Posts tagged ‘rating agencies’

Stretching Rubber Band Creating More Value

Concerns over debt ceiling negotiations, European financial challenges, and overall economic malaise has reached a feverish pitch in the U.S., yet in the background, a valuation rubber band  has quietly been stretching to ever more attractive levels. Regardless of whether seniors might not receive Social Security checks, troops not obtain ammunition, and investors not collect credit rating agency love, corporations keep churning profits out like they are going out of style (17%+ growth in 2011 estimated earnings). We have barely scratched the surface on earnings season, and I’m sure better than expected earnings from the likes of Google Inc. (GOOG), JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), FedEx Corp. (FDX), Nike Inc. (NKE), and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. (BBBY) will not sway the bears, but in the meantime profits keep chugging along. Although profits have more than doubled in the last 12 years, not to mention a halving in interest rates (10-year Treasury yield cut from 6% to about 3%), yet the S&P 500 is still down approximately -4% (June 1999 – June 2011).

What Gives?

Could the valuation stretching continue as earnings continue to grind higher? Absolutely. Just because prices have been chopped in half, doesn’t mean they can’t go lower. From 1966 – 1982 the Dow Jones Industrial index traded at around 800 and P/E multiples contracted to single digits. That rubber band eventually snapped and the index catapulted 17-fold from 800 to almost 14,000 in 25 years. Even though equities have struggled in the 21st century, a few things have changed from the low-point reached about 30 years ago. For starters, we have not hit an inflation rate of 15% or a Federal Funds rate of 20% (4% and 0% today, respectively), so we have a tad bit more headroom before the single digit P/E apocalypse descends upon us. If you listen to Peter Lynch, investor extraordinaire, his “Rule of 20” states a market equilibrium P/E ratio should equal 20 minus the inflation rate. This rule would imply an equilibrium P/E ratio of 16-17 when the current 2011 P/E multiple implies a value slightly above 13 times earnings. The bears may claim victory if the earnings denominator collapses, but if earnings, on the contrary, continue coming in better than expected, then the sun might break through the clouds in the form of significant price appreciation.

Another change that has occurred since the days of Cabbage Patch dolls has been the opening floodgates of globalization. The technology revolution has accelerated the flattening of the globe, which has created numerous new opportunities and threats. Creating a company like Facebook with about 750 million users and an estimated value of $80 billion to $100 billion couldn’t happen 30 years ago, but on the flip side, our country is also competing with billions of motivated brains lurking in the far reaches of the world with a singular focus of sucking away our jobs, resources, and dollars. Winners recognize this threat and are currently adapting. Losers blind to this trend remain busy digging their own graves.

Future is Uncertain

As famous Jedi Master Yoda aptly identified, “Always in motion is the future.” The future is always uncertain, and if it wasn’t, I would be on my private island drinking umbrella drinks all day. With undecided debt ceiling negotiations occurring over the next few weeks, political rhetoric will be blaring and traders will be hyperventilating with defibrillator paddles close at hand. If history is a guide, stupid decisions may be made, but the almighty financial markets (and maybe a few Molotov cocktails at a local protest rally) will eventually slap politicians in the face to wake up to reality. Perhaps you recall the attention the markets earned from legislators when the Dow fell 777 points in a single September 2008 trading session. Blood on the streets forced Congress to approve the Troubled Asset Relief Program hot potato four days after the initial vote failed. And if that wasn’t a gentle enough reminder for Democrats and Republicans, then a few lessons can be learned from the interest rate sledgehammer that capital markets vigilantes have slammed on the Greeks (10-year Greek yields are hovering above 17%+).

Down but Not Out

The stories of debt collapse, hyperinflation, double-dip recessions, plunging dollar, secular bear markets, and government shutdowns are all plausible but remote scenarios. As Winston Churchill so eloquently stated, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” Voter moods are so venomous that if fiscal irresponsibility is not changed, politicians will be voted straight out of office – even hardcore, extremist elected officials understand this self-serving point.

Suffice it to say, as the political noise reaches a deafening pitch in the coming weeks and months, a quiet rubber band in the background keeps stretching. When the political noise dies down, you may just hear a noise snapping stock prices higher.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

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

July 15, 2011 at 12:17 am Leave a comment

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


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