yearend tax selling

tax selling…

It’s a little late in the day to be writing about this topic, which is perhaps indicative of my ambivalent attitude toward the idea.

…by professionals

Professional portfolio managers, by and large, don’t pay much attention to tax selling, for several reasons:

–we’re trained to think that tax considerations are much less important than company fundamentals in making buy and sell decisions,

–many of the portfolios we manage are tax-exempt–in fact, clients sometimes stress to us that they’re indifferent about whether profits come as ordinary income or capital gains,

–company fundamentals are way more important

–most professionals spend all their time watching their clients’ money, not their own.

Tax considerations aren’t nothing, though.

Mutual fund managers have always got to keep an eye on the size of the profits they generate, since virtually all of the have to be distributed as taxable gains to their shareholders.  In addition, for many individuals, investment gains–either through their own active management or from distributions from mutual funds or ETFs can be a significant source of (taxable) income.  So they’ve got to be at least aware of how big that income is.

…for individuals like us

As an individual, I have four general thoughts:

1.  I live in a state, New Jersey, where the state taxes on investment gains are very high.  So I try–earlier than the last day of the year–to flatten my gains by taking losses.

2.  Combing the portfolio for losers forces me to consider carefully any security that is below my cost.  I often find that the process forces me to  recognize that the fundamentals of a given security are bad (we’re all good at deceiving ourselves in this regard).  So I end up selling for fundamental reasons.  The search for tax losses is only the occasion, or the trigger, for my sale.  In some cases, the loss can be an ego-saving excuse.  In my view, that’s the main value of the process.

3.  As peculiar as it sounds at first, a loss has a financial value for a taxable investor.  It’s the ability to shelter gains on other investments from taxes.  For a losing stock that has little purpose in a portfolio, recognizing that value sooner than later is probably wise.

4.  Not selling a stock because you have a big capital gain is an easy–but sometimes painful–mistake to make.  So I have to do a sanity check on winners, as well.

I have a friend who had a very large inherited position in GE when it was a $40+ stock in 2007.  At the time, I wasn’t a fan of GE.  I thought Jack Welch was a brilliant self-publicist who had convinced the financial press that hamburger was filet mignon and who had left Jeff Immelt a horrible mess to clean up.  My view of Mr. Welch hasn’t  changed; my respect for Mr. Immelt has grown.

My friend said she felt she couldn’t sell because she depended on the dividend income from the shares.  She also said she had a cost basis of only a couple of dollars, so taxes would take huge bite (25% or so) out of her capital.  Since then, however, GE slashed its quarterly payout from $.31 to $.10–it has just been raised to $.17–and the stock now sells for $18.

In hindsight, it would have been a lot better to at least diversify away from GE and pay the taxes.  (An unbelievably gutsy investor could have bought the stock back for less than $6 in early 2009, but stuff like that never happens in real life.)

importance of the cash flow statement: it’s like mushrooms

why project a cash flow statement?

While I was in graduate school, I spent a year in Germany studying at Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen.  Before school started I lived for a while with a German family.  Every Saturday morning we would roam the local woods in search of the mushrooms that would comprise one or two of our meals during the following week.  Since I had no clue what I was doing, my hosts would scrutinize any mushrooms I found very carefully to make sure they weren’t poisonous.

One type, the death cap–which I never stumbled across–still stands vividly in my mind.  According to my family and to public service announcements on tv, not only was this mushroom deadly, but the first symptoms of its effects only developed after the poisoning was too far advanced to be treated.

There’s an analog to this situation in the investment world.  These are cases where the financial results of past management actions narrow the scope of future possible outcomes to the point where one or two become highly probable–if not unavoidable. In these cases, management is never going to spell out the constraints it it working under.  Nevertheless, the current financial condition probably makes their future actions very highly predictable.

Projecting a cash flow statement for such a company is the way to uncover and evaluate.  (An analyst should do this for every company under coverage.  In my experience, most don’t.  In “mushroom” cases, however, the cash flow statement is crucial.)


a toy company

In the early Nineties I was following–and for a while owned shares in–a small publicly owned toy company.  It earned, say, $10 million annually.  One year it had a surprisingly successful spring-driven flying toy doll for girls.  The following year it decided to make a similar toy for boys, with a martial theme and a stronger spring.  As I recall, the firm decided to spend $40 million on materials and labor for this toy (a real roll of the dice at 4x total corporate earnings).  It got the money through trade financing and borrowing from its bank.  The risk was especially high, since all the manufacturing had to be done at one time, in preparation for the yearend holiday selling season.  On the other hand, the prior year’s toy had been a smash hit; the firm really understood the boy market and felt this one would be, as well.

Soon after the toy was on the shelves of toy stores, the company began to get reports that the combination of a strong spring and curious young boys was resulting in severe eye injuries to users.  The government mandated a recall.  The $20 million in profits the company had envisioned was up in smoke.  The inventory that had cost $40 million to make was now worth close to zero.

Do the math.  At most $10 million in earnings from other toys vs. $40 million in short-term financing needing to be repaid = no way out.

the Mets

The New York Times published a recent article on the Mets’ finances, titled “For Mets, Vast Debt and Not a Lot of Time.”  There isn’t enough publicly available information to draw a firm conclusion, but if the figures in the article are correct, the Mets don’t have much wiggle room.  The current club drive to lower the total player salary bill may be the only real option it has.  Specifically,

Sources of funds:

The Mets lost $70 million (I’m presuming that this is a pre-tax figure, but this isn’t clear) last season, with a player payroll of about $150 million.  Let’s say the actual pre-tax cash outflow was $30 million.

If we make the (optimistic) assumption that ticket sales and concession revenue in 2012 is constant with 2011, then lowering payroll to $100 million will result in a pre-tax loss of $20 million for 2012.  Cash flow should be positive, at about $20 million.

2013 cash inflow = $40 million ?

2014 cash inflow = $50 million ?

Uses of funds:

repayment of $25 million to Major League Baseball, now overdue

repayment of $40 million Bank of America bridge loan

repayment of $430 million team loan in 2014.

If, again, the NYT figures are correct and the cash inflow numbers I’ve made up for 2012-14 are anywhere close, the Mets won’t be able to make much of a dent in the 2014 principal repayment requirement.  It seems to me that dealing with the $430 million that comes due in three years is the major management issue.

What I’ve written above is just the bare bones.  The Mets are attempting to find outside investors who are willing to accept having no say in the running of the organization.  Suit by the Madoff trustee is pending.  And, of course, there’s the tangled relationship between the Mets and SNY, the Wilpon-controlled cable network to which the club has sold broadcast rights.


Eastman Kodak has been supporting its ongoing turnaround through outside financing and asset sales.   Looking at the cash flow statement for the past couple of years and projecting it forward for the next few will be highly instructive.

Current market worries about Italy’s sovereign debt also have a cash flow basis.   The issue is the current high cost of refinancing maturing debt.  Unlike the previous corporate instances, Italy’s new government has much greater scope for initiating reforms that can change market perceptions quickly.  And perceptions, rather than the amount of outstanding debt (which is typically the corporate issue), are the main concern here.  Still, projecting sources and uses of funds forward for several years will give a much clearer grasp on the issues than simply watching current yields.







Sony/Samsung LCD jv restructuring: a study in cash flow vs. earnings

the Sony/Samsung LCD-making joint venture

On Monday Sony and Samsung announced a restructuring of the joint venture they entered into during 2004 to manufacture large liquid crystal displays for televisions.

The joint venture developed out of Sony’s dire need of LCD manufacturing capacity (it had badly underestimated how quickly flat panels would replace traditional CRTs) and Samsung’s desire to achieve economies of scale and its hope for technology transfer.  But after seven years, in a world awash in LCD-making factories, and given Samsung’s technological dominance over Sony, the jv had outlived its usefulness.

I haven’t looked at Sony carefully for years.  My overall impression continues to be that the firm is a mess.  But that’s not what I want to write about.

terms of the jv restructuring

The essentials of the recasting of the LCD joint venture are:

–Samsung will buy out Sony’s interest (50% minus one share) for around $950 million in cash,

–Sony agrees to buy LCDs from Samsung (no details of the arrangement given),

–Sony will record a loss of $850 million on the sale, implying its ownership interest is being carried on the balance sheet as worth $1.8 billion, and

–Sony expects to save about $160 million a quarter–a combination of savings on LCD purchases and being freed of the need to make new investments in the jv.

earnings and cash flow implications for Sony


The writeoff of its 2004 investment will depress Sony’s March 2012 earnings by $850 million.  The $950 million payment will be treated as a return of capital and won’t show on the income statement.

If we assume that the jv is simply breaking even, which is probably much too optimistic, there will be no effect, positive or negative, on future eps for Sony from its dissolution.  To the degree that the jv is loss-making, that red ink will disappear from the income statement.

cash flow

Here’s where the significant positive impact comes.  The transaction turns a loss-making asset into significant positive cash flow.

First, of course, Sony takes in $950 million in cash early next year, an amount equal to roughly 5% of the company’s market cap.

Second, it avoids having an outflow of money that it estimates at $160 million per quarter.  In other words, Sony enhances its cash flow by that amount.

Two positives from this:

–Sony can reallocate the cash saved to more productive activities, and

–my quick perusal of Sony’s most recent form 6-K (on page 18) suggests that the $160 million a quarter the jv was using up is virtually all the cash flow Sony is currently generating.

my point

This kind of transaction is a staple of value investing, where a loss-making asset that earnings-oriented investors regard as worthless is sold–and thereby is shown to have substantially more value than the market has realized.  In the case of larger sales or smaller companies, transactions like these can be transformative.

the SEC is looking at hedge fund performance claims

the new approach

Today’s Wall Street Journal tells about current SEC efforts to scan the hedge fund universe in search of  potential civil fraud.  The idea is to use computer analysis to identify hedge funds whose results are too good to be true–where the operators rarely, if ever, have a down month, or where aggregate results are sensationally good.  This new direction apparently comes as a result of the agency’s failure to detect the gigantic Ponzi scheme that Bernie Madoff ran for many years–despite being supplied continuous evidence of the fraud by investigator Harry Markopolos.

Markopolos, a financial analyst, was asked by his employers to “reverse engineer” Madoff’s returns and create a duplicate it could market to clients.  A quick look at the numbers was enough for Markopolos to suspect fraud.  It took him less than a day to develop conclusive proof, which he then tried in vain to present to the SEC for close to a decade.

The new SEC interest in hedge funds appears to mimic the Markopolos methods.  The agency is also extending its scrutiny to mutual funds and private equity.

it’s about time

For years, academic studies have concluded that the returns hedge funds report to the public are at best implausible, and most likely false.

My favorite is one led by NYU professor Stephen Brown.  He analyzed investigations done by a hedge fund due diligence firm,,  which was hired by potential institutional customers to check out new managers.  It turns out that about a fifth of the hedge funds misled, despite the fact they knew their assertions would be checked.  It also turns out that customers generally hired the dishonest hedge fund managers, despite the due diligence warnings.  Go figure.

The biggest reasons for falsifying returns, in my view, is that reporting is voluntary and that the databases which collect the numbers make no attempt to check the figures.

an example

The WSJ article cites the case of the now-defunct ThinkStrategy Capital Management.  TSCM reported a return of +4.6% for 2008 in its Capital Fund-A, a year in which the fund actually lost 90%.  Chetan Kapur, who ran TSCM, also reportedly inflated his assets under management in reports to shareholders and wrote about non-existent team of analysts supporting him.  Kapur also continued to manufacture and report performance numbers for Capital Fund-A, even after the fund was shut down.

The article says there are lots more where TSCM came from.

I believe it.



a final note on the Olympus scandal

a recap

During the summer, the newly appointed CEO of Olympus, Michael Woodford, followed up on an account in a Japanese magazine of severe financial irregularities at Olympus (TYO: 7733).  He discovered a number of failed M&A transactions involving gigantic payments to obscure companies that disappeared from existence soon after receiving the money.

He was fired for his pains.  He promptly left Japan, saying he feared for his personal safety.  Once in the UK, he disclosed everything to the world financial press.

An independent panel was appointed by the Olympus board of directors to investigate the situation.  The panel determined that Olympus had engaged in speculative “financial engineering (zaitech)“, presumably arranged for it by its investment bankers, starting in the late 1980s.  Like virtually everyone else who did this in Japan, Olympus lost its shirt.  It covered the losses up, again presumably using a service (tobashi) provided by its brokers.  This generated a cycle of progressively larger cover-ups and money-losing speculations that lasted over two decades.  The fake M&A was an attempt to get money to pay off creditors and end the cycle once and for all.

what’s new

Olympus has avoided delisting by providing the Tokyo Stock Exchange with accurate accounting statements by a mid-December deadline.  The “new” Olympus has book value of about a third of what it had previously claimed.

The stock lost about 60% of its value since the Woodford firing.

Two American funds managers appear to have held close to 10% of the company’s stock at the time the scandal broke.

The newest chairman of Olympus appears to me to be proposing that:

–the company’s board needs only a symbolic shakeup (where one or two members make a ritual expression of regret and resign), and

–Olympus should recapitalize by issuing stock to other members of the Fuji group, like Canon or Fuji Film.

my thoughts

Olympus is a typical Japanese technology-related company.  It’s torn between the need for constant innovation to keep up in  an increasingly complex and rapidly evolving world and its presence in a social/cultural environment where preserving the status quo is acknowledged as perhaps the highest goal.

Current management seems to be in the process of arranging a “traditional” solution to Olympus’s problems–one that doesn’t probe too deeply and where a new corporate direction launched by change of management is completely out of the question.  It sounds like other Fuji companies are willing to help this happen.

In other words, business as usual in Japan.

My guess is that this is the most likely outcome.  After all, except for what I think of as counter-culture companies run by younger Japanese, this has been standard operating procedure when companies get into trouble for the twenty-five years I’ve been watching the Japanese stock market.

Any signs that this time will be different should be studied carefully for potential to be a bellwether of change. (I’m not optimistic, though.)

I’m most curious about the foreign professional investors who  held large positions in Olympus.  Didn’t they know anything about Japan?  Did they really think that buying companies with low price to book or price to cash flow ratios would bring the same kind of success it does in the US?  Didn’t they see that this approach has failed time after time in Japan?

Apparently not.