Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010

What Will Happen Soon Enough All Over the Country...

...if we don't look public sector unions (teachers union most of all) squarely in the eye and say:

You can not be paid the benefits that irresponsible politicians gave you in exchange for votes.

The New York Times, of all places, writes about a town where they just stopped the checks:

The Town That Stopped Its Pension Checks

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The New Electoral Math

The results are in, and there is new electoral math to consider. Gaining congressional seats are:

Texas                 +4
Florida               +2
Georgia              +1
Arizona              +1
Nevada              +1
South Carolina    +1
Utah                  +1
Washington        +1

Losing seats are:

New York           -2
Ohio                  -2
Illinois                -1
Iowa                  -1
Pennsylvania      -1
Massachusetts    -1
Michigan            -1
Missouri             -1
Mississippi          -1
New Jersey         -1

The media today is focused on how many extra house seats this translates into for the Republicans. The answer is not insubstantial, maybe around 10 to 12 seats. But lost in the wash here is that this also changes the number of electoral votes from each state, and this will have a considerable impact on the 2012 presidential election.

The math is much more straightforward than trying to guess congressional outcomes because we don't have to see how redistricting plays out. Texas, for instance, is s slam dunk to produce an additional 4 electoral votes for any Republican.

The way I see it, Texas, Georgia, Arizona, South Carolina, and Utah are a lock for Republicans. That's a pickup of 8 votes.

Republicans also pick up seats - relatively - by losing less badly in New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New Jersey. That's another 6 seats.

Democrats likely pick up single votes in Washington and Mississippi. Our total is now +12 for the Republicans.

That leaves Nevada, Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. I figure out of that the GOP nets one more seat, so that makes the tally +13. That is no small deal, especially in our era of close elections.

I can't let one other thing pass without comment. Notice any patterns here? Perhaps that almost all the losers are Blue states and all the winners Red? This is clearly due to the rampant mismanagement of states like New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. Spending and taxation have driven citizens to more economically friendly environs. Can't we learn a lesson here?

P.S. Note Sarah Palin lookalike at the chalkboard!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Coming State Apocolypse

This 60 Minutes piece by Steve Kroft on the catastrophic position of state finances is well worth watching:

60 Minutes

I have been convinced for some time now that the single biggest problem our country faces is public sector unions. More on this soon.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Congressional Democrats and a Hong Kong Newsstand

When we lived in Hong Kong in the 90s, each day my wife visited the same newsstand in the Citibank Building and bought the same exact thing: a Wall Street Journal and a cup of coffee. Each day, the proprietor would short change her. My wife would vigorously complain, and he would give her the rest of her change. It was a daily ritual.

What was striking, though, was the lack of embarrassment or shame. This guy didn't even pretend that it was an innocent mistake. He quite rationally calculated that the worst that could happen was that he'd have to give back the rest of the change. He also calculated that once in a while my wife would either not notice or be in too much of a hurry to care.

His plan was completely logical, but it only worked assuming he didn't mind being known as a thief.

As so you have today's Congressional Democrat. The pretense is gone - no more pretending that they are anything better than the thieving Chinese news vendor.

I speak, of course, about the new omnibus spending bill. It is the Mount Everest of pork. The kind of stuff voters quite specifically - loudly - rejected a month ago. It's like Democrats have been told to go on a diet but the diet doesn't start for a few days, so their faces are in the trough today.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • $277,000 for potato pest management in Wisconsin
  • $246,000 for bovine tuberculosis in Michigan and Minnesota
  • $522,000 for cranberry and blueberry disease and breeding in New Jersey
  • $500,000 for oyster safety in Florida
  • $349,000 for swine waste management in North Carolina
  • $413,000 for peanut research in Alabama
  • $247,000 for virus free wine grapes in Washington
  • $208,000 for beaver management in North Carolina
  • $94,000 for blackbird management in Louisiana
  • $165,00 for maple syrup research in Vermont
  • $235,000 for noxious weed management in Nevada
  • $100,000 for Edgar Allen Poe cottage visitor’s center in New York
  • $300,000 for the Polynesian voyaging society in Hawaii
  • $400,000 for solar parking canopies and plug-in electric stations in Kansas
  • $720,000 to compensate ranchers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan whenever endangered wolves eat their cattle

They have no shame, and they reason, just like the news vendor, that they can wear down Republican law makers and the general public. After all, it's worked pretty consistently in the past. And it's the holiday season. Perhaps the tea partiers are busy with other things, or worn out from fighting a new front almost every week.

It's a good strategy, as long as you don't mind people knowing you're a thief.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Silicon Valley and the Two Americas

Last week, Mary Meeker, famed Morgan Stanley internet analyst, decamped from Wall Street (Morgan Stanley) to Silicon Valley (venture firm Kleiner Perkins). I think this is indicative of a lot of things, particularly about the direction of our country and where our best hope lies: technology and the relentless drive of the entrepreneurial class.

I spent a few days last week in Silicon Valley. The atmosphere was crazy; a little like '99, but without the stupid valuations. The restaurants are humming. You can't hire good people unless you're prepared to get in a bidding war. Code writers can strut their stuff like peacocks. The VCs, who spent a few years doing, well, nothing, are once again as hot as a pistol. Kleiner Perkins raised $100 twice over a couple of weeks' time, both in a single day. Marc Andreessen's new venture firm raised $650 million in three weeks. Crazy stuff.

There are two trends and two companies that are driving Web 2.0, as it's been dubbed. The trends are mobile computing...

...and social networking...

A Friend of a Friend?

And the two companies are...

Mobile computing, which means smart phones, iPads, etc., is exploding beyond anyone's imagination. Apple has sold 8 million ipads since last spring at $500 a pop. It's hard to remember that last April, the iPad's success was hardly a foregone conclusion.

Instrumental in the success in mobile computing was Apple's creation of the "app," which is nothing more than bite sized applications designed specifically to work within real estate confines of mobile computing. Initially, all apps were self-contained programs that would run a utility or a game. Increasingly, though, and with remarkable speed, they have become the preferred way to access the internet as well.

Let me give you an example. I happen to love the Drudge Report, but if I wanted to view it on my iPhone a year ago, the process was:

1. Click on the Safari browser;

2. Scroll through my favorite places;

3. Click on Drudge;

4. Wait for it to download (slow);

5. Play with the screen size until I could read it.

All in, probably a 30-40 second process. A year ago, I was willing to put up with this, but 30-40 seconds might as well be forever in digital time. It's a non-starter now. But that's okay, because Drudge introduced an app for which I happily paid 99 cents which solves the latency problem. Now all I do is click on the icon and an optimized version of the web site downloads in seconds.

This is what's going on everywhere: retooling the web to make it a credible mobile computing experience.

Presumably I don't have to tell you about social networking. If you're under 30, it's akin to breathing. If you're over 40, you might want to figure it out, just to keep up with what's going on. 35% of America and a good chunk of the rest of the world is on Facebook. I strongly urge you to see The Social Network.

If you're not a buyer, ponder this: a company you've likely never heard of, Zynga, has a $5 billion pre-IPO valuation and it exists nowhere but inside Facebook. Imagine that: Facebook has become so pervasive that multi-billion dollar comapanies can exist entirely within its eco-system.

(If you're curious what Zynga does, it designs social video games like Farmville and Mafia Wars. 55 million people play Farmville, and the number grows by 300,000 a day. My wife and kids can't seem to get enough.)

We live in two Americas right now. No, not that ass turd John Edwards' two Americas. One is Obama's America is where we are hopelessly in debt at every level of government and unemployment will remain high as far as the eye can see. Where risk aversion informs every new policy and people viewed as helpless wards of the state.

The other is Silicon Valley's America, where the pace of innovation is relentless and the next revolutionary idea is knocking around someone's brain as we speak. Where risk taking is as natural as drinking water and failure viewed as an asset on your resume.

There will be a strenuous tug-of-war between the two Americas in the coming years, and it's not at all clear which side emerges victorious. The optimist in me sides with the angels.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The One Big Advantage the U.S. Has Over the EU

A friend of mine just spent a week in Belgium on business. He was visiting a fast growing Belgian tech company. The thing is, all of its growth is outside Belgium. India and Brazil, mostly. The reason is simple: taxes and regulation.

For instance, if they want to fire a worker, the company have to pay that worker for another 10 years. I kid you not. So who would ever hire someone under these circumstances?

In the U.S., we have been heading down a similar path for some time, but we have one thing going for us that Belgium and other EU countries don't: our system of states. Not everything in the U.S. is run from Washington, and as a result, if you don't like the economic climate in, say, New York, you can always move to Texas or Florida. (Texas, in particular right now, is kicking ass.) This is the only thing that keep many states honest, our ability to vote with our feet.

This is why we need a rejuvenated states' right movement. The left, for years, has managed to cast states' rights as crypto-racist (i.e. it's supposed to remind everyone of slavery). What a load. Once upon a time, we were a collection of states that were only loosely bonded at the federal level. That model worked, because it promoted healthy competition. The propensity for bureaucrats and special interests to expand their own powers was naturally kept in check. We need to move back to that model. We are called as the "United States"  for a reason.

Unfortunately, we have been moving like a freight train towards Belgium.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Qatar Awarded 2022 World Cup Over U.S.

Wait, I thought the world was supposed to love us now that Obama, Citizen of the Planet, is president.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Of Smoke and Fire

What, exactly, is insider trading? Do you know? I know what we all think it is, which is:
      a.      Trading on information of an unannounced impending takeover; or 
      b.      Trading on non-public knowledge of an earnings announcement

Ivan Boesky. Bud Fox and Gordon Gekko, right?

The problem is, the government doesn’t seem to have the same clear-cut view of this that we all do. It could be that they are making it up as they go along. The key seems to be what constitutes “non-public knowledge,” and how it is one comes to possess it.

But before we get into that, let’s look at who they are targeting. Can we draw any conclusions?

I will say up front that I have no idea whether any of the firms that were raided by the FBI have done anything wrong, either by the standards above or the evolving standards of the government. Indeed, at least two of them, Level Global and Diamondback, are now saying they are not the targets of any government investigation, something the U.S. Attorney's Office has confirmed. 

The odd thing here is that the FBI can't just raid a firm because they feel like it. A judge has to agree that there's probable cause that a crime has been committed. I have spoken to someone familiar with the ways of U.S. Attorneys, and the explanations for this can be any one of the following:

  1. Level and Diamondback did nothing wrong but there could be evidence on premises of wrongdoing by others (this seems a stretch - there's evidence, but these firms weren't involved?)
  2. The firms are not being targeted but the Feds are narrowly looking at one or two rogue employees within those firms. Diamondback has placed a portfolio manager on leave, which would seem to underscore this theory.
  3. The firms are not "targets" of an investigation but are "subjects" of an investigation. That means that the Feds believe the firms have committed crimes, but they need more evidence to prosecute. An indictment is not imminent, but could come later. If this were the case, Level and Diamondback are engaging in some language parsing. However, the U.S. Attorney coming out and confirming that they are not "targets" suggests that they are probably not subjects either. The Feds were under no obligation to say this, and probably wouldn't if an indictment were in the offing.
Based on what we know, I'd say "2" is the likely explanation.

What all three firms have in common, though, is that they are all were spawned by Steven Cohen’s SAC Capital Advisors, a tremendously successful and aggressive shop that specializes in high turnover trading strategies. It doesn't take genius to figure out that SAC is the primary target here. The smoke is everywhere.

But is there fire? 

The most curious thing, to me, about SAC is its track record: reputed to be about 30% average annual returns since 1998. I know what you’re thinking, 30% is outstanding but not impossible. Buffett’s is 21.5%. But here’s what you don’t know: unlike Buffett, SAC reputedly charges a whopping  50% incentive fee, which would mean they’ve averaged in the neighborhood of 60% gross returns. This is the part that’s a little hard to understand.

To further explore the comparison, Buffett makes his money by making significant long term bets on undervalued companies. He sees trends before most and has the stomach to make big bets when others are gun shy. It’s easy to understand that once in a while someone might come along who is just very good at this.

Or, it’s equally as easy to understand how once in a while someone is just very lucky. Buffett doesn’t make a lot of investments, after all. Maybe he’s just been on a multi-decade streak of sevens. While it’s improbable that any one person can do this, it’s actually highly probable that a random investor out of a large pool will.
If I had to say, Buffett's career has been the result of both skill and good fortune, not unlike most successful careers.

SAC reputedly trades on information flow and quantitative modeling. I know something about the latter, since it’s what I used to do. I got out of that business because I no longer saw an edge. Everyone now has access to both computational power and data, and everyone knows the basic approaches to use.  It’s possible to occasionally find an edge, but it disappears quickly. This didn’t used to be the case.

It's hard to see where they get enough of an edge with information flow, either. Advantages here tend to be fleeting as well, and while a small fund might be able to meaningfully exploit meaningfully an edge, SAC manages a beastly $12 billion. Difficult to see how they can move that elephant around quickly enough. Also, $12 billion is a non-levered number. In reality, it's probably more like $25 or $30 billion.

How about luck? If Buffett’s lucky, isn’t it equally likely that Cohen could be lucky as well?

No, it’s actually far less likely (although not impossible). Two reasons for this. First, Cohen’s 60% gross returns blow Buffett away. Instead of being a five sigma event, as some have suggested of Buffett, Cohen represents a far crazier improbability.

Second, Cohen is placing thousands upon thousands more bets every year than Buffett. This matters because it increases the odds that his lucky streak will end. To understand this, it’s easiest to think in terms of flipping coins. How easy is it to flip heads once? Pretty easy. 50/50. How easy is it ten times in a row? One in 1,024.
Buffett doesn’t toss the coin too often. He makes large, infrequent bets. Cohen, on the other hand, makes lots and lots of smaller flips, making it far harder to beat the odds. Further, it wasn’t just Cohen beating the odds; his spawn were doing it as well, albeit for a shorter period of time.

So, while I don’t know of the specifics, let’s just say it looks circumstantially…interesting. Honestly, I don't know how you make 60% even with inside information. A whole lot of things have to be working for you to get to 60%. There are lots of smart people out there, and they don’t come close.

For the record, I doubt very highly they ever trade on what you and I think of as inside information. It doesn’t make sense on a number of levels. 

The real question is the use of so-called “expert networks” and what sort of information is being obtained. The Feds are suggesting there that funds have pushed too far into this legally gray area.

On the other hand

I believe the government may be doing the same from the other direction. They want bad guys, and they want them now. That insider trading laws are poorly defined is highly convenient.

So, what is insider trading, exactly?

Case Study #1

You are sunbathing and you over hear a CEO say they have engaged Morgan Stanley to seek buyers of a subsidiary. You buy shares of the subsidiary and make a tidy profit. It just so happens, this is exactly what happened to Barry Switzer, former Super Bowl coach. Guilty? Yes, according to the government. No, according to a judge in that case.

Case Study #2

You are a rail yard worker and you see an unusual number of suits being given tours. You buy your company’s stock figuring someone’s looking to take it over. It turns out you're right. Guilty? The SEC thinks so. This case is still pending.

What if you have a friend who is a cashier at Staples and you ask them how back-to-school sales are going? Is it inside information? Unclear. The government may think so.

What if you sit in the Staples parking lot and count customers, and then make assumptions about how much people are spending? Isn’t that just good research? Hmm, maybe not. After all, not everyone has that information. You have an unfair advantage, even if you created it out of your own hard work and diligence.

The point is, when laws are poorly defined, overzealous prosecutors can use them to criminalize almost any kind of behavior.

And let’s face it, this administration needs villains. It’s Orwell 101, a state of perpetual war to justify every increasing incursions into domestic liberty. They have methodically rifled through other industries - oil, insurance, health, etc. – but Wall Street plays best, according to the polls. Mark my words, they will try to put faces on this, to make it personal. Nothing would make them happier than bagging Cohen.  He is conveniently non-photogenic.

And there’s this:
The Cohen Spread

Yes, those are private golf holes in the back and a skating rink to the left. Hard to see the ice cream parlor from this altitude (it's there).

 This Is Art

Cohen paid a reported $12 million for a shark floating in formaldehyde. (Supposedly, it’s starting to decompose, but hey, he probably got a few good years out of it.)

It’s all fine, as far as I’m concerned. A little garish (okay, a lot), but people are entitled to spend their money how they please. It doesn’t mean I have to have them over for dinner. Problem is, that’s not how Obama sees it. He doesn’t understand how it’s possible to accumulate wealth like this legitimately, and bringing folks like Cohen down to size, through whatever means, is just another way to redistribute wealth.

This is why it doesn’t bother anyone in government that when they raid a financial firm’s office –particularly a hedge fund - they no longer even have to prove their case. They know full well they may have already destroyed the business. Investors are just too freaked out these days by reputational risk to hang around. All parties may have the comfort of being completely innocent, but it may be from the ruins of what they spent years building.

Lastly,  there is Cohen's apparent political transformation. He gives a lot of money to politicians, and in 2006 it went exclusively to Democrats. In 2008, he spread things around roughly 50/50. For instance, he gave money to both the Democrat and Republican Campaign Committees (hate that!). He gave to Reid and Baucus but also Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor. Interestingly, not a cent to Obama.

Like a lot of folks in the financial community, though, Cohen has been given pause, presumably by Democrat spending and regulatory excess. In this year's election cycle, he gave every last cent to Republicans. Is there a little retribution in the works? Make an example of Stevie so everyone else learns their place? With our current administration, there are too many examples of thugishness to rule this out as a possibility.

So, there you have my take on this from two different perspectives. If you had to pin me down, I’d guess that SAC and others on the government hit list didn’t commit acts of insider trading but that they were very aggressive about what they viewed as legitimate information gathering. But I also think that the government is being equally aggressive, maybe unfairly so, in the other direction. The question is where did the investment firms draw the line, and where is government now deciding to draw it.

In the end, perhaps some good will come out of this in the form of better understood law.  One hopes it is not at the cost of the reputations and careers of the innocent.