March 2, 2009

Global Market Comments

March 2, 2009

Featured Trades: (BAC), (GOLD), (POLAND), (CEE), (MSFT), (INTC), (ORCL), (CSCO), (BRK/A), (COP), (JNJ), (GS), (GE)

1) The US is turning into Europe. Think high taxes, high unemployment, more government involvement in everything, and much lower growth. That is the message the markets are telling us by retreating to the 6,000 handle, levels not seen since 1996, and down 54% from the peak only 17 months ago. Equity prices are shrinking to multiples, in line with a permanently lower long term growth rate of maybe 2%, a shadow of the 5% rate seen for much of this decade. Maybe this is what mature economies are supposed to look like. If you do buy American stocks, only buy the ones that are really foreign stocks with American sounding names. Microsoft (MSFT), Intel (INTC), Oracle, (ORCL), Cisco (CSCO) all get 60%-70% of their profits from overseas where high growth rates have migrated. I think I'll move to Tahiti and live off of coconuts and freshly speared fish, wearing only a loin cloth.

2) Bank of America's (BAC) Ken Lewis says that he won't resign until he pays back the $45 billion in TARP money he owes the government. So paying $50 billion for something that is really worth a negative $170 billion is a bad career move? That's a revelation! I can see that secrecy is a concept that is forever banished from the investment community. CEO's won't be able to make an acquisition, nor fund managers raise a single nickel from here on, without a complete undressing, and a full proctologic exam!

3) Warren Buffet and his managers feel like 'hungry mosquitoes in a nudist camp.' So he revealed in his annual letter to investors in Berkshire Hathaway (BRK/A). I love it! This gem is an absolute must read for anyone in the markets. Although Buffet massively outperformed the indices, book value fell 9.6%, the worst performance since he took the helm in 1965. He admitted he did some 'dumb things', like adding to his holding in Conoco Phillips (COP) at the absolute top in the oil market, at the expense of safer stocks like Johnson & Johnson (JNJ). If you analyze his balance sheet and income statement, you can see the method to his madness. He only increased his net equity exposure by $1.3 billion. Much of his new investment went into high guaranteed return instruments, like 10% preferred in Goldman Sachs (GS) and General Electric (GE). He has greatly improved the long term cash flow of BRK/A at the expense of a short term hit to book value. Moves like this justify his 'Sage' appellation.

Berkshire-2.png picture by sbronte

4) Panic buying of gold coins continues to overwhelm coin dealers around the world. According to the Financial Times, the US Mint sold 193,500 American eagles in the first seven weeks of this year, more than it sold in all of 2007 at prices 40% lower. Retail investors fleeing paper assets, like plummeting stocks and bonds, are paying 5% premiums over face values. The same phenomena is appearing in other countries where gold coins are available to the public. Does this have a toppy feel to it?

5) I met my paperboy at 5:00 a.m. this morning, who is actually a Vietnamese girl driving a minivan. She delivered all five at once, which means the newspapers have outsourced local delivery to save money, who then aggregate customers to improve efficiency. Phuong took the rubber bands off of the papers when she saw that I was about to pick them up. Now that is cost cutting!

6) While American banks have their subprime crisis, European banks are being dragged under by their lending to emerging economies in Eastern Europe. Led by UniCredit in Italy, Austria's Erste Group Bank and Raiffeisen International, France's Societe Generale, Belgium's KBC, and Hungary's OTP, banks have lent $1.6 trillion to companies in these formerly communist countries at cheap rates, with minimal documentation, and few questions asked. The easily available credit caused local money supplies to explode, and sparked bull markets in both stocks and currencies. Emerging Europe grew at double and triple rates in the West, as local companies pumped up on steroids became the master of leverage. Now $400-$600 billion is due for rollovers this year from nonexistent credit markets, and the chickens'¦.make that vultures, have come home to roost. Economic growth has fallen off a cliff, with Poland's seasonally adjusted industrial output down in December a precipitous 7.4% YOY. The Polish stock market fell 48% last year and the zloty is off 40% against the dollar from its June peak. The Central European Equity Fund (CEE) has crashed 80% in eight months. The crisis is so severe, it may postpone Poland's entry into the Euro block, which had been scheduled for 2011. Home mortgage borrowers are in especially bad shape. Up to 50% of their loans were denominated in Swiss francs, so the collapsing Polish currency has caused a near doubling of borrowers' monthly payments and principals since last year. Austria really has its knickers in a twist, as these heavily syndicated loans account for 80% of GDP. A 10% default rate could wipe out the entire banking system there. Germany has the smallest loan exposure, but has the most to lose, with 25% of its exports headed east. It is now in negotiation with its partners in the EC to cobble together a bailout with the help of the IMF to provide bridge financing for these loans, and hopefully ward off a further economic collapse. It looks like the headlines in Europe are about to get uncharacteristically sensational.

CentralEurope2.png picture by sbronte


'If you have been playing poker for a half an hour, and you don't know who the patsy is, it's you,' said Warren Buffet.