Posts tagged ‘distressed debt’

The Accomplished Mole – Seth Klarman

I do quite a bit of reading and in my spare time I came across something very interesting. Here are some of the characteristics that describe this unique living mammal: 1) You will rarely see this creature in the open; 2) It roams freely and digs in deep, dark areas where many do not bother looking; and 3) This active being has challenged eyesight.

If you thought I was talking about a furry, burrowing mole (Soricomorpha Talpidae) you were on the right track, but what I actually was describing was legendary value investor Seth Klarman. He shares many of the same features as a mole, but has made a lot more money than his very distant evolutionary cousin.

The Making of a Legend

Photo source: SuperInvestorDigest.com

Before becoming the President of The Baupost Group, a Boston-based private investment partnership which manages about $22 billion in assets on behalf of wealthy private families and institutions, he worked for famed value investors Max Heine and Michael Price of the Mutual Shares (purchased by Franklin Templeton Investments). Klarman also published a classic book on investing, Margin of Safety, Risk Averse Investing Strategies for the Thoughtful Investor, which is now out of print and has fetched upwards of $1,000-2,000 per copy in used markets like Amazon.com (AMZN).

Klarman chooses to keep a low public profile, but recently his negative views on stock market and inflation risk have filtered out into the public domain. Nonetheless, he is still optimistic about certain distressed opportunities and believes the financial crisis has cultivated a more favorable, less competitive environment for investment managers due to the attrition of weaker investors.

Philosophy

Klarman despises narrow mandates – they are like shackles on potential returns. Opportunities do not lay dormant in one segment of the financial markets. Investors are fickle and fundamentals change. He believes superior results are achieved through a broadening of mandates. He prefers to invest in areas off the proverbial beaten path – the messier and more complicated the situation, the better. Currently his funds have significant investments in distressed debt instruments, many of which were capitulated forced sales by funds  that are unable to hold non-investment grade debt.

In order to make his wide net point to investing, Klarman uses real estate as an illustration device. For example, investors do not need to limit themselves to publicly traded REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) – they can also invest in the debt of a REIT, convertible real estate debt, equity of property (such as own building), bank loan on a building, municipal bond that’s backed by real estate, or commercial/residential mortgage backed securities. 

Klarman summarizes his thoughts by saying:

“If you have a broader mandate, they let you own all kinds of debt, all kinds of equity. Perhaps some private assets, like real estate. Perhaps hold cash when you can’t find anything great to do. You now have more weapons at your disposal to take advantage of conditions in the market.”

 

Klarman’s 3 Underlying Investment Pillars

Besides mentors Heine and Price, Klarman is quick to highlight his investment philosophy has been shaped by the likes of Warren Buffett and Benjamin Graham, among others. In addition to many of the basic tenets espoused by these investment greats, Klarman adds these three main investment pillars to his repertoire:

1)      Focus on risk first (the probability of loss) before return. Determine how much capital you can lose and what the probability of that loss is. Also, do not confuse volatility with risk. Volatility creates opportunities.

2)      Absolute performance, not relative performance, is paramount. The world is geared towards relative performance because of asset gathering incentives. Wealthy investors and institutions are more focused on absolute returns. Focus on benchmarks will insure mediocrity.

3)      Concentrate on bottom-up research, not top down. Accurately forecasting macroeconomic trends and also profiting from those predictions is nearly impossible to do over longer periods of time.  

These are great, but represent just a few of his instructional nuggets.

Performance

I did some digging regarding Klarman’s performance, and given the range of markets experienced over the last 25+ years, the results are nothing short of spectacular. Here is what I dug up from the Outstanding Investor Digest:

“Since its February 1, 1983 [2008] inception through December 31st, his Baupost Limited Partnership Class A-1 has provided its limited partners an average annual return of 16.5% net of fees and incentives, versus 10.1% for the S&P 500. During the “lost decade”, Baupost obliterated the averages, returning 14.8% and 15.9% for the 5 and 10-year periods ending December 31st versus -2.2% and -1.4%, respectively, for the S&P.”

 

Here is some additional color from Market Folly on Klarman’s incredible feats:

“Despite Klarman’s typically high levels of cash [sometimes in excess of 50%], Baupost has still generated astonishing performance. It was up 22% in 2006, 54% in 2007, and around 27% in 2009. During the crisis in 2008, Klarman’s funds lost “between 7% and the low teens.” Still though, he certainly outperformed the market indices and much of his investment management brethren in a time of panic.”

 

Although Seth Klarman has plowed over the competition and remained underground from the mass media, it’s still extremely difficult to ignore the long-term record of success of this accomplished mole. In the short-run, volatility may hurt his performance – especially if holding 20-30% cash. But as I was told at a young age by my grandmother, it is not prudent to make mountains out of molehills. Apparently, Klarman’s grandma taught her mole-like grandson how to make mountains of money from hills of opportunities. Klarman’s investors certainly stand to benefit as he continues to dig for value-based gems.

Watch interesting but lengthy presentation video given by Seth Klarman

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 AMZN, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions 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.

June 23, 2010 at 12:06 am 2 comments

Digging a Debt Hole

Little did I know when I signed up for a recent “distressed” debt summit (see previous article) that a federal official and state treasurer would be presenting as keynote speakers? After all, this conference was supposed to be catering to those professionals interested in high risk securities. Technically, California and the U.S. government are not classified as distressed yet, but nonetheless government heavy-hitters Matthew Rutherford (Deputy Assistant Secretary, Federal Finance at the U.S. Department of Treasury), and Bill Lockyer (Treasurer for the State of California) shared their perspectives on government debt and associated economic factors.

Why have government officials present at a distressed debt conference? After questioning a few organizers and attendees, I was relieved to discover the keynote speaker selections were made more as a function as a sign of challenging economic times, rather than to panic participants toward debt default expectations. As it turns out, the conference organizers packaged three separate conferences into one event – presumably for cost efficiencies (Distressed Investments Summit + Public Funds Summit + California Municipal Finance Conference).

The U.S. Treasury Balancing Act

Effectively operating as the country’s piggy bank, the Treasury has a very complex job of constantly filling the bank to meet our country’s expenditures. Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Rutherford launched the event by speaking to domestic debt levels and deficits along with some the global economic trends impacting the U.S.

  • Task at Hand: Rutherford spoke to the Treasury’s three main goals as part of its debt management strategy, which includes: 1) Cash management (to pay the government bills); 2) Attempt to secure low cost financing; and 3) Promote efficient markets. With more than a few hundred auctions held each year, the Treasury manages an extremely difficult balancing act.
  • Debt Limit Increased: The recent $1.9 trillion ballooning in the U.S. debt ceiling to $14.3 trillion gives the Treasury some flexibility in meeting the country’s near-term funding needs. The Treasury expects to raise another $1.5 trillion in debt in 2010 (from $1.3 trillion in ’09) to fund our government initiatives, but that number is expected to decline to $1.0 – $1.1 trillion in 2011.
  • Funding Trillions at 0.16%: Thanks to abnormally low interest rates, an investor shift to short-term safety (liquidity), and a temporary rush to the dollar, the U.S. Treasury was able to finance their borrowing needs at a mere 16 basis points. Clearly, servicing the U.S.’ massive debt load at these extremely attractive rates is not sustainable forever, and the Treasury is doing its best to move out on the yield curve (extend auctions to lengthier maturities) to lock in lower rates and limit the government’s funding risk should short-term rates spike.
  • Chinese Demand Not Waning: Contrary to recent TIC (Treasury International Capital) data that showed Japan jumping to the #1 spot of U.S. treasury holders, Rutherford firmly asserted that China remains at the top by a significant margin of $140 billion, if you adjust certain appropriate benchmarks. He believes foreign ownership at over 50% (June 2009) remains healthy and steady despite our country’s fiscal problems.
  • TIPS Demand on the Rise: Appetite for Treasury Inflation Protection Securities is on the rise, therefore the Treasury has its eye on expanding its TIP offerings into longer maturities, just last week they handled their first 3-year TIPS auction.

There is no “CA” in Greece

State of California Treasurer Bill Lockyer did not sugarcoat California’s fiscal problems, but he was quick to defend some of the comparisons made between Greece and California. First of all, California’s budget deficit represents less than 1% of the state’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) versus 13% for Greece. Greece’s accumulated debt stands at 109% of GDP – for California debt only represents 4% of the state’s GDP. What’s more, since 1800 Greece has arguably been in default more than not, where as California has never in its history defaulted on an obligation. 

The current California picture isn’t pretty though. This year’s fiscal budget deficit is estimated at $6 billion, leaping to $12 billion next year, and soaring to $20 billion per year longer term.

Legislative political bickering is at the core of the problem due to the constitutional inflexibility of a 2/3 majority vote requirement to get state laws passed. The vast bulk of states require a simple majority vote (> than 50%) – California holds the unique super-majority honor with only Arkansas and Rhode Island. Beyond mitigating partisan bickering, Lockyer made it clear no real progress would be made in budget cuts until core expenditures like education, healthcare, and prisons are attacked.

On the subject of bloatedness, depending on how you define government spending per capita, California ranks #2 or #4 lowest out of all states. Economies of scale help in a state representing 13% of the U.S.’ GDP, but Lockyer acknowledged the state could just be less fat than the other inefficient states.

Lockyer also tried to defend the state’s 10.5% blended tax rate (versus the national median of 9.8%), saying the disparity is not as severe as characterized by the media. He even implied there could be a little room to creep that rate upwards.

Finishing on an upbeat note, Lockyer recognized the January state revenues came in above expectations, but did not concede victory until a multi-month trend is established.

After filtering through several days of meetings regarding debt, you quickly realize how the debt culture (see D-E-B-T article), thanks to cheap money, led to a glut across federal governments, state governments, corporations, and consumers. Hopefully we have learned our lesson, and we are ready to climb out of this self created hole…before we get buried alive with risky debt.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including CMF and TIP), but at time of publishing had no direct position on any security referenced. 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.

March 4, 2010 at 11:45 pm 2 comments

Getting Distressed can be a Beach

It was just another 65 degree winter day on the sunny shores of Huntington Beach at the 2nd Annual Distressed Investment Summit (March 1st through 3rd) when I entered the conference premises. Before digging into the minutiae of the distressed markets, a broad set of industry experts spoke to a diverse crowd including, pension fund managers, consultants, and hedge fund managers at the Hyatt Regency Huntington Beach Resort and Spa. The tone was somewhat restrained given the gargantuan price rebounds and tightening spreads (the premium paid on credit instruments above government securities) in the credit markets, nonetheless the tenor was fairly upbeat thanks to opportunities emanating from the still larger than average historical spreads.

Topics varied, but several speakers gave their views on the financial crisis, macroeconomic outlooks, general debt/credit trends, and areas of distressed credit opportunity. Like investors across all asset classes, many professionals tried to put the puzzle pieces together over the last few years, in order to provide a clearer outlook for the future of distressed markets. To put the addressable market in context, James Perry, Conference Chair and Investment Officer at the San Bernadino County Employees Retirement Association, described the opportunity set as a $2.5 trillion non-investment grade market, with $250-$400 billion in less liquid securities. Typically distressed securities consist of investments like bonds, bank debt, and/or CLOs (collateralized loan obligations), which frequently carry CCC or lower ratings from agencies such as Standard & Poors, Moodys, and Fitch.

As mentioned previously, since the audience came from a diverse set of constituencies, a broad set of topics and themes were presented:

  • Beta Bounce is Gone:  The collapse of debt prices and massive widening of debt spreads in 2008 and 2009 have improved dramatically over the last twelve months, meaning the low hanging fruit has already been picked for the most part. Last year was the finest hour for distressed investors because price dislocations caused by factors such as forced selling, technical idiosyncracies, and credit downgrades created a large host of compelling prospects. For many companies, long-term business fundamentals were little changed by the liquidity crunch. As anecdotal evidence for the death of the beta bounce, one speaker observed CLOs  trading at  30-35 cents during the March 2009 lows. Those same CLOs are now trading at about 80 cents. Simple math tells us, by definition, there is less upside to par (the bond principal value = 100 cents on dollar).
  • Distressed Defaults: Default rates are expected to rise in the coming months and years because of record credit issuance in the 2006-2007 timeframe. The glut of questionable buy-outs completed at the peak of the financial markets driven by private equity and other entities has created a sizeable inventory of debt that has a higher than average chance of becoming distressed. One panel member explained that CCC credit ratings experience a 40% default within 5 years, meaning the worst is ahead of us. The artificially depressed 4-7% current default rates are now expected to rise, but below the 12% default rate encountered in 2009.
  • Wall of Maturities:  Although the outlook for distressed investments look pretty attractive for the next few years, a majority of professionals speaking on the topic felt a wave of $1 trillion in maturities would roll through the market in the 2012-2014, leading to the escalating default rates mentioned above. CLOs related to many of the previously mentioned ill-timed buyouts will be a significant component of the pending debt wall. Whether the banks will bite the bullet and allow borrowers to extend maturities is still an  open topic of debate.
  • Mid Market Sweet Spot: Larger profitable companies are having little trouble tapping the financial markets to access capital at reasonable rates. With limited capital made available for middle market companies, there are plenty of opportunistic investments to sift through. With the banks generally hoarding capital and not lending, distressed debt investments are currently offering yields in the mid-to-high teens. Borrowers are effectively beggars, so they cannot be choosers. The investor, on the other hand, is currently in a much stronger position to negotiate first lien secured positions on the debt, which allows a “Plan B,” if the underlying company defaults. Theoretically, investors defaulting into an ownership position can potentially generate higher returns due forced restructuring and management of company operations. Of course, managing the day-to-day operations of many companies is much easier said than done.
  • Is Diversification Dead? This question is relevant to all investors but was primarily directed at the fiduciaries responsible for managing and overseeing pension funds. The simultaneous collapse of prices across asset classes during the financial crisis has professionals in a tizzy. Several diversification attacks were directed at David Swensen’s strategy (see Super Swensen article) implemented at Yale’s endowment. Although Swensen’s approach covered a broad swath of alternative investments, the strategy was attacked as merely diversified across illiquid equity asset classes – not a good place to be at the beginning of 2008 and 2009. The basic rebuttal to the “diversification is dead mantra” came in the form of a rhetorical question: “What better alternative is there to diversification?” One other participant was quick to point out that asset allocation drives 85% of portfolio performance.
  • Transparency & Regulation:  In a post-Bernie Madoff world, even attending hedge fund managers conceded a certain amount of adequate transparency is necessary to make informed decisions. Understanding the strategy and where the returns are coming from is critical component of hiring and maintaining an investment manager.  
  • Distressed Real Estate Mixed Bag:   Surprisingly, the prices and cap rates (see my article on real estate and stocks) on quality properties has not dramatically changed from a few years ago, meaning some areas of the real estate market appear to be less appealing . Better opportunities are generally more tenant specific and require a healthy dosage of creativity to make the deal economics work. Adjunct professor from Columbia University, Michael G. Clark, had a sobering view with respect to the residential real estate market home ownership rates, which he continues to see declining from a peak of 70% to 62% (currently 67%) over time. Clark sees a slow digestion process occurring in the housing market as banks use improved profits to shore up reserves and slowly bleed off toxic assets.  He believes job security/mobility, financing, and immigration demographics are a few reasons we will witness a large increase in renters in coming periods. Also driving home ownership down is the increased density of youngsters living at home post-graduation. Clark pointed out the 20% of 26-year olds currently living at home with their parents, a marked increase from times past.

Overall, I found the 2nd Annual Distressed Investment Summit a very informative event, especially from an equity investor’s standpoint, since many stock jocks spend very little time exploring this part of the capital structure. Devoting a few days at the IMN sponsored event taught me that life does not have to be a beach if you mix some distress with a little sun, sand, and fun.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct position on any security referenced. 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.

March 3, 2010 at 2:14 am 3 comments


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