Friday, May 23, 2008

A Child's Perspective

The UDB grew until it encompassed virtually all asset classes and nearly every nation around the world. Many markets and countries have now fallen off the former trend but the consequences are just starting. In covering something this large and complex, we tend to use a lot of statistical analysis here at Financial Jenga. But occasionally, a simpler perspective can be really helpful.

I occasionally play babysitter for my young nieces on weekdays and they sometimes overhear my phone conversations with friends and colleagues. Yesterday, they were here and overheard me ranting about the bankers' attempt to get even looser accounting treatment. Right afterwards, the 5 year old said: "Those must be really bad people if they lie so much."

She made me think a bit. We've always known that the only way to offset a bubble bursting is to inflate an even bigger bubble somewhere else. And most of us learned from our parents that if you lie, you'll just have to make up bigger lies to cover it up too. I'd just never made the connection before but a child did.

At the heart of every bubble is a lie, often multiple lies. At a minimum, there is extraordinary mis-valuation and mal-investment. But usually, it is much worse than that - deliberate fraud and orchestrated deception on a large scale. One of the earliest was the South Seas Bubble, which rested on visions of wealth from commerce with exotic countries when in fact there was little basis and certainly no profit from such activities. In much the same way, the tech bubble produced fantasies of fabulous profits from commerce using exotic technologies. Both visions were fed to credulous "investors" by a whole host of con men and by the belief that the herd must be stampeding to rich pastures.

Every bubble has its (many) victims and its villains. The best way to avoid them is to remember something else your parents probably told you: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

Friday, May 9, 2008

Fed Deception Wears Thin

Two critical events in the last 24 hours:

1) AIG reports an enormous loss
This is very important since insurance is the largest financial sub-sector which does not have access to the Fed's discount window, which has been used to conceal the losses or the various swap programs designed maintain the fraud that some banks are not insolvent. Given that, an honest report from AIG gives us some insight into what the REAL situation looks like in the financial industry and it's not pretty. With the strains imposed on the Fed's balance sheet by their past actions there is essentially zero chance that the insurance industry as a whole will get access.

Yesterday's selloff was triggered by an SEC announcement that greater disclosure would be required in the balance sheets of investment banks. Financials dropped hard. Essentially anything that interferes with the ability of the banks to commit fraud is going to tank the sector since fraud is the only thing between some of them and bankruptcy. The follow through from AIG just reinforces this as the look behind the curtain revealed loses of nearly $8 billion this quarter and there's no end in sight. They will raise $12 billion in new capital and also (weirdly) raise the dividend. So they bought back stock when it was expensive a year or two ago. Now they're selling when it's cheap. Buy high, sell low is not a good way to make money. We saw this trend coming back in November and wrote about it in Tactical Nukes

"Liquidity" has been removed. LBOs of any real size are dead. Instead of buying back shares to reduce the supply, corporations are starting to issue more stock and increase supply just as demand is falling. It looks to me as if the even the tactical bull case has been nuked at this point. The strategic case is long-dead. What is the reason to still own stocks today?

Also they are raising cash but will increase the rate at which they burn it by paying out higher dividends. Hello? Earth to AIG, anybody home?

2) Citigroup to sell half a trillion dollars of assets
$500 billion - that is a big number. Just for perspective, that is twice as large as all of the Fed's uncommitted assets. Like I've said before, Citigroup is too big for the Fed to save and this at least shows that management is taking action to control the damage on their own. For that I applaud them.

The flip side is going to be truly problematic for the financial sector though. Most of the Fed's actions have been aimed at preventing everyone from finding out what these assets are really worth. They've loaned out a bunch of money specifically so that banks could hold the assets instead of selling them - thereby establishing a market price for them. This announcement from Citi indicates that the game of hide the garbage may be over finally. Since the asset base involved is so big, there is no entity on the planet with enough money to allow them to hold on indefinitely. Once market prices for the assets are established, balance sheets across the financial world will have to be adjusted to the new valuation levels. This should result in another big round of writeoffs and losses.

Smaller and more nimble players may choose to get out quickly, before this enormous wave of selling. The selling itself will drive down prices, especially when it occurs on this scale. Just as the buying induced by the credit bubble drove asset prices up. If I were a manager in the banking sector (which thankfully I am not), I would front-run the sale of Citigroup assets so as to get the best price NOW. Sometimes he who panics first, panics best.

My major concerns at this point are where to put my money to keep it safe. The Fed games have ensured that we have little information on which to base our analysis. JP Morgan and Bank of America seem to be the "designated survivors" in the banking sector. Lending directly to the Federal government via Treasuries and small community banks with very high lending standards seem like the only other viable options. I am hopeful the these latest revelations bring the equity indicies back to more rational levels so that we can avoid the severe crash that a sudden recognition event would cause.