Posts tagged ‘Michael Lewis’

Is the Stock Market Rigged? Yes…In Your Favor

ace of hearts

Is the Market Rigged? The short answer is “yes”, but unlike gambling in Las Vegas, investing in the stock market rigs the odds in your favor. How can this be? The market is trading at record highs; the Federal Reserve is artificially inflating stocks with Quantitative easing (QE); there is global turmoil flaring up everywhere; and author Michael Lewis says the stock market is rigged with HFT – High Frequency Traders (see Lewis Sells Flash Boys Snake Oil). I freely admit the headlines have been scary, but scary headlines will always exist. More importantly for investors, they should be more focused on factors like record corporate profits (see Halftime Adjustments); near generationally-low interest rates; and reasonable valuation metrics like the price-earnings (P/E) ratios.

Even if you were to ignore these previously mentioned factors, one can use history as a guide for evidence that stocks are rigged in your favor. In fact, if you look at S&P 500 stock returns from 1928 (before the Great Depression) until today, you will see that stock prices are up +72.1% of the time on average.

If the public won at such a high rate in Las Vegas, the town would be broke and closed, with no sign of pyramids, Eiffel Towers, or 46-story water fountains. There’s a reason Las Vegas casinos collected $23 billion in 2013 – the odds are rigged against the public. Even Shaquille O’Neal would be better served by straying away from Vegas and concentrating on stocks. If Shaq could have improved his 52.7% career free-throw percentage to the  72.1% win rate for stocks, perhaps he would have earned a few more championship rings?

Considering a 72% winning percentage, conceptually a “Buy-and-Hold” strategy sounds pretty compelling. In the current market, I definitely feel this type of strategy could beat most market timing and day trading strategies over time. Even better than this strategy, a “Buy Winners-and-Hold Winners” strategy makes more sense. In other words, when investing, the question shouldn’t revolve around “when” to buy, but rather “what” to buy. At Sidoxia Capital Management we are primarily bottom up investors, so the appreciation potential of any security in our view is largely driven by factors such as valuation, earnings growth, and cash flows. With interest rates near record lows and a scarcity of attractive alternatives, the limited options actually make investing decisions much easier.

Scarcity of Alternatives Makes Investing Easier

U.S. investors moan and complain about our paltry 2.42% yield on the 10-Year Treasury Note, but how appetizing, on a risk-reward basis, does a 2.24% Irish 10-year government bond sound? Yes, this is the same country that needed a $100 billion+ bailout during the financial crisis. Better yet, how does a 1.05% yield or 0.51% yield sound on 10-year government treasury bonds from Germany and Japan, respectively? Moreover, what these minuscule yields don’t factor in is the potentially crippling interest rate risk investors will suffer when (not if) interest rates rise.

Fortunately, Sidoxia’s client portfolios are diversified across a broad range of asset classes. The quantitative results from our proprietary 5,000 SHGR (“Sugar”) security database continue to highlight the significant opportunities in the equities markets, relative to the previously discussed “bubblicious” parts of the fixed income markets. Worth noting, investors need to also remove their myopic blinders centered on U.S. large cap stocks. These companies dominate media channel discussions, however there are no shortage of other great opportunities in the broader investment universe, including such areas as small cap stocks, floating-rate bonds, real estate, commodities, emerging markets, alternative investments, etc.

I don’t mind listening to the bearish equity market calls for stock market collapses due to an inevitable Fed stimulus unwind, mean reverting corporate profit margins, or bubble bursting event in China. Nevertheless, when it comes to investing, there is always something to worry about. While there is always some uncertainty, the best investors love uncertainty because those environments create the most opportunities. Stocks can and eventually will go down, but rather than irresponsibly flailing around in and out of risk-on and risk-off trades to time the market (see Market Timing Treadmill), we will continue to steward our clients’ money into areas where we see the best risk-reward prospects.

For those other investors sitting on the sidelines due to market fears, I commend you for coming to the proper conclusion that stock markets are rigged. Now you just need to understand stocks are rigged for you (not against you)…at least 72% of the time.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold a range of exchange traded fund positions, 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.

August 9, 2014 at 5:18 pm 3 comments

Lewis Sells Flash Boys Snake Oil

Snake Oil

I know what you’re saying, “Please, not another article on Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys book and high frequency trading (HFT),” but I can’t resist putting in my two cents after the well-known author emphatically proclaimed the stock market as “rigged.” Lewis is not alone with his outrageous claims… Clark Stanley (“The Rattlesnake King”) made equally outlandish claims in the early 1900s when he sold lucrative Snake Oil Liniment to heal the ailments of the masses. Ultimately Stanley’s assets were seized by the government and the healing assertions of his snake oil were proven fraudulent. Like Stanley, Lewis’s over-the-top comments about HFT traders are now being scrutinized under a microscope by more thoughtful critics than Steve Kroft from 60 Minutes (see television profile). For a more detailed counterpoint, see the Reuters interview with Manoj Narang (Tradeworx) and Haim Bodek (Decimus Capital Markets).

While Lewis may not be selling snake oil, the cash register is still ringing with book sales until the real truth is disseminated. In the meantime, Lewis continues to laugh to the bank as he makes misleading and deceptive claims, just like his snake oil selling predecessors.

The Inside Perspective

Regardless of what side of the fence you fall on, the debate created by Lewis’s book has created deafening controversy. Joining the jihad against HFT is industry veteran Charles Schwab, who distributed a press release calling HFT a “growing cancer” and stating the following:

“High-frequency trading has run amok and is corrupting our capital market system by creating an unleveled playing field for individual investors and driving the wrong incentives for our commodity and equities exchanges.”

 

What Charles Schwab doesn’t admit is that their firm is receiving about $100 million in annual revenues to direct Schwab client orders to the same HFT traders at exchanges in so called “payment-for-order-flow” contracts. Another term to describe this practice would be “kick-backs”.

While Michael Lewis screams bloody murder over investors getting fraudulently skimmed, some other industry legends, including the godfather of index funds, Vanguard founder Jack Bogle, argue that Lewis’s views are too extreme. Bogle reasons, “Main Street is the great beneficiary…We are better off with high-frequency trading than we are without it.”

Like Jack Bogle, other investors who should be pointing the finger at HFT traders are instead patting them on the back. Cliff Asness, managing and founding principal of AQR Capital Management, an institutional investment firm managing about $100 billion in assets, had this to say about HFT in his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed:

“How do we feel about high-frequency trading? We think it helps us. It seems to have reduced our costs and may enable us to manage more investment dollars… on the whole high-frequency traders have lowered costs.”

 

Is HFT Good for Main Street?

Many investors today have already forgotten, or were too young to remember, that stocks used to be priced in fractions before technology narrowed spreads to decimal points in the 1990s. Who has benefited from all this technology? You guessed it…everyone.

Lewis makes the case that the case that all investors are negatively impacted by HFT, including Main Street (individual) investors. Asness maintains costs have been significantly lowered for individual investors:

“For the first time in history, Main Street might have it rigged against Wall Street.”

 

In Flash Boys, Lewis claims HFT traders unscrupulously scalp pennies per share from retail investor pockets by using privileged information to jump in front of ordinary investors (“front-run”). The reality, even if you believe Lewis’s contentions are true, is that technology has turned any perceived detrimental penny-sized skimming scheme into beneficial bucks for ordinary investors. For example, trades that used to cost $40, $50, $100, or more per transaction at the large wirehouse brokerage firms can today be purchased at discount brokerage firms for $7 or less. What’s more, the spread (i.e., the profits available for middlemen) used to be measured in increments of  1/8, 1/4, and 1/2 , when today the spreads are measured in pennies or fractions of pennies. Without any rational explanation, Lewis also dismisses the fact that HFT traders add valuable liquidity to the market. His argument of adding “volume and not liquidity” would make sense if HFT traders only transacted solely with other HFT traders, but that is obviously not the case.

Regardless, as you can see from the chart below, the trend in spreads over the last decade or so has been on a steady, downward, investor-friendly slope.

How Did We Get Here? And What’s Wrong with HFT?

Similarly to our country’s 73,954 page I.R.S. tax code,  the complexity of our financial market trading structure rivals that of our government’s money collection system. The painting of all HFT traders as villains by Lewis is no truer than painting all taxpayers as crooks. Just as there are plenty of crooked and deceitful individuals that push the boundaries of our income tax system, so too are there traders that try to take advantage of an inefficient, Byzantine exchange system. The mere presence of some tax dodgers doesn’t mean that all taxpayers should go to jail, nor should all HFT traders be crucified by the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) police.

The heightened convoluted nature to our country’s exchange-based financial system can be traced back to the establishment of Regulation NMS, which was passed by the SEC in 2005 and implemented in 2007. The aim of this regulatory structure was designed to level the playing field through fairer trade execution and the creation of equal access to transparent price quotations.  However, rather than leveling the playing field, the government destroyed the playing field and fragmented it into many convoluted pieces (i.e., exchanges) – see Wall Street Journal article  and chart below.

The new Reg NMS competition came in the form of exchanges like BATS and Direct Edge (now merging), but the new multi-faceted structures introduced fresh loopholes for HFT traders to exploit – for both themselves and investors. More specifically, HFT traders used expensive, lightning-fast fiber optic cables; privileged access to data centers physically located adjacent to trading exchanges; and then they integrated algorithmic software code to efficiently route orders for best execution.

Are many of these HFT traders and software programs attempting to anticipate market direction? Certainly. As the WSJ excerpt below explains, these traders are shrewdly putting their capitalist genes to the profit-making test:

Computerized firms called high-frequency traders try to pick up clues about what the big players are doing through techniques such as repeatedly placing and instantly canceling thousands of stock orders to detect demand. If such a firm’s algorithm detects that a mutual fund is loading up on a certain stock, the firm’s computers may decide the stock is worth more and can rush to buy it first. That process can make the purchase costlier for the mutual fund.

 

Like any highly profitable business, success eventually attracts competition, and that is exactly what has happened with high frequency trading. To appreciate this fact, all one need to do is look at Goldman Sachs’s actions, which is to leave the NYSE (New York Stock Exchange), shutter its HFT dark pool trading platform (Sigma X), and join IEX, the dark pool created by Brad Katsuyama, the hero placed on a pedestal by Lewis in Flash Boys. Goldman is putting on their “we’re doing what’s best for investors” face on, but more experienced veterans understand that Goldman and all the other HFT traders are mostly just greedy S.O.B.s looking out for their best interests. The calculus is straightforward: As costs of implementing HFT have plummeted, the profit potential has dried up, and the remaining competitors have been left to fend for their Darwinian survival. The TABB Group, a  financial markets’ research and consulting firm, estimates that US equity HFT revenues have declined from approximately $7.2 billion in 2009 to about $1.3 billion in 2014.  As costs for co-locating HFT hardware next to an exchange have plummeted from millions of dollars to as low as $1,000 per month, the HFT market has opened their doors to anyone with a checkbook, programmer, and a pulse. That wasn’t the case a handful of years ago.

The Fixes

Admittedly, not everything is hearts and flowers in HFT land. The Flash Crash of 2010 highlighted how fragmented, convoluted, and opaque our market system has become since Reg NMS was implemented. And although “circuit breaker” remedies have helped prevent a replicated occurrence, there is still room for improvement.

What are some of the solutions? Here are a few ideas:

  • Reform complicated Reg NMS rules – competition is good, complexity is not.
  • Overhaul disclosure around “payment-for-order-flow” contracts (rebates), so potential conflicts of interest can be exposed.
  • Stop inefficient wasteful “quote stuffing” practices by HFT traders.
  • Speed up and improve the quality of the SIP (Security Information Processor), so the gaps between SIP and the direct feed data from exchanges are minimized.
  • Improve tracking and transparency, which can weed out shady players and lower probabilities of another Flash Crash-like event.

These shortcomings of HFT trading do not mean the market is “rigged”, but like our overwhelmingly complex tax system, there is plenty of room for improvement. Another pet peeve of mine is Lewis’s infatuation with stocks. If he really thinks the stock market is rigged, then he should write his next book on the less efficient markets of bonds, futures, and other over-the-counter derivatives. This is much more fertile ground for corruption.

As a former manager of a $20 billion fund, I understand the complications firsthand faced by large institutional investors. In an ever-changing game of cat and mouse, investors of all sizes will continue looking to  execute trades at the best prices (lowest possible purchase and highest possible sales price), while middlemen traders will persist with their ambition to exploit the spread (generate profits between the bid and ask prices). Improvements in technology will always afford a temporary advantage for a few, but in the long-run the benefits for all investors have been undeniable. The same undeniable benefits can’t be said for reading Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys. Like Clark Stanley and other snake oil salesmen before him, it will only take time for the real truth to come out about Lewis’s “rigged” stock market claims.

 

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in GS, SCHW, ICE, 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 11, 2014 at 1:04 pm 3 comments

The Treadmill Market – Jogging in Place

Treadmill

This article is an excerpt from a previously released Sidoxia Capital Management complementary newsletter (April 1, 2014). Subscribe on the right side of the page for the complete text.

After the stock market raced ahead to about a +30% gain last year, it became clear this meteoric trend was not sustainable into perpetuity. Correct investing should be treated more like a marathon than a sprint. After dashing ahead by more than +100% over the last handful of years, 2014 stock prices took a breather by spending the first quarter jogging in place. Like a runner on the treadmill, year-to-date returns equated to a -0.7% for the Dow Jones Industrial Average index, and +1.3% for the S&P index. Digesting the large gains from previous years, despite making no discernable forward progress this quarter, is a healthy exercise that builds long-term portfolio endurance. As far as I’m concerned, nothing in life worthwhile comes easy, and the first three months of the year have demonstrated this principle.

As I’ve written in the past (see Series of Unfortunate Events), there is never a shortage of issues to worry about. The first few months of 2014 have been no exception. Vladimir Putin’s strong armed military backed takeover of Crimea, coupled with the Federal Reserve’s unwinding $30 billion of the $85 billion of its “Quantitative Easing” bond buying program (i.e. tapering) have contributed to investors’ nervousness. When the “Fairy Godmother of the Bull Market,” Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, hinted at potentially raising interest rates in about 12 months, the mood soured further.

The unseasonably cold winter back east (a.k.a., Polar Vortex) has caused some additional jitters due to the dampening effects on economic conditions. More specifically, economic growth as measured by GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is expected to come in around a meager +2.0% rate during the first quarter of 2014, before picking up later in the year.

And if that isn’t enough, best-selling author Michael Lewis, whose books include Money Ball, The Blind Side, and Liar’s Poker, just came out on national television and sparked a debate with his controversial statement that the “stock market is rigged.” (read and listen more here)

Runners High

But as always, not everything is gloom and doom. Offsetting the temporary price fatigue, resilient record corporate profits have supported the surprising market stamina. Like a runner’s high, corporations are feeling elated about historically elevated profit margins. As you can see from the chart below, the reason it’s prudent for most to have some U.S. equity exposure is due to the clear, upward multi-decade trend of U.S. corporate earnings.

Source: Calafia Beach Pundit (gray areas are recessions)  

Source: Calafia Beach Plundit (gray areas are recessions)

While the skeptics wait for these game-ending dynamics to take root, core economic fundamentals in areas like these remain strong:I didn’t invent the idea of profits impacting the stock market, but the concept is simple: stock prices generally follow earnings over long periods of time (see It’s the Earnings, Stupid). In other words, as profits accelerate, so do stock prices – and the opposite holds true (decelerating earnings leads to price declines). This direct relationship normally holds over the long-run as long as the following conditions are not in place: 1) valuations are stretched; 2) a recession is imminent; and/or 3) interest rates are spiking.  Fortunately for long-term investors, there is no compelling evidence of these factors currently in place.

Employment Adrenaline

The employment outlook received a boost of adrenaline last month. Despite the slight upward nudge in the unemployment rate to 6.7%, total nonfarm payroll jobs increased by +175,000 in February versus a +129,000 gain in January and an +84,000 gain in December. Not only was last month’s increase better than expectations, but the net figures calculated over the previous two months were also revised higher by +25,000 jobs. As you can see below, the improvement since 2009 has been fairly steady, but as the current rate flirts with the Fed’s 6.5% target, Chair Yellen has decided to remove the quantitative objective. The rising number of discouraged workers (i.e., voluntarily opt-out of job searching) and part-timers has distorted the numbers, rendering arbitrary numeric targets less useful.

Housing Holding Strong

In the face of the severe winter weather, the feisty housing market remains near multi-year highs as shown in the 5-month moving average housing start figure below. With the spring selling season upon us, we should be able to better gauge the impact of cold weather and higher mortgage rates on the housing market.

Even though stock market investors found themselves jogging in place during the first quarter of the year, long-term investors are building up endurance as corporate profits and the economy continue to consistently grow in the background. Successful investors must realize stock prices cannot sustainably sprint for long periods of time without eventually hitting a wall and collapsing. Those who recognize investing as a marathon sport, rather than a mad dash, will be able to jump off the treadmill and ultimately reach their financial finish line.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

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

April 5, 2014 at 12:02 am Leave a 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

The Big Short: The Silent Ticking Bomb

A bomb was ticking for many years before the collapse of Bear Stearns in March of 2008, but unfortunately for most financial market participants, there were very few investors aware of the looming catastrophe. In The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, author Michael Lewis manages to craft a detailed account of the financial crisis by weaving in the exceptional personal stories of a handful of courageous capitalists. These financial sleuths manage not only to discover the explosive and toxic assets buried on the balance sheets of Wall Street giants, but also to realize massive profits for their successful detective skills.

Lewis was not dabbling in virgin territory when he decided to release yet another book on the financial crisis of 2008-2009. Nonetheless, even after slogging through Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail and Gregory Zuckerman’s The Greatest Trade Ever (see my reviews on Too Big to Fail  and The Greatest Trade Ever),  I still felt obligated to add Michael Lewis’s The Big Short to my bookshelf (OK…my e-reader device). After all, he was the creator of Liar’s Poker, The New New Thing, Moneyball, and The Blind Side, among other books in his distinguished collection.

Genesis of the Bomb Creations

Like bomb sniffing dogs, the main characters that Lewis describes in The Big Short (Michael Burry/Scion Capital; Steve Eisman/Oppenheimer and Co. & FrontPoint Partners; Gregg Lippman/Deutsche Bank (DB); and Jamie Mai & Charlie Ledley/Cornwall Capital) demonstrate an uncanny ability to smell the inevitable destruction, and more importantly have the conviction to put their professional careers and financial wellbeing at risk by making a gutsy contrarian call on the demise of the subprime mortgage market.

How much dough did the characters in the book make? Jamie Mai and Charlie Ledley (Cornwall Capital) exemplify the payoff for those brave, and shrewd enough to short the housing market (luck never hurts either). Lewis highlights the Cornwall crew here:

“Cornwall Capital, started four and a half years earlier with $110,000, had just netted from a million-dollar bet, more than $80 million.”

Lewis goes on to describe the volatile period as “if bombs of differing sizes had been placed in virtually every major Western financial institution.” The size of U.S. subprime bombs (losses) exploding was estimated at around $1 trillion by the IMF (International Monetary Fund).  When it comes to some of the large publicly traded financial institutions, these money bombs manifested themselves in the form of about $50 billion in mortgage-related losses at Merrill Lynch (BAC), $60 billion at Citigroup (C), $9 billion at Morgan Stanley (MS), along with many others.

The subprime market, in and of itself, is actually not that large in the whole scheme of things. Definitions vary, but some described the market at around 7-8 million subprime mortgages outstanding during the peak of the market, which is a small fraction of the overall U.S. mortgage industry. The relatively small subprime market became a gargantuan problem when millions of lucrative subprime side-bets were created through investment banks and unregulated financial behemoths like AIG. The spirits of greed added fuel to the fire as the construction of credit default swap market and synthetic mortgage-backed CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations) were unleashed.

Triggering the Bomb

Multiple constituents, including the rating agencies (S&P [MHP], Moodys [MCO], Fitch) and banks, used faulty assumptions regarding the housing market. Since the subprime market was a somewhat new invention the mathematical models did not know how to properly incorporate declining (and/or moderating) national home prices, since national price declines were not consistent with historical housing data. These models were premised on the notion of Florida subprime price movements not being correlated (moving in opposite directions) with California subprime price movements. This thought process allowed S&P to provide roughly 80% of CDO issues with the top AAA-rating, despite a large percentage of these issues eventually going belly-up.

Lewis punctuated the faulty correlation reasoning underlying these subprime assumptions that dictated the banks’ reckless actions:

“The correlation among triple-B-rated subprime bonds was not 30 percent; it was 100 percent. When one collapsed, they all collapsed, because they were all driven by the same broader economic forces. In the end, it made little sense for a CDO to fall from 100 to 95 to 77 to 70 and down to 7. The subprime bonds beneath them were either all bad or all good. The CDOs were worth either zero or 100.”

Steve Eisman adds his perspective about subprime modeling:

“Just throw the model in the garbage can. The models are all backward looking.”

Ignorance, greed, and other assumptions, such as the credibility of VAR (Value-at-Risk) metrics, accelerated the slope of the financial crisis decline.

Eisman had some choice words about many banking executives’ lack of knowledge, including his gem about Ken Lewis (former CEO of Bank of America):

“I had an epiphany. I said to myself, ‘Oh my God he’s dumb!’ A lightbulb went off. The guy running one of the biggest banks in the world is dumb!”

Or Eisman’s short fuse regarding the rating agency’s refusal to demand critical information from the investment banks due to fear of market share loss:

“Who’s in charge here? You’re the grown up. You’re the cop! Tell them to f**king give it to you!!!…S&P was worried if they demanded the data from Wall Street, Wall Street would just go to Moody’s for their ratings.”

A blatant conflict of interest exists between the issuer and rating agency, which needs to be rectified if credibility will ever return to the rating system. At a minimum, all fixed income investors should wake up and smell the coffee by doing more of their own homework, and relying less on the rubber stamp rating of others. The credit default swap market played a role in the subprime bubble bursting too. Without regulation, it becomes difficult to explain how AIG’s tiny FP (Financial Products) division could generate $300 million in profits annually, or at one point, 15% of AIG’s overall corporate profits.

My Take

The Big Short may simply be recycled financial crisis fodder regurgitated by countless observers, but regardless, there are plenty of redeeming moments in the book. Getting into the book took longer than I expected, given the pedigree and track record of Lewis. Nonetheless, after grinding slowly through about 2/3 of the book, I couldn’t put the thing down in the latter phases.

Lewis chose to take a micro view of the subprime mortgage market, with the personal stories, rather than a macro view. In the first 95% of the book, there is hardly a mention of Bear Stearns (JPM) Lehman Brothers, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs (GS), Fannie Mae (FNM), Freddie Mac (FRE), etc. Nevertheless, at the very end of the book, in the epilogue, Lewis attempts to put a hurried bow around the causes of and solutions to the financial crisis.

There is plenty of room to spread the blame, but Lewis singles out John Gutfreund’s (former Salomon Brothers) decision to take Solly public as a key pivotal point in the moral decline of the banking industry. For more than two decades since the publishing of Liar’s Poker, Lewis’s view on the overall industry remains skeptical:

“The incentives on Wall Street were all wrong; they’re still all wrong.”

His doubts may still remain about the health in the banking industry, and regardless of his forecasting prowess, Michael Lewis will continue sniffing out bombs and writing compelling books on a diverse set of subjects.

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 AIG subsidiary debt, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in BAC, JPM, FRE, FNM, DB, MS, GS, C, MCO, MHP, Fitch, 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 19, 2010 at 1:19 am 3 comments

Equity Life Cycle: The Moneyball Approach

42-16623589

Building a portfolio of stocks is a little like assembling a baseball team. However, unlike a team of real baseball players, constructing a portfolio of stocks can mix low-priced single-A farm players with blue chip Hall of Fame players from the Majors. Billy Beane, the General Manager for the Oakland Athletics, was chronicled in Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball. Beane creates an amazing proprietary system of building teams more cost-efficiently than his deep-pocketed counterparts by statistically identifying undervalued players with higher on-base and slugging percentages. According to Beane, traditional baseball scouts were overpaying for less relevant factors, such as speed (stolen bases) and hitting (batting percentage).

In the stock world, before you can scout your team, you must first determine where in the life cycle the company lies. If Beane were to name this quality, perhaps he would call it Time-to-Maturity (TTM). Some companies operate in small, mature bitterly competitive industries (e.g. shoe laces), while others may operate in large growing markets (e.g. Google [GOOG] in online advertising and algorithmic search). Some companies because of negative regulation or heightened competition have a very short life cycle from early growth to maturity. Other companies with competitive advantages and untapped growth markets can have very long life spans before reaching maturity (think of a younger Coca Cola [KO] or Starbucks [SBUX]). Like Beane talks about in his book, many young, promising, immature baseball players flame out with short TTMs, nonetheless many scouts overpay for the cache´ such players offer.

Unfortunately, many investors do not even contemplate the TTM of their stock. Buying juvenile stocks (i.e., private companies like Twitter & Facebook – see article) or elderly stocks in and of itself is not a bad thing, but before you price a security it’s advantageous to know what type of discount or premium is deserved. Obviously, I’m looking for undervalued stocks across all age spectrums, however finding an undervalued, undiscovered late-teen just beginning on its long runway of growth combines the best of all worlds. Finding what Peter Lynch calls the “multi-baggers” is easier said than done, like searching for a needle in a haystack, but the rewards can be handsome.

Life Cycle

What creates long runways of growth – the equivalent of winning dynasties in baseball? Well, there are several contributors leading to longer TTMs, including economies of scale, large industries, barriers to entry, competitive advantages, growing industries, superior and experienced management teams, to name a few factors. But like anything, even the great growth companies, including Microsoft (MSFT), turn from teenagers to mature adults. As famed businessman Thomas Brittingham said, A good horse can’t go on winning races forever, and a good stock eventually passes its peak, too.”

There are many aspects to creating a winning team. If Billy Beane were to draw up factors for a baseball team, I’m confident TTM would be near the top of his list. What you pay for the length of the growth cycle is obviously imperative, but since I’m a strong believer in the tenet that “price follows earnings,” it only makes sense that above average sustainable earnings growth should eventually lead to superior price appreciation. As Bob Smith, successful manager from T. Rowe Price states, “The important thing is not what you pay for the stock, so much as being right on the company.” So if you want to recruit a portfolio of winning stocks, like Billy Beane picks successful baseball players, then include the equity life cycle maturity statistic as a factor in your selection process.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management nor its client accounts have no direct position in MSFT, SBUX, KO, Facebook, or Twitter shares at the time this article was originally posted. Some Sidoxia Capital Management accounts do have a long position in GOOG shares. 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 15, 2009 at 2:00 am 8 comments


Receive Investing Caffeine blog posts by email.

Join 1,797 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