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.
We are definitely living through the financial equivalent of the steroids era on Wall Street, with celebrity fund managers jacking up their assets under management and posting (allegedly) too-good-to-be-true returns. But beyond the ego-driven corruption of places like Manhattan and Greenwich, there are hopeful signs that things might be getting better in my industry. Not surprisingly, two of the best examples of this trend come from a place regular readers of this blog know I am quite fond of: Texas.
Two major events took place this past week in the financial world. First, news came out that finance is about to become the largest industry in the S&P 500 again. The last time that happened was May of 2008. We all know how that movie ended. Second, government regulators actually managed to, get this, regulate someone on Wall Street. They indicted the massive $14 billion SAC Capital hedge fund for insider trading “on a scale without known precedent.”
On the surface, these two news items seem unrelated. But, to my mind, they’re intrinsically linked–and not in a good way.
Taken on its own, you might think that an (allegedly) crooked hedge fund getting busted is the signal of better days to come on Wall Street, with more responsible money managers and more robust oversight. But with financial companies making up such a massive portion of our economic growth–without banks, the S&P’s profits would actually be down this quarter–I am not at all optimistic that the SAC indictment will lead to anything like the reform we need. Sure, the widely publicized case might hammer the hedge fund industry, which has already been taking plenty of lumps lately for underperformance. But it’s not going to get at the core problem that led to SAC’s downfall:
Wall Street has been living through its own steroids era. And both the SAC case and the resurgence of Big Finance show that it’s not even close to being over.
It’s been five full years since the financial meltdown of 2008 and it’s still fashionable to bash Wall Street. People who know nothing about finance or investing routinely blame everything from the real estate bust to the financial crisis to our crappy economy and high unemployment on Goldman Sachs and other dominant investment banks. A lot of folks in my business reflexively defend Big Finance against these attacks. But the truth of the matter is, Wall Street hasn’t gotten enough blame for the way it operates, and even though a couple of firms paidfines for their behavior during the housing mania, The Street is still reaping massive profits by screwing its own clients.
Way back when I started managing money in the 1980′s, technology company stocks were revered by institutional and retail investors. The perception was that tech had a much better growth outlook than the overall market. Not surprisingly, tech stocks sold at premium valuations, often twice the price-earnings ratio of the overall market. Back then, and into the 90s, technology companies rarely paid quarterly dividends, and only a handful had stock buyback programs. Investors were content to let them reinvest cash in their businesses. But after the dotcom bubble went supernova, tech valuations crashed and stayed depressed for a long time, even as the strongest survivors of the meltdown grew fantastically and consolidated their holds on their respective sectors.
Despite this trend, I stayed away from big tech stocks like Apple and Cisco and Oracle. After the collapse, I was gun shy, and I’ve historically been suspect of famous stocks with massive market caps. They’re just too heavily covered for comfort. Every analyst and trader from Berlin to Beijing pores over every syllable of every statement they issue. And as the old saying goes, “When the microscopes come out, returns get microscopic.”
But I think it might be time for me to join the herd.