Posts filed under ‘Banking’
It has been a busy year between work, play, family, and of course the recent elections. My work responsibilities contain a wide-ranging number of facets, but in addition to research, client meetings, conference calls, conferences, trading, and other activities, I also attempt to squeeze in some leisure reading as well. While it’s sad but true that I find pleasure in reading SEC documents (10Ks and 10Qs), press releases, transcripts, corporate presentations, financial periodicals, and blogs, I finally did manage to also scratch When Genius Failed by Roger Lowenstein from my financial reading bucket list.
When Genius Failed chronicles the rise and fall of what was considered the best and largest global hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management (LTCM). The irony behind the collapse makes the story especially intriguing. Despite melding the brightest minds in finance, including two Nobel Prize winners, Robert Merton and Myron Scholes, the Greenwich, Connecticut hedge fund that started with $1.3 billion in early 1994 managed to peak at around $140 billion before eventually crumbling to ruin.
With the help of confidential internal memos, interviews with former partners and employees of LTCM, discussions with the Federal Reserve, and consultations with the six major banks involved in the rescue, Lowenstein provides the reader with a unique fly-on-the-wall perspective to this grand financial crisis.
There have certainly been plenty of well-written books recounting the 2008-2009 financial crisis (see my review on Too Big to Fail), but the sheer volume has burnt me out on the subject. With that in mind, I decided to go back in time to the period of 1993 – 1998, a point at the beginning of my professional career. Until LTCM’s walls began figuratively caving in and global markets declined by more than $1 trillion in value, LTCM was successful at maintaining a relatively low profile. The vast majority of Americans (99%) had never heard of the small group of bright individuals who started LTCM, until the fund’s ultimate collapse blanketed every newspaper headline and media outlet.
Meriwether: John W. Meriwether was a legendary trader at Salomon Brothers, where he started the Arbitrage Group in 1977 and built up a successful team during the 1980s. His illustrious career is profiled in Michael Lewis’s famed book, Liar’s Poker. Meriwether built his trading philosophy upon the idea that mispricings would eventually revert back to the mean or converge, and therefore shrewd opportunistic trading will result in gains, if patience is used. Another name for this strategy is called “arbitrage”. In sports terms, the traders of the LTCM fund were looking for inaccurate point spreads, which could then be exploited for profit opportunity. Prior to the launch of LTCM, in 1991 Meriwether was embroiled in the middle of a U.S. Treasury bid-rigging scheme when one of his traders Paul Mozer admitted to submitting false bids to gain unauthorized advantages in government-bond auctions. John Gutfreund, Salomon Brothers’ CEO was eventually forced to quit, and Salomon’s largest, famed shareholder Warren Buffett became interim CEO. Meriwether was slapped on the wrist with a suspension and fine, and although Buffett eventually took back Meriwether in a demoted role, ultimately the trader was viewed as tainted goods so he left to start LTCM in 1993.
LTCM Team: During 1993 Meriwether built his professional team at LTCM and he began this process by recruiting several key Salomon Brothers bond traders. Larry Hilibrand and Victor Haghani were two of the central players at the firm. Other important principals included Eric Rosenfeld, William Krasker, Greg Hawkins, Dick Leahy, Robert Shustak, James McEntee, and David W. Mullins Jr.
Nobel Prize Winners (Merton & Scholes): While Robert C. Merton was teaching at Harvard University and Myron S. Scholes at Stanford University, they decided to put their academic theory to the real-world test by instituting their financial equations with the other investing veterans at LTCM. Scholes and Merton were effectively godfathers of quantitative theory. If there ever were a Financial Engineering Hall of Fame, Merton and Scholes would be initial inductees. Author Lowenstein described the situation by saying, “Long-Term had the equivalent of Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali on the same team.” Paradoxically, in 1997, right before the collapse of LTCM, Merton and Scholes would become Nobel Prize laureates in Economic Sciences for their work in developing the theory of how to price options.
Founded in 1993, Long-Term Management Capital was hailed as the most impressive hedge fund created in history. Near its peak, LTCM managed money for about 100 investors and employed 200 employees. LTCM’s primary strategy was to identify mispriced bonds and profit from a mean reversion strategy. In other words, as long as the overall security mispricings narrowed, rather than widened, then LTCM would stand to profit handsomely.
On an individual trade basis, profits from LTCM’s trades were relatively small, but the fund implemented thousands of trades and used vast amounts of leverage (borrowings) to expand the overall profits of the fund. Lowenstein ascribed the fund’s success to the following process:
“Leveraging its tiny margins like a high-volume grocer, sucking up nickel after nickel and multiplying the process a thousand times.”
Although LTCM implemented this strategy successfully in the early years of the fund, this premise finally collapsed like a house of falling cards in 1998. As is generally the case, hedge funds and other banking competitors came to understand and copy LTCM’s successful trading strategies. Towards the end of the fund’s life, Meriwether and the other fund partners were forced to experiment with less familiar strategies like merger arbitrage, pair trades, emerging markets, and equity investing. This diversification strategy was well intentioned, however by venturing into uncharted waters, the traders were taking on excessive risk (i.e., they were increasing the probability of permanent capital losses).
- 1994 (28% return, 20% after fees): After attempting to raise capital funding in 1993, LTCM opened its doors for business in February 1994 with $1.25 billion in equity. Financial markets were notably volatile during 1994 in part due to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan leading the first interest rate hike in five years. The instability caused famed fund managers Michael Steinhardt and George Soros to lose -$800 million and $650 million, respectively, all within a timespan of less than a week. The so-called “Mexican Tequila Crisis” that occurred at the end of the year also resulted in a devaluation of the Mexican peso and crumbling of the Mexican stock market.
- 1995 (59% return, 43% after fees): By the end of 1995, the fund had tripled its equity capital and total assets had grown to $102 billion. Total leverage, or the ratio of debt to equity, stood around 28 to 1. LTCM’s derivative contract portfolio was like a powder keg, covering positions worth approximately $650 billion.
- 1996 (57% return, 41% after fees): By the spring of 1996, the fund was holding $140 billion in assets, making it two and a half times as big as Fidelity Magellan, the largest mutual fund on the planet. The fund also carried derivatives valued at more than $1 trillion, all financed off a relatively smaller $4 billion equity base. Investors were loving the returns and financial institutions were clamoring to gain some of LTCM’s business. During this period, as many as 55 banks were providing LTCM financing. The mega-returns earned in 1996 came in large part due to profitable leveraged spread trades on Japanese convertible bonds, Italian bonds, junk bonds, and interest rate swaps. Total profits for the year reached an extraordinary level of around $2.1 billion. To put that number in perspective, that figure was more money generated than the profits earned by McDonalds, Disney, American Express, Nike, Xerox, and many more Fortune 500 companies.
- 1997 (25% return, 17% after fees): The Asia Crisis came into full focus during October 1997. Thailand’s baht currency fell by -20% after the government decided to let the currency float freely. Currency weakness then spread to the Philippines, Malaysia, South Korea, and Singapore. As Russian bond spreads (prices) began to widen, massive trading losses for LTCM were beginning to compound. Returns remained positive for the year and the fund grew its equity capital to $5 billion. As the losses were mounting and the writing on the wall was revealing itself, professors Merton and Scholes were recognized with their Nobel Prize announcement. Ironically, LTCM was in the process of losing control. LTCM’s bloated number of 7,600 positions wasn’t making the fund any easier to manage. During 1997, the partners realized the fund’s foundation was shaky, so they returned $2.7 billion in capital to investors. Unfortunately, the risk profile of the fund worsened – not improved. More specifically, the fund’s leverage ratio skyrocketed from 18:1 to 28:1.
- 1998 (-92% return – loss): The Asian Crisis losses from the previous year began to bleed into added losses in 1998. In fact, losses during May and June alone ended up reducing LTCM’s capital by $461 million. As the losses racked up, LTCM was left in the unenviable position of unwinding a mind-boggling 60,000 individual positions. It goes almost without saying that selling is extraordinarily difficult during a panic. As Lowenstein put it, “Wall Street traders were running from Long-Term’s trades like rats from a sinking ship.” A few months later in September, LTCM’s capital shrunk to less than $1 billion, meaning about $100 billion in debt (leverage ratio greater than 100:1) was supporting the more than $100 billion in LTCM assets. It was just weeks later the fund collapsed abruptly. Russia defaulted on its ruble debt, and the collapsing currency contagion spread to global markets outside Russia, including Eastern Asia, and South America.
The End of LTCM
On September 23, 1998, after failed investment attempts by Warren Buffett and others to inject capital into LTCM, the heads of Bankers Trust, Bear Stearns, Chase Manhattan, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, and Salomon Brothers all gathered at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in the heart of Wall Street. Presiding over this historical get-together was Fed President, William J. McDonough. International markets were grinding to a halt during this period and the Fed was running out of time before an all-out meltdown was potentially about to occur. Ultimately, McDonough was able to get 14 banks to wire $3.65 billion in bailout funds to LTCM. While all LTCM partners were financially wiped out completely, initial investors managed to recoup a small portion of their original investment (23 cents on the dollar after factoring in fees), even though the tally of total losses reached approximately $4.6 billion. Once the bailout was complete, it took a few years for the fund to liquidate its gargantuan number of positions and for the banks to get their multi-billion dollar bailout paid back in full.
- 1999 – 2009 (Epilogue): Meriwether didn’t waste much time moping around after the LTCM collapse, so he started a new hedge fund, JWM Partners, with $250 million in seed capital primarily from legacy LTCM investors. Regrettably, the fund was hit with significant losses during the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis and was subsequently forced to close its doors in July 2009.
- The Risks of Excessive Leverage: Although the fund grew to peak value of approximately $140 billion in assets, most of this growth was achieved with added debt. When all was said and done, LTCM borrowed more than 30 times the value of its equity. As Lowenstein put it, LTCM was “adding leverage to leverage, as if coating a flammable tinderbox with kerosene.” In home purchase terms, if LTCM wanted to buy a house using the same amount of debt as their fund, they would lose all of their investment, if the house value declined a mere 3-4%. The benefit of leverage is it multiplies gains. The downside to leverage is that it also multiplies losses. If you carry too much leverage in a declining market, the chance of bankruptcy rises…as the partners and investors of LTCM learned all too well. Adding fuel to the LTCM flames were the thousands of derivative contracts, valued at more than $1 trillion. Warren Buffett calls derivatives: “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
- Past is Not Always Prologue for the Future: Just because a strategy works now or in the past, does not mean that same strategy will work in the future. As it relates to LTCM, Nobel Prize winning economist Merton Miller stated, “In a strict sense, there wasn’t any risk – if the world had behaved as it did in the past.” LTCM’s models worked for a while, then failed miserably. There is no Holy Grail investment strategy that works always. If an investment strategy sounds too good to be true, then it probably is too good to be true.
- Winning Strategies Eventually Get Competed Away: The spreads that LTCM looked to exploit became narrower over time. As the fund achieved significant excess returns, competitors copied the strategies. As spreads began to tighten even further, the only way LTCM could maintain their profits was by adding additional leverage (i.e., debt). High-frequency trading (HFT) is a modern example of this phenomenon, in which early players exploited a new technology-driven strategy, until copycats joined the fray to minimize the appeal by squeezing the pool of exploitable profits.
- Academics are Not Practitioners: Theory does not always translate into reality, and academics rarely perform as well as professional practitioners. Merton and Scholes figured this out the hard way. As Merton admitted after winning the Nobel Prize, “It’s a wrong perception to believe that you can eliminate risk just because you can measure it.”
- Size Matters: As new investors poured massive amounts of capital into the fund, the job of generating excess returns for LTCM managers became that much more difficult. I appreciate this lesson firsthand, given my professional experience in managing a $20 billion fund (see also Managing $20 Billion). Managing a massive fund is like maneuvering a supertanker – the larger a fund gets, the more difficult it becomes to react and anticipate market changes.
- Stick to Your Knitting: Because competitors caught onto their strategies, LTCM felt compelled to branch out. Meriwether and LTCM had an edge trading bonds but not in stocks. In the later innings of LTCM’s game, the firm became a big player in stocks. Not only did the firm place huge bets on merger arbitrage, but LTCM dabbled significantly in various long-short pair trades, including a $2.3 billion pair trade bet on Royal Dutch and Shell. Often the firm used derivative securities called equity swaps to make these trades without having to put up any significant capital. As LTCM experimented in the new world of equities, the firm was obviously playing in an area in which it had absolutely no expertise.
As philosopher George Santayana states, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” For those who take investing seriously, When Genius Failed is an important cautionary tale that provides many important lessons about financial markets and highlights the dangers of excessive leverage. You may not be a genius Nobel Prize winner in economics, but learning from Long-Term Capital Management’s failings will place you firmly on the path to becoming an investing genius.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), DIS, JPM, and MCD, but at the time of publishing had no direct position in AXP, NKE, XRX, RD, GS, MS, Shell, 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
Do you love working 40-50+ hour weeks? Do you want to be a Wal-Mart (WMT) greeter after you get laid off from your longstanding corporate job? Do you love relying on underfunded government entitlements that you hope won’t be insolvent 10, 20, or 30 years from now? Are you banking on winning the lottery to fund your retirement? Do you enjoy eating cat food?
If you answered “Yes” to one or all of these questions, then do I have a sure-fire investment program for you that will make your dreams of retiring at age 90 a reality! Just follow these three simple rules:
- Buy Low Yielding, Long-Term Bonds: There are approximately $7 trillion in negative yielding government bonds outstanding (see chart below), which as you may understand means investors are paying to give someone else money – insanity. Bank of America recently completed a study showing about two-thirds of the $26 trillion government bond market was yielding less than 1%. Not only are investors opening themselves up to interest rate risk and credit risk, if they sell before maturity, but they are also susceptible to the evil forces of inflation, which will destroy the paltry yield. If you don’t like this strategy of investing near 0% securities, getting a match and gasoline to burn your money has about the same effect.
Source: Financial Times
- Speculate on the Timing of Future Fed Rate Hikes/Cuts: When the economy is improving, talking heads and so-called pundits try to guess the precise timing of the next rate hike. When the economy is deteriorating, aimless speculation swirls around the timing of interest rate cuts. Unfortunately, the smartest economists, strategists, and media mavens have no consistent predicting abilities. For example, in 1998 Nobel Prize winning economists Robert Merton and Myron Scholes toppled Long Term Capital Management. Similarly, in 1996 Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan noted the presence of “irrational exuberance” in the stock market when the NASDAQ was trading at 1,350. The tech bubble eventually burst, but not before the NASDAQ tripled to over 5,000. More recently, during 2005-2007, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke whiffed on the housing bubble – he repeatedly denied the existence of a housing problem until it was too late. These examples, and many others show that if the smartest financial minds in the room (or planet) miserably fail at predicting the direction of financial markets, then you too should not attempt this speculative feat.
- Trade on Rumors, Headlines & Opinions: Wall Street analysts, proprietary software with squiggly lines, and your hot shot day-trader neighbor (see Thank You Volatility) all promise the Holy Grail of outsized financial returns, but regrettably there is no easy path to consistent, long-term outperformance. The recipe for success requires patience, discipline, and the emotional wherewithal to filter out the endless streams of financial noise. Continually chasing or reacting to opinions, headlines, or guaranteed software trading programs will only earn you taxes, transaction costs, bid-ask spread costs, impact costs, high frequency trading manipulation and underperformance.
Saving for your future is no easy task, but there are plenty of easy ways to destroy your savings. If you want to retire at age 90, just follow my three simple rules.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing had no direct position in WMT 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.
This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complimentary newsletter (July 1, 2015). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.
Watching Greece fall apart over the last five years has been like watching a slow motion train wreck. To many, this small country of 11 million people that borders the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Ionian Seas is known more for its Greek culture (including Zeus, Parthenon, Olympics) and its food (calamari, gyros, and Ouzo) than it is known for financial bailouts. Nevertheless, ever since the financial crisis of 2008-2009, observers have repeatedly predicted the debt-laden country will default on its €323 billion mountain of obligations (see chart below – approximately $350 billion in dollars) and subsequently exit the 19-member eurozone currency membership (a.k.a.,”Grexit”).
Now that Greece has failed to repay less than 1% of its full €240 billion bailout obligation – the €1.5 billion payment due to the IMF (International Monetary Fund) by June 30th – the default train is coming closer to falling off the tracks. Whether Greece will ultimately crash itself out of the eurozone will be dependent on the outcome of this week’s surprise Greek referendum (general vote by citizens) mandated by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greece’s left-wing Syriza party. By voting “No” on further bailout austerity measures recommended by the European Union Commission, including deeper tax increases and pension cuts, the Greek people would effectively be choosing a Grexit over additional painful tax increases and deeper pension cuts.
And who can blame the Greeks for being a little grouchy? You might not be too happy either if you witnessed your country experience an economic decline of greater than 25% (see Greece Gross Domestic Product chart below); 25% overall unemployment (and 50% youth unemployment); government worker cuts of greater than 20%; and stifling taxes to boot. Sure, Greeks should still shoulder much of the blame. After all, they are the ones who piled on $100s of billions of debt and overspent on the pensions of a bloated public workforce, and ran unsustainable fiscal deficits.
For any casual history observers, the current Greek financial crisis should come as no surprise, especially if you consider the Greeks have a longstanding habit of not paying their bills. Over the last two centuries or so, since the country became independent, the Greek government has spent about 90 years in default (almost 50% of the time). More specifically, the Greeks defaulted on external sovereign debt in 1826, 1843, 1860, 1894 and 1932.
The difference between now and past years can be explained by Greece now being a part of the European Union and the euro currency, which means the Greeks actually do have to pay their bills…if they want to remain a part of the common currency. During past defaults, the Greek central bank could easily devalue their currency (the drachma) and fire up the printing presses to create as much currency as needed to pay down debts. If the planned Greek referendum this week results in a “No” vote, there is a much higher probability that the Greek government will need to dust off those drachma printing presses.
Protest, riots, defaults, changing governments, and new currencies make for entertaining television viewing, but these events probably don’t hold much significance as it relates to the long-term outlook of your investments and the financial markets. In the case of Greece, I believe it is safe to say the economic bark is much worse than the bite. For starters, Greece accounts for less than 2% of Europe’s overall economy, and about 0.3% of the global economy.
Since I live out on the West Coast, the chart below caught my fancy because it also places the current Greek situation into proper proportion. Take the city of L.A. (Los Angeles – red bar) for example…this single city alone accounts for almost 3x the size of Greece’s total economy (far right on chart – blue bar).
Give Me My Money!
It hasn’t been a fun year for Greek banks. Depositors, who have been flocking to the banks, withdrew about $45 billion in cash from their accounts, over an eight month period (see chart below). Before the Greek government decided to mandatorily close the banks in recent days and implement capital controls limiting depositors to daily ATM withdrawals of only $66.
But once again, let’s put the situation into context. From an overall Greek banking sector perspective, the four largest Greek Banks (Bank of Greece, Piraeus Bank, Eurobank Ergasias, Alpha Bank) account for about 90% of all Greek banking assets. Combined, these banks currently have an equity market value of about $14 billion and assets on the balance sheets of $400 billion – these numbers are obviously in flux. For comparison purposes, Bank of America Corp. (BAC) alone has an equity market value of $179 billion and $2.1 trillion in assets.
Anxiety Remains High
Skeptical bears will occasionally acknowledge the miniscule-ness of Greece, but then quickly follow up with their conspiracy theory or domino effect hypothesis. In other words, the skeptics believe a contagion effect of an impending Grexit will ripple through larger economies, such as Italy and Spain, with crippling force. Thus far, as you can see from the chart below, Greece’s financial problems have been largely contained within its borders. In fact, weaker economies such as Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Italy have fared much better – and actually improving in most cases. In recent days, 10-year yields on government bonds in countries like Portugal, Italy, and Spain have hovered around or below 3% – nowhere near the peak levels seen during 2008 – 2011.
Other doubting Thomases compare Greece to situations like Lehman Brothers, Long Term Capital Management, and the subprime housing market, in which underestimated situations snowballed into much worse outcomes. As I explain in one of my newer articles (see Missing the Forest for the Trees), the difference between Greece and the other financial collapses is the duration of this situation. The Greek circumstance has been a 5-year long train wreck that has allowed everyone to prepare for a possible Grexit. Rather than agonize over every news headline, if you are committed to the practice of worrying, I would recommend you focus on an alternative disaster that cannot be found on the front page of all newspapers.
There is bound to be more volatility ahead for investors, and the referendum vote later this week could provide that volatility spark. Regardless of the news story du jour, any of your concerns should be occupied by other more important worrisome issues. So, unless you are an investor in a Greek bank or a gyro restaurant in Athens, you should focus your efforts on long-term financial goals and objectives. Ignoring the noisy news flow and constructing a diversified investment portfolio across a range of asset classes will allow you to avoid the harmful consequences of the slow motion, multi-year Greek train wreck.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs) and BAC, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in Bank of Greece, Piraeus Bank, Eurobank Ergasias, Alpha Bank 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 ICContact page.
Central banks around the globe are choking on low-yielding bonds, and as result are now expanding their investment menu beyond Treasuries into equities. Expansionary monetary policies purchasing short-term, low-rate bonds means that central banks have been gobbling up securities on their balance sheets that are earning next to nothing. To counteract the bond-induced indigestion of the central banks, many of them are considering increasing their equity purchasing strategies. How can you blame them? With the 10-year U.S. Treasury notes yielding 1.66%; 10-year German bonds eking out 1.21%; and 10-year Japanese Government Bonds (JGBs) paying a paltry 0.59%, it’s no wonder central banks are looking for better alternatives.
More specifically, the Bank of Japan (BOJ) is planning to pump $1.4 trillion into its economy over the next two years to encourage some inflation through open-ended asset purchases. Earlier this month, the BOJ said it has a goal of more than doubling equity related exchange traded funds (ETFs) by the end of 2014. According to Business Insider, the BOJ is currently holding $14.1 billion in equity ETFs with an objective to reach $35.3 billion in 2014.
I can only imagine how stock market bears feel about this developing trend when they have already blamed central banks’ quantitative easing initiatives as the artificial support mechanism for stock prices (see also The Central Bank Dog Ate my Homework).
While expanded equity purchases could break the backs of bond bulls and stock naysayers, some smart people agree that this strategy makes sense. Take Jim O’Neill, the chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, who is retiring next week. Here’s what he has to say about expanded central bank stock purchases:
“Frankly, it makes a huge amount of sense in a world of floating exchange rates and such incredible opportunity, why should central banks keep so much money in very short term, liquid things when they’re not going to ever need it? To help their future returns for their citizens, why would they not invest in equity?”
How big is this shift towards equities? The Royal Bank of Scotland conducted a survey of 60 central banks that have about $6.7 trillion in reserves. There were 13% of the central banks already invested in equities, and almost 25% of them said they are or will be invested in equities within the next five years.
While I may agree that stocks generally are a more attractive asset class than bubblicious bonds right now, I may draw the line once the Fed starts buying houses, gasoline, and groceries for all Americans. Until then, dividend yields remain higher than Treasury yields, and the earnings yields (earnings/price) on stocks will remain more attractive than bond yields. Once stocks gain more in price and/or bonds sell off significantly, it will be a more appropriate time to reassess the investment opportunity set. A further stock rise or bond selloff are both possible scenarios, but until then, central banks will continue to look to place its money where it is treated best.
The central bank menu has been largely limited to low-yielding, overpriced government bonds, but the appetite for new menu items has heightened. Stocks may be an enticing new option for central banks, but let’s hope they delay buying houses, gasoline, and groceries.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), 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.
In the world of modern finance, there has always been the search for the Holy Grail. Ever since the advent of computers, practitioners have looked to harness the power of computing and direct it towards the goal of producing endless profits. Regrettably, nobody has found the silver bullet, but that hasn’t slowed down people from trying. Wall Street has an innate desire to try to turn the ultra-complex field of finance into a science, just as they do in the field of physics. Even JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and its CEO Jamie Dimon are already on their way to suffering more than $2 billion in losses in the quest for infinite income, due in large part to their over-reliance on pseudo-science trading models.
James Montier of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo’s asset allocation team was recently a keynote speaker at the CFA Institute Annual Conference in Chicago. His prescient talk, which preceded JP Morgan’s recent speculative trading loss announcement, explained why bad models were the root cause of the financial crisis. Essentially these computer algorithms under-appreciate the number and severity of Black Swans (low probability negative outcomes) and the models’ inability to accurately identify predictable surprises.
What are predictable surprises? Here’s what Montier had to say on the topic:
“Predictable surprises are really about situations where some people are aware of the problem. The problem gets worse over time and eventually explodes into crisis.”
Just a month ago, when Dimon was made aware of the rogue trading activities, the CEO strenuously denied the problem before reversing course and admitting the dilemma last week. Unfortunately, many of these Wall Street firms and financial institutions use value-at-risk (VaR) models that are falsely based on the belief that past results will repeat themselves, and financial market returns are normally distributed. Those suppositions are not always true.
Another perfect example of a Black Swan created by a bad financial model is Long Term Capital Management (LTCM). Robert Merton and Myron Scholes were world renowned Nobel Prize winners who single handedly brought the global financial market to its knees in 1998 when LTCM lost $500 million in one day and required a $3.6 billion bailout from a consortium of banks. Their mathematical models worked for a while but did not fully account for trading environments with low liquidity (i.e., traders fleeing in panic) and outcomes that defied the historical correlations embedded in their computer algorithms. The “Flash Crash” of 2010, in which liquidity evaporated due to high frequency traders temporarily jumping ship, is another illustration of computers wreaking havoc on the financial markets.
The problem with many of these models, even for the ones that work in the short-run, is that behavior and correlations are constantly changing. Therefore any strategy successfully reaping outsized profits in the near-term will eventually be discovered by other financial vultures and exploited away.
Another pundit with a firm hold on Wall Street financial models is David Leinweber, author of Nerds on Wall Street. As Leinweber points out, financial models become meaningless if the data is sliced and diced to form manipulated and nonsensical relationships. The data coming out can only be as good as the data going in – “garbage in, garbage out.”
In searching for the most absurd data possible to explain the returns of the S&P 500 index, Leinweiber discovered that butter production in Bangladesh was an excellent predictor of stock market returns, explaining 75% of the variation of historical returns. By tossing in U.S. cheese production and the total population of sheep in Bangladesh, Leinweber was able to mathematically “predict” past U.S. stock returns with 99% accuracy. To read more about other financial modeling absurdities, check out a previous Investing Caffeine article, Butter in Bangladesh.
Generally, investors want precision through math, but as famed investor Benjamin Graham noted more than 50 years ago, “Mathematics is ordinarily considered as producing precise, dependable results. But in the stock market, the more elaborate and obtuse the mathematics, the more uncertain and speculative the conclusions we draw therefrom. Whenever calculus is brought in, or higher algebra, you can take it as a warning signal that the operator is trying to substitute theory for experience.”
If these models are so bad, then why do so many people use them? Montier points to “intentional blindness,” the tendency to see what one expects to see, and “distorted incentives” (i.e., compensation structures rewarding improper or risky behavior).
Montier’s solution to dealing with these models is not to completely eradicate them, but rather recognize the numerous shortcomings of them and instead focus on the robustness of these models. Or in other words, be skeptical, know the limits of the models, and build portfolios to survive multiple different environments.
Investors seem to be discovering more financial Black Swans over the last few years in the form of events like the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, Flash Crash, and Greek sovereign debt default. Rather than putting too much faith or dependence on bad financial models to identify or exploit Black Swan events, the over-reliance on these models may turn this rare breed of swans into a large bevy.
See Full Article on Montier: Failures of Modern Finance
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 JPM, Lehman Brothers, 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.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Greg Smith, former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) employee and ping pong medalist at the Jewish Olympics, came out with an earth-shattering revelation… he discovered and revealed that Goldman Sachs was not looking out for the best interests of its clients. I was floored to discover that a Wall Street bank valued at $60 billion would value profits more than clients’ needs.
Hmmm, I wonder what new eye-opening breakthrough he will unveil next? Perhaps Smith will get a job at Las Vegas Sands Corp. (LVS) for 12 years and then enlighten the public that casinos are in the business of making money at the expense of their customers. I can’t wait to learn about that breaking news.
But really, with all sarcasm aside, any objective observer understands that Goldman Sachs and any other Wall Street firm are simply middlemen operating at the center of capitalism – matching buyers and sellers (lenders and borrowers) and providing advice on both sides of a transaction. As a supposed trusted intermediary, these financial institutions often hold privileged information that can be used to the firms’ (not clients) benefit.
Most industry veterans like me understand how rife with conflicts the industry operates under, but very few insiders publicly speak out about these “dirty little secrets.” Readers of Investing Caffeine know I am not bashful about speaking my mind. In fact, I have tackled this subject in numerous articles, including Wall Street Meets Greed Street written a few months ago. Here’s an excerpt**:
“Wall Street and large financial institutions, however, are driven by one single mode…and that is greed. This is nothing new and has been going on for generations. Over the last few decades, cheap money, loose regulation, and a relatively healthy economy have given Wall Street and financial institutions free rein to take advantage of the system.”
As with any investment, clients and investors should understand the risks and inherent conflicts of interest associated with a financial relationship before engaging into business. While certain disclosures are sorely lacking, it behooves investors and clients to ask tough questions of bankers and advisors – questions apparently Mr. Smith did not ask his employer over his 12 year professional career at Goldman Sachs.
Reputational Risk Playing Larger Role
Even though Goldman called some clients “muppets,” Smith states there was no illegal activity going on. Regardless of whether the banks have gotten caught conducting explicit law-breaking behavior, the public and politicians love scapegoats, and what better target than the “fat-cat” bankers. With a financial crisis behind us, along with a multi-decade banking bull market of declining interest rates, the culture, profitability-model, and regulations in the financial industry are all in the midst of massive changes. As client awareness and frustration continue to rise, reputational risk will slowly become a larger concern for Wall Street banks.
Could the Goldman glow as the leading Wall Street investment bank finally be getting tarnished? Well, besides their earnings collapsing by about 2/3rds in 2011, the selection of Morgan Stanley (MS) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM) ahead of Goldman Sachs as the lead underwriters in the Facebook (FB) initial public offering (IPO) could be a sign that reputational risk is playing a larger role in investment banking market share shifts.
The public and corporate America may be slow in recognizing the shady behavior practiced on Wall Street, but eventually, the excesses become noticed. Congress eventually implements new regulations (Dodd-Frank) and customers vote with their dollars by moving to banks and institutions they trust more.
I commend Mr. Smith for speaking out about the corrupt conflicts of interest and lack of fiduciary duty at Goldman Sachs, but let’s call a spade a spade and not mischaracterize a situation as suddenly shifting when the practices have been going on forever. Either he is naïve or dishonest (I hope the former rather than the latter), but regardless, finding a new job on Wall Street may be challenging for him. Fortunately for Mr. Smith, he has something to fall back on…the professional ping-pong circuit.
***Other Relevant Articles and Video:
- Goldman Gambling Prosperity at Client Expense
- Goldman Cheat? Really?
- Stephen Colbert: Breaking the Sacred Trust
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 FB, GS, MS, JPM, LVS, 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.
ECB (European Central Bank) President Mario Draghi made it clear with his most recent monetary banking announcements that he is perfectly willing to shovel the sovereign debt trash around the financial system, but he just doesn’t want the ECB to gobble up heaps of the smelly debt.
On the same day that Draghi lowered the key benchmark interest rate by -0.25% to 1.00%, he also reduced the lending credit rating threshold for acceptable banking collateral to “single-A” and offered banks endless three-year loans with . But wait…there’s more! In typical infomercial fashion, Draghi had an additional stimulative gift offering – he halved the reserve requirement ratios for European banks.
Although Draghi is handing out lots of hugs and kisses to the banks, including infinite amounts of three-year loans, he is also providing very little direct love to European debt-laden governments. In other words, Draghi isn’t ready to pull out the printing press bazooka to sop up mounds of trashy sovereign debt (i.e., Greece, Italy, and Spain). Draghi may be willing to make the ECB the lender of last resort for the banks, but he is not signaling the same lender of last resort commitment for careless governments.
Despite Draghi’s public aversion to bond buying (a.k.a. QE or quantitative easing), he indirectly is funding quantitative easing anyway. Rather than having the ECB accelerate the direct purchase of besieged sovereign debt, he indirectly is giving money to the banks to purchase the same struggling bonds. Sneaky, but clever…I like it.
Eat Your Brussels Sprouts!
Draghi in his new role as ECB President is clearly trying to be a responsible parent to the Euro leaders, but as a result, he could be placing himself in trouble with the law. I haven’t contacted my attorneys yet, however Mario Draghi is blatantly infringing on my patented “Brussels sprouts mandate” that I regularly use at the dinner table with my children. On any given night, by 6:30 p.m. my kids are practically frothing at the mouth for some unhealthy dessert delight. The problem with the situation is unfinished Brussels sprouts sitting on their plates, so with respected authority I command, “If you want dessert tonight, you better eat your Brussels sprouts!” Normally this is not a bad strategy because my plea usually results in an extra consumed sprout or two. Ultimately, given the softy that I am, all parties involved know that dessert will be served regardless of the number of sprouts consumed.
Draghi, in dealing with the irresponsible fiscal actions of the sovereigns, is using the same precise “sprout mandate.” In a recent press conference, here’s how Draghi delivered his tough talk:
“All euro-area governments urgently need to do their utmost” for fiscal sustainability. “Policy makers need to correct excessive deficits and move to balanced budgets in the coming years. This will strengthen overall economic sentiment. To accompany fiscal consolidation, the governing council has called for bold and ambitious structural reforms.”
Just as it makes sense for me not to say, “Hey kids, don’t worry about eating your vegetables, save room for the ice cream sundae buffet,” it probably doesn’t make sense for Draghi to inform European leaders, “Hey kids, don’t worry about those massive debts and deficits, the ECB will give you plenty of money to buy up all that trashy sovereign debt of yours.”
Hypocritical Or Shrewd?
I applaud Signore Draghi for implementing his bold actions as lender of last resort for European Banks, but isn’t it a tad bit hypocritical? The ECB President talks seriously about Basel III capital requirements, yet he is easing rules on collateral and reserves. Why is it OK for the ECB to condone reckless behavior and introduce moral hazards for the banks (i.e., limitless ECB backstop), but not for irresponsible governments too? If I am a European bank with continuous access to ECB loans, why not roll the dice and risk shareholder capital in hopes of a big risky payoff? I’m sure Jon Corzine at MF Global (MFGLQ.PK) would appreciate similar financial backing. What’s more, how credible can Draghi be about his tough fiscal love and anti-quantitative easing stances when he is currently offering never-ending amounts of money to the banks and already buying collapsing sovereign bonds as we speak?
No matter the view you hold, the ECB is openly demonstrating it will not sit idle watching the banking system collapse under its own watch, much like the Federal Reserve and Ben Bernanke did not sit idle in 2008-2009. Perhaps Draghi isn’t being hypocritical, but is rather being shrewd? Although Draghi wants governments to eat their fiscal Brussels sprouts, let’s not kid ourselves. Just as Draghi is willing to pass the trash and appease the banking system, if the eurozone sovereign debt crisis continues worsening, don’t be surprised to see Draghi roll out his ice cream sundae buffet of aggressive bond buying. That will taste much better than Brussels sprouts.
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 MF Global (MFGLQ.PK), 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.