evaluating management: Donald Trump and real estate

Last year Forbes published an analysis by James Elkins, a professor in the finance department at the University of Texas, that concludes Mr. Trump has underperformed the average real estate professional in the US by a whopping 57% over his career, despite the boost to returns he achieved by maintaining almost twice the average amount of financial leverage.

The results are highly tentative.  Prof. Elkins uses a REIT index as a proxy for overall real estate returns.  He also employs Mr. Trump’s statement of his starting net worth and the Forbes $4.5 billion estimate of his 2016 wealth (the 2017 estimate is $1 billion lower).

On the industry benchmark, my experience with real estate moguls, mostly outside the US, is that the returns on their private real estate investments are generally higher than those they achieve in their publicly traded vehicles.  In Mr. Trump’s case, his net worth also includes his considerable earnings as a reality show star, as well as the potentially positive effect of debt forgiveness through bankruptcies.

In short, the 14.4% annual return on equity Elkins uses for the industry is probably too low and the 12.5% return he figures for Trump is too high.


My question is what the returns on capital are in the Elkins example.

According to Elkins, REITs have an average debt to equity ratio of about 30%.  This means they have a mix of roughly three parts equity, one part debt.  Assume that their average cost of debt has been 8%–a figure that seems reasonable to me but which I’ve just plucked out of the air.  If so, their 14.4% return breaks out into roughly a 12.5% return on capital (actually operating real estate ventures) and 2% from using financial leverage.

This calculation implies that Mr. Trump’s 12.5% return breaks out to something like 9% from real estate and 3.5% from financial leverage.

At first glance, the difference between a 14.4% annual return and a 12.5% return doesn’t seem like much.  Prof. Elkins’ point is that over a career being a relative laggard adds up.  In this case, it translates into having $4.5 billion instead of $23 billion.  Mine is that the numbers flatter Mr. Trump’s planning and management skills, which fall even more deeply below the average in the real estate industry than his overall results.

(5/20/19. Note:  the consensus today is that Mr. Trump never had assets anywhere near the Forbes figure and that in real estate, he added no value–doing little more than preserve in real terms the capital he inherited from his family.  That is, the idea that he made a fifth of the return of the average real estate magnate–and perhaps a tenth of what the best did, he appears to have made nothing.  Even so, that’s without factoring in the personal lifeline he may have received from security holders of his ill-fated Atlantic City casinos.

Together with the tax returns published by the New York Times, the picture that emerges is of a brilliant self-marketer, who has been able to recast the reality of a singularly maladroit businessperson.  Again, even this assessment may prove too flattering, if there is any substance to the money laundering allegations that are now surfacing.

One more thing:  I’ve taken a second look at my return calculations and revised them slightly.  None of my conclusions change:  Mr. Trump’s performance comes out slightly worse than before.)



evaluating management: issues with financial leverage

Given the possibility to boost return on equity substantially, why is it that every publicly traded corporation doesn’t make extensive use of financial leverage?

Several reasons:

–as I mentioned in my initial post, in some areas of the world investors think using debt capital is a bad thing, either because they believe debt is unethical or (incorrectly, in my American view) that debt is more expensive than equity

Philosophy aside, having debt on the balance sheet has risks:

–debt service (interest and principal repayments) is an immediate subtraction from operating cash flow.  If a company takes on excessive debt, if it makes a mistake in capital deployment, or if it is particularly sensitive to the ups and downs of the business cycle, debt service can become a burden.  In extreme cases, debt holders may have the right to accelerate the repayment schedule, restrict company operations–or even take over management of the firm through bankruptcy proceedings

–having a large amount of debt can hamper a firm’s ability to respond to a changing competitive environment.  Macy’s failure to build an effective online retail presence, for instance, has been attributed to its need to devote large amounts of operating cash flow to debt service.

In addition, Wall Street investors tend to believe (correctly, I think) that it doesn’t take much skill to float a bond issue or get a bank loan.  It’s much harder to employ capital well in running operations.  So while investors may want the extra returns that a leveraged company can achieve, they will pay a much higher price for returns on capital than for returns on leverage.

evaluating management: return on capital

equity capital

Yesterday, I wrote about return on equity, as it applies to a company that uses only this form of capital, i.e., has no long-term borrowings, no financial leverage.

debt capital

In most places, companies are allowed to employ debt capital in their long-term operating plans as well as equity.

Opinions differ as to whether this is a good idea or not.  Americans tend to approve, on the idea that debt is a cheaper form of capital than equity; investors in the UK and Europe tend to disapprove–arguing that debt is a more expensive form of capital than equity.  In the Islamic world straight debt is not allowed.

My chief comment is old saw that “leverage works both ways;”  that is, during an economic expansion it’s most often a return booster, while in bad times it can be an albatross around the firm’s neck.


Let’s say a company goes public by selling 1000 shares at $10 each.

Once it’s public, it issues $10,000 worth of ten-year bonds with a 5% coupon.

Now it has $10,000 in equity and $10,000 in debt.

Let’s say it invests all the money in projects that produce a $2000 annual return. (For simplicity’s sake, let’s make the (unrealistic) assumption that the money is all raised and invested in projects that are instantly up and running on January 1st).  Let’s also ignore taxes.)

At the end of year 1, the firm has earned $2000.

return on capital

Its return on capital is:  $2000 ÷ ($10,000 debt + $10,000 equity = $20,000), or 10%.

return on equity

Its return on equity is:  ($2000 – $500 in interest = $1500) ÷ $10,000 equity  = 15%.

return on leverage

Let’s define another term, return on leverage, as the return on equity minus the return on capital.  In this case, the return (to equityholders) on (or from) leverage is +5%.

Why do so?   Why in the form of a simple subtraction?

As to the form, the sole reason is because it is a simple thing to figure out.

I think it’s important to break down the returns a management is producing for shareholders into two components to quqntify how good it is at two different management skills–how company operations are being run (return on capital) and how those returns are being supplemented by shrewd use of debt financing (return on leverage).

I say “supplemented” because in a well-managed business the lion’s share of the returns will come from operations.  Returns from leverage will be the icing on the cake.

Looked at in a different way, what conclusion should we draw if most of the returns come from leverage?  One worry is that the firm’s management doesn’t have the necessary operating skills to be successful and is substituting aggressive risk taking with company financing to cover up for this deficiency.

For example:

Suppose the company described above earns $1200 in year 1.

That’s a 6% return on capital.

The return on equity is ($1200 – $500) ÷ $10,000 = 7%.

The return on leverage = 1%!  This is trouble, because the company is barely covering the cost of its borrowing.

A worse case:

The company earns $400.

The return on capital is 2.5%.

The return on equity is ($400 -$500) ÷ $10,000 = -1%

The return on leverage is -1% -2.5% = -3.5%.  This is a disaster.


More tomorrow.



evaluating management: returns

One of the most straightforward ways of evaluating how a company management is doing is by looking at the returns it achieves on the money it invests on behalf of shareholders.  Like most things in finance, this starts out as a very simple task, but soon enough adds refinements that make the evaluation process look a lot more complex than it actually is.

We’ll start with return on equity.

initial equity

A new company forms and sells 1000 shares to investors at $10 each, for a total of $10,000.  It invests all of that money one January 1 of its first year.

During that year it earns $1000 in net income.

Its return on equity for year 1 is 10% ($1000/$10,000).  At this point it has no long-term debt, so its return on capital (capital = equity plus long-term debt) is also 10%.

equity grows

If the company pays no dividends, it now has $11,000 in equity (capital, too) at the beginning of year 2.  To maintain a 10% return on equity (and capital) it must earn $1,100 in year 2.

book value

The total amount of equity a company has to invest is also called “book value,” because it’s the value of the equity entry on the company’s financial records (books).

All other factors being equal, a company whose management achieves a high return on equity tends to trade at a premium to book value.  One that continually produces sub-par returns tends to trade at a discount.  The financial sector in particular, because it’s hard to figure out the tons of transactions that the big firms routinely execute, tends to trade on price to book.


Tomorrow, adding debt to the picture.

back to talking about value investing

badly-managed companies

A highly-skilled former value colleague of mine used to say that there are no bad businesses–there are just bad companies.  What he meant was this:  let’s call any revenue-generating activity as a business; when revenue generation establishes a desire for a product or service, there is always a way to make a profit.  What stands in the way is most often bad management, although it might also be a poor configuration of assets.  (There are also highly cyclical firms, which are typically viewed through lenses that are too shortsighted, and firms that have temporarily stumbled.  Let’s put cases like those aside for now.)


In the US, it is legally and culturally acceptable to call bad companies into account.  This is usually done either by replacing management or by causing the company to be sold and returning the proceeds to shareholders.

Because of these factors, it makes sense to hold the shares of firms where the share price is substantially below asset value, even if the company is doing poorly.

As reader Alan Kaplan points out in a comment to last Thursday’s post, however, change is occuring at such a rapid rate in the current globalizedl and Internet-connected economy that it’s more difficult to make an assessment of how much assets are worth than it was when the tenets of value investing were being laid down almost a century ago.

a plummeting stock

Anyway, I recently noticed a holding that was sinking like a stone in a fund I’ve recently taken a small position in.  The stock is down about 60% over the past year in a market that’s up by 16%.  The portfolio manager, who doesn’t seem to have had much of a plan where this company is concerned, managed to lose two-thirds of his (i.e., my) money before kicking the stock out.


The stock in question is Seaspan (SSW), a container ship leasing company.

My first reaction was to think the stock should never have been in a portfolio, based on the industry it’s in.  My experience of shipping is that it’s a snake pit of public subsidy and private double dealing in which an outsider like me will be lucky to escape with any of the clothes on his back.

On the other hand, my experience is also that people who are as horribly wrong about buying a stock as the pm I mentioned above end up also being horribly wrong again when they sell it.  I used to console myself when I was in this position by thinking that the stock would never bottom as long as I held it, so, yes, I was helping new buyers by selling–but I was helping my portfolio as well.  In any event, the last bull capitulating is usually an important positive sign.

SSW is now trading at $6.67.  Book value is $16+.  The dividend has recently been cut but the stock is still yielding 7%.  By the way, that’s not a good thing, in my view.  My preference would be for the payout to have been eliminated entirely, but I’m willing to give management the benefit of the doubt.

I’m still working myself through the financials.  There are potential issues with new ships now being built that SSW has contracted to buy but has as yet found no one to lease them.  There’s also the worry that existing customers will return ships before charters end and simply refuse to pay amounts still owed.  On the other hand, there’s some chance SSW will be able to refinance its existing debt.  And to some degree–not a great degree, but some–book value for older vessels is underpinned by the ability to sell them for scrap.

In sum, this is high-risk deep-value stuff that I would never recommend anyone else should consider.

Still, I’m surprised and intrigued to find a–to me, at least–plausible value story in such an unlikely place.





revisiting (again) value investing

As regular readers will know, I’m a growth stock investor.  That’s even though I spent my first six years as an analyst/portfolio manager using value techniques almost exclusively–and then worked side by side with a motley crew of value investors for a ten-year period after that.

One way of describing the difference between growth and value is that:

–growth investors know when potentially price-moving news will happen (that is, when quarterly earnings are announced) but are less sure what that news will be

–value investors know what the news will be (if they’ve done their job right, they’re holding stocks where the market has already priced in every possible thing that could go wrong.  All they need is one thing to go right).  However, they may have little idea when good news will occur.


Each style has an inherent problem:

–for growth, it’s hard to find rising earnings during an economic downturn

–for value, it’s possible that a long time (say, two years) may pass before any of a portfolio’s diamonds in the rough are discovered by the market.  In that case, the manager will likely be fired before the portfolio pays off.  His/her successor will either reap the rewards of the predecessor or will dismantle the portfolio before any good stuff can occur.


At times, I do buy what I conceive of a value stocks.  Intel when it was $19, trading at 8x – 9x earnings and yielding almost 4% (I’ve since sold most of what I own) is an example.  But deep value investors would scoff at the notion that this is truly value.


For some time, I’ve been maintaining that value investing has lost its appeal in the 21th century.  Two reasons:

–the stronger one is that the shelf life of physical plant, traditional distribution networks and brand names is no longer “forever” in a globalized, Internet-driven world.  So buying companies that are rich in such assets but not making money is much, much riskier today than it used to be.  Such assets can erode in the twinkling of an eye.

–a weaker claim would be that while there are still value names, it’s hard/impossible to fill out a portfolio of, say, 100 of them, which is the traditional value portfolio structure, in today’s world.


I’m rehashing the growth/value debate here because I’m thinking the stronger position isn’t as unassailable as I’ve believed.

More tomorrow.


Snap (SNAP) non-voting shares (iii)

forms of capital

Traditional financial theory separates a company’s long-term capital into two types:

–debt capital.  This is money the firm has borrowed, either through bank loans or company-issued bonds.  Creditors may have influence over company operations through restrictions spelled out in the loan documents, called covenants.  They generally specify measures to accelerate loan repayment that the company must take if it fails to meet stipulated profit or cash flow measures.  (An example:  the firm may be forced to devote all cash flow to loan repayment if profits decline sharply.  Money can’t be spent on things like capital improvements or dividends unless creditors give the ok.)

–equity capital.  Equity means ownership.  Common stock ownership is typically established by the means equity owners have to assert/protect their interests–usually the ability to vote on appointment of members of the firm’s board of directors.  The board, in turn, hires and evaluates management.

Some companies may also issue preferred stock.   Preferreds qualify for their name because they have some advantage, or preference, over common.  The typical preferences are: higher/more secured dividend payment; and/or priority over common equity in liquidation proceedings.  On the other hand, preferreds typically either have restricted/no voting rights.  In the US, preferreds, despite the equity in their name, typically trade as if they were a form of corporate debt.

SNAP non-voting shares

Where do the SNAP shares fit in this scheme?

They’re clearly not debt    …but are they equity?

They are certainly not traditional equity.  They have no ability to exercise any influence on company operations, and certainly no way to replace an underperforming board of directors.  On the other hand, they don’t appear to have any of the greater security of preferreds.  In fact, they seem to be a hybrid that combines the riskier features of both.

The closest I can come, in my past experience, to US non-voting shares like SNAP’s (or Google’s for that matter) are Korean preferreds and Italian certificates of participation.  In both cases, they traded well in up markets but underperformed very signficantly during market declines.