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.

 

“hard” Brexit, not “soft”

Ever since the Leavers overwhelmed the Remain faction in the UK’s Brexit vote, observers have been wondering how the UK is going to effect its break with the EU   …and how complete the breach with continental Europe will be.

The two main approaches were dubbed soft, meaning that negotiations would be held at a leisurely pace, the break would come eventually–but not soon–and that the UK would retain as many of the privileges of EU membership will shedding as many obligations as possible.

Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty lays out the process for a country to withdraw from the EU.  It provides that a state that wishes to leave sets the process in motion by invoking Article 50. That starts a two-year clock running, at the end of which the separation occurs.  Since two years is a relatively short period in diplomatic time, especially to arrange complex future trade agreements, conventional wisdom has been that a country like the UK would begin negotiations first and only trigger Article 50 when the negotiating finish line was in sight. Taking this path would be the more economically sensible.  It would also be a clear sign that soft is the ultimate goal.

The alternative would be “hard,” meaning basically getting out of Dodge as fast as possible.  Why do so when collateral economic damage would result?    …because other political considerations, like halting immigration from the rest of the EU, have a higher priority.

 

Over the past week or so, Prime Minister Theresa May has been signalling that Brexit will not be put on the back burner, and that, in consequence, the UK government is opting for the “hard” road.  She will invoke Article 50 by next March, at the latest.  And she has packed her negotiating committee with the most anti-EU people she can find.

This decision has a number of consequences:

–Scotland, where two-thirds of voters cast their ballots to Remain in the EU, is reviving its own referendum to withdraw from the UK and enter the EU as a sovereign country itself

–putting itself under time pressure by effectively starting a two-and-a-half-year clock running, the UK has revealed its sense of urgency.  That may have lost it negotiating leverage

–half of the UK’s exports go to the rest of the EU.  Time constraints may see it leaving the EU in early 2019 without trading agreements with countries where its major customers reside–meaning export sales may fall off a cliff

–similarly, it becomes less likely that bankers based in London can retain their current unfettered access to clients in other EU countries.  This suggests that banks may begin to shift operations to the Continent

–sterling will continue to slide.  For portfolio investors like you and me, this has perhaps the most important near-term implications.  There’s no need now, nor in the near future, to change from favoring London-traded stocks whose assets and earnings are outside the UK.  Better still if the firms’ borrowings and SG&A expenses are in sterling.

 

 

 

Trump’s taxes

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an article that contains copies of parts of Donald and Marla Trump’s 1995 income tax filings.  The pages, mailed to a Times reporter in September and verified as genuine by the accountant who prepared them, contain two items of note:

 

–during that year, the Trumps had income of about $9 million.  That was more than offset by a loss of $15.8 million generated from “rental real estate, royalties, partnerships, S corporations, trusts…”–which I take as being tax loopholes designed for the real estate industry.  If we assume that this is par for the course, it would mean that the Trumps typically pay no federal or state income tax.

 

–the Trumps also show that as of that year they had accumulated other losses totaling a stunning $909 million.   This figure is presumably the cumulative result of Donald Trump’s efforts as an investor.  Two points:

—tax losses have a current economic value, which deteriorates as time passes.  In this case, the value in 1995 of the Trump’s loss was about $350 million, and was shrinking in economic worth by, let’s say, $30 million per year.  Logically, the best course of action would have been for the Trumps to use the loss by selling, the sooner the better, something they owned and had a profit on.  The fact that they did not suggests they didn’t have any investment gains at that time–or that they used what gains they had to whittle the loss figure down to $909 million.

—Donald Trump was born into a wealthy real estate family.  He entered the family business with the advice and support of his successful father.  Falling interest rates + the development of New York City as a world financial center made the 1980s a golden age for real estate investing in the region the Trump family had expertise.  Yet the Trump 1995 tax returns suggest that on a net basis Donald not only made no profit during a time when real estate was like a license to print money; instead, he lost nearly a billion dollars.

In a recent Forbes article, John Griffin, a finance professor at the University of Texas/Austin examines Donald Trump’s investing career using publicly available data, both independent estimates and figures self-reported by Trump.  Prof. Griffin concludes that Mr. Trump has made only about half the profits of a typical real estate investor (about 40%, taking the self-reported figures), while taking on a higher than average level of risk.  Mr. Griffin concludes, ” Donald Trump is obviously a skillful presenter and a talented entertainer, but in terms of his investment skills, he is a clear underperformer.”  To my mind, the mammoth loss shown in the 1995 Trump tax return suggests that a less favorable assessment may be warranted.

 

 

 

will OPEC cap its oil output?

…maybe, for a short while anyway.   Ultimately, no.

Will this move shore up oil prices?

…probably not.

Yesterday OPEC announced a provisionary agreement according to which the oil cartel’s members will limit aggregate output to between 32.5 million barrels per day and 33.0 million.  At the lower end, that would remove 750,000 daily barrels (or 2.3%) from OPEC production.  According to the Financial Timesvirtually all of the reduction would be by Saudi Arabia; other OPEC members promise only not to increase theirs.

Saudi Arabia has previously been dead set against any agreement of this type.  Why?   During the early 1980s oil glut, the Saudis sliced oil liftings from 13 million barrels daily to 3 million in a vain attempt to stabilize prices.  That effort failed because everyone else in OPEC cheated, boosting their output to fill the void.

That such cheating happens shouldn’t come as a shock.  It’s standard cartel behavior–and the reason most cartels fail.  The truly startling development in the modern history of commodity-producing cartels was the solidarity of OPEC in its formative years, when it was a political cartel opposing exploitation of third world countries.  It has lost its power as it evolved into the current economic one.

So, as I see it, there’s no reason not to expect widespread cheating again.

Another factor arguing against this agreement actually stabilizing crude oil prices is that OPEC doesn’t dominate world oil production as it did in the 1980s.  Four of today’s top six oil-producing countries (Russia, US, China, Canada) are not members of OPEC.  There’s every reason to expect that all of the four would boost output as/when prices start to rise.

 

To my mind, the real news the OPEC accord signals is the changed attitude of Saudi Arabia.  I think this must mean that Riyadh is in worse financial shape than is commonly believed.

Certainly, the country is radially dependent on oil   …and has become accustomed to the revenue from  $100+ per barrel prices.  So it is now running a large government budget deficit.  My guess is that it is also having a much harder time than expected in borrowing to bridge the gap between revenue and spending, and that efforts to develop other facets of the economy are not moving forward smoothly.  Saudi Arabia has just announced a salary cut for government workers, which can’t imply greater political stability.

If there is a valid reason for oil to have risen on the OPEC announcement–and I don’t think there is–it would be worries of political developments in Saudia Arabia that disrupt oil production there.

Personally, not owning any oil stocks at present, I’m thinking that the seasonal low point for demand, that is, January/February, would be a better entry time than right now.

interest rates and economic growth

Over the past few days, I’ve written about two approaches to the question of the appropriate level for interest rates.

fixed income as an investment on its own

The first considers fixed income as an investment, with no reference to current economic conditions or to use of rates as a government policy tool.  According to it, holders of short-term fixed income instruments receive protection against inflation + a small real return; holders of long-term instruments receive inflation + a real return of 3% or so + an extra return if the instrument carries higher risk.

rates and economic policy

The second looks at short-term interest rates as a tool of economic that aims at steering growth along the preferred path of a given nation’s government.  The monetary authority slows the economy down and speeds it up by raising/lowering rates as circumstances dictate.  In the US, the recent preferred metric for judging success has been the employment figures.

quantity of money

There is a third, admittedly subjective, approach to this topic, one that many professional investors have traditionally used to gauge the tone of financial markets.  The idea is that the economy requires a certain amount of liquidity (i.e., money) in order to operate efficiently.  This is to maintain inventories, pay salaries and fund new investments.   It operates best when it has precisely that amount.

In a period like the current one of continuous radical supply chain and financial innovation, it may be hard to judge when too little money is available, and therefore activity is constrained and rates are too high.

On the other hand, adherents to this idea think that when money is too abundant, the excess inevitably finds its way into economically destructive financial speculation.  The signs that rates are too low are easier to spot:  soaring housing prices, bubble-level stock PEs and high-risk, nevertheless covenantless, junk bonds.

recent financial market worries

This third idea is the basis for the recent conversation in financial markets that ultra-low interest rates have passed their best-by date and are now doing more harm than good.  The strongest evidence that this is the case is in the junk bond market, I think.  However,  if there’s speculation in one corner of the financial markets, it must also be at work in the others.

the traditional business cycle

The easiest place to start is at the low point of the cycle–and to talk about every place in the world except the US.

the target for government policy 

A typical rule governing policy action would be for a country to act so as to maintain the highest sustainable (that is, non-inflation-inducing) rate of economic growth.

the bottom

At its low point, activity in an economy is advancing at considerably less than that.  The economy may even be contracting.  The cause may be prior action by the government to slow the economy from a previous overheated state (policy actions are blunt tools:  most often they overshoot their objective) or the economy may have been hit by an out-of-the-blue event, like an oil shock or a financial crisis.

In either case, companies are laying off workers, reducing inventories, closing now-unprofitable operations  …all of which is causing the slowdown to feed on itself.

The traditional remedy to break the downward spiral is to lower interest rates–we might also describe this as lowering the cost of money by making a much larger quantity available to borrow.

What does this do?

In theory, and often also in practice, companies have a list of new capital projects they are ready to implement but which are unprofitable at the high interest rates/weak growth that accompany/trigger a slowdown.  By lowering rates, the monetary authority makes at least some of those projects into moneymakers.  So companies commit to new capital projects.  They hire planners and construction firms; they buy machinery; they hire workers to staff new plants.

As these formerly unemployed workers get paychecks, they begin to consume more–they buy clothes, and then houses and new cars.  They begin to eat restaurant meals and go on vacations again.  As consumer-oriented service industries see their businesses picking up, they begin to hire again, too–adding to the new wave of consumer spending.  At the same time, the supply chain begins to expand inventories to be able to satisfy rising demand.  Similarly, manufacturers hire more workers and begin to expand their own productive capacity.

In this way, self-feeding slowdown turns into self-feeding expansion.

the top

At some point, the economy reaches full employment.  Companies want to continue to expand because they now see many profitable investment projects.  But there are no more unemployed workers.  So firms begin to offer higher wages to bid workers away from other firms.  They begin to raise prices to cover their higher costs.  This activity doesn’t create more output, however.  It only creates inflation.

Either in anticipation of, or in reaction to, budding inflation the monetary authority begins to raise interest rates to cool down the now feverish expansion.  It keeps rates high until it begins to see signs of slowdown–inventory reductions, new project cancellations, layoffs.

 

The economy eventually reaches a low point   …and the cycle begins again.

observations

–in the model just described, industry recovers first, followed by consumers.  This happens in most of the world.  In the US, however, as soon as interest rates begin to decline, the consumer typically begins to spend again.  Business follows with a lag.

–conventional wisdom is that money policy actions need 12 – 18 months to take full effect.  In the current situation, short-term interest rates have been effectively at zero for eight years (!!) without seeing a sharp surge in economic growth in either the US or the EU.

–economists have been concerned for years that there’s been no oomph in capital spending in the developed world, despite low rates.  The traditional model explains he concern–business capital spending is thought to be a key element in any recovery.

 

More tomorrow.