Post-Vacation Thoughts

Wow. What a week and a half to take a vacation. Either it was a great time to miss, or it was the opposite. Obviously I’m biased, but I’d have to go with the former. Sometimes the daily volatility of the market sends investors on more of an emotional roller coaster than anything else, and that isn’t usually helpful. After all, roller coasters end up right where they started for the most part.

It looks like the S&P 500 traded in a 8.9% intraday range during the 8 trading days I missed, from 1370 all the way up to 1503. Despite that, when all the dust settled, stock prices dropped only 2 percent during my time away, so really my trip (I was in Boston and Cape Cod) saved me some emotional highs and lows.

I haven’t had a lot of time to catch up yet, but one thing did get my attention, so I thought I would share. I don’t know if it got a lot of airtime or not (likely not given it was pretty eventful with the Fed moves, etc), but the market finally got the long awaited 10 percent correction (at least on an intraday basis — 11.9% — it was only 9.6% on a closing basis).

Now, normally this would be unimportant enough that I might not even mention it, but there are a couple reasons why I think it is notable this time around. First, there were tons of people who were refusing to jump in with excess cash until we got that “official” drop. It sounds silly, but when investment strategists think the market is overbought, as many had for several months as the S&P crossed 1400 and then 1500, they need a significant sell-off to be convinced some excesses are removed. I have no doubt that market players who were waiting for a 10% down move are beginning to put some cash to work slowly.

Normally, a 10 percent correction is no big deal. We expect them to happen. I don’t have any statistics handy, but I’d guess we see one every year or so on average. They are normal and very healthy. Amazingly though, we had gone four and a half years without a full 10 percent drop in the S&P 500 index. This worried a lot of people because it was the longest streak ever without a sizable market drop. I don’t think it signaled the end of the world or anything to anybody, but when you go that long, you are due for a fall, and while nobody knows exactly when it will happen, it still prevents investors from getting overly bullish and firmly committing investment funds. The streak, in the eyes of many, was simply a symbol of the times, an overbought market that was being powered by many things, including the private equity M&A boom, which appears to be normalizing.

As I comb through the individual company news times of interest from the last week and a half, I’ll be sure to share anything that catches my eye that would have otherwise been posted had I been in the office. Feel free to let me know if there is anything you would like me to write about in coming days. It’s good to be back, and thanks for your patience during my vacation time.

Hedge Funds Can Just Freeze Redemptions… Must Be Nice

Maybe it’s just me, but is anyone else amazed that when hedge funds run into trouble (as many have recently by investing in mortgage-backed securities) and investors ask for their money back, the fund can simply say no? This is astonishing to me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Managers can run their funds any way they want. Typically, fund rules stipulate that investors can withdraw money only during certain windows (quarterly and annually are most common). That makes sense, as it can be tough to put on positions if people can just come and go as they please. But how about when you ask for your money back during a pre-approved window and the hedge fund comes back and says “Sorry, but we have frozen redemptions.”

Bear Stearns (BSC) did this with their recent funds that ultimately went bust and are being sued right now because of what they allegedly told investors regarding the riskiness of the portfolios when they tried to get their money out.

Why on earth would anyone invest in a hedge fund that gave you no guarantee that you could take your money out if you wanted to? How can hedge funds get away with simply denying one’s request? Do any readers out there invest in hedge funds? Are you worried about wanting to get your money out at some point and being told you can’t? Seems risky to me…

Full Disclosure: No position in BSC at the time of writing

Why Would a CEO Stick with Quarterly Guidance?

I read an interesting take on this question today and I think it has a lot of merit. While many of us would prefer public companies abandon quarterly guidance, there are reasons why a CEO would keep giving it out. One reason might be to make them look good, and therefore enhance their job security.

If you are an active investment manager (whether for personal assets or professionally) you have likely observed in recent years that a pattern has developed during earnings season on Wall Street. Companies tend to beat estimates for the most recent quarter and guide estimates lower for the current and/or future periods. The end result is that most quarters finish with earnings coming in ahead of estimates on the whole.

While stock prices might dip in the short term because investors care more about future guidance than earnings already booked, this practice sets the bar very low. By keeping expectations meager, it maximizes the odds that the company will beat numbers next quarter, and that makes management look good. Under-promise and over-deliver (“UPOD” as Jim Cramer calls it). It works, and it’s what public companies should do in general (although maybe less often than every three months).

I think this is a great explanation for why many companies will keep playing the guidance game. It sets the bar low, makes them look like they’re doing a good job running their companies, and boosts their job security. If you don’t give guidance at all, the analysts could set the bar too high, forcing you to miss numbers and get an earful from investors.

How can investors play this growing trend? Buy stocks after a post-earnings sell off due to a guide down. After the company sets the bar low, investors adjust their valuations accordingly. Over the next couple months, Wall Street will realize the numbers are too low and the stocks will get a boost as strong performance is priced in again. Use that strength to pare off positions before the next earnings report if you think they might be lackluster or conservative.

That seems like the best way to trade the ever-growing trend of beating earnings and guiding lower for future quarters.

Seagate Adopts Baffling Policy on Financial Guidance

I am sitting here listening to the second quarter conference call hosted by Seagate Technology (STX), the world’s leading provider of hard disk drives for the consumer electronics industry, and I just had to write a post with the audio going in the background. Seagate CEO Bill Watkins has just announced that his company is changing their policy on company guidance.

I have written on this blog before that financial guidance is very overrated. Many companies have abandoned giving guidance completely (kudos to them) and others have at least stopped giving quarterly projections. So, I was expecting STX to either cease quarterly guidance and give only annual projections, or to halt guidance completely. Wrong on both counts!

Seagate will now give only quarterly guidance. Are they kidding? The whole point of stopping quarterly guidance is to focus management on the long term and not put them in a situation where they might take actions just to hit a number in the short term. Now they are embracing three-month projections?

I understand them not wanting to give out annual projections. The disk drive business is very hard to predict, as it is largely a commoditized market. Supply and demand, and therefore pricing, is tough to gauge over long periods of time. Essentially, STX management is saying they have no idea what they will earn in fiscal 2008 (which began on July 1st).

If you are going to ditch giving guidance, then stop giving guidance! It seems very strange that they say they are focused on the long term, but yet are still going to predict sales and profits every three months. They should have just stopped guidance altogether.

Full Disclosure: Some Peridot clients have positions in STX, but those positions are under review

How Relevant is Dow 14,000?

The move from Dow 12,000 to Dow 14,000 has been pretty stunning. How relevant is that index though? We can argue that it is heavily weighted towards mega cap stocks, and that is true, but so is the S&P 500 since it is market cap weighted. Some of you may not be aware of this, but the Dow Jones Industrial Average is not market cap weighted. Instead, it is share price weighted.

This serves to make its moves pretty much irrelevant in terms of gauging the market’s overall health. A one dollar move in Boeing (BA) has the same effect as a one dollar move in Microsoft (MSFT), even though Boeing trades over $100 per share and MSFT shares sell for $30 each.

What is the end result of this pricing method for the Dow? Boeing has more than 3 times as much influence as Microsoft does, and the same pattern holds for any other Dow component. In fact, materials and industrials account for a whopping 35% of the Dow Jones Industrial Average due to their high share prices (which may not be shocking given the name of the index).

Those two groups have been leading the market higher, so it is not surprising that the Dow has been soaring. On the other hand, financial services firms have been lagging this year, but they only account for 14% of the Dow, more than 30% less than their weight in the S&P 500. Dow 14,000 is a nice round number, but it really doesn’t tell us a lot about the market as a whole, only certain sectors that dominate its composition.

For a 40% Premium, How Could Hilton Say “No” To Blackstone?

Rumors of a large private equity deal in the lodging industry had been running rampant recently and late Tuesday we learned that Blackstone Group (BX) plans to acquire Hilton Hotels (HLT) for $18.5 billion plus the assumption of debt. Hilton shareholders should be elated, as they are getting a 40% premium for their shares.

The M&A boom we are seeing right now is clearly propelling the market higher. Firms like Blackstone have billions of dollars to put to work and they can’t raise more money until what they have now gets spent. As a result, you see prices like this being paid for Hilton. For a 40% premium, they had to say “yes” to Blackstone. If the offer was 20%, maybe they pass, but not 40%.

And this is a big reason why the market has been so good lately. Private equity firms need to spend their cash hoards and aren’t afraid to overbid if it means getting a deal done. The companies getting bought out jump, helping the market. The stocks considered next in line for a bid get a pop on the rumors and speculation, and short sellers have to scramble to cover any positions that could possibly get a bid. You can’t afford to risk being short a name like Hilton before a Blackstone bid comes along.

Liquidity will dry up at some point, deal flow will lighten up, and market returns might be subdued, but there is really no way to know when exactly that will happen. It is clear the private equity firms themselves think we are in the late innings, or else we would not have seen Blackstone go public and KKR file for an IPO just a few hours ago. Until the game is over though, there is plenty of liquidity to keep stock prices fairly high.

Investors should simply focus on values in the marketplace. Maybe one of your companies gets a bid, maybe not, but it would be wise to make sure you are comfortable with your investments even if they remain independent. Unless you think you are the ultimate market timer, I would avoid the private equity IPO market, including Blackstone, KKR, as well as the others that will surely follow suit as long as the new issue market can support them.

Full Disclosure: No positions in the companies mentioned at the time of writing

How Should Hedge Funds and Private Equity Be Taxed?

It seems like Congress goes into attack mode anytime somebody is making a lot of money. In some cases I agree with our elected officials and in other cases their arguments make little sense if you look at the big picture. Take the oil companies for instance. We all know the industry is swimming in money. If Congress aims to repeal subsidies these firms get from the federal government, I have a hard time opposing the idea. Our country does not need to subsidize our oil companies. However, if you propose some kind of excess profits tax simply because oil prices are high, that is ridiculous. We live in a market economy and markets are cyclical. You can’t tax companies during boom times just because you feel like it.

Anyway, the topic du jour is the taxation of hedge funds and private equity funds. Again, we have a group of wealthy people who are making billions and paying the same (if not less) taxes as the average worker. To figure out where I fall on issues like these, I try not to bring politics into it at all. To me, it’s logic-driven reasoning that should rule the day and help form an opinion.

I haven’t been following the issue that closely, but the sticking point is the fact that hedge fund and private equity fund general partners split investment profits with their limited partners. The investment managers serve as general partners and collect 20% of the profits from the investments they make, which is often taxed as long-term capital gains, at a rate of 15%. The fact that someone can make $100 million and only pay 15% in taxes is evidently upsetting a lot of people in Washington.

At first blush it might seem like the 15% tax rate makes sense. If a hedge fund has $100 million in assets and earns 10%, there is $10 million in profit to be divided up. Assuming an 80/20 split, the manager makes $2 million and the limited partners share $8 million based on their ownership percentages. Since the $10 million in profit was the result of capital gains, then it is easy to see why some feel the 15% tax is fair.

There is one difference though, that seems very important. The whole point of having a low capital gains tax rate (relative to income tax rates) is to incentivize people to invest in businesses and put their capital at risk. Such actions are the life blood of our capitalist system. In return for risking your own money by investing in other ventures that need funding, you are rewarded with a lower tax rate on any profits you earn.

The problem is, hedge fund managers aren’t risking their own capital a lot of the time. They are pooling money from their investors and managing it for them. Sure, they don’t earn anything unless they produce positive returns, but if they lose money, they don’t lose as much, if at all, because they typically have less capital at risk, if they invest in the fund at all. This seems like the most logical reason why one would be against the 15% tax rate for hedge fund managers.

Now, it’s true that most fund managers have invested some of their own money in the funds they manage. Perhaps what the tax law needs to say is, when you have your own money at risk, you can claim profits as a capital gain, but when your investors are simply sharing a portion of the profit earned on their capital, in return for your management ability, then that income should be treated as a management fee, and therefore taxed at ordinary income tax rates.

It’s a tough issue for sure. I just hope the law going forward reflects reality, meaning that if you get a tax break for capital gains, it better actually be your capital that was put at risk in order to produce the gains in the first place. A fair compromise in my eyes would be to allow managers to pay 15% on the portion that is their own capital at risk, and ordinary income tax rates on fees earned on limited partner’s assets that are paid out to the general partner. That way, the whole point of the 15% capital gains tax rate (reward risk taking with lower taxes) is preserved.

What do you think?

Tip: When Engaging in Insider Trading, Be Discreet!

Evidently a Hong Kong couple thought the rest of the world was asleep. Listen to what they did before their brokerage accounts were frozen, preventing them from pocketing an estimated $8.2 million. Tell me if you think their broker, Merrill Lynch (MER), might catch on that something was a bit suspicious.

In early April the couple’s account was worth $1.2 million, consisting of mostly fixed income and commodity investments, along with a small position in Intel (INTC) stock. All of the sudden, they wire $10 million into their account and borrow $5 million on margin to buy 415,000 shares of Dow Jones (DJ) for an average price of $35.14 per share.

Just days later Dow Jones gets a $60 cash offer from News Corp (NWS) and the couple tries to sell all $23 million worth, netting a profit of $8 million. How on earth do people really think Merrill Lynch isn’t going to notice this? Regulators often do investigations after M&A deals are announced to try and uncover illegal activity, but this case was handed to them on a silver platter.

It will be interesting to see what happens to these people. I hope they get the book thrown at them. Perhaps a copy of the insider trading laws would be a good start.

Full Disclosure: Long Intel $10 2009 LEAPs at the time of writing

Dow Winning Streak Longest in 80 Years

It has truly been a breathtaking run, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising in 24 of 27 sessions, the longest streak since eight decades ago in 1927. Unfortunately, Tuesday’s four point drop snapped the streak. How should investors play this? Many are stuck between two prevailing ideas, either ride the momentum to ensure not missing it, or wait for a pullback and buy on the dip. The problem is, there aren’t any dips. We got a 7 percent correction a couple months ago but it was so short-lived that many didn’t have time to get back on the train before it left the station again.

I am sitting on an above-average amount of cash right now, due to an overbought market that I am uninterested in chasing, coupled with a seasonal inflow of deposits. Since I’m a value investor, not a momentum trader, I am content with sitting on cash and waiting for an excellent opportunity. With the broad market rallying so strongly, such a dip might only occur in select names, as opposed to a widespread sell-off that makes many stocks compelling.

Why not just get my money in when short term momentum is strong? There are far fewer bargains now than there were six months or a year ago. Although I might miss some upside in the short term, due to above-average cash positions during a long winning streak, I still believe that buying dips and not rallies will prove to be more profitable when we look back a year from now.

The result could be lagging returns in coming days and weeks, but when we get another pullback and I have the ammunition to jump at true bargains, those purchases will more than likely make up the lost ground and plenty more over the intermediate to longer term.

Market Correction Comes and Goes Much Like Last Year

Did you notice the S&P 500 hit a new high today? It seems this market corrects much more fast and furious than in prior periods, but the corresponding snap back is just as quick. If you blink, you might miss it. Just last month we were spooked by a 400-point one-day drop in the Dow after a huge sell-off in the China market. Chinese stocks rebounded to make new highs and now the U.S. market has done the same. The 2006 correction was very similar, short and swift. In fact, compare the two charts:


Bears will undoubtedly be looking for a failed breakout and another leg down. Despite the fact that the market has been pricing in an interest rate cut, and yet no rate cut seems imminent, stock prices keep chugging along. I am in the camp that believes the Fed is on hold and won’t cut rates due to a perceived credit crunch. Things would have to get meaningfully worse on that front for Bernanke to move, in my opinion.

Where does that leave stocks? I am still standing by my mid-to-high single digit return prediction for the U.S. market in 2007. Currently the S&P 500 is up 3.5% year-to-date. I just can’t get overly bullish with decelerating profits and a Fed that is still concerned with inflation. What would be the catalyst for a big move up? Earnings would have to really be strong. I’m not expecting a huge downward revision to current estimates, but this economy doesn’t seem to me to have much upside right now.

With what we know now, the market seems pretty fairly valued overall. I think we’ll trade between 14 and 16 times earnings in this environment. The strategists calling for P/E expansion I think are dreaming. Sure employment is high and interest rates and inflation are relatively low, but we still have single digit earnings growth and a slightly above-average valuation on the market. Hardly reason to be overly bullish.

In times like these, I’d suggest investing in cheap companies rather than a fairly valued market.