Photo Credit: Friends of the Earth International || Note: the above is just a photo to illustrate a point. I do not endorse debt cancellation under most coircumstances

Photo Credit: Friends of the Earth International || Note: the above is just a photo to illustrate a point. I do not endorse debt cancellation under most circumstances.  I do support debt-for-equity swaps to delever the system.

Debt, debt, debt… debt is kind of like a snowflakes.  A single snowflake is a pretty star, but one quintillion of them is a horrendous mess.  In the same way, most individual debts are reasonable and justifiable, but when debt becomes a pervasive part of the economic system, the second order effects kick in:

  • As fixed claims grow relative to equity claims, the economy becomes less flexible, because many are counting on the debts for which they are creditors to be paid back at par.
  • Economies that are heavily indebted grow slower.
  • Central banks following untested and dubious theories like QE and negative interests rates try help matters, but end up making things worse.  (Gold would be an improvement.  Just regulate the solvency of banks tightly, which was not done in cases where the gold standard failed.)
  • Political unrest leads to dubious populism, and demands for debt cancellation, and a variety of other quack economic cures.
  • The most solvent governments find high demand for their long debt.  Long-dated claims raise in value as inflation falls along with monetary velocity.

Thus the mess.  Bloomberg had an article on the topic recently, where it tried to ask whether and where there might be a crisis.  I’ve argued in the last year that we shouldn’t have a major crisis in the US over domestic debts.  There are a few areas that look bad:

  • Student loans
  • Agriculture loans
  • Corporate debts to speculative grade companies that are negatively affected by falling crude oil and commodity prices.
  • Maybe some auto loans?

But those don’t add up to a debt market in trouble as when residential mortgages were on the rocks.

But what of other nations and their debts, public and private?

Tough question.

That said, the answer is akin to that for a corporation with a tweak or two.  It’s not the total amount of indebtedness versus assets or income that is the main issue, it is whether the debts can continue to be rolled over or not.  A smaller amount of debt can be a much larger problem than a bigger amount that is longer. (point 2 below)

Take a step back.  With countries there are a variety of factors that would make skeptical about their financial health:

  • Large increases in indebtedness
  • Large amounts of short-term debt
  • Large amounts of foreign currency-denominated liabilities (also true of the entire Eurozone — you don’t control the value of what you will pay back)
  • A fixed, or pseudo-fixed exchange rate (versus floating)
  • A weak economy, and
  • Debt and/or debt service to GDP ratios are high

The first point is important because whatever class of debt increases the most rapidly is usually the best candidate for credit troubles.  Debt that is issued rapidly rarely gets put to good uses, and those that buy it usually aren’t doing their homework.

Under ordinary circumstances, this would implicate China, but the Chinese government probably has enough resources to cover their next credit crisis.  That won’t be true forever, though, and China needs to take steps to make their banking system sound, such that it never generates losses that an individual bank can’t handle.  Personally, I doubt that it will get there, because members of the Party use the banking system for their own benefit.

Points 3, 4, and 6 deal with borrowers compromising on terms in order to borrow.  They are stretching, and accepting terms not adjustable in favor of the debtor, or can be adjusted against the debtor.   If you control your own currency, these problems are modified, because of the option to print currency to pay off debt, and inflate problems away. (Which creates other problems…)

By pseudo-fixed interest rates, I take into account countries that as neo-mercantilists make policy to benefit their exporters at the cost of their importers and consumers.  These countries fight changes in the exchange rate, even though the exchange rate may technically float.

Point 5 simply says that there is insufficient growth to absorb the increases in debt.  Economies growing strongly rarely default.

Conclusion?

My view is this: the next major credit crisis will be an international one, and will involve governments that can’t pay on their debts.  It won’t include the US, the UK, and certainly not Canada.  It probably won’t involve China.  Weak parts of the Eurozone and Japan are possibilities, along with a number of emerging markets.

And, as an aside, if this happens, people will lose faith in central banks as being able to control everything.  I think the central banks and national treasuries will find themselves hard pressed to find agreement at that time.  QE and negative interest rates might be controllable in a domestic setting, but in an international framework, other nations might finally say, “Why would I want to get paid back in that weak currency?”  (And what holds that back now is that virtually all of the world’s currencies except gold are involved in competitive devaluation to some extent.)

My advice is this: be careful with your international holdings.  The world may be peaceful right now, and everyone may be getting along, but that might not last.  Diversification is a good idea, but don’t forget that there is no place like home, unless the crisis is in your home.

Photo Credit: Alex Proimos || A bunch of con men attempt to bilk an unsuspecting lady

Photo Credit: Alex Proimos || A bunch of con men attempt to bilk an unsuspecting lady

There are many ways to try to cheat people in the investment world.  You can promise them:

  • No risk (an appeal to fear)
  • High returns (greed)
  • Secret knowledge (can appeal to either or both fear and greed)
  • An easy life, free from the worries common to man.
  • And more…

For virtually every human weakness or sin, there is a road to cheating men.  This is why it is difficult to cheat a truly honest man, because an honest man is:

  • Industrious — he knows most ways to improve his lot in life involve considerable work, whether physical or mental.
  • Skeptical — he knows not everyone is honest, and there are many that pursue ways that harm themselves or others.
  • Self-controlled — he doesn’t need to become wealthy, but if it comes bit-by-bit, he can handle it.
  • Unafraid — he doesn’t scare easily, and there are many purported scares out there.  There are always people trying to make money off of apocalyptic scenarios.  (Believe me, in a truly apocalyptic scenario, where the government breaks down, or you lose a war on your home soil — no one wins.  And, there is no way to prepare.)
  • Studious, and has wise friends — he doesn’t quickly buy novel reasoning, or unfamiliar concepts without testing them, and running them past his personal “brain trust.”
  • Patient — he can’t be rushed into something, and he can walk away.
  • Virtuous — when he does commit, he holds to it, and makes good on what he promised.  He expects the same of others, and does not deal with those of bad reputation.

There’s more, and I don’t hold myself out to be perfect here, but that is a part of what I aim for.  If you are like this, you will be very difficult to cheat.

The Dishonest Pitch

The Dishonest Pitch

With that wind-up, here is the pitch: I ran across a video while doing my usual work, when I saw a picture of Buffett.  Now, everyone wants to invoke Buffett because he is a genuinely bright guy on all affairs affecting money and wealth.  Many who do so twist what Buffett has done for their own ends.  You can see the graphic used to the left.

So this guy posits that Buffett got rich off of “Guaranteed Income Certificates.”  You can listen to the whole 39-minute video, and never learn what a Guaranteed Income Certificate is.  This is a tactic to make you think that the video-maker has hidden knowledge.  He does not lie, per se, but dances around what it is and how Buffett has used them.  I figured out what he was talking about in a about two minutes, but only because the language was so discursive, with many rabbit-trails.

So what is the vaunted Guaranteed Income Certificate?

Preferred stock.

Preferred stock?

Yes, preferred stock, that hoary creation that gets wiped out when most firms go into bankruptcy.  There are few cases where the preferred stock is worth anything in a crisis.  It is far from guaranteed.  It has all of the disadvantages of a bond, with none of the countervailing advantages of common stock, which can provide strong returns.

Geek note: why is preferred stock called preferred?  Three, maybe four reasons:

  1. Its dividend payment can only be unpaid if the common dividend is unpaid first.  It has a dividend payment priority.
  2. If the dividend is eliminated, preferred stockholders as a group typically gain representation on the Board of Directors.
  3. In bankruptcy, they receive preference over the common shareholders when the company is recapitalized or liquidated.  That said, in bad scenarios, their claim is the second lowest of all claims — behind the secured creditors, the government, lawyers, general creditors, bank debt, and unsecured bonds.  Believe me, that preference on common shareholders is not a big protection.
  4. The preferred dividend is usually, but not always higher than the common dividend.

All preferred stock is is a promise to pay dividends if the company can do so without going broke, and ahead of the common shareholders.  Like all risky investments, you can lose it all.  Average recovery in bankruptcy for preferred stock is around 5 cents on the dollar, versus 40 cents for most bonds,and 80 cents on bank debt.

Now, Buffett has done some clever things with preferred stock that is convertible into common stock, or alongside common stock or warrants.  Occasionally he has bought some regular preferred stock as an income vehicle for his insurance companies.  But Buffett almost never plays merely for income, he wants the gains that come from stocks.

Now, I didn’t listen to the whole video — after five minutes of the beautiful voice dancing around the issue, I stopped it, right clicked, downloaded it, and went to the end.  As is common with these sorts of videos, it makes it sound easy, as if infinite income could be yours if you just buy this service.  They sell you on what your dream life will be like: you will have more than enough money for vacations, you’ll never have to work again, you can spend as much time visiting the faraway grandchildren…

The guy who put the video together, and sells his service, was big on hiding things behind new names that he concocted:

  • Preferred stock becomes Guaranteed Income Certificates
  • Venture Capital / Private Equity becomes Doriot Trusts
  • Master Limited Partnerships become Secret Oil income Streams
  • Royalty Trusts are treated as a novel investment, rather than the backwater that it is.

The presentation is also expert in lying with true statistics, making the ordinary sound extraordinary.  It also has the “but wait, there’s more!” pitch, where they throw in a bunch of old reports to make the deal seem sweeter.  The cost of the newsletter if saved for the very end — beware of those that won’t tell you the cost up front.  Good deals will always show you the price early.  Charlatans hide the price.

There are no secrets.  There is no easy road to an easy, wealthy life.  I want to end this post  the way I ended a similar post called “On the 770 Account,” which was a code name for permanent life insurance. [Sigh.  Oddly, that post still gets a lot of hits, probably because no one has stepped forward to call that one out.]

Final Note

THERE ARE NO SECRETS IN MONEY MANAGEMENT!  THERE ARE NO SECRETS IN MONEY MANAGEMENT!  THERE ARE NO SECRETS IN MONEY MANAGEMENT!

There is no secret club.  There are no secret formulas. There are a lot of clever lawyers, accountants, and actuaries that the wealthy employ, but for average people, the high fixed costs won’t make it work.

If you want to be wealthy, you have to run your own firm, run it well, providing value to many.  Don’t listen to those who say they have an easy way to wealth.  They are lying, and are looking to make money off of you.  Those who give you free advice are using you in some way.  (Wait, what does that make me to be? Sigh.)

Signing off, your servant David, who does this for his own reasons…

 

In some ways, this is a boring time in insurance investing.  A lot of companies seem cheap on a book and/or earnings basis, but they have a lot of capital to deploy as a group, so there aren’t a lot of opportunities to underwrite or invest wisely, at least in the US.

Look for a moment at two victims of the Financial Stability Oversight Council [FSOC]… AIG and Metlife.  I’ve argued before that the FSOC doesn’t know what it is doing with respect to insurers or asset managers.  Financial crises come from short liabilities that can run financing illiquid assets.  That’s not true with insurers or asset managers.

Nonetheless AIG has Carl Icahn breathing down its neck, and AIG doesn’t want to break up the company.  They will spin off their mortgage insurer, United Guaranty. but they won’t get a lot of help from that — valuations of mortgage insurers are deservedly poor, and the mortgage insurer is small relative to AIG.

As I have also pointed out before AIG’s reserving was liberal, and recently AIG took a $3.6 billion charge to strengthen reserves.  Thus I am not surprised at the rating actions of Moody’s, S&P,  and AM Best.  Add in the aggressive plans to use $25 billion to buy back stock and pay more dividends over the next two years, and you could see the ratings sink further, and possibly, the stock also.  The $25 billion requires earning considerably more than what was earned over the last four years, and more than is forecast by sell-side analysts, unless AIG can find ways to release capital and excess reserves (if any) trapped in their complex holding company structure.

AIG plans to do it through (see pp 4-5):

  • Reducing expenses
  • Improving the Commercial P&C accident year loss ratio by 6 points
  • Targeted divestitures (United Guaranty, and what else gets you to $6 billion?)
  • Reinsurance (mostly life)
  • Borrowing $3-5B (maybe more after the $3.6B writedown)
  • Selling off some hedge fund assets to reduce capital use. (smart, hedge funds earn less than advertised, and the capital charges are high.)

Okay, this could work, but when you are done, you will have reduced the earnings capacity of the remaining company.  Reinsurance that provides additional surplus strips future earnings out the the company, and leaves the subsidiaries inflexible.  Trust me, I’ve worked at too many companies that did it.  It’s a lousy way to manage a life company.

Expense reduction can always be done, but business quality can suffer.  Improving the Commercial lines loss ratio will mean writing less business in an already overcompetitive market — can’t see how that will help much.

I don’t think the numbers add up to $25 billion, particularly not in a competitive market like we have right now.  This is part of what I meant when I said:

…it would pay Carl Icahn and all of the others who would be interested in breaking up AIG to hire some insurance expertise.  Insurance is a set of complex businesses, and few understand most of them, much less all of them.  It would be easy to naively overestimate the ability to improve profitability at AIG if you don’t know the business,  the accounting, and how free cash flow emerges, if it ever does.

They might also want to have a frank talk with Standard and Poors as to how they would structure a breakup if the operating subsidiaries were to maintain all of their current ratings.  Icahn and his friends might be surprised at how little value could initially be released, if any.

Thus I don’t see a lot of value at AIG right now.  I see better opportunities in MetLife.

MetLife is spinning off their domestic individual life lines, which is the core business.  I would estimate that it is worth around 15% of the whole company.  In the process, they will be spinning off most of their ugliest liabilities as far as life insurance goes — the various living benefits and secondary guarantees that are impossible to value in a scientific way.

The main company remaining will retain some of the most stable life liabilities, the P&C operation, and the Group Insurance, Corporate Benefit Funding, and the International operations.

I look at it this way: the company they are spinning off will retain the most capital intensive businesses, with the greatest degree of reserving uncertainty.  The main company will be relatively clean, with free cash flow being a high percentage of earnings.

I will be interested in the main company post-spin.  At some point, I will buy some MetLife so that I can own some of that company.  The only tough question in my mind is what the spinoff company will trade at.  Most people don’t get insurance accounting, so they will look at the earnings and think it looks cheap, but a lot of capital and cash flow will be trapped in the insurance subsidiaries.

There is no stated date for the spinoff, but if the plan is to spin of the company, a registration statement might be filed with the SEC in six months, so, you have plenty of time to think about this.

Get MET, it pays.

One Final Note

I sometimes get asked what insurance companies I own shares in.  Here’s the current list:

Long RGA, AIZ, NWLI (note: illiquid), ENH, BRK/B, GTS, and KCLI (note: very illiquid)

In general, I tend not to go in for macro themes.  Why?  I tend to get them wrong, and I think most investors also get them wrong, or at least, don’t get them right consistently.

I do have one macro theme, and it has served me well for a long time, though not over the past two years.  I was using the theme as early as 2000, but finally articulated it in 2006.

At that time, I was running my equity strategy for my employer, as well as in my personal account.  They used it for their profit sharing plan and endowment.  They liked it because it was different from what the firm did to make money, which was mostly off of financial companies, both public and private.  They didn’t want employees to worry that their accrued profit sharing bonuses would be in jeopardy if the firm’s ordinary businesses got into trouble.  In general, a good idea.

At the end of the year, I needed to give a presentation to all of the employees on how I had been managing their money.  Because my strategies had been working well, it would be an easy presentation to make… but as I looked at the prior year presentation, I felt that I needed to say more.  It was at that moment that the macro theme that i had been working with became clear to me, and I called it: Our Growing World.

The idea is this: in a post-Cold War world where most economies have accepted the basic idea of Capitalism to varying degrees, there should be growth, and that growth should create a growing middle class globally.  This middle class would be less well-off than what we presently see in America and Western Europe, at least not initially, but would manifest itself in a lot of demand for food, energy, and a variety of commodities and machinery as the middle class grew.

Now, I never committed everything to this theme, ever.  Maybe one-third of the portfolio was influenced by it, on averaged.  Most of what I do was and still is more influenced by my industry models, and by bottom-up stock-picking.

That said, the theme has a cyclical bias, and cyclicals have been kicked lately.  I still think the theme is valid, but will have to wait for overinvestment and overproduction in certain industries to get rationalized globally.  Were this only a US problem, it might be easier to deal with because we’re far more willing to let things fail, and let the bankruptcy process sort these matters out.  Governments in the rest of the world tend to interfere more, particularly if it is to protect a company that is a “national champion.”

But the rationalization will take place, and so until then in cyclical industries I try to own financially strong companies that are cheap.  They will survive until the cycle turns, and make good money after that.  That said, the billion dollar question remains — when will the cycle turn?

More next time, when I write about my industry model.