Ever since oil cratered to $26/barrel on February 11th, prices have steadily inched higher. West Texas Intermediate has now climbed into the $40/barrel range. Not surprisingly, energy stocks have kept pace, with many service companies and independent producers hitting year-to-date highs. Unfortunately for some energy firms, however, this recovery will probably be too little, too late.
My last post generated a fair amount of negative feedback on my Yahoo Finance page and on Twitter. There’s nothing quite like waking up in the morning and being called an idiot (and worse) by all sorts of strangers on the internet. I understand that people have strong feelings about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but I have to say, the vitriol of the comments took me by surprise.
Setting aside whether it was fair (or legal) for the government to change the bailout terms for Fannie and Freddie, my main point in writing about the two giant GSEs seemed rather straightforward: the low-priced stocks and preferred shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are extremely risky investments. If Washington formally nationalizes these companies (or does so informally, as it seems to be doing right now), there is a good chance that their stocks will go to zero. Sure, the big hedge funds and their armadas of lawyers might prevail in court and win the return of the companies’ dividends to shareholders. But even if that happens, it will probably take years. As I wrote in the last line of the post, “There are easier ways to make money.”
The broader lesson of the GSEs for both retail and professional investors can be stated in four words:
DON’T BUY JUNK STOCKS.
After last year’s better-than-expected holiday season, I cautioned investors not to get too hopeful about the seemingly endless supply of retailers looking to rebound. With local stores starting to put up Christmas lights again, it seems like a good time to revisit that advice and check back on the sector. How has retail fared in 2015?
Pretty much the same as 2014, 2013, 2012, and just about every year for the last decade. That is to say: quite poorly.
Uber-mania just keeps growing. Last week, we learned its valuation has risen to an unbelievable $50 billion.
I know I sound like a voice in the wilderness but FIFTY BILLION!? Seriously? That is absolutely insane. Hell, it was insane $40 billion dollars ago. I don’t even know what to call it now. Uber will never, and I mean never justify that number.
As the manager of my hedge fund, I’ve traveled around the country and met with thousands of CEOs, CFOs and other top executives in their corporate offices. Name any business complex or office park west of the Mississippi and there’s a good chance I’ve been there at some point over the last 30 years. Often, if I’m invested in a company or I’m particularly intrigued by its business, I’ll stop through to speak with its managers multiple times.
Most of these interviews are cordial but brief and to the point. Some, however, have been a little wacky. I list my top 5 most outrageous company visits in my latest piece for CNBC.com. Click here if you’d like to read it.
All five visits are also featured in Dead Companies Walking, but one of the weirdest business trips I’ve ever taken didn’t make it into the book or the CNBC article, so I figured I’d offer it here as an outtake.
I’m kicking myself for not following my instincts and shorting Yelp (YELP) before it announced utterly rancid earnings last Thursday. For years, the only thing that has mystified me more than Yelp’s business model has been its enduring popularity with Wall Street. As I type, I’m looking at a pile of recent analyst reports with absurd price targets for the company. I like to save these kinds of laughably optimistic reports. It’s a hobby of mine. I’ve still got a glowing buy recommendation for Enron dated only days before the energy behemoth imploded.
For all my doubts about Yelp and other social media stocks, there’s a good reason I have not shorted any of them up to now. It’s just too risky to bet against companies in the midst of a secular mania–and make no mistake, that is exactly what has lifted Yelp, Twitter, LinkedIn and their ilk to stupidly large valuations that they will almost certainly never live up to.
(note: this post originally appeared last Thursday on my Yahoo! Finance contributor page.)
Last week, a longstanding short in my fund released one of the grimmest quarterly reports I’ve seen in three decades of managing money. The company’s most important sales metric dropped at a double-digit rate, meaning its near-term revenues are going to be abysmal (after all, today’s sales are tomorrow’s revenues). Its long-term outlook isn’t great either because its most profitable product is fast becoming obsolete. Meanwhile, sales rates for new, less profitable products are modest and the business is hobbled by more than $2 billion in debt, all of which is coming due in less than two years. On the plus side, the company still generates a fair amount of cash, almost $400 million last year. Too bad interest payments to service its monstrous debt load were almost as large.
Declining sales, a sunsetting business model and crushing debt. If that isn’t a recipe for bankruptcy, I don’t know what is. Oh yeah, did I mention that this same company has already filed for Chapter 11 protection twice in the last decade?
I’d love to tell you the name of this business. Hell, I just wrote a book called Dead Companies Walking and this is probably the best example of a company heading for oblivion in the market today. But naming it would almost certainly wind up costing me and my investors a ton of money.
My apologies for the lack of blogging lately. Once again, my busy schedule has prevented me from sharing my observations. I did write an article for CNBC.com last week on the trouble with Apple’s recent rally and why I would buy Exxon over the iPhone maker if I had to choose between the two stocks. In case you missed it, you can find it here.
I am going to try to write more in the coming weeks. I have also been invited to become a contributor for Yahoo Finance, so please stay tuned for details on that and other news.
Thanks again to everyone who has bought the book and to everyone who has written to me about it or posted comments here and elsewhere. I am especially grateful to those who have taken the time to write positive reviews on sites like Amazon and Good Reads. Thank you!
First off, I’d like to thank Chuck Jaffe for a great chat about Dead Companies Walking on his MoneyLife podcast. I enjoyed it. You can listen to our conversation below (or, if you are reading this on email, you can download MoneyLife’s January 28, 2015 podcast on iTunes or by clicking here):
Now, back to blogging. I think I’ll write on a fun and uncontroversial topic that everyone can agree on. How about … American foreign policy in the Middle East?
My week in New York finished out nicely with an appearance this morning on Opening Bell with Maria Bartiromo. We had a great conversation about performance in the hedge fund community, the state of the economy and the markets, and–of course–my book Dead Companies Walking.
Thank you again to everyone I met with this week and to everyone who has bought and read the book.