thinking about PCs

Yes, I think the traditional PC is dying.

Desktops are already relics.  Waiting for any PC to boot up is a chore–especially if you get caught in one of those seemingly interminable update cycles Windows is so fond of.  Experiencing instant-on tablets just makes the PC look slower.

If you own a Dell or an HP, it’s worse than just the hardware limitations.  You’re also saddled with a heavy, clunky-looking machine that breaks a lot and where customer service is poor.

But the current slump in PC sales is considerably more shallow than the headline numbers imply.  Those include the crashing and burning of the netbook (I own one but thought that as a concept the netbook had long since died.  Apparently not until 2013).  Ex netbooks, global PC sales are down by 5% or so, year on year.

Consumers switching to tablets is a key reason for the lack of oomph in PCs.  Tablets are smaller, lighter, cheaper.  They’re instant on.  You can play tons of casual–or, like Kingdom Rush, not so casual, games on them.  By the way, my friend Pam told me about appsgonefree, an app whose sole purpose is to introduce you to free apps (Art Race is my favorite so far.)

I don’t think current tablets are the device of the future either, however.  They’re underpowered.  Invariably, apps are truncated versions of PC applications.  If  I want to do anything in depth, I invariably find that I have to leave the app and go to the “full” site via Chrome.  It’s hard to type on a tablet.  For iPads, the lack of a USB port makes it a pain in the neck to import anything.

That’s what makes the newest generation of Intel chips–with better to come as time goes on–so potentially interesting.  They the first Intel offerings tailored specifically for mobile devices.  They won’t cure Dell or HP’s lack of design flair or customer awareness.  But they will enable either much more useful tablets or cheaper, next-generation PCs  that we should begin to see this holiday season.

I suspect part of the weak PC sales story is that many potential PC buyers are awaiting the arrival of these new devices rather than purchasing soon-to-be dinosaurs.

 

Moffett Research, Vodafone’s financials, Wall Street’s security analysts

The “Heard on the Street” column of today’s Wall Street Journal talks about the purchase commitment Verizon Wireless had to make to Apple in order to be able to offer the iPhone on its network.

a footnote in the Vodafone financial statements

The information comes from newly-formed Moffett Research LLC, a venture headed by Craig Moffett, the truly excellent (former) telecoms analyst at Bernstein.  Mr. Moffett points to a footnote in the financial statements of  Vodafone plc, a Verizon Wireless co-owner, that implies Verizon Wireless has committed to buy a minimum of $44.7 billion worth of iPhones during 2011-2013.  The company spent only $18.5 billion on iPhones through the end of last year, however, and still had $2 billion worth (Mr. Moffett’s number) in inventory.

That leaves $26.2 billion worth of iPhones to be bought this year (my arithmetic–HotS says the shortfall is $23.5 billion).

I find three aspects of this story interesting:

1.  Neither Verizon Wireless nor Verizon disclose this information.  It took a sharp-eyed telecom specialist combing through the back pages of a UK company’s financials to spot the figures and realize their significance.

This example illustrates what security analysts do for a living, as well as the depth of information that traditionally has been at the fingertips of any professional investor who does business with the major brokerage firms who employ these analysts and furnish their research to customers.  In other words, no matter how dull-witted the pro and how smart we as individual investors are, the pro has a huge information advantage starting out.

2.  Mr. Moffett started up his new firm two months ago.  It may be that he’s decided he can make more money as an independent than as an employee of Bernstein.  More likely, if past Wall Street form follows true, is that Bernstein has started to dismantle its high-powered equity research effort.  Why do so?  Wall Street believes that research is a money losing business.

3.  What happens if/when Verizon Wireless falls short of its $44.7 billion purchase commitment?

HotS doesn’t say.

Using (very) round numbers, the shortfall will likely be $10 billion or so.  In contracts of this type that I’m familiar with, Verizon Wireless would have to pay that amount to Apple shortly after the end of the year.  Verizon Wireless would, however, get a credit against future purchases of a gradually declining percentage of the shortfall payment.

Given the popularity of the competing Samsung Galaxy phone line, I imagine the shortfall payment will be a prominent element in negotiations over supply arrangements in 2014.

On another note,  I wonder how Apple and Verizon have been accounting for the minimum purchase contract.   HotS says the minimums for 2011-13 are:  $13.7 billion, $14 billion, $17 billion, respectively.  The actual purchases have been $8.4 billion and $10.2 billion in 2011 and 2012.

Both firms are most likely using the actuals, not the contracted minimum amounts.  Might be a little awkward for Apple, though, if it isn’t.

junk bond ETFs underperforming in a down market: it’s the nature of the beast

ETFs

ETFs are a great innovation, in my view.  Legally, they’re set up as investment corporations, like mutual funds (read my posts on ETFs vs. mutual funds for more details).  But, unlike mutual funds, which process buys and sells in-house (and charge a recurring fee to holders for doing so), ETFs outsource this market-making function to Wall Street brokerage firms.

This difference has several consequences:

–no recurring fee, so lower overall fund expenses,

–you can buy and sell all through the trading day, instead of selling at closing net asset value,

–unlike a mutual fund, an ETF holder has no guarantee he can transact at NAV, and

–you pay the broker a commission and a bid-asked spread when you transact (the second is an “invisible” cost that may offset the advantage of lower fund fees).

If you’re a buy-and-hold investor (the wisest course for you and me, in my opinion), ETFs have it all over index funds, especially for very liquid products like an S&P 500 index.

what about junk bond ETFs?

Why, then, have junk bond index ETFs been seriously underperforming their benchmarks during the current period of rising interest rates?

Several obvious factors:

–junk bonds aren’t particularly liquid.  Many don’t trade every day.  In fact, junk bond fund and ETF managers employ independent pricing services, which estimate the value of bonds that haven’t traded that day, in order to calculate daily NAV.

This means that if redemptions come, a junk bond index fund/ETF has to go hunting for buyers and won’t get the best prices for the bonds it’s selling.  The sharper-than-benchmark falls in ETF NAVs suggests they’re taking big haircuts on the positions they’re liquidating.

–ETFs attract short-term traders, who are more prone to redeem

–ETFs can be sold short, adding to downward  pressure

–ETFs don’t accept dribs and drabs of redeemed shares from the investment banks it uses as middlemen.  Brokers hold until they have minimum exchangeable quantities.  While they’re waiting, they may hedge their positions–meaning they may short the ETF, too.

Ouch!

One not-so-obvious one:

Unlike a mutual fund, the broker you’re buying and selling through has no obligation to transact for you in an ETF at NAV.  Quite the opposite.  Your expectation should be that the broker will make a profit through his bid-asked spread.

The broker typically has a very good idea what NAV is on a minute-to-minute basis.  Individuals like us usually don’t.  NOt a great bargaining position to be in.

In addition, in contrast with an S&P 500 index fund, where the broker gets an up-to-date NAV every 15 seconds, no one knows precisely what a junk bond fund NAV is at any given time (certainly the broker has a better idea than you and me, but that’s another issue).  This uncertainty makes the broker widen his spread.

On top of that, when a broker is taking on more inventory of shares than he feels comfortable with, he’ll widen his spread further, to discourage potential sellers from transacting.

Brokers know how much money they make through these spreads.  No one else does.  We do know, though, that in past times of stress the last trade of the day in a less-liquid ETFs has often been substantially below NAV.  My guess is that recent junk bond ETF sellers have paid a hefty price through the bid-asked spread to get their transactions done.  If you’re one, compare your selling price with that’s day’s NAV and see.

the SEC says issuers of private securities, like hedge funds, can now advertise their wares

SEC disclosure 

The SEC has very specific rules that limit what a company can say, either about itself or about the securities it’s selling, when it’s in the process of issuing stocks or bonds.

The securities of some companies aren’t subject to general SEC oversight,  either because the firms are tiny or the securities are being sold only to a small group of supposedly savvy buyers.  In such cases, the SEC rules have been, basically, that the firm can say nothing publicly.  In particular, the issuing company can’t solicit interest from the general public or advertise its offerings in ways the general public might see–like in newspapers or on the internet.

a rule change

That changed last year when Congress passed the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act.  This legislation requires the SEC to take back the regulations that bar solicitation and advertising by issuers of non-regulated securities.  Mary Shapiro, former head of the SEC, decided this was a bad idea and didn’t comply.  The current chairman, Mary Jo White, has followed the Congressional directive and removed them.

Yes, Ms. White had no legal choice…

…but is this a good idea?

At first blush, it would seem that it isn’t.  After all, the consensus is that the JOBS Act, by eliminating the requirement for many issuers to offer audited financial statements to potential buyers, is an open invitation to fraud.

Washington is the same crew that repealed the Glass-Steagall Act in the late 1990s, allowing commercial banks to reenter businesses they helped cause the Great Depression with–and which they promptly used to help cause the Great Recession that we’re still digging ourselves out of.

In this case, the glaring issue is that there’s lots of evidence that significant numbers of hedge funds misstate in their marketing materials their investment performance, their professional qualifications and the size of their assets under management.  It doesn’t take a genius to guess what side of the ledger the misstatements fall on.  (Search PSI for my posts on hedge funds.  If you read one, maybe it should be about an NYU study.)

Why would hedge funds change their stripes when selling to a much wider group of individual investors.

accredited investors

Yes, issuers are supposed to sell the bulk of their offerings to “accredited” investors.  But that only means that buyers are supposed to have either:

–net worth of at least $1 million, excluding the value of a primary residence, or

–income of $200,000 in each of the past two years, with prospects of the same in the current year ($300,000 for couples).

That doesn’t mean they know anything about finance.

maybe it is

But there may be a method to the apparent madness.

Ms. White seems to be drawing a sharp distinction between the character of the buyer of a private offering (supposedly sophisticated parties, who are outside SEC purview) and the disclosure materials relating to it.

Because the offering documents have so far been disseminated only to qualified buyers, the SEC had no say over their accuracy. That was up to the buyer to judge.  Now, thanks to the JOBS Act, these materials can be disseminated to everybody, whether “accredited” or not.  The issuer subsequently screens potential buyers to ensure they meet the accreditation criteria before he allows them to purchase.

The SEC is asserting that the wider dissemination gives the agency jurisdiction over the accuracy of the materials.  It is preparing rules it intends to have issuers of private securities follow.

It may turn out that the JOBS Act has accidentally given the SEC another weapon in addition to prosecution for illegal insider trading in its fight to clean up the hedge fund industry.