Warren Buffett and Dow Chemical (DOW)

Today’s Wall Street Journal contains a front page article that will be widely viewed on Wall Street, I think, as a bit of comic relief.

In times of financial stress, cash-short companies have tended to go to Berkshire Hathaway for financial assistance.  If successful, they receive both money and the implicit endorsement of Warren Buffet.

In 2009, it was DOW’s turn.  It wanted to acquire Rohm and Haas, another chemical company.   The best deal it could find for a needed $3 billion was in Omaha, where Berkshire took a private placement of $3 billion in DOW preferred stock, with an annual dividend yield of 8.5%.  The preferred has been convertible for some time now into DOW common (yielding 3.4%), at DOW’s option, provided DOW has traded above $53.72 for a period of at least 20 trading days out of 30.

DOW shares were trading below $20 each when the deal was struck seven years ago.

On July 26th, the shares breached the $53.72 barrier and traded above it for five consecutive days–the final two on extremely heavy volume–before falling back.  At the same time, according to the WSJ, short interest in the stock has risen sharply.  In other words, someone has been a heavy seller, using stock borrowed from others.

Who could that be?

Although nothing is stated outright, the strong implication of the article is that the shortseller is Berkshire, which stands to lose $150 million+ a year in dividend income on conversion.

Part of the Wall Street humor in the situation is that the playing field isn’t level.  It’s perfectly legal for Berkshire to sell DOW short, although it does seem to cut against the homespun image Mr. Buffett has been at pains to cultivate for years.  On the other hand, however, DOW would run the risk of being accused of trying to pump up its stock price (and the value of management stock options) if it went out of its way to absorb any unusual selling.


hedge funds and uncorrelated returns


One of the initial topics in my first investment course in graduate school was beta, a measure of the relationship ( generated from a regression analysis) between the price changes of an individual stock and those of the market.  A stock with a beta of 1.1, for example, tends to move in the same direction as the market but 10% more strongly.  One with a beta of 0.9 tends to move in the same direction as the market but 10% less strongly.  The beta of a stock portfolio is the weighted average of the betas of its constituents.

the beta of gold stocks

At the end of the class, the teacher posed a question that would be the first item for discussion the following week.  Gold stocks have a beta of 0.  What does that mean?

The mechanical, but wrong answer, is that gold stocks lower the beta, and therefore the riskiness, of the entire portfolio.  If I have two tech stocks, their combined beta may be 1.2.  For two utility stocks, the beta might be 0.8.  For all four in equal amounts, then, the beta is 1.0, the beta of the market.  Take two tech stocks and add two gold stocks and the beta for the group is 0.6. But this doesn’t mean the result is a super-defensive portfolio.

A beta of 0 doesn’t mean the stock is riskless.  It means that the stock returns are uncorrelated with those of the stock market.  So adding one of these doesn’t lower the risk of the portfolio.  Instead, it introduces a new dimension of risk, one that may be hard to assess.

a painful lesson   

Portfolio managers who embraced beta in its infancy didn’t get this. They assumed uncorrelated= riskless, learned the hard way that this isn’t true when their supposedly defensive portfolios imploded due to sharply underperforming gold issues.

uncorrelated redux      

I’ve been looking at marketing materials for financial planning firms recently.  Allocations to hedge funds are being touted with the idea that their returns are uncorrelated to those of stocks or bonds. This is substantially different from the original claims for this investment form. Over the past fifteen years or so, the hedge fund pitch has gone from being one of higher-than-market returns, to low-but-always-positive returns, to the present uncorrelated.

The reason is that in the aggregate hedge fund returns have consistently been lower than those for index funds for many years and that they do have years where their returns are negative.  What’s left?   …uncorrelated, just like zero-beta gold stocks.  I guess it has been revived because the last “uncorrelated” investment disaster is so far in the past that few remember it.

why hedge funds?

Why have hedge funds at all in a managed portfolio?  They must have some marketing appeal, sort of like tax shelter partnerships or huge fins on the back of a car, that are aimed at the ego–not the wallet–of the client.  A darker reason is that the sponsoring organization may also run the funds, and would miss the huge fees they generate for their managers.







Caesars Entertainment and private equity

I’ve been wanting to write about what might be called the private equity paradigm for some time. On the other hand, I don’t see any way for me as a portfolio investor to make money from research I might do–other than to keep as far away from private equity deals as possible–so I haven’t done as meticulous job of research on this post as I would if it involved a stock I might buy.  So regard this more of a preliminary drawing than as a finished picture.

When a private equity firm acquires a company, it seems to me it does five things:

–it cuts costs.  The experience of 3G Capital seems to show that typical mature companies are wildly overstaffed, with maybe a quarter of employees collecting a salary but doing no useful work.  Private equity also uses its negotiating power to get better input pricing, although it passes on little, if any, of the savings

–it levies fees to be paid to it for management and other services

–it increases financial leverage, either through taking on a lot of bank debt, or, more likely, issuing huge swathes of junk bonds.  An equity offering may happen, as well

–it dividends lots of available cash generated by operations and/or sales of securities to itself, thereby recovering much/all of its initial investment

–it then sits back and waits to see whether (mixing my metaphors) this leveraged cocktail to which it now has only limited financial exposure, sinks or swims.


Caesars Entertainment has added a new twist to this paradigm.  In 2013, its private equity masters seem to have decided that sink was the more likely outcome.  Rather than simply accept this fate, they began preparing a lifeboat for themselves by whisking away valuable assets from the subsidiary that is liable for the company debt into another one.  In January 2015, after this asset shuffling was done, they put the debt-laden subsidiary into bankruptcy.

Junk bond holders sued.  Litigation has been protracted and has reportedly cost $100 million so far.

Media reports indicate that the case is now approaching resolution–either through negotiation or court ruling.  My no-legal-background view (I was a prosecutor in my early days in the Army, but that says more about the Uniform Code of Military Justice back then than about me) is that:  these asset transfers can’t be legal; and the junk bond loan agreements should have had covenants that explicitly bar such action.  So I’m not sure what has taken this long.

Whatever the outcome of the case is, I think it will shape the nature of private equity from this point forward.




the Tesla (TSLA)/SolarCity (SCTY) merger

Yesterday, TSLA and SCTY announced the two firms had reached agreement for TSLA to acquire SCTY in an all stock deal.  TSLA will exchange .11 shares of its stock for each share of SCTY, with closing sometime before yearend.  SCTY has 45 days to shop for a better offer.

Most commentaries I’ve read seem to miss two things:

–the original TSLA proposal said it anticipated an exchange ratio of between .122 and .131 to one, subject to closer examination of SCTY’s books.  The purpose of the range, as I see it, was to put a ceiling on what TSLA would pay for SCTY, no matter what good things it found on closer inspection.

Well, the opposite has happened.  The actual offer falls 10% below the lower bound, suggesting that SCTY looks considerably less great on the inside than its public financials would suggest.

–the combined entity, despite anticipated administrative/marketing savings of $150 million a year, assumes it will need to make an equity financing next year.


Overall, however, I think this is a good deal for SCTY.  Although I have traded the stock from time to time, the one thing that has always bothered me about SCTY is its stepchild status in the Elon Musk empire.  I say stepchild because TSLA, not SCTY, owns the Gigafactory, which will supply state-of-the-art batteries to SCTY.  To me, this signaled that TSLA was in the heart of the Elon Musk empire and that SCTY was on the periphery.  The merger changes that.

three ways to account for associated companies

This post is to lay the groundwork for understanding what Nintendo actually said about Pokemon Go last Friday.

There are three basic ways to account for companies that a firm owns an interest of less than 100% in another firm.

–the cost method.  This is used when the firm whose financial reports we’re talking about has neither influence nor control over the operations of the enterprise held.  A good rule of thumb is that this means a holding of less than 20% of the outstanding shares.

In this situation, the holding is listed on the balance sheet as a long-term investment at acquisition cost.

Under normal circumstances, the income statement contains no accounting of the holding’s financial results.

Two exceptions:  dividends paid are recorded as income; if the asset is impaired, the loss is shown on the income statement.

On the other hand, if the value of the holding increases, there’s no reflection of this in the owner’s financials.  Yes, accounting theory says the holding value should be adjusted periodically for changes in the investment’s fortunes, but as a practical matter this is rarely done.

equity interests.  This is where the holding firm is judged to have influence but not control over the entity held.  Typically, this applies to holdings that fall between 20% and 50% ownership of the investment.

If so, the owner records his share of the financial results of the holding on a single line toward the bottom of the income statement.  This line is called “Equity Interests” or something like that and is an after-tax aggregate of all such equity interests.

The holder also adjusts the balance sheet value for profits (up), losses (down) and dividends received (down).

consolidation.  This is the case where the holding firm exercises influence and control.  The rule of thumb here is that ownership of 50% or higher implies having both.

If the ownership is less than 100%, the consolidating company still reports results–revenues, costs etc.–from operations as if it owned 100%.  But it add correcting, after-tax entries, both in the income statement and on the balance sheet, typically labelled “Minority interests” that subtract out the portion of earnings and assets held by others.  Again, these are aggregate figures and not broken out holding-by-holding.  Minority interests are usually recorded toward the bottom of the income statement, somewhere near the consolidated net income line.

Tomorrow, how this applies to the Nintendo announcement


mutual fund and ETF fund flows

away from active management…

There’s a long-term movement by investors of all stripes away from actively managed mutual funds into index funds and ETFs.  As Morningstar has recently reported, such switching has reached 2008-era levels in recent months.  Surges like this have been the norm during periods of uncertainty.

The mantra of index proponents has long been that investors can’t control performance, but they can control costs.  Therefore, all other things being more or less equal, investors should look for, and buy, the lowest-cost alternative in each category they’re interested in.  That’s virtually always an index fund or an ETF.

Active managers haven’t helped themselves by generally underperforming index products before their (higher) fees.

…but net stock inflows

What I find interesting and encouraging is that stock products overall are receiving net inflows–meaning that the inflows to passive products are higher than the outflows from active ones.

why today is different

Having been an active manager and having generally outperformed, neither of these negative factors for active managers bothered me particularly during my investing career.  One thing has changed in the current environment, though, to the detriment of all active management.

It’s something no one is talking about that I’m aware of.  But it’s a crucial part of the argument in favor of passive investing, in my opinion.

what is an acceptable net return?

It’s the change in investor expectations about what constitutes an acceptable net return.

If we go back to early 2000, the 10-year Treasury bond yield was about 6.5%, and a one-year CD yielded 5.5%.  US stocks had just concluded a second decade of double-digit average annual returns.  So whether your annual net return from bonds was 5.5% or 5.0%, or whether your net return from stocks was 12% or 11%, may not have made that much difference to you.  So you wouldn’t look at costs so critically.

Today, however, the epic decline in interest rates/inflation that fueled a good portion of that strong investment performance is over.  The 10-year Treasury now yields 1.6%.  Expectations for annual stock market returns probably exceed 5%, but are certainly below 10%.  The actual returns on stocks over the past two years have totalled around 12%, or 6% each year.

rising focus on cost control

In the current environment, cost control is a much bigger deal.  If I could have gotten a net return of 6% on an S&P 500 ETF in 2014 and 2015, for example, but have a 4% net from an actively managed mutual fund (half the shortfall due to fees, half to underperformance) that’s a third of my potential return gone.

It seems to me that so long as inflation remains contained–and I can see no reason to think otherwise–we’ll be in the current situation.  Unless/until active managers reduce fees substantially, switching to passive products will likely continue unabated.  And in an environment of falling fees and shrinking assets under management making needed improvements in investment performance will be that much more difficult.


takeovers and market price indications: Softbank/Arm Holdings

Softbank is bidding £17 per share for ARM, an offer that management of the chip design company has quickly accepted.  ARM closed in London at £16.61 yesterday, after trading as high as £17.52 in the initial moments of Monday trading–the first time the London market was open after the bid announcement.

What is the price of ARM telling us?

Let’s make the (reasonable, in my opinion) assumption that the price of ARM is now being determined by the activity of merger and acquisition specialists, many of whom work in companies mainly, or wholly, devoted to this sort of analysis.

These specialists will consider three factors in figuring out what they’re willing to pay for ARM:

–the time they think it will take until the takeover is completed (let’s say, three months),

–the cost of borrowing money to buy ARM shares (2% per year?) and

–the return they expect to make from holding the shares and delivering them to Softbank.

They’ll buy if the return is high enough.  They’ll stay on the sidelines otherwise.

Suppose they think that without any doubt the Softbank bid for ARM is going to succeed–that no other bidder is going to emerge and that the takeover is going to encounter no regulatory problems (either delays or outright vetoing the combination).  In this case, the calculation is straightforward.  The only real question is the return the arbitrageur is willing to accept.

I haven’t been closely involved in this business for years.  Although I know the chain of reasoning that goes into determining a potential buy point, I no longer know the minimum an arbitrageur considers an acceptable.  If it were me, 10% would be the least I’d accept if I thought there were any risk;  5% might be my lower limit even if I saw clear sailing ahead.  If nothing else, I’m tying up borrowing power that I might be able to use more profitably elsewhere.

Let’s now look at the ARM price.

At £16.61, ARM is trading at a 2.3% discount to the offer price.  An arbitrageur who can borrow at 0.5% for three months stands to make a 1.8% return by buying ARM now.  Ugh!  The only way to make an acceptable return, if the assumptions I’ve outlined above are correct, is to leverage yourself to the sky.


From this analysis, I conclude two things:

–the market is not worrying about any regulatory impediments to the speedy conclusion of the union.  Quite the opposite.  Otherwise, someone would be shorting ARM.

–buyers seem to me to be speculating in a very mild way that a higher bid will emerge.  If they had strong confidence in another suitor coming forward, the stock would be trading above £17.  If they were 100% convinced that there would be no new offer, I think the stock would be trading closer to £16.25, a point which would represent an annualized 20% return to a purchaser using borrowed money.