especially for the inexperienced. Deciphering and tracking the endless creation of new acronyms, alone, can become a full-time job for the less familiar.

The best advice, which I continually take to heart, comes from legendary investor Peter Lynch who states:

‘‘If you spend more than 14 minutes a year worrying about the market, you’ve wasted 12 minutes.’’ He hammers home the point that timing the market based on noisy data is a losing cause. “Anyone can do well in a good market, assume the market is going nowhere and invest accordingly,” adds Lynch.

 

The other option is to simply outsource the responsibility. Time-strapped professionals follow this strategy when it comes to tax and legal advice, but for some reason many ill-equipped individuals feel they can adequately handle the arguably most important aspect of their financial existence…their investments. While finding an experienced and trusted professional can take some time, it is not an insurmountable task (see my article on selecting an advisor).

Follow a Plan

As the accelerating amounts of data rise in volume, individuals can choose from the following options: 1) Embrace the power of technology to efficiently manage, organize, and filter our consumption of data; or 2) Become slaves to its overwhelming control. I choose the former.  Gaining perspective in light of the daily vortex of data we plug ourselves into can be challenging.  Taking a step away from the emotional pressures of the daily grind, and exhaling will help you see the forest from the trees. After taking a breather from the chaos, returning to your long-term, disciplined, systematic plan – designed by you or your advisor – will assist you in taming the TMI monster.

Read Full Article from Roger Bohn and James Short

1.  Data from Roger Bohn and James Short’s 2009 How Much Information? Report.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and shares of GOOG, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in DIS, WPO, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. 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.

January 7, 2010 at 12:01 am 5 comments

NVEC: Profiting from Electronic Eyes, Nerves & Brains

Recently, Seeking Alpha Editor-in-Chief Mick Weinstein interviewed me with the purpose of reviewing an equity investment I find attractive. For the “stock-jock” Investing Caffeine followers, I am publishing the January 5th interview below.

What is your highest conviction stock position in your fund – long or short?

I don’t really have a highest conviction stock, per se, in my fund since I treat all my stocks like children – I love them all. Having said that, NVE Corp. (ticker: NVEC) is a holding of mine that exhibits many of the characteristics I look for in an investment. The Eden Prairie, Minnesota based company is named after “Nonvolatile Electronics,” which refers to memory technology that retains data even when power is removed – a critical attribute for certain applications.

Tell us a bit about the company and what it does.

NVE Corp. is a market leader in nanotechnology sensors, couplers, and MRAM intellectual property (Magnetoresistive Random Access Memory). NVE’s microscopic technology enables the transmission, acquisition, and storage of data across a broad array of applications, including implantable medical devices, mission critical defense weapons, and industrial robots. Major customers include: St. Jude Medical, Inc. (STJ), Starkey Laboratories, Inc., and the U.S. Government.

The company’s coupler and sensor businesses have been ridiculously profitable. Even over a period covering one of the worst global financial crisis in decades, NVE managed to increase its operating margins from an already very respectable 40% range in Fiscal 2007 (ending March) to a stunning 56%+ level in Fiscal 2009.

Beyond sensors and couplers, NVE Corp. is optimistic about the potential for the MRAM market. However, outside of a few one-time licensing fees, NVE is currently generating effectively $0 revenues from this nascent storage technology. Outside of producing small MRAM devices for niche applications such as tamper prevention, NVE Corp. is looking to leverage their IP portfolio by licensing out the patents and subsequently receiving royalties from MRAM device manufacturers. MRAM technology uses magnetic fields to record information, but unlike tape recorders in which a short section of tape holds magnetic information, with MRAM data is held by electrons with out the need of moving parts to read or write data. Believe it or not, this method is highly reliable and is very power-efficient relative to other storage technology alternatives. Currently, the problem with MRAM is the cost prohibitive manufacturing requirements relative to other memories (such as DRAM, SRAM, and Flash), but costs are expected to come down over time. For some MRAM believers, the technology is considered the “Holy Grail” because it may have the potential to combine the speed of SRAM, the density of DRAM, and the non-volatility of Flash memory in a universal source.

If the unproven potential of MRAM ever blossoms, the broad portfolio of NVE Corp.’s MRAM patents should represent a very sizeable profit opportunity. Of course, NVE Corp. must first establish the validity of its MRAM intellectual property and appropriately charge and collect royalties for IP usage. How big can the MRAM market be? Some size the MRAM market in the billions and Toshiba has stated they expect the MRAM market to surpass the size of the traditional memory markets by 2015.

No matter how one measures the size of the market, there will be a substantial revenue opportunity for NVE Corp. if every smart-phone, gaming device and laptop exclusively uses universal MRAM – rather than a combination of DRAM, SRAM, and Flash technologies.

Can you talk a bit about the industry/sector? How much is this an “industry pick” as opposed to a pure bottom-up pick?

Generally speaking, I am a bottom-up investor. I may have concrete views on a particular industry, but the fundamentals of a company will be the main determinant of my investment thesis. Overall, I am looking for market leading franchises that can sustain above-average growth rates for extended periods of time. These traits can come from either a company operating in a mature, sleepy industry (take for example Google in the advertising world) or from a more dynamic growth industry like nanotechnology in the case of NVE Corp.

I believe the nanotechnology industry is in the very early innings of an innovation revolution with regard to new applications and products. Like semiconductors, the economies of scale and technological advances of NVE Corp.’s “spintronic” technology should continually allow faster, smaller, more reliable solutions at lower bit prices. In my view, this snowballing effect will only increase the penetration of nanotechnology solutions and introduce an ever increasing list of new applications.

Can you describe the company’s competitive environment? How is this company positioned vis a vis its competitors?

NVE Corp. has competitors along all three of its spintronic businesses. In their sensor business, most of the competition comes from the makers of legacy electromechanical magnetic sensors, including HermeticSwitch, Inc., Meder Electronic AG (Germany), and Memscap SA (France).

In the coupler space, NVE Corp. faces a larger list of well capitalized, household semiconductor names, including Avago (AVGO), Fairchild Semiconductor International (FCS), NEC Corporation, Sharp Corporation, Toshiba Corporation, Vishay Intertechnology (VSH), Analog Devices, Inc. (ADI), Silicon Laboratories Inc. (SLAB), and Texas Instruments Incorporated (TXN).

A different set of competitors are searching for the MRAM holy grail, including the following companies: Crocus Technology SA (France), Grandis, Inc., MagSil Corporation, Spintec (France), Spintron (France), Spintronics Plc (UK), and IBM.

There is undoubtedly a ton of competition in the spintronics space, but as of October 2009, NVE Corp. has 52 issued U.S. patents and over 100 patents worldwide (either issued, pending, or licensed from others) – many focused on the potentially lucrative MRAM field. Although NVE Corp. has many competitors, they have dominant share in the coupler/sensor market when it comes to high-end, merchant supplied solutions. Moreover, on the MRAM side of the business, the company has already licensed its intellectual property to several companies, including Cypress Semiconductor (CY), Honeywell International Inc. (HON), and Motorola, Inc. (MOT).

Can you talk about valuation? How does valuation compare to the competitors?

Valuation is a key component for all my stock investments. In my valuation work I pore over the income statement, balance sheet and cash flow statement in deriving my price targets.

One area helping NVE Corp.’s valuation case is its improving trend-line of profitability. Over the last 5 years alone, gross margins have gone from 40% to over 70% – not a bad business model if you can execute it. The company also has a pristine balance sheet. Not only does NVE Corp. have no debt, but it also is sitting on a growing mound of cash/investments (over $43 million), representing more than 20% of the company’s market capitalization. Lastly, the company in my view is attractively priced on a free cash flow basis (cash from operations minus capital expenditures), yielding around 6% of the total company value.

What is the current sentiment on the stock? How does your view differ from the consensus?

With small cap stocks like NVE Corp., sentiment and lack of liquidity can create gut-wrenching volatility. Unlike many growth investors who pay more attention to positive momentum factors (price direction), I welcome volatility as it allows me to find more attractive entry and exit points.

With that said, NVE Corp. hit a peak stock price north of $63 per share in early September fueled by 41% revenue growth in their June quarter (fiscal Q1). Subsequently, in fiscal Q2 (ending September 30th), revenue growth decelerated to +14% causing momentum investors to take NVE Corp.’s shares to the woodshed. With the stock down about -35% from its recent crest, I find the valuation only that much more attractive.

Wall Street estimates are calling for further slowing in revenue growth in the coming quarter, so the short term sentiment may or may not continue to sour? Timing bottoms is inherently dangerous and not something I consider myself an expert at. Absent a major deterioration in fundamentals, I stand ready to add to my position if NVE Corp.’s share price falls and valuation metrics improve.

I would argue the typical consensus view advocates selling shares when revenue growth slows. Many of my best performing stocks have been purchased during transitory periods of slowing or cyclical downturns. Let’s hope that’s the case with NVE Corp.

Does the company’s management play a role in your position? If so, how?

Absolutely. There is a continual debate over what is more important, the jockey or the horse? My investment philosophy puts more weight on the jockey than the horse. Obviously, I’m looking for the combination of a talented management team and a solid business model.

When it comes to NVE Corp., Daniel Baker, Ph.D. has done a phenomenal job managing the hyper-growth profile of the company, while preserving prudent and conservative financial values. For the third year in a row, Dr. Baker was also recognized as one of the best U.S. CEOs in the semiconductors and semiconductor equipment industry by investment research and financial consulting firm DeMarche Associates.

At the end of the day, it’s difficult to argue with a track record of success. Since Dr. Baker took over, revenues have more than tripled and earnings have grown from $0.05 in fiscal 2001 to $2.04 in Fiscal 2009.

What catalysts do you see that could move the stock?

Since I hold a longer term investment horizon, catalysts are not a driving aspect to my investment process. But clearly, any additional evidence unearthed in the marketplace validating the growth in the MRAM market, or announcements confirming the value of NVE Corp.’s MRAM intellectual property, should provide support to the stock price.

Beyond that, given where the stock is trading now, I believe merely continuing the execution on their sensor and coupler business provides adequate upside prospects.

What could go wrong with this stock pick?

Investing in small cap technology stocks comes with a whole host of risks. Although I don’t believe the positive scenario of critical mass MRAM commercialization is baked into the current stock price, nevertheless I understand any setbacks announced relative to NVE Corp.’s MRAM prospects or the industry’s MRAM expectations, will likely result in stock price pressure.

NVE also has significant customer concentration, therefore a loss or cutback in sales from a lead customer will probably contribute to price volatility.

From a macro perspective, the company has battled successfully through the economic crisis and proven itself somewhat recession resistant. Nonetheless, the company has sizeable exposure to the industrial segment and would not be immune from the “double-dip” economic recession scenario.

Surely there are additional hazards to this investment, however these are some of the risks I am currently focused on.

Do you have any closing thoughts?

NVE Corp. is not a stock for the faint of heart. However, for those who can stomach the volatility, I encourage you to do some more homework on NVE Corp. Not only will you learn about a phenomenally managed, very profitable, attractively priced nanotechnology company, but you will also gain insight into a leading force behind the eyes, nerves, and brains powering the electronic systems of our future.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own shares in NVEC (and certain exchange traded funds), but did not have any direct positions in the following companies or stocks mentioned in this article at time of publication: STJ, HermeticSwitch, Inc., Meder Electronic AG, and Memscap SA, AVGO, FCS, NEC Corporation, Sharp Corporation, Toshiba Corporation, VSH, ADI, SLAB, TXN, Crocus Technology SA, Grandis, Inc., MagSil Corporation, Spintec, Spintron, and Spintronics Plc, IBM, CY, HON, and MOT. 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.

January 6, 2010 at 12:01 am 2 comments

Bashful Path to Female Bankruptcy

The unrelenting expansion in bankruptcies does not discriminate on gender – you either have the money or you do not. Naomi Wolf, author of Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries, recently shed light on the underbelly of those suffering severe financial pain in this economic crisis…middle-class women.

How bad is it for middle class women?

“A new report shows that a million American middle-class women will find themselves in bankruptcy court this year. This is more women than will ‘graduate from college, receive a diagnosis of cancer, or file for divorce,’ according to the economist Elizabeth Warren.”

 

Wolf explores multiple factors in trying to explain this phenomenon. Surprisingly, higher education levels does not appear to prevent a higher percentage of bankruptcies in this large demographic.

If education levels are not a contributing factor, then what is? Here are some Wolf’s findings: 

1)      Awash in Debt: One explanation for the extra debt reliance is many of these positions occupied by this class of women are lower-paying, which requires women to tap credit lines more frequently. Also, many women have been targeted by luxury-goods manufacturers and credit-card companies. Repeated contacts by the marketers have led to more women succumbing to the consumerism messages shoveled to them.

2)      Credit Card Legislation: Wolf makes the case that financial credit card legislation introduced in 2005 disproportionately negatively impacts divorced wives because credit card companies get priority in the repayment line over critical child support payments. In other words, child support payments go to the credit card company rather than to the child, thereby creating an undue financial burden on the female caregiver.

3)      Skewed Emotional Beliefs about Money: The biggest issue regarding the emotional connection to finances is working-women “find it embarrassing to talk about money.” The article even acknowledges that many current generation women earn more than previous generations, but financial security has largely not improved because of the “money taboo.” I discover this taboo dynamic in my practice all the time. Part of the blame should be placed on the financial industry’s use of endless acronyms as smoke and mirrors to confuse and intimidate clients on the subject of money. I believe the better way to financial success is to empower clients through education and understanding, not deception and misinformation.

Wolf goes onto explain some of the confused financial thought processes held by this segment of women:

  • Negotiating salary increases is difficult for these women because it makes them feel “unfeminine.”
  • This class often fails to save because they falsely assume marriage will save them financially.

Unfortunately, the lack of financial literacy and dependence on the spouse leaves these women vulnerable to divorce and widowhood.

Working Class Women Better Prepared

Interestingly, Wolf’s findings point to working class women being much more financially literate and prepared in part because they have erased the notion of a knight in shining armor saving the day from their financial responsibilities. Bolstering her argument, Wolf references the success of the micro-finance programs being instituted to lower-class, working women in developing countries.

Wolf’s Solution

How do middle-class working women break this negative financial cycle? Wolf delivers the medicine directly by directing these women to break the “social role that casts middle-class women as polite, economically vague, underpaid, shopping-dazed dependents.” Opening their eyes to these issues will not erase all of the contributing factors, but women will be better equipped to deal with their financial problems.

From my perspective, there is no quick fix for immediate financial literacy. For those interested in learning more, I encourage you to read my article on personal finance, What to Do Now? Time to Get Your House in Order.

 Regardless of your financial knowledge maturity, like any discipline, the more time you put in to it, the more benefits you will receive.

Read Complete Naomi Wolf 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 time of publishing had no direct positions in any company mentioned in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

January 5, 2010 at 12:22 am 3 comments

Our Nation’s Keys to Success

Politics is not a subject I love to debate, but unfortunately politics has a significant impact on economics, which I do care about dearly. I’m no expert on the politics of New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but in reflecting on the past decade he highlights a few key areas of focus needed to advance our great nation:

“There are two things that we did not work on and, in fact, have gone the wrong direction during the last decade, which will dictate the economy for the next decade, and that’s immigration and education.”

 

I couldn’t agree more. With regard to the country’s stimulus program, we hear so much about shovel-ready projects and infrastructure spending. Rather than centering on the immediate gratification of low-paying job creation and building bridges to nowhere, more resources should be invested in education and recruitment of leading edge human capital. Without a competitive and educated workforce, high-paying 21st Century jobs of the future will be lost and outsourced to global challengers.

Bloomberg emphasizes this point by stating:

“Unless we give our young people the kind of education to compete in the global world, we cannot survive.”

 

Sure, education is a longer-term investment with no immediate pay-off, but in order to become (remain) competitive with other hungry nations, we need to improve our high school education system, which Microsoft Founder and Chairman Bill Gates calls “obsolete”.

National Suicide

I agree with Mayor Bloomberg that the isolationist immigration pendulum has swung too far in the paranoid direction.  The recent airline bombing attempt by Yemeni  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab only fans the flames of fear more intensely. However, in order to attract the best and brightest, we need to relax immigration policies – at least loosen policies as they pertain to educated, law-abiding citizens who can assist our dynamic growing economy. I have no problems with “cherry-picking” immigrants. The foundation of capitalism is based on attracting and retaining the best cherries. Bloomberg notes the following:

“And immigration, we’re committing what I call national suicide. Somehow or other, after 9/11 we went from reaching out and trying to get the best and the brightest to come here, to trying to keep them out. In fact, we do the stupidest thing, we give them educations and then don’t give them green cards.”

 

If fear of job loss is scaring us from letting foreigners in our country, then we need ask ourselves who will pay for our massive debts, deficits and entitlements (i.e., Social Security and Medicare)? Aging demographics is a huge headwind we face (see demographics article) and a quick glance across the Pacific Ocean to our Japanese allies is proof enough of how destructive the graying of society can become.

Also, many ask the question, “Why should we give American jobs to foreigners?” The reality of the situation is we need a competitve work-force to create a competitive country, which can create more sustainable jobs. How many jobs (and tax-dollars) do you think Google co-founder Sergey Brin (Russian-born) has created for American workers? Or Intel’s former CEO Andy Grove (Hungarian-born); Yahoo’s co-founder Jerry Yang (Taiwanese-born); and Sun Microsystem’s co-founders Vinod Khosla (Indian-born) and Andreas von Bechtolsheim (German-born)? More than a few.

Energy Independence

In his Meet the Press Interview, Bloomberg weaves in another issue dragging down the economy – our dependence on foreign oil.  Importing more than 2/3 of our oil from foreign nations, many of which harbor or sponsor U.S.-hating terrorists, is not a prudent long-term strategy when it involves such a critical and strategic resource.

“We’ve got to get, somehow or other, energy independence. And so regardless of whether you’re a greenie or not, the bottom line is we cannot keep funding our enemies,” Bloomberg adds.

 

As the saying goes, the three most important political issues for re-election are:  1) the economy; 2) the economy; and 3) the economy. Unfortunately, short-term sugar-high stimulus spending may help the economy in the short-run but can wear off quickly if not implemented properly. On the other hand, three key strategic areas of investment will lead to sustainable economic expansion, including education, immigration, and energy independence. With new bitter mid-term Congressional elections waiting for us in 2010, let’s hope the candidates take a lead from Mayor Michael Bloomberg by building on his ideas for a firmer economic foundation in the decade to come.

View Meet The Press Roundtable Interview with Mayor Bloomberg (Minute 2:40)

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 time of publishing had no direct positions in MSFT, JAVA, YHOO, or INTC. 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.

January 4, 2010 at 1:24 am 2 comments

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