Thursday, June 20, 2013

Let's Play, Financial "Would You Rather...?"

 With loadsa' people getting hammered, it might not be a bad time to take a break with your collegaues, grab a Skinny Grande Latte and play: "Financial Would You Rather...?" 

Would you rather have Bill Ackman as your largest shareholder or Carl Icahn as your business partner?

Would you rather be caught insider trading by the SEC or accused of goosing LIBOR by the FSA?

Would you rather be a GoldBug or a YenBull?

Would you rather be an American with an undeclared Swiss bank account at UBS in Zurich or a German stashing undeclared income at HSBC in Geneva?

Would you rather be short puts of LULU stock into an earnings announcement or be long of USD/YEN into an Abe press conference?

Would you rather receive a tip-off of a takeover via an e-mail message or a  your office landline?

Would you rather be George Osborne or Jeffrey Osborne?

Would you rather be cellmates with Raj Rajaratnum or Bernie Madoff?

Would you rather be short of a stock with extremely high, and decreasing short interest, or long of stock with extremely high and increasing short interest?

Would you rather run an Alpha Capture strategy or be the call before the first call on analyst recommendation changes at your cousin's IB?

Would you rather systematically trade upon the advice of Bob Janjuah or be forced to listen to an endless Q&A Loop with Abbey Joseph Cohen?

Would you rather be long a truckload of leveraged US Govt 30yr zeros or short a truckload of long-dated OTM puts on JGB 10yr bonds ? 

Would you rather be investigated by Preet Bharara or pimped out to Eliot Spitzer?

Would you rather pump&dump pennystocks from a boiler-room with a bunch of Russians led by a guy named "Ivan" or shakedown the clinical researchers from your expert network for inside information?

Would you rather take investment advice from Martin Armstrong or Mish Shedlock?

Would you rather have your broker-dealer run by Dick Fuld or your FCM run by Jon Corzine?

Would you rather be short Commodity-currency gamma or long EM beta?

Would you rather invest in a new bond arb fund led by John Merriwether, or a commodity fund launched by Brian Hunter?

Would you rather be a Pension Beneficary of the State of Illinois, or the City of Philadelphia?

Would you rather a listen to market commentary by Dennis Gartman or self-help tapes from NN Taleb

Would you rather lose 33% of your clients money being incredibly and obviously stupid or 45% of your clients' money being unquestionably careless?

Would you rather play another round of this stupid game or get back to watching your hemorrhaging P&L? 
(All comments and your own Financial Would You Rather Questions welcome...)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Deutsche Bank: A Bogus Slight or Just Slightly Bogus??

Reuter's reported FDIC Vice-Chairman Hoenig's hyperbole regarding Deutsche Bank's seemingly poor capital position. This caused ZeroHedge, the BĂȘte Noire of detached objectivity, to lavishly hyperventilate on the same without considered thought - with both  sufficiently retweeted to insure some nervous-nellies will be shorting DB stock or buying DB CDS protection, without delay.

I am no apologist for banks, least not for German Banks, who've rarely missed an opportunity to miss join a crisis. That said, I do reckon that these presumed obscene numbers and ratios are an artifact of their securities financing business (including liquid markets delta-one and all manner of back-to-back swaps as it is for MS, UBS, and CA). All such undertakings cause a balance-sheet gross up of assets, but take no account of margin or collateral that is the equivalent of (if not superior to) bank equity in regards to financed assets.

Consider, for example, if a DB customer deposits $100 at DB, and borrows a further $600 from DB to buy a total of $700 of bonds. DB's core equity is unchanged, but both the assets and liabilities on their balance sheet have increased. But the $100 of equity the client has deposited/pledged/posted is, to the bank, the equivalent (and I'd argue superior to)  $100 of core equity because under the terms of the loan, it is "first loss", where the bank maintains strict covenants over the type of collateral, minimum required margin in the acct, rights to liquidate under certain conditions, and so forth. So before the bank loses a penny, the margin must completely evaporate. In practice, demands for additional margin/collateral are issued as soon as agreed thresholds are perforated. Failure to perform triggers a liquidation of positions by the bank, NOT to the detriment of the bank, but to their customer who bears the equity-like risk of the positions. Moreover, it's contiunously marked-to-market, in contrast to a traditional bank loan that is typically unsecured and unmargined initially, slow-moving to reprice, not subject to variation margin, and difficult to call-in or on-sell.

But for all such securities companies who finance positions similarly, this equity/collateral of the client, this equity-like buffer upon which they lend against the entirety customers' position, doesn’t show up on THEIR balance sheet as equity, but rather as a liability, offset by the investment assets held on their clients behalf. No matter that, under the example above, the capital ratio is > than 15% with all the covenant cards proverbially-stacked in their favour. So, a 2% tier-1 to assets ratio is a rather meaningless measure of risk, loss or actual capital sufficiency in relation to it's positions. One would need to know the bank's tier-one equity PLUS customer equity and/or liquid-market collateral held in order to make a sensible apples-to-apples comparison before declaring them a hazard. 

Furthermore, financed positions like prime brokerage (as well as repo, delta-one) are typically liquid market instruments. No illiquids. No binary instruments like CatBonds. Sensibly large haircuts and low leverage for concentrated volatile positions (e..g. a Biotech portfolio), outsized position in relation to its historical liquidity, higher, but by no means stupid finance for liquid, well-hedged diversified stuff. Over two decades (speaking as a customer) they have all (DB, MS, GS, UBS, CA) extremely good risk management and control - much better in fact than the oversight of their own prop traders.  And they are positively draconian in comparison to the terms of an ordinary commercial bank loan.  

Vice-Chairman Hoenig is not the first to scare people with non-apple-to-apple comparisons that dramatically misunderstand the nature of these relatively prudent and well-risk-managed financing businesses (oh god, I know this sounds like an ass-lick straight from "Pseuds Corner" but its true!). Which is not to say they are without risk, but that this risk is not accurately reflected (i.e. severely overstated) in the too-often cited bogus ratios. There are lots of legitimate reasons to take aim at the banks in general, and Deutsche Bank in particular be it LIBOR manipulation, tax fraud, hiding losses, etc., but using a mis-specified capital-to-assets ratio, unfit for purpose, is disingenuine and not one of them - especially if one's purpose is to understand their actual capital position and consequential risk, free from hyperbole.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Deux Chevaux?

I'd long held, from a quick superficial point of view, that France Telecom was cheap. I thought so at 17. And at 14. Even more so at 10. And again at 8. I haven't had a position but have carried the thought nonetheless, and watched with some attention. The reason I've not taken a position is mostly because of my dislike of cratering revenues and earnings forecasts. While the stock has been ahead of the fundamental declines, opportunities have been fleeting, an little has changed to the fundamental scenario, though the stock is, again, in front of fundamentals.  Sumzero now thinks it is cheap too. 7x forecast. Outsized yield. Decelerating deceleration in revenues. Goliath status in local markets. Etc.

But before you back up your deux cheveaux (or park it front-wise since it's a rear-engine relic), it would be wise to consider this. I've been a good customer of Chez Orange for several years. Three analog landlines (inbound, fax, alarm circuit), Unlimited Broadband & Livebox TV, Video-on-demand, along with a digital telephone line (used for outbound), as well as two mobiles numbers with unlimited data, a few hours of talk time, and a heavily discounted foreign forfait. The monthly hit for this was roughly Euro160 plus whatever variable calls to daytime mobiles, foreign mobiles, or restricted regulated countries. My American friends tell me this is a serious bargain. My UK experience, and competitive observations suggested this was the wrong price.

So I ambled down to my local Orange kiosk where, despite the much-discussed low morale of engineers deskilled into clerical roles, I found a friendly salesman willing to tolerate my pidgin-French. I also had my trusty, enthusiastic, and more important, bilingual 10 year-old son. I told the Orange representative: "I think I'm paying too much. Let's negotiate". So we went back and forth. Discussed the various options, plans, and bundles. It turns out, France Telecom is keen to decommission the analog lines. If you can afford them, they ARE more reliable, and useful for fax and alarms, but the incentive to cut them is now simply too great. Mobile competitive pressures are finally being felt too. The result: massive, and I mean MASSIVE reductions.

After much discussion, we agreed: kill the analog lines. Move the permanent analog number to the digital line. Port the alarm to the digital line. Continue with unlimited broadband, Livebox WiFi and VoD, and with this package comes move 1 mobile to the bundle, and add the second mobile to the bundle for Euro 10. Total cost for year one: Euro 56/mo., stepping up to Euro61 when an applied discount rolls off. Wow! From Euro160/mo to Euro 55/mo!! OK, Small cuts to mobile minutes and an unobtrusive throttle on broadband for the mobile phones, and the small inconvenience of no fax line (must scan and e-mail), but these were inconsequential in the scheme of things.

Now, I realize that I am not the typical customer. But the revenue drop is eye-popping, and beyond my wildest imagination. And while one shouldn't extrapolate this throughout their businesses, the impact of similar blended revenue deflation is large and palpable and I am unlikely to be amongst the last customers to make such realizations and take action. France Telecom's debt, by contrast, is relatively fixed. And, for the first time in regards to FTE, firsthand, I witnessed how right the market had been fundamentally,and how little conviction I have that this is "in the price".

The stock IS likely ahead of revenue/earnings declines. And it may bounce. But continued revenue and earnings contraction and disappointments coupled with continued likely paring of the dividend means choppy trading and snuffed rallies before ratings will be view more positively.  That's my FTE anecdote of the day FWIW...

Monday, June 03, 2013

Valued Advice


To:         Bea Wethervane, Senior Consultant, Coxbridge Associates

From:     Hugh G. Shortphall, Florida University & College Teachers Pension Fund (FUCT)

Date:      31st May, 2013

Subject:  Hedge Fund Allocations


I've appreciated your valuable advice to our plan over the years. As you know, the path to changes in orthodox investment policy in a plan such as ours is often long and arduous, particularly when trustees and oversight committees are involved. Witness our struggle to add mortgage derivatives, or expand our equity allocations with a dedicated BRIC component which we finally received approval for, and implemented in 2007. Our campaign to add a GSCI Commodity Index component, as per your recommendation, was not easier, though with your help, we finally gained approval for and deployed it in mid-2008.  Your 2009 advice to implement a dedicated equity tail-risk program - one that we finally allocated to in Sep 2011 - was a big-step forward towards insuring our Board, Trustees (and plan members) could worry less about funding levels in the event of a market crash. 

Over the past few years, you've been tireless supporters of substantially increasing our hedge fund allocations, and, as you know, last year, we recently ramped up these allocations (taking funds from our long equity exposure).  I want to say, we trust your advice implicitly in this regard. However, we on the investment committee have been taking a lot of heat lately on this last decision - both at the tactical and the strategic levels. Not a day goes by without our Board and Trustees reading about overly-generous fee structures, poor manager and strategy performance, and asymmetrical division of the resulting aggregate investment return. As the chief internal supporter, I would be grateful if you could "do the rounds" with the Board and Trustees in order to reconfirm the thesis for this last decision in detail - something that would take the heat off me, and to the greatest extent possible, help you when Coxbridge's consulting contract comes up for renewal. In particular, they keep asking me "where are the scheme members' yachts (or Gulfstream IV's)", quoting figures that over the past decade, in aggregate, managers have pocketed $700 billion in gains whilst fund investors have gained a mere $12 billion net of fees. These concerns need to be addressed, and fears assuaged.

On a more positive note, I am pleased to say that as of the beginning of this year, we've finally completed the implementation of your advice to take replace more of our long-only equity with an allocation to several risk-parity managers. Indeed, as of January, levered bonds and reduced equity appear set to make a meaningful contribution to meeting the Plan's actuarial targets.