1. There were two articles on reinsurers this morning suggesting that there should be a lot of consolidation via M&A. I’m not so sure. First, most players there want to acquire, not be acquired. Second, most of them don’t trust the underwriting and reserving of their competitors to the degree that they trust their own. To the extent that current players want to diversify, it is cheaper to do it organically than by acquisition. With the high degree of ease of entry into the market, the franchise value of a reinsurer is low. Now, maybe the property-centric reinsurers want to diversify (a smart idea, but they are stubborn), or the new reinsurers want to buy in a reverse merger one of the class of 2001 to eliminate the capital haircut from the ratings agencies (but they don’t have the cash for it). Those ideas make sense, but scale isn’t that much of a virtue here, and with P&C reinsurers the reserving is opaque as mud. I can see a deal or two getting done, but not a lot of them.
  2. With all the hand-wringing in the Wall Street Journal this morning on free trade, just watch, we impose some series of tariffs or restrictions that reduce the current account deficit, only to see the capital account surplus shrink also, leading to higher interest rates and a lower dollar, breaking the current cycle giving the US cheap imported goods in exchange for dollar denominated bonds.
  3. Throw a rock, hit a commentator who says that the Bank of China (or other major central bank with large dollar holdings) would never sell their positions because it would work against their interests, driving the value of the dollar down. That’s a half truth at best. Here’s why: the central bank will eventually focus on the future, realizing that sunk costs are sunk. Just because you have a big dollar position, does that mean you have to add to it to preserve its current value. Ignore the past, and let the dollar denominated securities mature. Use fresh cash and maturity proceeds to buy assets in the currencies that you like. It won’t cause a panic, but the dollar will still adjust down. Recognize from the start that the dollar assets are worth less than current exchange rates, and maximize value from there. (Large holders of any asset under pressure have to think this way to maximize value.)
  4. Buyer Beware. Or maybe, it should be borrower beware. People are generally less competent at making rational choices when they are borrowing rather than paying cash. So it is no surprise that when Beazer finances homes that they sold, buyers might have gotten less than an optimal deal. This is true with many financial transactions. In general, the more moving parts in a transaction, the worse off the average person is in evaluating a deal. Better to line up your financing separate from the decision to purchase an asset, or you could end up up with a bop on your beezer, figuratively speaking.
  5. So FASB might have a tighter leash on its neck from the SEC? Not sure whether that is good or bad. Neither organization gets high marks in my book. FASB desperately needs a more coherent overarching approach to accounting, rather than the piecemeal addjustments that they are doing. The SEC, if anything, is more beholden to political pressure, and the idiocy that that brings into accounting.
  6. Then there’s Texas, basically invalidating the GASB on reporting the liability for long term government employee benefits. You might remember my piece at RealMoney, Pensions: Things Can Always Be Worse. Well, this is an example of that, and it is not limited to Texas. Though the Texas argument may have merits, governments all over the country are finding that they have to finally recognize the present value of the pension promises that they have made, and disclose it to the citizenry. It will be a mess, because a large amount of these promises are totally unfunded, much like Social Security, Medicare, and most other programs of our Federal Government.
  7. It takes a week, but finally the market comes around to my view of the FOMC, though it takes Bernanke before Congress to correct the view of the markets. Inflation is not on hold, but the FOMC is, for now.

A bicycle has to keep on moving to stay upright. A table does not have to move to stay upright, and only a severe event will upend a large table.

I developed this analogy back when I was a corporate bond manager, because there were some companies that would only stay afloat if they kept moving, i.e., if operating cash flow continued at its projected pace. That is bicycle stability; they have to keep pedaling. There were other companies that could survive a setback in earnings, and even lose money for a time, and the debt would still be good. That is table stability.

Need I mention that in a crisis, the equity of companies with table stability typically fall less than those with bicycle stability?

I think that it is incumbent on every portfolio manager to look over his portfolio, and ask what companies that they own would not be able to survive if they were not able to raise capital for two years.

My current main economic concern is that inflation in the developing world, particularly China and India, will lead to their central banks to overshoot on policy, and cause a drop in global aggregate demand. Inflation is accelerating, and money supply is not slowing. The excess liquidity is not finding its way into goods prices as much as into asset prices.

This portfolio review will not protect you from loss, but it will protect you in relative terms in a crisis. You won’t be hurt as much.

  1. There was an article in Forbes interviewing Jeremy Grantham that made me think. He suggests that value investing might be heading for a period where it will underperform. I.e., value stocks are not as relatively undervalued as they normally are. If he is correct, what should I do? I could shut off the value discipline, and run my industry models in GARP [growth at a reasonable price] or even momentum mode. That cuts against my grain; perhaps what I would do is give a little more weight to the industry models as I make my selections. That would tilt me away from hard value measures. My methods are eclectic, so I have to adapt to what the market is likely to reward 2-4 years from now.
  2. “Minsky moment.” Ah, cute phrase. Well, I loved Edward Chancellor’s, “Devil Take the Hindmost,” and he has an interesting article at Institutional Investor. The themes he talks about are dear to me. My only quibble is that we aren’t yet there for a collapse. There is enough cash available to mop up problems at present. Whether that will continue to be true is another question.
  3. My biggest concern is the dollar, and the carry trade. If the dollar dips below 112 yen, I suspect that there will be a self-reinforcing panic as short yen positions get covered. The Economist had a piece on this recently that made a lot of sense. Eventually we will have an unwind here, but it will come with a lot of kicking and screaming in Asia.
  4. For wonks only, First American Corelogic posted a report called Mortgage Payment Reset 2007: The Issue and the Impact. Very informative on the effects of the loan reset features on hybrid loans, and what might happen to the real estate markets.

In an upcoming article at RealMoney, I will be writing an article on optimal position sizing. To do that, I use the Kelly Criterion, which says that a position size should be equal to (edge/odds). There is added complexity in applying this to stocks, because in gambling, each game is uncorrelated with the last one. In investing, if you have a number of investments going at the same time, they are to some degree correlated with one another, particularly for me, because I concentrate sectors.

The Kelly criterion applied to stock investing would recommend a fixed weight portfolio. Optimally, you would rebalance daily to those fixed weights, but there are two factors that interfere: first, there are costs to trading, and second, momentum tends to persist in the short-run. To me that implies that one has fixed weights, but that you set a band around those fixed weights for rebalancing. I use a 20% band, but the more I think about it, the band should be smaller, like maybe 10%. My portfolio has gotten bigger over the past few years, and trading costs are a smaller percentage cost factor. I’ll stick with 20% for now. It has served me well, but I will re-evaluate this.

I firmly believe that my eight rules tilt the odds in my favor. How much are each of the rules worth? Well, that I will describe in the article at RealMoney, and that hopefully will explain why holding 35 or so positions is proper for me in running my strategy.

One more thing, I appreciate the work done at the CASTrader Blog on the Kelly criterion. We manage money very differently, but we both appreciate the value of the Kelly Criterion.

PS — As an aside, I get ribbed by some at RealMoney, whether contributors or readers about holding 35 positions as hyperdiversified. In general I agree with portfolio concentration, but given that I concentrate sectors and industies, that makes 35 a lot more like 20 in terms of total volatility. On the other hand, compared to most mutual fund managers, 35 names would be a tighter ship than 95% of them run.

I’m not an accountant.  I have never taken an accounting course in my life.  Yet as an actuary and a financial analyst, I have had to use accounting rules to understand financial statements, both in the production of them, and the interpretation of them.  (I even remember writing a paper explaining the effect of the then-current FAS 52 on foreign exchange when I was a grad student.)

 

There are a number of Statements of Financial Accounting Standards that I think have been mistakes.  We are between paradigms.  The central question is this: how often do we want to re-estimate the value of balance sheet items, and if they change, how should they be reflected in the income statement?

 

There are two consistent ways to do this.  Other methods are a kludge in my opinion.  Method one is amortized cost on both sides of the balance sheet.  Method two is the estimation of fair market value on both sides of the balance sheet.

 

But SFAS 159 allows companies to elect which assets and liabilities (with some restrictions, and subject to SFAS 115) they can value at amortized cost or at fair market value, together with disclosure on how the assets/liabilities are valued.

 

Now, I know that the FASB is trying to create standards that will be more consistent with international accounting standards, but what they are doing here will make accounting less comparable across US companies, particularly given that adherence to SFAS 159 is optional.

 

For companies with no long term agreements, SFAS 159 will not have any major impacts, but as for me, given that I follow the insurance industry, this will make my life more complex, without any equivalent increase in understanding.

 

As I said once to a panel of the IASB and FASB, create two consistent financial statements, one amortized cost, and one fair market value.  This would mean two income  statements and two balance sheets, and one cash flow statement.  They though that was too much work, but I disagree; companies are doing that work now, but they are not reporting it.  Better they should disclose what they know.

When Wall Street comes up with a good idea, they overdo it until the system chokes on the product they created. After the market failure, the system becomes more sophisticated and risks are priced better.

The ABX.HE indexes were created to have a uniform way of trading tranched subprime mortgage credit on a consistent basis. This would allow parties to go long or short, and in greater volume than the underlying cash market would support. They started with the 06-1 deal, which reflected subprime mortgage deals from 20 different originators from the second half of 2005.  They have gotten as far as the 07-1 deal,which reflected subprime mortgage deals from the same 20 originators from the second half of 2006.

 

Well, now what?  Many of those originators are gone, and most of the rest have scaled back massively. Will there be an 07-2 deal?  In some ways, I wonder if the existence of the ABX.HE deals didn’t help to create part of the problem, in that the 20 originators had to come out with at least one deal of a certain size every six months.  Being in the index would mean cheaper funding, so an originator would want to do that if possible.

 

I don’t see how the ABX.HE 07-2 gets done, and honestly, the system might be better off if it doesn’t get done.  The existence of subprime mortgages encourages some people to take on onerous debt that they would be better off not incurring.  Anything that encourages more subprime lending (and other high interest forms of debt) is in my opinion, a bad thing.  Let people learn to defer their gratification, put more money down, and on the whole, they and the whole nation will be better off.

What a week. The yield curve disinverted with ten-year Treasury yields moving above two year yields. 30-year bonds traded off 11 basis points, 10-years 7 bp, 5 years 5 bp. The short end of the curve was largely unchanged.

But now look at Treasury Inflation Protected Securities. TIPS 10 years and longer fell a mere 3 bp. TIPS 5 years and shorter were flat. Now, I have a large allocation of my balanced mandates in TIPS and short-term debt, so my downside was protected this week.

So why did the bond market move that way? The FOMC shifted its monetary policy language this week in a way that said that they no longer have a bias to tighten policy, but they do have have a bias to worry about inflation. The Fed’s announcement this week says that they are willing to tolerate a little more inflation. The bond market reacted accordingly, and required more yield on bonds with no inflation protection.

What else happened? The equity markets rallied, both before and after the FOMC announcement. Credit spreads largely tightened, and the dollar fell on the FOMC announcement, before rallying back to flat the rest of the week. In general, the carry trade currencies, the yen and the swiss franc, underperformed, and higher yielding currencies did better.

What can I say, then? The willingness to take risk is alive and well, and the carry trade is re-emerging. M&A isn’t suffering; note the possible deals on Tribune, ABN AMRO, Chrysler and Volkswagen. And, at least according to Bloomberg, there are a scad of CDO deals in the pipeline waiting to be done. So, let the party continue; let others ignore the rising inflation (at your peril), and enjoy the punch that the Fed is serving. As for me, I’ll just enjoy my mug of tea, slowly reduce risk, and watch the spectacle.

Ugh. What a day. It’s 1:30AM as I begin to write this, and I have been going since 4AM after traveling to Manhattan to DC and back, with the usual difficulties. The two highlights of my day were meeting with the best operational management team in insurance, Assurant, and meeting up with my work colleagues for dinner to celebrate new members coming onto staff. The lowlight was not getting any time with my family.

Now, one of the nice things about my portfolio management style is that I can ignore the markets for short amounts of time, and 99% of the time, it doesn’t matter. I do 95-99% of all my trades through portfolio rebalancings and portfolio reshapings. Like Buffett, who I admire (though I don’t always agree with), I wouldn’t mind if the market were closed more frequently. So today my broad market portfolio was up 50 basis points in my absence. I am now ahead of where i was at 2/26, before the shock.  Maybe I should be absent more often. 🙂

While traveling, I put the finishing touches on six (yes) articles that will be published on RealMoney over the next month. One should be next week, and is a compilation of what I have written here on my recent portfolio reshaping, with a few bits taken out and another page of explanatory data added for greater clarity. The other five articles are a series that I have worked on for a while which I have informally entitled “The Excellent Analyst” series. It goes through the framework of questions that I ask when I have a management team all to myself. I don’t go for material nonpublic information; I also don’t go for earnings trivia, rather, I try to see how the management team thinks as businessmen. Another place where I agree with Buffett, “I am a better businessman because I am an investor, and I am a better investor because I am a businessman.”

With insurance, that comes natively to me, having done pricing, reserving, reinsurance, and corporate work as an actuary, having managed a small division of a company, with underwriting, marketing, and investment risk control. And my time managing insurance assets, mortgage bonds and then corporates, together with the derivatives. Having done all that, understanding insurance managements is second nature to me. I can sense a bad management team, and I delight in a great management team.

This brings me full circle to Assurant. Why are they the top operational insurance management team to me? This is a non-exhaustive list:

  1. Few other companies in insurance have seriously thought about sustainable competitive advantage. Assurant does it well, being #1 or #2 in almost all of the businesses in which they choose to compete.
  2. They invest in IT and customer relationships to create barriers to entry that are difficult to reverse engineer.
  3. Few insurance companies figure out their core competencies so closely, and then look for adjacent markets to apply them to.
  4. Few insurance companies look for “blue ocean” markets, where there is an unmet need and no competitors.
  5. Excellent capital allocators.
  6. Excellent at M&A, doing small infill acquisitions and growing them organically.
  7. Understands the concepts in market segmentation, and applies it to pricing, reserving, customer service and risk control.
  8. Executes almost flawlessly. What a great culture.

And if that’s not enough, they earn an ROE that is solidly in the top quartile for insurers, and I have no doubt that they will do the same next year. Progressive and AFLAC, move over. There is a new growth insurance name in town, and their valuation metrics are inexpensive, compared to what we are likely to get.

 

Full Disclosure: Long AIZ

We’ve had seventeen market sessions since the blowup in Shanghai and we are closing in on the level prior to the blowup. My broad market portfolio is down 40 basis points, versus the S&P being down 90 basis points.

This doesn’t mean that everything is back to normal. There are still significant imbalances in the financial system. The carry trade, CDOs, and private equity will yet have their comeuppance. The only question is when it will happen.

There’s an article in the Wall Street Journal today entitled, “Credit-Ratings Firms Get Caught Up In Subprime Meltdown.” In some ways I anticipated this in my article at RealMoney, “Snarls in Insurance Investigation, Part 2.”

I experienced the difficulties that the ratings agencies had in 2001-2002 as a corporate bond manager. They are paid by the issuers, and have a conflict of interest. They can argue that they are zealous to protect their reputations, but in the short run, they get paid by issuers to rate deals. Only in times of crisis do they adjust their standards to meet the needs of the bond buyers.


In short, the problems with the ratings agencies are the same as the problems with auditors. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Except in crises, the ratings agencies are more beholden to the issuers than their subscribers. All the more reason to allow alternative ratings agencies into existence, to challenge their oligopoly.