Monday, April 28, 2008

India vs China, Russia and Brazil

Is clubbing India together with China, Russia and Brazil the right thing to do? Can India decouple more or less than these other countries can from a US-Europe slowdown? Many analysts say that because exim trade contributes less to India's GDP than China, India is relatively more shielded. I am not sure that is the case.

I think a very important question when one thinks about growth is - how is the growth financed? Here, I think India is in a much poorer position (this is still a theory, I need to get the hard numbers).

a) Current account deficit - India has a current account deficit. As oil and fertilizer prices go up, this deficit is increasing. BRC run a massive current account surplus which they can use to finance growth, India relies on capital flows - FDI and FII. In the 1990s, east Asia financed its growth through capital flows. Because they didnt have forex reserves, they were hurt badly. India is not in that bad a situation today - forex reserves are high and FDI flow remains strong. Still, it is something to watch out for.

A benefit of having current account surplus is that forex can be used to contain domestic inflation. So China can led yuan appreciate to control inflation because there is a massive current account surplus, India can't.

b) Fiscal deficit - With pay commision award and subsidies on oil and fertilizer, the fiscal position of India can become very bad very soon. If high oil and fertilizer prices for another year, govt will need to cut down on its spending. Whether that will be subsidies or investments is anybody's guess. Most likely, it will be a mix of both.

To do: I need to collect some hard numbers around this.

There is now an inconsistency in the way commodites are priced and the assumption that Chindia can keep growing at 8%+ to support these commodity prices and to also power US out of its slowdown - at least India cant. If Fed is betting on export growth, it should help Chindia tackle inflation by supporting the dollar.

There are two major wildcards now. First, the average price of the US home, and how low it goes. Second, the price of oil, and how high it goes.

Any recession requires multiple shocks - the US economy is extremely resilient. In 2001, there was tech meltdown, Enron-Worldcom-junk bond blowup, and 9-11. This time, we had subprime blowup and the credit crunch. Now, we might be at the onset of an oil shock.

Sunday, April 27, 2008


I am still trying to figure this one out. It is very dangerous to stand in front of the momentum train. Nasdaq at 3000 can become Nasdaq at 5000 before it become Nasdaq1500. At the same time, in retrospect it becomes one of the easiest trades to make. What event needs to happen to change the sentiment on commodity/agriculture? Dollar strengthening? Monsoons? Already India is predicting a record wheat production this year.

Philip Morris Int came out with very strong results this qtr. So thats good. My thinking has changed a bit on the stock. Earlier, I was thinking this stock should command a 20x multiple like Coke and other FMCG companies, as its EPS growth is around 10%-12% like Coke. That is incorrect. Volume growth for PMI is close to 0% and there is always the litigation risk. So 16x is probably a good enough multiple for this, which is where it trades. So I bought this stock at fair value - the best I can hope now is EPS growth.

Blue Dart came out with phenomenal numbers. It is now trading at 13x-14x FY08EPS. If this stock falls again to 10x-11x, as I am sure it will, I will pick it up.

What about Crisil? This is the S&P arm in India. Its ratings business is growing at 50% (due to Basel-II norm implementation driven business), but Irevna is flat (as it does I-banking outsourcing work). Both contribute about 45%-45% topline for the company. At its current price, it is trading at 25x FY08. For a 25% EPS grower, isnt that the right multiple to pay? If Irevna comes back, the growth could be even higher.

Eaton Vance's Tax Advantaged Dividend Fund

Couple of people said I was wrong that this fund used leverage. This fund uses a covered call strategy to enhance its dividends. So I went back to check the annual report of this fund.

From Page 2 of the Annual Report of this fund: "As of August 31, 2007, the Fund's $700 million issued and outstanding Auction Preferred Shares (APS) equaled approximately 24% of total assets and maintained a weighted average reset period of 21 days, which is comparable to what it was when the Fund's leverage was originally issued. Use of financial leverage creates an opportunity for increased capital appreciation and income but, at the same time, creates special risks (including the likelihood of greater volatility of net asset value and market price of the common shares). In the event of a rise in long-term interest rates, the value of the Fund's portfolio could decline, which would reduce the asset coverage for its APS."

I also dont find anything on the covered call strategy in the report. Rather, they use a approach called dividend capture strategy - which is basically trading to capture dividends.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Time to short commodities?

Futures are now pricing in just a 25 bps cut next Tuesday and then a stop to the rate cuts by the Fed. That should be bullish for dollar and bearish for commodities (because commodites have been pushed up on the theory of the weak dollar).

I can't understand the supply-demand arguments to justify sharp movements in commodity prices on a daily basis. Suppose oil is in short supply. So why should it be priced only at $115 and not at $1150? I can understand that suddenly there have been port closures in Australia, so coal prices go up. But how come everything goes into short supply at the same time. I suspect the movements in commodities that we have seen in the last few months has a lot to do with the theory that because real interest rates are now -ve in the US, commodities should go up. But they can't go up ad infinitum, right?

Should I go long SMN? It is already up 10% in last few days, but has been absolutely hammered in the last few months. This ETF has shorted stocks of companies through derivatives and is leveraged 2x. Its biggest position is Monsanto, which is a play on agflation. All these companies have seen their stock go vertically up in the last 7 months since the Fed rate cuts started.

I guess what is extremely important for this to succeed in the short run is the nature of the commentary out of Fed next Wednesday. If they as much mention inflation, it will be a good bet. If they do not, it might become a problem - this is again leveraged 2x like SKF, so moves can be magnified. But with now everyone on the theory of agflation, it might be the time to go against it. It might not be a bad bet for the longer term if one has the stomach for it (I don't).

A technical point - how do dividends get adjusted for SMN? If I short a stock that pays dividends, I pay the dividend to the person from whom I borrow the stock to short. In SMN, who pays dividends? Or because of derivatives, that consideration doesn't arise?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Eaton Vance Tax Advantaged Dividend Income Fund

WSJ is out recommending EVT today as it pays a 7% dividend and trades at discount on NAV because of ARPS issues, but I have my reservations.

This is an equity close-ended fund. None of the big stocks that this fund owns has a 7% yield. So the only way the fund is able to pay out the high cash dividend is through the use of leverage, or auction rate preferred shares. Unless the fund can figure out a way to replicate the low-cost leverage that it has so far used, it will be difficult to sustain the level of dividend payments.

Eaton Vance mentions that is has replaced ARPS with debt for this fund, which will surely have higher cost than ARPS. I wouldn't be surprised if leverage goes down for this fund, which will also reduce its dividend, which is perhaps the only reason to buy this fund.

Capital gains with this fund will be correlated to the stock market. As shown in the literature on the website, this fund has always traded at a discount to its NAV, which can fall if underlying securities fall in price. If that happens, debt holders can force the fund to liquidate - akin to a margin call. Probably debt closed-end funds facing ARPS issues are better than equity closed-end funds.

This gave me an idea - is there a way I can borrow money at low cost and invest in high-dividend yielding stocks to profit from the spread?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Valuing Citi

I was thinking about how should one value Citi. Its peak EPS in 2006 was $4.24. I think it will be another 5 years before it returns to that EPS level, because (a) The company has diluted by about 10%, so peak EPS on today's share count is more like $3.80, (b) leverage in SSB is going down for sure - I think its earnings are impaired for at least half a decade (c) there is a recession/slowdown in US. So some impact on banks is bound to happen.

So lets assume Citi hits $4.24 in 2012. At 11x PE, I will value it at $46.80 in 2012. Assuming 12% discount rate (why will I invest in a financial today if I dont double my money in 4 years, so 12% discount rate + 5% dividend = 17% effective return over 4 years = double money), I will value Citi today at $29.74.

Selling SKF

I sold SKF today at a loss of 10% - gave a market order to sell before the market opened. From +10% to -10% in 3 days illustrates the power of leverage. It was a good learning as it reminded me of what I learnt from the Motorola fiasco two years ago.

I think financials are now out of the gate - sentiment is as imporant as reality, the big writedown cycle is most likely over and the regulators are on the case. I have bought KBE at $41 - it is the financials ETF. Plan to hold it for long unless it suddenly jumps to 47 and above.

I also bought Philip Morris International at 16x 08PE and it is now the largest position I have. I like cigarette companies as the free cash flow generation is huge.

Another lesson - buying/selling at open doesnt make sense on a day like this, wait for 30 min for the initial rush to pash through and one can get 1%-2% better for sure.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Google Earnings

We all know that Merrill and Citi will have lousy quarters when they report in next 48 hrs. The more interesting earnings report will be, however, from Google. comScore data suggests that click growth slowed down dramatically last quarter. Bulls say that Google has tweaked its algo so that the yields have gone up, so there will be no pressure on revenue. But analysts always have lofty expectations from Google, so even a small miss can be penalized heavily.

SKF is still at breakeven, after having been up more than 10% Tuesday when Wachovia announced its capital raise. That was indeed my target. So, why didnt I sell? As I had learnt two years back with Motorola, the more important decision is not buying but selling. Selling when the target price is hit, or selling at a loss, requires great discipline, especially with these speculative positions. There are all the books and experts on the buying decision, but hardly anyone talks about when to sell.

Anyways, ML and Citi report in next 48 hrs. So lets see. I dont think there is much downside left in banks - they have already been pummeled.

I think oil prices are going into dangerous territory, especially for countries like India. Commodities have risen too fast. Ultrashort Materials (SMN) is something to keep a close eye on.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Portfolio as of 11 April

In the US,
a) CCS - Comcast's unsecured debt with a 7.5% yield. A better place than my bank account to park money. I am sure Comcast is not going bust. Best thing is that it trades on the exchanges like a stock.
b) PYN - Pimco NY Muni Fund III. I think that (a) municipal markets will stabilize slowly but surely, (b) interest rates would fall more, so funds with high yields will become more attractive and (c) tax rates will rise in the next 3 years - deficits need to be reduced at some point of time - so tax-free muni bonds will become attractive. This trades at a discount to its NAV which has started recovering since Feb when the ARPS crises hit. Hold for long term.
c) SKF - Ultrashort Financials. This is a speculative position. This is a levered play to short financials. Breakeven here - this position was established last week. Citi and ML report next week, so we can see some action here.
d) Am looking at some stocks to buy for the long-term. Philip Morris International seems a good one. It just spun out of Altria. FY08 EPS of $3.10-$3.20 gives it a PE of 15x-16x.

In India,
a) Aban Loyd - leveraged bet on shallow water E&P capex. Lost 10% so far. It is not a 5 year buy kind of stock. As long as oil remains above $80, I think we are safe.
b) Some PSU's - Union Bank, Bank of Baroda. Underwater by 10%. I sold Allahabad Bank last month at a 40% loss to save taxes.
c) Blue Dart - should I add more? This is down by 20% and is a good company.
d) Deccan Chronicle - Down by 20%. It's financials are fraud. But it is newspapers + the only way to play IPL. Wouldnt add more.
e) Sold Tata Power at 20% loss last month to save taxes. This is the only utility stock I will buy if I get it at around Rs 1000. It bought a stake in Bumi resources (Indonesian coal mine) last year, which has been a home run now that coal prices have run up. Plus, conglomerate discount should vanish as it starts monetizing stakes in other Tata group companies to fund its own aggressive capex plans.

I am still 85% uninvested. Cash has been a good bet so far. But now is the time to start buying good quality companies that have become cheap.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Same language subtitling helps improve literacy

In today's Times of India, Gurcharan Das has a very fascinating article on a creative method to improve literacy - same language subtitling of Chitrahar and Rangoli on Doordarshan. People often anticipate the next word of a song. If they are able to immediately associate it with the written word, the literacy improves. I immediately turned on Doordarshan to see Rangoli after a gap of maybe 14 years. And yes, it was there. Neat, simple and apparently very effective. Hats off to Dr. Brij Kothari for recognizing such a common sensical approach to improve literacy.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

It is strange

that Dow Jones is where it was in Dec. Since then, there has been one bad news after another. Still, the major US indices have remained resilient. Why is that? Is the market signalling something? These 400 point moves on Tuesday must really be killing the shorts.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Learnings over the last 9 months

The last 9 months have been really incredible. The best way to learn about monetary policy, central banking and stock markets is to be in a financial crisis like today. So here are my key takeaways:

a) Markets can be manipulated - Witness the fall of Bear Sterns and the volatility in Lehman's stock price. Bear Sterns was brought down by feverish rumour mongering. If it can happen in a liquid stock like Bear Sterns, there is also truth to allegations that the 1997-98 East Asian crises was caused/exacerbated by hedge funds. That is not to say there weren't real issues, but the decisive blow could have come through manipulation.

b) 5-year financial models that linearly extrapolate last 3 years of data are useless - In 1997, could anyone have predicted the East Asian crises and then the tech bubble? In 2002, could anyone have predicted a 5-year global bull run? If one cannot predict such defining macro trends, how can one really do a "bottoms up, company specific analysis". Because any such analysis assumes stable macro trends. Except for some defensive companies (FMCG, healthcare etc), almost everything else is impacted by macro trends, most importantly interest rates and currencies. While financial models do help understand a company better (especially if there are one-offs, tax rate changes etc), one should be careful in not getting too bogged down.

c) Speculation is possible: I disagree with those avowed value investors who think speculators are gambling and will lose money in the long run. Sorry. You are wrong. The definitiveness with which you claim that traders are gamblers reminds me of my MBA school's insistence that markets are efficient. They clearly aren't. Otherwise Bear Sterns wouldn't have gone belly up in 24 hrs. Value investing is great, and so is speculation.

d) It pays to be a contraian: Nobody in emerging markets predicted in January that markets are going to crash. But they did. Similarly, if confronted with the fact that UBS had a $19bn write down, a logical person would have said that markets would go down. They didn't. Media commentary tries to justify restrospectively why certain things happened. It is useless. The simplest answer to why markets went up yesterday is - they went up.

I guess what Warren Buffet says is true. Markets are efficient, but not all the times. And we are living in such a time.


So after years of procrastinating, I have decided to finally prepare for a marathon this year. I have yet to figure out which one. The longest I have ever run is 28 km last year in New York (now I live in Mumbai). Then, I had run from my house on 58th street and 9th Avenue to George Washington Bridge on 181st street and Riverside Avenue along the Hudson. I have tried running beyond 28km but have failed as my knees start wobbling around the 24-25 km mark.

Of the 4 aims I list above, only two are work-in-progress - stock markets and learning French. So I will discard the other two and focus on marathon this year. I think I will maintain a diary so as to really make sure that I practice.

29/03 - 5 km at the gym
01/04 - 6 km around Five Gardens

Some Interesting Facts from UBS Writedown

1. Shares are up 8%. I think all market prognosticators are scratching their heads. Just tells how impossible it is to trade this market. Time has come to start taking longer term views - that is, if one is possible (see point 2).

2. "The Mandatory Convertible Notes issued in March 2008 are subject to anti-dilution provisions, which will result in downward adjustments of the applicable conversion price to reflect the theoretical value of the Subscription Rights." - I guess it is almost impossible to figure out what the share count of the various banks will be once all this fund raising is over. How does one then calculate the normalized EPS (and the target price) for any bank? Or, should one simply try to time and enter at the dilution price which is the minimum price of all the dilutions. That way, one has benefited from the dilutions that happened at the higher price. But then, how does one figure out that minimum dilution price?

3. While positions in subprime and Alt-A declined, auction rate certificates increased. We all know about the turmoil in ARPS market. Didn't realize that brokers will take them on their balance sheet. But this shouldn't be a major cause of concern, as any writedowns should be low (compared to subprime). "Over 1Q , UBS's exposure to US residential sub-prime mortgage related positions declined to approximately USD 15 billion from USD 27.6 billion on 31 December, and the exposure to Alt-A positions was reduced from USD 26.6 billion to approximately USD 16 billion. Auction rate certificate positions increased from USD 5.9 billion on 31 December to approximately USD 11 billion."