Posts tagged ‘real estate’

Getting & Staying Rich 101

Fred J. Young worked 27 years as a professional money manager and investment counselor in the trust department at Harris Bank in Chicago. While working there he learned a few things about wealth accumulation and preservation, which he outlines in his book How to Get Rich and Stay Rich.

There is more than one way to skin a cat, and when it comes to getting rich, Young describes the only three ways of getting loaded:

1.)    Inherit It: Using this method on the path to richness generally doesn’t take a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (perhaps a little brown-nosing wouldn’t hurt), but young freely admits you can skip his book if you are fortunate enough to garner boatloads of cash through your ancestry.

2.)    Marry It: This approach to wealth accumulation can require a bit more effort than method number one. However, Young explains that if the Good Lord intended you to find your lifetime lover through destiny, then if your soul-mate has a lot of dough Young advises, “You [should] graciously accept the situation. Don’t fight it.”

3.)    Spend < Earn: Normally this avenue to champagne and caviar requires the most effort. How does one execute option number three? “You spend less than you earn and invest the difference in something you think will increase in value and make you rich,” simply states Young. Sounds straightforward, but what does one invest their excess cash in? Young succinctly lists the customary investment tools of choice for wealth creation:

  • Real estate
  • Own their own business
  • Common stocks
  • Savings accounts (thanks to the magic of compound interest rates) – see also Penny Saved is Billions Earned 

Rich Luck

If faced with choosing between good luck and good judgment, here is Fred Young’s response:

“You should take good luck. Good luck, by definition, denotes success. Good judgment can still go wrong.”

 

Like many endeavors, it’s good to have some of both (good luck and good judgment).

The Role of Courage

Courage is especially important when it comes to equity investing because buying stocks includes a very counterintuitive behavioral aspect that requires courage. Following the herd of average investors and buying stocks at new highs is easy and does not require a lot of courage. Young describes the various types of courage required for successful investing:

“The courage to buy when others are selling; the courage to buy when stocks are hitting new lows; the courage to buy when the economy looks bad; courage to buy at the bottom…The times when the gloom was the thickest invariably turned out to have been the best times to buy stocks.”

 

Keeping the Cash

Becoming rich is only half the challenge. In many cases staying rich can be just as difficult as accumulating the wealth. Young points out the intolerable pain caused by transitioning from wealth to poverty. What is Young’s solution to this tricky problem? Seek professional help. The risks undertaken to build wealth still exist when you are rich, and those same risks have the capability of tearing financial security away.

There are three paths to riches according to Fred Young (inheritance, marriage, and prudent investing). Some of these directions leading to mega-money require more effort than others, but if you are lucky enough to have deep pockets of riches, make sure you have the discipline and focus necessary to maintain that wealth – those deep pockets could have a hole.

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.

May 6, 2011 at 12:26 am 1 comment

Your Portfolio’s Silent Killer

Shhh, if you listen closely enough, you may hear the sound of your portfolio disintegrating away due to the quiet killer…inflation. Inflation is especially worrisome with what we’ve seen happening with commodity prices and the drastic fiscal challenges our country faces. Quantitative Easing (read Flying to the Moon) has only added fuel to the inflation fear flames.

Whether you’re a conspiracy theorist who believes the government inflation data is cooked, or you are a Baby Boomer just looking to secure your retirement, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that movies, pair of jeans, a tank of gas, concert tickets, or healthcare premiums are all going up in price (See also Bacon and Oreo Future).

Inflation starting to heat up. Source: IMF/Bloomberg via Financial Times

Companies are currently churning out quarterly results in volume and seeing the impact from commodity prices, whether you are McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) facing rising beef prices or luxury handbag maker Coach Inc. (COH) dealing with escalating leather costs, margins are getting crimped. Investors, especially those on fixed income streams, are experiencing the same pain as these corporations, but the problem is much worse. Unlike a market share leading company that can pass on price increases onto its customers, an investor with piles of cash, and low yielding CDs (Certificates of Deposit), and bonds runs the risk of getting eaten alive. Baby Boomers are beginning to reach retirement age in mass volume. Life spans are extending, and this demographic pool of individuals will become ever-large consumers of costlier and costlier healthcare services. If investments are not prudently managed, Baby Boomers will see their nest eggs evaporate, and be forced to work as Wal-Mart (WMT) greeters into their 80s…not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Every day investors are bombarded with a hundred different scary headlines on why the economy will collapse or the world will end. Most of these sensationalist scare tactics distort the truth and overstate reality. What is understated is what Charles Ellis (see Winning the Loser’s Game) calls a “corrosive power”:

“Over the long run, inflation is the major problem for investors, not the attention-getting daily or cyclical changes in securities prices that most investors fret about. The corrosive power of inflation is truly daunting: At 3 percent inflation – which most people accept as ‘normal’ – the purchasing power of your money is cut in half in 24 years. At 5 percent inflation, the purchasing power of your money is cut in half in less than 15 years – and cut in half again in 15 years to just one-quarter.”

 

In order to bolster his case, Ellis cites the following period:

“From 1977 to 1982, the inflation-adjusted Dow Jones Industrial Average took a five-year loss of 63 percent…In the 15 years from the late 1960s to the early 1980s the unweighted stock market, adjusted for inflation, plunged by about 80 percent. As a result, the decade of the 1970s was actually worse for investors than the decade of the 1930s.”

 

Solutions – How to Beat Inflation

Although the gold bugs would have you believe it, we are not resigned to live in a world with worthless money, which only has a useful purpose as toilet paper. There are ways to protect your portfolio, if you are properly invested. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protection Securities): These government-guaranteed tools are a useful way to protect yourself against rising inflation (see Drowning TIPS).  
  • Equities (including real estate): Bond issuers do not generally call up there investors and say, “You are such a great investor, so we have decided to increase your interest payments.” However, many publicly traded stocks do exactly that. Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) is an example of such a company that has increased its dividend for 37 consecutive years. As alluded to earlier, stocks are unique in that they allow inflationary pressures placed on operating profits to be relieved somewhat by the ability to pass on price increases to customers.  
  • Commodities: Whether you are talking about petroleum products, precious metals (those with a commercial purpose), or agricultural goods, commodities in general act as a great inflationary hedge. Another reason that commodities broadly perform better in an inflationary environment is because the U.S. dollar can often depreciate, which commonly increases the value of commodities.
  • Short Duration Bonds: Rising rates are usually tied to escalating inflation, therefore investors would be best served by reducing maturity length and increasing coupon.

There are other ways of battling the inflation problem, but number one is saving and investing across a broadly diversified portfolio. If you want to secure and grow your nest egg, you need to use the silent power of compounding (see Penny Saved is Billion Earned) to combat the silent killer of inflation.

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, WMT, TIP, equities, commodities, and short duration bonds, 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.

January 26, 2011 at 1:18 am 2 comments

Paulson Funds: From Ruth’s Chris’s to Denny’s

Investing in hedge funds is similar to eating at a high-priced establishment like Ruth’s Chris’s (RUTH) – not everyone can eat there and the prices are high. In dining terms, John Paulson, President of Paulson & Co. (approximately $34 billion in assets under management), may be considered the managing chef of the upper-crust restaurant. But rather than opening the doors of his funds to an elite few, Paulson is now making his select strategies available to the masses through a much more affordable structure. Or in other words, Paulson is opening an investing version of Denny’s (DENN), in addition to his Ruth’s Chris, so a broader set of investors can buy into his funds at a reasonable price.

Hedge funds typically are reserved for pension funds, endowments, wealthy individuals, or so-called “accredited investors” – individuals earning $200,000 annually, couples earning $300,000, or people with a net worth greater than $1,000,000. By using alternate structures, Paulson will be able to bypass the accredited investor regulatory requirements and reach a more expansive audience.

UCITS Added as a New Item on the Menu

How exactly is Paulson opening his hedge fund strategies to the broader public on a Denny’s menu? He is assembling what is called a “Ucits” structure (Undertakings for Collective Investments in Transferable Securities). These investment vehicles, adopted in 1985, resemble mutual funds and are domiciled in Europe. Although Ucits have been used by relatively few hedge fund managers, Paulson is not the first to institute them (York Capital, Highbridge Capital Management, BlueCrest Capital, and AHL are among the others who have already taken the plunge). According to the Financial Times, Paulson’s Ucits funds will launch later this year. Part of the reason this structure was chosen over others is because the regulations associated with these structures are expected to be less stringent than other onerous regulations currently being discussed by the European Union.

Will the Investing Mouths be Fed?

Should this move by Paulson be surprising? Perhaps Andy Warhol’s quote about everyone being famous for 15 minutes is apropos. Paulson’s $15 billion subprime housing profits in 2007 (read The Greatest Trade Ever)  were a handsome reward and now he is attempting to further his wealth position based on this notoriety. Do I blame him? No, not at all, but time will tell if he will be viewed as a one-hit wonder, or whether his subprime bet was only an opening act. More recently, Paulson has been vocal about his seemingly peculiar combination of bullish wagers on gold and California real estate, which he sees rising in price by +20% in 2010 (see Paulson on California home rally).  With his optimistic outlook on the U.S. markets and economy, his gold play apparently is riding on the expectation of a future inflation flare up, not another financial meltdown, which was the catalyst that catapulted gold prices higher in late 2008 and throughout 2009.

I’m not sure how many domestic investors will participate in these Ucits investments, however I am eager to see the prospectuses associated with the funds. Like most hedge funds, caution should be used when investing in these types of vehicles, and should only be used as a part of a broadly diversified investment portfolio. For most investors, my guess is the Paulson funds will have an attractive price of entry (i.e., availability), much like a Denny’s restaurant, but the quality and fee structure may be as desirable as a $5.99 greasy steak and pile of gravy-covered mash potatoes.

Read the Entire Financial Times Article on Paulson’s Ucits Launch

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 positions in RUTH, DENN, 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 25, 2010 at 11:25 pm Leave a comment

Seesawing Through Organized Chaos

Still fresh in the minds of investors are the open wounds created by the incredible volatility that peaked just a little over a year ago, when the price of insurance sky-rocketed as measured by the Volatility Index (VIX).  Even though equity markets troughed in March of 2009, earlier the VIX reached a climax over 80 in November 2008. With financial institutions falling like flies and toxic assets clogging up the lending pipelines, virtually all asset classes moved downwards in unison during the frefall of 2008 and early 2009. The traditional teeter-totter phenomenon of some asset classes rising simultaneously while others were falling did not hold.  With the recent turmoil in Greece coupled with the “Flash Crash” (read making $$$ trading article) and spooky headline du jour, the markets have temporarily reverted back to organized chaos. What I mean by that is even though the market recently dove about +8% in 8 days, we saw the teeter-totter benefits of diversification kick in over the last month.

Seesaw Success

While the S&P fell about -4.5% over the studied period below, the alternate highlighted asset classes managed to grind out positive returns.

 

While traditional volatility has returned after a meteoric bounce in 2009, there should be more investment opportunities to invest around. With the VIX hovering in the mid-30s after a brief stay above 40 a few weeks ago, I would not be surprised to see a reversion to a more normalized fear gauge in the 20s – although my game plan is not dependent on this occurring.

VIX Chart Source: Yahoo! Finance

Regardless of the direction of volatility, I’m encouraged that even during periods of mini-panics, there are hopeful signs that investors are able to seesaw through periods of organized chaos with the assistance of good old diversification.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including AGG, BND, VNQ, IJR and TIP), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in VXX, GLD,  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 19, 2010 at 12:28 am 3 comments

Getting Distressed can be a Beach

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

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

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

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

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

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

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

March 3, 2010 at 2:14 am 3 comments

Metrics Mix-Up: Stocks and Real Estate Valuation

When it comes to making money, investors choose from a broad menu of investment categories, ranging all the way from baseball cards and wines to collectible cars and art. Two of the larger and more popular investment categories are stocks and real estate. Unfortunately for those poor souls (such as me) analyzing these two classes of assets, the stock and real estate investor bigwigs have not come together to create an integrated metric system. Much the same way the United States has chosen to go it alone on a proprietary customary unit measurement system with Burma and Liberia – choosing inches and feet over centimeters and meters. On the subject of stock and real estate valuation, investors and industry professionals have been stubbornly defiant in designing unique and cryptic terminology, despite sharing the exact same financial principles.

Who Cares About Real Estate?

Well, apparently everyone. Southern California doesn’t have a monopoly on real estate, but through my practice in Orange County, I find it difficult to not trip over real estate investors on a daily basis. I work in effectively what was “ground zero” of the subprime debacle and the commercial real estate pains continue to ripple through “the OC.”

Ramping up the real estate learning curve reminds me of my high school Spanish class – I understood enough Spanish to work my way through a Taco Bell menu but little else. In order to actually learn Spanish I had to completely immerse myself in the language, even if it meant continually speaking to my classmates in Spanish through my alias (Paco).

Real Estate Foundational Terms

Despite being a relative new resident in the Orange County area, engrossing myself in real estate hasn’t been much of a challenge. Over a brief period, my interactions and conversations taught me my financial degrees and credentials were just as applicable in the realty world as they were in the stock market world. While evaluating real estate valuation techniques, I discovered two new key terms:

1)      NOI (Net Operating Income): Unlike stock analysis, which uses “Net Income” as a core driver in determining an asset’s value, real estate relies on NOI. Net operating income is generally derived by calculating income before depreciation and interest expense. In finance, there are many versions of income. I’m sure there are more explanations, but two reasons behind the selection of NOI in real estate valuation over other metrics is due to the following: a) NOI may be used as a proxy for cash flow, which can be integral in many valuation techniques; and b) NOI is “capital structure neutral” if comparing multiple properties. Therefore, NOI allows an investor to compare varying properties on an apples-to-apples basis regardless of whether a property is massively leveraged or debt-free.

2)      Cap Rate (Capitalization Rate): This ratio is computed by taking the NOI and dividing it by a property’s initial cost (or value). In stock market language, you can think of a “cap rate” as an inverted P/E (Price – Earnings) ratio – an inverted P/E ratio has also been called the “earnings yield.” Complicating terminology matters is the interchangeable use of income and earnings in the investment world. In the case of the P/E ratio, the denominator generally used is “Net Income.”

A shortcoming to the cap rate ratio, in my view, is the failure to deduct taxes. Although comparability across properties may get muddied, if determining profit availability to investors is the main goal, then I think an adjusted NOI (subtracting taxes) would be a more useful proxy for valuation purposes. Tax benefits associated with REITS (Real Estate Investment Trusts) complicates the metric usage issue further.

The simplistic beauty of marrying NOI and a cap rate is that a crude valuation estimate can be constructed by merely blending these two metrics together. For example, a commercial real estate property generating $500,000 in NOI that applies a 5% cap rate to the property can arrive at a valuation estimate of $10,000,000 ($500,000/.05).

Similarities between Stocks & Real Estate

At the end of the day, the theoretical value of ANY asset can be calculated by taking the projected after-tax cash flows and discounting that stream back into today’s dollars – whether we are talking about a stock, bond, derivative, real estate property, or other asset. Both stock and real estate analysis use readily available income numbers and price ratios to estimate cash flows and valuations. Regrettably, since real estate and equity investors generally play in different leagues, the rules and language are different.

The lingo used for analyzing separate asset classes may be unique, but the math and fundamental examination are the same. The formula for learning real estate is similar to that of Spanish – you need to dive in and immerse yourself into the new language. If you don’t believe me, just ask Paco.

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 had no direct positions in YUM or any other security mentioned. 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.

January 27, 2010 at 1:34 am 3 comments

John Paulson and the “Gutsiest” Trade Ever

Although the pain and suffering of the 2008-09 financial crisis has been well documented and new books are continually coming out in droves, less covered are the winners who made a bonanza by predicting the collapse of the real estate and credit markets. Prizewinning Wall Street Journal reporter Gregory Zuckerman decided to record the fortunes made by hedge fund manager John Paulson in his book The Greatest Trade Ever (The Behind-the-Scenes story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History).

Paulson’s Cartoonish Cut

Zuckerman puts Paulson’s massive gains into perspective:

“Paulson’s winnings were so enormous they seemed unreal, even cartoonish. His firm, Paulson & Co., made $15 billion in 2007, a figure that topped the gross domestic products of Bolivia, Honduras, and  Paraguay…Paulson’s personal cut was nearly $4 billion…more than the earnings of J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey, and Tiger Woods put together.”

 

As impressive as those gains were, Paulson added another $5 billion into his firm’s coffers and $2 billion into his personal wallet over 2008 and early 2009. 

There are many ways to skin a cat, and there are countless strategies used by the thousands of hedge fund managers looking to hit the jackpot like Paulson. John Paulson primarily made his multi-billion fortune thanks to his CDS positions (Credit Default Swaps), the same product that led to massive multi-billion bailouts and government support for various financial institutions.

Bigger Gamble than Perception

One surprising aspect I discovered from reading the book was the uncertainty surrounding Paulson’s negative real estate trade. Here’s how Zuckerman described the conviction level of John Paulson and Paolo Pelligrini (colleague) as it related to their CDS positions on subprime CDO (Collateralized Debt Obligation) debt:

“In truth, Paulson and Pellegrini still were unsure if their growing trade would ever pan out. They thought the CDOs and other risky mortgage debt would become worthless, Paulson says. ‘But we still didn’t know.’”

 

Often the trades that cause you to sweat the most tend to be the most profitable, and in this case, apparently the same principle held.

Disingenuous Dramatic License

Before Paulson made his billions, Zuckerman uses a little dramatic license in the book to characterize Paulson as a small fry manager, “Paulson now managed $1.5 billion, a figure that sounded like a lot to friends outside the business. But the firm was dwarfed by its many rivals.” Zuckerman goes on to call Paulson’s hedge fund “small potatoes.” I don’t have the industry statistics at my fingertips, but I’ll go out on a limb and make an educated guess that a $1.5 billion hedge fund has significantly more assets than the vast majority of hedge fund peers. Under the 2 and 20 model, I’m guessing the management fee alone of $30 million could cover Paulson’s food and shelter expenses. Before he struck the payload, the book also references the $100 million of his personal wealth he invested with the firm. I think John Paulson was doing just fine before he executed the “greatest trade.”

What Drove the Greatest Trade

Hind sight is always 20/20, but looking back, there was ample evidence of the real estate bubble forming. Fortunately for Paulson, he got the timing generally right too. Here are some of the factors leading to the great trade:

  • CDO Leverage in Subprime: By the end of 2006, the subprime loan market was relatively large at around $1.2 trillion (representing around 10% of the overall mortgage market). But thanks to the introduction of CDOs, there were more than $5 trillion of risky investments created from all the risky subprime loans.
  • Liars & Ninjas: “Liar Loans” loans based on stated income (using the honor system) and “ninja loans” (no income, no job, no assets) gained popularity and prevalence, which just led to more defaults and foreclosures in the mid-2000s.
  • No Down Payments: What’s more, by 2005, 24% of all mortgages were completed with no down payment, up from approximately 3% in 2001. The percentage of first-time home buyers with no down payment was even higher at 43%.

Overall, I give kudos to Gregory Zuckerman, who spent more than 50 hours with John Paulson, for bringing something so abstract and homogenous (a skeptical real estate trade) to life. Zuckerman does a superb job of adding spice to the Paulson story by introducing other narratives and characters, even if the story lines don’t blend together perfectly. After reading The Greatest Trade Ever I came away with a new found respect for Paulson’s multi-billion dollar gutsy trade. Now, Paulson has reloaded his gun and is targeting the U.S. dollar. If Paulson’s short dollar and long gold position works out, I’ll keep an eye out for his next book…The Greatest Trad-er Ever.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including VNQ), but at time of publishing had no direct positions in companies mentioned. 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.

January 20, 2010 at 11:30 pm 8 comments

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