In case you missed it, a foreign company nobody had ever heard of until recently staged a gigantic IPO this past week. But lost in all the hype and hoopla was a much more important development here at home: the beginning of the end of the US real estate slump.
New-home sales in the U.S. surged in August to the highest level in more than six years, a sign that the housing recovery is making progress.
Purchases of new houses jumped 18 percent to a 504,000 annualized pace, the strongest since May 2008 and surpassing the highest forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists, Commerce Department figures showed today in Washington. The one-month increase was the biggest since January 1992.
The oldest adage in the investment game is, of course, “Buy low, sell high.” The second-oldest is, “Don’t fight the Fed.” And with the August housing numbers, the Federal Reserve’s monomaniacal six-year campaign to reconstruct the real estate sector from the ashes of the subprime catastrophe is finally starting to show results. At the same time, the stocks of major homebuilders like Pulte, KB Home and DR Horton are all down YTD.
Hear that knocking? That’s a little visitor named opportunity.
I glanced at a recent issue of the Stanford alumni magazine the other day. It featured an interview with former school president Gerhard Casper and an excerpt from his book on “addressing the challenges of higher education.” The piece was underwhelming, to put it mildly. There was the usual pabulum about school rankings, measuring outcomes, and fostering diversity. But there wasn’t a single word about the biggest problem facing higher education today:
It costs too damn much!
Our nation’s universities, public and private, have crushed an entire generation with debt. All told, young adults owe more than a trillion dollars in student loans. That’s a huge drag on our economic growth. And where is all that borrowed money going (besides the Wall Street banks that underwrite many of the loans)? It’s propping up one of the most backwards and wasteful industries in the world: academia.
Astronomers constantly scan the night sky for supernovas so that they can observe and study how stars die. It’s a fascinating process. Right now, a very large corporate supernova has begun and it is just as fascinating–and educational. Unfortunately, I was forced to cover my short position in the dying company because my prime broker now charges me an exorbitant “negative rebate” to short stocks. But I’m still watching from a distance.
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As a registered Republican, I’ve always felt that the private sector does a better job creating jobs than government. But not all right wing policies promote growth. Some limit growth. Two come to mind immediately: the blind opposition to government-funded healthcare and the opposition to raising the minimum wage, or at least allowing it to keep pace with inflation.
This morning, the San Francisco Chronicle has a heartbreaking story about the thousands of immigrant children seeking asylum in our country. It’s been a contentious issue all summer, with angry protestors blocking buses carrying the children to holding centers.
I cringe when I see this kind of hatred directed at kids–and not just because I think it’s immoral for the richest country in the world to turn its back on people seeking a better life. There’s a much more practical, economic reason for my revulsion. Immigration is one of the main reasons, if not the main reason we became the richest country in the world–and continuing to welcome honest, hard working immigrants is the key to us staying that way.
The core problem with America’s immigration system is not that we let too many people in. It’s that we let too few in.
In case you missed it, something unusual happened last week: a dishonest money manager went to prison.
Former hedge fund manager Larry Goldfarb was sentenced to 14 months in prison for pocketing $6 million from side pocket investments and diverting money for his personal use. I write about Goldfarb in my book (available for preorder here!). He was a prominent figure in the Bay Area investment world. To his credit, he gave a lot of money to charity and worthy causes. Unfortunately, a lot of it wasn’t necessarily his to give. He was busted a couple of years ago and promised to repay his investors the money he took from his fund. But Larry couldn’t stop being Larry and now he’s going to federal prison because of it.
According to the federal prosecutor in charge of the case, “instead of paying the agreed upon restitution and disgorgement, Mr. Goldfarb spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on various personal indulgences, including Golden State Warriors season tickets, private air travel, and vacations.”
Mr. Goldfarb is a poster child for many people on Wall Street and in investment management: smart, personable, and shamelessly unethical. He is another example of why Wall Street, far more than corporate America, needs tighter regulation. But the truly disturbing part of Goldfarb’s career might not be the illegal stuff he was prosecuted for–it’s the legal activity one of his former employers practiced right out in the open.
Last week, I wrote a bearish article on Tesla for Seeking Alpha–not the company, the stock. As I said in the piece (and an earlier blog post), I admire Elon Musk and I think Teslas are neat cars. I’ve even considered buying one. But the company’s stock is another story. The logic of paying more than $200 a share for a barely cash positive business with all sorts of very large challenges ahead of it seems, well, stretched to me. And yet, people keep on buying. The article came out Monday morning, West Coast time. By the end of the day, Tesla was up another eight bucks. A few days later, Tesla beat on its Q2 earnings and the stock started pushing against its all time highs again. Correction? What correction?
Even though I clearly stated in my piece that I have no positions in the company, long or short, and no plans to initiate any positions in the future, several commenters accused me of secretly shorting Tesla and trying to drag its share price down. Unfortunately, this sort of vitriol is common. Short sellers are about as popular as personal injury lawyers and IRS agents these days. In the eyes of most investors, we’re little more than greedy vultures looking to smear good companies so we can profit on their fall. This simplistic, black hat-versus-white hat understanding of the financial world might be comforting, but it’s a dangerous fantasy.
In reality, the people waving the white hats and whipping this bull market higher are the ones investors should really be fearing–or at least questioning.
Last week, the Treasury Department announced that America’s budget deficit for the fiscal year ending September 30 will be roughly $500 billion, the smallest it’s been since 2008. This was hailed as good news in most quarters.
Considering that we’ve been running deficits closer to (or over) $1 trillion for the last five years, I suppose it is good news, relatively speaking. But I can’t buy into the optimism. For me, the fact that prominent people are praising our government for only spending $500 billion more than it is takes in is depressing–and scary. It’s a clear symptom of how warped our thinking on the issue has become.
(Update: I guess I wasn’t done talking about Tesla. I just wrote a longer piece about the company for Seeking Alpha. You can find it here.)
If Warren Buffett is right (and he usually is) that the stock market is a short term popularity contest and a long term weighing machine, you could easily argue that the most popular stock on Wall Street over the last eighteen months has been Tesla (TSLA). Elon Musk’s battery-powered car manufacturer is barely cash flow positive, but bullish investors have lifted it to a market cap of over $25 billion. That’s more than a third of the value of a little mom and pop outfit called Ford Motors.
But this past week hasn’t been kind to Tesla. First, a report from the website The Street called the Audi A8 Diesel a “Tesla Killer.” Besides bashing Tesla’s limited range and likening its interior comfort to a “Burger King” compared to the Audi’s “Buckingham Palace,” the piece also showed that, due to battery depreciation and electricity costs, the Audi is cheaper to own and operate. Then, yesterday, another Tesla caught fire. Of course, your average Honda or Chevy is liable to go up in flames if you plow it into a light pole at 100 MPH, as the driver of the Tesla did in this case. But reports from the scene said the Tesla’s batteries were “popping like fireworks” in the middle of the street. For a car with a well-publicized history of mysterious fires, that’s the last kind of press Musk wants.
Personally, I like Teslas. I think they’re neat looking. I’ve even considered buying one, and I wish Musk the best in his attempts to revolutionize the auto industry. But I am a little weary of the hype surrounding the cars. Sure, they don’t burn gasoline, but they do suck up electricity–and in a lot of places in the United States and abroad, that’s about the dirtiest way you can power a car.
Last week, I finally got around to reading The Hedge Fund Mirage. It was published in 2012, so I’m only two years behind, and the book’s main message is just as valid today as it was when it was written. Namely, the average hedge fund is the last place you should even think about putting your money. The very first sentence of the book makes this point quite persuasively:
“If all the money that’s ever been invested in hedge funds had been put in treasury bills instead, the results would have been twice as good.”
Ouch. The book’s author, Simon Lack, goes on to explain this sorry record by proving and reproving an obvious yet little-acknowledged law of money management. I discuss it in my book, as well (available now for pre-order!): asset size is the enemy of return. Hedge funds produce much better investment results when they manage a relatively small amount of money, but those returns shrink toward mediocrity (or worse) as a fund’s assets increase.
Put simply: the more capital you’ve got under management, the poorer your investors are probably going to be.