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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Market Thoughts 3-14

Now that last nights ruminating and bloviating is out of my system (temporarily I assure you) let’s turn our attention and focus to more important matters. We finally got a rally in the stock market this week with 4 actual honest to god up days in a row. Hats off to Doug Kass for a brilliant bottom call. Frankly I am amazed it took so long to develop. Every indicator I have ever used was oversold, in most cases ridiculously so. I starting saying a few weeks ago we were probably due for a good little rally in the market. Day after day I watched the market fail to get a bid and just drop lower. There was a global buyers strike in equities. Now, we finally have a little bounce here, up about 10% in just the last four days. Let the rejoicing begin, the Bear is dead!

Umm.not so fast. In my mind to believe the stock market has pout in a bottom you have to believe that two things tha just do not hold up to examination. First, you have to believe that real estate has stopped going down. Plunging real estate prices and soaring foreclosure rates are the major problem in the economy. According to RealtyTrac foreclosures jumped 30% last month on a year over year basi., More than 10% of homes with a mortgage are at least one payment behind. A little basic supply and demand math tells you that all these homes being dumped on the market are going to push prices lower still in the months ahead. We still have a wave of ALT-A and Option Arm loans to reset this year. A very high percentage of these 2006-2007 loans are going to default. The buyers could not afford the reset payment rate if their life depended on it. Design all the government mortgage bail out plans you want. Short of giving these folks the house or charging 0 %interest for the life of the loan, as well extending the loan to 50 years in term, they are going to default.
Much was made of the fact that housing inventories declined a little in January and February. Except, not really. There is an estimated 700,000 homes in some stage of the foreclosure process, including other real estate owned on bank balance sheets that are not officially listed for sale yet. ZI have seen estimates as high as 3 million total foreclosures this year. That would be about a 60% increase in inventory levels if it comes to pass. The only buying we see in housing is on the courthouse steps these days. So far, there is not enough vulture activity to soak up the supply and allow prices to stabilize.

The second belief you must hold if you think the rally is an actual bottom is that earnings will get better in the second quarter. To those of you who hold such a belief I shall simply ask, “ Are you high?” Where will such earnings growth come form. Retail? Not a chance. Any sales truncations consummated these days are done to levels designed to clear inventories with little or no margin. Financials? Didn’t you just love the Citigroup memo the other day that they were profitable on an operating basis nit including speciall items. Special items like credit losses and asset write-down’s. I have to check this but I am sure that Citi was profitable without considering the gargantuan losses in every quarter since the crisis began. It’s the losses that have sucked up the $100 billion or so of private and public capital the bank has used to keep the doors open. Financials still have a lot of real estate related problems ahead of them in my opinion. Energy? Sure with falling demand and lower commodity prices their earnings should just explode this quarter. Tech? Last time I looked technology companies sold products and services to other companies and consumers, both of whom are scared to death, over levered and not spending money. We justput in the first quarterly loss ever for the companies that make up the S&P 500 and I just do not think the second quarter will be a hell of a lot better. Everyone thought I was drunk or insane when I said last year we would put a 6 handle on the S%P 500. I was right. I think I am right this time as well. We have not seen a real bottom in this market.

I would love to be proven wrong about this because I am tired of wrestling with the daily dichotomy of a poor stock market and the unbelievably cheap asset values I am seeing on a daily basis. My good friend Corban Bates, a budding value investor and recent grad of Hudson High, sent me a spreadsheet last with week with over 100 companies that trade for less then net current asset value. The last time we were anywhere close to that was the net cash bargains created in the internet blow up and the majority of those paid off handsomely over the next couple of years. You can buy stocks like ADPT, TECD, and ESIO for less than the value of the company’s liquid assets. You can literally build a portfolio of 40-50 of these that have a good credit scores, viable businesses and excellent recovery prospects. That’s enough to make me salivate at the possibilities for gains over the next several years.

DIS trade for about two thirds of my appraisal value. That is provided we give no value at all to the film library or character rights and price the parks as raw land and put a 5 multiple on after tax earnings DELL trade for less than two cash. HTH is a pile of cash in the hands of a proven investor in distressed banks and other financials. As a bonus the company landed aback door bank charter and will be able to bid on distressed assets and institutions. Southwest Airlines is stupid cheap, trading below tangible book value. Oil service companies like RDC and PTEN trade below net asset value at these levels. I like the idea of buying the Forest City senior debentures at a 30% YTM and what looks to be more than adequate asset coverage. Whitman has been a buyer and although struggled with everyone else last year, he is one of the best credit analysts and distressed guys around. Assets are cheap and normally I would be looking to go all in here.

So far I have resisted the urge. It’s worked for me as week after week the market has moved lower. We have seen a few little rallies but they sputter and fade. I am trying to play good defense whole accumulating cheap assets. It would be hard to play the traditional value game of buy and hold here as assets that look cheap drop another 505 or so, No mater how confident you are of your analytical ability that type of loss generates acidic vomitosis and takes a long for recovery to occur. Instead, I have held inverse ETFS to offset my long exposure. I have sold calls on rallies. The worst that happens is that the stock gets called away and I have to buy it back. In my former life as retail broker high commissions made this unpractical. Today, paying less per trade than the cost of an all night drink cup on ladies night in a dive bar, it’s not an issue. In the case of Southwest Airlines I bought 2001 $5 calls for $2 to create my position. Southwest, the best run airline in the country over 7 in two years? Hell, book value is almost seven. I ll take the bet every day.
For the most part I am avoiding the financials. I noted the other day that the giant distressed firm Oaktree Capital has almost no exposure to the most distressed industry on the planet. I agree with the choice. The major banks are just highly toxic piles of shit. Book values are fiction. Some of the community banks like SVBI and ANNB are stupid cheap but the on going real estate problems are going to plague them for a while yet. We have no idea what rules, regulations and restriction the banks will have to operate under going forward. Until we do, it is hard to make an educated investment in bank stocks. I love community Banks and traded them for years. I paid for one marriage and two divorces because of community bank stocks. I look forward to doing so again but not until we see the new rule book. Financials will not lead the market to a new bull. There are so many other bargains it is easy to ignore them and stay out of the minefield they created for themselves.

The values are there and I am confident that over a span of years I will get paid. I am aware however that there will be more downward pressure on prices and it will be some time yet before an economic and market recovery is affected. We have a ways to go as a nation. Before the bubble consumer debt was less than 70% of GDP according to reports I have seen. It is almost a 100% today. When we were great and growing a s a country we saved for what we bought. We used debt for large purchases and paid it off as quickly as we could. Wed id not take a credit card and spend our home equity on a trip to Barbados or a new pair of Jimmy Woos. We put money down on our homes, qualified for a mortgage and lived in the damn things. To really put things back on track we have to work our way back to that again. It takes time.

I ll buy a little here and there as things become too cheap not to own. But I m going to hedge my bets and use options as much as possible to create and protect positions. In my mind it is foolish for an investor not to do so. I have no interest in calling a bottom or executing short term directional trade right now. I have seen two many guys and girls carried out on their shield in the last two years to even think the reward could be worth the risks. Protect capital, find deep undervaluations and be damned careful.

Next time out I will cover really important shit like baseball and why the Orioles have a great team of position players but the usual collection of rag arms and no names on the hill will make it difficult to compete again this year. Maybe talk about why a happy many could make the Dodgers the best of the NL and Teixeira taking the Yankees back to the playoffs. Goes without saying that we will examine why the god damn scum sucking rat bastard Red Sox are the very definition of all that is evil and foul in the world today

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