Greece votes No

Yesterday, Greek voters backed its national administration’s position of rejecting the latest EU bailout conditions in a resounding vote.  60+% of total ballots were “No,” with the nays being a majority in all regions of the country.

S&P futures fell to about -24 when the official voting results were announced shortly before 11pm eastern time last night.  As I’m writing this just before 8am, futures are off by -14; European stock markets are trading lower, but not by much, as is the euro.

Not the best, but not bad, either.

I think what Mr. Tsipras has demonstrated with this vote is that Greece simply will not accept the bailout terms on offer from the ECB/IMF.  Yes, the two sides might sign an agreement, but any Athens government that attempted to implement it would be tossed out of office and replaced by one that would not.

In many ways–and, in particular, from an investment perspective–this simplifies the situation a lot.

 

As I see it, the ball is now in the EU’s court.  It can either make enough further concessions to make a bailout deal palatable to Greek voters   …or it can walk away from the negotiating table, thereby forcing Greece to exit the euro.  The first course presents significant political risks to Brussels and Berlin.  In fact, the Tsipras negotiating style has both brought the idea of further concessions to the point of being at least thinkable and simultaneously made making them much more politically incendiary.  For German voters still paying extra taxes to rebuild the former East Germany, having Ms. Merkel so publicly bested by Mr. Tsipras’ could easily end the political careers of her and her supporters..  I can’t imagine politicians in Ireland, Spain or Portugal who accepted EU austerity regimens faring any better.

We may know which way the EU and IMF have decided very quickly.

Greek banks are supposed to reopen tomorrow, after being shut for a week.  They likely don’t have enough cash, without ECB support, to meet massive demands for withdrawal of deposits that will most likely ensue if those funds haven’t been transmuted into drachma overnight.

 

As an investor, I think Greece leaving the euro today would be the optimal outcome.  This is pure pragmatics.  That way, the Greek crisis would at least be over–for countries other than Greece.  Markets would decline somewhat, sectors would readjust to the new reality  …and then the mind of he market would be on to the next thing.

My guess is that Greece exiting the euro but remaining in the EU will actually be the final outcome.  I also suspect that the process will take longer than just to tomorrow, but that the bulk of the market reaction to whatever happens will take place over the next few days.  The creditors acceding in more than the most superficial way to demands for better terms is the biggest surprise–meaning, least likely outcome–I can think of.

 

What am I doing in my portfolio?

I’m keeping a much closer eye on China (more tomorrow).

I’m watching US trading carefully today.  I’m looking looking for stocks to buy whose prices may be depressed by worries about Greece.  If futures are any indication, I won’t have much luck.

 

 

Greece in a nutshell

Greece joined the euro in 2001.  This gave it the right to print/mint euro currency, as well as to issue Greek sovereign debt in euros.  The second is important because issuing euro debt is like having access to a giant EU credit card–payment was at least implicitly guaranteed by every member of the EU, not just Greece.

Greece probably didn’t meet the criteria of economic health necessary to qualify to join the euro. Everyone in the EU seems to have known this at the time but thought that having the cradle of Western intellectual and political history in the euro was symbolically important.

In 2009, the ruling party lost an election.  The new administration discovered, and announced to the world, that Greece had been systematically falsifying its national accounts–official reports of the country’s fiscal health and growth–for years.  Greece’s apparent prosperity during the opening years of the 21st century turned out to be a combination of lies and living beyond its means, funded by large-scale euro bond issuance.  Most observers agree that Greece run up more debt that it can ever possibly repay.

Negotiations between Greece and its creditors are at an impasse.  Broadly speaking, the EU and IMF want to see structural economic reforms (which may prevent a repeat of the country’s woes) in Greece before any debt forgiveness.  Greece, whose current government has already reversed some of the few reforms implemented over the past six years, wants debt forgiveness first, talks about structural reform later.

The EU put a take-it-or-leave-it offer on the table about a week ago.  The Greek government has decided to call for a national referendum vote on the issue, scheduled for Sunday.  In the meantime, it has shut down its banks, so no one can take their money out of the country.

There are some odd technical issues with the referendum.  For example, one political party is suing to stop the vote, saying it’s unconstitutional.  It’s also coming at the start of vacation season, so it’s not clear whether people can get home to vote, especially with atm withdrawals limited to €60 a day.

Domestic Greek polls indicate that likely voters favor accepting an EU bailout plan by 52/48–even though the administration is campaigning against it.  A “No” vote probably means Greece leaves the euro, and maybe the EU as well.

I have mixed feelings about the negotiations themselves.  On one hand, I’ve got to admire the ingenuity and determination of the Greek side in trying to get the best possible deal.  On the other, everything I’ve I’ve read and heard to make me think Greece regards negotiation as a blood sport.  The point is not to get a fair deal, but to suck the other side dry and toss the husk to the side of the road.  –even a little bit–about the needs of the other side.  It’s turned the negotiations into a fool me once, fool me twice situation, in my view.

I think the current Greek administration may have done a huge amount of damage to the country’s long-term economic prospects by trying so hard.to wriggle out from responsibility for the current crisis.

Ironically, the better outcome for the EU might be for Greece to vote to leave the euro.  The resulting damage to the Greek economy will be enormous, I think.  Seeing what happens will likely silence separatist movements elsewhere in the EU.

Macau casinos

I haven’t written about the Macau casinos for some time, mostly because I haven’t had anything useful to say.  The fact that I’ve called this group horribly wrongly over the past year or so hasn’t encouraged me to make predictions, either.

I’ve traded around in the group (and, in the case of Wynn Macau and Sands China, their US parents, as well) but have kept my overall position size by and large intact.  Shows what I know.

It has seemed to me, wrongly, that all of the bad news about the casinos in Macau has been in the public domain for some time.  The anti-corruption campaign being waged by Beijing–that has made high rollers wary of exhibiting their wealth at the gaming tables–has been going on since 2013.  Restrictions on visitation rights from the mainland to Macau put in place last year have done the rest of the damage.

Both of these factors have been well-known for a long time.  Therefore, it has seemed to me, much/most of the potential damage had to already be factored into the prices of the stocks.

Wrong! The Macau casino stocks have been sold down again and again when the SAR’s gaming authority has announced each month the (highly predictable) year on year gambling revenue decline.  Figuring we were at the bottom six months ago as far as the stocks are concerned, as I did, has clearly been the wrong position to take.

As I’m writing this on Wednesday night, however, the stocks I pay particular attention to–Wynn Macau, Sands China and Galaxy Entertainment–are each up by more than 10%.

Why is this?

It’s because the mainland has rescinded the travel restrictions it inaugurated in 2014.  As far as visiting is concerned, we’re back to the older, more favorable rules.  This plus has been already reflected in US trading over the past two days, but only in overnight trading tonight in Hong Kong.

Are we at the bottom now?

For someone like me, who already has a significant position, this question has no action-related relevance.  And, as I’ve mentioned above, I’ve been wrong about these stocks for a considerable time.  Still, it’s hard to ignore a 10%-15% increase in stock prices.  Also, the second half of 2014 was the period when the Macau gambling market began a serious swoon. Therefore, year on year comparisons for the overall market should soon begin to improve.  We don’t need current results to get any better.  More than anything, the improving comparisons will be coming from deterioration in the base year, 2014.

So. yes, I think this is the bottom.

I also think that the upturn in the gambling market won’t be a rising tide that lifts all boats, was it has been in the past.  I think Wynn Macau, and to a lesser extent, Galaxy Entertainment, have the most to gain.

 

exiting a growth stock

To paraphrase/summarize my last few posts, the key to value stock investing is to buy when things couldn’t be worse.  For growth stock investing it’s to leave the party when things couldn’t seem better.

Generally speaking, the key to making a successful exit from a growth stock is to always keep in mind the qualitative “elevator speech” whose essence is that it contains what you think gives the firm a special edge.  When that story begins to erode–maybe new competition emerges, or the target market the firm is exploiting gives signs of being saturated, or tastes change–it’s time to edge toward the door.  The important thing to remember is that this erosion occurs long before earnings growth begins to slow.

The first disappointing earnings report is typically followed by continuing bad news, so it’s not to late to get out then.  But that first bad report is typically a long way from the top for the stock.  The leading indicators are what really count.  They differ from stock to stock.

Take Wal-Mart as an example.  Its main business was opening superstores in small towns.  Government statistics could have told us how many such towns there are in the US.  That data allow us to figure out how many years of growth the company has before it’s forced to do something different.

Deviations from the norm are another indicator. Starting a second brand suggests #1 may be getting a bit long in the tooth.  Opening outlets in notoriously difficult markets like Los Angeles or New York might also be a signal.

A PE that’s too high for the firm to ever grow into is a third signal that things can’t get much better for the stock.

 

One caveat, something that makes the situation trickier:  most growth companies are unable to reinvent themselves when their initial good idea runs out.  The best of the best, however, are able to do so.  Some of them can do this multiple times.

Apple, for example, has had several lives.  It was initially the story of a near bankrupt company coming back from the brink (led, ironically by the man who put the enterprise on the road to the precipice in the first place, Steve Jobs).  Then it was the iPod company.  Then it was the iPhone company.   Most recently, it’s the firm Tim Cook saved from the craziness of having a phone that’s too small and a tablet that’s too big.

These situations are rare, however.  And there’s always time to change your mind after reducing a position or eliminating it entirely.  So the possibility that stock X might be another AAPL isn’t enough, io my mind, not to exit once the qualitative story begins to break down.

two aspects of securities analysis: quantitative and qualitative

quantitative analysis

The quantitative aspect is easier to describe.  It, however, is much more complex and detailed and may take months to complete.  As a professional, I always thought part of the art of portfolio management was in deciding how much of this I had to do before I bought a stock, how much I could obtain from brokerage house securities analysts, and how much I could leave to fill in after I established a position.

The quantitive plan consists in a projection of future company performance–revenues, operating profits, interest, depreciation, general expenses, taxes…–for each line of business and for the company as a whole, over the next several years.  Creating spreadsheets this detailed is an ideal that’s striven for but seldom reached in practice.  That’s because companies rarely disclose this much information in their SEC filings.

Lengthy reports, called basic reports, issued by old-fashioned (i.e., “full service”) brokerage houses are the best example of what a quantitative analysis should look like.  Signing up for Merrill Edge discount brokerage will get you access to such reports.

The most important thing about them, in my view, is the analytical work, not necessarily the opinion.  I think the Merrill analyst covering Tesla, for instance, does extremely good work.  All the relevant issues and numbers are clearly laid out.  Last I read, he thought that fair value for the stock was around $75 a share.  Although he provides very valuable input, and he may ultimately be proven correct, I think he’s way too pessimistic about the stock.

qualitative analysis

This is the general concept behind an investment.  It’s extremely important–more important than the exact numbers, in my view–but it may be as short as an elevator speech.  In most cases, the shorter the better.

Examples, many of which are not current:

–Wal-Mart builds superstores on the outskirts of US cities with a population of 250,000 or less.  They offer better selection and lower prices than downtown merchants do, so they take huge market share everywhere they open.  There are a gazillion such towns left to exploit.

–J C Penney is trading at $25 a share. It owns or controls property that has a value, if rented to third parties, of $50 a share, plus a retail business that is making money.  The latte is worth more than zero as-is.  Let’s say $5 a share.  Taking control of JCP and breaking it up could double our money.

–Adobe is changing from a sales model for its software to a rental one.  This will eliminate counterfeiting, which is probably much more extensive than anyone now realizes.  We know from other industries that going from buy to rent probably doubles profits, even without considering eliminating theft. No one seems to believe this.   Therefore, ADBE’s profit growth over the next two or three years will be surprisingly good.

–Company X is a cement company.  It’s currently beaten down by an economic slowdown and is trading at 40% of book value.  At the next economic peak, it will likely be trading at 100% of book–which will be 20% higher than it is today.  Therefore, the stock should triple in price.

More tomorrow.

why selling is the most important for growth investors

Value investors make money by finding companies that are undervalued based on the state of their business today.  Their capabilities typically become undervalued because of bad management, a temporary misstep in judgment or a cyclical downturn.  Any of these factors will usually trigger an excessively negative emotional reaction by the market–creating the buying opportunity.

Growth investors like me, on the other hand, are dreamers.  We try to find companies that will likely be expanding their profits at a faster rate than the market expects, and for a longer time than the market expects.

Where the value investor asks “What can go wrong in the here and now from this point on?” and answers “Nothing that the market hasn’t already discounted three times over,” the growth investor asks “What can go right over the next few years that market is unwilling to pay for today?”

 

A generation ago, the classic growth stock was Wal-Mart (WMT), a company that built superstores on the outskirts of small towns with under 250,000 population and prospered by taking market share away from inefficient mom and pop local merchants.  It started in Arkansas and grew…and grew…and grew, for a long as there were new small towns to attack.

In this generation, we might think of Apple (AAPL) or Google (GOOG).  In the former case, it was the ability of a highly skilled management to resuscitate the brand and produce the iPod and then the iPhone that the market didn’t understand when the stock was at $25.  With GOOG, it’s the power of search that was vastly underestimated.

If a stock is going to reach, say, $100 a share–the growth investor’s dream–whether we pay $10 or $12 or $20 isn’t the crucial decision.   Getting on the train at some early stop is all that matters.

Selling at the appropriate point, however, is much more crucial.

How so?

what goes up…

Let’s say the market expects that a certain company is going to grow profits at 15% per year for at least the next several years.  The next quarterly earnings report comes in at +20% in profit growth; management says it thinks it can continue to grow at the higher rate.

Two positive things typically happen:

–the stock rises to adjust for the higher reported earnings, and

–the price earnings multiple expands, as the market begins to factor in the idea that the firm can grow more quickly than it thought.  In other words, the price rises more than simply the good earnings report would justify.

Let’s say that the quarter after that, earnings come in at +25%–and that management continues to make bullish comments about its future.

The same thing–two levels of upward price adjustment, higher earnings, higher multiple–happens again.

For a true growth stock, a WMT or an AAPL or a GOOG, this process of upward adjustment can go on for years.

At some point, though,

must come down

…the stock market gets tired of being wrong on the downside.  It makes an emotional swing to the upside that can’t possibly be justified by the company’s fundamentals   …ever.

Typically, this is expressed as a sky-high price earnings multiple.

In addition, in my experience, the life span of a typical shooting star earnings grower is about five years.  After that, earnings growth begins to slow.  The crazy multiple expansion comes toward the tail end of the super growth period.

 

As the market senses that slower growth is in the offing, the process of upward adjustment goes into reverse.  The stock declines to reflect weaker than anticipated earnings, and the price earnings multiple begins to contract.

This is usually a very ugly process, with the stock declining much more than one might ordinarily expect.

 

The trick for a growth investor is to exit the stock, at least in large part if not totally, before this happens.

 

More on Monday.

 

 

 

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