March 24, 2010

Anatomy of the Financial Crisis: Michael Lewis 3X to Reform

We're going to take another shot at the causes and consequences of the Financial Crisis but do it in a slightly different way, largely by concentrating on some recent interviews Michael Lewis has given as part of the release of his new book. In fact we're going to take three separate passes at it because he covers the same ground from enough different angles we think it's worth your time. Those passes will be the Sixty Minutes special, a Charlie Rose interview and a Bloomberg news interview. In the readings you'll also find a bit on some other related matters, for example the examiner's report on Lehman's collapse - which is judged to be self-inflicted and near-criminal. And just in case you haven't noticed Healthcare Reform got signed into law this week and the next big item on the agenda is Financial Reform. In other words a lot of things are coming together - it's time.

Now as it happens we've been looking at this for a long time and even gave a speech on it last week that went onf with questions for an extra hour. A couple of things struck and strike us - nobody's every tried to pull all the pieces together and explain it so people get it and there was an amazing hunger. Startlingly so IOHO. We've actually linked in our presentation on the economy, the crisis and the consequences but just in case here it is again: Skirting the Abyss: From Economic Downturn to Financial Crisis to Long-term Malaise.Anticipating a bit what we found really fascinating was that Lewis basically came to the same conclusions we did - he just puts it enormously better, more clearly and with better stories!

The Triump of Short-term Greed, the Bonus Culture and Ignorance

The heading in some ways anticipates what Mr. Lewis has to say about it on Sixty Minutes, which you can can kind of consider the popular introduction to his findings, arguments and conclusions.

There's a lot here and we provide the link to the story as well as all the segments of video in the readings section. But he puts it nicely - here was a case where the capitalists almost destroyed capitalism. In fact they did and it was saved by the government and public action. And they did it by completely loosing sight of what it took to make their firms profitable in the long-run. Now, here's the question for you - is there any evidence that after we saved the Industry that they recognize any need to change, alter the incentive and goverenance systems and change the way they do things? Or are last year's bonuses, based as they were on government subsidies, more evidence that short-term self-serving behavior is the only thing they recognize?

From Trusted Agent to Enemy of the State?

Which leads us to another aspect of the discussion that got more attention in this Rose interview, in fact it begins it. For thirty years we've all worshipped at the alters of financial innovation but did the results actually serve society? Or did they divert resources, talent and scare capabilities into non-productive cul de sacs? Beyond that the Industry was treated with enormous respect because, in addition to getting wealthy for themselves, they ostensibly performed a public service by efficiently and effectively allocating capital. In two years it seems to us that's been completely destroyed though the Street doesn't get it as yet and it will take some time for the political backlashes to build up. But then again it took thirty years to accumulate in the first place.

What Lewis seems to argue and we agree with is that that's lost and gone forever. The Industry will never again enjoy the level of public confidence and trust on which they built their business. Nor in fact should they.

Synthetic Weapons of Financial Destruction

Playing off Warren's observation, combining it with our own work and Lewis' comments we need up the notion that synthetic debt obligations were one of the most dangerous things when they are this badly mis-used ever created. What we further found fascinating in this Bloomberg News intereview, was the Michael specifically focuses on Goldman as the primary culprits who deliberately created a complex instrument that they knew was irresponsible and malfeasant. He further goes on to point out that Goldman's first sucker was AIG and the rest is history, in a way. Throughout all three interviews but especially this one, he also makes the point bankers should be allowed to trade against their clients. Since this is Bloomberg the interview is a little more technical but it gets to the heart of some of the deliberately clever but bad, as in destructive, engineering that was put in place in pursuit of short-term profits and bonuses.

Taken all together though it's quite a story - though you may end up wanting to listen to it in bits and pieces we strongly urge you to make some time to listen to all three interviews and think about.

At the End of the Day!

At the end of the day the conclusion that Lewis and others come to is largely the one we came to - this wasn't so much criminal greed as it was ignorance, terrible management, a terminal (near-death in fact) focus on the short-term and the lack of good risk management and governance. In other words if you take a look at this composite slide taken from our larger presentation you pretty well get the whole problem wrapped up all together.

It's going to take some time to work out but there are some major warning shots here.

1. The Industry's business models are broken and need to be re-thought across the board ...but they aren't doing it.(Banks As Businesses: Performance, Reform and Blindsidedness)

2. The Industry completely broke down on the corporate governance side, abjured any sense of social responsibility and has shown no evidence it's willing to acknowledge that or correct the deficiencies.(The Corporation vs Society: Performance, Social Responsibility and the Win-Win)

3. The consequences were bad, became severe and have damaged our outlook for at least a decade. (A shortened version of the Economy vs. Financial crisis pitch is HERE and downloadable).

Continue reading "Anatomy of the Financial Crisis: Michael Lewis 3X to Reform" »

March 14, 2010

Investing, Business Performance, Return: Analyzing for Results

This has been the more than a "Lost Decade" and all the prognostications are that the 10s will be the same. Certainly all the evidence we've presented on the state of the economy, the long-term outlook, the linkages between profits and markets, valuations (which we remind you are over-valued something like 20-25% right now a long-term basis) and the multiple discussions of business performance all point that way. So what do do? Ah, that IS the question. Alas poor Return, we know you well.

Well...this is going to be a stock-picker's paradise as well as needing to rethink investment strategies in light of ongoing major structural shifts. Neither the top-down macroperspective nor the bottom-up value perspective can be entirely neglected but must be integrated. A lot of that machinery has been laid out here. The remaining key question is how do you actually go about linking the headlines to readily available financial data to business performance analysis. But before we dive into our central focus let's revisit the case for active value investing with a hattip to Barry Ritholz. It seems Vanguard, one of the better outfits around period, made it's case for a Buy-N-Hold strategy with an interactive tool that showed the market outperforming an active investor following simple mechanical rules. Unfortunately for them Barry and Paul Kedrowsky proceeded to demonstrate that if you tuned the parameters slightly it went the other way. We spent some more time playing with and got the results collected in this composite graphic. Barry's post and charts are excerpted in the readings while our multiple fiddlings are here, and if you click on the chart you'll go to the Vanguard's tool to play with yourself.

What you see at top is two alternative rules that do better than simple buy-n-hold, in case with less risk and the other with slightly better returns. In some ways case closed.But if there's any economy - markets - investing link we've been pounding on it's that economic turning points are visible a long way away and that economic performance drives markets in the long-run. So in addition to sensible asset allocation plus active value investing plus excellent company performance analysis it seems to us that the first, fundamental key is playing the turning points. Which we sorta mimicked by breaking up the time periods. Within the limits of Vanguard's tool, not designed for this purpose, we're in effective suggesting that you make the big turning point In/Out decision and then adapt/adopt an appropriate rule appropriate to the macro regime. Right now and for the rest of the 10's we think that regime is a rangebound trading market, just to remind you.

Business Performance, ROIC and Investment

Of course some of the other recent investment news is the annual Berkshire meeting which produced a flurry of stories and articles. Some of which are excerpted below along with our selections from Warren's annual letter, as usual a great must-read. One of the more interesting is the Marketwatch story pointing out that BRK beat all mutual funds for the last 45 years. By this time we basically know roughly how he does it (NB: the recent stories on how and why he took a pass on LEH reinforce it - a day with the 10K, some hours interviewing Dick Fuld, a complete lack of confidence in management and voila!) which is to pick good companies with aggressively defensible market positions and value-creating products run by management he trusts. Now we've spent a lot of time digging thru a bunch of different companies here to break that down in much more detail but we want to point to a way to screen and analyze companies for deeper analysis.

One key way to do it, with a number not commonly looked at but rather widely available, is ROIC, or Return On Invested Capital (sometimes ROC).  And the guy who surfaced it and was cited by a bunch of major bloggers was our old buddy Jim Jubak in this column: The one must-have number for successful long-term investing. It strikes a theme and approach he's been using in several by-the-way. But basically ROIC tells you how a company is doing with the resources it has available. We'll note in passing that our recent dive into Home Depot that they link business and operational strategy to key performance metrics to ROIC and capital discipline in a closed-loop management process that is a beauty to behold.

 We put together this sampling of some key bellweather companies, headline names and/or ones we've written about and make good comparisons, using the stats readily available on MSN Money's stock profile pages.One of the things we like is that it shows you ROE, ROA and ROC all side-by-side. ROE is the one most commonly followed but that's dangerous since it's simply ROA leveraged up, and subject as to management folly and accounting whimsies.

The top row is all Tech firms, the middle row exemplars of sorts we've discussed and the bottom row some representative samples. For example MickeyD's (MCD) vs. Burger King (BKC) - both are showing decent ROC, more importantly it's improving compared to the 5 year and tells us there may be a couple of winners. Since we used MCD as our working case for long-term valuation that's good to know. Exxon - the best run by far of the oil major- is interesting since current ROC is so much lower than historical. We know that's not for internal performance reasons but we also know that the world energy ecology is under-going a major structural shift that severely limits the long-term profitability of the Majors. The HD vs. WMT numbers are interesting - HD clearly has a ways to go. Also really interesting are the trends apparent in the Tech row. Dell for example has a decent current ROC but has fallen a long way, Apple seems to be maintaining its exemplary performance and Intel and Cisco are getting good returns with slight drops below historical performance yet, as we've discussed, are going thru major transformations. In other words we may be seeing Red Queen Syndrome in a relatively mature industry where only Apple has found a new value proposition, CSCO/INTC are extremely well run but aren't delivering breakthrus and Dell is struggling. IBM on the other hand is a different story.

ROC, ROA and the DuPont Method

A related number that's often easier to get, understand and analyze is Return on Assets. Especially since breaking it down and linking it to details of company performance has a long...long history having been invented by Pierre du Pont to help run DuPont rationally in the early 1900s but being more fully developed in his takeover, salvation and transformation of GM. (Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the American Industrial Enterprise by Alfred Dupont Chandler). In the readings there are pointers to more educational resources on Dupont Analysis, somewhat related Enterprise Value/FCF and ROC or ROIC. Let's take a look at the relationships in DuPont's framework and what it says about business performance. A couple of notes - ROI here is also ROA, DuPont's critical metric. ROE is related to ROA by ROE = ROA* Equity Multiplier, where  the EM is a measure of leverage and is given by (1+Debt/Equity). You can and should break down ROA into its major components.

Operating Efficiency = Profit Margin = Net Profit/Sales tells us how efficiently a company is running today within existing resources. The trends over time and the value of various tactical and strategic initiatives, when analyzed thru the filter of their impacts on Revenue, Profit and operating costs, tells us where it's been and where it's going.

Capital Asset Effectiveness = Asset Turnover = Sales/Assets tells us how effectively a company has been and is being run. And, again, what the future holds by working the initiatives you read in the press and in the analyst and annual reports thru these filters, how it's likely to do in the future.

Capital Structure = Leverage Multiplier = Assets/Equity tells us whether or not the sources of performance are operational, business or financial engineering. Over the last couple of decades too much attention has been paid to short-term ROE which means too much credence has been given to financial engineering and leverage and not enough to business fundamentals.

Return vs. Performance: the final implicit equation is ROE = ROA X Leverage = Profit Margin X Asset Turnover X Leverage. It's the first two you want to know are improving and are likely to keep improving, or not.

Business Think vs Financial Think

All too often the press and analysts get numbers confused with running the business when actually it's the other way around. The numbers should result from business decisions, not drive them. But in a quarter-to-quarter world where headline earnings are all that matters for compensation plans just the opposite happens. Let us try and illustrate some ways of thinking the way a business person thinks, or tries to, or should (if they're not Dick Fuld and the management of Lehman).

Suppose a medium-sized manufacturer is facing an over-capacity market with lots of competitors and no clear differentiation. And they decide that the way to create a major value engine is to improve total operational service from ordering to delivery and installation to after-market and life-time service. As we know from our whole enterprise investigations that's not just beating up the troops to smile on the phone but involves deep operational changes in order process, fulfillment and distribution, perhaps the creation of a whole new service support organization with its own capabilities plus tight linkages to manufacturing and product development. Over time, say in a phased approach, you're likely to see the impacts on the P&L and the Balance Sheet work themselves out something like we've illustrated.

Beyond that "simple" change that creates a sustainable and appreciating advantage lies a whole host of other possibilities one could envision. Changes in fulfillment and speeding up the order-to-delivery and order-to-cash cycle might lead to and fund major changes in manufacturing operations, say to a leaner operation. With a more cell based operation and less emphasis on long production runs. That kind of flexability means the company could go after smaller markets more profitably, be more responsive to customers and have a broader product line. Which then would support a whole new approach to Product Development and Marketing and so forth...one thing leads to another.

We've covered a lot of ground and tried to do it at some depth, from alternative approaches to Investment Strategy to deep value screening and analysis of companies to deeper methods of business analysis linked to business performance. If there's a final argument to be made here it's that in this market and with this economic outlook the companies doing and demonstrating this kind of thinking are the ones you need to be looking into. Otherwise you'll be lucky to get your 4% return over the next decade.

Continue reading "Investing, Business Performance, Return: Analyzing for Results" »

March 10, 2010

Just Say YES: the CFPA, Finance Misfeasance, Trust and Strategic Outlook (UPDATES)

We've spent a lot of time over the last couple of years looking at the credit markets, the economic impacts and the performance of the Finance Industry and their impact. Rather than review previous findings and/or charts and arguments we thought we'd try and focus on the Industry, it's strategic outlook and the regulatory and business climate by telling video clip stories. Which will highlight some of our key concerns. Starting with this recent clip from WealthTrack where an asset allocation guru (David Darst of Smith Barney) and a bond guru (Robert Kessler of Kessler Advisors) take a pass at bond strategies, the economic outlook - particularly the inflation outlook and what asset allocation strategies should be. They both raise some interesting points but, frankly, we've never heard a more politely but heated dispute on WT in any program. As they get in the argument and counter-arguments start flying fast and thick so it may well be worth your while to listen twice, take notes, take a break and then think really hard about what they're saying. Our take is that Darst is talking his book - though eloquently with a lot of "stuff" to back him - but his book is based on conventional wisdom. Kessler is talking his book a bit as well but his book is more in line with what we think is actually going on in the world. In fact as background to this discussion it'd pay you to go back and take a really good hard look at the post on money and inflation risks (It's All About the Money: Markets, Economy, Credit, Oh MY!) as well as our quarterly update (Skirting the Abyss: Economic Outlook, Financial Crisis & LT Consequences). The latter especially on the credit markets conditions and the economic implications.

Consumer Protection, Re-regulation and Trust

Most of us tend to view Big Business as if J.R. Ewing is the model and, sadly, there's some evidence of that. Particularly when you look at how customers are treated (need another tech support joke?). But, at the end of the day, for a company to stay in business there has to be a certain minimal level of trust that what they sell us will actually do something close to what we pay for. Nowhere is this more true than with regard to Banking and Finance. And nowhere has the level of trust been more badly damaged. Irreperably? Well time will tell. As we point out in the update and all the recent headlines are supporting banks are still facing asset writedowns, a weak economy and further loan problems plus a poor long-term outlook. And last year's trading based profits which should have been put to addressing those problems and were instead used to pay bonuses is about as "in-your-face" as it gets on respect for customers and value delivery. No where does this come thru louder and clearer than in this recent video clip where a bunch of SNL veterans reprise their Presidential imitations to pay a midnight visit to Pres. Obama to urge him to pass the Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

Interestingly enough they stretch it thru every President back to Chevy Chase as Ford and Jim Carrey as Reagan. In passing they actually make both an honest case and an honest admission of some of the root causes - which is and was the unbridled ideology of unregulated markets (a point that was no where better discussed than in the Atlantic's profile of Geithner and the various rescue packages, which we put up yesterday and again today and which you really need to read at some

point). Anyway passing CFPA is a very good idea because the Industry has proven terminally (implied puns intended) unwilling to put customer interests ahead of short-term profits but it shouldn't be. Trust is an asset that takes decades of careful investment, nurturing and protection to build. But it is not self-sustaining and you can badly damage it in an afternoon. Well we've had about three years of really bad afternoons - you have to wonder what's left? You also have to wonder how that's going to impact the long-term outlook for the Industry. We think it's going change people's willingness to deal with Banks in the most profound way though it will take time to work out because we've got so much digging to do.

If you'd like something a little more substantive then this Rose interview with Elizabeth Warren provides it, as well as a broader discussion of some of the financial, monetary and credit issues we've been discussing. Three things stand out to us: first, every lobbying group is adamently opposed, two she says the same things in essence that the SNL President's say (or that we've been saying for that matter) and this interview went relatively viral - considering the subject - very quickly. There are indeed a lot of angry folks out there. Oh yeah - one more thing. All the necessary legislative authorities already exist what's open is where they'll sit. The reason they weren't enforced was because of the mental mindsets of the regulators over the last two decades. Does anybody think that hasn't changed or that they won't and aren't already doing their best to enforce "never again"?

Industry Adjustments and Outlook

Another interesting Rose interview, this time much briefer, was this one on a recent biography of Jaime Dimon. The one bank CEO who's come thru all this with relatively flying colors. In the spirt of our emphasis on value, business performance and management systems we'll point out that seems to because he wholeheartedly endorses and enforces those principles as well as knowing what he's doing. He also, as he's said repeatedly, supportive of regulatory reform "almost" down the line with the current set of proposals. His one big objection is a TBTF or Volcker Rule breakup. Now how that'll play out isn't clear but the principles behind the Volcker Rule - public monies should NOT be used as private risk capital (as it was this last year) is pretty clear. The real problem is going to be the mechanisms. Dimon probably has a case for scope and scale - what we need are workable ways to wind down large institutions along with capital requirements matched to risk and limits on predatory proprietary trading. Like the NRA and gun control you'd think private and public interest are joined in finding good engineering to solve these problems but apparently not.

Fundamental Questions About the Future of the Industry

So we come back to our two fundamental questions - to what extent can we trust the Financial Industry to be careful of the public interest and, if we can't, what do we do? And, second, what is the strategic outlook for the Industry - how well do it's business models work. As it happens those are questions we've been digging into for close to two full years now and we collected all our prior work in a set of white papers that you can download (they're also addressed in summary in the recent update).

 UPDATES: Some Major News to Roll In

There was lots of breaking news and events so far this week that bear directly on the questions of reform, financial industry performance and the strategic outlook. Of that lots five are really major and four of them we've added to the top of the readings stack. Our previous listing of our analysis of reform and industry business performance has been moved to the bottom. An irony is that much of the news is in line with the major arguments of those papers.

The five major things are Sen. Dodd's decision to move his bill without joint sponsorship, the release of the latest Feds fund flow report, a major conference this week in NYC from the Roosevelt Institutute with some major names (Soros, Stiglitz, Warren,...), a major speech by Gary Gensler of the CFTC on re-regulating derivatives and the release of Booz & Co.'s annual industry outlooks. What do they all have in common - the firestorm of re-regulation is happening while at the same time the business environment is changing.

Specially the Flow of Funds report finds that de-leveraging is proceeding at the fastest pace in postwar history, some of it thru default of course, but representing a fundamental strategic change. But because the Industry has spent the last year stone-walling change you're getting a huge, and now organized backlash, where momentum is building. Dodd's announcement yesterday is well covered but the speeches by Gensler and the conference not so much, even though they may be critically important. The other thing everybody is missing that is critical is that a lot of more rigorous regulation can happen and is right now thru enforcement of current authorities.

Finally, and something we've been saying for a long time, the Finance Industry's businesses as businesses need to be fundamentally rethought, they need to focus on customer value, new products that actually deliver value and operational effectiveness. The two Booz reports (one on Retail Banking and the other on Capital Markets) are excerpted in the readings as well with a pointer to the full report. If you have any interest, i.e. you think the banks are in good shape going forward, think again. Speaking of which Britain's Financial Services Authority (FSA) has proposed a Round II Stress Test and our good buddy Calculated Risk has taken another look at that issue. In line with our prognostications about the continuing tsunami's of bad debt:The Next Stress Test Scenarios

Oh yeah, btw. The Examiner for Lehman found out they were screwing around with the books as well. But that you can read in the news, on the front page. This other stuff confirms the game is changing big time, and the industry is not adapting to it.

Continue reading "Just Say YES: the CFPA, Finance Misfeasance, Trust and Strategic Outlook (UPDATES)" »

March 09, 2010

Skirting the Abyss: Economic Outlook, Financial Crisis & LT Consequences

We just finished our regular economic outlook update and at the same time did the integrated prep work for an upcoming speech on the Financial Crisis. The result is a presentation uploaded to Scribd that consists of three major parts. The first a re-introduction to the nature of the Business Cycle and an update on the current economic data. The second a survey and summary of the last ~ three years work, a lot of which appeared on the blog first and only, the genesis, history, causes and consequences of the Financial Crisis. And the third part is a long-term look ahead the lingering effects of the Crisis on Savings, Investment and Growth as well as some review of public finances, deficits and debt. In effect what we have to say is that the Economy is weak but recovering, we're facing a shallow U that will stretch over a long period of time with weak job creation, that we skirted the Abyss (within 24 hours actually) of a major collapse but there's lasting damage. That lasting damage takes several forms. One is that the Banking sector is still damaged and has a long way to go for self-repair, another is that credit is being badly destroyed and the third is that excess private debt and consumption beyond our means damaged L.T. growth and job creation. Taken all together they define the contours of the New Normal that will face us for the next decade.

 Now let's turn to the Outlook Update which is embedded below and available via Scribd for downloading. NB: Prieur du Pleiss over at Investment Postcards cited it as reading in some pretty heady company (Prieur’s readings (March 8, 2010)) but even before that the number of hits in a single day exceeded anything else we've ever put up. Something touched a nerve. BtW - if you're near Greenwich, Ct. next Mon., the 15th, we'll be speaking at the Greenwich Public Library and the details are here at the home page of the World Affairs Forum.

 Skirting the Abyss: From Economic Downturn to Financial Crisis to Long-term Malaise

Serendipitously  two major articles just came out talking about Tim Geithner and Administration economic and financial policy. Surprisingly they are very well written, actually display a pretty good grasp of the complexities but convey it clearly, cleanly, simply and accurately, bring in a lot o the history - especially the Atlantic article which explains how the shibbleths of unregulated markets set the table for the crisis which the banks proceeded to run to near bankruptcy for us all - and the political and practical ins and outs of policy making in a shrill and polarized political environment. These are the first informed and balanced assessments of any sort we've seen about the big picture and they dovetail almost perfectly with our recent update. We highly recommend them as must-read background.

Continue reading "Skirting the Abyss: Economic Outlook, Financial Crisis & LT Consequences" »

March 05, 2010

It's All About the Money: Markets, Economy, Credit, Oh MY!

It's time for a brief data interlude to check in with the "real world" and see how it's doing. With today's Employment data the markets were pretty happy so as a consequence not only did they dance higher but the it looks like the chances of a correction are well behind us. Given all that and what we've had to see before about L.T. trends, PE's, Employment, yadda, yadda we could dance back thru stuff, update the charts and say about the same thing. We're going to let it rest a bit, start with the markets and then focus on some other economic data.

This is a policy-dependent environment where the biggest challenge is for the various fiscal and monetary authorities to gently unwind things while not aborting a nascent recovery. Speaking of which you'll find a very nice composite chart courtesy of the STL Fed's data system in the readings comparing GDP to Employment but then walking you thru what's going on with employment - take a VERY good luck because we've never seen this many people out of work for this long and there are some real structural risks. You'll also find some other stuff reinforcing the notion of a U-shaped recovery plus a bunch of stuff on Europe (Greece), Japan and China. In fact there's a big chunk of China stuff in both the Markets and Economy sections. The readings end up with some very interesting excerpts on credit and monetary policy, which is where we want to concentrate. The video clip is an interview with Charlie Munger done at Stanford (early 2009?) on the Crisis and what he thinks of policy. This is a man completely devoid of ideological biases who makes it his business to understand things - in vast contrast to almost all the other strategists and pontificators. We suggest you pay attention because what he had to say almost a year ago played out about as he called and the ripples are still with us, which subjects we take up next!

What's Going on With the Markets

 But let's start the graph- and chatfests by taking a quick look at the state of the markets, courtesy of INO.com and channeled via Investment Postcards. Now this is actually an interactive tool clip where one of INO's analysts walks you thru the DJIA, the NASDAQ and the SP500 and talks about trends and turning points.

In each case he finds nearly identical results, which is there is a magic resistance level and if the markets stay off, or bounce off, that number they'll still be in an uptrend are likely to head higher. Given that they've effectively been in a sideways trading range since September and the long-term downtrend from Oct07 is still intact we're definitely talking about a trader's market.

The really interesting thing is not all that per se but that so many other folks are seeing it roughly the same way as we're seeing it. So, as usual, the acid questions: at these valuations and given the economic outlook where's the return? Feel free to keep riding this as long as you like but have your fallback positions thought out and prepared. Just as a little anecdote in Jan08 my suggestions to a bunch of folks was to head for the sidelines with short-term Treasuries. Out of maybe 50+ folks (actually on a network basis more like 150+, not counting the blog posts) maybe 1-3 paid any attention whatsoever. Of course my second suggestion was to look into inverse ETFs. No we're not about to repeat all that but over the rest of this quarter and thru the next stimulus will fade and earnings realities will start catching up.

Continue reading "It's All About the Money: Markets, Economy, Credit, Oh MY!" »

March 03, 2010

What Would Joe Do? Re-thinking Content in the New World

Now that we've pointed to Pulitzer's wrestling with the impact of major new technologies, that nobody had ever seen before, and finding new value creation goals and delivery mechanisms the next question is, what would Joe do? We're not going to answer that right off the bat but instead build up to it a bit and lay some groundwork by exploring how various old and new media, and the associated members of the ecology, are wrestling with the most fundamental questions. Looking back it's not clear how long it took for Joe to find, develop and implement his innovations but it wasn't over-night either. On the other hand everybody else mimicked him and the models he developed were adopted around the world AND sustained the Industry until the last few years.

In fact while Radio and Television were, in their own rights, major innovations they were only locally disruptive. That is they displaced players and patterns but did NOT cause the entire ecology to be jump-shifted. Perhaps that's the source of the complacency but much of what's going on today was foreshadowed by work done at IBM in 1994-1996 when they came up with the whole e-Business schtick. In fact somewhere in my garage is the file of proposed new businesses that look a lot like everything you see around you! The catches are that IBM was, as usual, way to early and the rest of the world ignored the warning signs until the last 18 months or so. And is now scrambling to play catch up. The graphic is a composite of a vidclip the WaPo did at the WSJ's All Things D conference which has turned into one of the single best places to find out what's going on, what the players are thinking and doing and, especially in this context, how they are or are not adapting to the pressures for change.

Continue reading "What Would Joe Do? Re-thinking Content in the New World" »

March 01, 2010

Pulitzer's Legacy: Value, Disruption & Delivery in Technomedia

We're in an environment where the critical factor will be finding sustainable sources of value, value that can be differentiated and turned into profitable business models, and where the keys are strategy, execution and management. And we will be in that environment for at least the next decade. A change from the last three decades where a rising economy plus financial engineering floated all boats. Among the many changes that are disrupting the old world and creating new normals is the rise of technology-enabled new media, what we've called the Technomediatainment Industry, the evolution of which we chronicled in this white paper:Technomediatainment Futures: Evolution, Barriers, Structure and Opportunities of a New Industry . A few posts ago we started another pass by taking a very deep dive on Cisco (Mobility, the 4As, and Cisco: an Anti-sclerotic Exemplar?) and how their entire business strategy is dependent on that evolution, the rise of the 4A Anywhere, Anytime, Anyplace, Any Device ecology.

Yet we can look back well over a 100 years to Joseph Pulitzer and his creation of a new media empire as the benchmark for how technology and media companies will have to adopt and adapt to this ecology. The fulcrum of his efforts was the widespread emergence of two disruptive technologies that changed the fundamental structure of the world's economy, more than at any time in human history, and more (relatively speaking) than now. Those technologies? The railroad and the telegraph. But the lever that created the world's first media empire was value - he focused on delivering news the way the new audiences wanted to see it, written in ways that were appealing and that gave value for money. Pulitzer's innovations defined and shaped how we view media ever since and offer us lessons for resilience that are still relevant today. This recent Newshour interview of a recent biographer is a clear summary of the man's ideas and impacts and is, IOHO, well worth the time of anybody concerned about the outlook for these industries.

Continue reading "Pulitzer's Legacy: Value, Disruption & Delivery in Technomedia" »

February 26, 2010

Walkin the Talk: Lessons Lost, Value Creation - HD as Example

Once more into the breech dear friends and shorted be he who ignores to much stuff. Terrible poetry but perfectly in line with the realities of this morning, the week, the month and the last several. My perfect example is this headline from CNBC,Housing Recovery Is Looking a Lot Shakier These Days, which my friend Bill over at CalcRisk responded ROFLOL! Why - because he's been analyzing this for something like nine months. But as the stimulus fades it would appear the underlying weakness in Housing, which ain't all that underlying, is becoming visible enough to the commentariat and analtocracy to notice. The problem is that it's only one among several major data sets which have been visible for months, equally widely ignored, from which the lessons everybody should have learned haven't been because they were never taken, and which are increasingly likely to bite everybody in the arse tout suite'. Others include the Fed beginning to end QE and their purchase of MBS(the source of 80% of the housing demand), a surge in delinquencies in housing and credit cards, a previously mentioned cliff-dive in bank credit, a good GDP number entirely based on Inventory effects and the outlook for fiscal stimulus to start fading long before we reach self-sustaining takeoff velocity (the real point in Bernanke's recent testimony that was almost completely ignored). We ignore all those at our mutual peril but ignore them everybody is. Another blogging buddy (Prieur du Pleiss) was kind enough to call attention to Montier: Was it all just a bad dream? Or, ten lessons not learnt from which we take the following two quote:

"At its simplest, value investing tells us to buy when assets are cheap and to avoid purchasing expensive assets. This simple statement seems so self-evident that it is hardly worth saying. Yet repeatedly I’ve come across investors willing to undergo mental contortions to avoid the valuation reality."

"In his book on value investing, Marty Whitman says, “Graham and Dodd view macrofactors … as crucial to the analysis of a corporate security. Value investors, however, believe that such macrofactors are irrelevant.” If this is the case, then I am very happy to say that I am a Graham and Dodd investor. Ignoring the top-down can be extraordinarily expensive. The credit bust has been a perfect example of why understanding the top-down can benefit and inform the bottom-up. "

The chart is taken from that same white paper which is well worth your time along with a discussion of Shiller's CAPE without the cycle (What is the Cyclically Adjusted S&P500 P/E Ratio ? ), which finds that stocks have been tremendously over-valued for a long-time. Which is, as are the other points, entirely consistent with things we've been saying for years. The basic points we want to focus on is that you need to understand the macro-environment AND business performance, along with the notion that at current valuation levels the chances of a decent return for the next ten years are nil. The critical questions are what do you do about that?

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February 24, 2010

Welcome to Murphy's World: Markets, Economies, Policy & Fragilities

Well we've had a few weeks chock-a-block with a few years worth of news, and none of it good. The Fed has started moving to reduce quantitative easing (emergency) programs, sovereign credit crisis appear to be metastasizing from Dubai to Greece to the PIIGS and China further tightened it's monetary policy. There was even a frisson of fear that China was beginning to walk away from the dollar! The last is NOT true though though the former are but, as we keep reminding everyone, we're in a policy-driven and fragile environment where deep structural changes that normally occur gradually over decades are occurring in months or worse, in weeks. The end result is that we have a turbulent situation that's beyond hard to read because no clear patterns emerge that sustain themselves for long. There's a whole slew, and we mean slew, of readings after the break that surveys the landscape that confirms all this and covers ground we've covered a lot in the last nine months. The really interesting, and truly dangerous thing, is that so many folks are so surprised at things that have been visible for months. It was almost exactly at this time last year that we were warning that the economic data was going to be much worse than the markets were expecting - the end result was last year's March Market Madness when the sky truly fell.

Will it happen again? NASA flies what's called the Vomit Comet, a padded airliner, that flies a parabolic arc at the top of which the astronauts get a few minutes of weightlessness to get some experience. But everyone knows that it will end and starts preparing for the return of reality by getting back on the deck. Or risks serious injury. Are we in a similar situation? Meanwhile the WealthTrack video clip will give you a professional view of the state of things, an accurate one we think, and this YouTube clip will give you the popular attitude. Both are important.

Is That All There Is: Market Madness V2.0

 It looks like the "risks" of a real 10% correction are fast fading, despite all the gyrations in the world markets. Of course that's what they were saying in 2007 when we had the Shanghai Surprise (the canary) or the BSC Collapse (the first collapse). Now that's not to say that we're expecting anything like that, but as you'll see in the readings, none of the economic data is particularly good and the outlook is what we've been saying it is - another long jobless recovery and a decade of doldrums.

So, when you look at the chart, we see a downtrend that's still intact, a market that tried to rally over it and couldn't, a bear market rally after surviving last year's March Madness and seem real questions. Are we for example at the top of that NASA vomit arc? Given how badly the markets have misread the economic data this year, and for the last several, we can envision a couple of scenarios. In the short-run this complacent dynamics keeps playing out and the market turbulates sideways for a couple of quarters. Then the real economic data starts to show up, sans the Inventory boost, with stimulus fading, policy beginning to move away from emergency measures and earnings getting away from easy YoY gimme comps. That's a recipe in the last half of the year for a real correction. The question you have to ask is do you want to play that game (which has been going on since September after all)? Or is it time to start thinking about preserving capital. Unless you're prepared to get into the trading game the risks factors are mounting, the return outlooks are deteriorating (where are PEs for example, cf. the readings) and the chances of decent returns over the next several years are fading if not gone.

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February 19, 2010

Mobility, the 4As, and Cisco: an Anti-sclerotic Exemplar?

Well we've been working our way down yet another track on business performance in the "New Normal" from general environmental conditions (here, here and here) to & toward general assessments (here and last post), and interweaving it with specifics, this time on the Tech Industry and Finance (general, GS as bad example).(BtW - Matt Taibbi has a follow-up takedown on GS where he channels Barry Ritholz of Big Picture using his own very unique voice that lines up with our assessment almost exactly in terms of substance, if not tone:Taibbi: “The Best 18 Months of Grifting This Country Has Ever Seen”). Over the last few years it's fair to say that almost all businesses failed to monitor the environment, walked into the downturn blind, got sideswiped by the crisis, reacted rather poorly and are still frozen. We've just had several conversations off and on over the last few weeks with other folks who're seeing the same things on a widespread basis. But there are exceptions and it seemed like a good idea to address while also creating a Tech pair to match our Finance Industry/Firm examples. Plus it's been a while since we took a really deep dive on a particular firm so we're going to address all that by looking at Cisco.

Mobility, the 4A's and Cisco's Strategic Environment

With all that in mind it may seem a little strange to start (above) with a clip pointing to NBC's Olympics coverage home page but there's a method to our madness triggered by a recent TechTicker on how upset everyone was with their coverage (NBC's Olympics Coverage Infuriates Sports Fans From Coast To Coast). Now we gave up TV years ago and see everything online and the one thing we still missed was some sports but especially the Olympics and it turns out if you actually navigate your way over there there's plenty of stories, photos and slideshows. And, lo and behold, an immense inventory of online video clips, full event coverage and live streaming broadcasts. And it's all pretty well done. Which made someone who's resurrected their career by hoping on the new media outlet using that venue to harshly criticize NBC for tape-delays disingenuous at best and appallingly ignorant at worst. We'll admit NBC has a long ways to go to better market and integrate their new stuff, cross-leverage with the old and make money but they've done a find job. In fact we've lost way too much time, including being able to watch the entirety of the complete opening ceremonies online. Which makes NBC on the bleeding edge of the 4A's - Anywhere, Anytime, Anything, Any Device. It is this brave new world that Cisco sees as being a major driver of the Tech world going forward (as does IBM, HPQ, Dell, Intal, TI, etc. etc.). The real question is who's got it right, who can develop the right capabilities and who can deliver? Now those are really interesting indeed. And to attack them and understand what making the 4A's real you need to know a bit about how all the pieces play, or not as the case more often is.


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