Classic: Get to Know the Holders’ Hands, Part 2

Note: this was published at RealMoney on 7/2/2004.  This was part four of a  four part series. Part One is lost but was given the lousy title: Managing Liability Affects Stocks, Pt. 1.  If you have a copy, send it to me.

Fortunately, these were the best three of the four articles.


Investing Strategies

Some groups can reinforce their own behavior in the market, causing booms and busts.

Balance sheet players tend to be strong holders.

Liquidity can change the market landscape.


In Part 1 of this column, I began describing the various classes of investors and their investment behavior. In Part 2, I’ll continue that description, and will follow it up by explaining how some classes of investors can temporarily reinforce their own behavior, causing booms and busts. Finally, I will offer practical ways you can benefit from understanding the behaviors of different investor classes.


8. Leveraged Private Investors

The use of leverage gives the investor the ability to make more out of his bets than his equity capital would otherwise allow, but eliminates some of the advantages that the unleveraged possess. Investors that are leveraged do not entirely control their trade; if their assets decline enough in value, either they or the margin desk will reduce their position.

Leveraged investors are in the same position as the European banks that I discussed in Part 1. Worry sets in as one gets near a margin call, not when the margin call happens. As worry sets in, mental pressures to change the asset positions materialize. The challenge to the investor is to decide whether to liquidate, or take chances. Being forced to make a decision leads to a higher probability, in my opinion, of making the wrong decision.

In addition, leveraged longs have to pay for the privilege of financing additional assets. With overnight rates low today, that might not seem like much of a cost. But when the market is in the tank and interest rates are sky-high, as they were from 1979 to 1982, the cost of leveraged speculation is a deterrent and helps keep a lid on the market.

9. Short-Sellers

Being short is not the opposite of being long. It is closer to the opposite of being a leveraged long. Shorts do not entirely control their trade; if their shorts rise enough in value, either they or the margin desk will reduce their position. This is the opposite of leveraged longs. Remember, unleveraged longs can stay put as long as they like, and almost no one can force them to change. Shorts can be forced to cover through a squeeze, whether through rising prices threatening their solvency or a decrease in borrowable shares from longs moving their shares from margin to cash.

Stocks with a large short interest relative to the float, like Taser (TASR:Nasdaq) , can behave erratically with little regard to anything more than the short-term technicals of trading. (If fundamental investing is akin to a chess game, trading Taser is more akin to a street brawl.)

Short-sellers also have costs that unleveraged longs don’t face. When it is difficult to borrow shares (i.e., the borrow is tight), you might have to pay for the privilege of borrowing. As an example, when I was short Mony Group, I had a 2% annualized rate to pay on the last block of shares that I shorted. The rest came free, but that was before the trade got crowded. (When the borrow is not tight and if you are big enough, it is possible to get a credit, but that’s another story.)

Another cost is paying any dividend that the company might pay. Granted, the stock is likely to drop by the amount of the dividend, but cash going out the door to support a trade makes a trade more difficult to hold on to.


10. Options Traders

Buyers of options fully control their trade and pay a premium for the privilege. Sellers of options give up some control of their trade and receive a premium for their trouble. Being short an option is like being short a stock; theoretically, the risk is unlimited. If the short options of an investor rise enough in value, either they or the margin desk will reduce their position. Long option investors face no such constraints, but they do face the continual decay of the time premium of their options.

When there are company-issued options outstanding, such as warrants, convertible preferreds and convertible bonds, another trading dynamic can develop. Because the company has offered the call options on its stock, unlike other investors, it can issue stock to satisfy calls. The dilution from share issuance can put a ceiling over the price of the stock near the strike price for the call options until enough demand exists for the stock that it overcomes the dilution.

One more example of embedded options shows up in the residential mortgage bond market. Residential mortgages contain an option that allows the mortgage to be prepaid. Mortgage bond managers, who often manage to a constant duration (interest-rate sensitivity), run into the problem that their portfolios lengthen when rates rise, and shorten when rates fall. This can make them buyers of duration (longer mortgages or noncallable Treasuries) when rates fall, and sellers when rates rise.

In either case, with enough mortgage managers (and mortgage originators, who are in the same boat) doing this, it can become self-reinforcing because many market players buy into a rising market and sell into a falling market. This has an indirect effect on the Treasury and swap markets because mortgage hedgers use them to adjust their overall interest-rate sensitivity. In general, mortgage hedgers are weak holders of Treasuries, which they sell off as rates rise.


Balance Sheet Players vs. Total Return Players

I find it useful to divide the players in the investment universe into two camps: balance sheet players and total return players. Balance sheet players can lose it all and then some. Total return players can lose only what they have invested and include mutual funds (including index funds), unleveraged private investors, defined benefit plans, option buyers and endowments. Balance sheet players include banks, insurance companies, leveraged private investors and option sellers.

Total return players tend to resist — or at least are capable of resisting — market trends, which provide stability in the market. At the edges of negative price movements, balance sheet players find that they have to sell risky assets in order to preserve themselves. In severe market conditions, balance sheet players can make market movements more extreme.

I think it helps to view the behavior of balance sheet players through the lens of self-reinforcement. When there are too many of them crowding into a trade, there is the potential for instability. If the price of the asset has been bid up to the point to where a buy-and-hold investor would feel that he could not obtain a free cash flow yield adequate to compensate him for the risk of the purchase, then the asset is unsustainably high, which does not mean that it can’t go higher. When you see long-term investors exiting, it’s usually time to leave.

Fueled by leverage, some players will increase their bets as the price of the asset rises because they have more buying power with a more expensive asset. Finally, a few smart players start to sell and the process works in reverse as leverage levels increase for balance sheet players with a large concentration in the stock and a self-reinforcing cycle of selling begins. The same boom-bust cycle can happen with total return players, but it would be more muted because of the lack of leverage.

At the end of the bust, the buyers typically are unleveraged buy-and-hold investors. For example, I remember picking over tech and telecom stocks in 2001-02 that had been trashed after the bubble burst. This is a sector of the market that I don’t play in often, because I don’t know it so well; that said, it became 30% of my portfolio. Many of those stocks were trading for less than their net cash and a few were even earning money. My thought at the time was that if I tucked a few of these stocks away and held them for five years or so, I’d have something better at the end. With the bull market of 2003, my exit came sooner than I expected; other market players saw the potential of the cheap, conservative tech companies that I held and liked them more than I did.

This brings me back to weak and strong hands. In general, total return players have stronger hands than balance sheet players, at least when market values are out of whack with long-term fundamentals.


Illiquidity and LTCM

An asset is illiquid when the bid-ask spread is wide, or even worse, when there is no bid or ask for a given asset in the short run. This can happen with large orders in small-cap stocks and in “off the run” corporate bonds. Often an illiquid asset offers a higher potential return than a more liquid asset; given the disadvantage of illiquidity, in a normal market it would have to. Even a liquid asset can act illiquid if you hold a large amount of it relative to the total float. Trying to sell rapidly would drive down its price.

To hold illiquid assets, you either have to hold them with equity or a low degree of leverage with a funding structure for the leverage that can’t run away. One example is the type of portfolio I ran in the mid-1990s: unleveraged micro-cap value stocks. Another example is Warren Buffett’s portfolio. He buys whole companies and large positions in other companies, and funds those purchases with a modest amount of leverage from his insurance reserves.

My counterexample is more interesting (failure always is). Long Term Capital Management for the most part bought illiquid bonds and shorted liquid bonds that were otherwise similar to the illiquid bonds. When LTCM was small relative to the markets that it played in, it could move in and out of positions reasonably well, and given the nature of bonds, absent a default, there was a natural tendency for the bonds to converge in value as they got close to maturity.

As LTCM became better known, it received more capital to invest. Assets grew from profits as well. Wall Street trading desks began to figure out some of the trades that LTCM was making and started to mimic the firm. This made LTCM’s position more illiquid. It was fundamentally short liquidity, leveraged up using financing that could disappear in a crisis and had LTCM wannabes swarming around its positions.

At the beginning of 1998, it had earned huge returns and its managers were considered geniuses. The only problem was that they were running out of places to put money. The yield spreads between their favored illiquid and liquid bonds had narrowed considerably. “The juice had been squeezed out of the trade,” but they still had a lot of money to manage.

By mid-1998, with the Asian crisis brewing and Russia defaulting, there came a huge premium for liquidity. Everyone wanted to get liquid all at once. Liquid bonds rose in price, while illiquid bonds fell. The LTCM imitators on Wall Street got calls from their risk control desks telling them that they had to liquidate the trades that mimicked LTCM; the trades were losing too much money. In at least one case, it imperiled the solvency of one investment bank. But at least the investment banks had risk-control desks to force them to take action. LTCM did not, and the unwinding of all the trades by the investment banks worsened its position.

When the severity of the situation finally dawned on the investment banks, with the aid of the Federal Reserve, the investment banks realized that there was no way to easily solve the situation. LTCM couldn’t be liquidated; its positions were so large that a “fire sale” meant that the investment banks that lent it money would have to take a haircut. LTCM needed time and a bigger balance sheet, if the investment banks were to be repaid. The investment banks eventually agreed to recapitalize LTCM funds and unwind the trades at a measured pace. Even the equity investors got something back when the liquidation of LTCM was complete. LTCM’s ideas weren’t all bad, but it was definitely misfinanced.


Final Advice

Keep these basic rules in mind as you consider how to apply these concepts to your own trading. They aren’t commandments, but paying attention to them will help you make more informed investment decisions.

  1. All good investment relies at least implicitly on sound asset-liability management. Assets should be matched to the type of investor and funding structure that can best support them.
  2. Understand the advantages that you have as an investor, particularly how your own cash flow and funding structure affect your investing.
  3. Try to understand who else is in a trade with you, what their motivations are, their ability to carry the trade, etc.
  4. Don’t overleverage your positions. Always leave enough room to be able to recover from a bad scenario.
  5. Be aware of the effects that changing demographics may have on pension plans and individual investors.
  6. Always play defense. Consider what can go wrong before you act on what can go right.
  7. Be contrarian. Maximize your flexibility when the market pays you to do so. Be willing to sell into manias and buy after crashes.