auto leasing

I’ve been reading an article in the Wall Street Journal this morning reporting Fed data that indicates auto loan defaults are on the rise in the US, particularly in poorer areas in the southern US.  This follows recent comments from automakers that the market for new cars is peaking and from used car dealers that prices declined last year and will dip further in 2017. Part of the downward pricing pressure is due to a larger number of cars coming off lease.

car leases

All this should come as no surprise, since the auto industry is cyclical and we’re closing out year eight since the US economy bottomed in 2009.  If there is still a shoe to drop–and I think there is–it will come in the car leasing market itself.  Here’s why:

Let’s say I want to buy a $30,000 car on a three-year lease.  What determines my lease payment?

The leasing company buys the car I want to lease from the auto company and rents it to me.  Its charges consist of:  interest on the purchase price; recovery of the loss in value of the car over the lease period; and the price at which the leasing firm figures it can sell the car for at the end of the lease.  The key figure here is the lender’s estimate of what the car will be worth when I turn it in.  This is called the residual value.


1.  The lender estimates the car will be worth $15,000 in three years.   At 4% interest, that’s a monthly payment of $490.  In total, I’ll pay $2743 in interest charges (an average of $76/month) over the three years and $15,000 in principal.

2.  If the car is estimated to be worth $20,000, that translates into a monthly payment of $360, with a total of $10,000 repayment of principal + $3029 in interest ($17.50/mo).

At rates close to zero, an interest rate change makes little difference.  The difference between $490/month and $360 is the residual value assumption.

(Note:   real world leases can be much more convoluted, but these are the economic basics.)

how leasing companies get into trouble

Historically, lenders–and especially those affiliated with automakers–have made the residual values too high.  Why?  To my mind, it’s because a lower monthly payment (i.e., a higher residual value estimate) makes the car sale easier.  In the moment, the day of reckoning appears to be far in the future.  It can also be that the accounting framework the lender uses permits assumed profits on new loans to offset realized losses on old ones.  If so, as long as lease volumes increase, reported profits probably won’t reveal the damage being done.

Experienced auto stock investors are doubtless already worrying about the potential negative effects of leasing.  I imagine, though, that as/when the issue becomes better known–that is, when writeoffs from leasing operations start to emerge–this will be more bad news for auto stocks.


Tencent (700:HK) now owns 5% of Tesla (TSLA)

The Chinese internet conglomerate Tencent filed a 13G form with the SEC yesterday, fulfilling its legal requirement to declare 5% ownership of a publicly traded US firm–in this case, TSLA.

Filing a 13rather than the better-known 13D indicates Tencent intends to remain a passive investor rather than seeking a voice in TSLA operations.

According to the filing, Tencent acquired its 8.2 million shares (at a cost of $1.8 billion) both by participating in TSLA’s public offering on March 17th and through market purchases.  Tencent reached the 5% level on March 24th.

When I first heard of the stake, it struck me as peculiar that Tencent would make open market purchases, in which the money goes to third parties, rather than arranging for a private placement of stock from TSLA, in which case all the money would go to fund TSLA.  Looking at the 13G a little more closely, however, I realized that Tencent’s total cost implies an average acquisition price of $219 a share, meaning Tencent has been patiently accumulating shares at lower prices.  Now I’m thinking that Tencent took part in the recent offering to provide some financial support to TSLA–and then rounded its position up to 5% during the following few days in order to file a 13G that publicly declares its backing.

the TSLA offering

The TSLA offering raised about $1.3 billion, through an issue of $400 million in common stock plus $1 billion minus in 2.375% convertible five-year notes.  The conversion price is $327.50, a 25% premium to the stock price at the time of issue.

The notes are convertible, at the option of the holder, but, practically speaking, only if they are trading at a 30% premium to conversion value.  To my mind, though, they represent a much better deal than fixed income investors have gotten in prior TSLA offerings.  This seems to me to imply that these buyers see much greater credit risk with TSLA today than they have in prior years.

technical analysis in the 21st century

A reader asked last week what I think about technical analysis.  This is my answer.

what it is

Technical analysis in the stock market is the attempt to predict future stock prices by studying current and past patterns in the buying and selling of stocks, stock indices and associated derivatives.  The primary focus is on price and trading volume data.

Technical analysis is typically contrasted with fundamental analysis, the attempt to predict future stock prices by studying macro- and microeconomic data relevant to publicly traded companies.  The primary sources of these data are SEC-mandated disclosure of publicly traded company operating results and government and industry economic statistics.

what the market is

The stock market as the intersection of the objective financial/economic characteristics of publicly traded companies with the hopes and fears of the investors who buy and sell shares.  Fundamental analysis addresses primarily the companies; technical analysis primarily addresses the hopes and fears.

ebbing and flowing

To be clear, I think there’s an awful lot of ridiculous stuff passing itself off as technical “wisdom.”  The technical analyst’s bible (which I actually read a long time ago), the 1948 Technical Analysis of Stock Trends by Edwards and Magee, is now somewhere in my basement.  I’ve never been able to make heads nor tails of most of it.

On the other hand, in the US a century ago–and in markets today where reliable company financials aren’t available–individual investors had little else to guide them.

the old days–technicals rule (by default)

What individual investors looked for back then was unusual, pattern-breaking behavior in stock prices–because they had little else to alert them to positive/negative company developments.

I think this can still be a very useful thing to do, provided you’ve watched the daily price movements of a lot of stocks over a long enough period of time that you can recognize when something strange is happening.

the rise of fundamental analysis

Starting in the 1930s, federal regulation began to force publicly traded companies to make fuller and more accurate disclosure of financial results.  The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 mandated minimum levels of competence in the management of pension plan assets, laying the foundation for the fundamentals-driven securities analysis and portfolio management professions we have today in the US.

past the peak

The rise of passive investing and the rationalization of investment banking after the financial crisis have together reduced the amount of high-quality fundamental research being done in the US.  Academic investment theory, mostly lost in its wacky dreamworld of efficient markets, has never been a good training ground for analytic talent.

The waning of the profession of fundamental analysis is opening the door, I think, to alternatives.

algorithmic trading

Let’s say it takes three years working under the supervision of a research director or a portfolio manager to become an analyst who can work independently.  That’s expensive.  Plus, good research directors are very hard to find.  And the marketing people who generally run investment organizations have, in my experience, little ability to evaluate younger investment talent.

In addition, traditional investment organizations are in trouble in part because they’ve been unable to keep pace with the markets despite their high-priced talent.

The solution to beefing up research without breaking the bank?  Algorithmic trading.  I imagine investment management companies think that this is like replacing craft workers with the assembly line–more product at lower cost.

Many of the software-engineered trading products will, I think, be based on technical analysis.  Why?  The data are readily available.  Often, also, the simplest relationships are the most powerful.   I don’t think that’s true in the stock market, but it will probably take time for algos to figure this out.

My bottom line:  technical analysis will increase in importance in the coming years for two reasons:  the fading of traditional fundamental analysis, and the likelihood that software engineers hired by investment management companies will emphasize technicals, at least initially.





trading (iii): start with a paper portfolio

practice first

As I mentioned last week, your initial plan may be very simple, no more than “I intend to beat the S&P 500 index by selecting sectors with superior profit growth potential,” or “I intend to beat the S&P 500 by selecting individual stocks that are deeply undervalued as measured by the price/cash flow ratio.”

The next step is to create a paper portfolio to test out your ideas.

The paper portfolio is just what the name implies:  you create a portfolio on paper of the names you would want to buy (or sell, if that’s what you think you’ll be good at), watch what happens and keep score.

Based on the results, you refine your ideas.

using real money…

…in small amounts.  That’s the next step.

My experience is that if a paper portfolio is like going to the batting cages to practice your swing, using real money is like playing in a game with a live pitcher and fielders.  Your concentration is sharper, because the stakes are higher.  Sometimes, people who have no trouble performing with a paper portfolio encounter difficulties with a real-money portfolio.  That typically passes with time.

On the other hand, unless you’re convinced that you’re not taking your paper portfolio seriously enough, real-money trading won’t go well if your paper portfolio has consistently underperformed.

trading (ii)

have a game plan

In the beginning, when you’re feeling your way, a plan will likely be relatively simple.  Still, it should contain at least three elements:

–what you intend to do

–why wht you’re doing will enable you to make money, and

–how you are going to measure your performance.

the process

In all likelihood, a trading process will include a healthy dose of technical analysis, which in its saner elements is an effort to read the short-term emotional mood of the market.

Take the case of Tesla (TSLA), where investors seem to alternate between bouts of severe depression and wild enthusiasm.  The plan may consist simply of buying TSLA at, say, $200-, when spirits are flagging, and selling at $250+, when owners are dancing in the streets.

Or it could be that you’ve held Amazon (AMZN) for years.  You observe that the stock is travelling in an upward-sloping channel that’s now bounded on the low side at, say, $750 and on the high side at $850.  You might decide you can trade around a core position by selling some of what you own above $850 and buying below $750.

the source of profits

Ultimately you have to believe that something you do gives you an edge over the average investor. Maybe you are very familiar with the price action of a certain stock because you’ve owned it for a long time.  Maybe your work gives you insight into the publicly traded companies in a given industry or geographical area.  Maybe you think that rising trading volume always precedes rising/falling price and you use screens to identify stocks where this is happening.

measuring performance

There’s a very strong tendency among even professional investors to remember successes vividly but brush losses under the rug.  Because of this, it’s essential to measure how you’re doing, both in absolute terms and relative to the performance of a benchmark index on at least a monthly basis.

This is also the best way to identify your strengths and, more importantly, the mistakes you are prone to.  Everyone has something in this second category.  Simply no longer doing stuff that you always lose money on can give a big boost to performance.  I know this sounds silly, but I can’t think of a single professional I’ve known over the years who hasn’t had to deal with eliminating a chronic bad investment habit.

More on Monday.


so you want to be a day trader

why trading?

As human beings, we’re all very complex.  Sometimes(often, in my case) we do things for reasons we don’t clearly understand.  We can be influenced in ways we’re not fully conscious of by our families, our friends, our neighbors, our heritage   …as well as by daily bombardment by media of all types.

Sounds silly, but:

–Early in my career as an analyst, I remember calling the CFO of an oil and gas exploration firm to ask him, in polite terms, why anyone would buy the tax shelter programs he was selling through investment advisers, since my reading of the prospectuses seemed to show that virtually all the benefits went to the promoter.  His reply was that buyers were not particularly sophisticated financially.  They typically bought the programs as a way to signal to others that they were wealthy enough to have a “tax problem.”

–Some people are attracted to the riskiest stocks simply because they’re risky rather than because they might offer superior returns.  Buying them is in effect a substitute for going on a thrill ride at the amusement park.

In my experience, successful investors and successful traders have one thing in common.  They are clear about their purpose   …which is to make money.  They’re not working to feed their egos, make friends, or enhance their standing in the minds of others, although these positive things might be nice as side effects.  It’s all about making a return.

This is not to say one shouldn’t have scruples.  As an active manager, I avoided tobacco stocks, for example, because I believe this is a morally bankrupt business.

There’s also no way to know whether you can make money buy buying and selling financial instruments–whatever your holding period–unless you try.

Nevertheless, if you are going to be successful, the bottom line must be that you intend to make a profit.


More tomorrow.