The chatty, folksy annual report of Berkshire Hathaway is out.  I have occasionally been a critic of Buffett, but this year, I see little to criticize.  In a bad year, he told it straight.  He lost more book value in 2008 than any other year in percentage and dollar terms.  Worse yet, the market capitalization fell much more.

But guess what?  Berky is the biggest financial company in the US, bar none, by a wide margin.  Financials have done horribly, Berky less so.  Comparing the book value performance of Berky versus the market value of the S&P 500, this was one of Berky’s best years.

Looking at his divisions, insurance, utilities, and other businesses did well, and his investing did horribly, like most of the rest of us.  Sure, his timing was bad with some of his preferred stock purchases, and his willingness to write index put options.  But if those that Berky invested in survive the crisis, Buffett will come back smiling broadly.

Here’s another pillar of strength.  A lot of capital has been destroyed in the insurance industry in the capital markets, reducing surplus.  Those that have surplus will benefit.  Who is the most ready to write more business?  Berky.  After that, maybe PartnerRe.  Insurance should do well for Berky in the intermediate term.

Though I don’t own it, I find Berky to be intriguing.  Who knows, I might finally join the Buffett cult and buy some under $75,000.

PS — Give Buffett credit?  I would argue that Berky is cheap relative to other insurance credits.  Complexity creates the discount, but the firm is well-managed.

Full disclosure: long PRE

I am the son of a plumber, who was the son of a plumber.  My wife gives me a bemused look when I go off to fix a plumbing problem, usually minor, when she asks, “Can you do it?” and I say, “Son of a son of a plumber.”  Truly, my statement means nothing, though I worked with my Dad for two summers that I enjoyed a great deal.  He installed sewers all over southeastern Wisconsin, and was known for doing quality work.  He never got sued once in his 35-year career.

So, I can appreciate plumbing.  Most of us never think about it.  Open the spigot — water!  Flush the toilet — waste gone!  Simple.  Beautiful.  As my Dad, a happy man, would say, “I have brought civilization to southeastern Wisconsin.”  A good man, my Dad.

Figuratively, plumbing exists in many areas of life.  People don’t want to think about the mechanics of how something works; they just want it to work when they need it.  More people drive cars than are mechanics.  More people listen to music than can sing well.  (I love to sing.)

The sad aspect of plumbing for the financial markets today is that we are drawn to the front end of investing processes.  This man looks successful.  He has a great story; a way to make money that others do not know about.  There are documents showing his track record — impressive, though he doesn’t solicit publicly; investing with him is a family affair.  Do you want to be part of the family and gain the benefits thereof?

There are questions to be asked, particularly of nonstandard ventures:

  • How are the returns earned?
  • Who checks the results?  (Auditing — should not be a small firm.)
  • Who has custody of the assets?
  • Is the trustee a reputable third party?
  • Is liquidity proportionate to the asset class invested in?
  • Is this under US law?
  • Do the returns look too good to be true, either in absolute amount, or always positive with low volatility?
  • Is this marketed to everyone, or just a select few suckers?
  • Is the profit motive of the sponsor obvious and standard?
  • How are asset values calculated each accounting period?

Whether we are talking about Madoff, Stanford, or any of the other recent frauds, an attention to the details of how the financial plumbing works can pay off in terms of avoiding situations that are too good to be true.

When the next bull phase comes, be aware, and avoid slick talkers who have a good private game going, unless it can be verified by many competent independent third parties.  The bear phase is here now, revealing the slick talkers, and those that were taken in by them.  Be aware; you are your first and best line of defense.

What a year.  If the first year of this blog wasn’t exciting enough, year two was enough to make your heart flutter.  What have we seen in year two?

  • The demise of Bear, Lehman, AIG, Fannie, Freddie, and more.
  • The near-demise of Citi, Bank of America, and many other financials.
  • The US government floundering as it gropes for solutions.
  • The Federal Reserve tries all manner of novel schemes to support leverage, as they move into a ZIRP with Japan, and the rest of the world trailing.  Quantitative easing remains, if they have enough money to buy helicopter fuel.
  • The collapse of the international division of labor as exports dry up globally.
  • The grand round trip for commodities as the world could not maintain the frantic pace of growth that had been fueled by leverage and neomercantilism.
  • The start of trade wars, as nations look to protect their home markets.
  • The loss of faith in currencies, as gold continues to rise.
  • Risk assets get shellacked, whether public or private.
  • Pension plans, endowments, and other institutions suffer.  Governments realize that they were reliant on the overleveraged markets as well.
  • Residential real estate continues to fall in value, dragging mortgages and banks down with it.
  • Commercial real estate begins its long soft era.
  • My portfolio has beaten the broad market indexes for another year, though not as convincingly as in the past.

Those who have read me a long time know that my interests in investing are broad.  Being an economist, as well as a quantitative and qualitative investment analyst gives me more tools to work with.

But where am I going from here?  I am slowing down.  For two years, I have tried to keep up a  pace of two posts a day, six days a week.  Well, it has turned out to be more like nine posts per week, 75% of my goal.  As when I wrote for RealMoney, my own standards hindered my goal.  (At RealMoney, I wrote few articles near the end, because I did not feel that I had more to write that justified an article.)

I could put out a lot more posts, and quote other sources more broadly.  I would rather just link to them so that they get credit for their material, and then write more.  After all, if I am writing, I ought to put forth my opinion, not just quote someone else.

But blogging has crimped my ability to serve my firm, my family, and my church.  Much as I enjoy the interaction in the blogosphere, I am going to slow down my posting rate at The Aleph Blog.  My apologies to any who are saddened by this, but I hope to keep the quality of my posts high.  My posting rate is targeted at three times per week.

This is post #886 at The Aleph Blog.  Post #900 will have something more on this topic, together with ways that we can work together more profitably.

I close with thanks.  I am big on gratitude.  Thanks to those who read me; your time is valuable.  Thanks to those who comment; you sharpen me.  Thanks to those who link to me; I don’t deserve it.  Thanks to those I link to; you are doing great work (or lousy work, as the case may be).  To my family and church, thank you. Finally, thanks be to Jesus Christ. Woo-hoo! What a great year!  :D

There are two reasons to bail out a financial company.  The first is that it’s failure would lead to a run on liquidity at similar companies duewith those of to a lack of confidence.  The second is that it their promises are so interlaced with those of other companies that failure would cause many other companies to fail.

For the first reason, we have the FDIC and similar institutions for deposit-takers, and the insurance guarantee funds for the insurers.  For the second reason, the government should be minimalistic, and only guarantee the entities that threaten systemic risk.

For AIG, what should have happened back in September, and what should happen now, is that the government should have let the holding company fail, and guaranteed the obligations of AIG Financial Products in exchange for a senior loan that would subordinate all existing holding company debt.  [Essentially a DIP loan, because the holding company would be in Chapter 11.]

Aside from Financial Products, most AIG’s subsidiaries are probably fine, and don’t need any help.  Those that might fail don’t pose any systemic risks.

So, when I see AIG coming back to the government for more, I think of several things:

1) When Hartford Steam Boiler was sold for a cheap price, I commented that if that was the price for a good asset like HSB, then AIG common was worthless.

2) Why are we messing around with the holding companies as we do bailouts?  Regulated entities I understand.  There is no compelling interest for the US government to own AIG holding company stock.

3) Let the bondholders suffer a little.  AIG did not trade like a AAA credit, even in its glory days.  It traded more like single-A.  If you didn’t take the warning that the bond market was giving you as the leverage built up, then that is your fault.

4) Back to point 2 in a more general way.  If the government is going to intervene, let them inject money into the regulated subsidiaries, not holding companies, and then limit dividends and transfer payments to the holding company.

5) If large derivative counterparties are so critical to the financial infrastructure, then they need to be regulated as well.  Open the derivative books to the regulator, and let the new regulator set leverage/capital policy.  What?  They can’t do as much business?  Too bad.

6) As I commented regarding the automaker bailouts, the important thing is to get your foot in the door and get some money, so that the legislators/regulators feel they must protect their initial investment with more money later.  With AIG, that is in full force, as this could be the fourth bailout.  When does it dawn on a bureaucrat that you have been bamboozled?

7) The government was hoodwinked on the first few iterations of the bailout.  Shame on them, if they don’t realize that they are throwing good money after bad again.

AIG is a case in point of why I don’t like the way we are doing bailouts now.

  • We bail out the holding company, which is not in the public interest.
  • We accept the creeping costs of bailout rather than use better-understood bankruptcy process.
  • It’s obvious that the government does not understand what it is doing/buying.
  • We do incrementally bad deals, rather than squeezing the stakeholders, as a clever lender of last resort would.

If the US Government wants to prevent systemic risk, fine!  Guarantee the subsidiaries that pose that risk, but let the rest go into bankruptcy.

Credit bets are asymmetric.  Leveraged bets more so.  A bondholder can lose all of his investment, and can optimistically receive principal and interest.  A leveraged bond investor can lose it all with greater probability and perhaps faster, but at least has the chance of making equity-like returns in the right credit environment.

Thus for Highland Capital Management the recent comeuppance with a recovery of zero is particularly severe.  I don’t care what you did in the past, but if you didn’t pay some income out, then losing it all drives total returns to -100%.  It doesn’t matter if you were once deemed brilliant:

As recently as October 2007, Barron’s magazine ranked Highland CDO Opportunity third among the top 50 hedge funds, with an average annual return of 44.12 percent during the three-year period ended that June. Its fortunes reversed last year, as the securities it invests in, known as collateralized debt obligations, plunged in value amid the credit crunch and downgrades by ratings firms.

When reviewing alternative investments, it is very important to understand the underlying drivers of performance.  With corporate debt instruments, it is the corporate credit cycle.  With corporate credit, it is normal to see 3-5 years of moderate favorable performance, followed by 1-3 years of horrendous performance.  Secondarily, it is choosing the debt of companies offering high yields relative to their likelihood of default.

Understand the cycle, and see if performance isn’t due to the cycle, rather than true skill.  With Highland, it seems that the cycle delivered, and then took it all away with high leverage.

Every now and then, I see a stupid post saying that a financial company is solvent if it is still making timely payments on its liabilities.  That is the Ponzi definition of solvency.  So long as there is an unclaimed dollar in the till, the financial institution is solvent.

To this I say “hooey.”  Financial institutions don’t have all that much to them.  They are just a bundle of promises.  “Parties I have lent to will pay me more than parties I have borrowed from.”  They are a bundle of longer-dated accruals.  The value of assets and liabilities can’t be firmly fixed in the same way that those of an industrial company can.  In that same sense, the current value of assets versus liabilities in a financial firm correlates highly with the trading value of its equity.

So when a financial company has a negative net worth on a fair market value basis, the odds of the common stock being wiped out is high.  Could the market come back?  Yes, but the odds are less than even.

This is my way of saying that regulators should take control of operating financial companies when the fair value of their net worth goes negative.  Like a good technical trader, honor the stop-loss.

In my continuing series on ideas to help resolve the crisis, here is an easy one: let Congress require that the servicer of every securitization disclose all of the parties that have an economic interest in the securitization trust.

Why would this be valuable?  Suppose some investor or government agency felt that the underlyng loans were worth more than what the certificates were valued at in the secondary markets.  The investor could then contact and bid for the certificates in an effort to gain the economic value of the assets in the trust cheaply.

This action would provide transparency in the markets, and would enable price discovery to take place.  What could be simpler?

What’s that, you say?  Many owners don’t want to be marked to market?  Shame on them.  Be big boys, and eat your spinach; after all, you want to survive this crisis, don’t you, that is, assuming that on a fair market basis, you are truly alive?

1) It’s nice to see someone else recommend my proposal for partially solving housing woes.  Immigration made America great.  Kudos to my Great-great-grandparents.

2) Is there Any Such Thing as Systemic Risk? Surely you jest.  Systemic risk exists apart from klutzy governmental intervention, as noted in my article, Book Reviews: Manias, Panics, and Crashes, and Devil Take the Hindmost.

3) The Economist has another good post on the effect of past buybacks affecting companies today.  As for me, I criticized dividends in the past:

David Merkel
Buybacks Depend on the Management Team
1/5/2006 12:11 PM EST

I neither like nor dislike buybacks, special dividends, and other bits of financial engineering that extract limited value at a cost of increasing leverage. In one sense, these measures are a type of LBO-lite at best, merely covering the tracks of the dilution from options issuance mainly, or preparing to send the company to bankruptcy at worst.

A lot depends on what spot in an industry’s pricing cycle a given company is. It’s fine to increase leverage when the bad part of the cycle has played out and pricing power is finally returning. Unfortunately, unless they are careful, companies tend to have more excess cash toward the end of the good part of the cycle, at which point increasing leverage is ill-advised, but often happens because of pressure from activist investors and sell-side analysts.

My first article on RealMoney dealt with the concept of financial slack, and why it is particularly valuable for cyclical companies not to take on as much leverage as possible. One of the dirty secrets of investing is that highly-levered companies typically do not do well in the long run; they sometimes do exceptionally well in the short run, though, so if it is your cup of tea to speculate on highly-levered companies, just remember, don’t overstay your welcome at the party.

One final note: If a management team is talented, they should retain a “war chest” for the opportunities presented by volatility. Lightly-levered companies benefit from volatility, because they can buy distressed assets on the cheap. Highly-levered companies need volatility to stay low, because adverse conditions could lead to insolvency.

Leverage policy is just another tool in the bag of corporate management; it is neither good nor bad, but in the wrong hands, it can be poisonous to the health of a company. For most investors, sticking with strong balance sheets pays off in the longer-term.

Position: None

4) Financial accounting rules can work one of two ways: best estimate (fair value), or book value with adjustments for impairment.  Either system can work but they have to be applied fairly, estimating the value/amount of future cash flows.  Management discretion should play a small role.

5) Regarding Barry’s post on Bank Nationalization: I don’t like the term “nationalization.”  It’s too broad, as others have pointed out.  I am in favor of triage, which is what insurance departments (and banking regulators are supposed to) do every year.  Separate the living from the wounded from the dead.

The dead are seized and sold off, with the guaranty fund taking a hit, as well as any investors in the operating company getting wiped out.  The wounded file plans for recovery, and the domiciliary states monitor them.  The living buy up the pieces of the dead that are attractive, and kick money into the guaranty fund.  No money from the public is used.

We have made so many errors in our “nationalization” (bailout) that it isn’t funny.  We give money to them, rather than taking them through insolvency.  Worse, we give money to the holding companies, which does nothing for the solvency of operating banks.  We don’t require plans for recovery to be filed.  Further, we let non-experts interfere in the process (the politicians).  Better that the regulators get fired for not having done their jobs, and a new set put in by the politicians, than that the politicians add to the confusion through their pushing of unrelated goals like increasing lending, and management compensation.

The concept of the “stress test” is crucial here.  It could be set really low (almost all banks pass) or really high (almost all banks fail — akin to forcible nationalization).  Clearly, something in-between is warranted, but the rumors are that the test will be set low, ensuring that few banks get reconciled, and the crisis continues for a while more.

I’m in favor of the bank regulators doing their jobs, and the FDIC guiding the rationalization of bad banks, with an RTC 2 to aid them.  Beyond that, there isn’t that much to do, and there shouldn’t be that much money thrown at the situation.  We have wasted enough money already with too little in results.

One final comment — for years, many claimed that the banks were better regulated than the insurers.  Who will claim that now?

6) Equity Private rides again at Finem Respice (“look to the end”).  A good first post on how this all will not end well.

7) Whatever one thinks about mortgage cramdowns (I can see both sides), they will have a negative effect on bank solvency, and the solvency of those who hold non-Fannie and Freddie mortgage backed-securities.

8 ) What has happened to Saab is what should happen to insolvent automakers here in the US.  The companies will survive in a smaller form, with the old owners wiped out, and new owners recapitalizing them.

9)  Will the new housing plan work?  I’m not sure, but I would imagine that it would cost a great deal to support a large asset class above its theoretical equilibrium value.  There are also the issues of favoritism, and rewarding those less prudent.  We will see whether it doesn’t work (like Bush’s proposals), or works too well (my, but we burned through that money fast).  (Other thoughts: Mean Street, Barry, simple explanation from the NYT.)  As it is, many people will not be eligible for the help.

10) How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time. How well did Japan do in working through its leverage problem in the 90s and 2000s?  Reasonably well, though it took a while.  Deleveraging takes time when many balance sheets are constrained, and asset values are falling back to psuedo-equilibrium levels.  One person’s liability is another person’s asset; when a large fraction of parties are significantly levered, the reconciliation of bad debts can cascade, like a child playing with dominoes.

So, Japan took its time with a messy process rather than have a “big bang,” with less certain results in their eyes.  In America, we want to get this over with quickly, but not do a “big bang” either.  That’s where a lot of the cost comes in, because in order to reconcile private debts rapidly, the government must subsidize the process.  All that said, in the end we will have a lot of debt issued by the US Government, just in time to deal with the pensions/entitlement crisis from a position of weakness. And, that’s where Japan is today, facing a shrinking population with a lot of government debt, and rising demands for entitlement spending.  Japan may be a laboratory for the US, Canada, and Europe as we look at the same problems 5-20 years out.

11) If you want to search for prices and other data on bonds, look here.

12) Marc Faber makes many of the point that I have made about the crisis in this editorial.

13) Swiss bankruptcy?  I would never have thought of that possibility, but considering that it is a smaller country with a relatively large banking system, and those banks have made a decent amount of loans to weaker creditors in Eastern Europe.  Add Switzerland to the list with Austria on Eastern European lending troubles.

14) What is Buffett thinking in his recent sale of stocks?  Some criticize him for being inconsistent with his philosophy of long holding periods, but Buffett is a very rational guy.  He is getting some good opportunities in this market, and is selling opportunities that seem less good to him.  Could he be wrong?  Yes, but over the year, he has been pretty good at estimating the relative values of assets.  He’s made his share of mistakes recently, but 95% of investors have been in that same boat.  At least he has the insurance franchise to carry things along, and given the reduction in surplus across the industry from the fall in equitiues and other risky assets, pricing power should begin improving soon.  Berky is interesting here.

15) Mirroring the bubble, Anglo-Irish Bank rode the global liquidity wave up, then down.  Ireland was the hot place in the EU, and now the bigger boom, fueled by easy credit, has given way to a bigger bust.

Okay, after the alliterative headline, I would like you to consider two links.

After reading the bill, I note that it is mute on whether we can add the tax to our cost basis, and deduct it from the proceeds on our sales.  If we can do that, then this bill is an annoyance, like the SEC fee, but it only changes the timing of taxation, not the amount.  Washington gets more now, and less later, natch.  That’s the way Washington always works — milk the present to starve the future.

But, lest this be a mute point 😉 (some humor here because I have heard people say mute in place of moot.  My comment has been, “Yeah, I don’t hear that either.”), it does front taxation to a far higher degree from tax deferred accounts, which will pinch retirees.

Now, if this tax doesn’t figure into the basis, we have real problems. While 1/4% on each side won’t affect long term stock investors like me much, it will affect the following:

  • All arbitrage transactions.
  • Traders that profit off of small deviations in market pricing.
  • Bond managers, because they are playing for less.  1/4% in, 1/4% out makes a big difference in returns on bonds.  Bye, bye, liquidity.
  • Banks, pension funds, and insurers, because they own bonds (and stocks).
  • There will be yet more pressure for companies to “go dark” or go private.
  • Exchanges will suffer from reduced volumes.
  • Derivatives might flourish if they are not covered by the eventual regulations.  Why trade the taxable asset, when you can trade the non-taxable derivative?
  • And more… in 1966, when the transfer tax ended, derivatives didn’t exist.  Derivatives exist as a function of contract law.  Society limits the right to contract in order to reduce crime, but away from that typically there is freedom.  There would have to be a significant revision to contract law to make this effective.

I can’t think of all of the ramifications that would happen from this, given the relative complexity of our financial markets today.  Far better that we should get true tax reform, where the clever rich who have hidden their assets from taxation so long, like Mr. Buffett, should pay their fair share.  Washington, you want real tax reform?  Tax us all on the increase in net worth, and listen to the wealthy scream.  They have gamed the system for too long.

Any investment strategy can be overused.  Part of the job of a portfolio manager is to ask the question “To what degree am I in or out of the consensus? Where am I in the cycle for my strategy?”

Few managers are conscious of the water that they swim in.  They assume their strategies provide consistent advantage, when in truth the advantage is periodic, even if it works better than average over the long haul.  The truth is that every strategy has limits, and when too many parties apply a strategy, the excess returns disappear, or even go negative.

All investors have to sit down and ask the question, “What aspects of the market will I try to take advantage of?” with the corresponding question, “What will I ignore?”  Adding to that, “How much of the market can I invest in, given my advantage?” (What is the carrying capacity of my strategy?)

Most value managers don’t care for momentum.   Most growth managers don’t care much about valuations.  Some things will be ignored.

It is tough to be a institutional asset manager.  The competition is fierce.  What’s worse, you and all of your competition comprise 80% or so of the market.

Further, you know what side your bread is buttered on.  If you have average, or at least not fourth quartile performance, the assets will stick with you, and your firm will make money off them.  The economics of the business are simple.  For the most part, risk-taking is not rewarded, and risk-reduction has some stickiness.

Adding to the problem are the investment manager consultants.  Because most of them are a net loss, they gravitate to what is unchangable.  Modern Portfolio Theory, though wrong, is a respected basis from which academics and some others make investment decisions.  Using Sharpe ratios, and other objective bits of investment nonsense, they winnow the field of investment managers.

The thing is, for those managers that submit to this mularkey, it enforces mediocrity at best.  For those that don’t accept it, not much money flows to them, whether the manager is good or bad.  They don’t fit the model that doesn’t represent reality.

Never underestimate the power of a simple model to overwhelm the minds of simple-minded people.  Most consultants, and most academics, would rather have a wrong model that allows them make money, or publish, than get things right.  Truth is, the right answer is hard to get to, and doesn’t fold into simple mathematics easily.

Technical analysis is akin to voodoo in the minds of most professional investors.  Mention it prominently, and you are kicked out of the game.  There are close substitutes though: for growth investing there is price momentum, and for value investing there are behavioral finance anomalies.

In closing, these two articles that ask why mutual funds don’t adopt technical trading methods illustrate the problems with large scale investing.  Smaller investors can take advantage of market anomalies that bigger firms pass up.  Imagine for a moment that Fidelity, Vanguard, and Capital Group decided to apply the full range of identified anomalies across the entirety of their portfolios, and trade them as aggressively as smaller players might.  The prospective excess profits from the anomalies would disappear rapidly, and might go negative as enough money chased them.  Most players would eventually abandon applying the strategies because they stopped working.  Too much money chasing them.

The lesson for most of us smaller players is to be aware of how much money is using strategies like ours, and adapt when the space where we thought we had a durable competitive advantage has become crowded.  That’s not easy, but then, regular outperformance is tough to do, and tougher, the more money one manages.