Posts tagged ‘debt’

U.S. – Best House in Bad Global Neighborhood

Article below represents a portion of free December 1, 2011 Sidoxia monthly newsletter (Subscribe on right-side of page)

There is no shortage of issues to worry about in our troubled global neighborhood, but then again, anybody older than 25 years old knows the world is always an uncertain place. Whether we are talking about wars (Vietnam, Cold War, Iraq); presidential calamities (Kennedy assassination, Nixon resignation/impeachment proceedings); international turmoil (dissolution of Soviet Union, 9/11 attacks, Arab Spring); investment bubbles (technology, real estate); or financial crises (S&L crisis, Long Term Capital, Lehman Brothers bankruptcy), investors always have a large menu of concerns from which they can order.

Despite the doom and gloom dominating the media airwaves, and the lackluster performance of equities experienced over the last decade, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 index are both up more than 20-fold since the 1970s (those gains also exclude the positive impact of dividends).

Times Have Changed

Just a few decades ago, nobody would have talked or cared about small economies like Iceland, Dubai, and Greece. Today, technology has accelerated the forces of globalization, resulting in information travelling thousands of miles at the click of a mouse, often creating scary financial mountains out of meaningless molehills. As a result of these trends, news of Italian bond auctions, which normally would be glossed over on the evening news, instantaneously clogs our smart phones, computers, radios, and televisions. The implications of all these developments mean investing has become much more difficult, just as its importance has never been more crucial. 

How has investing become more critical? For starters, interest rates are near 60-year lows and Treasury bond prices are at record highs, while inflation (food, energy, healthcare, leisure, etc.) is shrinking the value of people’s savings. Next, entitlement and pension reliability are decreasing by the minute – fiscal imbalances and unrealistic promises have contributed to a less certain retirement outlook. Layer on hyper-manic volatility of daily, multi-hundred point swings in the Dow Jones Industrial index and a less experienced investor quickly realizes investing can become an overwhelming game. Case in point is the VIX volatility index (a.k.a., the “Fear Gauge”), which has registered a whopping +57% increase in 2011.

December to Remember?

After an explosive +23% return in the S&P 500 index for 2009 (excluding dividends) and another +13% return in 2010, equity investors have taken a breather thus far in 2011 – the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up modestly (+4%) and the S&P 500 index is down fractionally (-1%). We still have the month of December to log, but in the short-run the European tail has definitely been wagging the rest of the global dog.

Although the United States knows a thing or two about lack of political leadership and coordination, herding the 17 eurozone countries to resolve the European debt financial crisis has proved even more challenging.  As you can see below in the performance figures of the major global equity markets, the U.S. remains the best house in a bad neighborhood:

Our fiscal house undeniably needs some work (i.e., unsustainable deficits and bloated debt), but record corporate profits, record levels of cash, voracious consumer spending, improving employment data, and attractive valuations are all contributing to a domestic house that makes opportunities in our backyard look a lot more appealing to investors than prospects elsewhere in the global neighborhood.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and VGK, 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.

December 3, 2011 at 9:39 am 1 comment

Plumbers & Cops: Can the Debt Ceiling be Fixed?

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

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

The Elephant in the Room

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

Source: scottgrannis.blogspot.com

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

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

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

Source: Bloomberg.com via Wikipedia.com

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

The Cops to the Rescue

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

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

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

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

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

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

July 30, 2011 at 2:41 pm 3 comments

End of the World Put on Ice

Our 3.5 billion year old planet has received a temporary reprieve, at least until the next Mayan Armageddon destroys the world in 2012. Sex, money, and doom sell and Arnold, Oprah, and the Rapture have not disappointed in generating their fair share of advertising revenue clicks.

With 2 billion people connected to the internet and 5 billion people attached to a cell phone, every sneeze, burp, and fart around the world makes daily headline news. The globalization cat is out of the bag, and this phenomenon will only accelerate in the years to come. In 1861 the Pony Express took ten days to deliver a message from New York to San Francisco, and today it takes a few seconds to deliver a message across the world over Twitter or Facebook.

The equity markets have more than doubled from the March 2009 lows and even previous, ardent bulls have turned cautious. Case in point, James Grant from the Interest Rate Observer who was “bullish on the prospects for unscripted strength in business activity” (see Metamorphosis of Bear into Bull) now sees the market as “rich” and asserts “nothing is actually cheap.” Grant rubs salt into the wounds by predicting inflation to spike to 10% (read more).

Layer on multiple wars, Middle East/North African turmoil, gasoline prices, high unemployment, mudslinging presidential election, uninspiring economic growth, and you have a large pessimistic poop pie to sink your teeth into. Bearish sentiment, as calculated by the AAII Sentiment Survey, is at a nine-month high and currently bears outweigh bulls by more than 50%.

The Fear Factor

I think Cullen Roche at Pragmatic Capitalism beautifully encapsulates the comforting blanket of fear that is permeating among the masses through his piece titled, “In Remembrance of Fear”:

“The bottom line is, stay scared.  Do not let yourself feel confident, happy or wealthy.  You are scared, poor and miserable.  You should stay that way.  You owe it to yourself.  The media says so.  And more importantly, there are old rich white men who need to sell books and if you’re not scared by them you’ll never buy their books.  So, do yourself a favor.  Buy their books and services and stay scared.  You deserve it.”

Here is Cullen’s prescription for dealing with all the doom and gloom:

“Associate with people who are more scared than you.  That way, you can all sit in bunkers and talk about the end of days and how screwed we all are.  Think about how much better that will make you feel.  Misery loves company.  Do it.”

All is Not Lost

While inflation and gasoline price concerns weigh significantly on economic growth expectations, some companies are taking advantage of record low interest rates. Take for example, Google Inc.’s (GOOG) recent $3 billion bond offerings split evenly across three-year, five-year, and ten-year notes with an average interest rate of 2.3%. Although Google has languished relative to the market over the last year, the market blessed the internet giant with the next best thing to free money by pricing the deal like a AAA-rated credit. Cash-heavy companies have been able to issue low cost debt at a frantic pace for accretive EPS shareholder-friendly activities, such as acquisitions, share buybacks, and organic growth initiatives. Cash rich balance sheets have afforded companies the ability to offer shareholders a steady diet of dividend increases too.

While there is no question high oil prices have put a wet towel over consumer spending, the largest component of corporate check books is labor costs, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of corporate spending. With unemployment rate at 9.0%, this is one area with no inflation pressure as far as the eye can see.  Money losing companies that go bankrupt lay-off employees, while profitable companies with stable input costs (labor) will hire more – and that’s exactly what we’re seeing today. Despite all the economic slowing and collapse anxiety, S&P 500 operating earnings, as of last week, are estimated to rise +17% in 2011. Healthy corporations coupled with a growing, deleveraged workforce will have to carry the burden of growth, as deficit and debt direction will ultimately act as a drag on economic growth in the immediate and intermediate future.

Fear and pessimism sell news, and technology is only accelerating the proliferation of this trend. The good news is that you have another 18 months until the next apocalypse on December 21, 2012 is expected to destroy the human race. Rather than attempting to time the market, I urge you to follow the advice of famed investor Peter Lynch who says, “Assume the market is going nowhere and invest accordingly.” For all the others addicted to “pessimism porn,” I’ll let you get back to constructing your bunker.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

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

May 22, 2011 at 11:55 pm Leave a comment

Bin Laden Killing Overshadows Royal Rally

Excerpt from No-Cost May Sidoxia Monthly Newsletter (Subscribe on right-side of page)

Before the announcement of the killing of the most wanted terrorist in the world, Osama bin Laden, the royal wedding of Prince William Arthur Philip Louis and Catherine Middleton (Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) grabbed the hearts, headlines, and minds of people around the world. As we exited the month, a less conspicuous royal rally in the U.S. stock market has continued into May, with the S&P 500 index climbing +2.8% last month as the economic recovery gained firmer footing from the recession of 2008 and early 2009. As always, there is no shortage of issues to worry about as traders and speculators (investors not included) have an itchy sell-trigger finger, anxiously fretting over the possibility of losing gains accumulated over the last two years.

Here are some of the attention-grabbing issues that occurred last month:

Powerful Profits: According to Thomson Reuters, first quarter profit growth as measured by S&P 500 companies is estimated at a very handsome +18% thus far. At this point, approximately 84% of companies are exceeding or meeting expectations by a margin of 7%, which is above the long-term average of a 2% surprise factor.

Debt Anchor Front & Center: Budget battles remain over record deficits and debt levels anchoring our economy, but clashes over the extension of our debt ceiling will occur first in the coming weeks. Skepticism and concern were so high on this issue of our fiscal situation that the Standard & Poor’s rating agency reduced its outlook on the sovereign debt rating of U.S. Treasury securities to “negative,” meaning there is a one-in-three chance our country’s debt rating could be reduced in the next two years.  Democrats and Republicans have put forth various plans on the negotiating table that would cut the national debt by $4 – $6 trillion over the next 10-12 years, but a chasm still remains between both sides with regard to how these cuts will be best achieved.

Inflation Heating Up: The global economic recovery, fueled by loose global central bank monetary policies, has resulted in fanning of the inflation flames. Crude oil prices have jumped to $113 per barrel and gasoline has spiked to over $4 per gallon. Commodity prices have jumped up across the board, as measured by the CRB (Commodity Research Bureau) BLS Index, which measures the price movements of a basket of 22 different commodities. The CRB Index has risen over +28% from a year ago. Although the topic of inflation is dominating the airwaves, this problem is not only a domestic phenomenon. Inflation in emerging markets, like China and Brazil, has also expanded into a dangerous range of 6-7%, and many of these governments are doing their best to slow-down or reverse loose monetary policies from a few years ago.

Expansion Continues but Slows: Economic expansion continued in the first quarter, but slowed to a snail’s pace. The initial GDP (Gross Domestic Product) reading for Q1 slowed down to +1.8% growth. Brakes on government stimulus and spending subtracted from growth, and high fuel costs are pinching consumer spending.  

Ben Holds the Course: One person who is not overly eager to reverse loose monetary policies is Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke. The Chairman vowed to keep interest rates low for an “extended period,” and he committed the Federal Reserve to complete his $600 billion QE2 (Quantitative Easing) bond buying program through the end of June. If that wasn’t enough news, Bernanke held a historic, first-ever news conference. He fielded a broad range of questions and felt the first quarter GDP slowdown and inflation uptick would be transitory.

Skyrocketing Silver Prices: Silver surged ahead +28% in April, the largest monthly gain since April 1987, and reached a 30-year high in price before closing at around $49 per ounce at the end of the month. Speculators and investors have been piling into silver as evidenced by activity in the SLV (iShares Silver Trust) exchange traded fund, which on occasion has seen its daily April volume exceed that of the SPY (iShares SPDR S&P 500) exchange traded fund.

Obama-Trump Birth Certificate Faceoff: Real estate magnate and TV personality Donald Trump broached the birther issue again, questioning whether President Barack Obama was indeed born in the United States. President Obama produced his full Hawaiian birth certificate in hopes of putting the question behind him. If somehow Trump can be selected as the Republican presidential candidate for 2012, he will certainly try to get President Obama “fired!”

Charlie Sheen…Losing!  The Charlie Sheen soap opera continues. Ever since Sheen has gotten kicked off the show Two and a Half Men, speculation has percolated as to whether someone would replace Sheen to act next to co-star John Cryer. Names traveling through the gossip circles include everyone from Woody Harrelson to Jeremy Piven to Rob Lowe. Time will tell whether the audience will laugh or cry, but regardless, Sheen will be laughing to the bank if he wins his $100 million lawsuit against Warner Brothers (TWX).

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain commodity and S&P 500 exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in SLV, SPY, TWX, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 2, 2011 at 10:42 am Leave a comment

Inflation and the Debt Default Paradox

With the federal government anchored down with over $14 trillion in debt and trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, somehow people are shocked that Standard & Poor’s downgraded its outlook on U.S. government debt to “Negative” from “Stable.” This is about as surprising as learning that Fat Albert is overweight or that Charlie Sheen has a substance abuse problem.

Let’s use an example. Suppose I received a pay demotion and then I went on an irresponsible around-the-world spending rampage while racking up over $1,000,000.00 in credit card debt. Should I be surprised if my 850 FICO score would be reviewed for a possible downgrade, or if credit card lenders became slightly concerned about the possibility of collecting my debt? I guess I wouldn’t be flabbergasted by their anxiety.

Debt Default Paradox?

With the recent S&P rating adjustment, pundits over the airwaves (see CNBC video) make the case that the U.S. cannot default on its debt, because the U.S. is a sovereign nation that can indefinitely issue bonds in its own currency (i.e., print money likes it’s going out of style). There is some basis to this argument if you consider the last major developed country to default was the U.S. government in 1933 when it went off the gold standard.

On the other hand, non-sovereign nations issuing foreign currencies do not have the luxury of whipping out the printing presses to save the day. The Latin America debt defaults in the 1980s and Asian Financial crisis in the late 1990s are examples of foreign countries over-extending themselves with U.S. dollar-denominated debt, which subsequently led to collapsing currencies. The irresponsible fiscal policies eventually destroyed the debtors’ ability to issue bonds and ultimately repay their obligations (i.e., default).

Regardless of a country’s strength of currency or central bank, if reckless fiscal policies are instituted, governments will eventually be left to pick their own poison…default or hyperinflation. One can think of these options as a favorite dental procedure – a root canal or wisdom teeth pulled. Whether debtors get paid 50 cents on the dollar in the event of a default, or debtors receive 100 cents in hyper-inflated dollars (worth 50% less), the resulting pain feels the same – purchasing power has been dramatically reduced in either case (default or hyperinflation).

Of course, Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve Bank would like investors to believe a Goldilocks scenario is possible, which is the creation of enough liquidity to stimulate the economy while maintaining low interest rates and low inflation. At the end of the day, the inflation picture boils down to simple supply and demand for money. Fervent critics of the Fed and Bernanke would have you believe the money supply is exploding, and hyperinflation is just around the corner. It’s difficult to quarrel with the printing press arguments, given the size and scale of QE1 & QE2 (Quantitative Easing), but the fact of the matter is that money supply growth has not exploded because all the liquidity created and supplied into the banking system has been sitting idle in bank vaults – financial institutions simply are not lending. Eventually this phenomenon will change as the economy continues to recover; banks adequately build their capital ratios; the housing market sustainably recovers; and confidence regarding borrower creditworthiness improves.

Scott Grannis at the California Beach Pundit makes the point that money supply as measured by M2 has shown a steady 6% increase since 1995, with no serious side-effects from QE1/QE2 yet:

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit

In fact, Grannis states that money supply growth (+6%) has actually grown less than nominal GDP over the period (+6.7%). Money supply growth relative to GDP growth (money demand) in the end is what really matters. Take for instance an economy producing 10 widgets for $10 dollars, would have a CPI (Consumer Price Index) of $1 per widget and a money supply of $10. If the widget GDP increased by 10% to 11 widgets (10 widgets X 1.1) and the Federal Reserve increased money supply by 10% to $11, then the CPI index would remain constant at $1 per widget ($11/11 widgets). This is obviously grossly oversimplified, but it makes my point.

Gold Bugs Banking on Inflation or Collapse

Gold prices have been on a tear over the last 10 years and current fiscal and monetary policies have “gold bugs” frothing at the mouth. These irresponsible policies will no doubt have an impact on gold demand and gold prices, but many gold investors fail to acknowledge a gold supply response. Take for example Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (FCX), which just reported stellar quarterly sales and earnings growth today (up 31% and 57%, respectively). FCX more than doubled their capital expenditures to more than $500 million in the quarter, and they are planning to double their exploration spending in fiscal 2011. Is Freeport alone in their supply expansion plans? No, and like any commodity with exploding prices, eventually higher prices get greedy capitalists to create enough supply to put a lid on price appreciation. For prior bubbles you can reference the recent housing collapse or older burstings such as the Tulip Mania of the 1600s. One of the richest billionaires on the planet, Warren Buffett, also has a few thoughts on the prospects of gold.

The recent Standard & Poor’s outlook downgrade on U.S. government debt has caught a lot of press headlines. Fears about a technical default may be overblown, but if fiscal constraint cannot be agreed upon in Congress, the alternative path to hyperinflation will feel just as painful.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

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 FCX, 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.

April 20, 2011 at 5:01 pm Leave a comment

Will the Fiscal Donkey Fly?

Source: TopPayingIdeas.com/blog

Will Barack Obama become a “one-termer” like somewhat recent Presidents,  Democrat Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) and Republican George H.W. Bush #41 (1989-1993)? Or will Obama get the Democratic donkey off the ground like Bill Clinton managed to do after the 1994 mid-term election when Republican Newt Gingrich spearheaded the Contract with America, which led to a similar Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Clinton’s approval ratings were in the dumps at the time, comparable to voter’s current lackluster opinion of Obama and his spending spree (see also Profitless Healthcare).

Source: Gallup

 Reagan Rebound

Similarly, Republican Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) was picking up the pieces with his lousy approval rating after the 1982 midterm election. Tax cuts, “trickle-down” supply side economics, and a tough stance on the Russian Cold War turned around the economy and his approval rating and catapulted him to reelection in a landslide victory. Reagan carried 49 states with the help of Reagan Democrats (one-quarter of registered Democrats voted for him).

Source: The Wall Street Journal

One should be clear though, popularity is not the only factor that plays into reelection success. George H. W. Bush had the highest average approval rating in five decades (60.9% approval), only superseded by John F. Kennedy (70.1% approval). The economy, international politics, and other external factors also play a large role in the reelection process.

Flying Donkey Time?

If President Obama wants to get the Democratic donkey off the ground and raise his current approval rating of 47% and remedy his self-admitted “shellacking” by the Republicans, then he will need to shift his hard-left political agenda more towards the middle, like Clinton did in 1994. If he leads on ideology alone, then the next two years will likely be a long tough slog for him and his Democratic colleagues.

In order to shift toward the center and gain more Independent voters, Obama will need to find common ground with Republicans and Tea-Partiers. Obama has already conceded in principle to extend the Bush tax cuts, but if he wants to gain more political capital, he will have to gain some ground in the area of fiscal responsibility. With the help of a strong economy, Clinton managed to run surpluses, but front and center today is a $1.3 trillion deficit and over $13 trillion in debt. The first step in building any credibility on the issue will come on December 1st when the president’s bi-partisan commission for deficit reduction will release its report.

It will be interesting which party will show leadership in making unpopular spending cuts, just as the 2012 re-election cycle just begins. The elephants in the room are the entitlements (Medicare and Social Security), and although less talked about, efficient cuts to defense spending should be put on the table. Sure, pork barrel spending, inefficient subsidies, tax loopholes, are gaps that need to be filled, but they alone are rounding errors given our country’s unsustainable current circumstances. Whether or not politicians (red or blue) will point out the unpopular elephants in the room will be interesting to watch.

Financial irresponsibility at the consumer and corporate level were major drivers behind the 2008-2009 financial crisis, and both individuals and businesses are responsibly adjusting their expense structures and balance sheets. Our government has to wake up to reality and adjust its expense structure and balance sheet too. Although foreign countries have reacted (i.e., European austerity), egotistical American politicians on both sides of the aisle haven’t quite woken up and smelled the coffee yet. Thank goodness for the democracy that we live in because citizens are pointing to the elephants in the room and demanding reckless spending and debt levels to come under control. If President Barack Obama doesn’t want to become another one-termer, he’ll have to move more to the center and get the finances of our country under control. If the stubborn donkey refuses to deal with reality and remains flightless, hopefully an elephant or ship-full of tea partiers can get this grass roots call for fiscal sanity off the ground.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com

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 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.

November 8, 2010 at 12:31 am Leave a comment

The Next Looming Bailout…Muni Bonds

Source: Photobucket

Government politicians and voters have made it clear they do not want to bail out “fat-cat” bankers in the private sector, but what about bailing out “fat-cat” state pensioners in the public sector? States and cities across the country are increasingly under economic strain with deficits widening and debt-loads stacking up. California’s statewide budget problems have been well publicized, but you are now also hearing about more scandalous financial problems at the city level (read about the multi-million dollar malfeasance in the city of Bell).

Why Worry?

Well if a 2010 $1.3 trillion federal deficit is not enough to tickle your fancy, then how does another $137 billion in state deficits over fiscal 2011 and 2012 sound to you (National Governors Association)? Unfortunately, the states have made no meaningful structural improvements. If you layer on general economic “double dip” recession fears with excess pension liabilities, then you have a recipe for a major unresolved financial predicament.

Despite the dire financial state of the states, municipal bond prices have generally survived the 2008-2009 financial crisis unscathed. With unacceptably poor state budget risks, muni bond prices have continued to rise in 2010. The downside…new investors must accept a pitiful yield of 2.75% on 10-year municipal debt, according to Financial Advisor Magazine.

One investor who is not buying into the strength of the tax-free municipal bond market is famed investor and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA/BRKB), Warren Buffett. Here is what he wrote about munis in his legendary annual shareholder letter last year:

“Insuring tax-exempts, therefore, has the look today of a dangerous business…Local governments are going to face far tougher fiscal problems in the future than they have to date.”

 

Buffett has this to say about rating muni bonds:

“I mean, if the federal government will step in to help them [municipalities], they’re triple-A. If the federal government won’t step in to help them, who knows what they are?”

 

Safety Net Disappears

Source: Photobucket

Like a high wire artist dangling high in the air without a safety net below, the states are currently borrowing money with little to no protection from the bond insurance providers. The shakeout of the subprime debt defaults has battered the insurers from many perspectives, leaving a much smaller market in the wake of the financial crisis. In 2007 about 50% of new municipal bonds were issued with bond insurance, while today only approximately 7% carry it (UBS Wealth Management Research). With decreased insurance coverage, the silver lining for muni investors is the necessity for them to perform more comprehensive research on their bond holdings.

Defaults on the Rise

On the whole, less insurance will result in more defaults. Although defaults are expected to decline in 2010, non-payments totaled $6.9 billion in 2009, up from $526 million in 2007 (Distressed Debt Securities). Even though the numbers sounds large, the recent default rate only represents a 0.25% default rate on the hefty $2.8 trillion market. That muni default rate compares to a more intimidating corporate bond default rate of 11% in 2009.

Bigger Bark Than Bite?

James T. Colby, senior municipal strategist at Van Eck Global, understands the severity of the states’ budget crisis but he believes a lot of the doomsday headlines are bogus. Riva Atlas, writer for Financial Advisor Magazine, summarizes Colby’s thoughts:

“Even those states in the worst straits like California and Illinois have provisions in their constitutions or statutes requiring them to pay their debts. In California, the state’s constitution says bondholders come second only to the school system, so the state would have to empty its jails before it stopped paying its teachers.”

 

Certainly municipalities could raise taxes to compensate for any budget shortfalls, but we all know most politicians are reluctant to raise taxes, because guess what? Tax increases may result in fewer votes – the main motivator driving most politicians.

If the states decide to not raise taxes, they still have other ways to weasel out of obligations. For starters, they can just stick it to the insurance company (if coverage exists). If that option is not available, the municipalities can look to the federal government for a bailout. Irresponsible actions have their consequences, and like consumers walking away from payments on their mortgages, municipalities will effectively be preventing themselves from future access to borrowing. Either way, the bark is less than the bite for investors since the insurance company or federal government will be making them whole.

BABs and Taxes Add Fuel to the Fire

A glut of Build America Bonds (BABs) issued by municipalities, driven by demand from yield hungry pension funds, along with expected tax hikes for the wealthy have created a scarcity of tax-free munis.

In the first half of 2010 BABs accounted for more than 25% of municipal bonds issued, which was a significant contributing factor to the robust muni market. The BABs tailwinds aiding muni prices won’t last forever, as the bond issuance program is expected to expire at the end of 2010.

On the tax front, the wealthy are likely to see higher federal tax rates in the future – upwards of 36% – 40%. If you include the double tax-exempt benefits in states like New York and California, the relative attractiveness becomes even that much better. Combined, these factors have elevated muni prices.

Despite higher defaults, scarier headlines, and the lack of insurance, the municipal bond market remains robust. General interest rate declines caused by macroeconomic fears have caused investors to flock to the perceived “safe haven” status of Treasuries and Munis, but as we have all witnessed, the fickle pendulum of emotions never sits still for long.

Managing the Munis

As is evident from the municipal bond discussion, states and cities across the country have been plagued by the same deficit and debt issues as the country faces on a federal level. Tough structural expense issues, and revenue generating tax policies need to be scrutinized in order to prevent federal taxpayer bailouts of municipalities across the country.

From a municipal bond investor perspective, it’s best to focus on general obligation bonds (GOs) because those bonds are backed by the taxing authority of the municipal government. On the flip side, it’s best to stray away from revenue bonds or privately issued municipals because revenue streams from these bond channels are not guaranteed by the municipality, meaning the risk of default is larger.

While Congress sorts out financial regulatory reform with respect to banking bailouts and “too big to fail” corporations, our federal government should not lose sight of the widespread municipality problems our country faces today. If not, get ready to pull out the checkbook to pay for another taxpayer-led bailout… 

Read the Complete Financial Advisor Magazine Article: The Muni Minefield

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including CMF), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in BRKA/B 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.

September 27, 2010 at 12:47 am 1 comment

From Bearded Monks to Greek Decline

Photo source: vatopaidi.wordpress.com

Noted author Michael Lewis has sold millions of books and written on topics ranging from professional baseball to Wall Street and Iceland to Silicon Valley. Now, he has decided to tackle the gripping but nebulous Greek financial crisis through the eyes and bearded mouths of Greek monks in a recently released article from Vanity Fair.

At the heart of the story is a Christian monastery (Vatopaidi), located on a northeastern peninsula of Greece. This ten-century old sanctuary has helped expose the tenuous state of the Greek economy, which is estimated to be sitting on $1.2 trillion in debt (representing $.25 million per working Greek adult) – a massive number considering the relatively petite size of the country. Beyond interviewing the Vatopaidi monks, Lewis trolled through the country interviewing various politicians, businessmen, government officials, and natives in order to make sense of this Mediterranean mess.

The Scandal Genesis

Starting in 2008, news filtered out that Vatopaidi had somehow acquired a practically worthless lake and swapped it for 73 different government properties, including a 2004 Olympics center. The Vatopaidi monastery effectively created an estimated $1 billion+ commercial real estate portfolio from nothing, thanks to one of the key Vatopaidi monks negotiating a fishy, behind-the-door government exchange scheme. This scandal, among other issues, ultimately lead to the collapse of the prior Greek ruling party and sent Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis packing his bags.

The Greek crisis did not happen overnight, but rather decades. A casual observer may mistake the caustic Greek media headlines as proof to blame Greece as the reason behind the global financial meltdown,  Rather, the challenges faced by this island-based country are more symptomatic of the weak global credit standards and the undisciplined disregard for excessive debt levels. Even with an embarrassingly high debt/GDP ratio (Gross Domestic Product) of about 130%, Greece’s desperate financial situation is a relatively minor blemish in the whole global scheme of things. More specifically, the $300 billion or so in Greek GDP represents the equivalent of a pubescent pimple on the face of a $60 plus trillion global economy.

The Greek Concern

The Vatopaidi scandal is still being investigated, but how did this broader debt-induced, Greek fiscal catastrophe occur?

Lax tax collection, absence of legal enforcement, and simple corruption are a few of the contributing reasons. Lewis describes the situation as follows:

“Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing.”

 

A tax collector and real estate agent from the article had this to say:

“If the law was enforced, every doctor in Greece would be in jail.”  AND
 “Every single member of the Greek Parliament is lying to evade taxes.”

 

The Greek government also did an incredible job of distorting the reported economic data and swept reality under the rug:

“How in the hell is it possible for a member of the euro area to say the deficit was 3 percent of G.D.P. when it was really 15 percent?” a senior I.M.F. (International Monetary Fund) representative asked.

 

The Greek debacle was not an isolated incident. The significant dislocations occurring around the earth’s small and dark corners have directly impacted our lives here in the U.S. Take for example Iceland, the country that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called a converted “hedge fund with glaciers.” Not only did this historically tiny fishing island do dynamic damage to its southern neighbors in Europe, but damage from its collapsing banks extended all the way to busted condominium developments in Beverly Hills, California.  Or consider Dubai and the multi-billion dollar debt restructuring at Nakheel Development that held the world breathless as people around the world watched in trepidation.

These examples, coupled with the Greek financial crisis highlight how widespread the collateral damage of cheap credit proliferated. The cost of money is still dangerously low, as governments around the globe attempt to stimulate demand, however the regulators and banking industry must remain vigilant in maintaining loan and capital deployment discipline. The hot debates over financial regulatory reform in the U.S., along with the recent Basel III banking requirement discussions are evidence of the need to restore balance and stability to the global financial playing field.

The global financial crisis has spooked billions of people around the world. Like a mysterious boogeyman, the crisis has turned cheap and easy credit into the public’s worst nightmare. The mysticism and general opacity surrounding the inner-workings of Wall Street and global financial markets attacks at investors’ inherent emotional vulnerabilities. Michael Lewis has once again helped turn what on the exterior seems extremely complex and confusing and boiled the essence of the problem down into terms the masses can digest and put into perspective.

Bearded monks loading up on government-swapped commercial real estate may have provided valuable lessons and insights into the global financial crisis, however now I can hardly wait for Michael Lewis’s next topic…perhaps balding nuns in South African gold mines?

Read the whole Vanity Fair article written by Michael Lewis

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

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 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.

September 13, 2010 at 12:57 am 1 comment

Private Equity: Hitting Maturity Cliff

Photo source: 1Funny.com

Wow, those were the days when money was as cheap and available as that fragile, sandpaper-like toilet paper you find at gas stations. Private equity took advantage of this near-free, pervasive capital and used it to the greatest extent possible. The firms proceeded to lever up and gorge themselves on a never-ending list of target companies with reckless abandon (see also Private Equity Shooting Blanks). Now the glory days of abundant, ultra-cheap capital are history.

Rather than rely on low-cost bank debt, private equity firms are now turning to the fixed income markets – specifically the high yield market (a.k.a. junk bonds). As The Financial Times points out, more than $170 billion of junk bonds have been issued this year, in large part to refinance debt issued in the mid-2000s that has gone sour due to overoptimistic projections and a flailing U.S. economy. In special instances, private equity owners are fattening their own wallets by declaring special dividends for themselves.  

Even though some of these over-levered, private equity portfolio companies have received a temporary reprieve from facing the harsh economic realities thanks to these refinancings, the cliff of maturing debt in 2012 is fast approaching. Some have estimated that $1 trillion in maturing debt will roll through the market in the 2012-2014 timeframe. Either the economy (or operating performance) improves enough for these companies to service their debt, or these companies will find themselves falling off these maturity cliffs into bankruptcy.

Junk is Not Risk-Free

Driving this trend of loan recycling is risk aversion to stocks and a voracious appetite for yield in a yield desert. Stuffing the money under the mattress, earning next to nothing on CDs (Certificates of Deposit) and money market accounts, will not help in meeting many investors’ long-term objectives. The “uncertain uncertainty” swirling around global equity markets has nervous investors flocking to bonds. The opening of liquidity in the high yield markets has served as a life preserver for these levered companies desperate to refinance their impending debt. This high-yield debt refinancing window is also an opportunity for companies to lower their interest expense burden because of the current, near record-low interest rates.

But as the name implies, these “junk bonds” are not risk free. For starters, embedded in these bonds is interest rate risk – with a Federal Funds rate at effectively zero, there is only one upward direction for interest rates to go (bad for bond prices). In addition, credit risk is a concern as well. In the midst of the financial crisis, many of these high-yield bonds corrected by more than -40% from their highs in 2008 until the bottom achieved in early 2009. If the economy regresses back into a double-dip recession, many of these bonds stand to get pummeled as default rates escalate (see also, bond risks).

Pace Not Slowing

Source: Dealogic via WSJ

Does the appetite for high yield appear to be slowing? Au contraire. In the most recent week, Dealogic noted $15.4 billion in junk bonds were sold. The FT sees the pace of junk deals handily outpacing the record of $185.4 billion set in 2006.

The Wall Street Journal used the following deals to provide a flavor of how companies are using high-yield debt in the present market:

“First Data Corp. sold $510 million of 10-year notes this week, at 9.125%, to pay down bank debt due in 2014. Peabody Energy sold $650 million of 6.5%, 10-year notes to pay off the same amount of higher-priced debt due in three years. MultiPlan Inc., a health-care cost-management provider, sold $675 million of notes this week, at 9.875%, to help fund a buyout of the company. Cott Corp., a maker of store-branded soft drinks, sold $375 million of debt at 8.125% to fund its purchase of another company, Cliffstar Corp.”

 

The roads on the junk bond highway appear to be pothole free at the moment, however a cliff of debt is rapidly approaching over the next few years, so high-yield investors should travel carefully as conditions in the junk market potentially worsen. As we witnessed in 2008-2009, it can take a while to hit rock bottom in the riskier areas of the credit spectrum.

Read full Financial Times and Wall Street Journal articles on the high yield market.  

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including HYG and JNK), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in First Data Corp., Peabody Energy (BTU), MultiPlan Inc., Cott Corp. (COT), Cliffstar Corp.,  or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

August 16, 2010 at 12:38 am Leave a comment

Blushing Pinocchio – The Half Trillion Lie

When in doubt, or when in debt by half a trillion dollars, why not just make some crazy stuff up? This is the exact strategy California pension administrators used when implementing +50% increases in union member benefits earlier this decade.  The pension plans decided to take a break from reality and enter fantasyland when they projected the Dow Jones Industrial Average would hit 25,000 by the end of the decade and 28,000,000 by 2099, a forecast that would even make Pinocchio blush.

Dealing with the Problem

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his economic advisors attempted to take on the unions. Unfortunately, not everyone got the message. On the day the Governor struck a deal with the unions, California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) ordered a hike of $4 billion to the annual pension payments to its members.

The financial woes of California have been well documented as the state looks to lower its $19.1 billion deficit and an estimated one-half trillion dollars in unfunded pension liabilities – a level equal to about seven times the state’s total debt level. Even after multiple years of severe cuts, Schwarzenegger has had to resort to drastic measures, including his most recent desperate move to get some 200,000 state workers to accept slashes in pay to a $7.25/hour minimum wage.

Facing Reality

As I have discussed in the past, dealing with excessive debt requires a gut check. Cutting debt is similar to dieting – easy to understand, but difficult to execute (see my Debt Control article).

Whether Republican candidate Meg Whitman or Democratic candidate Jerry Brown wins the thankless position of California Governor, they will have to face the elephant in the room, but hopefully they will not resort to fuzzy accounting or predictions of Dow 28 million that would make even Pinocchio blush.

Read Full Related Article from Vincent Fernando at Business Insider

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com 

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

July 15, 2010 at 11:11 pm Leave a comment

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