wall street gives biased advice. in other news, the sky is blue, water is wet

Last week it was widely reported that regulators slapped a $43.5 million fine on multiple investment banks for passing off overly positive research analysis on the now private retailer Toys R Us.  They did this hoping to curry favor with the current owners of Toys so that the company might pick those Wall Street firms as bookrunners for a possible Toys initial public offering.

I was shocked to hear this. Not shocked because news broke that some purportedly objective research from Wall Street turned out to be bogus, but because that is news at all. By now, I figured everyone–and I mean everyone–knew that recommendations from Wall Street always have been and always will be skewed at best and flat-out misleading at worst.

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apple and the depressing new dotcom mania: cynicism

I’ve been visiting companies in Silicon Valley for more than a quarter century. In that time, I’ve met with hundreds of entrepreneurs, executives and management teams there. To a person, they’ve all been bright and ambitious. The Valley has earned its reputation as a hotbed of creativity, innovation, and economic vitality. But let’s be frank, it’s also earned its reputation for building just as many manias and pipe dreams as viable products and services–and I think the time has come to rain on the region’s latest parade of groupthink, self-congratulation and irrational exuberance.

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bad connection

[Note: this post originally appeared on the CFA Institute’s Enterprising Investor blog.]

Recently, Barron’s ran a short item on New York City’s plan to convert more than 6,000 remaining pay phones in the city into “digital kiosks” that emit Wi-Fi signals and contain charging stations for mobile devices. I’m sure most readers had a similar reaction to mine: “Wow, there are still 6,000 pay phones left in New York City?!” But that’s not what made the article interesting — and potentially valuable to novice and professional investors alike.

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oil is down. so what?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or on a commune somewhere, you know the big news in the markets over the past few weeks has been the plummeting price of oil. With domestic production at record levels thanks to the fracking revolution and OPEC stubbornly refusing to cut production, oil is getting cheaper and cheaper. Investors have predictably responded by selling off energy company stocks in a big way. That makes sense. Lower prices mean lower profits and, especially for smaller producers, possible bankruptcy.

But there are two related stories to the drop in oil that don’t make sense, in my opinion–and they could signal potential opportunities on the long and short side.

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dendreon goes down

The two ways to go bankrupt, as Ernest Hemmingway famously wrote, are gradually and then suddenly. The “gradually” phase of the process can take a good long while, sometimes years, but once a business starts to exhibit the two biggest symptoms of impending disaster–falling revenues and mounting debt–the “suddenly” part is all but inevitable. It came for the troubled biotech company Dendreon (ticker: DNDN) on Monday when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The move should have surprised exactly no one, and not just because I predicted it well over a year ago now on Seeking Alpha. Back in September, the company’s own management warned that it was probably going to wipe out its shareholders. But that didn’t stop credulous investors from buying Dendreon’s stock–incredibly, it didn’t dip below a dollar until earlier this month–or dubious stock boosters from feeding their hopes for a miraculous turnaround. Take a look at the headline on a Zack’s.com posting: “Why Earnings Season Could be Great for Dendreon.” The article, which gives DNDN a buy rating, is dated November 10, 2014–the exact same day the company announced that it had filed for bankruptcy.

Oops.

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a tale of two stocks

Wednesday was a big day for my fund. Earnings season is upon us and two of our largest longs reported quarterly results. I expected both companies to smash analysts’ estimates. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. You’d think I’d be celebrating big gains in both stocks, but unfortunately, you’d only be half right.

Too bad this isn’t baseball. Batting .500 will get you into the Hall of Fame in that sport. In my game, though, it generally won’t get you too far.

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stay calm and go bargain hunting

The sky has been falling an awful lot lately. Every couple of days, something spooks investors into short-lived selloffs. First, everybody freaked out about Ebola. This week, the shooting in Canada’s capital tanked the Dow by two percent.

I can’t count how many temporary, news-driven declines like these I’ve lived through in my career. But I don’t know if I’ve ever witnessed such widespread “Headline Risk.” There are so many Chicken Littles out there with fingers poised nervously over panic buttons, I’m starting to think a better name for the phenomenon might be “Headline Opportunity.”

I rarely do anything when the markets veer over one percent in either direction in a single session. Most of the time, I wait to see if the movement carries over to the next day or the next week. But if I was inclined to act, I’d be a buyer during these downswings.

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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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