Something extraordinary happened last week: a politician went against the dogma of his own party and proposed something that might actually boost our economy and improve our country’s long-term fiscal health.
Of course, the plan has no chance of getting a vote, let alone passing congress. And even if it did manage to pass, President Obama would veto it before his first morning cigarette. But just because Representative Dave Camp’s tax reform bill is a lost cause doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy one.
Recently, I was subjected to the unpleasant experience of watching the press fawn over a bunch of self-satisfied celebrities who contribute little or nothing to society. No, I’m not talking about the interminable Oscars coverage this past week. I’m talking about the reaction to the Federal Reserve meeting minutes from the 2008 financial crisis, which were released two weeks ago.
In the popular press–even at the reliably liberal New York Times–it has become conventional wisdom that the biggest mistake of that era wasn’t bailing out the most corrupt and incompetent firms on Wall Street with billions of dollars in taxpayer money. The biggest mistake was not making the bailouts big enough.
It’s an election year, and election years bring out so-called wedge issues. This time around, it looks like the big wedge issue will be the minimum wage. Democrats want to push it above $10 an hour. I’m not a fan of government regulation and other burdens on business–like the excessive corporate tax rate–but I do believe Washington has a moral and financial obligation to help entry-level, unskilled, and young workers. Raising the minimum wage helps all three groups. It does something even more important, too:
Once again, I must apologize for the lack of blog updates recently. I’ve been on the road visiting company managements almost continuously for the past several months–first booming Texas, then booming China, then New Jersey and Long Island, then Texas again, and most recently Phoenix. After meeting with dozens of executives all over the country (and out of it, too) in all sorts of different industries–from retail to manufacturing to tech to finance–I was not at all surprised to see this past Friday’s big revision in third quarter GDP.
Almost to a person, corporate managers seem to be quite upbeat these days. So much so that I’m about to say something I didn’t think I would say for a long, long time: believe it or not, real estate is probably a good investment again.
I apologize for my recent lack of posts. I’ve been travelling a lot this past month. I just got back from ten days in China, where I visited with the chief financial officers of eight companies in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Their businesses ranged from solar panel manufacturing to construction to internet retailing. Aside from some minor language barriers, the meetings were all more or less identical to the thousands I’ve participated in here in United States–that is, they were straightforward, rather sleep-inducing discussions of things like cash flows, production capacities, and earnings forecasts. You can talk all you want about free trade and laissez faire government policies. In my opinion, the true indicator of a country’s commitment to a market economy is how professionally boring its corporate CFO’s are. By that metric, China might be even more capitalist than we are by now.
My last trip to China was six years ago, and its economic vitality hasn’t abated at all since then. Construction cranes still fill the horizon in every city, and traffic in Beijing and Shanghai made rush hour in Manhattan look like a Sunday drive. I think every American should go over there at least once to see what true growth looks like–both the good and the bad of it. I’d like to say I worked in some time to see the sights, but that would have been impossible, not just because my schedule was so busy, but because my eyes were burning from all the smog. The only “sight” you see most days is a thick brown haze that hangs over China’s cities like something straight out of a Dickens novel.
Two weeks ago, I had lunch with the legendary Dallas money manager Shad Rowe. Shad recounted an enlightening conversation about global economic trends he’d had with Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of the British ad agency WPP. Sorrell told Shad that he believes the term ‘globalization’ is misleading.
When I’m scouting dead-companies-walking, I look for a number of factors. Businesses fail for all sorts of reasons, after all. But there are almost always two main symptoms of a company in terminal condition: falling revenues and mounting debt. These twin problems feed one another and create a kind of corporate death spiral. As revenues drop, debts rise. Making matters worse, creditors begin to demand higher and higher interest rates to service that debt, which means that repaying it eats up more and more of a company’s shrinking revenues. Pretty soon, that company can’t meet its obligations and its only option is to declare bankruptcy.
I usually find comparisons between government and business strained. But with a government shutdown looming by midnight tonight and the very real possibility that the U.S. Treasury will renege on its credit obligations becoming more likely every day, Washington D.C. is starting to look like the dysfunctional boardroom of a business fast on its way to insolvency.
In 1984, when I was a fresh MBA working at the largest bank in Texas, I was browsing through the now-defunct magazine Investment Decisions and I came across an article titled, “Do Stock Splits Help Stock Prices?” It was written by a man I had never heard of. His name was Warren Buffett.
I generally find the public’s fascination with would-be financial messiahs puzzling, even pathetic. All my life, I’ve watched one market “guru” after another tout some secret formula for beating the street, only to fade into obscurity. But “The Wizard of Omaha” is an exception. He definitely deserves the fame he’s acquired. He’s delivered more helpful investment advice than any other living American. (Vanguard founder John Bogle is a close second in that regard.) Believe it or not, I have kept Buffett’s Investment Decisions article with me for the last 30 years. I’m looking at it right now as I type, and Buffett’s insights are as apt today as they were back in the days of Swatch watches and New Coke.
Last week, I posted an article on Seeking Alpha on the troubled biotech firm Dendreon (DNDN). Eighteen months ago, I shorted over 200,000 shares of the company. As I said in the article, even though the stock has lost its half its value, I haven’t covered a single share, and I doubt I ever will. Why? Because it’s a classic example of what I call a dead-company-walking. In the near future, probably less than two years, I believe it is destined for one fatal outcome: bankruptcy.
This prediction, and the fact that I have sold the stock short, generated a fair amount of negative reactions to the piece. One commenter declared that all short sellers should be “iviscerated” (sic). Yikes! Others respondents were less colorful, but no less angry. They blamed short sellers like me for bringing down what they believe is a good company with a beneficial cancer drug. But blaming shorts like me for Dendreon’s demise shows a fundamental misunderstanding of corporate capital structures and how bankruptcy works.
The talk of the investment world this past week has been the continuing soap opera at JC Penney. The latest installment has been the feud between board member and New York hedge fund manager Bill Ackman and just about everybody else within the company. Ackman, of course, was the one who convinced the board to hire former Apple retail guru Ron Johnson as CEO—a move that cost the company billions after Johnson disastrously tried to make the venerable retailer into some kind of glorified cross between Saks Fifth Avenue and Urban Outfitters.
After the company finally got rid of Johnson in May, Ackman agreed to bring back former CEO Mike Ullman on an interim basis. But that brief period of harmony vanished this week when Ackman publicly aired his displeasure with Ullman’s leadership. That move was the last straw for the board. They accepted Ackman’s resignation, calling his recent behavior “disruptive and counterproductive.”
Too which I say—”disruptive and counterproductive???” I know corporate boards tend to err on the side of decorum and blandness, but calling Bill Ackman “disruptive and counterproductive” to Penney’s is like calling an arsonist “disruptive and counterproductive” to buildings.
I shorted Penney’s seven months ago. It was a dead company walking then and I still believe it is a dead company walking today. And the person that mortally wounded it was the exact person who caused the latest trouble, Mr. Ackman himself. Ackman has been “disruptive and counterproductive” from day one at Penney’s, and even though he’s gone now, he’s left behind the torched shell of a once great company.