Wall Street has always been captivated by controversial companies, controversial leaders, and controversial mergers. Tesla’s shocking offer to buy SolarCity on Tuesday featured all three, so it was no surprise that the deal instantly seemed like a bigger story than the presidential race, gun control, ISIS, and Brexit. It even managed to make the last controversial company that dominated headlines, Valeant Pharma, seem like an afterthought.
A few people have written in asking my opinion of the deal. The short answer is, I believe investors are well advised to avoid both stocks like the plague. As separate entities, these companies are wildly overvalued story stocks with a good chance of going broke. Together, they will form one wildly overvalued story stock with a good chance of going broke.
On the plane ride back from the Booth Investment Management Conference in Chicago on Sunday, I read the great new book by veteran financial journalist Bethany McLean, Shaky Ground: The Strange Saga of the US Mortgage Giants. The book tells the story of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two massive GSEs (government sponsored enterprises) that buy, package, and sell pools of mortgage loans. It’s a fascinating, if distressing history. Unfortunately, because our government failed to do away with Fannie and Freddie during the 2008 financial crisis, that history is still unfolding.
I have to admit, I’m looking forward to the Republican debate on Wednesday. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump’s candor is entertaining. It’s somewhat fun to watch him dismiss his political opponents (including the sitting president) as “losers” and “lightweights,” and his critiques of my industry—which he refers to as “those hedge fund guys”—are mostly spot on. Too many big fund managers really are little more than under-taxed, economically destructive financial engineers. Trump’s strident anti-immigrant rhetoric is far more troubling, but it’s not hard to see why it appeals to voters who feel left behind by globalization and the increasingly polyglot composition of America’s electorate.
Most economic studies show that immigration, legal and illegal, is a net contributor, not a cost, to economic growth. Three decades ago, the legendary University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman noted that the majority of illegal immigrants work, pay income and payroll taxes, but rarely receive government benefits like Social Security and Medicare. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has frequently been on the receiving end of government largesse. Despite his professed belief in free markets, he is the prototypical crony capitalist. Without all sorts of tax breaks, debt forgiveness, and giveaways, he would be far less rich.
I do not short debt. But, on paper at least, shorting the sovereign debt of poorly managed European nations not named Greece sure seems like a great investment right about now. Aside from the negligible cost of the coupon, the downside to shorting the bonds of places like Portugal, Spain, and Italy seems to be almost nil. We’re talking about heavily indebted countries with aging populations and staggering unemployment, and yet, thanks largely to QE measures, their bond yields are shockingly low. This is clearly an unsustainable situation. QE will have to end eventually and if EU leaders finally develop a backbone, yields might return to double-digit levels more quickly.
Geez. I’m almost talking myself into this idea. Then again, it’s impossible to predict when (or if) the global pandemic of bailout fever will finally end.
Another week has brought yet another much-publicized call for the Federal Reserve to delay raising interest rates. Yesterday, the International Monetary Fund opined that the Fed should hold off on a rate hike until 2016.
Two important and closely connected events took place in the world of finance since my last post. First, former Fed chair Ben Bernanke announced that he was taking a job as an “advisor” at the massive hedge fund Citadel Group. Then the stock of Goldman Sachs hit $200 for the first time since January of 2008. You might not think these things are related, but to me, they’re inextricably linked–and extremely dispiriting.
More than half a century ago, President Eisenhower warned the nation about the burgeoning Military-Industrial Complex. That monstrous public-private hybrid now sucks up more than half of all discretionary spending. But these recent events prove that the Wall Street-Washington Complex might be even more dangerous.
[note: this post originally appeared on my Yahoo! Finance contributor page]
For the past few weeks, Wall Street pundits and prognosticators have been loudly citing every hint of bad economic news as a reason the Fed shouldn’t follow through with its pledge to boost interest rates. “Corporate earnings are down!” they’ve shouted. “Job growth is decelerating! Inflation dropped to zero again! We can’t raise rates in this environment!”
It’s time to stop listening to these market Cassandras. We not only should raise rates, we must raise rates.
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.
Yesterday the Commerce Department reported that the US economy shrank one percent in 2014’s first quarter, surprisingly worse than its initial estimate in late April of .1 percent growth. Most people blame the brutal “polar vortex” winter weather for this decline. All morning, the talking heads on CNBC have been excitedly predicting that, with the weather improving, second quarter growth will rebound to two or even possibly three to four percent. The recovery, they say, is accelerating. To which I would reply: you call this a recovery?
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.