Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Asset Prices as the Driver of Business Cycles

Leo Tolostoy said "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". Applied to financial markets, this would read as "all boom times are alike, but recessions are unique in their own way." It is at times like today which determine who is really a good investor and who is not.

Coming to recessions, the most often cited logic for business cycles is inventory mismatch. Greenspan viewed the 2000-01 bust as caused by excess inventory in tech sector, and will no doubt view today's bust as caused by housing inventory. But shouldn't one move one step back to what caused this inventory. That will be rampant speculation in asset prices - in tech in 2000 and in housing in 2007.

Conventional inventory buildups in the supply chain have become more manageable with the advent of technology and spread of supply chain management solutions. So, as the volatility of inventory has reduced, the big factor impacting business cycles might no longer be inventory, but something else.

Are asset prices the real driver of the business cycle now? In other words, do stock market and real estate market drive underlying economic growth, rather than the other way around? If that is the case, then the mandate of the Fed to promote substainable growth (i.e. reduce volatility of the business cycle) should force it to target asset prices. But they do not. They say thay if we were to target asset prices, then we would get an economic contraction, which is what we are trying to avoid in the first place.

I have enormous respect for Greenspan, despite him being regarded as the chief culprit behind the housing mess. He is right when he says that there has been a housing boom worldwide and not just in the US. So what exactly is the theory which made him reluctant to target asset prices?

Is it that bubbles are actually good? They are the best form of socialism. Somebody overinvests, and somebody else benefits. India benefitted from reduced telecom costs following the tech burst. If house prices fall a lot, many people who couldn't afford them earlier during pre-housing bubble times could afford them once the credit markets stabilize, as their incomes would have risen this decade.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Lehman miss

I missed Lehman yesterday, when the stock went down to 20. As they say, "Be greedy when others are fearful, and be fearful when others are greedy". Considering that (a) Fed effectively extended credit lines to brokerages on Sunday, and (b) Lehman was set to produce its balance sheet in 24 hrs, the chances of a liquidity crisis at Lehman were <50%. What was clear was that if Lehman survived 24 hrs, one will get 100% return. And if not, lose 100%. So the expected return/risk was in favor of speculating in Lehman.

A bet against Lehman yesterday was a bet against the Fed. And a bet against the Fed never wins. This was a miss that I will perhaps rue for my life. While financials are bad and probably stink over the next year, there will be trades like this all over in the next few months. I need to make sure I act on them and not be carried away in all the bearishness.

But then, an important question emerges. Suppose I had really bought Leh yesterday and really made 100%. I would have made money. But would it have given me an overconfidence in my timing abilities and made me more speculative which would ultimately lead to more losses in the long term? I need to be careful what I wish for.

The trade of the next few years is financials. Get them right, and one will have multibaggers.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Buffet's crazy put options

Buffet has collected a $4.5 bn premium by selling 15-20 year put options on four stock indices (including S&P), stuck at the current level of market. Who are these geniuses who are so bearish on the market over a 15 year time-span that they paid a $4.5bn premium? Simply inflation would push up the level of markets - so the probablity of this event is low. But if the probability of this event is low, Buffet must have written this on a staggering huge notional amount - something like a trillion dollars. Is it Fidelity or Vanguard or one of these giant asset management firms who have bought these options - cant think of anyone else who has a trillion dollars to protect? Or am I reading this incorrectly? Why hasnt anyone else picked this up?

The Idearc Fiasco

Well well. Idearc fell to $3.57 on Friday (it is right now slightly above $5 as Barron's published a story on levered equities on the weekend). I had purchased this stock around $28 when it spun out off Verizon and sold it at $35 in August when the credit crunch started. Levered equities are dangerous when credit markets freeze. I also sold AMT at that time.

Is IAR worth a second look? RHD lowered its guidance on Thursday - surprisingly the $100 mn reduction in revenue guidance is almost falling straight to EBITDA and FCF line, indicating a high fixed cost structure for the business.

Negatives are - Economy is slowing, so ad revenues will take a hit + small businesses on whom yellow pages rely will default more in a slow economy leading to higher bad debt expense + Google etc are eating yellow pages lunch + IAR's and RHD's acquisition of domain names for multi-hundred million dollars is not confidence inspiring + IAR's CEO left barely 1 week into his job last week.

Positives are - the company has EBITDA/Interest Expense ratio of nearly 2x, so there is a lot of cushion + Debt/EBITDA ration is nearly 7x which is high, but not 9x of RHD + dividend yield of 23% is mouth-watering - dividend payout is 60% of FCF today. Problem is - if EBITDA declines rapidly, the Debt/EBITDA ratio can suddenly look much worse. Its bonds are trading at a 15% yield, indicating high level of concerns in the debt markets.