Posts tagged ‘leverage’

The Fallibility of Tangibility

touching-the-water-wall-1435501

Why do so many star athletes end up going bankrupt? Rather than building a low-cost, tax-efficient, diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds that could help generate significant income and compounded wealth over the long-term (yawn…boring), many investors succumb to the allure of over-exposing themselves to costly, illiquid, tangible assets, while assuming disproportionate risk.

After all, it’s much more exciting to brag about the purchase of a car wash, apartment building or luxury condo than it is to whip out a brokerage statement and show a friend a bond fund earning a respectable 4% yield.

Many real estate investors in my Southern California backyard (epicenter of the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis) have experienced both ruin and riches over the last few decades. The appeal and pitfalls associated with owning tangible assets like real estate are particularly exemplified with professional athletes (see also Hidden Train Wreck). Consider the fate suffered by these following individuals:

  • Mike TysonFamous boxer Mike Tyson tore through $300 million on multiple homes, cars, jewels and pet tigers before filing for bankruptcy in 2003.
  • Julius ErvingHall of Fame NBA player Julius “Dr. J” Erving went financially belly-up in 2010 after his Celebrity Golf Club International was pushed into foreclosure. Dr. J. was also forced to auction off coveted NBA memorabilia (including championship uniforms, trophies, and rings) along with foreclosing on his personal $2 million, 6,600-square foot Utah home.
  • Mark BrunellPro Bowl quarterback Mark Brunell was estimated to have earned over $50 million during his career. Due to failed real estate ventures and business loans, Brunell filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
  • Evander Holyfield: Heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield burned through a mountain of money estimated at $230 million, including a 235-acre Utah estate, which had 109 rooms and included at least one monthly electric bill of $17,000.

Caveat Emptor

Inclusion of real estate as part of a diversified portfolio makes all the sense in the world – this is exactly what we do for clients at Sidoxia. But unfortunately, many investors mistake the tangibility of real estate with “lower risk,” even though levered real estate is arguably more volatile than the stock market – evidenced by the volatility in publicly traded REIT share prices. For example, the Dow Jones SPDR REIT (RWR) declined by -78% from its 2007 high to its 2009 low versus the S&P 500 SPDR (SPY) drop of -57% over the comparable period. Private real estate investors are generally immune from the heart-pumping price volatility rampant in the public markets because they are not bombarded with daily, real-time, second-by-second pricing data over flashing red and green colored screens.

Without experiencing the emotional daily price swings, many real estate investors ignore the risks and costs associated with real estate, even when those risks often exceed those of traditional investments (e.g., stocks and bonds). Here are some of the important factors these real estate investors overlook:

Leverage: Many real estate investors don’t appreciate that the fact that 100% of a 10% investment (90% borrowed) can be wiped out completely (i.e., lose -100%), if the value of a property drops a mere -10%. Real estate owners found this lesson out the hard way during the last housing downturn and recession.

Illiquidity: Unlike a stock and bond, which merely takes a click of a mouse, buying/selling real estate can take weeks, if not months, to complete. If a seller needs access to liquidity, they may be forced to sell at unattractively low, fire-sale prices. Pricing transparency is opaque due to the variability and volume of transactions, although online services offered by Zillow Group Inc. (Z).

Costs: For real estate buyer, the list of costs can be long: appraisal fee, origination fee, pre-paid interest, pre-paid insurance, flood certification fee, tax servicing fee, credit report fee, bank processing fee, recording fee, notary fee, and title insurance. And once an investment property is officially purchased, there are costs such as property management fees, property taxes, association dues, landscaping fees and the opportunity costs of filling vacancies when there is tenant turnover. And this analysis neglects the hefty commission expenses, which generally run 5-6% and split between the buying and selling agent. Add all these costs up, and you can understand the dollars can become significant.

Concentration Risk: It’s perfectly fine to own a levered, cyclical asset in a broadly diversified portfolio for long-term investors, but owning $1.3 million of real estate in a $1.5 million total portfolio does not qualify as diversified. If a portfolio is real estate heavy, hopefully the real estate assets are at least diversified across geographies and real estate type (e.g., residential / commercial / multi-family / industrial / retail mall / mortgages / etc).

Stocks Abhorred, Gold & Real Estate Adored

With the downdraft in the stock market that started in late August, a recent survey conducted by CNBC showed how increased volatility has caused wealthy investors to sour on the stock market. More specifically, the All-America Survey, conducted by Hart-McInturff, polled 800 wealthy Americans at the beginning of October. Unsurprisingly, many investors automatically correlate temporary weakness in stocks to a lagging economy. In fact, 32% of respondents believed the U.S. economy would get worse, a 6% increase from the last poll in June, and the highest level of economic pessimism since the government shutdown in 2013 (as it turned out, this was a very good time to buy stocks). These gloom and doom views manifested themselves in skeptical views of stocks as well. Overall, 46% of the public felt it is a bad time to invest in stocks, representing a 12% gain from the last survey.

With investor appetites tainted for stocks, hunger for real state has risen. Actually, real estate was the top investment choice by a large margin, selected by 39% percent of the investors polled. Real estate has steadily gained in popularity since the depths of the recession in 2008. Jockeying for second place have been stocks and gold with the shiny metal edging out stocks by a score of 25% to 21%, respectively.

Successful long-term investors like Warren Buffett understand the best returns are earned by going against the grain. As Buffett said, “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful,” and we know stock investors are fearful. Along those same lines, Bill Miller, the man who beat the S&P 500 index for 15 consecutive years (1991 – 2005), believes now is a perfect time to buy stocks. Investing in real estate is not a bad idea in the context of a diversified portfolio, but investors should not forget the fallibility of tangibility.

investment-questions-border

www.Sidoxia.com 

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) including SPY, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in Z, RWR,  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.

October 17, 2015 at 9:59 pm Leave a comment

Netflix: Burn It and They Will Come

Baseball Field Morgue

In the successful, but fictional movie, Fields of Dreams, an Iowa farmer played by actor Kevin Costner is told by voices to build a field for baseball playing ghosts. After the baseball diamond is completed, the team of Chicago White Sox ghosts, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, come to play.

Well, in the case of the internet streaming giant Netflix Inc (NFLX), instead of chasing ghosts, the company continues to chase the ghosts of profitability. Netflix’s share price has already soared +63% this year as the company continues to burn hundreds of millions in cash, while aggressively building out its international streaming footprint. Unlike Kevin Costner, Netflix investors are likely to eventually get spooked by the by the stratospheric valuation and bleeding cash.

At Sidoxia, we may be a dying breed, but our primary focus is on finding market leading franchises that are growing cash flows at reasonable valuations. In sticking with my nostalgic movie quoting, I believe as Cuba Gooding Jr. does in the classic movie, Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money!” Unfortunately for Netflix, right now the only money to be shown is the money getting burned.

Burn It and They Will Come

Money Burning

In a little over three years, Netflix has burned over -$350 million in cash, added $2 billion in debt, and spent approximately -$11 billion on streaming content (about -$4.6 billion alone in the last 12 months). As the hemorrhaging of cash accelerates (-$163 million in the recent quarter), investors with valuation dementia have bid up Netflix shares to a head-scratching 350x’s estimated earnings this year and a still mind-boggling valuation of 158x’s 2016 Wall Street earnings estimates of $3.53 per share. Of course the questionable valuation built on accounting smoke and mirrors looks even more absurd, if you base it on free cash flow…because Netflix has none. What makes the Netflix story even scarier is that on top of the rising $2.4 billion in debt anchored on their balance sheet, Netflix also has commitments to purchase an additional $9.8 billion in streaming content in the coming years.

For the time being, investors are enamored with Netflix’s growing revenues and subscribers. I’ve seen this movie before (no pun intended), in the late 1990s when investors would buy growth with reckless neglect of valuation. For those of you who missed it, the ending wasn’t pretty. What’s causing the financial stress at Netflix? It’s fairly simple. Beyond the spending like drunken sailors on U.S. television and movie content (third party and original), the company is expanding aggressively internationally.

The open check book writing began in 2010 when Netflix started their international expansion in Canada. Since then, the company has launched their service in Latin America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Australia, and New Zealand.

With all this international expansion behind Netflix, investors should surely be able to breathe a sigh of relief by now…right? Wrong. David Wells, Netflix’s CFO had this to say in the company’s recent investor conference call. Not only have international losses worsened by 86% in the recent quarter, “You should expect those losses to trend upward and into 2016.” Excellent, so the horrific losses should only deteriorate for another year or so…yay.

While Netflix is burning hundreds of millions in cash, the well documented streaming competition is only getting worse. This begs the question, what is Netflix’s real competitive advantage? I certainly don’t believe it is the company’s ability to borrow billions of dollars and write billions in content checks – we are seeing plenty of competitors repeating the same activity. Here is a partial list of the ever-expanding streaming and cord-cutting competitive offerings:

  • Amazon Prime Instant Video (AMZN)
  • Apple TV (AAPL)
  • Hulu
  • Sony Vue
  • HBO Now
  • Sling TV (through Dish Network – DISH)
  • CBS Streaming
  • YouTube (GOOG)
  • Nickelodeon Streaming

Sadly for Netflix, this more challenging competitive environment is creating a content bidding war, which is squeezing Netflix’s margins. But wait, say the Netflix bulls. I should focus my attention on the company’s expanding domestic streaming margins. This is true, if you carelessly ignore the accounting gimmicks that Netflix CFO David Wells freely acknowledges. On the recent investor call, here is Wells’s description of the company’s expense diversion trickery by geography:

“So by growing faster internationally, and putting that [content expense] allocation more towards international, it’s going to provide some relief to those global originals, and the global projects that we do have, that are allocated to the U.S.”

 

In other words, Wells admits shoving a lot of domestic content costs into the international segment to make domestic profit margins look better (higher).  Longer term, perhaps this allocation could make some sense, but for now I’m not convinced viewers in Luxembourg are watching Orange is the New Black and House of Cards like they are in the U.S.

Technology: Amazon Doing the Heavy Lifting

If check writing and accounting diversions aren’t a competitive advantage, does Netflix have a technology advantage? That’s tough to believe when Netflix effectively outsources all their distribution technology to Amazon.com Inc (AMZN).

Here’s how Netflix describes their technology relationship with Amazon:

“We run the vast majority of our computing on [Amazon Web Services] AWS. Given this, along with the fact that we cannot easily switch our AWS operations to another cloud provider, any disruption of or interference with our use of AWS would impact our operations and our business would be adversely impacted. While the retail side of Amazon competes with us, we do not believe that Amazon will use the AWS operation in such a manner as to gain competitive advantage against our service.”

 

Call me naïve, but something tells me Amazon could be stealing some secret pointers and best practices from Netflix’s operations and applying them to their Amazon Prime Instant Video offering. Nah, probably not. Like Netflix said, Amazon wouldn’t steal anything to gain a competitive advantage…never.

Regardless, the real question surrounding Netflix should focus on whether a $35 billion valuation should be awarded to a money losing content portal that distributes content through Amazon? For comparison purposes, Netflix is currently valued at 20% more than Viacom Inc (VIA), the owner of valuable franchises and brands like Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, MTV, Comedy Central, BET, VH1, Spike, and more. Viacom, which was spun off from CBS 44 years ago, actually generated about $2.5 billion in cash last year and paid out about a half billion dollars in dividends. Quite a stark contrast compared to a company accelerating its cash losses.

I openly admit Netflix is a wonderful service, and I have been a loyal, longtime subscriber myself. But a good service does not necessarily equate to a good stock. And despite being short the stock, Sidoxia is actually long the company’s bonds. It’s certainly possible (and likely) Netflix’s stock will underperform from today’s nosebleed valuation, but under almost any scenario I can imagine, I have a difficult time foreseeing an outcome in which Netflix would go bankrupt by 2021. Bond investors currently agree, which explains why my Netflix bonds are trading at a 5% premium to par.

Netflix stockholders, and crazy disciples like Mark Cuban, on the other hand, may have more to worry about in the coming quarters. CEO Reed Hastings is sticking to his “burn it and they will come” strategy at all costs, but if profits and cash don’t begin to pile up quickly, then Netflix’s “Field of Dreams” will turn into a “Field of Nightmares.”

Investment Questions Border

 

www.Sidoxia.com

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), AAPL, GOOGL, AMZN, long Netflix bond position, long Dish Corp bond, and a short position in NFLX, but at the time of publishing, SCM had no direct position in VIA, TWX, SNE, 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 25, 2015 at 11:42 pm Leave a comment

Betting on Green: Not All Performance is Equal

Ball on Zero on Roulette Wheel

Not all performance is created equally. Now is the time of year where professional money managers jockey for position before year-end, either with the intent of locking in above-average performance or throwing up a Hail Mary pass in hopes of gaining lost performance ground. Typically, top performing managers are lauded for their eye-popping returns and shrewd investing acumen, when in fact, often these managers have been playing a game of roulette in which a risky, low probability strategy of betting on “green zero” has paid off (a winner about 2.6% of the time).

With tens of thousands hedge fund managers, mutual fund managers, and investment advisors self-reporting their results, even if the performance is accurate, the “Law of Large Numbers” dictates a small percentage will outperform. In other words, short-term luck can often trump long-term skill in the investment world, so investors really need to take a look under the covers to better understand the composition of the results.

Here are some factors contributing to performance distortions and misunderstandings:

Leverage: Adding leverage to your investment strategy is a lot like switching from a bicycle to a motorcycle. The new vehicle may get you to your destination faster, but the risks are lot higher than riding a bike, including death. The same principles apply to investing. A leveraged portfolio may be a fun ride when prices appreciate, but the agony on the downside can be equally painful in reverse.  Often, many managers obscure the amount of leverage, and point to absolute returns rather than risk-adjusted returns, which rightfully account for the underlying volatility of the security or investment. To better measure investment performance on an apples-to-apples basis, risk-adjusted ratios such as Sharpe ratios and Treynor ratios should be used.

Concentration/Style Drift: Similarly to playing a game of roulette, putting all your money on black can result in a very handsome payout, but the downside can be just as severe. In the late 1990s growth managers benefited tremendously by concentrating their portfolios into technology stocks because prices appreciated virtually unabated. Many value managers succumbed to style drift by abandoning their value investment mandates and chasing performance. Investors should scrutinize the composition of their portfolios to better comprehend the bets managers are making. Excessive concentration or style drift may lead to a rude awakening.

Benchmark Cherry Picking: Buried in the fine print of an investment prospectus or pitchbook, a performance benchmark, which acts like a measuring stick, can usually be found.  The non-standardized game of performance reporting is a lot like a beauty contest in which the investment manager can pick ugly competitors to make themselves look better. Typically a manager compares their performance against the worst performing benchmark or index, and if the benchmark performance improves, a manager can again substitute the old benchmark with a newer, uglier one.

Spaghetti Effect: Another misleading marketing strategy used by many investment firms is what I like to call the “Throwing-Spaghetti-Against-the-Wall” technique, which involves throwing as many strategies at investors as it takes and see what sticks. Famed hedge fund manager John Paulson, who made Herculean profits during the collapse of the subprime crisis, used this strategy in hopes of capitalizing on his sudden fame. The results haven’t been pretty over the last few years as his major funds have massively underperformed and assets have collapsed from about $38 billion at the peak to less than an estimated $20 billion now. Paulson has proved that parlaying one successful bet into many spaghetti throwing strategies (Advantage, Advantage Plus, Partners Fund, Enhanced Fund, Credit Opportunities, and Recovery) can lead to billions in gained assets, albeit shrinking.

Window-Dressing: Portfolio managers are notorious for selling their stinkers and buying the darlings at the end of a quarter, just so they can avoid uncomfortable questions from investors. By analyzing a manager’s portfolio turnover (i.e., the average holding period for a position), an investor can gauge how much shuffling is really going on. Generally speaking, managers performing this value-destroying, smoke and mirrors behavior are doing more harm than good due to all the trading costs and frictions.

While periodically reviewing absolute reported returns is important, more critical than that is analyzing the risk-adjusted returns of a portfolio, so apples-to-apples comparisons can be made. Any and all strategies are bound to underperform for periods of time, but in order to make rational investment decisions investors need to truly understand the underlying strategy and philosophy of the manager(s). Without following all these steps, investors will have better luck putting their money on green.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

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 positions in any Paulson funds 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.

December 16, 2012 at 9:05 am 1 comment

The European Dog Ate My Homework

I never thought my daily routine would be dominated by checking European markets before our domestic open, but these days it is appearing like the European tail is wagging the global dog. Tracking Spanish bond yields from the Tesoro Publico and the Italia Borsa index is currently having a larger bearing on my portfolio than U.S. fundamentals. When explaining short term performance to others, I feel a little like an elementary school student making an excuse that my dog ate my homework.

Although the multi-year European saga has gone on for years, this too shall pass. What’s more, despite the bailouts of Portugal, Ireland, and Greece in recent years, the resilient U.S. economy has recorded 11 consecutive quarters of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth and added more than 4 million jobs, albeit at a less than desirable pace.

Could it get worse? Certainly. Will it get worse before it gets better? Probably. Is worsening European fundamentals and a potential Greek eurozone exit already factored into current stock prices? Possibly. The truth of the matter is that nobody knows the answers to these questions with certainty. At this point, the probability of an unknown or unexpected event in a different geography is more likely to be the cause of our economic downfall than a worsening European crisis. As sage investor and strategist Don Hays aptly points out, “When everyone is concerned about a problem, that problem is solved.” That may be overstating the truth a bit, but I do believe the issues absent from current headlines are the matters we should be most concerned about.

The European financial crisis may drag on for a while longer, but nothing lasts forever. Years from now, worries about the PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) will switch to others, like the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) or other worry geography du jour. The issues of greatest damage in 2008-2009, like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, CDS (credit default swaps), and subprime mortgages, didn’t dominate the headlines for years like the European crisis stories of today. As compared to Europe’s problems, these prior pains felt like Band Aids being quickly ripped off.

Correlation Conundrum

Eventually European worries will be put on the backburner, but until some other boogeyman dominates the daily headlines, our financial markets will continue to correlate tightly with European security prices. How does one fight these tight correlations? For starters, the correlations will not stay tight forever. If an investor can survive through the valley of strong security association, then the benefits will eventually accrue.

Although the benefits from diversification may disappear in the short-run, they should not be fully forgotten. Bonds, cash, and precious metals (i.e., gold) proved to be great portfolio diversifiers in 2008 and early 2009. Commodities, inflation protection, floating rate bonds, real estate, and alternative investments, are a few asset classes that will help diversify portfolios. Risk is defined in many circles as volatility (i.e., standard deviation) and combining disparate asset classes can lower volatility. But risk, defined as the potential of experiencing permanent losses, can also be controlled by focusing on valuation. By in large, large cap dividend paying stocks have struggled for more than a decade, despite equity dividend yields for the S&P 500 exceeding 10-year Treasury yields (the first time in more than 50 years). Investing in large companies with strong balance sheets and attractive growth prospects is another strategy of lowering portfolio risk.

Politics & Winston Churchill

Some factors however are out of shareholders hands, such as politics. As we know from last year’s debt ceiling melee and credit downgrade debacle, getting things done in Washington is very challenging. If you think achieving consensus in one country is difficult, imagine what it’s like in herding 17 countries? That’s the facts of life we are dealing with in the eurozone right now.

Although I am optimistic something will eventually get done, I consider myself a frustrated optimist. I am frustrated because of the gridlock, but optimistic because these problems are not rocket science.  Rather these challenges are concepts my first grade child could understand:

• Expenses are running higher than revenues. You must cut expenses, increase revenues, or a combination thereof.

• Adding debt can support growth, but can lead to inflation. Cutting debt can hinder growth, but leads to a more sustainable fiscal state of wellbeing.

Relieving all the excess global leverage is a long, tortuous process. We saw firsthand here in the U.S. what happened to the U.S. real estate market and associated financial institutions when irresponsible debt consumption took place. Fortunately, corporations and consumers adjusted their all-you-can-eat debt buffet habits by going on a diet. As a matter of fact, corporations today are holding records amounts of cash and debt service loads for consumers has been reduced to levels not seen in decades (see chart below). Unlike governments, luckily CEOs and individuals do not need Congressional approval to adapt to a world of reality – they can simply adjust spending habits.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (Scott Grannis)

Governments, on the other hand, generally do need legislative approval to adjust spending habits. Regrettably, cutting the benefits of your constituents is not a real popular political strategy for accumulating votes or brownie points. If you don’t believe me, see what voters are doing to their leaders in Europe. Nicolas Sarkozy is the latest European leader to be booted from office due to austerity backlash and economic frustration. No less than nine European leaders have been cast aside since the financial crisis began.

The fate for U.S. politicians is less clear as we enter into a heated presidential election over the next six months. We do however know how the mid-term Congressional elections fared for the incumbents…not all sunshine and roses. Until elections are completed, we are resigned to the continued mind-numbing political gridlock, with no tangible resolutions to the trillion dollar deficits and gargantuan debt load. Obviously, most citizens would prefer a forward looking strategic plan from politicians (rather than a reactive one), but there are no signs that this will happen anytime soon…in either party.

Realistically though, tough decisions made by politicians only occur during crises, and if this slow-motion train wreck continues along this same path, then at least we have something to look forward to – forced resolution. We are seeing this firsthand in Greece. The “bond vigilantes” (see Plumbers & Cops) and responsible parents (i.e., Germany) have given Greece two options:

1.) Fix your financial problems and receive assistance; or

2.) Leave the EU (return to the Drachma currency) and figure your problems out yourself.

Panic has a way of forcing action, and we are approaching that “when push comes to shove” moment very quickly. I believe the Europeans are currently taking a note from our strategic playbook, which basically is the spaghetti approach – throw lots of things up on the wall and see what sticks. Or as Winston Churchill stated, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

There is no question, the European sovereign debt issue is a complete mess, and there are no clear paths to a quick solution. Until voters force politicians into making tough unpopular decisions, or leaders come together with forward looking answers, the default position will be to keep kicking the fiscal can issues down the road. In the absence of political leadership, eventually the crisis will naturally force tough decisions to be made. Until then, I will go on explaining to others how the European dog ate my homework.

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 commodities, inflation protection, floating rate bonds, real estate, dividend, and alternative investment ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in AIG, JNJ, Bear Stearns, 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.

May 27, 2012 at 7:47 pm 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

Getting Debt Binge Under Control

Given the endless daily reminders about our federal government’s insatiable appetite for debt, the inevitable collapse of the dollar, and the potential for civil unrest, the average citizen might be surprised to find out the overall debt situation has actually improved. While our federal debt has been exploding (see also Investing Caffeine D-E-B-T article), households and businesses have been tightening their belts and cutting down on the debt binge of recent years. In fact, the overall debt for the U.S. grew at the slowest rate in a decade according to The Business Insider.

Source: The Business Insider. Steady debt growth decline.

As you can see from the nitty-gritty in the Federal Reserve chart below,  total Nonfinancial Debt grew at +2.8% in the 3rd quarter of 2009 (comprised of -2.6% Household Debt; -2.6% Business Debt; +5.1% State & Local Government Debt; and +20.6% Federal Debt).

What does this all mean? Not surprisingly, we are seeing the same trends in the debt figures that we are seeing in the components of our GDP (Gross Domestic Product). We learned from our Economics 101 class that the equation for GDP = C + I + G + (NX), which explains the components of economic growth.

  • C = Consumer spending (or private consumption)
  • I = Investment (or business spending)
  • G = Government spending
  • NX = Net exports (or exports – imports)

Consumer spending has been the biggest driver of growth before the financial crisis (fueled in part by the contribution of debt growth), accounting for more than 2/3 of our GDP. Now, with the consumer retrenching dramatically – spending less and saving more – we are seeing government spending (i.e., stimulus) pick up the slack.

These same dynamics are playing out in the total debt figures. Since the consumer is retrenching, they are saving more and paying down debt. Business owner debt has been chopped too, either by choice or because the banks simply are not lending. Here again, the government is picking up the slack by ramping up the debt growth.

Encouragingly, all is not lost. Economic principles, like the laws of physics, eventually take hold. Fortunately consumers and businesses have gone on a crash diet from debt – and the banks haven’t accommodated the pleading cash-starved either. Now legislators in our nation’s capital must do their part in dealing with the weighty spending. The overall debt progress is heartening, but Uncle Sam still needs to get off the Ho-Hos and Twinkies and start shedding some of that binge-related debt.

Read Full Business Insider Article

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and equity securities in client and personal portfolios at the time of publishing. 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 11, 2009 at 1:45 am Leave a comment


Receive Investing Caffeine blog posts by email.

Join 1,817 other followers

Meet Wade Slome, CFA, CFP®

More on Sidoxia Services

Recognition

Top Financial Advisor Blogs And Bloggers – Rankings From Nerd’s Eye View | Kitces.com

Wade on Twitter…

Share this blog

Bookmark and Share

Subscribe to Blog RSS

Monthly Archives