Random Thoughts and Observations

  • Bill Clinton is officially “off the ranch.”  First, he announces that the Bush-era tax cuts should be extended.  Then, during his apology for the aforementioned comment, he noted that median family income is now lower than it was when he was President.  I never thought I’d miss Bubba, but his candor is kind of endearing.  Never mind his hanging out with porn stars in a Monaco casino.  I REALLY wish I could get this guy to come to a poker game at my house next weekend!

  • France lowered its retirement age for public employees from 62 to 60.  Really?  As your continent financially sinks into the sea, you tack on  a larger fiscal burden?  Granted, Hollande kept his campaign promise, but at some point Germany is going to tire of being slapped in the face by the French man-glove.  A quick read of Der Spieigel will give you some idea as to how soon that fatigue may set in.  I’ll give a clue…  next week.  Fetchez La Vache!
  • This week was the best week for the stock market in 2012.  The 285 point jump on rumors of Fed easing mid-week set the stage for the best week of the year.  Short covering continued through Friday.  I can’t blame the shorts for covering.  Watch for a hyped up European can-kicking announcement this weekend.  Those who are short US Treasuries and long European banks will likely have a nice day on Monday.  Two months from now those trades may not look so great.  But money managers are judged monthly, so many will live or die based on the rumour du jour.  Such is the world in which we live.
  • Despite the Drudge Report’s best investigating, nobody ate any new faces this week.  Time to go long faces and short Drudge, which has become shallow and pedantic.
  • Our President came out today and declared the domestic economy to be “doing fine.”  It may be, for those attending $40, 000 per plate parties at Sarah Jessica Parker’s house.  My anecdotal observations might provide evidence to the contrary.  But I’m loathe to get political on the blog.  I just wonder what he may be smoking.  Maybe the Choom Wagon made a stop in DC  this week.
  • UBS apparently lost $350 million as one of their traders on the Facebook IPO kept hitting the left mouse button over and over assuming his buy orders weren’t being filled since he wasn’t getting timely trade confirmations from NASDAQ.  He ended up owning 40 million shares.  Turns out he bought them at $42 then sold them at $30.  You can’t fix stupid.  Or bullsh*t.  Take your pick.  So, UBS is suing NASDAQ.  The great litigious American tradition.  I assume a “settlement” is in the making.   It shouldn’t, but does, yield a giant yawn.  Lose on your bet, get it back on your lawsuit.

Have a wonderful weekend, folks.

Altair Monthly Commentary – July

Stock market activity for June was a tale of two markets.  The first 26 days of the month were characterized by stock prices falling 8% as the market wrestled with the crisis in Greece and the ending of the Fed’s QE2 program.  On June 21, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou survived a no-confidence vote leading to the subsequent passage of a Greek austerity package.  Despite days of rioting in Athens, the markets viewed the austerity (more specifically the cash infusion Greece will receive because of it) as a major positive and rallied 6% in the last four trading days – ending the month with a 1.6% loss.

 

As investors returned to embracing risk, the expiration of QE2 put substantial pressure on the bond market.  During the last four days of the month, yields on the 5-Year Treasury rose from 1.37% to 1.76%.  Thus far, the end of QE2 has had the most impact on the short end of the yield curve, though longer-dated maturities have fallen in value as well.

 

From a macro perspective, the resolution of the Greece’s mid-term fiscal plan takes some pressure off European Banks and the possible spill-over into U.S. money markets.  The 12 billion Euro bailout tranche expected to be delivered in early July will cover Greece’s financing needs until mid-August.  Meanwhile, the French have floated a plan for holders of Greece bonds to roll-over 70% of their maturing bonds in exchange for receiving 30-Year paper in a special-purpose vehicle with a minimum yield of 5.5%.  This idea, while elegant, is not without its problems.  First, it is not clear that the ratings agencies would let this restructuring occur without declaring it a default.  Second, the plan would require the European Central Bank to hold its Greek debt to maturity – and it is questionable that the ECB would agree to such a restriction.  Third, the interest rate that will be required on the rolled-over debt will be a significant burden on Greece.  Considering these factors, Greece remains a point of interest from a risk-control standpoint.

 

As this is the end of the second quarter, we will be watching corporate earnings reports quite carefully for signs that the economy is not sliding back into recession.  The lack of negative guidance leading up to the quarter-end has been encouraging, but the expectations for strong earnings have set the bar rather high.

 

Altair Hedged Equity’s 10th Anniversary

 

June 30 marked the 10th anniversary of Altair Hedged Equity’s launch.  For me, that milestone brought two things to mind:  First, it warrants a sincere “thank you” to the clients who have trusted us over the past decade with stewardship of their wealth.  We are fortunate to have a great client-base that has stood with us through what can only be characterized as an “interesting” decade.  Second, it seemed like a good time to reflect on where the Fund has been over those years.  Viewed from the tree-top level, we’ve been through two bear markets and two bull markets – all of which tended to be fairly dramatic.

 

The Fund’s focus on delivering consistent returns was tested immediately upon its launch.  From July 1, 2001 to October 9, 2002 the stock market dropped by 37% as the tech bubble burst.  Hedged Equity made it through that stretch with a total loss of 6.8% and was back to break even eight months later.

 

From those October 2002 lows, the stock market went on a four year bull market run – gaining over 101% before reaching its apex October 9, 2007.  During that same timeframe, Hedged Equity posted gains of 73%.

 

Next in line were the financial crisis and the associated bear market in stocks.  From its peak to its nadir on March 9, 2009 the stock market shed nearly 57% of its value.  Hedged Equity traversed this bear market with a 9.3% decline in value.  That 9.3% decline proved to be the largest drawdown Hedged Equity would have experienced in its history, and was recovered in 14 months.

 

Finally, we had QE2 and the stock market’s melt-up.  With remarkable persistence against major macro-economic headwinds, the market nearly doubled – adding 95%.  This period, from March 2009 through June 2011, represented Hedged Equity’s most difficult time-frame from a relative performance perspective – as the Fund increased by just over 15%.

 

Taking these four cycles together, the stock market is up 31% since our launch, while Altair Hedged Equity has gained 69%.

 

And while we take a modest amount of pride in the totality of our work over these past 10 years, we continually apply a critical eye to our performance; both in relative and absolute terms.  The basis of this critique is always in the context of our stated objective:  To deliver consistent of returns over a full market cycle.

 

During the past few quarters, I have had some enlightening conversations with our clients.  Some shared our cautious macro view; others became increasingly uncomfortable with the disparity between our Fund’s returns and those of the stock market.  One such conversation involved a gentleman I’ve known for the past 28 years and who has been a client for the past 10.  He was the boss at my first job out of college, became a business associate in later years, and ultimately a client.  Because of our history, we speak quite candidly.  The crux of the conversation came down to this:  his overall target rate of return when we began working together was 8%.  With the losses incurred during the financial crisis, his annualized return was closer to 6%.  He viewed the past 27 months as an opportunity for his portfolio to “catch up, ” and we failed to keep pace with the market.

 

As is often the case in relationships that began in a mentor/student environment, the client took the time and effort to help me dissect the Fund.  We discussed our macro view in great detail.  We went down the list of our sub-advisors one-by-one, covering their strategies, their performance, and their outlook.  We shared our thoughts about the future of interest rates, equity valuations, commodities, and the regulatory environment.  In the end, we agreed on nearly every philosophical and mechanical point – we just could not reconcile the disconnect in relative performance.  Ultimately, we decided to part ways, remain friends, and I worked closely with his new advisor to insure a smooth transition.  The client did reserve the right to come back to Altair at a later date if he had a change of heart!

 

I share this story because I think it is important to provide some insight into what we have been thinking lately.  That includes our self-analysis as well as the acknowledgement that some of our clients have sincere questions about our relative performance since March 2009.

 

As I mentioned earlier, consistency of returns is our primary objective.  To achieve that objective, we use the same tools in both bull and bear markets.  Those tools include diversifying to avoid unique risk, short-selling to reduce systemic risk, and sourcing returns from areas unrelated to the direction of the stock market.  Sometimes, like 2002 and 2008, the success of this approach is gratifying.  Other times, it is one of the most difficult parts of our job.  But how we feel about our strategy over different time frames is largely beside the point.  We are paid, to put it quite simply, to assess possible outcomes, assign probabilities to those outcomes, and allocate capital in a way that reflects these probability-weighted outcomes.

 

There is nothing emotional about that process.  Whether the feeling is fear like that after the collapse of Lehman, or joy as the stock market doubles, succumbing to the emotion would lessen the likelihood that we could continue to deliver consistent returns.  And if we fail at that, we would forfeit our reason for existing as part of someone’s portfolio.

 

So, as Hedged Equity starts on its second decade, I want to thank you all again.  And, as always, I invite you to call or stop in for a visit if you have any questions or comments.

Stocks are Cheap!…no wait they aren’t…what should i do?

If you follow Barry Ritholtz who writes The Big Picture blog, you may have noticed a post of his that only stayed up for a brief time yesterday. He was opining on the investment information put out by the major news outlets and how useless it was. He even commented that he doesn’t read the Wall Street Journal until the following night to reconfirm to himself that it merely contains old news. While we couldn’t agree more with him, we had to laugh that he likely was forced to take the post down after the news outlets that pay him read his comments. Below are two links that confirm Mr. Ritholtz’s theory. While we favor one view over the other,  one can always make the case for a conceivable outcome. The key is having a process and following it and not reacting to the flavor of the day.

Depending on who you listen to there is a case to be made for both sides of where stocks are currently valued.

Stocks Cheapest in 26 years

Run, Don’t Walk, Away From P/E Ratios

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Altair June Commentary

The End of QE2 and the Probability (Possibility) of QE3

 

During the run of QE2, the end of which is rapidly approaching, we discovered an interesting phenomenon.  There would be days when the stock market would open lower, only to begin a major bounce-back around 10 a.m.  This was occurring with such frequency that “buy the dip” became the mantra of many traders.  What we noticed, while visiting the homepage of the NY Fed on these days, was that Permanent Open Market Operations were being conducted at the same time the markets were finding their bottom – with regularity.  The point being…  QE2 arguably added artificial price stability to equities (and to other risk assets) and its ending in June should remove some of this stability.  I emphasize the word “should, ” because the normalization of the market’s pricing mechanism will be largely dependent on whether there is a QE3 or some form of a stealth extension of QE2.

 

The idea of a potential QE3 moved to the front over the past few weeks with declining ISM numbers, weak Non-Farm Payroll numbers, dismal housing numbers, and faltering consumer confidence.  Additionally, by falling for the past 5 consecutive weeks and 5 consecutive sessions, the stock market returns seem to be “suggesting” to the Fed that additional QE might be desired.

 

While it’s doubtful that the American people have an appetite for an overt QE3, we believe that the Fed will, for the foreseeable future, maintain the size of its balance sheet by reinvesting the proceeds as bonds “roll-off” its balance sheet.  In this way, they can “keep interest rates exceptionally low for an extended period, ” as has been the Fed’s repeatedly quoted position.  And while cheap money is unquestionably a stimulant for the stock market, the fact that the economy remains so weak that a Zero Interest Rate Policy must be perpetuated should give everybody a reason to pause.

 

We are likely nearing an inflection point as QE2 winds down, so we are keeping our betas to a minimum.

 

The European Bailout and Long-Term Viability of the Euro

 

Here are a few headlines from the past few days (in no particular order):

 

  • Greek Government Faces Revolt Over Second Wave of Austerity Measures
  • Seven Years for Ireland to Fully Recover, Warns Banker
  • S&P warns EU over Greek Debt
  • Obama Says European Debt Crisis Must Not Endanger Recovery
  • Riots in Greece Over IMF-imposed Setbacks to Workers

 

In our analysis, Greece has no choice but to default – either via debt restructuring, technical default, or outright failure to pay.  A recent Moody’s downgrade places the likelihood of a Greek default at 50%.  While many pundits argue that Greece, and Ireland for that matter, are too small to matter, we would argue that the impact on the Eurozone as a whole and the Euro as a currency could be severe.  The fact that Trichet recently began pushing for a European fiscal union to pair up with the existing monetary union would support our point.  It was the lack of a fiscal union that allowed Greece to spend into oblivion while more fiscally conservative countries, like Germany, were left holding the bailout bag.  Now, the citizens of each country have little appetite for what needs done to correct this deficiency (assuming to can be corrected).  The May 5 riots in Greece that resulted in the deaths of 3 bank employees present an ominous example of the friction between workers and their government.  There is a real chance that it may be too late for the fiscal union idea to be of any use in this crisis.

 

We continue to be short European banks in Hedged Equity as a hedge against what we believe to be an upcoming elevation in the crisis.

 

Housing in Double Dip

 

In May, the Case-Shiller Home Price Index fell below its April 2009 low to officially enter the area of “double-dip.”   For the month ending March 31, 2011, 19 out of the 20 cities in the index saw price declines.  Washington D.C. was the only market to post a gain on both a monthly and an annual basis – Washington is growing while the rest of the nations is shrinking…is anybody shocked?   Minneapolis saw a 10% decline for the year, indicating that the housing crisis is being felt hard in the Midwest.  The quarterly annualized decline for the overall index was 5.1%.

 

As home prices continue to decline and the pace of foreclosures hastens, we expect the real estate market to remain soft for the foreseeable future.  Such softness would be a bad thing for consumer confidence and consumption, as well as the financial sector as a whole.

 

We believe there is a silver-lining to housing issue that should show itself in the next 2 or 3 years.  The excess supply of homes is shrinking – currently at about 1.3 million units down from 1.8 million only 6 months ago.  Factoring in new home construction, 2011 should come up roughly 1.25 million homes built short of what should be needed to keep up with population growth.  That trend is unsustainable.  Additionally, the laws of supply and demand are becoming a factor.  As more people seek to be renters, the cost of rent is rising.  There will be a cross-over point somewhere in the not-so-far-in-the-future-to-care, where the price of rent will make homeownership an economical venture once again.  The convergence of reduced housing supply with increased rental costs could provide a significant tail opportunity in the coming years.

 

China May Be In Trouble

 

Stealth Bailout in Progress

Earlier in the week I read an article from Societe Generale’s Dylan Grice about a Reuters’ report regarding China’s Local Government Financing Vehicles (LGFV).  It was reported that China’s central government was “taking on responsibility” for up to $463 billion of bad loans made to LGFV to fund various infrastructure and development projects as a part of the stimulus package. Basically, this amounts to a stealth bailout.  It’s not clear yet how this will be done, but if it is handled in a fashion similar to that used during the recapitalizations of Chinese banks, asset management companies will buy up the bad assets, which they will pay for with non-tradable government-guaranteed bonds.  These bonds do not show up in the official measures of government debt.  Since the bonds are off the official records, it’s like the bailout never happened.  But the problem hasn’t gone away. As Grice noted, a bail-out of $463 billion is half the size of the TARP for an economy which is only one-third the size of the US’.  So adjusted for GDP, China has enacted a bailout equal to one and a half TARPs.  If we calibrate the magnitude of the economic crisis with the size of the bail-out, one and a half TARPs implies a financial crisis one and half times the order of magnitude of 2008.  With China quietly buying up its own bonds, there is a real possibility that their demand for US bonds may wane – causing US interest rates to rise.  One more reason we are short US Treasuries.

Says Grice: “The critical issue in both cases is the artificial suppression of volatility in the name of stability. We know that the longer volatility is artificially suppressed, the more emphatic will be its release when it does come.”

 

Energy and Food Inflation

With energy and food prices rising at a heady pace, China has had no choice but to restrain credit and money growth.  Protests such as the recent truckers strike indicate this is not going to be an easy sell to the population. Chinese consumer expectations have been plummeting, and are now at their lowest level since late 2008.  Car sales, which were exploding during the massive stimulus injections, are now growing at low single digit annual rates.  And finally, housing starts are running at +40% year-over-year, but sales are falling at a -5% annual rate. There is a lot of faith being priced into the market that the Chinese authorities will be able to engineer a soft landing for the economy, but given the extraordinary imbalances that have built up, that will be increasingly difficult.

My bartender is a frog waiting to boil

I had an interesting conversation with my bartender last night. Yesterday was his first day back on the job after a five year hiatus. I asked him what he had been doing and he informed me he left his first stint as a bartender to get into flipping foreclosed houses, go figure. That wasn’t too surprising to me, what did make me do a double take was his disbelief that he couldn’t get a zero down loan anymore. He described the opportunities out there right now and that he and his wife have great credit but asked “who has 10% to put down?”.  He clearly hasn’t had  a realization that things are different.  Bill Gross’s investement outlook this month compares bond holders to frogs slowly waiting to boil. A frog thrown into a boiling kettle will jump out immediately but  put one into a pot and slowly increase the temperature, you will have frog legs for dinner. Bond holders and my bartender haven’t realized that the game has changed but have other investors in general? High Frequency Trading, Greece, Japan, US Debt levels, unfunded entitlements come to mind.