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Book Review: The Little Book of Market Wizards

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

9781118858691_MF5.inddOver time, I have reviewed a decent number of “Little Books.”  I have a theory as to why I like some of them, and not others.  I like the ones that take a relatively narrow concept and summarize it.  An example of that would be Mark Mobius’ book on emerging markets, or Vitaliy Katsenelson’s book on sideways markets.

But when a concept is broad and not friendly to summary, a “little book” is not so useful.  As examples, John Mauldin’s book on Bulls Eye  Investing went too many directions, and Scaramucci on Hedge Funds could not adequately summarize or describe a large topic.

There are other “Little Books” that I have read that did not even get a review… probably about 10% of the books I read in entire never get the review written because they were so bad, or just hard to decide what the book was.  (What do you want to be if you grow up dear? ;) )

Sorry, too much intro.  For those at Amazon, there are useful links at my blog.

Jack Schwager is generally a good writer, and expert at talking with clever investors in order to break down the main points of how they invest (without giving away the store).  In this “Little Book” he goes a different direction, and looks for commonalities among various clever investors, with each chapter covering a different topic.

My view is that most clever investors fall into one of a bunch of categories, much of which boils down to time horizon for the preferred investment.  Going down the continuum: day trader, swing trader, longer-term trader, momentum-oriented growth investor, growth investor, growth-at-a-reasonable-price investor, and value investor.  After that, you might differentiate between those that go for relative vs absolute returns.

As such, the book posits a bunch of topics that apply to different groups of clever investors.  I think it would have been better to have segmented the book by classes of investors, because then you could have a coherent set of commonalities for each main investor type.

As it is, the book relies heavily on anecdotes, which isn’t entirely a bad thing; nothing motivates a topic like a story.  But if you were reading this to try to develop your own philosophy of managing money in order to fit your own personality, you might have a hard time doing it with this book.  I think you would be better off reading one of Schwager’s longer books, and reading about each clever investor separately.  At least then you get to see the full package for an investor, and how the different aspects of investing in a given style work together.

Quibbles

Already expressed.

Summary

If you just want a taste of what a wide variety of different investors do to be effective, this could be the book for you.  For most other people, get one of Schwager’s longer books, and read about the different investors as individual chapters.  If you still want to buy it, you can buy it here: The Little Book of Market Wizards: Lessons from the Greatest Traders.

Full disclosure: I received a copy from the author’s PR flack.

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, I get a small commission.  This is my main source of blog revenue.  I prefer this to a “tip jar” because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip.  Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don’t do in full, and I typically do. (When I don’t, I mention that I scanned the book.  Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website.  Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites.  Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don’t change.

The Tip Culture in Amateur Investing

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

2132090594_78f91a417c_o A reader wrote to me and said:

I’m sure a lot of people have already told you but I want to tell you anyway: Your blog is awesome! I came across The Aleph Blog a couple of months ago and I’m very impressed with your content. I particularly like that 4-part article on Using Investment Advice. I am in the financial industry myself and it makes me wish I came up with the kind of ideas that you have on your blog. Awesome stuff!

Keep up the good work,

Many thanks to the reader, and if you want to read that series, it is located here.  But when I considered what he wrote to me, it made me think, “Why do we have to tell people how to think about investment advice?”

Then it hit me: because people are looking for easy tips to execute.  After all, when I wrote the 4-piece series, I had listening to Jim Cramer in mind.  The “tip culture” of inexperienced investors don’t want to learn the ideas behind investing, but just want someone to say, “Buy this.”  There is little if any guarantee that the same pundit will ever update his opinion.

We see this on the web, in magazines, newsletters, newspapers, etc.  On rare occasion, I will print one out, and add it to my “delayed research stack” which means I will look at it in 1-3 months.  I just did my quarterly clean-out a few days ago — anything I add to the stack now will wait until November.INTC

But why read articles like, “Ten Undervalued Large Cap Stocks with Growth Potential,” “Nine Stocks to Buy and Hold Forever,” “Eight Stocks that are Taking Off, Don’t Miss Out,” “Seven Hidden Gens Among Small Caps,” “Six Stocks for Income and Growth,” “Five Energy Stocks that are Poised to Surge,” Four Titanic Stocks that Every Investor Should Own,” “Three Turnaround Stocks with Potential for Large Capital Gains,” “Two Stocks with Breakthrough Technologies,” and “The One Stock that You Should Own for the Next Decade.”

Now, I made those titles up, though the last one was based off a Smart Money article on Intel in late 1999 which came very close to top-ticking  the market.  As you can see, Intel still hasn’t made it back to the tech bubble peak.

As I Googled phrases like, “Ten Best Stocks,” it was fascinating to see the range of pitches employed:

  • Appeals to Buffett (that never gets old)
  • Best stocks for this year
  • Favorite stocks of an author, manager or publication
  • With high dividends
  • With a low price
  • In emerging markets
  • That won’t lose money
  • That our patented investment screener spat out
  • For the rest of your life
  • Etc.

I know that I could get a lot more readers with list articles that tout stocks.  I don’t do it because most of the articles that you read like that are bogus.  [I also don’t want the inevitable scad of complaints that come with the territory.)  So why do such articles draw readers?

People would rather have false certainty than live in the reality that choosing good investments is difficult.  Even very good investors hit rough patches where they do not outperform.  Also, people aren’t comfortable with uncertain horizons for realizing value in investments — article tout holding forever, ten years, one year, but rarely 3-5 years or a market cycle.

The truth is, you can’t tell when a stock will perform, but when it does perform, the results will be lumpy.  The performance of a stock is rarely smooth.  During times when the success or failure of a stock idea is realized, the moves are often violent.

Now remember, those who write such articles are looking for media revenue — such articles are sensational, and pander to the desire for easy money.  But where are the articles telling you to sell ten stocks now?  (Yes, I know there are some, but they are not so common.)  Or, where are follow up pieces indicating how well prior picks have done, and whether one should sell, hold, or buy more now?

My main point is this: good amateur investing is like having a part-time job.  A part-time job, well, takes time.  Weigh that against other priorities in your life — family, friends, church, public service, fun, etc.  You may not want a part-time job, and so you can index your investments, or outsource them to a trusted advisor, who hopefully digs up his own ideas, and does not have a consensus, index-like portfolio (If he does, why not index?)

So, avoid tips if you can.  If you can’t, develop a research discipline, or set them aside like I do, and revisit them when the original reason for buying it is forgotten, and you must evaluate for yourself now.  The investment that you do not understand why you bought it, you will never know when it is the right time to sell it.

Either learn to evaluate investments on your own, or index your investments, or find a good investment advisor.  But don’t think that you will do well off of tips.

Avoid Buying Individual Stocks in Distress

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

There is a temptation, particularly among novice value investors, to throw money at a stock that has fallen hard.  Bargains are hard to pass up.

It can be worse if you owned the stock prior to the fall, and kept investing as it went down.  There is the temptation to follow blindly the axiom, “Well, if you liked it before, you must love it now!  Load the boat!”  Far better to sit down and talk with a friend who has more skill than you, who does not own the stock, and if he/she has time, ask for his opinion.  While you are waiting, go out to the web, and listen to the opinions (perhaps triumphal opinions) of those that did not like the stock.  Particularly take note of:

  • Allegations that the accounting is aggressive, or worse, crooked
  • Claims that the management team has goals different than that of shareholders.
  • Check to see that the balance sheet isn’t weak.  Compare it to the balance sheets of competitors.
  • Is there too much debt?  Is there too much debt potentially coming due soon, and too little resources to pay the debt?
  • Is revenue falling dramatically?  What competitor is benefiting from the firm’s troubles?

But even if you didn’t own the stock, you might be wary of a stock that has fallen hard for a number of reasons, if the fall indicates the company may be in danger of default.

  • It’s likely that the management team that is responsible for the problem is still in charge.
  • Most ordinary management teams are not used to managing a company that is in distress.
  • Suppliers become less likely to extend favorable credit terms to the firm.
  • Rival companies spread rumors that you are going under and try to attract your best customers away.
  • Talented employees look for greener pastures as opportunities dry up.  It’s no fun to turn from growing a profitable business, to putting out fires.
  • Management will be distracted with staying alive, maybe vulture investors, analysts seeking more data, regulatory requests, lenders seeking assurances, etc.
  • Credit will be harder to get from bonds, loans, etc., and if the firm gets it, it will be expensive. (Especially if the firm uses the Financing Methods of Last Resort.)
  • And, management may make things even tougher by having a round of layoffs.  Less people to do the same work.
  • Not only that, but even if you are right about the stock, there will be a lot of sellers selling as the stock price rises, because they got back to even.

When a company is in distress, everything fights against it.  All of the normal courtesies are gone, replaced by a haze of suspicion.  At the time it most needs friends, they vanish.  Tempting as it may be to buy the stock quickly, it might be worth it to wait and see whether things get worse, and analyze who would like to buy the company to use some subset of the assets for their own company.

Now recently I read a classic Journal of Finance article called, “In Search of Distress Risk, by Campbell, Hilscher, and Szilagyi.” [Download is for wonks only, I will summarize.]  Distress tends to happen to firms that have negative price momentum, are small, and are classified as value stocks because of the high ratio of net worth to market capitalization.  As a result, some suggested that the risk premiums that exist for owning small and value stocks must be related to distress.  But firms under distress tend to do badly, while small and value stocks tend to do well.  Negative momentum fits, but distress is a small part of that anomaly.

So maybe if you are a value investor or a small cap investor, you might be able to improve your performance by screening out distress situations.  The simplified variables used in the paper are (and their effect on the probability of distress [page 2910]):

  • Net Income / Total Assets (lower means higher probability of distress)
  • Total Liabilities / Total Assets (higher means higher probability of distress)
  • Three month total returns (lower means higher probability of distress)
  • Realized stock price volatility over the last three months (higher means higher probability of distress)
  • Market capitalization (higher means higher probability of distress)
  • Stock price under $15? (yes means higher probability of distress)
  • Cash and near cash as a fraction of total assets (lower means higher probability of distress)
  • Market to Book (higher means higher probability of distress)

Most of these make intuitive sense.  The one for market capitalization doesn’t except the the effect of a stock being under $15/share is more closely related to distress.

One thing that might make you change you mind is if a new management team is brought in.  Every quarter I pull together a list of companies that have fired or replaced their CEO, and I throw them in as competitors against the existing companies in my portfolio.  [there were about 80 over the last three months] A fresh set of eyes, a fresh mind can change things, but analyse to see whether the new man or team has the right ideas.

SEASTo close with an example: don’t buy Seaworld [SEAS] after the negative surprise of yesterday, at least not yet.  Analyze for solvency.  Try to figure out whether the actions management is proposing will actually make things better, or whether the company’s prospects have been permanently reduced.

Don’t try to catch a falling knife.  Rather, analyze, and if it makes sense when the panic has died down, buy some as a part of a diversified portfolio.

PS — In distress, the real pros look down the capital structure to see whether the preferred stock, junior debt, senior debt, bank loans, or trade claims look attractive.  That’s beyond the average investor, but in times of distress, those securities trading at a discount may be where the real action is.  The securities that get hurt but not destroyed will typically control the firm post-bankruptcy.

Full Disclosure: No holdings in any securities mentioned

The Shadows of the Bond Market’s Past, Part II

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

This is the continuation of The Shadows of the Bond Market’s Past, Part I.  If you haven’t read part I, you will need to read it.  Before I start, there is one more thing I want to add regarding 1994-5: the FOMC used signals from the bond markets to give themselves estimates of expected inflation.  Because of that, the FOMC overdid policy, because the dominant seller of Treasuries was not focusing on the economy, but on hedging mortgage bonds.  Had the FOMC paid more attention to what the real economy was doing, they would not have tightened so much or so fast.  Financial markets are only weakly representative of what the real economy is doing; there’s too much noise.

All that said, in 1991 the Fed also overshot policy on the other side in order to let bank balance sheets heal, so let it not be said that the Fed only responds to signals in the real economy.  (No one should wonder who went through the financial crisis that the Fed has an expansive view of its mandate in practice.)

October 2001

2001 changed America.  September 11th led to a greater loosening of credit by the FOMC in order to counteract spreading unease in the credit markets.  Credit spreads were widening quickly as many lenders were unwilling to take risk at a time where times were so unsettled.  The group that I led took more risk, and the story is told here.  The stock market had been falling most of 2001 when 9/11 came.  When the markets reopened, it fell hard, and rallied into early 2002, before falling harder amid all of the scandals and weak economy, finally bottoming in October 2002.

The rapid move down in the Fed funds rate was not accompanied by a move down in long bond yields, creating a very steep curve.  There were conversations among analysts that the banks were healthy, though many industrial firms, like automobiles were not.  Perhaps the Fed was trying to use housing to pull the economy out of the ditch.  Industries that were already over-levered could not absorb more credit from the Fed.  Unemployment was rising, and inflation was falling.

There was no bad result to this time of loosening — another surprise would lurk until mid-2004, when finally the loosening would go away.  By that time, the stock market would be much higher, about as high as it was in October 2001, and credit spreads tighter.

July 2004

At the end of June 2004, the FOMC did its first hike of what would be 17 1/4% rises in the Fed funds rate which would be monotony interspersed with hyper-interpretation of FOMC statement language adjustments, mixed with the wonder of a little kid in the back seat, saying, “Daddy, when will we get there?”  The FOMC had good reason to act.  Inflation was rising, unemployment was falling, and they had just left the policy rate down at 1% for 12 straight months.  In the midst of that in June-August 2003, there was a another small panic in the mortgage bond market, but this time, the FOMC stuck to its guns and did not raise rates, as they did for something larger in 1994.

With the rise in the Fed funds rate to 1 1/4%, the rate was as high as it was when the recession bottomed in November 2002.  That’s quite a long period of low rates.  During that period, the stock market rallied vigorously, credit spreads tightened, and housing prices rallied.  Long bonds stayed largely flat across the whole period, but still volatile.

There were several surprises in store for the FOMC and investors as  the tightening cycle went on:

  1. The stock market continued to rally.
  2. So did housing.
  3. So did long bonds, at least for a time.
  4. Every now and then there were little panics, like the credit convexity panic in May 2005, from a funky long-short CDO bet.
  5. Credit complexity multiplied.  All manner of arbitrage schemes flourished.  Novel structures for making money off of credit, like CPDOs emerge.  (The wisdom of finance bloggers as skeptics grows.)
  6. By the end, the yield curve invests the hard way, with long bonds falling a touch through the cycle.
  7. Private leverage continued to build, and aggressively, particularly in financials.
  8. Lending standards deteriorated.

We know how this one ended, but at the end of the tightening cycle, it seemed like another success.  Only a few nut jobs were dissatisfied, thinking that the banks and homeowners were over-levered.  In hindsight, FOMC policy should have moved faster and stopped at a lower level, maybe then we would have had less leverage to work through.

June 2010

15 months after the bottom of the crisis, the stock market has rallied dramatically, with a recent small fall, but housing continues to fall in value.  There’s more leverage behind houses, so when the prices do finally fall, it gains momentum as people throw in the towel, knowing they have lost it all, and in some cases, more.  For the past year, long bond yields have gone up and down, making a round-trip, but a lot higher than during late 2008.  Credit spreads are still high, but not as high as during late 2008.

Inflation is low and volatile, unemployment is off the peak of a few months earlier, but is still high.  Real GDP is growing at a decent clip, but fitfully, and it is still not up to pre-crisis levels.  Aside from the PPACA [Obamacare], congress hasn’t done much of anything, and the Fed tries to fill the void by expanding its balance sheet through QE1, which ended in June 2010. Things feel pretty punk altogether.

The FOMC can’t cut the Fed funds rate anymore, so it relies on language in its FOMC Statement to tell economic actors that Fed funds will be “exceptionally low” for an “extended period.”  Four months from then, the QE2 would sail, making the balance sheet of the Fed bigger, but probably doing little good for the economy.

The results of this period aren’t fully known yet because we still living in the same essential macro environment, with a few exceptions, which I will take up in the final section.

August 2014

Inflation remains low, but may finally be rising.  Unemployment has fallen, much of it due to discouraged workers, but there is much underemployment.  Housing has finally gotten traction in the last two years, but there are many cross-currents.  The financial crisis eliminated move-up buyers by destroying their equity.  Stocks have continued on a tear, and corporate credit spreads are very tight, tighter than any of the other periods where the yield curve was shaped as it is now.  The long bond has had a few scares, but has confounded market participants by hanging around in a range of 2.5%- 4.0% over the last two years.

There are rumblings from the FOMC that the Fed funds rate may rise sometime in 2015, after 72+ months hanging out at 0%.  QE may end in a few more months, leaving the balance sheet of the Fed at 5 times its pre-crisis size.  Change may be upon us.

This yield curve shape tends to happen over my survey period at a time when change is about to happen (4 of 7 times — 1971, 1977, 1993 and 2004), and one where the FOMC will raise rates aggressively (3 of 7 times — 1977, 1993 and 2004) after fed funds have been left too low for too long.  2 out of 7 times, this yield curve shape appears near the end of a loosening cycle (1991 and 2001).  1 out of 7 times it appears before a deep recession, as in 1971. 1 out of 7 times it appears in the midst of an uncertain recovery — 2010. 3 out 7 times, inflation will rise significantly, such as in 1971, 1977 and 2004.

My tentative conclusion is this… the fed funds rate has been too low for too long, and we will see a rapid rise in rates, unless the weak economy chokes it off because it can’t tolerate any significant rate increases.  One final note before I close: when the tightening starts, watch the long end of the yield curve.  I did this 2004-7, and it helped me understand what would happen better than most observers.  If the yield of the long bond moves down, or even stays even, the FOMC probably won’t persist in raising rates much, as the economy is too weak.  If the long bond runs higher, it might be a doozy of a tightening cycle.

And , for those that speculate, look for places that can’t tolerate or would  love higher short rates.  Same for moves in the long bond either way, or wider credit spreads — they can’t get that much tighter.

This is an unusual environment, and as I like to say, “Unusual typically begets unusual, it does not beget normal.”  What I don’t know is how unusual and where.  Those getting those answers right will do better than most.  But if you can’t figure it out, don’t take much risk.

A Few Investment Notes

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

Just a few notes for this evening:

1) I’ve been a bull on the long end of the Treasury curve for a while.  It’s been a winning bet, and the drumbeat of “interest rates have nowhere to go but up” continues.  Here’s an argument from Jeffrey Gundlach on why long rates should remain low, and maybe go lower:

Gundlach, however, was one of the very few people who believed rates would stay low, especially with the Federal Reserve committed to keeping rates low with its loose monetary policy.

It’s important to note that U.S. Treasuries don’t have the lowest yields in the world. French and German government bonds have yields that are about 100 basis points lower than those of Treasuries. In other words, those European bonds actually make U.S. bonds look cheap, meaning that yields have room to go lower.

This will trend toward lower rates will eventually have to end, but neither GDP growth, inflation, or business lending justifies it at present.

2) From Josh Brown, he notes that correlations went up considerably with all risk assets in the last bitty panic.  Worth a read.  My two cents on the matter comes from my recent article, On the Recent Anxiety in High Yield Bonds, where I noted how much yieldy stocks got hit — much more than expected.  I suspect that some asset allocators with short-dated or small stop-loss trading rules began selling into the bitty panic, but that is just a guess.

3) That would help to explain the loss of liquidity in the bond market during the bitty panic.  This article from Tracy Alloway at the FT explores that topic.  One commenter asked:

Isn’t it a bit odd to say lots of people sold quickly *and* that there isn’t enough liquidity? 

Liquidity means a number of things.  In this situation, spreads widened enough that parties that wanted to sell had to give up price to do so, allowing the brokers more room to sell them to skittish buyers willing to commit funds.  Sellers were able to get trades done at unfavorable levels, but they were determined to get the trades done, and so they were done, and a lot of them.  Buyers probably had some spread target that they could easily achieve during the bitty panic, and so were willing to take on the bonds.  Having a balance sheet with slack is a great thing when others need liquidity now.

One other thing to note from the article is that it mentioned that retail investors now own 37% of credit, versus 29% in 2007, according to RBS. Also that investment funds has been able to buy all of the new corporate debt sold since 2008.

There’s more good stuff in the article including how “matrix pricing” may have influenced the selloff.  When spreads were so tight, it may not have taken a very large initial sale to make the estimated prices of other bonds trade down, particularly if the sales were of lower-rated, less-traded bonds.  Again, worth a read.

4) Regarding credit scores, three articles:

From the WSJ article:

Fair Isaac Corp. said Thursday that it will stop including in its FICO credit-score calculations any record of a consumer failing to pay a bill if the bill has been paid or settled with a collection agency. The San Jose, Calif., company also will give less weight to unpaid medical bills that are with a collection agency.

I think there is less here than meets the eye.  This only affects those borrowing from lenders using the particular FICO scores that were modified.  Not all lenders use that particular score, and many use FICO data disaggregated to create their own score, or ask FICO to give them a custom score that they use.  Again, from the WSJ article:

Fair Isaac releases new scoring models every few years, and it is up to lenders to choose which ones to use. The new score will likely be adopted by credit-card and auto lenders first, says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at CreditSesame.com and a former Fair Isaac manager.

Mortgages are likely to lag, since the FICO scores used by most mortgage lenders are two versions old.

The impact of the changes on borrowers is likely to be significant. Accounts that are sent to collections, including credit-card debts and utility bills, can stay on borrowers’ credit reports for as long as seven years, even when their balance drops to zero, and can lower their scores by up to 100 points, said Mr. Ulzheimer.

The lower weight given to unpaid medical debt could increase some affected borrowers’ FICO scores by 25 points, said Mr. Sprauve.

But lowering the FICO score by itself doesn’t do anything.  Some lenders don’t adjust their hurdles to reflect the scores, if they think the score is a better measure of credit for their time-horizon, and they want more loan volume.  Others adjust their hurdles up, because they want only a certain volume of loans to be made, and they want better quality loans at existing pricing.

Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View asks a different question as to whether it is good to extend more credit to marginal borrowers?  Didn’t things go wrong doing that before?  Her conclusion:

That in itself [DM: pushing for more loans to marginal borrowers as a matter of policy] is an interesting development. Ten years ago, politicians were pressing hard for banks to extend the precious boon of homeownership to every man, woman and shell corporation in America. Five years ago, when people were pushing for something like the CFPB, the focus of the public debate had dramatically shifted toward protecting people from credit. Oh, there were complaints about the cost of subprime loans, but ultimately, on most of those loans, the problem wasn’t the interest rate but the principal: Too many people had taken out loans that they could not realistically afford to pay, especially if anything at all went wrong in their lives, from a job loss to a divorce to an unexpected illness. And so you heard a lot of complaints about predatory lenders who gave people more credit than they could handle.

Credit has tightened considerably since then, and now, it appears, we’re unhappy with that. We want cheaper, easier credit for everyone, and particularly for the kind of financially struggling people who have seen their credit scores pummeled over the last decade. And so we see the CFPB pressing FICO to go easier on people with satisfied collections.

That’s not to say that the CFPB is wrong; I don’t know what the ideal amount of credit is in a society, or whether we are undershooting the mark. What I do think is that the U.S. political system — and, for that matter, the U.S. financial system — seems to have a pretty heavy bias toward credit expansion. Which explains a lot about the last 10 years.

Personally, I look at this, and I think we don’t learn.  Credit pulls demand into the present, which is fine if it doesn’t push losses and heartache into the future.  We are better off with a slower, less indebted economy for a time, and in the end, the economy as a whole will be better off, with people saving to buy in the future, rather than running the risk of defaults, and a very punk economy while we work through the financial losses.

Not Apt, Not Teed Up, Not Going

Saturday, August 2nd, 2014

Okay, let’s run the promoted stocks scoreboard:

TickerDate of ArticlePrice @ ArticlePrice @ 6/27/14DeclineAnnualizedSplits
GTXO5/27/20082.450.022-99.1%-53.3% 
BONZ10/22/20090.350.001-99.8%-72.8% 
BONU10/22/20090.890.000-100.0%-85.1% 
UTOG3/30/20111.550.000-100.0%-92.3% 
OBJE4/29/2011116.000.069-99.9%-89.7%1:40
LSTG10/5/20111.120.010-99.1%-81.2% 
AERN10/5/20110.07700.0001-99.9%-90.5% 
IRYS3/15/20120.2610.000-100.0%-100.0%Dead
RCGP3/22/20121.470.045-96.9%-77.2% 
STVF3/28/20123.240.340-89.5%-61.8% 
CRCL5/1/20122.220.008-99.6%-91.7% 
ORYN5/30/20120.930.026-97.2%-80.7% 
BRFH5/30/20121.160.779-32.8%-16.8% 
LUXR6/12/20121.590.006-99.7%-93.0% 
IMSC7/9/20121.51.220-18.7%-9.5% 
DIDG7/18/20120.650.042-93.6%-74.0% 
GRPH11/30/20120.87150.073-91.6%-77.4% 
IMNG12/4/20120.760.015-98.0%-90.6% 
ECAU1/24/20131.420.004-99.7%-97.8% 
DPHS6/3/20130.590.007-98.9%-97.9% 
POLR6/10/20135.750.050-99.1%-98.4% 
NORX6/11/20130.910.090-90.1%-86.9% 
ARTH7/11/20131.240.200-83.9%-82.2% 
NAMG7/25/20130.850.085-90.0%-89.6% 
MDDD12/9/20130.790.060-92.4%-98.2% 
TGRO12/30/20131.20.150-87.5%-97.1% 
VEND2/4/20144.341.500-65.4%-88.7% 
HTPG3/18/20140.720.100-86.1%-99.5% 
WSTI6/27/20141.350.735-45.6%-99.8% 
 8/1/2014 Median-97.2%-89.6%

 

Now for tonight’s loser-in-waiting: Apptigo [APPG].  This is a company that  until four months ago was a development stage company for selling Irish horses in the US.  This is a company that has never earned any money, and only has positive net worth at present because of raising capital when the prior company acquired Apptigo in a reverse marger, and renamed itself Apptigo.

This is a company that says it will make money off of selling apps.  Well, they have one app at present, and it is called SCORE – Match Maker.  It has a grand total of seven likes at the iTunes Store.  Now let me hazard a guess here, and say that it is difficult to create a broad network for matchmaking.  The value of a network goes up proportional to the square of its nodes.  How will they attract enough attention in the iTunes ecosystem to make  a significant network?  Even if this is a legitimate company, I don’t see how it will be easy to make it work, as the promoter said it would be easy.

The promoter also said this in tiny type:

Important Notice and Disclaimer: Flying Under the Radar Stocks is an independent paid circulation newsletter. This report is a solicitation for subscriptions and a paid promotional advertisement of Apptigo, Inc. (APPG). Flying Under the Radar Stocks received an editorial fee of twenty five thousand dollars from Micro Cap Media Ltd. APPG was chosen to be profiled after Flying Under the Radar Stocks completed due diligence on APPG. Flying Under the Radar Stocks expects to generate new subscriber revenue the amount of which is unknown at this time resulting from the distribution of this report. Micro Cap Media Ltd. paid nine hundred forty-eight thousand, three hundred sixty-three dollars to advertising agencies for the cost of creating and distributing this report, including printing and postage, in an effort to build investor awareness. This report does not provide an analysis of a company’s financial position, operations or prospects and this is not to be construed as a recommendation by Micro Cap Media Ltd. or an offer to buy or sell any security or investment advice. An offer to buy or sell can only be made with accompanying disclosure documents and only in states and provinces for which they are approved. Do not base any investment decision based solely on information in this report. Although the information contained in this advertisement is believed to be reliable, Micro Cap Media Ltd. makes no warranties as to the accuracy of any of the contents herein and accepts no liability for how readers may choose to utilize the content. Readers should perform their own due diligence, including consulting with a licensed, qualified investment professional. Further, readers are strongly urged to independently verify all statements made in this report APPG’s financial position and all other information regarding APPG should be verified directly with APPG Audited financial statements and other relevant information about APPG can be found at the Security and Exchange Commission’s website at www.sec.gov. It is recommended that any investment in any security should be made only after consulting with your investment advisor and only after reviewing all publicly available information, including the financial statements of the company. The information contained herein contains forward-looking information within the meaning of section 27a of the Securities Act of 1933 as amended and section 21e of the Securities Act of 1934 as amended including statements regarding growth of APPG. In accordance with the safe harbor provisions of the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, statements contained herein that look forward in time, which include everything other than historical information, involve risks and uncertainties.  All forward-looking statements are based upon current assumptions that are believed to be reasonable. In the event any such assumptions turn out to be incorrect, forward-looking statements based upon those assumptions will not be accurate. Flying Under the Radar Stocks presents information in this report believed to be reliable, but its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. More information can be found at APPG’s website www.apptigo.com. (underline emphasis mine)

I actually like this disclaimer, except for the fact that it is in tiny type, while the proclamation of the investment’s fake virtues are in big type.  So, I have a simple proposal for the SEC regarding newsletters like this: the type size of any disclaimer must be as large as the the largest type in the document.

This is fair, and consistent with other laws that regulate “the fine print.”

I emailed the CEO of Apptigo to ask him whether he knew about the stock promotions (there are three going on), and whether the company, its major shareholders, or its management was benefiting from the promotion.  There was no answer, though I wrote to him on Thursday.

Regardless, avoid promoted stocks, dear friends.  No company of any good reputation pays anyone to promote their stock.  Avoid promoted stocks.

On Current Credit Conditions

Friday, July 18th, 2014

This should be short.  Remember that credit and equity volatility are strongly related.

I am dubious about conditions in the bank loan market because Collateralized Loan Obligations [CLOs] are hot now and there are many that want to take the highest level of risk there.  I realize that I am usually early on credit issues, but there are many piling into CLOs, and willing to take the first loss in exchange for a high yield.  Intermediate-term, this is not a good sign.

Note that corporations take 0n more debt when rates are low.  They overestimate how much debt they can service, because if rates rise, they are not prepared for the effect on earnings per share, should the cost of the debt reprice.

It’s a different issue, but consider China with all of the bad loans its banks have made.  They are facing another significant default, and the Chinese Government looks like it will let the default happen.  That will not likely be true if the solvency of one of their banks is threatened, so keep aware as the risks unfold.

Finally, look at the peace and calm of low implied volatilities of the equity markets.  It feels like 2006, when parties were willing to sell volatility with abandon because the central banks of our world had everything under control.  Ah, remember that?  Maybe it is time to buy volatility when it is cheap.  Now here is my question to readers: aside from buying long Treasury bonds, what investments can you think of that benefit from rising implied volatility and credit spreads, aside from options and derivatives?  Leave you answers in the comments or email me.

This will sound weird, but I am not as much worried about government bond rates rising, as I am with credit spreads rising.  Again, remember, I am likely early here, so don’t go nuts applying my logic.

PS — weakly related, also consider the pervasiveness of BlackRock’s risk control model.  Dominant risk control models may not truly control risk, because who will they sell to?  Just another imbalance of which to be wary.

Book Review: The Secret Club that Runs the World

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

la_ca_0506_the_secret_club_that_runs This is a very good book; I learned a lot as I read it, and you will too.

In this book, Kate Kelly takes on the economic sector of commodities.  This involves production, distribution, trading, hedging, and ultimate use.

There are many players trying to profit in many different ways.  There are hedge funds, commodity trading advisers, investment banks, producers, refiners.  Some do just one facet of the commodities sector; some do everything.

This book is replete with stories from the run-up in commodity prices, and all of the games that went on.   It tells of those who made a lot of money, and those that want  broke working in a very volatile part of the economy.

It is a book that gives a testimony that information is king, and those that understand future supply, demand, and transportation costs can make a great deal of money by buying cheap, transporting, and selling high.

That said, the math can get overly precise versus the real world… the book gives examples of hedging programs that were too clever by half, ending in disaster when prices moved too aggressively.

With hedging, simplicity is beauty.  But after some success in trading well, companies think that instead of hedging, let trading become a profit center of its own .  Far from reducing risk, risks rise beyond measure, until the scheme blows up.

The book also considers non-market players like politicians and regulators, and how they are almost always a few steps behind those they regulate.  A key theme of the book is whether market participants can manipulate prices or not.  I would invite all market participants to consider my writings on penny stocks.  Can the price be manipulated?  Yes.  For how long?  Maybe a month or two at best.  In bigger markets like commodities, I suspect the ability to manipulate prices is less, because there are more players trading, and the power is equal between buyers and sellers.  There are powerful parties on both sides seeking their advantage.

The Glencore/Xtsrata merger and Delta Airlines hedging program/buying a refinery occupy a decent amount of the book.  Glencore/Xstrata illustrates the desire for scale and control in owning production in trading assets in commodities.  Delta Airlines illustrates the difficulties involve in being a heavy energy user in a cyclical, capital-intensive business that carries a lot of debt.  It’s too early to tell whether owning their own oil refining operation was the right decision or not, though typically companies do better to specialize, rather than vertically integrate.

One you have read this book, you will have a good top-level view of how the commodities sector operates, and thus I recommend the book.

Quibbles

The book title is vastly overstated.  There is no secret.  Just becuse many people don’t know about them doesn’t mean they are secret.  There is adequate data about them if you look.

There is no club.  Yes, some move from one position in one firm to a position in another.  Some even become regulators.  That is common to most industries.

They don’t run the world.  At most, they have a weak hold over commodities markets, because the traders have better data on global supply and demand than most large producers and consumers do.  That information allows them to profit on spreads, but it doesn’t let them move markets.

Summary

Given my quibbles, I thought it was a great book.  A marketing guy probably wrote the title, so I give the author a pass on that.  If you want a readable high-level view of the commodities markets, you can get it in this book.  If you want to, you can buy it here: The Secret Club That Runs the World: Inside the Fraternity of Commodity Traders.

Full disclosure: The PR flack asked me if I would like a copy and I said “yes.”

If you enter Amazon through my site, and you buy anything, I get a small commission.  This is my main source of blog revenue.  I prefer this to a “tip jar” because I want you to get something you want, rather than merely giving me a tip.  Book reviews take time, particularly with the reading, which most book reviewers don’t do in full, and I typically do. (When I don’t, I mention that I scanned the book.  Also, I never use the data that the PR flacks send out.)

Most people buying at Amazon do not enter via a referring website.  Thus Amazon builds an extra 1-3% into the prices to all buyers to compensate for the commissions given to the minority that come through referring sites.  Whether you buy at Amazon directly or enter via my site, your prices don’t change.

A Stream of Hot Air

Saturday, June 28th, 2014

Let’s roll the promoted stocks scoreboard:

TickerDate of ArticlePrice @ ArticlePrice @ 6/27/14DeclineAnnualizedSplits
GTXO5/27/20082.450.022-99.1%-53.9% 
BONZ10/22/20090.350.001-99.8%-72.7% 
BONU10/22/20090.890.000-100.0%-83.4% 
UTOG3/30/20111.550.001-100.0%-90.7% 
OBJE4/29/2011116.000.083-99.9%-89.9%1:40
LSTG10/5/20111.120.011-99.0%-81.6% 
AERN10/5/20110.07700.0001-99.9%-91.3% 
IRYS3/15/20120.2610.000-100.0%-100.0%Dead
RCGP3/22/20121.470.080-94.6%-72.4% 
STVF3/28/20123.240.430-86.7%-59.3% 
CRCL5/1/20122.220.013-99.4%-90.7% 
ORYN5/30/20120.930.026-97.2%-82.2% 
BRFH5/30/20121.160.620-46.6%-26.1% 
LUXR6/12/20121.590.007-99.6%-93.3% 
IMSC7/9/20121.51.000-33.3%-18.6% 
DIDG7/18/20120.650.047-92.8%-74.2% 
GRPH11/30/20120.87150.077-91.2%-78.6% 
IMNG12/4/20120.760.025-96.7%-88.8% 
ECAU1/24/20131.420.047-96.7%-90.9% 
DPHS6/3/20130.590.008-98.7%-98.3% 
POLR6/10/20135.750.051-99.1%-98.9% 
NORX6/11/20130.910.110-87.9%-86.8% 
ARTH7/11/20131.240.213-82.8%-84.0% 
NAMG7/25/20130.850.087-89.8%-91.5% 
MDDD12/9/20130.790.097-87.7%-97.8% 
TGRO12/30/20131.20.181-84.9%-97.9% 
VEND2/4/20144.342.090-51.8%-84.5% 
HTPG3/18/20140.720.090-87.5%-99.9% 
6/27/2014Median-96.7%-87.8%

 

My, but aren’t they predictable.  Onto tonight’s loser-in-waiting Windstream Technologies [WSTI].  This is another company with negative earnings and net worth, though it has a modest amount of revenue.

Think of it for a moment: this company has a “breakthrough technology,” and yet they were a hotel company within the last year or two.  That’s not how real businesses work.  I you have an incredible technology, but little capital, private equity investors will happily fund you.  You won’t try to do it in some underfunded corporate shell which tempts crooked financial writers to write fantasy.

Now, you might look at the disclaimer in the glossy brochure which came to my house, which in 5-point type takes back all of things that they about in bold headlines and readable text.  For example:

  • It begins with: DO NOT BASE ANY INVESTMENT DECISION UPON ANY MATERIALS FOUND IN THIS REPORT.
  • The Wall St. Revelator is neither licensed nor qualified to provide financial advice. As such, it relies upon the “publisher’s exclusion” as provided under Section 202(a)(11) of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 and corresponding state securities laws.
  • The Wall Street Revelator and/or its publisher, Andrew & Lynn Carpenter, dba The Wall Street Revelator has received a total amount of twenty five thousand dollars [DM: $25,000] in cash compensation to assist in the writing of this Advertisement, as well as potential future subscription and advertising revenues, the amount of which is not known at this time with respect to the publication of this Advertisement and future publications.
  • Mandarin Media Limited paid nine hundred thousand dollars [DM: $900,000] to marketing vendors to pay for all the costs of creating and distributing this Advertisement, including printing and postage, in an effort to build investor and market awareness.
  • Mandarin Media Limited was paid by non-affiliate shareholders who fully intend to sell their shares without notice into this Advertisement/market awareness campaign, including selling into increased volume and share price that may result from this Advertisement/market awareness campaign.
  • The non-affiliate shareholders may also purchase shares without notice at any time before, during or after this Advertisement/market awareness campaign.
  • Non-affiliate shareholders acted as advisors to Mandarin Media Limited in this Advertisement and market awareness campaign, including providing outside research, materials, and information to outside writers to compile written materials as part of this market awareness campaign.

The disclaimer exists to cover the writers from legal risk, and what it tells us is that there are largish shareholders looking to profit by running up the stock price as a result  of the advertisement, enough to cover the $925,000 cost.

Such it is with a pump and dump.  One thing is virtually certain, though.  This is not a stock to hold onto.  Look at the stocks in the table above.  No winners, and most are almost total losses in the long run.  Manipulators love working with stocks that have no earnings and no net worth, because they are impossible to value for the grand majority of people.  New buyers, if they come in a group, can create a frenzy that raises prices.

That’s the goal of the advertising campaign: a short term “pop” that the sponsoring shareholders can sell into, letting a bunch of muppets take losses.

Again, never buy promoted stocks.  If they have to buy the services of others to promote the stock, it is a fraud.  Good stocks do not need promotion.  It’s that simple.

PS — the pretentiousness of the word “revelator” should be replaced by the simpler “revealer.”

The Tails of the Distribution do not Validate the Mean

Friday, June 20th, 2014

17 months ago I wrote a post How to Become Super-Rich?  Now, many of my articles are timeless — they will still have value 10 years from now.   I like to write for the long-run.  Teaching basic principles is what this blog is about.

The surprise for me is that article is the most popular one at my blog.  That says something about the desires of mankind.  Now, if you do want a chance to become super-rich, you create your own company, and focus your efforts on it exclusively.  Diversification is not  a goal here.  We are swinging for the fences here.

But just as in baseball the guys who swing for the fences to hit home runs, they also tend to strike out the most.  The same is true of businessmen.  Many start companies, put their all into it, and end up broke.  Many end up with marginal businesses that give them a living, but not much more.  A few prosper and become moderately wealthy.   A tiny amount of them create a hugely profitable company that makes them super-rich.

Anyway, after I was cold-called by Militello Capital, I reviewed articles on the blog, including one called CRACK THE WEALTH CODE.  I’ll quote the most relevant portion of the post:

According to Get Rich, Stay Rich, Pass It On: The Wealth-Accumulation Secrets of America’s Richest Families by Catherine McBreen and George Walper Jr, “Building up a nest egg with the equity in your home is a fine thing. But what distinguishes the model for getting rich, staying rich and passing it on is its emphasis on investing in current and future income-producing real estate”. Andrew Carnegie, the wealthiest man in America during the early 20th century, said that “90 percent of all millionaires become so through owning real estate.” If that’s not enough to peak your interest, consider this: “The major fortunes in America have been made in land”, coined by John D. Rockefeller. What does he know…..his net worth in today’s dollars is onlyaround $300 billion. Invest in areas you know. Real estate gives you the opportunity to visit and connect with your investment. When’s the last time you connected with your mutual fund?

Don’t forget about the second part of the winning combo: private companies. Open your eyes to entrepreneurial opportunities. McBreen and Walper advise that at least one-quarter of your investment dollars should be in enterprises that develop products and services or invent breakthrough technologies. In 10 things billionaires won’t tell you, number seven’s title, “We didn’t get rich investing in stocks”, hits the nail on the head. Billionaires like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg made their fortunes in start-ups, says Robert Klein, founder and president of Retirement Income Center, a retirement and income planning firm in Newport Beach, California. The article confirms that “you’re far more likely to become a billionaire in Silicon Valley than on Wall Street.”

In one sense, I agree with what they say.  If you want to become super-rich, pursue one goal with your one company.  Less than 1% will succeed.  Maybe 5-10% will attain to being multi-millionaires.  Most will muddle or fail.

Running your own business, including real estate investing, is not a magic ticket to riches.  A lot depends on:

  • Solving problems people didn’t know they had.
  • The time period that you invest during — were financial conditions favorable for speculation?
  • The ability to manage a large enterprise is an uncommon skill.
  • The ability to be an entrepreneur is also not common.  Most people don’t want to take that much risk.
  • Discipline, hard effort, taking time away from family and friends.

There is a cost to trying to be super-rich, and most people die at that altar of greed.  I suspect that most that succeed, did not aim to be super-rich, but pursued that task because they found it interesting.  They were idealists who happened to be in business, and their ideals matched up with what would enable society to pursue its goals more effectively.

So does it make sense for average people to invest in private equity funds or private real estate funds because the wealthy ran their own companies and invested in commercial real estate?

No.  First, remember that the super-wealthy were swinging for the fences.  They were the rare success stories.

Second, note that those who invest in private equity funds or private real estate funds are diversifying.  As such, they are seeking more certainty, and will not gain an abnormally large return.

Third, recognize the data bias.  Those who succeed with private equity funds or private real estate funds, their data exists, while those who fail disappear.

There is no advantage to being public or private as a business.  Private businesses can keep things secret, but public businesses have a lower cost of capital.

Conclusion

Just because the wealthy got that way by making big bets that most people lose, does not mean that average people should do that.  Alternative investments like private equity funds or private real estate funds are not an automatic road to wealth, and are less transparent than their liquid alternatives on the stock exchanges.

Average people should avoid low probability bets — they tend to impoverish, with high probability.

PS — that said, I like commercial real estate as a diversifier, but it won’t make you rich.

Disclaimer


David Merkel is an investment professional, and like every investment professional, he makes mistakes. David encourages you to do your own independent "due diligence" on any idea that he talks about, because he could be wrong. Nothing written here, at RealMoney, Wall Street All-Stars, or anywhere else David may write is an invitation to buy or sell any particular security; at most, David is handing out educated guesses as to what the markets may do. David is fond of saying, "The markets always find a new way to make a fool out of you," and so he encourages caution in investing. Risk control wins the game in the long run, not bold moves. Even the best strategies of the past fail, sometimes spectacularly, when you least expect it. David is not immune to that, so please understand that any past success of his will be probably be followed by failures.


Also, though David runs Aleph Investments, LLC, this blog is not a part of that business. This blog exists to educate investors, and give something back. It is not intended as advertisement for Aleph Investments; David is not soliciting business through it. When David, or a client of David's has an interest in a security mentioned, full disclosure will be given, as has been past practice for all that David does on the web. Disclosure is the breakfast of champions.


Additionally, David may occasionally write about accounting, actuarial, insurance, and tax topics, but nothing written here, at RealMoney, or anywhere else is meant to be formal "advice" in those areas. Consult a reputable professional in those areas to get personal, tailored advice that meets the specialized needs that David can have no knowledge of.

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