“You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards.” – Steve Jobs

Stanford Commencement Address 2005:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path. And that will make all the difference.” – Steve Jobs

http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html

On Taking Losses and the Value of Survival: A Quick Look at 1999-2000

”The moral of this story is that irrational markets can kill you,” said one Wall Street analyst who has dealt with both men. ”Julian said, ‘This is irrational and I won’t play,’ and they carried him out feet first. Druckenmiller said, ‘This is irrational and I will play,’ and they carried him out feet first.”

It seems the ability to take losses, and survive to fight another day (and preserve swagger/confidence amidst losses) is quite critical:

  • During the first part of 1999, Soros funds were betting big against Internet stocks, in keeping with Mr. Soros’s view that the Internet craze would end badly. As that craze instead kept gathering force, the Quantum Fund found itself down 20% by last July.
  • [They hired a tech pm and changed strategy] The Soros funds bought these [i.e. internet] stocks and selling short some Old Economy stocks. It worked: The Quantum Fund came all the way back to finish 1999 up 35%.
  • Though he did a bit of selling at the beginning of 2000, he held on to most of those inflated tech stocks, betting that “the Nasdaq rally was in the eighth inning, not the ninth inning.”
  • So when the hurricane hit in mid-March 2000, the Soros funds were leaning the wrong way: holding lots of tech stocks and shorting the Standard & Poor’s 500 and Old Economy names such as Goodyear and Sears. The market got so volatile it was hard for traders even to figure out their exposure.
  • In just five subsequent days, the Soros firm’s flagship Quantum Fund saw what had been a 2% year-to-date gain turn into an 11% loss.
  • By the end of April 2000, the Quantum Fund was down 22% since the start of the year, and the smaller Quota Fund was down 32%.

It’s not clear how the Soros funds performed by year end 2000 (or 2001), but the above from http://www.colorado.edu/economics/courses/econ2020/4111/articles/soros-fund.html seems like an excellent read, for the purposes of understanding taking losses (as soon as possible).

 

”The moral of this story is that irrational markets can kill you,” said one Wall Street analyst who has dealt with both men. ”Julian said, ‘This is irrational and I won’t play,’ and they carried him out feet first. Druckenmiller said, ‘This is irrational and I will play,’ and they carried him out feet first.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2000/04/29/business/another-technology-victim-top-soros-fund-manager-says-he-overplayed-hand.html

 

How the Soros Funds Lost Game Of Chicken Against Tech Stocks

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL – May 22, 2000

NEW YORK — For months, through late 1999 and early 2000, the Monday afternoon research meetings at George Soros’s hedge-fund firm centered on a single theme: how to prepare for the inevitable sell-off of technology stocks.

Stanley Druckenmiller, in charge of the celebrated funds, sat at the head of a long table in a room overlooking Central Park. Almost as if reading from a script, he would begin the weekly meetings with a warning that the sell-off could be near and could be brutal. For the next hour, the group would debate what signs to look for, what stocks to sell, how fast to sell them.

“I don’t like this market. I think we should probably lighten up. I don’t want to go out like Steinhardt,” Mr. Druckenmiller said in early March as the market soared, according to people present at the time. He was referring to Michael Steinhardt, who ended an illustrious hedge-fund career in 1995, a year after suffering big losses.

Mr. Soros himself, often traveling abroad, would regularly phone his top lieutenants, warning that tech stocks were a bubble set to burst.

For all this, when the sell-off finally did begin in mid-March, Soros Fund Management wasn’t ready for it. Still loaded with high-tech and biotechnology stocks and still betting against the so-called Old Economy, Soros traders watched in horror when the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index plunged 124 points on March 15 while the once-quiescent Dow Jones Industrial Average leapt 320 points. In just five subsequent days, the Soros firm’s flagship Quantum Fund saw what had been a 2% year-to-date gain turn into an 11% loss.

“Can you believe this? This is what we talked about!” cried a senior trader amid the carnage. Others on the firm’s gloomy trading floor busied themselves calculating how much they had lost by aping Soros investments in their own accounts.

Aside from an April 28 news conference about the firm’s agonies and brief interviews afterward, the secretive Mr. Soros and Mr. Druckenmiller, long his No. 2, have said little about the period leading up to the humbling disclosure of the problems. An account pieced together from interviews with a dozen Soros insiders and managers of other hedge funds — private pools of investment capital — shows two longtime friends and colleagues increasingly at odds until it all became too much.

As the losses piled up, tension inside the firm grew, with Mr. Soros second guessing the traders who had made him billions of dollars in the past decade. Soros executives say they overheard heated arguments, as Mr. Soros pressed Mr. Druckenmiller to bail out of some swooning Internet stocks before they sank even further, while Mr. Druckenmiller insisted that the funds hold on.

During the worst of this period, it happened that the Soros offices were consumed by a powerful burning smell as electrical work on the floor above kept starting small fires and setting off deafening alarms. The smoke and racket and the dizzy headaches they caused seemed “like a divine message,” recalls one Soros executive of the bizarre office scene. “We almost wished it would burn down.”

By the end of April, the Quantum Fund was down 22% since the start of the year, and the smaller Quota Fund was down 32%. Mr. Soros had stated in a 1995 autobiography that he was “up there” with the world’s greatest money managers, but added, “How long I will stay there is another question.” Now came an answer. Both Mr. Druckenmiller and Quota Fund chief Nicholas Roditi resigned. Mr. Soros unveiled a new, lower-risk investing style — completely out of character for him — and conceded that even he found it hard to navigate today’s murky markets.

“Maybe I don’t understand the market,” a reflective Mr. Soros said at the April 28 news conference. “Maybe the music has stopped, but people are still dancing.”

Messrs. Soros and Druckenmiller are just the latest legendary investors whose reputations have been affected by this unusual market. Two others, Warren Buffet and Julian Robertson, suffered for not embracing the late-1990s fads of tech stocks and momentum investing, as those approaches proved winners while blue-chip investing languished. Mr. Buffett stuck it out and has seen his Old Economy stocks make something of a comeback. But Mr. Robertson gave up on his Tiger Management hedge fund in March — just as the winds were shifting.

No pedestal was higher than Mr. Soros’s. A Hungarian refugee from the Holocaust, Mr. Soros, now 69 years old, started as a stock-picker in the late 1960s, graduating to “macro” investing, or betting on the broad trends that move stocks, bonds and currencies across the globe. His style was to wait for big changes in the markets, then take advantage with aggressive moves.

He turned the reins of Soros Fund Management over to Mr. Druckenmiller in 1989 to concentrate on philanthropy, though he continued to keep close tabs on the funds. The firm continued to rack up huge gains, creating awe among competitors. Its funds grew so powerful, using borrowed money to magnify their results, that their investments moved markets, and their giant bets could be self-fulfilling.

In the summer of 1992, it became known that Soros funds were selling the British pound short, betting on a decline. Hearing this, other investors quickly started doing the same. “We didn’t like the pound either, but when we heard that Soros was selling, we reinforced our positions,” recalls Ezra Zask, who made several million dollars from the trade for his own, smaller hedge fund. Such piggyback trading helped Soros funds rack up $2 billion in gains and earn Mr. Soros the label of “the man who broke the Bank of England.”

Just a hint of what Soros funds might be doing had impact. One morning in the summer of 1993, Gary Evans, then head of emerging-market bond trading at Kidder, Peabody & Co., heard that Soros funds were buying Peru’s currency. He ordered his traders to buy Peruvian bonds, barking that “Soros is getting in — something must be going right there.” Peru’s currency rallied, and Kidder’s bonds jumped about 500% in six months.

The rumors didn’t even have to be true. In late 1997, Hamburg Tang, sitting on a Wall Street trading desk, began getting panicked calls from currency traders saying the Quantum Fund was attacking the Malaysian ringgit. Mr. Tang’s group held more than $100 million in bonds of Malaysian companies, and he cursed Mr. Soros under his breath as they fell steadily for a month, Mr. Tang recalls. Mr. Druckenmiller has since said that the Soros funds actually were buying, not selling, Malaysia’s currency during that time.

Beginning a couple of years ago, though, this outsize influence began to wane. As global markets swelled, Soros assets — even at the $22 billion they then totaled — no longer could move markets so easily, nor necessarily give the firm access to the best information. Power shifted toward money managers such as Janus Capital, once a third-tier mutual-fund group but now a huge one because of its hot performance.

And the Soros funds had some fumbles. They have lost more than $1 billion in the past two years betting that Europe’s new common currency would rise. Instead, the euro has fallen 24% since its introduction Jan. 1 last year. In addition, despite their big-picture focus, the Soros funds haven’t profited from the doubling of world oil prices over the past year or so.

But tech stocks proved their Waterloo. During the first part of 1999, Soros funds were betting big against Internet stocks, in keeping with Mr. Soros’s view that the Internet craze would end badly. As that craze instead kept gathering force, the Quantum Fund found itself down 20% by last July. Mr. Druckenmiller, who was concentrating on investments such as currencies, took back the reins of the stock portfolio. But, calling himself a “dinosaur,” he looked for help.

`Mr. Druckenmiller recruited Carson Levit, a respected money manager who grew up in Silicon Valley and didn’t mind paying sky-high prices for tech stocks. Mr. Soros, however, put Mr. Levit through a grueling eight-hour interview, disagreeing with him time and time again. By the end of the session, Mr. Soros said: “Stan obviously wants to bring you in, but I’m still nervous,” Mr. Levit recalls. “He looked at me like I was sort of a nut.” Still, Mr. Levit was hired to help manage the biggest part of the Soros stock portfolio, soon to be dominated by tech stocks.

And Mr. Druckenmiller warmed to them. Attending Allen & Co.’s annual summit conference of corporate chieftains in Sun Valley, Idaho, last July, he heard a lot of talk about how technology was changing the whole economy. Soon the Soros funds were buying these stocks and selling short some Old Economy stocks. It worked: The Quantum Fund came all the way back to finish 1999 up 35%.

But this meant holding stocks with exorbitant valuations. At one point in February, while watching biotech firm Celera Genomics Group skyrocket, Mr. Druckenmiller turned to a trader and said, “This is insane. I’ve never owned a stock that goes from $40 to $250 in a few months.”

Though he did a bit of selling at the beginning of 2000, he held on to most of those inflated tech stocks, betting that “the Nasdaq rally was in the eighth inning, not the ninth inning.” Few underlings challenged him. “Stan admitted to me that he didn’t quite understand the entire story and was uncomfortable with valuations,” says Richard Eakle, an outside money manager who took part in Soros internal conferences this year. “But everyone was intimidated by Stan. It was a group of yes-men at the meetings.”

So when the hurricane hit in mid-March, the Soros funds were leaning the wrong way: holding lots of tech stocks and shorting the Standard & Poor’s 500 and Old Economy names such as Goodyear and Sears. The market got so volatile it was hard for traders even to figure out their exposure.

Mr. Soros weighed in. “George accelerated the amount of time he was talking to us,” says Mr. Levit. “He was always cordial, but he had a different view and he wasn’t too happy.”

The Soros-Druckenmiller dissension came to a head over VeriSign, an Internet-security company that the funds bought at $50 a share last year and rode to $258 by late February. At Mr. Druckenmiller’s behest, the funds doubled their bet on VeriSign to $600 million in early March, after a visit by VeriSign Chief Executive Stratton Sclavos. The CEO wowed Soros executives with talk of what a pending acquisition of Network Solutions could do, say people familiar with the visit.

VeriSign was at $240 when Mr. Druckenmiller doubled up. As the Nasdaq quaked, the stock fell to $135 by early April. Mr. Soros told his deputy, “VeriSign is going to kill us. We should take our exposure down.”

“No,” Mr. Druckenmiller replied. “This is different than other Internet plays.”

It wasn’t. VeriSign’s shares fell to $96 in April, before coming back to $125 now.

The mood in Soros offices turned bleak. To relieve the tension, traders began to throw Koosh balls around, and Mr. Druckenmiller headed for the gym. But much of the day, he sat slumped in his office, silently watching the market. He had long talked about getting out of the business, but the 47-year-old executive, said to be worth about $1 billion, couldn’t bring himself to do anything.

On vacation with his family at his Palm Beach, Fla., home at the end of March, he couldn’t stop thinking about his troubles. He turned to his wife, Fiona (niece of Morgan Stanley strategist Barton Biggs), and said: “Money is supposed to be enjoyed, but if I can’t enjoy two weeks with my kids, what’s the point of it all?” a witness recalls. He promised her that he would soon quit, saying that he felt jealous of his friend Mr. Robertson.

The discord with Mr. Soros was major part of it. Mr. Soros “rode Stanley, and it came to a head,” says a friend of Mr. Druckenmiller. “A guy of Stanley’s stature and personal wealth didn’t need it.”

On April 18, with the Quantum fund down 20% for the year, Mr. Levit greeted an agitated-looking Mr. Druckenmiller with a “how are you” at 7 a.m. “What do you mean, ‘How am I?’ We just blew up,” Mr. Levit recalls Mr. Druckenmiller saying. “I can’t believe we’re in this mess again.”

That day, Mr. Druckenmiller handed in his resignation, and Soros Fund Management began the process of selling off most of its holdings. Quantum is being renamed Quantum Endowment Fund, with a new strategy of safer investing to help Mr. Soros fund his charitable activities. Some outside investors are pulling out money, and the fund is down to $7.1 billion now. The founder will keep his money in various conservative Soros funds.

As for Mr. Druckenmiller, “It would have been nice to go out on top, like Michael Jordan,” he said at the news conference 10 days later. “But I overplayed my hand.”

 

 

http://money.cnn.com/2000/04/28/mutualfunds/soros/

Long/Short Funds Tend to be more ‘Marketing of Beta’, not ‘Alpha’ Businesses – Jim Chanos

Straight from the Horse’s mouth (i.e. Jim Chanos):

I view macro and short selling as skill-based or alpha businesses, whereas equity long/short hedge funds tend to be more of a “marketing of beta” business. I am always amazed that investors will  pay 2 and 20 for a manager that is always net long.

I have been saying that for 20 years. It is interesting because I run an alpha-based business and I  am more sensitive to it than others. I sit on investment committees and I see it as an investor  who advises these funds. When I ask why a lot of hedge fund compensation is simply embedded market risk, I get very uncomfortable, squirming, dodgy answers. Or no answers at all.

Look at 2013. It is crazy to see managers who were up 15 percent command huge checks, when  the S&P was up 30 percent. Particularly since they were not balanced completely. They were 90 percent long and 30  percent short, or something like that. Not much alpha has been created by hedge funds, and
what was created has been taken by fees. This has been the case for a long time. In a way, short  sellers might still be one of your great bargains out there, at 1 and 20 percent of the alpha. That  is the closest I will get to a marketing pitch.

source: Steve Drobny, The New House of Money

A good friend of mine agrees. In his own words, “people confuse brains with a bull market.”

 

Longs and Investing from a … Short Seller’s Perspective

I Am a Short Seller

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” – Sun Tzu, Art of War

My name is Daniel, and I am a short seller. I became aware of this truth and came to accept it several years ago. I do not think I ‘chose’ to become one, nor did anyone ‘teach’ me to become one*.  In this regard, I agree with Jim Chanos, Marc Cohodes, and others, who believe short sellers are not ‘made’, but rather ‘born’. You are one, or you’re not. Plain and simple. Since then, I’ve fully accepted and embraced the fact I’m a short seller. I’ve experienced my share of losses and victories, but overall, I’ve enjoyed the ride. I still have plenty more to learn about the art of short selling, and am cautiously optimistic I will get better with time. With that said…

*With that said, I am grateful for the on-going mentor-ship and friend-ship that several have provided me. I believe they have played a critical role in my maturation as an analyst, short seller, and overall investor. I also believe they have helped me grow, personally.

 

I Aim to Become an Excellent, Overall Trader and Investor

“The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential… these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence.” – Confucius

There are three short sellers – I will refer to them as A, B, and C – who, in their own unique ways, have been encouraging me to strive to be an overall excellent investor (i.e. to learn to go long). Fortunately, this is a desire that I have finally begun to desire for myself. I do not know if I am meant to become competent/excellent at buying stocks, or if I am fated to be a ‘dedicated specialist’ for the rest of my life.

A – I thank A (over a series of conversations) for helping me develop a firm intellectual grasp of the risk/reward characteristics of going long vs. short. For example, the mechanics of a short or long position going against you, risk management, position sizing, scale-ability, the pressures of managing OPM, etc. The reasoning and philosophy underlying selecting longs, shorts, and building portfolios consisting of both. I also thank A for helping me see the need to learn how to buy/long things. A made it clear and convinced me that this is a MUST.

Finally, A made it clear to me that great long-term investing is about finding great businesses (preferably with great management), whereas short selling is about finding terrible people (preferably running terrible businesses).

B – Whereas A really helped me build a solid intellectual foundation , B has helped me primarily “learn by doing”. B has periodically mentioned long ideas that get him really excited (they are not common), and articulated long theses in ways that I can understand and get comfortable. I would say that B is exceptionally good at buying event-driven / special situation longs that have high chance of winning regardless of the overall market environment. I think every single long idea he has mentioned has led to positive P&L (he rarely talks longs). I can’t think of a long idea he has mentioned that has lost money (at least up to the point of the ‘events’ and/or ‘triggers’ he has identified).

I don’t know if B realizes, but in an indirect way, I’ve also learned a lot about longs/investing by B’s comments on short selling. For example, B has often told me “that is not the kind of company you short”, “short sellers do not short ___” (I remember him saying this about Apple, Microsoft, and Tesla) … after observing the times he has said that, I’ve come to realize that these types of names that may seem like good shorts superficially, tend to actually be excellent longs in pullbacks. I don’t think B is saying they can’t work as shorts (from a trading perspective), but at best, they’re singles… not home-runs. So why waste time on them?

C – Like B, C has told me that I must learn to go long. He has warned that otherwise, there’s always the risk of going insane, or encountering financial hardship. Whereas A and B have fully engaged my head (when it comes to buying stocks), C has engaged my heart. I feel inspired to become excellent at picking longs, and therefore, become an excellent overall investor. C started out dedicated to short-selling. Over the course of time, he has proven to be an excellent investor. He is living proof that it can be done, and that inspires me. It can be done! C also told me something I suspected: I must find niches on the long side that I can put my heart into. Like shorts, I need to develop a personal passion for certain kinds of longs, and no one can teach me that. As a matter of practicality, C told me that it is far more desirable to focus on finding great businesses rather than statistically cheap(looking) ones.

Investing Lessons I’ve Learned the HARD WAY

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

Once we realize that imperfect understanding is the human condition there is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes.” – George Soros

When it comes to researching longs, I’m probably a C- analyst (currently, speaking). When it comes to trading longs, B- (when it comes to researching and trading shorts, I’ll let others opine). Bear in mind, I was once an F- analyst and F- trader/investor in longs. In fact, most my longs between 2005-2008 were TERRIBLE. If you were short all my longs in that period, you would’ve made 80+% over that period. It took me a long time to realize, accept, and forgive myself of the mistakes I made. In fact, this process of introspection led me to realize I was a short seller.

Here are some of the (painful) lessons I’ve learned, on the long side:

  1. Just because a security/stock is down (significantly), does not mean it is cheap nor even likely to go up.
  2. Cheap doesn’t mean can’t get cheaper.
  3. If a business is experiencing problems (e.g., accounting, ethics, missing earns) you should assume it is worse than it looks.
  4. CEOs lie/cheat/steal. You should not make investment decisions purely because you ‘trust’ management. A lying CEO will say “trust me” without flinching.
  5. Stock fraud, and material misrepresentations, are real.
  6. Don’t create a concentrated or levered portfolio without knowing who the idiot in the room is (and even this is insufficient). Otherwise, it is YOU.
  7. Book value and earnings can go negative… therefore, statistically cheap (looking) may quickly become statistically expensive.
  8. Bad businesses rarely become mediocre ones. They are more likely to go bust or require a ‘restructuring’ (euphemism for, your equity stake getting wiped out).
  9. In market corrections, nearly everything goes down.
  10. “Be greedy when others are fearful” doesn’t guarantee you will make money.
  11. Being contrarian / counter cyclical / against the trend is not insufficient: you must be right.
  12. You should assume that the markets (which is the collection of all interested human beings) know more about a security than you.
  13. High dividend yields are often predictive of a dividend cut
  14. Textbooks, investor quotes, other investors’ opinions, certificates, etc. are no substitutes for direct experience.
  15. Plenty more stocks go to zero than to infinity.

The Present, The Future, and Prospective (Current) Long Opportunities

“The journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step.”

If I were to judge/grade my longs between 2010 – Present… NOT BAD. Definitely MUCH BETTER vs. my longs in 2005-2009. My P&L on longs has been positive over that time period. My batting average is way above zero (I think over 50%). My single biggest mistakes I’ve made time and time again on the long side in the last 4 years… not holding positions for sufficient time.

Some areas that interest me on the long side (I may be long or may initiate long positions in the following):

  1. Offshore drilling (e.g. RIG)
  2. Certain UK Grocery retailers
  3. Certain commodities-related businesses
  4. Gold and silver (I think there is a chance of a buying opportunity this quarter… I personally believe odds are better 3-12 months from now).
  5. Special Situation X
  6. Growth Stock Y

I am fully aware that most of the above are down/cheap(looking) for a reason, and face risk of additional impairment (perhaps even permanent impairment). That is why I am cautiously evaluating.

I am also seeking to divert my attention away from statistically depressed/cheap looking stocks, and focus on finding great businesses (and then determining if they are sensibly priced, or wait for opportunities to buy them at sensible prices). Admittedly, I have tended to focus more on whether a security is depressed rather than whether its underlying business is a great one that will remain great or perhaps even become greater, in time.

The impression I get from A, B, and C is that it is a better strategy to find great businesses, and then wait to buy them at sensible prices, vs. any other approach. Practically speaking, I think this will require spending less time observing securities prices, and more time observing the real world, people, and the world of commerce.

Time will tell if I am able to do this, and be able to get passionate about it.

 

The UnRIGged Transocean: On Watch (as a Long)

I considered going long Transocean (“RIG”) in fall 2011, and did so (briefly) for a trade. It would not have been a bad investment had I stayed on. I am re-visiting RIG as a long through the end of the year, and may initiate a long (and update this post) at any time. Per @mmtul:

RIG the pig, below ’08 lows. Well done! For the past 20 years, P/B range = 0.7 to 4.1. Currently 0.77. What do you think, Carl [Icahn]?

I initiated a long earlier today, and (accidentally via ‘fat finger’) put on a position 10x larger than I had intended. I closed it (fortunately, not at a loss) to re-evaluate. I may start building a long position tomorrow.

A few things that interest me and are worthy of further examination:

  • Short interest is high – 12 days to cover, over 20% of float is short. Short interest is nearly 10x higher than 12 months ago.
  • Day rate trends, price of oil.
  • Russia
  • Secular/structural considerations

The Madoff Ponzi Scheme: For every $1 “invested” how much have investors recovered? More Than MF Global Shareholders

In this day and age, the name ‘Madoff’ is synonymous with ‘financial fraud’, ‘ponzi scheme’, etc. Yet how much harm has Madoff done, in $ terms and % terms? While Madoff’s wrong-doings are indisputable, the damage all too real for its victims, the answer may surprise you…

As of July 23, 2014, the Securities Investor Protection Act (SIPA) Trustee has recovered or entered into agreements to recover approximately $9.825 billion, representing approximately 56 percent of the estimated $17.5 billion in principal lost in the Ponzi scheme by Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC (BLMIS) customers who filed claims. This recovery far exceeds any prior restitution effort related to Ponzi schemes both in terms of dollar value and percentage of stolen funds recovered.

source: http://www.madofftrustee.com/recoveries-04.html

Madoff’s victims have recovered 56% of their principal, whereas Corzine/MF Global’s victims – I mean, shareholders – is ZERO. To be fair, Madoff’s scheme and lies were longer lasting, and probably much more deliberate/malicious. Yet economically, who has harmed investors more? I will that to those far wiser to answer, but I believe it is a fair question.

In Anticipation of the Next “AOL-Time Warner”

This post was inspired by a @PlanMaestro who wrote: “Prediction: #PullingAnAOL will start trending soon.” I fully agree.

As “everyone” knows:

  • Interest rates remain low (and in many cases, negative)
  • Corporate cash balances remain high (at least in the United States, part of the reason there are inversion/tax related “controversies”)

As some know:

  • Capital/wealth has really nowhere to go other than the private sector, as public sector returns are de minimis. Corporate bonds/equities, hard assets, venture capital and private equity are the only game in town. I believe US is (largely) the only game in town as well.
  • Confidence in the corporate sector (C-level suites) is increasing.
  • Mergers and acquisitions are “back”
  • US Equity valuations are on the higher end historically, but can arguably go much higher given the prevailing low interest rate environment AND due to the pressure capital has to flee public sector and go SOMEWHERE.
  • The relatively high equity valuations have some interesting effects: (1) C-level executives face greater pressure to justify their existence, and so will look for ways to prop/grow EPS. (2) high valuations mean cheap currency, so acquisitions may seem, and may occasionally even be “accretive” (3) High valuations may lead otherwise mediocre/poor managers into thinking they are actually competent, and deserving of their absurdly high compensation packages. This dangerous and misplaced rise in confidence may encourage people to take on risks via M&A they otherwise would not.

All the above conditions lead me to believe we are in ripe territory (said differently, in dangerous territory) for a few eventual AOL-Time Warner debacles… I mean, deals. I’m giving it 5-6 quarters. Personally speaking, I am less interested in identifying potential targets on the long side… I’m not “smart” enough to do that. I’ll leave that to other Long/Short and Event-driven folks (I may change my mind, as I somehow magically transform into a super talented long focused guy with the power to foresee acquisitions). I am much more interested in getting involved ex-post. This leaves me plenty of time to observe the frauds and follies that I believe will come to fruition in the near future. 

 

About AOL-Time Warner

“Every time it [AOL] got to a clean quarter, it would buy something so you never saw internal growth. Total scum.” – Lisa Thompson from http://twitter.com/LTommy256/status/508807681579425792

It is my understanding that the AOL Time Warner deal gloriously harmed quite a few short sellers. Kynikos Associates, Rocker Partners, etc. I believe the list of those who lost money shorting in that situation is a “who’s who” list. I believe losses on shorting AOL were in the order of 10x. Note that time actually vindicated the AOL shorts… but little comfort in being “right” and losing considerable amount of capital.

 

David Rocker, Rocker Partners on AOL:

“Ask what the bull case is, other than bull generally,” demands David Rocker, a New York hedge fund head who says AOL is still one of the market’s most overvalued stocks. 1996

source: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1996-07-28/business/1996210078_1_aol-america-online-steve-case

In addition, the company used questionable accounting practices for new  subscribers and marketing revenue to improve its short-term financials. These practices  would lead to a $385 million write-off in 1996, and accusations that the company was
“morally bankrupt.” 

Former CEO Kimsey described the accounting issue
as “the big turd” that “sat in the middle of the company and smelled up the place.” Id. at 57. Short-seller Rocker
claimed that for AOL, “every revenue is ordinary, and every expense is extraordinary.

http://blogs.law.uiowa.edu/jcl/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/1-Bodie-FINAL.pdf

A well-known short seller of America Online, meaning he has bet that its stock price will decline, Mr. Rocker said that the company inflated its quarterly results by spreading its high marketing costs over two years. At the same time, it was reporting costs to the Government, reporting a loss to receive tax breaks.

”They have been telling the Government the truth, but they tell investors something else,” he said.

source: http://www.nytimes.com/1996/10/30/business/america-online-announces-a-newer-transformation.html

 

Jim Chanos, Kynikos Associates on AOL:

Q: what was your biggest mistake?
A (Jim Chanos): AOL. It was a short due to accounting, we thought they were masking higher churn then they reported. We thought the value of a subscriber would turn out less than they thought. We started shorting at $2-$4, covered as it went up, and covered the last at $80. We kept it to a 1%-1.5% position. We knew we were in the midst of a bubble, so we kept it small, but it still cost us 10% over 2 years.

source: http://myinvestingnotebook.blogspot.com/2010/05/jim-chanos-power-of-negative-thinking.html

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 12,974 other followers