Investing

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The Euro is on the verge of collapse.

Yesterday, the Euro closed below $1.30 – the lowest level all year. And the yield on the 10-year Italian bonds closed above 7%. The last eurozone countries who’s bonds closed at 7% were Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

The market considers these countries to be credit risks. If you have bad credit, you’d pay 30% or more on your credit card. But a sovereign nation has the ability to tax it’s citizens. So the chance for a total loss is remote – which is why it’ll pay a comparatively lower rate.

But even at a low 7%, Italy can’t pay the interest on it’s bonds. At this rate, as more of the debt rolls over at a higher interest rate,  it will eventually have to default on its debts.

The European Central Bank will make some half-hearted effort to bail out Italy and save the Euro. But in the end, the Federal Reserve will have to step in to save Europe. And it will.

The Federal Reserve will print money to buy up Eurozone bonds. This monetizing of debt will eventually result in massive inflation,

Regular readers know I’ve been talking about inflation for a while.

I’ve been moving my assets in to gold coins, silver, and globally-diversified undervalued large cap stocks like Walmart (WMT), Microsoft (MSFT), Cisco (CSCO), Johnson and Johnson (JNJ) and Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B).

So what else is going to benefit from looming inflation?

Credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard.

These companies provide transaction-processing services. Unlike the banks that issue these credit cards, they bear no risk if the credit card holders default. They’re more like a toll booth on a bridge that collects a fee each time someone drives through.

But unlike the toll booths, which charge a fixed dollar amount, these companies charge a percentage of the transaction amount.

As the amount of money in circulation increases – and the prices of things goes up – they’ll collect more money for doing the same thing. Unlike other service companies, they don’t have to even explicitly increase their fees. Since it’s a percentage, it will automatically adjust upwards.

And if the Euro actually does collapse, travelers to Europe are more likely to use their credit cards for purchases. This is more convenient than exchanging currency at every border.

I looked at four stocks in this sector: Visa (V), Mastercard (MA), Discover Financial Services (DFS) and American Express (AXP).

Visa and Mastercards have significantly greater global appeal and penetration.

And between these two, I liked Mastercard more.

Over the past five years, it’s revenue and free cash flow has been steadily increasing. It’s currently selling for a P/E of 20 and a Price/FCF of 18.27.

As Warren Buffet demonstrated with his purchase of Lubrizol this year, paying 20 times free cash flow is a fair price to pay for a domainant company.

But unlike Lubrizol, Mastercard isn’t the market leader.  It’s second-place to Visa. But Visa’s cashflows have been somewhat erratic, and it’s stock is a bit too pricey.

So Mastercard is little expensive for my taste. I prefer to buy stocks at a discount. It’s on my watchlist – I’ll pick it up if it trades below 15 times FCF.

I’m cheap.

I like to buy stuff when its on sale. The same applies to stocks. I recently bought Johnson & Johnson, and Google. Both are trading at historically low P/E and Price/Free Cash Flow ratios.

But, the market for bubble stocks seems to be alive and kicking.

LinkedIn (LNKD) just went public at 1,000 times earnings. Yeah, its trailing P/E is 1,000!

Even some established companies are ridiculously expensive. Salesforce.com (CRM) is currently trading at a trailing P/E of 300 and a forward P/E of 75. I can’t imagine who’s buying the stock at this level.

The CEO and other insiders are dumping stock like its going out of style. In the past year, they’ve sold $234 million worth of stock. And they’re continuing to sell it. Reminds me of CountryWide insiders selling the stock before the real estate bubble burst in 2007.

Here’s a funny video by someone who shares my disbelief about investing in Salesforce.

My investments are well diversified. I’m invested in foreign and domestic real estate, commodities, precious metals, domestic and international equities and foreign sovereign debt. However, I haven’t spent much time analyzing my portfolio allocation. While making money through investments is good, protecting what you have is paramount. As I grow older each year, volatility becomes a greater issue. In a few more years I”m not sure I ‘ll be able to stomach a 40% loss that the market experienced in 2008. (Luckily, I my retirement account was down only 4% that year so I didn’t have to stomach anything!)

There are tons of great books available on the subject of portfolio allocation, but I wanted something easy to understand (and thus, remember). One of the better models I can across was Harry Browne’s Permanent Portfolio.

The basic premise is to cover all possible scenarios in your porfolio:

25% of portfolio to protect against Inflation (eg. Gold)
25% of portfolio to protect against Deflation (Cash)
25% of portfolio to do well in a Bull Market (equities)
25% of portfolio to do well in a Bear Market (bonds)

Taking it a step further you can add in protection against Devaluation (eg. invest in foreign currencies and foreign bonds).  You can also add in real estate or REITs as an inflation hedge, and foreign equities. The the basic premise is simple. You try and benefit from any sort of market. 

This is pretty simple to implement. All you need is to do is buy low-cost ETFs and check your portfolio once a quarter to rebalance to the appropriate percentages.

If you like this philosophy but don’t want to implement it, you might want to take a look at the Permanent Portfolio Fund (PRPFX) which is modeled and named after Harry Browne’s  Permanent Portfolio. Over the past 27 years, it’s been down only 4 years. Maximum annual loss was 12% in 1984. In 2008, it lost less than 9%! It’s expense ratio is also reasonable at 0.82%. It’s 5-year average return is a respectable 10.3% vs say an S&P 500 index fund like (SWPPX) which had a 5-year average return of 0.99%.

 It’s portfolio consists of gold, silver, Swiss franc assets such as Swiss franc denominated deposits and bonds of the federal government of Switzerland, stocks of U.S. and foreign real estate and natural resource companies, aggressive growth stocks and dollar assets such as U.S. Treasury securities and short-term corporate bonds.

Some of the best advice is timeless. Here’re some nuggets of wisdom from the late Harry Browne.

  • Your career provides your wealth
  • Don’t assume you can replace your wealth
  • Recognise the difference between investing and speculating & speculate only with money you can afford to lose
  • No one can predict the future
  • No one can move you in and and of investments consistently with precise and profitable timing
  • No trading system will work as well in the future as it did in the past
  • Don’t use leverage
  • Don’t let anyone make your decisions
  • Don’t ever do anything you don’t understand
  • Don’t depend on any one investment, institution or person for your safety
  • Create a bulletproof portfolio for protection
  • Keep some assets outside the country in which you live
  • Beware of tax-avoidance schemes
  • When in doubt, err on the side of safety

These topics are covered in the timeless classic – Fail-safe Investing, probably the best $10 you’ll spend on personal finance and investing!

Let’s face it, European countries are bankrupt. First it was Greece and Ireland. Now it’s Portugal. Pretty soon it’ll be Spain and Italy.

Politicians will never admit there’s a problem. Portugal’s prime minister just said that they don’t need any financial assistance. Just like Greece’s prime minister said last March, he claims they want to help themselves out of this mess. And like Ireland’s minister of foreign affairs said last November, there’s no need to panic. Of course a couple of weeks later both prime ministers came begging for aid. Portugal will probably do the same.

Everyone wants someone else to bail them out, and pay for their transgressions.  And other nations are rushing in to buy the sovereign debt – using freshly minted money of course. Maybe these saviors know that their own balance sheets are somewhat murky and hopefully someone else will return the favor in the future?

After all, printing more money to buy another country’s debt is a splendid idea. Keeps the world economy chugging along without having to deal with any of the difficult issues. Like reducing debt. (I’ve never quite understood the notion of solving a country’s excessive debt problem by rolling it over in to more expensive debt. But financiers make money selling debt, so that’s what economists (who secretly harbor dreams of working on Wall Street) will advise the governments to do). But there is a crisis of sorts and whenever there is a crisis anywhere, people flock to the US and to the relative safety of US treasuries.

Everyone and their mother seem to be making financial and investment predictions for the rest of 2011. So I’ll do the same.

1. For the first half of the year the US dollar and government bonds will appreciate – especially against the Euro.

2. Also during the first half of 2011, Gold and Silver prices will drop from their spectacular highs as the US dollar appreciates. But I think Gold prices will stay above $1000/ounce.

3. But eventually, probably during late-summer, people will realize that all the major countries are printing money and using it to prop up failing countries and companies by buying debt, the US dollar and treasuries will slide. And Gold and Silver prices will start to rise again.

4. This collapse in treasuries will be precipitated by multiple bankruptcies in the municipal bond markets.
In the past 2 years, 15 municipalities have filed bankruptcy. According to a recent article in WSJ:

Mr. Bernanke downplayed the notion that many state and local governments run the risk of defaulting and that the municipal bond market could be headed for turmoil. The muni market, he says, has been functioning “reasonably well,” with lots of bond issuance and liquidity in trading. “We’re not seeing extraordinary stress,” he says. Some analysts have been warning that a crisis is looming in the muni market. Mr. Bernanke described these warnings as overly pessimistic. He also said the Fed, which has some limited authority to buy short-term municipal debt, has “no expectation or intention to get involved in state and local finance.” If states are to be bailed out, he said, “it would have to be Congress.”

Isn’t that exactly what he said right before Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac went bankrupt? Let’s face it. There will be a muni-bond meltdown, and Bernanke will scare congress into bailing them out. Bernanke is just a bare-faced liar. Actually, he got tired of being called a bare-faced liar which is why he sports a beard. But regardless, the only reason he brought it up is because it is an issue that will become pertinent within the next 18 months.

Incidentally, previous Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan, said exactly the same about the housing bubble back in 2005. That it wasn’t an issue and there was nothing to be worried about. As an economist, he should have seen it was a bubble, of his own creation.

This collapse of muni-bonds will scare the pants of regular Americans and foreign investors. As the last bastion of fixed income for the retired, the wealthy and global pension-funds, muni-bond defaults will trigger a major panic. Citizens and investors will realize that they’ve been hoodwinked by the government and Wall Street, and they can’t trust either of them.

5. This will cause a flight to gold and silver, possibly the last and most intense run in this bull market.
I predicted back in December 2005 that “the US is going to enter a period of inflation and recession brought on by the trade & budget deficit and precipitated by the devaluing dollar” and that at $508, it was a great time to buy gold. I still believe it is. If you haven’t already established a position, make sure you buy both gold and silver on dips. If you don’t know how to buy, read through the previous posts on gold and silver. Hopefully, this major rush in gold will not trigger the complete collapse of global currencies. And if it does, it’s still a few years away, so it’s not an 2011 prediction.

Disclaimer: I’m short a Euro ETF, long gold and silver (bullion and mining stocks). None of this should be construed as investment advice.

I’m always in search of good books to read and a few people recommended Michael Lewis’ new bestseller The Big Short. I put off reading it because I didn’t really want to read yet another book about the subprime mortgage meltdown. However, I finally got the kindle version to read on my new iPad and was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. Actually, I wish I had read it earlier – the book was rather amazing. It was as fast paced and entertaining as his first book, Liar’s Poker.

Lewis describes the financial industry collapse induced by subprime mortgage bond derivative market from the point of view of a couple of hedge fund managers who shorted them. Not very large hedge funds either. Instead of focusing on well known managers like John Paulson, he focuses on relatively unknown and minor investors, with interesting personalities.

There’s Steve Eisman, the most pedigreed of the bunch with actual wall street experience, who’s abrasive personality insists on telling the truth even if it rubs everyone the wrong way. Running a fund that was owned by Morgan Stanley, Eisman desperately wanted to short his parent company but was prohibited by his lawyers. At one point in the book his partner asks “Who takes out a home loan and doesn’t make the the first payment?” to which Steve Eisman responds “Who the #$%^ lends money to people who can’t make the first payment?”  But that’s what happens when you lend $700,000 to a strawberry picker who makes $14,000 a year.

Dr Mark Burry, a one-eyed doctor with Aspergers syndrome,who quits his medical career to start a hedge fund with his own money and makes nearly $750 million for his investors.  And an almost comical garage-band hedge fund called Cornwall Capital that starts out with $110,000 and ends up with a whopping $135 million.

The book explains in great detail exactly how the great investment banks were creating junk bond securities with AAA ratings and selling them to institutional investors.  Companies like Bear Stearns, Lehman and Goldman Sachs blatantly lied about the quality of investment-grade bond products they were selling. The ratings agencies weren’t competent enough to properly rate these securities and they got hoodwinked like everyone else. In the end, everyone wins (except the US taxpayer) and no one goes to jail!

In all it’s a fascinating read on the excesses of wall street, the complexities of the financial derivative markets, and the crooks who run the show.

In my last post, I hinted at using QE2 to your advantage by investing in companies that benefit from a steepening yield curve. But I didn’t have time to get in to specifics. Which is what I’ll do right now, seeing that I have a couple of hours to spare at the Fort Lauderdale airport.

The Federal Reserve let the market know that it plans to keep short term interest rates at extremely low rates for the next few quarters (if not longer). Companies that can borrow short term, can do so at very low rates. So long as you have AA-rated collateral, you can borrow money at about 0.30% on a 30 day basis. If you plan to borrow for a longer term, you just need to keep “rolling” your loan every 30 days or so.

So if you can invest in a AA-rated bond that pays say 3% or 4% and borrow money at 0.30%, you’re going to profit from the spread. Do such bonds exist?

They do – they’re called Agency RMBS and they’re just large pools of single-family residential mortgages that are bundled together in to large multi-million dollar securities and guaranteed against default by a government sponsored agency such as Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae. They also yield about 3.75% or higher.

So you can borrow money at 0.30% and invest it at 3.75% and you’re guaranteed against loss of principle by a government agency! Sounds too good to be true? Well it gets better!

Companies that use this business model to make money are set up as REITs and pay out a hefty dividend to shareholders. Companies like Annaly Capital Management (NLY),  Hatteras Financial Corp (HTS), Cypress Sharpridge Investments (CYS) are mortgage REITs that are set up to do exactly this. And they all pay approximately 15% in dividends.

An RMBS is basically a bond and all bonds have 3 types of risk:

  1. Credit Risk
  2. Prepayment Risk
  3. Interest Risk

Companies which invest in Agency MBS don’t suffer from credit risk. If the borrower of the mortgage defaults, the government-sponsored agency just buys it back and you get your money back. There is no fear of loss of principle!

Prepayment risk is when the borrower pays off the loan early and returns your principle back to you. This usually happens in environments when interest rates are dropping and borrowers can refinance their mortgages at a lower rate. If you get your money back early, you need to reinvest the money, typically at a lower rate. Given that mortgage rates are so low and refinancing is much more difficult than it used to be, the risk of prepayment is limited. There are some always some prepayments though which occur as regular amortization of the loan. Some companies will calculate how much of their portfolio and try to enter forward contracts to purchase more RBMS and thus mitigate the prepayment risk. CYS is one company that does this.

The third and major risk is interest rate risk. As the cost of borrowing increases, the spread between borrowing and invests decreases. Your profit margins drop and are no longer able to make the kind of returns you’re used to. Again some companies hedge against this event, and incur some cost in doing so. But hedging maintains long-term predictability of cash flows and may be worth the drop in potential yield. Again CYS does this and it’s net spread after hedging is 2.55%. It also uses 7.5:1 leverage to maintain a $4.5 billion portfolio against $600 million equity position. When you earn a 2.55% spread and can leverage up 7.5%, that’s a whopping 19% yield! CYS has about a 17% dividend yield.

Disclosure: I bought a 33% position in CYS on Friday and am going to be buying more under $13.50.

A UK-based chocolate manufacturer, Hotel Chocolat, has come up with a novel way to raise capital for expansion. Instead of borrowing money from banks or issuing regular corporate debt, it has decided to raise about $7.5 million USD by issuing “chocolate bonds“. Instead of a regular dividend payment (well technically it’s a coupon payment and not a dividend), these bonds will pay dividends in chocolates!

hotel-chocolat-box-of-chocolates

In order to be eligible, you need to be a member of their “Tasting Club”, which already has 100,000 members. For an investment of $2,890 USD or $5,760 USD, you can get a juicy annual dividend of 6.72% or 7.29% delivered to your doorstep every other month.

If you’ve ever been to high-end confectionery, you’ll know they charge a couple of dollars for each piece of candy.  So spending a few thousand quid might not be such a bad investment. Especially since bank yields aren’t very impressive right now. At least it guarantees you won’t have to spring for chocolate for three years, even if the rest of your portfolio tanks!

I wouldn’t be surprised a chain of British gyms are next in line to offer special “weight-loss bonds”, with special dividend rates for people who bought the chocolate bonds!

But the real question is whether Inland Revenue will be accepting their tax payment in chocolate too?

Last week the internet was buzzing with rumors of Apple coming out with an iPhone that would work on the Verizon Network. If you decide you wanted to trade this rumor what would you do? Would you buy Apple (AAPL) or would you buy Verizon Communications (VZ)? What if I told you Apple didn’t pay a dividend, while Verizon had a 6% dividend yield. Would that make a difference?

As it turns out, I decided I wanted in on this trade. I’ve been wanting to buy an iPhone for a while but the AT&T network is severely congested in major cities and the sound quality for calls is terrible. So I’ve been holding out for the iPhone until it’s available on the Verizon Network.  I did however get myself a 32GB iPod Touch that is simply amazing.

I didn’t buy either of these two companies. Instead I bought Vodafone (VOD) with a dividend yield of approximately 5.3% based on my $23.10 purchase price. It’s not widely known, but Vodafone owns 45% of Verizon Wireless. The remaining 55% of Verizon Wireless is owned by Verizon Communications.

Verizon Wireless borrowed billions of dollars from its parent company to build out its infrastructure and for the $30 billion purchase of Alltel. It’s been generating nearly $10 billion a year in free cashflow and has been paying back the loans. These loans will be completely repaid in a few months. So what will it do with all the money its generating? It’ll start paying dividends to VZ and VOD.

Verizon needs the money for its own dividend payments. In addition to the wireless division, it runs a landline division that isn’t anywhere as profitable as Verizon Wireless. And last week, Vodafone publicly asked Verizon to either spin off Verizon Wireless or to start paying dividends as soon as it was done with the loan repayments.

By itself, Vodafone generates $8 billion a year in free cashflow. It’s 5.3% dividend seems pretty safe and has the potential to see a massive increase if Verizon Wireless decides to pay out a major portion of its cash flows.  In addition to its stake in Verizon Wireless, Vodafone owns a tiny stake in China Mobile and a 44% stake in some French Telecomm company who’s name I can’t pronounce.

This way you get exposure to a global Telecomm player with exposure to the growing US wireless market and no exposure to the US landline market.  You also get a 5%+ dividend yield with exposure outside the the US and the US Dollar. If we do see inflation, this dividend is likely to keep up with it and is probably a better bet than a treasury bond (which would lose value if we saw high inflation).

For the time being, the “Can you hear me now?” dude is a little less annoying!

Disclaimer: I entered a 50% position in VOD. If the price drops from my purchase price I’ll double down.

If you believe the government or the popular press, the economy is out of recession and everything is business as usual again. Last month there was an increase in jobs by 162,000, home sales jumped 8.2%, the Dow is now almost at 11,000 and interest rates are inching upwards  in recognition of the economic recovery. It’s all peaches and cream isn’t it!

Unfortunately, I don’t believe the government or the popular press. I like to look at the facts and draw my own conclusions. First of all, the 162,000 new jobs includes 48,000 temporary census jobs. What happens when these jobs go away? And compared to the millions of jobs lost, 162,000 jobs doesn’t feel like anything to celebrate in the first place.

According the Associated press, in February the pending home sales number jumped 8.2%. This is not year-over-year but rather from January to February. Don’t know if anyone remembers but it was awfully cold in January. Historically home sales slow down during winter, especially when you have pretty bad snowstorms. An 8% increase doesn’t sound like newsworthy at all.  Additionally, the government has been offering a ton of incentives to home buyers, which is probably just cannibalization of future home buying. From the California Association of Realtors:

Californians have a brief window of opportunity to receive up to $18,000 in combined federal and state home buyer tax credits.  To take advantage of both tax credits, a first-time home buyer must enter into a purchase contract for a principal residence before May 1, 2010, and close escrow between May 1, 2010 and June 30, 2010, inclusive.  Buyers who are not first-time home buyers may use the same time frames to receive up to $16,500 in combined tax credits if they are long-time residents of their existing homes as permitted under federal law, and they purchase properties that have never been previously occupied as provided under California law.

And why is the DOW on the verge of breaking 11,000? Is it the fact that the government spent around a trillion dollars propping up the economy or could it be that consumer spending is back? May be its consumer spending. After all, the malls seem full around here. But did you hear that 25% of homes in the US are underwater on the mortgage on 14% of all houses are in some state of default? Being in default means that the monthly mortgage payments are not being made. Doing some back of the envelope calculations, TraderMark was able to put a figure on these numbers. By not paying their mortgage, Americans have an extra $160 billion per year to spend on clothes, cars, vacations and other random stuff.  To see the numbers, check out this post on the hidden stimulus package. No wonder the retailers have been doing well!

And are the interest rates trending higher because the market expects a recovery? Or is it because it expects inflation? If you look at the number of people clamoring for TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protected Securities), the number is trending higher as well. Seems like people aren’t big believers of the US Government’s ability to curb long term inflation.

So what is it – peaches and cream or doom and gloom? The truth is somewhere in the middle. With the government willing to spend money (it doesn’t have) to keep stimulating the economy, it looks like the economy is recovering pretty well. But it cannot come without consequence. At some point someone will have to pay the price of all these bailouts and packages. It might be us, our children or foreign bond holders, but that day will come. Just make sure you invest accordingly.