Monday, January 31, 2011

Normalizing Container Shippers

Last year brought plenty of newbuild orders for big hulls from big shippers.  Those newbuilds are now tapering off, with orders expected to return to normal levels.  This is a sign of sanity for the shipping industry given that many of its players are loaded to the gills with debt.  Newbuilds orders need to stay at levels that can replace obsolete ships. 

One shipbuilding sector that will probably not be able to maintain even a status quo level of production is the defense sector.  Northrop Grumman's shipbuilding spinoff is encountering rough waters before it even leaves its corporate drydock.  Credit rating agencies are giving NG Shipbuilding a massive thumbs down.  This is an appropriate signal anticipating a peak in defense spending for capital ships. 

Full disclosure:  No position in NOC.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Thumbnail Sketch Of The Egyptian Crisis

Several things are worth noting about the unfolding Egyptian political crisis.

The possibility that political instability will force closure of the Suez Canal is real but remote at present.  Whatever successor regime may follow the current one has little incentive to turn off Suez transit unless it wishes to invite international intervention.  Read history for details on the last Suez crisis.

Certain classes of supertankers are too large to fit through the Suez Canal anyway, so shippers owning VLCC ships and larger will be largely unaffected by a potential closure.  Suezmax and smaller ships will face rerouting from Asia to Europe.  Look for smaller carriers to start scrambling to line up hedges against higher rates from suddenly longer routes. 

The Egyptian business elite has probably already moved significant capital out of the country.  Remaining direct investment of note is thus probably held by foreign investors.  Egypt's own fiscal situation will grow progressively more perilous the longer this crisis lasts.  The Egyptian stock market is down and credit default swaps on its sovereign debt are up.  That is a recipe for capital flight.  A successor regime may impose capital controls to prevent such flight if the country's foreign reserves are depleted.  Companies with significant Egyptian exposure (like Apache Corp., with 30% of its production from Egypt) should probably start hedging against the potential for nationalization of their assets. 

Full disclosure:  No positions in Egyptian equities, bonds, or other instruments at this time.  No position in APA. 

The Limerick of Finance for 01/30/11

Egypt gives the markets a scare
More chaos will spread over there
If ship lanes are gone
Here comes a black swan
A sign for investors: beware

Friday, January 28, 2011

Cocoa Shortage Will Prove Sweet News For Top Makers

Resource investors worry about Peak Oil and Peak Gold.  Now they can start worrying about Peak Chocolate.  Certified fair-trade cocoa growers are abandoning the business:

Political unrest in the Ivory Coast, where 40 per cent of the world’s cocoa beans are grown, has ‘significantly’ depleted the number of certified fair trade cocoa farmers.

Cocoa beans, unlike minerals or hydrocarbon deposits, are a renewable resource but the ideal conditions for their growth are limited.  Like the best wine-growing regions, cocoa harvesting is a special source of supply subject to localized disruptions. 

Reduced availability of cocoa means smaller producers will face margin pressure before large producers.  Companies with global supply chains - like Nestle (NSRGY.PK) and Hershey (HSY) - can rapidly adjust their sourcing.  Furthermore, their brand strength gives them pricing power as demand for their well-known candy bars is probably price inelastic.  A Hershey chocolate bar is a known entity far more likely to retain its consumer appeal than a boutique fair-trade bar.  Hershey doesn't disclose its suppliers but has a supply base in the hundreds, diverse enough to weather disruptions.  That gives it flexibility that your favorite overpriced fair-trade certified organic candy maker does not have. 

Rising prices for commodities are already compressing margins for producers in every sector.  Now chocolate makers will experience the same pressure.  Those with the most flexible supply chains will be left standing when the dust settles.  High-minded fair-trade protest campaigns won't hurt larger producers if fair-trade growers aren't in business anymore due to political instability.  The surge of boutique fair-trade chocolate makers in the last decade has likely run its course. 

Full disclosure:  No positions in NSRGY.PK or HSY. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Japan's Credit Downgraded, U.S. Next In Line

TV character Gomer Pyle used to say "Surprise, surprise, surprise!" whenever something obvious caught everyone else off guard.  Some things are so obvious that no one should be surprised when they happen.  Credit downgrades for the world's largest and supposedly healthiest economies have been discussed as potential events that were far removed from the here and now.  Such a downgrade is no longer theoretical.  It is now a reality for Japan:

Japan’s credit rating was cut for the first time in nine years by Standard & Poor’s as persistent deflation and political gridlock undermine efforts to reduce a 943 trillion yen ($11 trillion) debt burden.

Downgrades will also soon be reality for the U.S.  The Congressional Budget Office forecasts that the U.S. federal budget deficit will approach $1.5T in 2011.  The deficit cannot grow indefinitely.  A credit downgrade will force Treasury yields up and make borrowing harder.  When the Fed's endless QE packages start to turn off foreign bond investors, corporate debt issuers will have to raise the coupons on their new debt issues to keep investors interested.  We saw this start to occur during the 2008 credit crisis and it ultimately led to private credit markets going into cardiac arrest as available credit dried up.  That panic required a massive government backstop in September 2008 that can no longer be replicated without the Fed expanding its balance sheet to infinity.  Even a hint of approaching that event horizon will launch a global run on the U.S. dollar and hyperinflation in America. 

Note that Japan is much farther along the path to credit deterioration than the U.S. and the yen is not the world's reserve currency.  The U.S.'s window of opportunity to cut its deficit and avoid a sovereign credit downgrade is open for an unknown duration.  It will slam shut when non-U.S. bond buyers or corporate credit issuers throw in the towel on the dollar.  When that window slams, a lot of people will find their financial fingers are broken.  Don't be surprised. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Financial Crises Past And Yet To Come

Americans need to steepen their learning curves.  We should have seen the last crisis coming:

The commission that investigated the crisis casts a wide net of blame, faulting two administrations, the Federal Reserve and other regulators for permitting a calamitous concoction: shoddy mortgage lending, the excessive packaging and sale of loans to investors and risky bets on securities backed by the loans.

Drivers were asleep at the wheel.  Our international critics are no more lenient, even at those institutions founded and controlled by the U.S.  The IMF gives us further warnings:

“An overhaul is needed of the U.S. housing finance system,” including the government-controlled mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the IMF said. “The authorities should not delay efforts to create an action plan for the future.”

It normally only gives such warnings to emerging economies.  Such an assessment does not surprise given the lack of results from a populist approach to fixing mortgages:

The U.S. government may turn a profit on its most controversial bailout programs but ordinary Americans, particularly struggling homeowners, are still not benefiting, a bailout watchdog said on Tuesday.

The real solutions require home foreclosures, bank insolvencies, balance sheet wipeouts, executive terminations, and reduced consumption.  We have avoided much of this so far.  That is why we will not avoid the next phase of the financial crisis. 

Shippers In Bankruptcy, Coming Soon

Here's the first of more to come.  A Korean shipper is headed down the tubes:

Korea Line filed for a court receivership on Tuesday in the wake of losses caused by the global oversupply of bulk vessels and low freight rates.

Low rates are bedeviling big shippers right now.  Any major shippers that put in orders for newbuild hulls last year are going to suffer from buyers' remorse for a long time.  Here's a thought.  Instead of counting on a revived consumer economy to boost bulk or container traffic, shippers should reorient to building LNG ships.  Energy demand rises even in global recessions thanks to the emerging consumers of the BRICs.  This big Indonesian LNG project is a great example of what the future holds for shippers with the right assets. 

I've stayed away from shipping stocks because their attractive earnings and P/E ratios can't make up for their huge debt loads.  Stocks like FRO and SFL will have better days once shipping rates recover.  Until then, it's a waiting game to see how many more bankruptcies will reshape this very important global industry.

Full disclosure:  No positions in FRO or SFL.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tuesday Newsreel for 01/25/11

Headlines are magical things.  They lead to discovery of the world's wonders. 

Societe Generale doesn't want to be on the systemically important TBTF list.  The extra capital requirements would crimp their profitability.  Being on such a list would earn a bank closer scrutiny from credit analysts, probably hurting its credit rating and increasing its cost of capital.  A better solution is to let TBTF firms fail.  I'll bet SocGen wouldn't like that either.  What on earth are they worried about?

NYSE Euronext is bringing liquidity and transparency to the bond market.  Nice work by NYX.  Now the bond market will look more like the stock market, with bid-ask spreads on central exchanges.  The Bond Liquidity Providers program looks like a market-maker type arrangement similar to specialist firms on the NYSE equity floor.  I'll guess that the first firms to sign up will be the Fed's primary dealers.

Economists see growth everywhere; I see inflation.  Whatever aggregate revenue they're tracking is driven by rising prices, not demand for more goods.  Consider that distressed home sales are rising.  That shows how easy it is for desperation to be misinterpreted as growth just because it looks like frenetic "activity."

Class I railroads are minting money.  UNP had its best year ever.  CNI grew its operating income faster than its gross revenue.  CSX's profit gain was double its revenue gain, which in turn rose faster than its expenses.  Wow.  Rail is one hot sector.  I should have bought those stocks when Warren Buffett bought Burlington Northern.  Rail looks especially attractive now that steadily rising diesel prices make trucking look uneconomical by comparison. 

Announcements of the death of the "new normal" are premature.  Nationwide employment still isn't recovering.  Home values are still falling.  The U.S. economy is looking more like a stagflationary neverland every day. 

Full disclosure:  No positions in Societe Generale, NYX, UNP, CNI, or CSX. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Chinese Tiger Mothers Needed In America

Count on somebody in America to get offended at the mention of standards and accountability.  Amy Chua's Battle Hymm of the Tiger Mother has stirred up a firestorm of criticism from overly sensitive American parents who can't handle the truth.  It's sad that our country has devolved to the point where it can no longer celebrate excellence. 

Ms. Chua raised her kids to be winners in lfe.  Her story is a how-to manual for parents who want to help their kids succeed.  The connection between her process and the result is obvious.  Setting high expectations for her kids and going the extra mile to help them meet those expectations became self-fulfilling prophecies.  Her kids' phenomenal accomplishments put many parents to shame.  Her critics, who are unfortunately numerous, buy into morally-neutral philosophies that imply medocrity is okay.  Such people make me depressed about America's future.  Blind people can't follow road maps. 

Tiger mothers know that old fashioned concepts like discipline, achievement, focus, standards, delayed gratification, and self-mastery never go out of style.  American educators and psychologists have forgotten that these traits, inculcated into American pioneers on the frontier and immigrants on the factory floor, made us into a world power.  A fetish for self-esteem has turned America into Bailout Nation.  Tiger mothers don't ask for bailouts. 

America needs a tiger mom of its own to smack it out of its anti-achievement funk.  I propose that the Administration appoint Ms. Chua as its Tiger Mom Czar to force an overhaul of Americans' parenting styles.  She can start by abolishing student loans so that kids who want to go to college have to earn merit-based scholarships (as I did for both undergraduate and graduate school) or delay education until they've saved for it on their own.  The absence of such a solution leaves the door open for China's own tiger moms to show their children how to replace us as the world's indispensable nation. 

Full disclosure:  Long FXI with covered calls.  Will go long SPY when America has a critical mass of tiger moms. 

Updating The Alpha-D For Jan. 2011

Here's what's new and no to new with my portfolio.

My puts under GDX were exercised when they fell below 58 . . . and boy oh boy did they keep falling.  I'm now the proud owner of a few more shares of GDX.  This is okay by me.  I expect gold to continue to do well as the Fed's loose monetary policy drives investors to trade less-useful dollars for more-useful hard assets.  Gold stocks have slumped lately as renewed worries about European debt make the U.S. dollar look temporarily more attractive.

Anyway, I continue to write covered calls on my GDX holdings.  I also continue to write covered calls on TDW and FXI.  I'm not writing any puts underneath those this month as I'd prefer to have liquidity available for other purchases. 

My long puts against LMT and IYR expired worthless.  My hedges against declines in defense spending and the housing market were probably too early.  The next year or two may be different.  It's always hard to call a top in the middle of bubbles, but that doesn't make those two markets any less dangerous for buyers right now. 

I've been long ATHR with covered calls and short puts this month as a play on its pending acquisition by QCOM.  I still think that deal will be completed as proposed with little to no chance of delay, but I could of course be wrong.  I expect a small gain from ATHR and decent gains from its options when they expire upon completion of this deal. 

I still want to buy KEX and FLIR but not at their currently inflated prices. 

Finally, I bought myself another California state muni bond maturing in June 2011.  The premium I paid will net out my capital gains; the coupon I'll get is tax-free cash flow. 

Full disclosure:  No positions in QCOM, KEX,or FLIR.  All other positions as described. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Limerick of Finance for 01/23/11

To value ore still in the ground
Don't count stuff that hasn't been found
What geology shows
Is likely all that goes
Let explorers keep looking around

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Helping Out The Competitiveness Agenda

I'm all in favor of efforts to strengthen America's competitiveness.  Plans are in the works to move the country in the right direction:

Under pressure to energize the economy, President Barack Obama will put job creation and American competitiveness at the center of his State of the Union address, promoting spending on education and research while pledging to trim the nation's soaring debt.

Our leaders have no shortage of advisors.  The risk is that workable plans get lost in a cacophony of conflicting advice.  Spending more on education is wasted if it only encourages college students to take on more debt for degrees they will never use.  A superior solution is to reduce spending on frivolous programs in the humanities and social sciences, leaving money available for the hard sciences.  American competitiveness will be greatly hurt if we can't replace engineers and geologists, but our country will be none the poorer for closing hundreds of collegiate English departments. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

San Francisco Blockbuster Pension Bonus

Leaving pension decisions to voters may not be any wiser than leaving them to fiduciaries.  San Francisco voters agreed in 2008 to tie increased pension contributions from new hires to an increased payout for current retirees, provided the pension fund performed well.  The fund rocketed higher thanks to the bailouts and stimulus spending that have inflated asset values of late.  The new problem is that SF's pension plan is now massively underfunded in regards to future liabilities:

As San Francisco struggles under ballooning pension and health care costs, the city’s retirees will receive unexpected cost-of-living bonuses totaling $170 million. The city’s anticipated budget deficit for the coming year is $360 million.

Current retirees can thank new hires for this one-time intergenerational transfer of wealth.  Think of it as a reverse inheritance not based on familial ties. 

My fellow residents of The City and I will be paying more in sales taxes to receive fewer municipal services thanks to this budget blowout.  This is the kind of dilemma that has set the stage for municipal bankruptcy warnings, and San Francisco is not immune from the same troubles that sent the city of Vallejo into financial trouble.  Persistent deficit spending and unfunded pension liabilities destroy the status of muni bonds as safe havens for wealth preservation. 

The solution to unintended consequences like this is to take pension formulas out of the ballot box and defined benefit structures out of pension plans.  Investment managers may not be able to predict market returns, but they should be able to match liabilities to returns if they are not hamstrung by arbitrary payout requirements.  If their fund performance can't support a given payout level, then the payout will not occur and retirees will have to live with what their accumulated account can support.  That's what private sector 401(k) investors have to do.  Public sector employees should get the same deal. 

Full disclosure:  I do not own San Francisco municipal bonds. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Haiku of Finance for 01/20/11

China-U.S. ties
Creditor strength on display
Giant growing pains

Organized Crime Permeates Longshoremen

Union members need to pay especially close attention to this news.  The leaders you trust to run your union may be trying to rip you off and sell you down the river.  That is the lesson of the federal government's crackdown on Mafia influence in the International Longshoremen's Association:

Several current and former International Longshoremen's Association officials were among 18 waterfront figures charged as part of a federal crackdown that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder labeled "one of the largest single-day operations against the Mafia in the FBI's history."

I guess some union leaders are too busy shaking down their members for money and running illegal gambling parlors to fulfill their responsibilities.  I won't be taking bets (no pun intended) on how long it will take to nail down corruption in other unions but this is a great start.  I will give the ILA credit for trying to police up its own ranks by removing a questionable leader from his post, but the corruption vexing the union is so deep and longstanding that they were probably overwhelmed and needed help from law enforcement. 

Union corruption probably amounts to a hefty hidden tax on commerce.  It should go without saying that an organized crime presence in America's major ports is a national security threat. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Workers Immobilized By Mortgages, Not Skills

Workers have a hard time finding jobs due to structural resets in the economy, but lack of skills is not part of the equation this time:

Some observers lately have blamed the problem on structural factors -- there's a mismatch, they say, between the types of jobs available in a given location, and the types of skills that workers have. That's a problem that only long-term retraining efforts can likely fix.

The article starts to hint at the correct diagnosis, but then drops it to jump on a pro-union bandwagon.  That's a disingenuous revelation of bias, made all the more evident by later references to pro-union policies in other countries.  The problem in America is locational mismatches between available jobs and available skills, not lack of union bargaining power.

American workers are among the most highly skilled in the world.  Labor mobility makes our workforce flexible, but that's hindered when workers are tied to heavily-mortgaged homes that they can't leave without suffering major losses.  The subprime lending debacle is still hurting workers' chances to move to where they can fill appropriate jobs.  That is not something that labor unions can fix through collective bargaining or more legal rights. 

The solution is to let foreclosures run their course.  Workers who no longer have an economic incentive to stay in a distressed neighborhood can move to find new work. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Longshoremen Win While Carriers Lose

Union labor has dealt another blow to common sense and good business.  The International Longshoremen's Association has extorted ocean container carriers into shutting out competitive bids for chassis maintenance.  In layman's terms, this means that those container chassis you see hitched to trucks on the highways will cost a lot more to maintain.

Those chassis enable TEU containers to travel directly from ports to logistics distribution centers, saving time and money for importers who rely on streams of bulk deliveries.  Upkeep on those chassis extends their useful lives and increases their salvage value.  Since these chassis are standardized to the point that they are commodified, it makes sense for owners of the commodity pool (i.e., shippers like Maersk who contribute assets to Direct ChassisLink) to find the lowest bidder for maintenance contracts.  Now shippers must restrict themselves to union shops for chassis maintenance thanks to the ILA's totally irresponsible threat of work slowdowns by way of excessively thorough container inspections

I am dismayed that shippers who aren't even signatories to the ILA's regional agreement are going along with this nonsense.  They should have applied some game theory and tested the probability of a slowdown and its resolution through arbitration.  I would have called the ILA's bluff and then taken them to court.  Citing the "national security" implications of forced work stoppages at critical infrastructure nodes can be a persuasive argument in this day and age. 

Now shippers have to live with high chassis maintenance costs.  Fleet managers calculating these higher costs will conclude that it's more economical to sell a chassis before its useful life can be extended with high-cost maintenance.  That means higher replacement costs (Tobin's Q alert!) for established shippers and bargain prices for truckers and shippers in emerging markets who want to buy used but functional chassis.  I'll bet shippers servicing Shanghai's exploding TEU traffic would love to get their hands on like-new chassis that don't require union labor. 

Consider what this Journal of Commerce podcast transcript reveals about chassis costs.  Smaller truckers are going to be priced out of the container market if they can't afford to lease chassis from pools, and this will only get worse as maintenance costs rise.  Even larger LTL truckers will be hurt if the daily fee they have to pay to lease from that chassis pool rises thanks to union-driven costs.  I hope YRC Worldwide explains that to their Teamsters the next time they need their concurrence for financial restructuring.  Drivers need to know that longshoremen are not watching their backs with this move. 

The ILA has just handed another competitive advantage to non-U.S. logistics providers.  Way to go, unions.  You've accelerated the outsourcing of your jobs.

Full disclosure:  No position in Maersk or YRCW.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Limerick of Finance for 01/16/11

The U.S. throws China a bash
Our bonds are in need of their cash
Let's hope they buy soon
Or our market will swoon
Lack of buyers will risk a bond crash

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Surviving Hedge Funds Harbor Unrealistic Hopes

Some hedge fund managers can admit the futility of their business models.  Good for them.  They close up shop when they figure out they can't beat Mr. Market:

Galle Global Macro Partners LLC, the hedge fund founded by Sri “Wije” Wijegoonaratna, a former Fortress Investment Group LLC executive, is shutting down about a year after it started.

Other hedge funds cling to extremely unrealistic expectations for the year ahead:

Hedge fund managers and investors are increasingly bullish about the industry's prospects for growth and returns in 2011, according to a survey by Barclays Capital conducted at the firm's inaugural Hedge Fund Symposium in New York.

Good luck navigating a market pumped by quantitative easing.  The hedgies' publicity machine convinces other institutional investors - who have learned nothing, of course - to go along for a ride chasing impossible returns:

The New Jersey Division of Investment invested an additional $40 million in a Centerbridge Partners distressed credit hedge fund.

Completely unnoticed to those know-nothing investors, hedge fund strategies gradually converge on an event horizon approaching ultimate stupidity:

Hedge funds are crowding into more of the same trades these days, amplifying market swings during crises and unnerving investors. Such trading has stoked market jitters in recent months and helped to diminish the impact of corporate fundamentals on stock-market movements. Droves of small investors have reacted by pulling money from the market, questioning its stability and whether fast-moving traders are distorting prices.

I should thank the people running hedge funds, along with the folks running the institutional money that sustains them.  It gets easier and easier for me to take the other side of the thundering herd's trading philosophy as time goes by.  Give me fundamental deep value for the long term, plus a little merger arbitrage, option writing, and fixed-income yield enhancement.  I'll leave the multivariate, high frequency, global macro nonsense to people of less ability than me. 

Nota bene:  Alfidi Capital is not a hedge fund. 

Giant Step Backwards Looms For Education

Here's further proof that mainstream journalism is incapable of performing even halfway decent analysis of national problems.  The Associated Press eagerly awaits education "reform" that will turn back the clock:

American parents, teachers and students would be left laboring under a burdensome set of testing guidelines and other rules that many agree are pushing standards lower instead of bringing them up.

Ahem, firm standards are precisely what's always been missing from American secondary education.  The opposition of teachers' unions to standards held back progress for decades until No Child Left Behind became law. 

Banalities in this article abound.  Focusing on "teacher performance" is impossible without the so-called onerous standards the article deplores.  "Boosting college graduation rates" is just as meaningless.  American colleges now graduate more bachelor's candidates than ever before in history and yet the ROI of a college degree is nearing zero thanks to federally-encouraged student debt. 

Our country's educational system needs a reset.  On that score, I agree with the critics of No Child Left Behind.  Unfortunately the educational establishment wants more of the same:  more money, more teachers, more student loans.  All of that will lead to more failure.  The real solution is to close schools, fire teachers, eliminate federal student aid, reorient most college students toward trade schools, and let the Internet deliver open courseware for free to anyone with a modicum of curiosity. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Liquid Hard Assets For Hyperinflation

I am indebted to John T. Reed for his insights into liquid hard assets.  If you've never heard of those, you'll wish you had when the Fed's quantitative easing has reduced the conventional liquid parts of your net worth to zero.

I have some basic rules for defining a liquid hard asset. 
1.  It is available as a bulk commodity.
2.  Its value is widely known and well-defined.
3.  It can be used for barter in quantity for other goods or consumed on its own.
4.  It is divisible into small quantities.
5.  It is not subject to spoilage under normal environmental conditions. 

My take on the Reed approach has been to stock up on things I can trade locally for necessities or consume in the normal course of my existence without having to participate in a volatile economy.  I have stocked up on canned goods and toiletries that have quite long shelf lives. 

Buying enough of the things I'll need to survive several years worth of currency devaluation and commercial uncertainty is my way of protecting the rest of my net worth from potential destruction under hyperinflation.  I am now fully prepared to survive years of financial uncertainty. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

China Buying Bonds, Deals, And Influence In Europe

A role reversal is underway in European-Chinese relations.  The 19th century imperial game that Continental powers once played in carving trade legations out of the Middle Kingdom is about to come full circle.  China wants to fund sovereign debt purchases in Europe in exchange for influence:

But speculation among traders that cash-rich China might step in and buy hard-hit European bonds, along with Chinese officials suggesting that Beijing would keep supporting the euro, helped the currency claw out a gain Monday after briefly hitting a four-month low against the dollar.

China is making several interlocking plays.  Imports from Germany will help keep the heart of the European economy alive.  A continent kept solvent with Asian trade flows is more likely to repay its sovereign debt.  This new route for recycling currency is a page out of the U.S.'s own playbook for recycling petrodollars.  It also gives China a diplomatic lever to wedge Europe away from alignment with the U.S. 

I would love to see the Chinese Politburo's 100-year strategy.  Everything appears to be going according to plan. 

Full disclosure:  Long FXI with covered calls and cash-covered short puts.  Cash-covered short puts under EFA.

Schwab Settlement Done But Problems Remain

Schwab settled some major litigation with securities regulators today.  The agreement will cost the firm $118.9mm thanks to loads of high-risk securities stuffed into a bond fund marketed as a low-risk product.  The credibility from "Uncle Charlie's" own money in the fund wasn't enough to avoid harm to the firm bearing his name.

The stock market obviously didn't think much of the penalty as SCHW was off only four cents today.  The stock is trading pretty close to its 52-week high and analyst sentiment is fairly bullish, so plenty of people think the worst is past.  The remaining question is whether such optimism is warranted by the fundamentals. 

The P/E ratio is over 42, an astoundingly high multiple for a mature firm in a heavily regulated industry.  A quick glance at three years' worth of income statements shows a progressive collapse in both gross revenue and net income.  The quarterly income statements for 2010 show that the decline in gross revenue has not been halted.  SCHW will need blowout results for Q4 2010 to justify the confidence of all those mainstream analysts. 

Schwab still benefits from a strong brand and leading market position among discount brokers.  Schwab's best days may very well be ahead, but its worst days may not be completely behind it yet. 

Full disclosure:  No position in SCHW. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mixed News for California's Economic Health

My home state of California seems to take one step forward, one step back in its stumble towards recapturing some economic vitality.  The new administration in Sacramento is demonstrating some common sense on the state budget, preparing massive cuts to many sacrosanct programs and keeping tax increases.  California muni bondholders should rejoice . . . shouldn't they?

Uh, not so fast.  State environmental regulators have adopted a cap and trade emissions regulation regime.  I have become increasingly skeptical of the claims from global warming alarmists ever since questions were raised about their scientific methods.  Regulating to mitigate a hazard that may prove fictional is a questionable way to make public policy.  Like it or not, carbon restrictions are here to stay and so are the costs to businesses.  Those costs will harm California's growth (and thus its tax base) until large employers become proficient at trading away their emissions credits or investing in clean technologies with quick paybacks.   The silver lining here is the opportunity for startups working on miracle technologies. 

The pain won't last forever, California.  The budget will fall into balance and environmental entrepreneurs will shine.  That's what I like about living in the Golden State.  Surf's up, dude. 

Full disclosure:  Long California state munis. 

Good News For Select Offshore Drillers

A baker's dozen of offshore drilling companies just got a belated Christmas present.  Uncle Sam has decided they can resume their drilling without resubmitting their plans. The only proviso is compliance with rules adopted in the aftermath of the BP Macondo blowout.  The federal government has the right intentions, and is allowing for common sense given these operators' performance.  It would be a bit more reassuring if the government could make the new rules clear

The eventual resumption of drilling, even if it's piecemeal, should likely be good news for offshore servicers like Tidewater (TDW) and its competitors.  It's worth noting that the select companies do not include the ones directly implicated in the blowout:  BP, Halliburton, and Transocean.  The findings of the presidential commission investigating that blowout are particularly troubling for BP and will strengthen the government's lawsuit seeking $21B in damages under the Clean Water Act.

Full disclosure:  Long TDW with covered calls and cash-covered short puts.  No positions in any other companies mentioned. 

Most Law Schools Are Worthless

Now it's official.  The vast majority of law degrees are no more valuable in the marketplace than the paper used to print their transcripts.  That puts most law school graduates in the same category as most MBA graduates.  The entire article is a great read.  It details one of the last bubbles left to pop in the Ponzi-laden economy of America. 

The obvious lesson is that most law school aspirants should not change careers.  Federal student loans, in a misguided attempt at promoting meritocracy, have enticed large numbers of people to surrender their prospects for a comfortable middle class existence in exchange for debt peonage.  Come to think of it, perhaps that was the plan all along.  There's only so much room at the top and the ruling class doesn't like being crowded out.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Limerick of Finance for 01/09/11

Bank closures this year are proceeding
Bad mortgages keep them all bleeding
Those loans have gone sour
With more by the hour
After warnings that no one is heeding

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Portuguese Bonds Headed For Excitement

Let's see a show of hands . . . who's sold their Portuguese bonds yet?  Those who haven't are in for some fun times thanks to spiking yields:

Borrowing rates edged up across much of the rest of Europe after a eurozone growth figure was revised down, but traders were by far most worried about Portugal — its 10-year government bond yield spiked above 7.1 percent.

Didn't Greece have to go the IMF when its own bond yields exhibited this kind of action?  I wish I had the data to confirm it but I just don't care that much about European bonds.  I only pay attention to this kind of action when collapsing confidence in European economies makes equities temporarily cheaper.

Full disclosure:  No positions in European bonds.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Cheers To Cross-Border Trucking

The arrival of NAFTA heralded a new era of prosperity for North America.  The years since this landmark free trade agreement have allowed economic links on this continent to deepen and mature, especially in the transportation sector

The U.S. is making Mexico an offer it can hardly refuse.  A new trucking agreement will make it easier for Mexican trucking firms to operate in the U.S.  This move is long overdue.  Canadian truckers already enjoy such an arrangement, so extending the terms to Mexico furthers the harmonization of transportation rules across the continent.  Removing impediments to cross-border shipping will make it easier for shippers to forecast their logistics costs and track deliveries.

The details of the official proposed framework should allay any fears that Mexican truckers will pose traffic hazards or undercut U.S. truckers' margins.  The agreement will require Mexican firms to meet U.S. standards in safety and environmental impacts.  Inviting Mexican firms to compete on those terms will raise the quality of long-haul delivery service. 

Opposition to the proposed framework is already stirring.  Protected groups always fear innovation and competition when their sinecures are threatened.  They should examine the hard facts that harmonization of cross-border trade through NAFTA has contributed substantially to economic growth for all three participating nations.

Extending U.S. trucking standards to Mexican truckers can potentially provide opportunities for U.S. truckers.  YRC Worldwide's logistics division could see growth in the freight-forwarding traffic it handles if Mexican truckers are allowed to backhaul goods from the U.S.  Arkansas Best may benefit if its partnership with a Mexican carrier gives it more transshipment options across the border. 

The free flow of trucking across the U.S.-Mexico border will be a boon for trade once the final details of this program are confirmed by both sides.  A permanent agreement should require Mexico to lift any tariffs it imposed in retaliation for the U.S.'s elimination of the earlier pilot program.  That in itself will be a welcome development for American exporters. 

Full disclosure:  No positions in YRCW, ABFS, or any Mexican trucking firms. 

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Atheros Communications: A Special Situation

Qualcomm (QCOM) announced that it will acquire Atheros Communications (ATHR) for $45/share in cash, expected to close in the first half of 2011.  This presents one of the most straightforward merger arbitrage opportunities I've seen in a while.  Details immediately below. 

Full disclosure:  Long ATHR with covered calls and cash-covered short puts.  No position in QCOM. 

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Business As Usual In The New Versailles And Elsewhere

Everything old is new again. 

Immediately after taking power, self-styled reformers abandon their promises to solve fiscal problems.  What could have been a significant move is now merely tokenism. 

The same reformers line up to collect business cards in return for promises of future aid.  Say hello to the new boss . . . same as the old boss.

Leaders may have missed a few things while they were busy learning the ropes.  They might have seen the World Bank issuing its first yuan-based bonds.  The bank can probably see who its future largest shareholder will be. 

Leaders may have seen this prediction of Chinese leadership in the IPO market.  Or they may have missed it, if their Wall Street masters told them to look the other way. 

I try to see things other people might miss.  It's the only way I know to prepare for a future in which the country of my birth will not be the world's hegemon.

The Haiku of Finance for 01/05/11

Payroll count is up
Service sector is up too
That's why stocks went up

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Massive Fed Bond Buying Stimulates Weak Recovery

When you spend this much money, you ought to expect some big results.  Minutes of the Fed's discussion of QE2 show concern that further huge monetization of U.S. sovereign debt is needed to keep the economy growing.  It's worth asking exactly how much growth this is purchasing.

Factory orders rose in November in a precise reversal of October's drop.  Fine.  That's nice.  One discouraging caveat is that much of it resulted from an expectation that continued tax cuts will support consumer spending.  Good luck pulling more demand from the future if the bond market runs away from U.S. debt.  Everything buoyant news item about this "recovery" is derived from forced monetary inflation and fiscal irresponsibility.  Those things can't continue forever. 

Further bond purchases will likely hit a wall of rapidly diminishing returns very soon.  That makes the whole project futile. 

Monday, January 03, 2011

Teamsters Grow Half A Brain On YRCW Equity Deadline

The surprises just keep on coming.  Scanning discussion boards for the trucking industry led me to believe union drivers would have stuck a knife in YRCW just for spite.  I really thought the Teamsters were dumb enough to let YRCW slip beneath the waves.  I guess somebody finally told them that they'd be out of jobs if they let that happen.  They've agreed to let YRC Worldwide have more time to fix its balance sheet.  Perhaps all those union dues bought them some competent legal counsel.   

YRCW still faces the undesirable choice of debt rescheduling or equity dilution, but at least now it can make this choice without knuckle-dragging union drivers getting in the way of common sense decisions.  Hey Teamsters, quit whining and start driving so your shop stewards can get back to drinking coffee in the break room.

Full disclosure:  No position in YRCW.

Americans Want To Tax Somebody Else

Americans want someone else to pay for everything.  That's what they're telling pollsters when they say the rich should pay higher taxes to close the federal budget gap.  Higher taxes on the rich (IMHO those making over $250k/year) would be a start but not nearly enough to pay the piper.  The poll is also quite revealing in that very few respondents - in the single digit percentages - are willing to cut Medicare or Social Security. 

The truth is that everyone will have to pay more in taxes or give up more in benefits and services.  That was the conclusion the deficit reduction commission reached before they adjourned without a consensus on how to implement it.  In case you missed it, that was a story that briefly hit the news in December and then sank while Americans preoccupied themselves with a renewed consumption spree.

Let's start by taxing the bottom third or so of wage earners who currently pay no federal income tax at all.  It can be a small tax, just enough to give everyone some skin in the game.  Then we can make ourselves feel better by taxing the middle class, the rich, your dog and cat, and anything else that moves.  That's what cutting the deficit will really take.  Everyone will have to pay something.  There is no "someone else" who can pay our bills for us. 

Bank Of America Buys Back Loans

Bank of America just can't catch a break despite trying to do things right.  Just after raising $3B in capital to keep their TARP buyback promise, they've agreed to a $3B writedown to buy back bad loans.  About $2B of that will impact the bottom line, so kudos to BAC for figuring out how to mitigate the damage with creative accounting. 

That's the good news.  The bad news is that BAC lost over $7B in Q3 last year, mainly because of over $10B worth of nonrecurring charges.  This doesn't help get them out of that hole.

I have a funny feeling that bad loan buybacks are the kind of "nonrecurring" charges that will keep recurring for many big banks throughout 2011. 

Full disclosure:  No position in BAC.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Bailout And Its Discontents On NPR

There are times when listening to the weekend edition of NPR's Marketplace gets me agitated.  Right now is one of those times.  Tonight's discussion panel briefly debated the merits of the bailout and its consequences for human behavior.  One panelist made the obvious point (to me anyway) that a world without consequences does not deter risk-seeking behavior that damages the economy.  Another panelist acknowledged this but lauded the bailout anyway.  That guy must have been selected in the interest of balance, not intellectual consistency.

I try to listen to all sides in debates but that takes time.  My time is much more valuable now than it was when I was younger.  You can say that my opportunity cost for listening to nonsense is much higher now, especially since I've learned to spot nonsense after listening to so much of it in my life.  Life is short.  Each of us only has so much productive time available.  I try not to waste time by suffering fools. 

I don't want to listen to people who explain away moral hazard and gambling.  Those people add nothing to my life.

The Limerick of Finance for 01/02/11

The federal debt ceiling is high
Out-of-control spending is why
If we have enough guts
We can make some big cuts
Profligacy's end is now nigh