Posts tagged ‘review’

Ellis on Battling Demons and Mr. Market

A lot of ground was covered in the first cut of my review on Charles Ellis’s book, Winning the Loser’s Game (“WTLG”). His book covers a broad spectrum of issues and reasons that help explain why so many amateurs and professional investors dramatically underperform broad market indexes and other forms of passive investing (such as index funds).

A major component of investor underperformance is tied to the internal or emotional aspects to investing. As I have written in the past, successful investing requires as much emotional art as it does mathematical science. Investing solely based on numbers is like a tennis player only able to compete with a backhand – you may hit a few good shots, but will end up losing in the long-run to the well-rounded players.

Ellis recognizes these core internal shortcomings and makes insightful observations throughout his book on how emotions can lead investors to lose. As George J.W. Goodman noted, “If you don’t know who you are, the stock market is an expensive place to find out.” Hopefully by examining more of Ellis’s investment nuggets, we can all become better investors, so let’s take a deeper dive.

Mischievous Mr. Market

Why is winning in the financial markets so difficult? Ellis devotes a considerable amount of time in WTLG talking about the crafty guy called “Mr. Market.” Here’s how Ellis describes the unique individual:

“Mr. Market is a mischievous but captivating fellow who persistently teases investors with gimmicks and tricks such as surprising earnings reports, startling dividend announcements, sudden surges of inflation, inspiring presidential announcements, grim reports of commodities prices, announcements of amazing new technologies, ugly bankruptcies, and even threats of war.”

           

Investors can easily get distracted by Mr. Market, and Ellis makes the point of why we are simple targets:

“Our internal demons and enemies are pride, fear, greed, exuberance, and anxiety. These are the buttons that Mr. Market most likes to push. If you have them, that rascal will find them. No wonder we are such easy prey for Mr. Market with all his attention-getting tricks.”

 

The market also has a way of lulling investors into complacency. Somehow, bull markets manage to make geniuses not only out of professionals and amateur investors, but also cab drivers and hair-dressers. Here is Ellis’s observation of how we tend to look at ourselves:

“We also think we are ‘above average’ as car drivers, as dancers, at telling jokes, at evaluating other people, as friends, as parents, and as investors. On average, we also believe our children are above average.”

 

This overconfidence and elevated self-assessment generally leads to excessive risk-taking and eventually hits arrogant investors over the head like a sledgehammer. Michael Mauboussin, Legg Mason Chief Investment Strategist and author of Think Twice, is a current thought leader in the field of behavioral finance that tackles many of these behavioral finance issues (read my earlier piece).

The Collateral Damage

As mentioned by Ellis in the previous WTLG article I wrote, “Eighty-five percent of investment managers have and will continue over the long term to underperform the overall market.” When emotions take over our actions, Mr. Market has a way of making investors make the worst decisions at the worst times. Ellis describes this phenomenon in more detail:   

“The great risk to individual investors is not that the market can plummet, but that the investor may be frightened into liquidating his or her investments at or near the bottom and miss all the recovery, making the loss permanent. This happens to all too many investors in every terrible market drop.”

 

With the market about doubling from the early 2009 equity market lows, this devastating problem has become more evident. With volatility rearing its ugly head throughout 2008 and early 2009, investors bailed into low-yielding cash and Treasuries at the nastiest time. Now the stock market has catapulted upwards and those same investors now face significant interest rate risk and still are experiencing meager yields.

The Winning Formula

Ellis acknowledges the difficulty of winning at the investing game, but experience has shown him ways to combat the emotional demons. Number one…know thyself.

“’Know thyself’ is the cardinal rule in investing. The hardest work in investing is not intellectual; it’s emotional.”

 

Knowing thyself is easier said than done, but experience and mistakes are tremendous aids in becoming a better investor – especially if you are an investor who spends time studying the missteps and learns from them.

From a practical portfolio construction standpoint, how can investors combat their pesky emotions? Probably the best idea is to follow Ellis’s sage advice, which is to “sell down to the sleeping point. Don’t go outside your zone of competence because outside that zone you may get emotional, and being emotional is never good for your investing.”

Finding good investment ideas is just half the battle – fending off the demons and Mr. Market can be just as, if not more, challenging. Fortunately, Mr. Ellis has been kind enough to share his insights, allowing investors of all types to take this valuable investment advice to help win at a losing game.

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.

January 10, 2011 at 1:51 am Leave a 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

Decade in Review

We laughed, we cried, we kissed another ten years goodbye. It is virtually impossible to cram ten years into one article, nonetheless I will attempt to chronicle some of the central and silly events that bubble up in my memory bank.

2000

Capture of Elian Gonzalez

  • Technology-heavy NASDAQ index peaks at 5,132 before completing its -78% decline by late 2002.
  • Y2K (Year 2000) fears do not materialize and technology orders begin downward slide.
  • AOL buys Time Warner for $164 Billion in hopes of converging media and internet worlds.
  • Al Gore Democratic nominee for the Presidency wins popular vote but loses election to George Bush after effort for Florida recount fails.
  • Elian Gonzalez, six-year old boy returned to Cuba.
  • Reality TV show Survivor finishes first season with Richard Hatch winning prize.

2001

Enron Logo at Headquarters

  • Apple introduces iPod digital music player.
  • Enron files Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
  • Wikipedia online community encyclopedia launches.
  • 9/11 attacks occur pushing economy further down.
  • Alan Greenspan starts 1st of 11 rate cuts  in 2001.
  • China joins WTO (World Trade Organization).

2002

 

  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), an atypical form of pneumonia, rears its ugly head in the Guangdong Province of China. 
  • SEC files charges against WorldCom and Tyco international in connection with accounting irregularities
  • United Airlines files for bankruptcy.
  • American Idol television singing contest begins first season.
  • Guantanomo Bay detention camp is opened.

2003

  • Federal Funds rate reaches a 45 year low at 1.00% – fuel for future credit bubble.
  • $350 billion in tax cuts approved, spanning a ten year period.
  • Iraqi Gulf War II commences with “shock and awe” military campaign.
  • Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrates upon attempted reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Broad stock market recovery (>90% of stocks in S&P500 climb), including a +50% rise in the NASDAQ index.
  • Martha Stewart indicted for using privileged investment information and then obstructing a federal investigation.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger, movie star, becomes governor of California.

2004

  • Google (GOOG) goes public with IPO at $85 per share.
  • Mark Zuckerberg unveils Facebook and people begin “friending” each other.
  • Comcast makes failing unsolicited bid for Disney. K-Mart buys Sears with aid of Eddie Lampert
  • Ronald Reagan, 40th President, dies at 93.
  • Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake experience “wardrobe malfunction” on Super Bowl halftime show.
  • Boston Red Sox win their first World series since 1918.

2005

  • P&G announces $57 billion acquisition of Gillette. Conoco Philips buys Burlington Resources for over $30 billion. Bank of America buys credit card company MBNA.
  • Ben Bernanke is nominated as new Federal Reserve Chairman.
  • Hurricane Katrina overwhelms New Orleans as 80% of city becomes covered with water.
  • North Korea announces its nuclear weapons arsenal.
  • YouTube starts sharing online videos before Google Inc. eventually buys company.
  • Lance Armstrong wins 7th consecutive Tour de France.

2006

  • Inverted yield curve turns out to be an accurate leading indicator for 2008 recession despite markets advance.
  • Internet activity accelerates: Google buys YouTube after News Corp buys MySpace. Twitter is introduced.
  • Playstation 3 (PS3) and Nintendo Wii unveiled.
  • Merger & acquisition activity reaches $3.79 trillion worldwide, surpassing previous 2000 peak (Thomson).
  • Options backdating takes center stage. United Health and technology companies were among those dragged into controversy.
  • Housing market peaks.

2007

 

  • Markets continue multi-year rally with three major indexes holding single-digit gains. Emerging markets build on previous year gains – Shanghai composite +97%.
  • Monoline insurers MBIA and rival Ambac become early canaries in the coal mine given the greater than $1 trillion in exposure on insuring securities.
  • Apple presents the iPhone – part phone, part music, part computer.
  • KKR (Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.) and TPG complete $44.4 billion buyout of Texas power company TXU Corp.
  • Microsoft Vista operating system introduced after five years of development.
  • Housing decline accelerates as Countrywide Financial announces 12,000 job cuts (20% of its workforce), New Century Financial (#2 subprime lender at one point) files Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and two Bear Stearns mortgage based hedge funds go under.
  • Chuck Prince, Citigroup CEO, steps down.

2008

 

  • Bank of America agrees to buy Countrywide mortgage company for about $4 billion.
  • JPMorgan Chase agrees to buy Bear Stearns for $2 per share in a sale brokered by the Fed and the U.S. Treasury – eventually bid revised upwards to $10 per share (~$1.1 billion) to appease angry shareholders.
  • Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt.
  • Bank of America agrees to acquire Merrill Lynch for about $50 billion.
  • Government takes over AIG after providing insurance company $85 billion loan.
  • Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley become bank holding companies to improve access to capital.
  • Washington Mutual Inc. is seized by FDIC and sold to JPMorgan Chase in the biggest U.S. bank failure in history.
  • Wells Fargo & Co., agrees to purchase Wachovia for about $15.1 billion, trumping Citigroup’s bid.
  • $700 billion TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) eventually approved by Congress to stabilize financial system.
  • Eliot Spitzer resigns after prostitution scandal.
  • Michael Phelps wins eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

2009

 

  • Barack Obama inaugurated in as 44th President of the United States. Healthcare reform bills pass in both the House and Senate.
  • GM and Chrysler declare bankruptcy.
  • Recession ends as stimulus kicks in and inventories rebuild. Government announces new PPIP and TALF programs.
  • Warren Buffett pays $26 billion to buy Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Other announcements include: Oracle /Sun Microsystems; Pfizer/Wyeth; Merck/Schering Plough; and Pulte Homes/Centex.
  • Commodities and emerging markets rebound. Gold tops $1,000 per ounce.
  • Signs of housing bottoming as low mortgage rates, tax credits, and declining inventories create a more constructive environment.
  • Madoff goes to prison after he was convicted for a $65 billion Ponzi Scheme.
  • Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger successfully carries out the treacherous crash-landing of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River.
  • Dubai debt debacle forces Abu Dhabi to lend support to calm global markets.
  • Tiger Woods admits transgressions after car crash pushes him into spotlight.

2010 ???

Time will tell what the new year will bring. Stay tuned for some iron clad 2010 predictions coming to an Investing Caffeine blog near you in the not too distant future!

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and BAC, AAPL, and GOOG, but did not have any direct positions in the following stocks mentioned in this article at time of publication (including AOL/TWX, VIA/CBS, NWS, TYC, UAUA, MSO, CMCSA, DIS, SHLD, PG, COP, Nintendo, MBI, ABK, MSFT, C, JPM, AIG, MS, WFC, GM, Chrysler, BRKA, ORCL, JAVA, PFE, MRK, PHM, BNI, LCC, GLD, and NKE). 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 29, 2009 at 1:00 am 1 comment


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