Posts tagged ‘Moodys’

Ball & Chaining the Rating Agencies

After sifting through the rubble of the financial crisis of 2008-2009, Congress is spreading the blame liberally across various constituencies, including the almighty rating agencies (think of Moody’s [MCO], Standard & Poor’s [MHP], and Fitch). The Senate recently added a proposed amendment to the financial regulation bill that would establish a government appointed panel to select a designated credit rating agency for certain debt deals. The proposal is designed to remove the inherent conflict of interest of debt issuers – such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), Morgan Stanley (MS), UBS, and others – shopping around for higher ratings in exchange for higher payments to the banks. The credit rating agencies are not satisfied with being weighed down with a ball and chain, and apparently New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is sympathetic with the agencies. Cuomo recently subpoenaed Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Morgan Stanley, UBS and five other banks to see whether the banks misled credit-rating services about mortgage-backed securities.

Slippery Slope of Government Intervention

Many different professions, inside and outside the financial industry, provide critical advice in exchange for monetary compensation. In many industries there are inherent conflicts of interest between the professional and the end-user, and a related opinion provided by the pro may result in a bad outcome. If government intervention is the appropriate solution in the rating agency field, then maybe we should answer the following questions related to other fields before we rush to regulation:

  • Should the government control which auditors check the books of every American company because executives may opportunistically shop around for more lenient reviews of their financials?
  • Perhaps the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) should dictate which investment bank should underwrite an Initial Public Offering (IPO) or other stock issuance?
  • Maybe the government should decide which medicine or surgery should be administered by a doctor because they received funding or donations from a drug and device company?  

Where do you draw the line? Is the amendment issued by Al Franken (Senator of Minnesota) a well thought out proposal to improve the conflicts of interest, or is this merely a knee-jerk reaction to sock it some greedy Wall Street-ers and solidify additional scapegoats in the global financial meltdown?

In addition to including a controversial government-led rating agency selection process, the transforming regulatory reform bill also includes a dramatic change to ban “naked” credit default swaps (CDS). As I’ve written in the past, derivatives of all types can be used to hedge (protect) or speculate (e.g., naked CDS).  Singling out a specific derivative product and strategy like naked CDSs is like banning all Browning 9x19mm Hi-Power pistols, but allowing hundreds of other gun-types to be sold and used. Conceptually, proper use of a naked CDS by a trader is the same as the proper use of a gun by a recreational hunter (see my derivatives article).

Solutions

Rather than additional government intervention into the rating agency and derivative fields, perhaps additional disclosure, transparency, capital requirements, and harsher penalties can be instituted. There will always be abusers, but as we learned from the collapse of Arthur Andersen on the road to Enron’s bankruptcy, there can be  cruel consequences to bad actors. If investment banks misrepresent opinions, laws can lead to severe results also. Take Jack Grubman, hypester of Worldcom stock, who was banned for life from the securities industry and forced to pay $15 million in fines. Or Henry Blodget, who too was banned from the securities industry and paid millions in fines, not to mention the $200 million in fraud damages Merrill Lynch was forced to pay.

At the end of the day, enough disclosure and transparency needs to be made available to investors so they can make their own decisions. Those institutional investors that piled into these toxic, mortgage-related securities and lost their shirts because of over-reliance on the rating agencies’ evaluations deserve to lose money. If these structures were too complex to understand, then this so-called sophisticated institutional investor base should have balked from participation. Of course, if the banks or credit agencies misrepresented the complex investments, then sure, those intermediaries should suffer the full brunt of the law.

Although weighing down the cash-rich credit rating agencies (and CDS creators) with ball and chain regulations may appease the populist sentiment in the short-run, the reduction in conflicts of interest might be overwhelmed by the unintended consequences. Now if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to do my homework on a naked CDS related to a AAA-rated synthetic CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation).

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in MCO, MHP, GS, MS, JPM, UBS, BAC, T 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.

May 17, 2010 at 12:42 am Leave a comment

Sukuk: Islamic Loophole for Dubai Debt Debacle

Islamic followers can be capitalists too. Although oil prices (currently around $77 per barrel) have fallen from the peak near $150 per barrel in 2008, oil rich nations have gotten creative in how they raise debt-like financing. Critical to fueling the speculative expansion in some oil rich areas has been the growth in sukuk bonds, which have been created as a function of an exploited loophole embedded in Islamic finance principles.

U.S. Does Not Have Monopoly on Debt Driven Greed

The pricked debt bubble that spanned a range of entities, from Icelandic banks to Donald Trump’s empire (read more),  has now spread to Dubai commercial real estate. At the center of the storm is Dubai World, a quasi-government owned conglomerate of Dubai, which is in the process of negotiating a $26 billion debt restructuring with the government and sukuk bondholders. The overleveraged Dubai market ($80 billion in total debt) is home to the tallest building in the world, largest man-made islands, and a ski-resort based in the desert – all projects built with the help of debt in the face of collapsing real estate prices. Critical to Dubai World’s debt restructuring is a $3.5 billion sukuk bond issued by its commercial real estate subsidiary Nakheel Development (“Nakheel”). So what exactly is a sukuk (plural of sakk)?

Investopedia lists the following definition for sukuk:

“An Islamic financial certificate, similar to a bond in Western finance, that complies with Sharia, Islamic religious law. Because the traditional Western interest paying bond structure is not permissible, the issuer of a sukuk sells an investor group the certificate, who then rents it back to the issuer for a predetermined rental fee. The issuer also makes a contractual promise to buy back the bonds at a future date at par value.”

 

Sukuk “No-No”s

The generation of money on top of money – interest payments or what’s called “Riba” – is strictly forbidden by Shari’ah law. As a result, issuers must issue and repurchase sukuk at par (original value), not at a discount or a premium. Shari’ah law encompasses more than Islamic law, it also covers the amorphous spiritual and moral obligations demanded from the religious practitioners. In order to ensure compliance with Islamic principles, many financial institutions and funds typically have a Shari’ah Board monitoring the details of the sukuk. Shari’ah law is very consistent with the teachings in the Quran (the Western version of the Bible). Mixing finance and religion may seem strange on the surface, but I guess if we use world history as a proxy, we shouldn’t be surprised that money and Muhammad somehow find a way to coexist.

Click Here to View CNBC Interview on Sukuk Bonds

Sukuk Structure  & Market

The core Islamic finance principles underpinning the sukuk market have been around for more than 1,500 years, but the actual sukuk market was actually introduced in Malaysia around 1990. Since then, the market has been on a continual uptrend. What makes this $1 trillion Islamic debt market (HSBC estimate) even fuzzier is the scores of sukuk structures (See Ijara Sukuk chart below – very similar to a sale-leaseback arrangement), and the diverse geographic issuer/investor base. For example, greater than 60% of Nakheel’s investors are based outside the Middle East (a large portion in Malaysia). Making matters as clear as mud, each geographic region and structure has its own interpretation of legal rights and Shari’ah law. Layer on issues such as derivatives, bankruptcy rights, and penalty fees and you end up with only more complexity. What’s more, many of these sukuk bonds involve Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) – made famous by the off-balance sheet variety used by Enron Corp. – in order to get around the Islamic issuance loopholes.

 

Source: Moody's Investor Service

Sukuk Liquidity

The illiquidity of sukuk market hasn’t made resolving the Dubai debt restructuring any easier. The sukuk market doesn’t come close to matching the liquidity of traditional corporate and sovereign debt markets. Little trading is done in secondary markets because most investors in sukuk bonds follow a buy and hold strategy. The lion’s share of trading in this immature market gets completed through inter-institution, over-the-counter transactions. A recent $500 million sukuk deal issued by General Electric (GE) last month has only raised awareness for the financing structure (pre-Nakheel restructuring).  As oil rich states strive to diversify their economic bases, I would expect more deals to get done, in spite of the recent Dubai mess. How severe the recent Dubai sukuk black eye will be depends on how Nakheel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Abu Dhabi, bondholders, and other constituents restructure the pending sukuk obligations by the December 14th deadline.

 The recent debt restructuring talks in Dubai highlight the complexity of this relatively new Islamic financing structure. With very few sukuk bankruptcy cases in existence, the structures remain largely untested and uncertain. How the Dubai debt debacle ultimately gets resolved will have a significant impact on this nascent, but rapidly growing market. Until the sukuk restructuring is settled, Dubai may just need to put the construction of that next man-made island on hold.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Information and data from Moody’s Investor Service (Shari’ah and Sukuk: A Moody’s Primer 5/31/2006), CNBC interview 12/2/09, Financial Times 12/1/09, and other articles. Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at time of publishing had no direct positions in GE. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

December 3, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

Economic Indicators Like Kissing Your Sister

i kiss my sister

The economy is on the mend, but we are obviously not out of the woods. Leverage and asset inflation through the housing bubble were major causes of the financial crisis of 2008-09. Now some of the major indicators are turning upwards with GDP expected to rise around +3% in Q3 this year and we are seeing housing units up, housing prices up, and housing inventories down (charts below). Although some of these numbers may create some warm and fuzzy sensations, abnormally high unemployment rates, massive budget deficits, and stuttering consumer confidence make this rebound feel more like kissing your sister.

There are, however, other signs of economic strength. For example, credit appears to be healing as well. Moodys predicts global speculative debt default rates will peak in Q4 this year at 12.5% – lower than the 18% Moodys predicted earlier this year in January. The CEO Confidence Board index, which typically leads profit growth by two quarters, jumped to a five year high in the 3rd quarter. The recovery is not limited to our domestic economy either – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently raised its global growth forecasts in 2010 from +2.5% to +3.1%.

Housing Data 9-09

Housing Sales Up, Inventories Down (Source: National Association of Realtors)

How sustainable is the recovery? Bears like Nouriel Roubini still think we are likely heading into a double-dip recession, perhaps by mid-2010, once the temporary home purchase credits expire and the stimulus funds run out. A collapse in the dollar due to exploding debt and rising deficits is feared to cause a spiraling in debt costs – another factor that could cause a relapse into recession. Unemployment remains at an abnormally 26 year high at 9.8% (September) and any self-maintaining recovery will require an improvement from this deteriorating trend. Before consumers freely open their wallets and purses, consumer confidence could use a boost in light of the recent -10% month-to-month drop in October.

Unemployment Rate 9-09

Source: Associated Press (AP)

Fewer people are debating the existence of “green shoots,” however now the discussion is turning to sustainability. Time will tell whether those feelings of harmless sibling cheek pecks will lead to the discovery of a new long-lasting romantic relationship with a non-family member.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: 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 28, 2009 at 2:00 am 4 comments

EPS House of Cards: Tricks of the Trade

House of cards and money

As we enter the quarterly ritual of the tsunami of earnings reports, investors will be combing through the financial reports. Due to the flood of information, and increasingly shorter and shorter investment time horizons, much of investors’ focus will center on a few quarterly report metrics – primarily earnings per share (EPS), revenues, and forecasts/guidance (if provided).

Many lessons have been learned from the financial crisis over the last few years, and one of the major ones is to do your homework thoroughly. Relying on a AAA ratings from Moody’s (MCO) and S&P (when ratings should have been more appropriately graded D or F) or blindly following a “Buy” rating from a conflicted investment banking firm just does not make sense.

FINANCIAL SECTOR COLLAPSE

Given the severity of the losses, investors need to be more demanding and comprehensive in their earnings analysis. In many instances the reported earnings numbers resemble a deceptive house of cards on a weak foundation, merely overlooked by distracted investors. Case in point is the Financial sector, which before the financial collapse saw distorted multi-year growth, propelled by phantom earnings due to artificial asset inflation and excessive leverage. One need look no further than the weighting of Financial stocks, which ballooned from 5% of the total S&P 500 Index market capitalization in 1980 to a peak of 23% in 2007. Once the credit and real estate bubble burst, the sector subsequently imploded to around 9% of the index value around the March 2009 lows. Let’s be honest, and ask ourselves how much faith can we put in the Financial sector earnings figures that moved from +$22.79 in 2007 to a loss of -$21.24 in 2008? Current forecasts for the sector are looking for a rebound back up to +$11.91 in 2010. Luckily, the opacity and black box nature of many of these Financials largely kept me out of the 2009 sector implosion. 

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

But the Financial sector is not the only fuzzy areas of accounting manipulation. Thanks to our friends at the FASB (Financial Accounting Standards Board), company management teams have discretion in how they apply different GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) rules. Saj Karsan, a contributing writer at Morningstar.com, also writes about the “Fallacy of Earnings Per Share.”

“EPS can fluctuate wildly from year to year. Writedowns, abnormal business conditions, asset sale gains/losses and other unusual factors find their way into EPS quite often. Investors are urged to average EPS over a business cycle, as stressed in Security Analysis Chapter 37, in order to get a true picture of a company’s earnings power.”

 

These gray areas of interpretation can lead to a range of distorted EPS outcomes. Here are a few ways companies can manipulate their EPS:

Distorted Expenses: If a $10 million manufacturing plant is expected to last 10 years, then the depreciation expense should be $1 million per year. If for some reason the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) suddenly decided the building would last 40 years rather than 10 years, then the expense would only be $250,000 per year. Voila, an instant $750,000 annual gain was created out of thin air due to management’s change in estimates.

Magical Revenues: Some companies have been known to do what’s called “stuffing the channel.” Or in other words, companies sometimes will ship product to a distributor or customer even if there is no immediate demand for that product. This practice can potentially increase the revenue of the reporting company, while providing the customer with more inventory on-hand. The major problem with the strategy is cash collection, which can be pushed way off in the future or become uncollectible.

Accounting Shifts: Under certain circumstances, specific expenses can be converted to an asset on the balance sheet, leading to inflated EPS numbers. A common example of this phenomenon occurs in the software industry, where software engineering expenses on the income statement get converted to capitalized software assets on the balance sheet. Again, like other schemes, this practice delays the negative expense effects on reported earnings.

Artificial Income: Not only did many of the trouble banks make imprudent loans to borrowers that were unlikely to repay, but the loans were made based on assumptions that asset prices would go up indefinitely and credit costs would remain freakishly low. Based on the overly optimistic repayment and loss assumptions, banks recognized massive amounts of gains which propelled even more imprudent loans. Needless to say, investors are now more tightly questioning these assumptions. That said, recent relaxation of mark-to-market accounting makes it even more difficult to estimate the true values of assets on the bank’s balance sheets.

Like dieting, there are no easy solutions. Tearing through the financial statements is tough work and requires a lot of diligence. My process of identifying winning stocks is heavily cash flow based (see my article on cash flow investing) analysis, which although lumpier and more volatile than basic EPS analysis, provides a deeper understanding of a company’s value-creating capabilities and true cash generation powers.

As earnings season kicks into full gear, do yourself a favor and not only take a more critical” eye towards company earnings, but follow the cash to a firmer conviction in your stock picks. Otherwise, those shaky EPS numbers may lead to a tumbling house of cards.  

Read Saj Karsan’s Full Article

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management has no direct position in MCO or MHP at the time this article was originally posted. 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 13, 2009 at 2:00 am 2 comments

California the Golden State Turning Brown

 

ToastCalifornia is facing a significant cash crunch as the state attempts the narrowing of its $24 billion budget deficit. The crisis will come to a head now that the fiscal year, June 2009, budget deadline has passed. Without a budget resolution and in order to fill the budget gap, the California government will need to start issuing billions of government IOUs to contractors and vendors, local agencies handling health programs, as well as some receiving state aid.

Moodys rates the Golden State as the lowest rated state of all 50 at A2. The average rating for all states is AA2 and only two other states besides California are rated below AA. At the beginning of 2009 the state bought some breathing room by delaying cash tax refunds, but that cushion has rapidly deteriorated as the economy and employment outlook have deteriorated. Making things worse for the state, relative to other states, is the state constitutional inflexibility requiring voter approval for deficit borrowing.

Time will tell if Governor Schwarzenegger can gather the votes necessary to prevent bond defaults. President Obama and other states are watching closely as the actions (or inactions) will have a ripple through effect for everyone. At 13% of the nation’s GDP, California’s economy impacts the overall country in a significant manner.

Let’s hope the state maintains its “golden” status and does not get burnt.

July 2, 2009 at 4:00 am Leave a comment


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