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Friday, April 18th, 2014

Stocks & Industries

  • Invest In Stubs, Spin-Offs And Liquidations For Alternative Returns http://t.co/ccezep0K9Y Cites a Gabelli article http://t.co/xTrqEfmQeq $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Real Estate Management Better Than Owning Real Estate? http://t.co/IFaDLiwTRa Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Definitely adds more leverage $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Wells Fargo Securities Lending Lawsuit Ends in Settlement http://t.co/w3lSY4Cw8D Low margin business that can go badly wrong in a crisis $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Makani, a $GOOG subsidiary makes an airborne wind turbine that dramaticlly increases power generation efficiency http://t.co/0Fug49o7gC $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Google to Buy Titan Aerospace as Web Giants Battle for Air Superiority http://t.co/HjJ8wKtnjM Makes me think $GOOG has 2much $$ 2spend Apr 18, 2014
  • Profit Tastes Like Chicken in Hunt for Cheaper US Meat http://t.co/drgQbwEiKR With recent rise in beef & pork prices people substitute $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Roads Versus Rail:The Big Battle Over Public Transportation http://t.co/ydBxEglexC Makes case that American will own fewer cars in future $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Barclays Ups $LNC To Buy, Says $MET , $PRU Are Undervalued – Stocks To Watch http://t.co/c7yNaVZqdp Stock Market sensitive insurance cos $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Bidding War Looming for Aspen? Analysts Say Don’t Count On It http://t.co/iMotqyAgHv Offer 4 $AHL looks pretty full 2me, dont look4more $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Biggest LBO Demise Poised to Put Oncor in Play http://t.co/d30djwOa5M Buffett is unlikely 2 enter into bidding in a competitive sale $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Target of Naked Short Sellers Is Angry, Confused http://t.co/I3ZZDn5JNp @matt_lavine takes on imaginary naked shorting in $LPHI $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Radioactive Waste Is North Dakota’s New Shale Problem http://t.co/BiMkO0ZdgK Significant amounts of low level radiation from radium $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • The death of mortgage lending http://t.co/u8uQBvZCuS Loan yields must rise in order to compensate for higher required capital at banks $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Kochs’ Flood Insurance Opposition Becomes Campaign Issue http://t.co/b1iuvoVhZK 1 of the few businesses the Kochs’ aren’t in is insurance $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Office Markets Strengthen Where Tech, Energy Jobs Are http://t.co/sESuHUeAVr Helps explain the spottiness of commercial RE prices $$ $CMBS Apr 18, 2014
  • Labor Shortage Threatens to Bust the Shale Boom http://t.co/R1TctaTelD Can’t find a job? Consider learning to weld; monotonous but pays $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Koch Brothers Net Worth Tops $100B as TV Warfare Escalates http://t.co/XgH0M6CNIR Almost as wealthy as extended Walton family $$ $WMT $SPY Apr 18, 2014
  • Big Banks Ramp Up Business Lending http://t.co/83dMAPIQia Signs of life spotted in big corporations, but r they just buying back stock? $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • How Can Yahoo Be Worth Less Than Zero? http://t.co/sr3owwkyNE @matt_levine argues a breakup of $YHOO makes sense even if core biz loses $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Wal-Mart Undercuts Rivals With New U.S. Money Transfer Service http://t.co/a4vq0HYALi Useful if u need 2 transfer $$ inside the US $WMT $SPY Apr 18, 2014
  • How Chick-fil-A Spent $50M to Change Its Grilled Chicken http://t.co/Q9kpXoSIbF The marinade matters, but the grill design was the key $$ Apr 15, 2014
  • Small US Colleges Battle Death Spiral as Enrollment Drops http://t.co/nHRhO4Gc1R Too much capacity & affordability is a problem $$ $APOL Apr 14, 2014

Outside the US

  • China GDP Gauge Seen Showing Deeper Slowdown http://t.co/ntIxxdXcpO If China increases consumption GDP growth will fall faster still $$ $FXI Apr 18, 2014
  • Housing Trouble Grows in China http://t.co/Z4tKUuqLFd Overbuilding by Real-Estate Developers Leaves Smaller Cities W/Glut of Apartments $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Suddenly, Europe Is Taking a Harder Line on Russia Sanctions http://t.co/MnzxvMP3pe Nations can solidify when they face a common threat $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Las Bambas Copper Mine Purchase Shows China’s Still in the Hunt for Commodities http://t.co/h1cqGERGCu China may not b changing much $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Forgetting How to Speak Russian http://t.co/D0UwT6unki Among former Soviet republics knowing Russian is less important for business $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • The Middle East War on Christians http://t.co/BW1NwCAXuH Israeli Ambassador 2 UN argues Israel is tolerant of Christians, not like some $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Britons Struggle to Save for Home Down Payments as Prices Surge http://t.co/M6vH0vDlDs Space is constrained in London & foreigners buy $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • US Said to Warn Money Managers of More Russia Sanctions http://t.co/rB8AUQTsnc Putin knows Iran survived worse sanctions; Russia tougher $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • China Sentences Four Activists on Disturbing Public Order Charge http://t.co/Tx95rrhWsb Mostly, US has rule of law, China has rule by law $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • US govt isn’t perfect, but in principle the govt is subject to the Constitution & laws, & not merely able 2 use law 2 enforce its will $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Frontier Fund Buyers Find It Pays To Look Under The Hood http://t.co/JQ6khwYllJ 2much $$ is being thrown @ frontier mkts; crowded trade $FM Apr 18, 2014
  • Why iShares’ ‘FM’ Is About To Get Better http://t.co/4FiqlfW0YS Diversifies out of Middle East, but frontier market vals r stretched $$ $FM Apr 18, 2014
  • Putin’s 21-Year Quest to Be Russian Guardian Began in Estonia http://t.co/5oelLBHCmN Father was betrayed by Estonians in WWI, almost died $$ Apr 15, 2014

Market Dynamics & Fundamentals

  • Bridgewater Founder Says 85 Percent Of Pensions will Go Bankrupt http://t.co/YknEmyGgfJ 9% pension returns required, 4% is most likely $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • The Fitch Fundamentals Index Dashboard http://t.co/OzI6KWUFfs Interesting little utility 4 understanding where we are in the credit cycle $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Rich Start-Ups Go Back for Another Helping http://t.co/ZbFbpLVgmM When capital is plentiful, bad decisions get made. expected returns low $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Stumbling S&P 500 Reaches Worst Stretch of Election Cycle http://t.co/zgJTynu2od Interesting timing, wonder whether past is prologue? $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • How a 56-Year-Old Engineer’s $45K Loss Spurred SEC Probe http://t.co/3HfdH2aqxK Always read the risk factors in the prospectus or 10K $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • High-Speed Traders Said to Be Subpoenaed in NY Probe http://t.co/2qxmrxeVd7 What level of technology is legitimate 2 gain an advantage? $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Nuggets of Corporate Governance Wisdom From Charlie Munger http://t.co/gMFIE9jlRM Also c this paper: http://t.co/033v0bgdYr $$ $BRK.B $SPY Apr 18, 2014
  • Global stock rally: World market cap reached record high in March, &is $2.4T above pre-recession, pre-crisis level http://t.co/iMq0IoBhch $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Speed—the only HFT advantage? Not so fast—Flash Boyshttp://www.cnbc.com/id/101586488 Algorithms may also be an advantage w/price patterns $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Investor Alert – Exchange-Traded Notes—Avoid Unpleasant Surprises http://t.co/NqhUr2whsJ A helpful reminder 2b wary of exotic ETNs $$ $SPY Apr 18, 2014
  • Americans Sold on Real Estate as Best Long-Term Investment http://t.co/La4UROU0ie Helps explain y retail investors lose on average $$ $GLD Apr 18, 2014
  • Destroying Smart Beta 2: Ground Rules http://t.co/uecYqZLCEe Smart beta is a trendy but vapid concept, factors should be part of alpha $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Gross Loses to Goldman in Hot Bond Strategy as Pimco Lags http://t.co/VWv7UC72bS Series of bad bets makes Pimco a laggard as AUM flees $$ Apr 15, 2014
  • Trillion-Dollar Firms Dominating Bonds Prompting Probes http://t.co/RXZNkNwtFs Concentrated markets can lead to bond pricing distortions $$ Apr 15, 2014

US Politics & Policy

  • What’s the Matter With Illinois? http://t.co/wmDiyWDN1e They r the exemplary state for shortsightedness & corruption $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Heartbleed Hackers Steal Encryption Keys in Threat Test http://t.co/dYfezfXe8A >6 people were able to extract private key of a website $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Elijah Cummings, W/IRS, Targeted Tea Party Group True The Vote http://t.co/TE5A1zTM0y I live in his gerrymandered district; kick him out $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Yellen Lays Groundwork for Rules on Short-Term Credit Markets http://t.co/z03MWlpsqI Fed doesn’t regulate the banks well, y try 4 more? $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Schooling on a ‘Debit Card’ http://t.co/wwixbB0pqy Arizona created a program so that special needs kids can get specialized schooling $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • IRS Among Agencies Using License Plate-Tracking Vendor http://t.co/HTs5aEMNtK Howard County Police use it & catch people 4 old crimes $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Wealth Effect Failing to Move Wealthy to Spend http://t.co/R3vfD5i94J Wealth effect, if it exists, is small, FOMC is pursuing illusions $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • NSA Said 2 Exploit Heartbleed Bug for Intelligence for Years http://t.co/9XvcLX9ZTE NSA quietly knows security vulnerabilities; uses them $$ Apr 15, 2014
  • The Wall Street second-chances rule: scandal makes the rich grow stronger http://t.co/8HhscWJjMN What does not kill us makes us stronger? $$ Apr 14, 2014

Practical

  • How well do you know your insurance policy? http://t.co/szp3G8H4kN Know what is covered & what isn’t, how much is covered & options $$ Apr 19, 2014
  • Attention Shoppers: Fruit and Vegetable Prices Are Rising http://t.co/MMdPOLry9A As are meat prices & most food prices $$ #agflation Apr 18, 2014
  • How to start investing http://t.co/yGyziE8Tac Good advice from a credible source $$ Apr 18, 2014

Other

  • El Nino Signs Detected, Presaging Global Weather Change http://t.co/D1uDLS9aJ0 El Nino exists 2 give us something 2 blame when frustrated $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • More People Pick Elimination Diets to Discover Food Sensitivities http://t.co/ftQkzs3PxP Fad and Science of Not Eating Entire Food Groups $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • SAT Adopts Real-World Questions and Jettisons Obscure Words http://t.co/Mspw9EG3OV In 2016, changes from intelligence to achievement test $$ Apr 18, 2014
  • Scientists Make First Embryo Clones From Adults http://t.co/e5qlwyiWwj Cloned cells 2create early-stage embryos, matching DNA tissue $$ Apr 18, 2014

Comments, Replies & Retweets

  • RT @howardlindzon: Funds still paying up (I say silly overpay) for private over public, this is spooking IPO ‘s for sure http://t.co/mclSd9… Apr 15, 2014

The Good ETF, Part 2 (sort of)

Friday, April 18th, 2014

About 4.5 years ago, I wrote a short piece called The Good ETF.  I’ll quote the summary:

Good ETFs are:

  • Small compared to the pool that they fish in
  • Follow broad themes
  • Do not rely on irreplicable assets
  • Storable, they do not require a “roll” or some replication strategy.
  • Not affected by unexpected credit events.
  • Liquid in terms of what they repesent, and liquid it what they hold.

The last one is a good summary.  There are many ETFs that are Closed-end funds in disguise.  An ETF with liquid assets, following a theme that many will want to follow will never disappear, and will have a price that tracks its NAV.

Though I said ETFs, I really meant ETPs, which included Exchange Traded Notes, and other structures.  I remain concerned that people get deluded by the idea that if it trades as a stock, it will behave like a stock, or a spot commodity, or an index.

What triggered this article was reading the following article: How a 56-Year-Old Engineer’s $45,000 Loss Spurred SEC Probe.  Quoting from the beginning of the article:

Jeff Steckbeck didn’t read the prospectus. He didn’t realize the price was inflated. He didn’t even know the security he read about online was something other than an exchange-traded fund.

The 56-year-old civil engineer ultimately lost $45,000 on the wrong end of a volatility bet, or about 80 percent of his investment, after a Credit Suisse Group AG (CSGN) note known as TVIX crashed a week after he bought it in March 2012 and never recovered. Now Steckbeck says he wishes he’d been aware of the perils of bank securities known as exchange-traded notes that use derivatives to mimic assets from natural gas to stocks.

“In theory, everybody’s supposed to read everything right to the bottom line and you take all the risks associated with it if you don’t,” he said this month by phone from Lebanon, Pennsylvania. “But in reality, you gotta trust that these people are operating within what they generally say, you know?”

No, you don’t have to trust people blindly.  Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.”  Anytime you enter into a contract, you need to know the major features of the contract, or have trusted expert advisers who do know, and assure you that things are fine.

After all, these are financial markets.  In any business deal, you may run into someone who offers you something that sounds attractive until you read the fine print.  You need to read the fine print.  Now, fraud can be alleged to those who actively dissuade people from reading the fine print, but not to those who offer the prospectus where all of the risks are disclosed.  Again, quoting from the article:

Some fail to adequately explain that banks can bet against the very notes they’re selling or suspend new offerings or take other actions that can affect their value, according to the letter.

[snip]

“My experience with ETN prospectuses is that they’re very clear about the fees and the risks and the transparency,” Styrcula said. “Any investor who invests without reading the prospectus does so at his or her own peril, and that’s the way it should be.”

[snip]

The offering documents for the VelocityShares Daily 2x VIX (VIX) Short Term ETN, the TVIX, says on the first page that the security is intended for “sophisticated investors.” The note “is likely to be close to zero after 20 years and we do not intend or expect any investor to hold the ETNs from inception to maturity,” according to the prospectus.

While Steckbeck said a supervisor at Clermont Wealth Strategies advised him against investing in TVIX in February 2012, he bought 4,000 shares the next month from his self-managed brokerage account. The adviser, whom Steckbeck declined to name, didn’t say that the price had become unmoored from the index it was supposed to track.

David Campbell, president of Clermont Wealth Strategies, declined to comment.

Steckbeck, who found the TVIX on the Yahoo Finance website, doesn’t have time to comb through dozens of pages every time he makes an investment, he said.

“Engineers — we’re not dumb,” said Steckbeck, who founded his own consulting company in 1990. “We’re good with math, good with numbers. We read and understand stuff fairly quickly, but we also have our jobs to perform. We can’t sit there and read prospectuses all day.”

If you are investing, you need to read prospectuses.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  I’m sorry, Mr. Steckbeck, you’re not dumb, but you are foolish.  Being bright with math and science is not enough for investing if you can’t be bothered to read the legal documents for the complex contract/security that you bought.  I read every prospectus for every security that I buy if it is unusual.  I read prospectuses and 10-Ks for many simple securities like stocks — the managements must “spill the beans” in the “risk factors” because if they don’t, and something bad happens that they didn’t talk about, they will be sued.

In general I am not a fan of a “liberal arts” education.  I am a fan of math and science.  But truly, I want both.  We homeschool, and our eight kids are “all arounds.”  They aren’t all smart, but they tend to be equal with verbal and quantitative reasoning.  Truly bright people are good with both math and language.  Final quotation from the article:

“The whole point of making these things exchange-traded was to make them accessible to retail investors,” said Colbrin Wright, assistant professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who has written academic articles on the indicative values of ETNs. “The majority of ETNs are overpriced, and about a third of them are statistically significant in their overpricing.”

So, I contacted Colby Wright, and we had a short e-mail exchange, where he pointed me to the paper that he co-wrote.  Interesting paper, and it makes me want to do more research to see how great ETN prices can be versus their net asset values [NAVs].  That said, end of the paper errs when it concludes:

We assert that the frequent and persistent negative WDFDs [DM: NAV premiums] that appear to be driven by uninformed return chasing investors would not exist to the conspicuous degree that we observe if ETNs offered a more investor-driven and fluid system for share creation. We believe the system for share creation is ineffective in mitigating the asymmetric mispricing investigated in our study. Hence, we recommend that ETN issuers reformulate the share creation system related to their securities. Specifically, we recommend the ETN share creation process be structured to mirror that of ETFs. At a minimum, the share creation process should be initiated by investors, rather than by the ETN issuers themselves, as we believe profit-motivated investors will be more diligent and responsive in creating ETN shares when severe mispricing arises.

Here’s the problem: ETNs are debt, not equity.  To have the same share creation system means that the debtor must be willing to take on what could be an unlimited amount of debt.  In most cases, that doesn’t work.

So I come back to where I started.  Be skeptical of complexity in exchange traded products.  Avoid complexity.  Complexity works in favor of the one offering the deal, not the one accepting the deal.  I have only bought one structured note in my life, and that was one that I was allowed to structure.  As Buffett once said (something like this), “My terms, your price.”

To close, here are four valuable articles on this topic:

So avoid complexity in investing.  Do due diligence in all investing, and more when the investments are complex.  I am astounded at how much money has been lost in exchange traded investments that are designed to lose money over the long term.  You might be able to avoid it, but someone has to hold every “asset,” so losses will come to those who hold investments long term that were designed to last for a day.

On Rising Rate Funds, or, Who Remembers ARM Funds in the Early ’90s?

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

In the early 90s, there were not many investment actuaries.  One of the Holy Grail ideas of the early-to-mid ’90s was creating floating rate funds with yield so that floating rate Guaranteed Investment Contracts could be profitably written.  I chronicled my efforts there in this article.

One avenue that I went down and rejected was ARM [Adjustable Rate Mortgage] funds.  There was a minor craze for them in the early-to-mid ’90s, and there were not enough ARMs issued to meet the demand for high floating rates.  As such, the prices for blocks of ARMs rose above par, sometimes significantly.

One truism of buying mortgages at a premium in the ’90s was that the ability to refinance got sharper and sharper.  Those willing to buy mortgage securities above par usually took losses as rates fell.

Thus when I read articles about rising rate ETFs, which either invest short-term, or short the bond market synthetically or actually, I think “we’ve been here before.”  It is difficult to gain incremental yield on short duration instruments without taking on risks like:

  • Credit, including weak covenants
  • Structure (another form of credit & illiquidity)
  • Negative optionality

So be wary here.  Pay more attention to the return of your principal than the return on the principal.

Best of the Aleph Blog, Part 23

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Before I start this evening, I would like to explain some of the reasons for these “Best of the Aleph Blog” articles.  I write these no closer than one year after an article was written, so that I can have a more dispassionate assessment of how good they were.  I write these for the following reasons:

  • Some people want a quick introduction to the way I think.
  • Some publishers on the web want additional copy, and I let them republish some of my best pieces.
  • One day I may bundle a bunch of them together, rewrite them to improve clarity, and integrate them to create a set of books on different topics.
  • One of my editors at RealMoney once shared with me that I was one of the few authors there whose articles got re-read, or read after a significant time had passed.  This is meant to be mostly “timeless” stuff.
  • New readers might be interested in older stuff.
  • I enjoy re-reading my older pieces, and sometimes it stimulates updates, and new ideas.

Anyway, onto this issue of the “Best of the Aleph Blog.”  These articles appeared between August 2012 and October 2012:

On Credit Scores

Why credit scores are important; make sure you guard yours.

Retail Investors and the Stock Market

On the pathologies of being an amateur investor when there are those who will take advantage of you, and you might sabotage yourself as well.

On the Poway School District

Goes through the details of how a school district outside San Diego mortgaged the future of the next generation who will live there, if any will live there.

Using Investment Advice, Part I

Using Investment Advice, Part II

Using Investment Advice, Part III

Using Investment Advice, Part IV

A series of articles inspired by what I wrote at RealMoney, encouraging people to be careful about listening to advice in the media on stocks, including those recommended by Cramer.

The Future Belongs to Those with Patience

On why patience and discipline are required for good investing.

What Caused the Crisis?

A retrospective, if somewhat controversial.

On the International Business Machines Industrial Average

Replace the DJIA with a new cap-weighted index of the 30 largest capitalization stocks.

How Warren Buffett is Different from Most Investors, Part 1

How Warren Buffett is Different from Most Investors, Part 2

You have to understand Buffett the businessman to understand Buffett the investor.

Volatility Analogy

How an interview I messed up led to an interesting way to explain volatility.

Spot the Gerrymander

Eventually we need to eliminate gerrymandering — hey, maybe we can do that at the future Constitutional Convention.

Reforming Public School Testing

Creating exams where you can’t study for the test; you can only study.

Carrying Capacity

Governments imagine that they can shape outcomes, and in the short-run, they can.  In the long-run, the real productivity of the economy matters, and only those that can make it without government help will make it.  Whatever government policy may try to achieve, eventually the economy reverts to what would happen naturally without incentives.  There is a natural carrying capacity for most activities, and efforts to change that usually fail.

Actuaries Versus Quants

On why Actuaries are much better than Quants

Neoclassical vs Austrian Economics

Applying math to economics has been a loser.  Who has a consistently good macroeconomic model?  No one that I know.  Estimates of future GDP growth and inflation are regularly wrong, and no one calls turning points well.

The Dilemma of Adding Yield

A quick summary of risk in bonds, and why additional yield is often not rewarded.

The Dilemma of Adding Yield, Redux

On working out the pricing between discount, premium, and par bonds.

Too Much Investment

Investment is a good thing, overinvestment is a bad thing.

Got Cash? (Part 2)

On Buffett and others carrying cash to give themselves flexibility.

Set it and Forget it

On what uneducated investors should do.

Forest Fires and Central Banking

Short piece pointing out that small crises are needed to prevent huge crises.

Match Assets and Liabilities

Total Return Versus Long Liabilities

Cash flow matching has often been sneered at as an investment policy.  I explain why such a view is naive, not sophisticated, and definitely wrong.

The Rules, Part XXXIV

“Once something is used for hedging purposes, it becomes useless for predictive purposes.”

Why I LOVE Blogging

On the downsides of blogging, and why they aren’t so bad.

Higher Taxes, Inflation, Default (Choose One)

Coming to a country near you, and soon!

On the Virtue of Hard Questions for Young Analysts

How young analysts toughen up through hard competitions.

Dealing in Fractions of Sense

On how to reform High Frequency Trading

Yield is the Last Refuge of Scoundrels

Far from offering high price appreciation, it is far easier to cheat many people by offering a high yield, because average people look for ways to stretch their limited resources with a tight budget.

Book Review: Treasure Islands

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

9780230341722

Tax havens exist to lower taxes and regulations on corporations and wealthy individuals.  But doing this involves significant complicated legal and accounting work.  The average person could not benefit because the fixed costs are high.  You need to have a lot of assets to benefit from tax havens.

So why do the wealthy governments of the world tolerate tax havens?  Why don’t they “use NATO to blockade these places, and tell them to end their tax-avoidance-facilitation policies, or else.”  Sadly, the wealthy have disproportionate power over politicians, and the majority of politicians are wealthy.  They like the system as it is.  You can make the tax code as progressive as you like; you will not end up taxing the intelligent wealthy much more.

This book confronts transfer pricing, where profits get shifted to low-tax countries by clever accountants.  Very difficult to police.

The is an amusing section in the middle of the book about the City of London Corporation, which has unique rights in the UK.  It is the home of most financial activity n London, and is mostly unaccountable to the UK.

In general, I believe that taxation should be the same regardless of the structure of the entity being taxed, its location, etc.  To that end, I think that corporations should be taxed on their global income as expressed to its owners.  Or, don’t tax corporations, but make all taxation like limited partnerships, and tax the individuals that own them.

There are other possible solutions.  There can be limits on corporate structure.  Israel limits subsidiaries such that the depth from the holding company cannot exceed two.  There could be consolidation and/or non-recognition of  subsidiaries in tax havens.

Additional Resources

Longreads article

Book website (those reading at Amazon, come to Aleph Blog to get links)

Quibbles

The book makes its last chapter about how tax havens helped cause the financial crisis, but it makes a very weak case.  Individuals and Banks overlevered themselves as asset prices rose, creating a bubble — not much different than the 1920s.  Tax havens played little role, even if they aided securitization in a few ways.

The book argues for capital controls, but those controls often create incentives for greater corruption.

My main problem with the book is that it does not offer any workable solutions to the problems.  My secondary problem is that the problem is not so much with the tax havens, which we could easily marginalize, but with the politicians, who do not do the hard work of seeing that taxation takes place, regardless of the corporate form or location.

Who would benefit from this book: You have to be willing to endure complex arguments to benefit from this book.  If you want to, you can buy it here: Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens.

Full disclosure: I borrowed it at my library.

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.

Classic: Know Your Debt Crises: This Too Shall Pass

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

The following was published at RealMoney on August 6th, 2007:

Editor’s Summary

The illiquid debt instruments at the heart of the current crisis are subject to regime shifts.

  •  We’re in a periodic repricing of illiquid debt instruments.
  • Look for the time when the bulk of the losses will be reconciled.
  • Stick with the companies that have strong balance sheets.

I appreciated Cramer’s piece Friday morning, which picks up on many themes that I have articulated for the last four years here on RealMoney.  Here are a few:

  • Hedge fund-of-funds demand smooth returns that are higher than that which a moderate quality short-term fixed-income fund can deliver.
  • This leads to the creation of hedge funds that seek yield through arbitrage strategies.
  • And the creation of hedge funds that seek yield through buying risky debts, unlevered.
  • And the creation of hedge funds that seek yield through buying less risky debts, levered.
  • And the creation of hedge funds that seek yield through buying risky debts, levered.

In the short run, yield-seeking strategies work.  If a lot of players pursue them, they work extra-well for a time, as late entrants to the trade push up the returns for early entrants, with greater demand for scarce, illiquid securities with extra yield.  Pricing grids are a necessity for such securities, because the individual securities don’t have liquid secondary markets.  The pressure of demand raises the value not only of the securities being bought, but also of those securities that are like them.  (Smart managers begin to exit then.)

I’ve been through regime shifts in the markets for collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), asset-backed securities (ABS), residential-backed securities (RMBS) and commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS).  Something shifts at the back of the chain that forces everything to reprice.  For example:

1989-1994: After the real estate boom of the mid-1980s, many banks, savings & loans and insurance companies get loose in their lending standards and real estate investment, leading to a crisis when rent growth can’t keep up with financing terms; defaults ensue, killing off a great number of S&Ls, some major insurance companies and a passel of medium and small banks.

Late 1991-early 1993: The adjustable-rate mortgage market, fueled by demand from ARM funds, overbids for ARMs in an effort to provide a high floating rate yield.  As the FOMC loosens monetary policy, higher than expected prepayments force losses onto the ARM funds

Late 1993-late 1994: The FOMC threatens to, and does, start raising interest rates, which throws the residential mortgage-backed market into crisis.

Mid-1998-mid-1999: Long Term Capital Management blows up, forcing all manner of exotic ABS, CMBS and RMBS into the market for bids.  The bids back up, until the entire market reprices and then tightens in the space of one year.

1998-1999: Home equity ABS blow up, as defaults threaten to, and then do, emerge at levels far higher than anticipated.  Almost no originators survive.

1999-2001: Cruddy high-yield bonds reveal their true value as defaults threaten to, and then do, emerge.

2002-2003: The manufactured-housing ABS market blows up, as originators don’t take initial losses but roll borrowers over into new loans that reduce payments and extend payment terms, technically keeping the loans current.  The system collapses when the buildup of bad debts and repossessed homes becomes too great to roll over.

(Of the existing large securitization markets, only the CMBS market so far has not faced a real crisis, partly due to the influence of the B-piece buyers cartel: six or so firms that buy the junk-rated debt of deals and enforce credit quality standards on the individual loans by kicking out poorly underwritten loans.  But who knows?  Even that could be overwhelmed under the right circumstances.)

In each of these situations, there was a boom-bust cycle.  The markets did not adjust slowly and evenly to changing conditions; the transitions between “boom” pricing, and “bust” pricing were swift.  This is the nature of markets, particularly when enough debt is employed to amplify the process.

There is no conspiracy necessary to make the shift happen (though often the media will make it seem like there was one); the bubble pops when the financing proves insufficient to carry the assets.  After the bubble pops, it becomes a question of what the underlying assets can be liquidated for, allocating losses mercilessly according to the loan documents and bankruptcy priority.

Today the crises are nonprime lending, leveraged buyouts and other high-yield debt and over-leverage in the CDO market.  These will get worked out, as all other crises do, handing losses to those who speculated unwisely and allowing those who financed properly to prosper on the other side of the crisis.

As you invest, look for the time when more than half of the losses will be reconciled.  That will be near the bottom for homebuilders and housing finance.

That time may not come for another two years or so, but there will be money to be made once the crisis is mostly reconciled.  Just stick with the companies that have strong balance sheets.

Thoughts on the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Letter & Report

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

I’m going to try to take this topically.  Here goes:

On Acquisitions

Buffett still has a strong desire for more acquisitions.  After $18B to buy 52.6% of Heinz (counting in the low strike warrants), and all of NV Energy through MidAmerican, there were additional bolt-on acquisitions $3.1B after additional payments of $3.5B to buy the rest of Marmon  and Iscar.  After all that, the cash level at BRK was virtually unchanged from the beginning of 2013.

He might like to own far more of Heinz in the future:

Though the Heinz acquisition has some similarities to a “private equity” transaction, there is a crucial difference: Berkshire never intends to sell a share of the company. What we would like, rather, is to buy more, and that could happen: Certain 3G investors may sell some or all of their shares in the future, and we might increase our ownership at such times. Berkshire and 3G could also decide at some point that it would be mutually beneficial if we were to exchange some of our preferred for common shares (at an equity valuation appropriate to the time).

And he might want to buy more utilities:

NV Energy, purchased for $5.6 billion by MidAmerican Energy, our utility subsidiary, supplies electricity to about 88% of Nevada’s population. This acquisition fits nicely into our existing electric-utility operation and offers many possibilities for large investments in renewable energy. NV Energy will not be MidAmerican’s last major acquisition.

The Powerhouse Five

MidAmerican is one of our “Powerhouse Five” – a collection of large non-insurance businesses that, in aggregate, had a record $10.8 billion of pre-tax earnings in 2013, up $758 million from 2012. The other companies in this sainted group are BNSF, Iscar, Lubrizol and Marmon.

If you look at BRK earnings now, leaving aside derivatives, one-third of earnings come from insurance, and the rest stems from the industrial & utility enterprises.  [Note: Buffett uses the word "sainted" which he used in the 1980s to describe a group of much smaller private companies that he owned in full then.  He doesn't mean holy, but leading and valuable.  They are driving the economics of BRK.

None of the Powerhouse Five did badly in 2013, though Marmon was a little weak.  It's difficult to find any part of BRK that did badly in 2013.  BNSF was particularly impressive, and I am glad that I thought it was a good move when Buffett bought it, because too many criticized it at the time.

As an aside, it's interesting how much MidAmerican is pouring onto wind and solar power.

Debt

I've always thought Buffett was clever with debt issues.  He never guarantees the debt when he takes over a company.  He is willing to live with the complexity of subsidiary debt issues.  But hear these quotations from the Annual Report:

  • Berkshire does not guarantee any debt or other borrowings of BNSF, MidAmerican or their subsidiaries.
  • BNSF’s borrowings are primarily unsecured.
  • All, or substantially all, of the assets of certain MidAmerican subsidiaries are, or may be, pledged or encumbered to support or otherwise secure the debt. These borrowing arrangements generally contain various covenants including, but not limited to, leverage ratios, interest coverage ratios and debt service coverage ratios.
  • The borrowings of BHFC, a wholly owned finance subsidiary of Berkshire, are fully and unconditionally guaranteed by Berkshire. 

Buffett only guarantees the debt of a small finance subsidiary, and nothing more.  The rest of the debt is non-recourse to BRK, and so bondholders take their chances on a subsidiary failing.

Derivatives

Our credit default contracts generated pre-tax losses of $213 million in 2013, which was due to increases in estimated liabilities of a municipality issuer contract that relates to more than 500 municipal debt issues. Our credit default contract exposures associated with corporate issuers expired in December 2013. There were no losses paid in 2013. Our remaining credit default derivative contract exposures are currently limited to the municipality issuer contract.

The equity puts are way out of the money, and only municipal issues remain among his fixed income derivatives.  BRK "made" $4B on the derivative positions in 2013, something that will be impossible to repeat.

Give Buffett credit, though, because he structured some clever trades that have made a lot of money.  Value investing won vs option pricing.  At present, the future performance of the derivatives is close to immaterial, unless we have significant municipal defaults.

Insurance

A few qualitative notes: Buffett mentions that GEICO has passed Allstate to become #2 in Auto insurance.  He later mentions State Farm (#1 in Auto, I think the first time he has mentioned it):

Unfortunately, the wish of all insurers to achieve this happy result creates intense competition, so vigorous in most years that it causes the P/C industry as a whole to operate at a significant underwriting loss. This loss, in effect, is what the industry pays to hold its float. For example, State Farm, by far the country’s largest insurer and a well-managed company besides, incurred an underwriting loss in nine of the twelve years ending in 2012 (the latest year for which their financials are available, as I write this). Competitive dynamics almost guarantee that the insurance industry – despite the float income all companies enjoy – will continue its dismal record of earning subnormal returns as compared to other businesses.

But after mentioning State Farm's abysmal underwriting, though Buffett doesn't say it is such, he mentions how well BRK has done:

As noted in the first section of this report, we have now operated at an underwriting profit for eleven
consecutive years, our pre-tax gain for the period having totaled $22 billion. Looking ahead, I believe we will
continue to underwrite profitably in most years. Doing so is the daily focus of all of our insurance managers who
know that while float is valuable, it can be drowned by poor underwriting results.

BRK had a light year for catastrophes, which inflated their income somewhat.  It also seems that they put the poor deal that they did with Swiss Re behind them.

Buffett also talked about the "float" growing -- assets held for future payment where no interest has to be paid.  It's $70B+ now.  More on that later.

Buffett also trumpeted a move into Specialty Insurance.  He poached a team from AIG in 2013 to start this.  Specialty Insurance means niche markets with very careful underwriting guidelines.  I'm sure that Berkshire will do this well.

Finally, the insurers have good underwriting and reserving.  BRK still has a underwriting profit over the past eleven years, and they continue to release reserves from prior year claims.

The Structure of Berkshire Hathaway [BRK]

Though insurance no longer provides the majority of income for BRK, it is crucial to BRK’s functioning.  The insurance companies own almost of the industrial and utility enterprises.  BRK has little in fixed income and cash vs insurance reserves.  Buffett says:

 

Payments of dividends by our insurance subsidiaries are restricted by insurance statutes and regulations. Without prior regulatory approval, our principal insurance subsidiaries may declare up to approximately $13 billion as ordinary dividends before the end of 2014.

 

There is a rule of thumb in P&C insurance.  Claim reserves are funded by high quality bonds of equivalent length  Unearned premiums are funded by short-term debt like commercial paper.  Surplus funds are invested in risk assets, like equities.

With BRK, more is invested in risk assets than the rule of thumb would allow.  I’m not sure how the Risk-based Capital formulas allow this.  Other insurance companies can’t do this.

Notes

Buffett uses his private investments in real estate investing to show the difference between private & public investing.  This explains why we should be slow to trade.  He also says:

Most investors, of course, have not made the study of business prospects a priority in their lives. If wise, they will conclude that they do not know enough about specific businesses to predict their future earning power.

And as such, an investor in that state of ignorance should index.

Other Notes

Those who want to ask questions at Buffett’s annual meeting should send questions to: Carol Loomis, of Fortune, who may be e-mailed at cloomis@fortunemail.com; Becky Quick, of CNBC, at BerkshireQuestions@cnbc.com; and Andrew Ross Sorkin, of The New York Times, at arsorkin@nytimes.com.

Some have complained about a lack of transparency at BRK, and I have to disagree.  BRK is a collection of small and large businesses.  The annual report adequately talks about all of BRK, but gives less time to smaller issues.  BRK is the fifth largest company by market cap, and Buffett reveals more of his intentions then most CEOs.

I have more to say regarding Intrinsic Value & Compounding, but that will have to wait.

Full disclosure: Long BRK/B for myself and clients

On Emergent Phenomena

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

How do you deal with a risk that has never been seen before?  I’m going to focus on financial risks here, but clever people can generalize to other classes of human risk, like war and terrorism.

By “emergent phenomena” I mean what happens when people act as a group pursuing the same strategy.  One person doing a given strategy means nothing.  But when millions do it, that can be significant.  Same for corporations, but the numbers are lower, because corporations are far bigger economically than the average household.

Here are some examples of emergent phenomena:

  • 1987 — Strategies for dynamic hedging became a large enough part of the market that the market became unstable, where parties would buy as the market rose, and sell as the market fell.
  • Tech stocks were the only place to be 1998-2000, until they weren’t 2000-2003.
  • Too much hedge fund money was playing the quantitative value plus momentum trade in 2007.  Many players borrowed money to goose returns in 2006-7.  It blew up in August 2007.
  • The fear of not getting “free money” caused many to overinvest in residential real estate 2004-7, until the free money was not only not free, but billing you for past indiscretions.
  • There was a frenzy among commercial real estate investor toward the end of the 1980s, which bid prices up amid more buying power from then-cheap commercial mortgage debt, leading to an overshoot, and fall in property value in the early 1990s.
  • In 2005, the CDO Correlation Trade led to a panic in the corporate bond market, and in auto stocks.
  • Into the late 1980s, Japanese households and some foreigners plowed progressively more liquid capital into the Japanese stock and warrant markets.  That was the peak, and few if any have made their money back.

Emergent phenomena stem from:

  • Many people and institutions doing the same thing at the same time.
  • Using debt to substitute for equity in a trade that has become a “sure thing.”
  • Multiple companies and industries pursuing the essentially same trade, but in different corners of the markets.  (Think of the real estate bubble.  There were so many different angles that the bulls played: mortgage insurance, financial guaranty, subprime loans and derivatives thereof, weakened lending standards on prime loans, etc.)
  • And it is more intense when economic agents borrow short-term to finance their efforts, because when things go wrong, the feedback loop is quick.

Everyone runs to the exits in a burning theater, and so, fewer get out amid the struggle, than if everyone patiently walked out.  In financial terms, this is why markets are more volatile than expected, particularly on the downside.  Too many people want to sell in a panic, after having pursued a well-known strategy that had been successful for quite a while.

But no tree grows to the sky.  The intelligent investor notes several things:

  • Where is the most new debt being applied, and to increasingly little effect?
  • What fad are players investing in, that you think can’t be maintained long-run?
  • What is happening that would not be happening if it were not for price momentum?
  • Where are players relying on price appreciation or else their levered positions will collapse?
  • Where is money being borrowed short-term to fund long-term assets?

People are prone to imitate past success, even when a rational person would conclude that it doesn’t make any sense to borrow money and buy an asset at a high price.  It’s easier to imitate than to think independently.

In the present market, I see large increases in government debt and student loans.  Beyond that, there is the income craze in investing.  Don’t look at the yield; look at the underlying business.

Be wary.  The stock market has run hard the last ~5 years, and I see valuation-sensitive investors retreating.  Even with bond rates low, that doesn’t mean stocks are better.

All for now.  Comments welcome.

 

Classic: The Fundamentals of Real Estate Market Tops

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

I’ve mentioned before how all of my old articles at RealMoney were lost.  This was the draft version of Real Estate’s Top Looms published on 05/20/05.  I followed it up with  Housing Bubblettes, Redux on 10/27/05 and  September 2005 — The Residential Real Estate Inflection Point on 02/14/06.  Also, there was Wrecking Ball Looms for Big Housing Spec on 11/27/06, where I explained why it was likely that the subprime residential mortgage market was likely to blow up (can’t find the draft of that one).

But those links above no longer work — a real pity, and the one link below is corrected to point to the republished article at my blog.  Anyway, enjoy this if you want, because it outlines my thinking on how to recognize whether you are getting near the end of the bull phase of a market.

(Note: the italicized, indented portions, quote the original article The Fundamentals of Market Tops.  Much of what I write compares how residential real estate is similar to and different from stocks.)

-==-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=–=

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a piece called The Fundamentals of Market Tops.  It was an important piece for me because I received a lot of positive feedback from readers.  It was also important because it disagreed with the view of the firm that I worked for, and nearly led to my termination there, because they encouraged me to stop writing for RealMoney.  Neither termination happened, but it was touch-and-go for a while.

This piece unofficially represents the views of the firm that I work for, because my views of macroeconomics have become the firm’s views, but I don’t directly control our investment actions.  What I will try to accomplish here is to try to apply the logic of my prior article to the residential real estate market.  As opposed to my earlier article, I will try to show why I think we are close to a market top in residential real estate.  There is reason for pessimism.

The Investor Base Becomes Momentum-Driven

Valuation is rarely a sufficient reason to be long or short a market. Absurdity is like infinity. Twice infinity is still infinity. Twice absurd is still absurd. Absurd valuations, whether high or low, can become even more absurd if the expectations of market participants become momentum-based. Momentum investors do not care about valuation; they buy what is going up, and sell what is going down.

This is what I see in many residential real estate markets now: panicked buyers are saying “this is my last chance,” and buying houses using risky forms of financing.  At the same time, I read stories of despair as some potential buyers give up and say that a house is out of their reach for now; they waited too long.  Occasionally, I see a few articles or e-mails regarding people who seem to be bright selling their homes and renting, but this is a minority behavior.

In the face of this, residential real estate prices continue to rise, particularly in the hot coastal markets, which tells me that the price momentum can continue a little while longer until it fails because there is no incremental liquidity available to expand the bubbles.

You’ll know a market top is probably coming when:

  1. The shorts already have been killed. You don’t hear about them anymore. There is general embarrassment over investments in short-only funds.

  2. Long-only managers are getting butchered for conservatism. In early 2000, we saw many eminent value investors give up around the same time. Julian Robertson, George Vanderheiden, Robert Sanborn, Gary Brinson and Stanley Druckenmiller all stepped down shortly before the market top.

  3. Valuation-sensitive investors who aren’t total-return driven because of a need to justify fees to outside investors accumulate cash. Warren Buffett is an example of this. When Buffett said that he “didn’t get tech,” he did not mean that he didn’t understand technology; he just couldn’t understand how technology companies would earn returns on equity justifying the capital employed on a sustainable basis.

  4. The recent past performance of growth managers tends to beat that of value managers. (I am using the terms growth and value in a classic sense here. Growth managers attempt to ascertain the future prospects of firms with little focus on valuation. Value managers attempt to calculate the value of a firm with less credit for future prospects.) In short, the future prospects of firms become the dominant means of setting market prices.

  5. Momentum strategies are self-reinforcing due to an abundance of momentum investors. Once momentum strategies become dominant in a market, the market behaves differently. Actual price volatility increases. Trends tend to maintain themselves over longer periods. Selloffs tend to be short and sharp.

  6. Markets driven by momentum favor inexperienced investors. My favorite way that this plays out is on CNBC. I gauge the age, experience and reasoning of the pundits. Near market tops, the pundits tend to be younger, newer and less rigorous. Experienced investors tend to have a greater regard for risk control, and believe in mean-reversion to a degree. Inexperienced investors tend to follow trends. They like to buy stocks that look like they are succeeding and sell those that look like they are failing.

  7. Defined benefit pension plans tend to be net sellers of stock. This happens as they rebalance their funds to their target weights.

Houses aren’t like stocks for several reasons:

  1. Unlike stocks, houses are used by their owners every day.
  2. We can short stocks, but we can’t short houses.  (Personally, I hope no one comes up with a clever way to do so.  We have enough volatility already.)  The most someone can do is sell his home and rent.
  3. Perhaps the equivalent of a long-only manager is someone who owns his property debt-free, like me, and doesn’t see the need to lever up by moving up to a larger home.  Measured against the standard of “what might have been” is a terrifying taskmaster from an investment standpoint.  I avoid it in equity investing, and in home ownership.
  4. I am aware of a number of people (I have been assured that they are not mentally incompetent) who have sold their homes and started renting.  This to me is the equivalent of going totally flat in equities, or other risky assets.  Not that one faces negative carry, because the ratio of rent to in the hot markets is pretty low.  In many markets, you can earn more off the proceeds than you pay in rent (leaving tax consequences aside).  This leaves aside the issue of appreciation/depreciation of housing values, but when one can rent more cheaply than buying, it is a negative for the housing market.
  5. My point about momentum strategies is definitely pertinent here.  With the existence of contract-flipping, a high level of amateur investment (seemingly under the guise of “buy what you know”), and a high level of investor interest (10%+), there is a lot of momentum in real estate investment.  People buy because prices are going up.  Some buy because it is “the last train out,” and they have to jump rather than be stranded.  Nonetheless, momentum tends to maintain in the short run, and the slowdown posited last fall definitely has not occurred.
  6. Value vs. Growth does not exactly apply here, but in the housing market, people are paying up for future prospects more than they used to, which is akin to growth investing.
  7. This is just an opinion, but those who are making money in residential real estate today are inexperienced and less rigorous than most good businessmen.  They see the potential for profit, but not the possibility of loss.
  8. Unfortunately, it is difficult to partially own a home.  Home ownership is largely a discrete phenomenon.
  9. Using a concept from value investing we can look at the earnings yield that residential real estate is throwing off.  Compare the rents one could receive from a property versus the cost that it would take to finance the property on a floating rate basis.  What I am seeing is that more and more hot coastal markets earn less from rents than they require in mortgage payments.  Property price appreciation is no longer a nice thing; it is required to bail out inverted investors.  Contrast this with those that invested in tech stocks on a levered basis in early 2000; they paid cash out to hold appreciating positions, before they paid cash to hold depreciating positions, before they blew the positions out in panic.

Corporate Behavior

Corporations respond to signals that market participants give. Near market tops, capital is inexpensive, so companies take the opportunity to raise capital.  Here are ways that corporate behaviors change near a market top:

  1. The quality of IPOs declines, and the dollar amount increases. By quality, I mean companies that have a sustainable competitive advantage, and that can generate ROE in excess of cost of capital within a reasonable period.
  2. Venture capitalists can do no wrong, so lots of money is attracted to venture capital.
  3. Meeting the earnings number becomes paramount. What is ignored is balance sheet quality, cash flow from operations, etc.
  4. There is a high degree of visible and/or hidden leverage. Unusual securitization and financing techniques proliferate. Off balance sheet liabilities become very common.
  5. Cash flow proves insufficient to finance some speculative enterprises and some financial speculators. This occurs late in the game. When some speculative enterprises begin to run out of cash and can’t find anyone to finance them, they become insolvent. This leads to greater scrutiny and a sea change in attitudes for financing of speculative companies.
  6. Elements of accounting seem compromised. Large amounts of earnings stem from accruals rather than cash flow from operations.
  7. Dividends become less common. Fewer companies pay dividends, and dividends make up a smaller fraction of earnings or free cash flow.

In short, cash is the lifeblood of business. During speculative times, watch it like a hawk. No array of accrual entries can ever provide quite the same certainty as cash and other highly liquid assets in a crisis.

  1. Every time a new home is sold, a privately placed IPO is held, with one buyer.
  2. When rates are low, it is no surprise that the homebuilders try to take advantage of the situation, and provide supply to meet the demand.  But if it is only rate-driven, rather than from growth in real incomes in the economy, the quality of the new buyers will be low, because now they can just barely finance the house they could not previously.  If their income level falters, they will not have any safety margin allowing them to hold onto the house.
  3. Private investors in residential real estate have multiplied at present.  This is akin to an increase in venture capital.
  4. Leverage for new buyers has never been higher.  This occurs through second and third mortgages, as well as subprime mortgages.  Interest only mortgages are commonplace among new mortgages.  Beyond this, investors hide themselves so that they can get the cheap rates associated with owner-occupied housing.
  5. With housing, making the earnings estimate means being able to pay the mortgage payment each month.  The degree of slack here is less than in the past.

Other Gauges

These two factors are more macro than the investor base or corporate behavior but are just as important.  Near a top, the following tends to happen:

  1. Implied volatility is low and actual volatility is high. When there are many momentum investors in a market, prices get more volatile. At the same time, there can be less demand for hedging via put options, because the market has an aura of inevitability.
  2. The Federal Reserve withdraws liquidity from the system. The rate of expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet slows. This causes short interest rates to rise, making financing more expensive. As this slows down the economy, speculative ventures get hit hardest. Remember that monetary policy works with a six- to 18-month lag; also, this indicator works in reverse when the Fed adds liquidity to the system.

One final note about my indicators: I have found that different indicators work for market bottoms and tops, so don’t blindly apply these in reverse to try to gauge bottoms.

 There is no options market for residential housing, but the Federal Reserve is still a major influence in the housing market.  When the Fed is withdrawing liquidity from the system, the price of housing tends to slow down, if not reverse.  Like the equity market, this is not immediate but follows a six- to 18-month lag.  This is another case of “Don’t fight the Fed.”

No Top Now

There are reasons for concern in the present environment. Valuations are getting stretched in some parts of the market. Debt capital is cheap today. There are an increasing number of momentum investors in the market. Making the earnings estimate is once again of high importance. Nonetheless, a top in the market is not imminent, for these reasons:

  • The Fed is on hold for now. Liquidity is ample, perhaps too much so.
  • Actual price volatility is muted.
  • Since all of the accounting scandals of the last few years, many corporations have cleaned up their accounting and become more conservative.
  • Cash flow from operations comprises a high proportion of current earnings. More dividends are getting paid.
  • Leverage has not declined, but most corporations have succeeded in refinancing themselves in a low interest rate environment.
  • Conservative asset managers have not been fired yet.
  • Most IPOs don’t seem outlandish.

Not all of the indicators that I put forth have to appear for there to be a market top. A preponderance of them appearing would make me concerned, and that is not the case now.

 Some of my indicators are vague and require subjective judgment. But they’re better than nothing, and kept me out of the trouble in 1999 and 2000. I hope that I — and you — can achieve the same with them as we near the next top.

The current market environment is not as favorable as it was a year ago, but there are still some reasonably valued companies with seemingly clean accounting to buy at present. Right now, being long the market is more compelling to me than being flat, much less short.

I would retitle this the “The Top is Coming Soon.”  The reasons that I mentioned to be worrisome remain:

  • Valuations are getting stretched in some parts of the market.
  • Debt capital is cheap today.
  • There are an increasing number of momentum investors in the market.
  • Making the earnings estimate is once again of high importance. (Gotta pay my mortgage!)

But there is more that makes me even more bearish:

  • The Fed is on the warpath, and liquidity is scarce.
  • Appraisals overstate the value of property that financial institutions lend against.
  • Homeowners have a smaller margin of safety than they have had in the past.
  • Leverage has increased for the average homebuyer.
  • People are paying more than they ought to for new and existing homes.

I am decidedly a bear on housing prices (at least in the hot coastal markets) at present, but I recognize that momentum can carry prices far beyond sustainable levels.  That’s the way markets work.

Nonetheless, I am still a bear on those who build homes, and those who finance them.  We are at an unsustainable place in the ability to finance the residential hosing market.  Either an increase in interest rates or a decrease in ability to pay for housing can derail the market.  This is the inflection point that we are at over the next year.

An Expensive Kind of Insurance

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Strategy One: “Consistent Losses, with Occasional Big Gains when the Market is Stressed”

Strategy Two: “Consistent Gains, with Total Wipe-out Risk When Market is Highly Stressed”

How do these two strategies sound to you?  Not too appealing?  I would agree with that.  The second of those strategies was featured in an article at Bloomberg.com recently — Inverse VIX Fund Gets Record Cash on Calm Market Bet.  And though the initial graph confused me, because it was the graph for the exchange traded note VXX, which benefits when the VIX spikes, the article was mostly about the inverse VIX exchange traded note XIV.

Why would someone pursue the second strategy?  Most of the time, it makes money, and since January 2011 we haven’t a horrendous market event like the one from August 2008 through February 2009, it makes money.

I would encourage you to look at the decline in the second half of 2011, where it fell 75% when the VIX briefly burped up to around 50.  But given the amazing comeback as volatility abated, the lesson that some investors drew was this: “Volatility Spike? Time to buy XIV!”  And that explains the article linked above.

You might remember a recent book review of mine — Rule Based Investing.  In that review, I made the point that those that sell insurance on financial contracts tend to win, but it is a volatile game with the possibility of total loss.  To give another example from the recent financial crisis: most of the financial and mortgage insurers in existence prior to 2007 are gone.  Let me put it simply: though financial risks can be insured, the risks are so volatile that they should not be insured.  You are just one colossal failure away from death, and that colossal failure will tend to come when everyone is certain that it can’t come.

But what of the first strategy?  How has it done?

Wow!  Look at the returns over the last few weeks!  Rather, look at a strategy that consistently loses money because it rolls futures contracts for the VIX where the futures curve is upward-sloping almost all the time, leading to buy high, sell low.

Does it pay off in a crisis?  Yes.  Can you use it tactically?  Yes.  Can you hold it and make money?  No.

Back to the second strategy.  People are putting money into XIV because they “know” that implied volatility always mean-reverts, and so they will make easy money after a volatility spike.  But what if they arrive too early, and volatility spikes far higher than expected?  Worse yet, what if Credit Suisse goes belly-up in the volatility?  After all, it is an exchange-traded note where owners of XIV are lending money to Credit Suisse.

Back to Basics

Do I play in these markets?  No.

Do I understand them?  Mostly, but I can’t claim to be the best at this.

What if I try both strategies at the same time?  You will lose.  You are short fees and trading frictions.

What if I short both strategies at the same time?  Uncertain. It comes down to whether you can hold the shorts over the long term without getting “bought in” or panic when one side of the trade runs the wrong way.

Recently, someone pinged me to speak to CFA Institute, Baltimore, where he wanted to talk about “not all correlations of risky assets go to one in a crisis” and pointed to volatility investing as the way to improve asset allocation.  Sigh.  I’m inclined to say that “you can’t teach a Sneech.”

I favor simplicity in investing, and think that many exchange traded products will harm investors on average because the investors do not understand the underlying economics of what they own, while Wall Street uses them as a cheap way to hedge their risk exposures.

There may be some value to speculators in using “investments” like strategy one for a few days at a time.  But holding for any long time is poison.  Worse, if you are accidentally right, and the world comes to an end — this is an exchange-traded note, and the bank you lent to will be broke.  That will also kill strategy two.

So, my advice to you is this: avoid either side of this trade.  Stick with simple investments that do not invest in futures or options.  Complexity is the enemy of the average investor.  I can understand these investments and they don’t work for me.  You should avoid them too.

PS — before I close, let me mention:

Good article in both places.

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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