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Maybe China’s Selling Treasuries Because They Made So Much Money

There’s a lot of talk this morning about China’s treasury holdings dropping by a few ten billion. Most of it is panic talk but I am choosing to take away two themes from the report:

1) China made a boatload of money being long US debt

You always hear about how China is throttling the US by buying up all of our paper and holding it over our head. Or how we’re just years away from defaulting on all of it and sending half the planet to an early grave. But you rarely hear just how profitable for foreign countries keeping US paper has been.

Good for them; they’ve been investing in us for decades and it has been a huge winner. Just look at China’s holdings versus treasury rates (per Wikipedia and the US Department of the Treasury)


H T Rates

If you were up this much in such a large position, and had the perfect selling opportunity present itself, tell me; would YOU just sit still?

Or would you take profits?

At some point it doesn’t make sense for China not to roll over the position, whether it’s to longer term maturities of US paper, or something else entirely. I’m not going to sit here and freak out about such common sense moves. China could particularly use the funds right now anyway, with their economy slowing down. I’ve got a good feeling those dollars will work their way back home again in short time.

2) There’s a good chance Yellen is serious about raising rates next year, and has given advanced notice to a major player of US debt that this is really happening

Conspiracy rant/

I’m supposed to sit here and pretend that the Fed doesn’t have conflicts of interest and doesn’t talk with anyone about what they’re planning. It’s complete horseshit.

We’ve had a known leaker at the Federal Reserve for years, and the only ones who seem to get targeted are the whistleblowers. China just happens to pick now of all times to drop this big of a position on the markets, and I’m supposed to play along like Yellen isn’t telling them this hike is happening sometime in January or April?

/Conspiracy rant end

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Market Update – 18 Months In Review

2014 began with an intense implosion of overpriced tech stocks that destabilized players and set us up for nasty knock off effects. Months afterwards, energy names began to turn downward and started an at first slow descent; a black omen for anyone looking for a forward indicator.

Saudi Arabia decided to play the world’s worst move (effectively maiming OPEC), spiked the oil markets when they could least handle it, and sent oil into the abyss touching off a second massive sector implosion in oil and gas names. But not just oil & gas, as the market became terrified of economic stagnation led by fears out of Europe and Asia, and the entire energy sector followed oil down the hole.

We are now experiencing what I view as the third wave of the same phenomenon that began in early 2014, more than a year later, as the entire stock market collapses 10% in a short span of time, led by China’s markets and the intensely poor decision making of a command/control economy trying to have their cake and eat it too.

That being said, I haven’t yet seen any indication that the real economy is retracting.

Job growth seems present and in my own local markets where I have a good ear to the ground concerning hiring and pay policies, I am actually hearing talk of wage hikes. The last five years, our local job market at least was terrified of the HR monsters that were federal regulations (chiefly PPACA), not to mention we are still reeling from 2009 in some respects. But I think as we clear away from the implementation of these federal regulations, especially with rigid conservatives now holding fast against, we are going to start to see some wage growth. Employees are actually demanding it now, voting with their feet when they can.

This should do wonders for the economy.

With regards to oil specifically (which is chiefest of my concerns) the EIA is suggesting that the current imbalance between consumption and production of oil is 2 million barrels per day. This is the cause of our stockpiling and the foremost reason oil has sunk so far. Saudi Arabia’s move to curtail US production has been a failure and so far the long feared wave of insolvencies has held to a slow drip, even from the most precarious of businesses.

A 2 million barrel imbalance is not all that bad and I believe that, barring some sort of real demand destruction, we’ll just float along at these levels until the market becomes more comfortable with oversupply. I don’t think oversupply necessarily will force pricing lower as it would take a very specific set of circumstances which include not having a merger & acquisition brokerage occur. Yet we see M&A activity is very healthy in this current time period and I have to believe that if oil goes much lower you would see US markets consolidate aggressively.

Besides this, the global imbalance is equivalent to about one major oil producer globally. And in this current environment, we also should be aware that civil unrest is a powerful destabilizer of oil production (via civil war) with positive likelihood.

Sources of new supply are questionable. New well development at these oil prices are unprofitable and only large state sponsored development is probable. Yet, economic weakness is harming state budgets and may make it difficult to attain approval for unprofitable ventures. The largest foreign state controlled sources of oil are also some of the most sensitive to this oil price shock.

Altogether, I continue to believe that the most likely outcome in oil markets is unknowable yet still predictable production locations going offline from internal unrest. Venezuela is pegged as the most likely location for such an event, do to the extreme nature of their current state of affairs, and because their leadership is proven incapable of handling the situation. But Venezuela is hardly the only candidate; just the best.

Outside of that, the economic uncertainty that hit everyone’s radar earlier this summer is now coming back under control. Bond yields continue to subside across all major foreign issuers, and I would not be surprised if the EU crisis in particular remains hidden from view for another full two years.

Domestically, I expect monetary policy to remain accommodating, but would not be surprised if Yellen raises interest rates some token amount, to try and claim some victory for the Federal Reserve. I cannot expect how the market will react to his, but believe the raise will be mostly symbolic anyway, so any effects should be temporary in nature.

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The Bond Market Has Essentially Called BS On The Entire Greek Episode

The bond market sold off hard today, and yields are starting to look as if bond traders are calling out the negotiations supposedly causing problems in Europe.

Check out Bloomberg’s Global Benchmark Bond Indexes; for sovereigns, the only set of positions that ended higher last month was Greece – that was the only country who’s bonds were bid higher.

Last September was when Greek debt started to break down again, and the core European countries saw an already mature bond rally exaggerate long in the tooth. Within the last month, Greek debt has seen some sharp rally’s that tend to make me think of a topping process, and the other European countries are showing pivots which (especially given their already virtually free nature) could mark a bottom.

We have seen this play out so many times before that I don’t think any of us can really get into it again. Greece swears they’ll do something. Schaeuble swears Greece isn’t a country he’s ever heard of. Then a week later, there was a deal the whole time. It’s not worth getting worked up over.

The bond market called the question. Let’s see what happens.

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Welcome, friends! For the 2015 DAY OF PATIENCING UPON US (blessings and praise) is, well…upon us!

In all of its infinite glory, the markets have ordained that, on this day, we should all be held hostage to the English predilections of a 68 year old woman.

Now! Wait with fearful deference to the Fed statement yet to be transcribed at the hands of careless twenty year old interns! And pray they do not forget to add the word “patience”. Twice for good measure.

On this remarkable day it is well worth it to go over the rules, which are completely capricious and still being made up at the moment. But here is a short breakdown:

1) IF Yellen says she is “patient”, then the market shall rejoice for no particular reason.
2) IF Yellen implies that she is, in fact, not patient, then the market shall despair for no particular reason.

So how does one know if Yellen is patient or not? Admittedly, it would be great if she just came out and say “Hey all, I’m taking a break from knitting, tending to my bonsai trees, and listening to a close, dear friend talking about her grandchildren to let each and every one of you know – I am super patient.”

That would be a most wonderful day and could very well touch off panacea.

Now, where it could get dicey is if Yellen says she is patient without just saying she is patient. Since these particular letters p-a-t-i-e-n-t seem to mean such a great deal, in that particular order, well then it could be quite a fit if she doesn’t use them.

In such an outcome, I suspect the best and brightest thirty year old micro managers would force their twenty year old trading slaves to lay down and cover their ears while they crosschecked the nearest thesaurus for clues.

To save you the trouble, I am providing you here a convenient list of synonyms for patience so that you can get ahead of the game, because that is the type of unparalleled service we provide around here.

Calm, forgiving, gentle, quiet, tolerant, long-suffering, understanding, accommodating, composed, easy-going, enduring, even-tempered, forbearing, imperturbable, indulgent, lenient, meek, mild, mild-tempered, persevering, persistent, philosophic, philosophical, resigned, self-possessed, serene, stoical, submissive, tranquil, uncomplaining, unruffled, untiring

But naturally this whole exercise is somewhat without purpose, as America’s most brilliant economists and laymen have already determined that interest rates shall be raised. Here is a direct quote from a recent publication:

“Mortgage rates are unlikely to go lower than they are now, and if they go higher, we’re likely to see a reversal of the gains in the housing market,” said Christopher J. Mayer, a professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School.

Oh, no excuse me for my confusion. That was not from this year, it was actually from 2010.

Here’s the real quote.

Last week, Narayana Kocherlakota, the governor of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, predicted… the Federal Reserve could raise interest rates.

Wait, sorry…sorry…I lied. That was actually a murmur from 2011.

Alright here is the real quote. For real.

We could still see the euro weaken against the dollar from here, which would still result in lower commodity prices.

What has really changed is the prospect for another plunge. It is most unlikely, with the various central banks of the world looking to shore up Europe, that we go back to an across the board sell off. That does not mean we go higher. It just means we don’t go to $0.

It also means that safe haven plays are at extreme risk. If Europe is not going to disintegrate before our eyes, then why hold half your net worth in gold.

Or treasuries…

…okay, I lied again. This time that was me in 2011 betting on higher treasury rates. I cannot recall if I ever made a specific bet on when the Fed exactly would raise interest rates, precisely. I wouldn’t doubt it though. But let’s agree that betting against treasuries in 2011 was just as wrong, shall we?

Here’s a Reuters article in 2012 betting the rate hike would be before late 2014. A cadre of economists actually thought the Fed would just pull the trigger right then and there.

(Reuters) – There is a good chance the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates before the end of 2014, according to a Reuters poll which also showed a significant minority of economists still expect a further easing of monetary policy in coming months.

The poll saw a 50-50 chance the U.S. central bank will break the pledge it made last month to keep benchmark overnight borrowing costs at near-zero for the next two years.

Here’s Fed chair Bullard in 2012 suggesting it would come in 2013.

March 23 (Bloomberg) — Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard said U.S. monetary policy may be at a turning point and the Fed’s first interest-rate increase since the global financial crisis could come as soon as late 2013.

With policy currently “on pause, it may be a good time to take stock of whether we may be at a turning point,” Bullard said in a speech in Hong Kong today. “As the U.S. economy continues to rebound and repair,” further action “may create an overcommitment to ultra-easy monetary policy.”

Here is LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank, hanging out at with our good pals at CNBC in 2013, ignoring everything the Fed said completely and still suggesting the rate hike would be imminent.

History, in fact, suggests that when the claims number averages below 350,000, you can safely bet a Fed interest rate hike will come within the year, according to research from Joe LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank.

In the current Fed forecasts, rate hikes wouldn’t come until mid-2015, when it expects a rate of 5.8 percent to 6.2 percent.

But rate hikes came when claims averaged 350,000 in 1958, 331,000 in 1961, 345,000 in 1984 and 344,000 in 1987.

“If past is prologue, whereby low and declining claims accurately foreshadow a noticeable pickup in hiring—and hence a sharp decline in the unemployment rate—then monetary policymakers will not be waiting until 2015 before raising the fed funds rate,” LaVorgna said.

Which brings us to 2014, just three months ago, when we started this comical jig, waiting on an old woman to assure us she is still, in fact, patient.

For reference, see Bloomberg.

So let’s have a moment of contrite honesty together. You…me…all of us have been absolutely terrible at guessing when the Fed will raise interest rates. Even the Fed themselves have been terrible about guessing when they will raise interest rates.

The dance above us that you see, prancing over five years, is a display of failure. It is time to admit that candidly amongst one another.

This economics game we play – the underpinning of everything in investing – is not a science. It is an art form, rather; one which is prone to fits and everyone gets to be wrong quite a lot.

So why, dear reader, should I believe that now – with such rampant destruction in forex markets and the US dollar almost audibly sucking air out of the room – is the time to raise interest rates?

Why would you be right this time?

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The Big Question Then: How To Play EU QE?

The Swiss bank just announced that the ceiling they have been maintaining against the euro is to be dropped. That would make sense, since the euro is now trading below 1.17, down from almost 1.40 just earlier. In terms of the exchange rate, that had to be getting very expensive.

But the timing here should be viewed as a sign that the ECB is really about to start QE. This should be the stance because if they don’t, the impact would be minimal, but if they do you can’t be on the wrong side of the trade.

In terms of what this QE will look like…well, that is the question. What is the ECB going to buy? Not public debt, surely. How much more financing can these governments stomach with yields already negative in many countries. Even the worst countries, like Greece, are borrowing at rates that an average citizen would envy.

My guess here is two fold: (1) they buy up private financial assets similar to the mortgage program the Fed had in place, but that it will center on short term bonds, while also working with banks to create a long term financing window (EU companies and banks in particular have notoriously short term financing arrangements) and (2) they take the opportunity to absorb whatever mechanisms exactly they have been using, before now, to hide the massive debt loads that should have been coming due over the past three years.

If you forgot, Europe ended up pulling some master BS, using a combination of trade accounts to gobble up the garbage so that the markets wouldn’t have to see it default. I’m hazy on the exact specifics, but I would gamble that those imbalanced accounts are still outstanding; and my guess is they’re about to get totally monetized.

So the big question now is, where do you park money? I think that it would be very stupid to try and be short right now with central banks making big noise and seemingly readying the cannons.

If this is like past central bank action, then any longs will do – equity, commodities, debt, whatever you like. Oil could get a huge boost since it’s been so ravaged. ECB action will give the Fed room to play, especially if deflation keeps up. Yellen is no Bernanke…yet, but she also hasn’t been tried either. If the Fed coordinates, all boats get lifted.

But the safest low key play is probably just to hug U.S. dollars until things are a little more clear.

I am ~78% cash, with positions in CCJ, BAS and VOC, down roughly 3% in the first two weeks of the year.

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On HCLP and Secondary Offerings In General

Following the glory of obscene growth potential yesterday – in the form of long term supply agreement amendments being announced – HCLP followed up by declaring a secondary offering. After hours and to the open, the price was off 5%.

I cannot in good conscience sit by and allow this to pass unaddressed. For you see, many of you have a very cliche, knee jerk opinion of companies raising money, which I have commented on before now.

Why is this? What is it about secondary offerings that you hate so much?

Myth One: They’re Dilutive

There is a major opinion in markets, unquestionably, that secondary share offerings inherently ruin the performance for existing shareholders.

The logic goes something like this – ahem – “ABC makes $100,000 per quarter, with 1 million shares outstanding, and I earn $0.10 a share. If they issue another 100,000 shares then I only make $0.091!”

Let’s just quickly break down this scenario and why it’s wrong.

First off, if a company sells shares, they take money onto their balance sheet. Especially right now, where new shares are routinely sold at prices FAR beyond their worth, the new cash on the balance sheet more than overcompensates for the loss of earnings, at least in the short term. If my company is selling stock at 20-30X earnings, it’s sort of a buffer to that dilution fear, isn’t it? Actually, lots of secondary offerings immediately make money for existing shareholders.

I only clearly lose if management is somehow selling stock for less than it’s worth; in which case they will most likely be sued up a tree. If they’re selling it at par, for fair value, then by definition it’s a wash (fair value including some form of discount for future earnings potential).

And then there’s the biggest question: what is management planning on doing with the money? Are they squirreling it away in non-marketable warehouses they plan on building, perhaps somewhere in Antartica? Or are they, like most businesses, trying to grow? And what is the potential of that growth? If opportunities that attract that new money have higher earnings per share than existing net operations, then all prior shares in existence will have benefited from the new equity.

Claim: whether or not a secondary offering is dilutive depends very much on what management is going to do with the money.

Myth Two: Debt Is Always A More Effective Way To Finance A Company

There’s another specious tidbit circling business community colleges. “So you have an opportunity to pursue; equity or bonds? Well offering bonds to finance the job will always have a bigger payoff for shareholders.”

Again, I find this claim to be wanting. The argument is weak from the onset. But please first note what I am not about to argue. I am not arguing that this claim is always false. But it is clearly also not always true.

If I raise money on a project, at best existing shareholders will be able to make a return above both the principle of the notes and the interest you owe on the bonds.

How is this that different from raising new money?

To start, the principle of the bond corresponds to the price per share of the equity raise. Turning these two objects over, we can see that, at least in our present environment, new shares being sold for more than they’re worth, from one perspective secondary offerings have a superior element to them for existing shareholders – existing shareholders can actually make money off the transaction (see above).

If my company issues debt, how have I benefited besides through “future possible earnings”? I cannot make money on the transaction. By nature of issuing a bond, every cent will need to be repaid (or else carry severe implications for myself as a shareholder). I personally have not directly benefited.

If my company issues stock at a big mark up – like they can right now – as a shareholder I have probably made money. New shares in a healthy market add more to the balance sheet than the new money receives in return.

After turning over the principle/equity issue, now let’s look at the dilution. Well, surely dilution corresponds to the interest on the bonds, does it not?

Where do you suppose interest gets paid? From the Ether? It comes directly from existing operations. If you’re lucky, the new/expanded business venture management is pursuing earns enough to offset both the principle of the bond and the interest and you, as a shareholder, make money on top. Otherwise, it’s a drag on earnings and…you guessed it – dilutive.

Now it could be parsed over here that debt’s return is finitely, contractually limited, so if a company raises debt to finance a project and that project has a fat payoff, then equity will always get more than in the alternative world where the project was financed through a secondary.

While this is technically true when peered at through the very narrow lens of a profitable, big payoff growth story, it overlooks two important points of view. The first is that 1) the game changes completely if a project does not make money, in which case the equity raise if vastly superior to the debt issuance (since the new equity will have diluted the loss for existing shareholders) whereas the debt, being a higher claim than stock, will compound the losses. The second being 2) a company can always just raise debt after a secondary (or vise versa) – and frequently many of the impacts of either a secondary or a debt issuance can be reversed or even transformed in the other direction (market prices permitting).

Claim: whether or not debt is superior to secondary offerings depends very much on a case by case basis for a company. Current debt levels, the possible payoff of the business growth, downside risks, interest rates, and market premiums for secondary must all be carefully considered. This business rule of thumb is overly simplistic.

Beware Billionaires Pushing Leverage

I couldn’t just let this stand unchallenged. Sometimes debt is the answer, but other times it’s best to just issue some more equity. It isn’t fair to turn the choice into a bumper sticker that management has to adamantly follow.

And so often, raising debt is exactly the wrong answer.

Some of the biggest pushers of corporate debt are so often big activist shareholders with goals ill-aligned with the regular mom and pop retirement accounts; people looking for a quick buck and possessing dubious intentions. Guys like Dan Gilbert in Detroit who are just too happy to fuck over an entire company of hardworking employee shareholders in a start up tech advertising company, then leave them holding nothing (and subsequently being supported by Michigan’s Supreme Court…cough cough). (For the record, that had nothing to do with debt, I just felt like spelling out what a piece of shit Dan Gilbert is).

It’s a long standing favorite of activist shareholders to take a big position in a lackluster company with low leverage, then pressure them to take on as much debt as possible, fling it around on the balance sheet to beat some poorly defined analyst metrics and make an illusion of growth, spice it up into a popular position, then unload the company for a fast gain on multiples expansion.

The only way it gets better for the hedge fund guys is if they can pay out as much of that leverage to themselves, either in special dividends, or – better – by bullying management into buying their private assets at a premium (you don’t have to share with anyone else that way).

At the end of the road, you have a lackluster and profitable company transformed into a glitzy and unprofitable one. That isn’t growing a business; it’s liquidating one.

It’s all fun and glam right now, with interest rates so low. However, as debt needs to get turned over next decade, we’ll get to see who was actually working for their company versus who was trying to rob it.

It All Comes Down To Trust And Timing

Do you trust your management, or don’t you? Secondary offerings and debt issuance can both go bad if the mood is right. What is the money being used for and what are the risks?

Is the company pulling a lot of strange moves on their filings? Are the cash flows pages telling the story of a company that isn’t actually taking in more cash, despite a great “growth” story? Are classes of shares being thrown around like a bowl of alphabet soup?

And what are prospects of the business looking like? Is demand for products growing? Does the company have more business than they can possibly service? At the end of the day, this is likely to be the biggest factor in the success or failure of any business. Debt versus secondary offering will probably play a backseat, if management is working as a proper fiduciary in a hot business cycle.

Update: I purchased more shares of HCLP for $62.47

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