bubbleland

Last week, I took another trip to interview management teams in their corporate headquarters. All told for my career, I’ve met with more than 1500 executives across the US now. This particular trip took me to a number of companies in Dallas and its outlying areas. It was a fast-paced and tiring, but the most exhausting part of it came after I landed back here in the Bay Area.

I only live 22 miles from San Francisco International Airport but it took me an hour and a half to drive home. As I crawled through traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would bother moving here. Sure, it’s beautiful, but it’s hard to enjoy the scenery when you’re sitting in gridlock–especially when you’re paying some of the highest real estate prices in the country, if not the world to do so.

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penney’s (not) from heaven

First, some welcome good news during what has been a gloomy start to autumn: Publishers Weekly gave my forthcoming book Dead Companies Walking its first review–and it was very positive. Here’s an excerpt:

Hedge fund manager Fearon shares his take on why companies fail in this surprisingly entertaining mix of business guide and memoir. Fearon … isn’t shy about revealing some of his financial missteps … But, as he insists, his mistakes—and his observation of others’—have helped him recognize key warning signs of a company about to tank … The final takeaway of this spirited book is that “learning to love failure all over again” can help America recover the adventurous spirit that Fearon believes our economy needs.

The book’s two main messages are that failure is far more common in business and investing than most people want to admit and that even very smart people sometimes make very dumb decisions. As I readily and repeatedly admit in the book, I’m no exception. I’ve made plenty of boneheaded mistakes as an investor and a businessperson. And, apparently, I’m not done making them. This week I goofed big time.

Last Wednesday, I published an article on Seeking Alpha praising the retailer J.C. Penney (ticker: JCP) and discussing why I covered my previous short position and bought a six figure position in the company. Today, at the company’s analyst day, management lowered guidance for same store sales growth for the upcoming 3rd quarter. Its stock promptly cratered. By day’s end, it was down just under 11 percent. Oof. That’s embarrassing–and expensive. Making matters worse, as I wrote last week, another stock in my fund–Trinity Industries–fell sharply after Jim Cramer predicted doom for the company. Add it up and I’m ready for October to be over already.

Bad runs are inevitable in investing. I’ve been through them before. The important thing is how you react to them. So, what am I going to do now? First, I’m going to stop crying. Then I’m going to do some serious thinking, and self-examination.

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a bad day at the office

A lot of investors have been struggling this week with a consistently bad tape, but Wednesday was particularly painful around my neck of the woods. First thing in the morning, CNBC’s Jim Cramer told millions of viewers that a story in the Wall Street Journal was “disastrous” for one of the largest holdings in my fund’s portfolio, Trinity Industries (TRN). The stock instantly melted down and dropped almost 9 percent on the day, erasing months of solid gains. It dropped another 4 percent yesterday.

Ouch.

I respect Jim Cramer a great deal for his knowledge, his energy, and his charitable works. And I pride myself on never “promoting my book” by getting into pointless he said-he said debates about stocks. (When I say, “promoting my book,” I don’t mean my forthcoming book Dead Companies Walkingavailable for pre-order now!–I mean my book, as in my fund’s portfolio.) I’m not a “buy, tell, sell” guy looking to make a buck by convincing other people to copy my trades so that I can sell into a temporary rally. I hold my average investment 12-24 months, and I want my performance to be a function of my intellectual ability, not my skill at promoting myself or my fund. But in this case, I am genuinely confused by Mr. Cramer’s claims about Trinity and other railcar manufacturers.

Far from being disastrous, recent news only bolsters my confidence in the company.

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ali-who?

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.

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majoring in mismanagement

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.

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the bell tolls for dendreon (and nobody listens)

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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pro-growth liberalism

(A quick note on the blog: you can now subscribe to receive new posts by email. If you’d like to do so, just enter your address in the form on the right side of the page and then complete two more simple steps to confirm your subscription. Okay, now back to our regularly scheduled program …)

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.

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our poor, huddled economic engines

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.

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what’s legal is the real crime

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.

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don’t cry for us short sellers, but please save your hatred for someone who deserves it

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.

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