14 July 2007

Presentation to CFA association, New York

A recent example of the flawed nature of this market came to my attention when my associate, Julian Mann, showed me a very garden variety LIBOR sub-prime floating rate security. A major pricing service valued this bond at par, while on March 19, 2007, one of the major rating agencies rated this bond A3. To affirm the accuracy of this bond's pricing, we went to two brokerage firms that traffic in this type of security and requested what their bid might be, if we owned this security. One responded with a $7 bid. In other words, a 7% of par bid, a difference of 93% to the pricing service. The other firm declined to bid, but they did indicate that, if they were to, their bid would have probably been around this level. Julian has found several other similar examples, so this one does not represent the proverbial “needle in the haystack.”

We believe that many of these models are flawed and give a spurious representation of accuracy. Given the deterioration in underwriting standards, models predicated on prior experience have little value when compared to the data of the last two or three years. In essence, one is assuming a normal distribution curve of data for modeling purposes, while in reality you have data that comes from a highly skewed distribution. We are beginning to see the negative effects of flawed modeling by the growing number of downgrades in the sub-prime sector. This trend is also starting to develop in the Alt-A sector as well. We believe these trends will continue to unfold over the next two or three years and should lead to a retrenchment in the securitization/origination industry. If our assessment is reasonably correct, mortgage credit availability will likely contract and, therefore, exacerbate the housing contraction and its effects upon the general economy. We disagree with the opinion expressed by our esteemed Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke, when he said in his speech of May 17, 2007 at Chicago's 43rd annual conference on Bank Structures and Competition, “We believe the effect of the troubles in the sub-prime sector on the broader housing market will likely be limited, and we do not expect significant spillovers from the sub-prime market to the rest of the economy or to the financial system.” We will see if this optimistic assessment proves to be the correct one.

We are of the opinion that the distancing of the borrower from the lender has contributed to the development of lax underwriting standards. Each participant, in the securitization/origination process, takes their ounce of payment, but no one truly worries about the underlying credit quality since the loan will be sold. Furthermore, most participants are compensated on volume and not quality of loan originated. In our opinion, “a rolling loan gathers no loss.” Possibly, with so many sub-prime originators failing because of loan put-backs to them, some degree of underwriting discipline will return to the market; however, with so many types of loan originators operating outside of the regulatory system with minimal capital, it is far better to originate a loan, capture the fee, and then get out of Dodge, should the business go bad. One can always return another day.

Finally, the securitization market and the multiplicity of products that have been created have never been truly tested in a major credit contraction like that of 1990-94. This is because most of today's securitization products did not exist back then. Another risk is how have they been used in various types of leveraged investment strategies? Have the creators of these products structured their operations to be able to handle a contracting market? It remains to be seen how this all works together. One may gain some insight to the potential risk by reviewing the collapse of the manufactured-housing securitization market. After seven years, it is still a fraction of its former size with all the former major originators gone.

Another example of risk knowing no boundaries, on June 1, the Government of Pakistan issued a $750 million 6.875% of 6/1/2017 dollar denominated bond priced at par and rated B1/B+ at barely 200 basis points above the ten-year Treasury bond yield. The following week in the Los Angeles Times, the headline read, “Musharraf's grip falters in Pakistan.” The second headline, “Dismay over U.S. support of general.” I guess the market believes the extra 200 basis points of yield spread is sufficient compensation for risk. I think not.

This weakening in credit quality trend also applies to the corporate bond market. High-yield bond spreads are at record lows, with the CCC component of the Merrill Lynch high-yield index at 18%, more than double the proportion ten years ago. 7 High-yield spreads have declined from nearly 1100 basis points over the Treasury yield in 2002, to barely 240 basis points recently. We believe this narrowing of credit spread is being driven by the near-record low default rates. For this trend to continue, a near “perfect” credit environment must continue. We see virtually no margin of safety for this sector. This narrow credit spread environment is the key driver that is propelling Private Equity and their bids for companies. As Dan Fuss, manager of the top-performing $10.7 billion Loomis Sayles Bond Fund, recently said, “I haven't felt this nervous about a market ever.” 8

The Private Equity (PE) industry is flourishing. PE has seen its capital raising rise more than ten-fold between 1990 and 2000, only to witness a temporary pullback in 2002, and then more than double between 2000 and 2006. PE is no different than any other hot investment trend, in that its peak capital raising and capital deployment occurred in 2000, the stock market peak, only to see this process collapse in 2002, the stock market trough. Capital deployment fell from $270 billion in 2000 to $49 billion in 2002, per the Leuthold Group. I call this process “buy higher” and then “don't buy lower.” Now we've seen PE fundraising rise to new all-time highs and along with that, acquisitions as well. Leuthold estimates that in 2006 $469 billion in cash acquisitions were announced and/or completed. While this was occurring, valuations have skyrocketed, according to JP Morgan's data. 9 Between 2001 and 2006, the average EV/EBITDA multiple paid rose 41%, from 6.1x to 8.6x. Leverage increased 54%, with the Average Total Debt/EBITDA multiple rising from 4.6x to 7.1x.

We are of the opinion that PE is pushing the boundaries of prudence and that this trend is elevating valuations in the equity market. It would not surprise us that there will be many other Chrysler situations in three to five years. By that I mean, Daimler-Benz A.G. paid approximately $36 billion for the Chrysler Corporation in 1998, only to sell 80.1% of its ownership for $7.4 billion in 2006. Given that this is other people's money, why worry.

Since 2000 hedge funds have more than doubled in number, while their assets have tripled. They too are using elevated levels of leverage, as are PE firms and investors in highly leveraged fixed income securities. These funds are heavy users of derivatives. The Global derivatives market grew nearly 40% in 2006--the fastest pace in the last nine years--to $415 trillion, per the Bank of International Settlements. The amount of contracts based on bonds more than doubled to $29 trillion. The actual money at risk through credit derivatives increased 93% to $470 billion, while that amount for the entire derivatives market was $9.7 trillion. 10The International Monetary Fund, in its April 2006 Global Financial Stability Report, estimated that credit-oriented hedge fund assets grew to more than $300 billion in 2005, a six-fold increase in five years. When levered at 5-6x, this represents $1.5 to $1.8 trillion deployed into the credit markets. Fitch, in their June 5, 2007 special report, “Hedge Funds: The Credit Market's New Paradigm,” says that despite the upward trend in maximum allowable leverage, “notably, no prime broker reported raising margin requirements in response to historically tight credit spreads and growing concerns about the general level of risk-complacency in the credit markets.” The report provides a forced unwind example where an initial 5% price decline in the value of a hedge fund's assets could lead to a forced sale of as much as 25% of its assets, assuming leverage of 4.0x (20% margin). They conclude that liquidity risk is among the more important issues facing credit investors. In an era of constrained returns and narrow yield spreads, increased leverage is the solution since volatility is low; therefore, a higher level of leverage may be utilized. We question this logic.

Enhanced risk taking is widespread here as well. Equity mutual funds are now at or near their all-time record low cash percentage holding of 3.6%. According to the Leuthold Group's data, investors are directing their cash flows to among the riskiest areas of the equity universe—foreign focus equity funds. $80 billion has flowed into these funds through May compared to $11.8 billion for large-cap domestic equity funds and a net outflow of $4.2 billion for small-cap equity funds. This is the second year in a row that the foreign sector has overwhelmed the flows into domestic equity funds. We are of the opinion that investors are chasing the enhanced returns in the foreign sector but do not realize the extent of the risks they may be taking. We see little value in the domestic equity market since we view valuations as being elevated because, in our opinion, consensus profit expectations are assuming unsustainably high operating margins. There appears to be minimal valuation differentiation across most market cap sectors. For example, my value screen just hit a new low in terms of the number of qualifiers. Prior to the recent equity market decline, only 33 companies, with market caps between $150 million and $3 billion, were identified out of nearly 10,000 in the Compustat universe. The previous low was 46 this past February, and before that, it was 47 for both January 2004 and March 1998. When the market cap upper limit was expanded to $150 billion, only ten additional companies qualified. In times past, I would generally get 250 to 400 companies in just the smaller market cap range alone.

No comments: