Moral Hazard

Today, the Federal Reserve and President of the United States offered a life raft to the mortgage market.

It sounds like this will come in the form of additional liquidity for lenders from the Federal Reserve, and loan guarantees and loan restructuring for borrowers through various government departments.

Although this may seem like much needed help for “victims” of the market, to me it looks like a dangerous incentive to take more risk–also known as moral hazard.

You see, borrowers who shouldn’t have gotten money were lent money. Many were speculators hoping home prices would keep going up. Others were ignorant of the loans they signed because they didn’t bother to read the paperwork.

Should borrowers be bailed out who shouldn’t have borrowed? Suppose I go out and buy a large screen TV with my credit card. Suppose I can’t make the payments because I didn’t realize the interest rate I would pay. Should taxpayers bail me out because I’m ignorant of the contract I signed? If they do, what would I learn? Not to take the risk?

Even worse, lenders knew about their borrower’s credit histories and ability to pay. Lenders also knew they would pass such loans off to Wall Street investment banks who would sell such bad loans to ignorant investors.

Should the mortgage originators, Wall Street banks and lazy investors be bailed out for making bad loans? Suppose I lend someone money at a 20% rate because they can’t get a loan elsewhere. Suppose they can’t make payments at some point. Should the taxpayer bail me out for making a bad loan? What would I learn? Not to make loans to people who can’t pay?

The Fed and President are offering to bail out borrowers and lenders with other people’s money. Those other people are U.S. taxpayers. You will pay in the form of inflation due to the Fed printing money and higher tax rates or higher government debt due to the executive branch bailing out “victims” of bad lending.

The real problem with this scheme, as any study of history will tell you, is moral hazard. If someone learns they can take risk at another’s expense, then they’re incentivized to take that risk over and over again.

If you let a teenager borrow your car and they get in an accident, what do they learn if you prevent them from living with the consequences? Why would that be any different with adult borrowers and lenders in the U.S. economy?

Just look at the people rebuilding their huge houses in Alabama that were wiped out by hurricane Katrina. They know they don’t have to pay for insurance because the government will bail them out, so they are quite happy to rebuild because they know they won’t bear the expense of the risk they’re taking.

So, when you see spiking inflation over the next several years and higher tax rates or increased federal debt to pay for all the bailouts the government is offering, keep in mind that you’re getting to bail out speculators in real estate, people with bad credit histories, banks who pass their loans off to Wall Street, Wall Street investment banks that don’t need the help, and investors who don’t bother researching what exactly they are buying.

And, when such teenagers take this risk over and over again, and you get to bail them out each time, remember that there is a name for this phenomenon–moral hazard.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

My evolving investment approach

It’s interesting to note how my investment research process has changed over the years.

From the time I first read about value investing in 1995 up until 1998, my focus was almost exclusively on the numbers. Basically, I picked investments based on my assessment of the value of each business with a much lower emphasis on other factors (management, economics, product life cycles, etc.). I crunched the numbers and bought if something looked remarkably cheap.

From 1998 until 2001, my focus began to include a more thorough analysis of business economics. Here, my aim was to gain an in-depth understanding of the competitive advantages of each business and to what degree they were sustainable. This effort was much more qualitative than quantitative.

In 2001, I started to include a much more thorough analysis of management, too. For this, I looked at management’s tenure, their competence in the field, their compensation structure, their ownership of the business, the way that they talked to shareholders, etc. This, too, was a more qualitative effort.

What I’ve found is that you can never stop learning in this field (or in any other for that matter). Every year, I bring new elements into my analysis. Every year, I read books or articles that lead me to dig deeper into certain aspects of each business.

Although my general approach has remained the same–I look to buy underlying businesses, not stocks, and I try to buy them significantly below their assessed value–I continue to add more and more layers of analysis and experience on top.

I keep very good records of the investments I’ve looked at over time, both the ones I invest in and the ones I don’t. This has allowed me to review my past decisions and prevent sins of both omission (not investing) and commission (investing when I shouldn’t have) going forward.

I love my job, and I love learning more and more each year such that I can improve my expertise and, more importantly, my results going forward. And, as Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett have amply demonstrated, that’s a great way to build wealth and enjoy life.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

On becoming a father

Last Wednesday, I became a dad. My daughter, Vivian Lacy Rivers, was born at 8:55 am. She was 8 pounds 11.6 ounces and 21 inches long. I have a new found respect for my wife (and I respected the heck out of her before).

Now that’s a life changing event.

I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to help this little being. My wife and I have been reading about child rearing and preparing for it for well over a year and a half.

My wife was trained as a chemist and I was trained as an engineer, and we’re both avid schedule makers and precise planners. You can guess what the first week has looked and felt like to us. Pure chaos.

We’re adjusting, though, and we both feel more purpose and humility than ever before. I can’t wait to be a guide for her discovering life, and I’m sure I’ll be growing right with her because I have so much to learn, too.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Monday’s articles

I read several enjoyable articles today that put the market’s current situation in context.

The first is by John Hussman of Hussman funds. In it, he takes the Fed Model to task. The Fed Model says that the stock market’s earning yield can be compared to the yield on 10 year US Treasury bonds. As he clearly shows, this model looks great from 1980 to 1998, but would have given terrible investing advice from 1948 to 1980 and from 1998 until now. Does that sound like a good guide to investing–a method that worked during only 30.5% of post WWII stock market history?

He also takes to task the current practice of saying the stock market is reasonably priced by looking at forward price to earnings ratios and comparing that to historical trailing price to earnings ratios. Not only is this comparing apples and oranges by comparing projections and history, but it also ignores that profit margins are at all time highs and will almost certainly come down over time. As usual, his analysis brings a broader historical context to the situation.

The second is by Edward Chancellor (author of Devil Take the Hindmost: A History of Financial Speculation) and appeared in the Washington Post. His title is, “Look out. This crunch is serious.” In it, he argues that comparing current market problems to the short term problems of 1987 and 1998 may not be valid. His warning is that credit splurges have turned into major market problems in the past, and this one may look more like 1929 when everything is said and done.

The third article, in the Financial Times, is by Gillian Tett. In it, Tett argues that bond insurers, like MBIA and Ambac, may be in for serious trouble because they’ve insured so many structured financial products that contained bad credits. As he suggests, it’s very hard to know what these bond insurers have backed, so holding on to them as investments may prove foolhardy if it turns out they must actually support the insurance they’ve underwritten.

The last is by Bill Gross, of PIMCO, and appeared in Fortune. Gross compares current market turmoil to playing Where’s Waldo. Everyone seems to know a lot of bad credits are “out there,” but no one seems sure who is exposed to such fallout and by how much. Problems keep turning up in unexpected places, like German and French bank’s books. These problems were created by financial wizards on Wall Street who believed they could turn lead into gold, and, unbelievably, some people actually believed them!

In my opinion, it will take a long time to fully understand the severity of the current situation. This may turn out to look like 1987 or 1998, but it could also be much worse. For those who believe that credit excess always ends badly, it’s a great time to play defense and bet on those who can benefit from debt implosions.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Warren Buffett’s rules for investing

Warren Buffett has amusingly spelled out his two rules for investing many times in the past:
Rule #1: Don’t lose money
Rule #2: Don’t forget Rule #1

This may seem like a gross oversimplification, but it holds a kernel of truth I believe few grasp.

Those who’ve made a lot of money investing–whether in real estate, equities, bonds, commodities, whatever–have almost always done so because they didn’t lose very often, and when they did it was with small bets.

In my opinion, this stands in stark contrast with the belief that most people hold: that people who make a lot of money investing do it by gambling big and hitting the jackpot. They tend to think that great investors bet the farm on a wild toss of the coin and make out like bandits.

I’m certain some people have gotten rich that way, but they are a very small minority. The vast majority have done it by not losing their shirts on bad gambles.

Not losing money isn’t very sexy. It’s not like buying Cisco and watching it go up by 10 times. It’s the hard work of picking things you’re pretty certain will go up and almost 100% certain will not go down.

Instead of trying to catch shooting stars, not losing means finding a few things that, after a whole lot of research and study, look like they will provide good upside and have an extremely low likelihood of going down much, if at all over the long run.

Why is it that trying to catch shooting stars doesn’t work and not losing does? Because most attempts to catch a shooting star ends with a large if not total loss. Even if you manage to catch a shooting star once, the next time you play you are more likely to lose than win. Over time, this just doesn’t work.

Not losing slowly builds over time into a growing some of money. It doesn’t happen fast. It doesn’t look very sexy. But it works. If you aren’t losing, you just keep building up and up.

That’s what Mr. Buffett is trying to tell you.

Don’t swing from your heels at a wild pitch and hope you connect and knock it out of the park. Instead, wait for a pitch you are almost positive you can hit, and then get a base hit that allows you to move forward in the game. Over time, this will build into a win.

Swinging for the fences will provide a couple of exciting moments, but will lead to loss after loss over time. And, that’s not how to successfully invest.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

What will happen if the credit market’s other shoe drops?

Recent bond and stock market turmoil has turned full attention to credit markets. What has surprised me is that conditions for credit markets aren’t that bad. Am I mad, you may be thinking?

Here’s my line of reasoning. There are three things that can really beat up the consumer credit market: availability of credit, interest rates and employment.

The fireworks seen so far are almost purely due to the availability of credit. Market participants have been scared by recent credit defaults and delinquencies, and so they are refusing to grant such markets more credit.

But, interest rates and employment are just as important, and they are doing great right now. Both look as good as they have since the 1950’s and 1960’s, with long term interest rates at 4-5% and unemployment down around 4-5%.

What would happen if this were to change, and why doesn’t anybody seem to be discussing this?

I guaranty that if interest rates increase and employment starts to fall, you will see many more defaults and delinquencies. In other words, what we are witnessing in credit markets could just be the tip of the iceberg.

With Congress threatening 27.5% tariffs on Chinese goods and China threatening to sell the huge amount of US Government Treasury bonds they hold in response, the threat of higher interest rates is real. With credit market troubles in the US forcing the Fed to intervene and the dollar falling, higher interest rates are even more of a threat.

With the housing market supplying so many jobs since the 2001 recession and the housing market crashing, employment problems could just be surfacing. With recent retail sales so poor, additional employment problems could be rearing their ugly head, too.

I don’t know how this will play out, but I’m watching it carefully. If the economy continues to be strong, then interest rates and employment will not be big concerns.

But, if the economy continues to slow, the dollar continues to fall, retails sales continue to look punk, the housing market continues to decline, or protectionist sentiment in Congress gains momentum, look out below!

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Graham and Dodd on guaranteed real-estate mortgages and mortgage bonds

I recently re-read–with pleasure–chapter XVII of the 1934 Edition of Security Analysis by Benjamin Graham and David Dodd. The chapter addresses guaranteed real-estate mortgages and mortgage bonds.

I re-read the section because I think it highlights the problems of mortgage insurance companies and other insurance companies that enter the business of guaranteeing the payment of mortgages and mortgage securities (such as surety businesses like bond insurers).

You see, the real estate boom of the 1920’s led to a terrible real estate crash in the 1930’s. It basically wiped out the mortgage insurance industry and many of the surety companies that ended up guaranteeing mortgage bonds. The history is illustrative for what can happen and what may be happening today.

I quote liberally from the text below (starting on page 184).

“The idea of underlying real-estate mortgage guarantees is evidently that of insurance.”

“It is within the province of sound insurance practice to afford this protection in return for an adequate premium, provided of course, that all phases of the business are prudently handled. Such an arrangement will have the best chance of success if:
1. The mortgage loans are conservatively made in the first instance.
2. The guaranty or surety company is large, well managed, independent of the agency selling the mortgages, and has a diversification of business in fields other than real estate.
3. Economic conditions are not undergoing fluctuations of abnormal intensity.
The collapse in real-estate values after 1929 was so extreme as to contravene the third of these conditions.”

“In the first place a striking contrast may be drawn between the way in which the business of guaranteeing mortgages had been conducted prior to about 1924 and the lax methods which developed there-after, during the very time that this part of the financial field was attaining its greatest importance.”

“The amount of each mortgage was limited to not more than 60% of the value, carefully determined; large mortgages were avoided; and a fair diversification of risk…was attained.” [loan to value ratios run very high today: 80%, 90% and even 95%]

“It is true also that the general practice of guaranteeing mortgages due only three to five years after their issuance contained the possibility, later realized, of a flood of maturing obligations at a most inconvenient time.”

“The building boom which developed during the new era was marked by an enormous growth of the real-estate-mortgage business and of the practice of guaranteeing obligations of this kind.”

“Great emphasis was laid upon the long record of success in the past, and the public was duly impressed….”

“The weakness of the mortgages themselves applied equally to the guarantees which were frequently attached thereto for an extra consideration.”

“The rise of the newer and more aggressive real-estate-bond organizations had a most unfortunate effect upon the policies of the older concerns. By force of competition they were led to relax their standards of making loans.”

“…the face amount of the mortgages guaranteed rose to so high a multiple of the capital of the guarantor companies that it should have been obvious that the guaranty would afford only the flimsiest of protection in the event of a general decline in values.”

“When the real-estate market broke in 1931, the first consequence was the utter collapse of virtually every one of the newer real-estate-bond companies and their subsidiary guarantor concerns. As the depression continued, the older institutions gave way also.”

“During the 1924-1930 period several of the independent surety and fidelity companies extended their operations to include the guaranteeing of real-estate mortgages for a fee or premium.”

“…surety companies began the practice of guaranteeing real-estate-mortgage bonds only a short time prior to their debacle….”

“In most cases the resultant losses to the suretor were greater than it could stand; several companies were forced into receivership, and holders of bonds with such guarantees failed to obtain full protection.”

Perhaps the real estate boom of the early 2000’s was similar to that of the 1920’s. If that is the case, and I believe it is to some degree, then Graham and Dodd’s historical lesson served as a potent warning for investors in mortgage and bond insurance companies. Maybe that is why they have sold at such seemingly cheap prices over the years….

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.