Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Moody's Not Crazy Bout JP Morgan's $20 Billion Bridge Loan

Amidst all the cheering and hullabaloo over AT&T's proposed $39 billion bid to acquire Deutsche Telecom, a few sober credit folks over at Moody's would like to point out something in passing. Nothing major really, just the fact that JP Morgan is giving AT&T a $20 billion bridge loan to finance the acquisition. Certainly $20 billion is chump change, but despite the Fed's proclivity for spending trillions on mortgage and treasuries, it still hasn't stooped to buying bridge loans for large Telecom mergers in the event that no buyers turn up to buy the debt. Then again, earthquakes, tsunami's, nuclear reactor meltdowns, middle east unrest, nor the implosion of parts of the EU is going to stop this market from loving debt issued by anybody to finance anything. In any event, it's really great to see AT&T turning itself into an enormous crappy monopoly again. After all, the government is going to need something to break up in a couple of years. As long as the investment bankers keep getting paid, everybody's happy.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Yay Dividends!

After the latest round of stress tests, the Fed has decided to play nice and allow some of the 19 largest US banks to do the fun stuff they used to love to do before they all fell into the big black hole of 2008. Banks have the Fed's permission to pay dividends and buy back stocks again! Yippee!!

Everybody seems to have forgotten just how much $40 stock Citigroup bought right before it went straight to $3. Or Wa Mu. Yes, the same Wa Mu whose former executives (and their no-good, asset-shuffling wives!) are getting sued by the FDIC, used to spend all day paying $45 for its own stock, months before it was seized by the FDIC. These firms spent billions upon billions of capital, capital that would've really come in handy when all their fraudulent mortgage underwriting was finally unveiled, to help boost their stocks so that executives (and their money-sucking gold-digging wives!) could sell stock and collect north of $900 million in comp. The FDIC is looking for $900 million dollars, so you know the wives have run off with way more than that.

See, everybody just has way too much capital sitting around and it's just so wasteful. It's not like we're ever going to need that capital for any reason. Because if you can just go crying to the Treasury and Fed for more capital and cheap financing every time your own balance sheet throws up on itself after looking at its asset, then why would you need any excess capital? We've already rewarded employees, time to get back to our second favorite thing to do, rewarding our shareholders.

So if you're reading the news, and you're wondering why on earth the market is staging a comeback today given all the turmoil in the Middle East, possibility of nuclear armageddon in Japan, and the Fed's determination to continue to ease in the face of recent inflationary data, you have your answer: bank dividends. Whoopdy Doo.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Japanese Tsunami Wrecks Markets

US equities rallied marginally on Friday despite the devastating 8.9 earthquake/tsunami combo that struck Japan. After having the weekend to think it over, and watching the Nikkei plunge 6%, investors have reconsidered. Lately, it seems like equities can seem to talk themselves into rallying no matter what the headlines. It's like they read the news in their sleep and bought stocks out of habit. Hmmm.... Yawn, a natural disaster that cripples one of our largest economies and brings the Japanese to the brink of a nuclear disaster? No biggie. Price of oil is down, that's great for us, keeps inflation in check. Right? Goldilocks economy. Give some money to the Red Cross. Buy more stocks. A couple of nuclear power plant explosions, a few fuel rod fusions later and the news seems, well, maybe not so bullish anymore. Suddenly, things like the announcement of Berkshire Hathaway's intent to buy Lubrizol for $10 billion, which would've sent stocks into a euphoric lather a few weeks ago, seem pretty insignificant when compared to the aftermath of the Japanese tragedy. Is logic and reason returning to the markets?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

China Posts a Trade Deficit

China posted a $7.3 billion trade deficit in February, surprising those who expected them to continue their usual habit of flooding the world with their manufactured goods without reciprocity. Analysts are blaming this anomaly on the Lunar New Year holidays, when apparently even the Chinese get lazy and party too hard to make stuff to export. Better to believe that, of course, then the alternative; that world economic growth might actually be slowing. If this continued, it would be extremely inconvenient for the Fed, who was probably hoping that somebody else would step in to buy a few Treasuries after it is done with QE2. I mean, somebody has to help keep US interest rates in check so our debt fueled recovery won't be crushed by the slightest uptick in rates. If it's not going to be the Chinese, who's it gonna be? Maybe everybody who is puking Spainish government bonds on Moody's downgrade this morning? All of those investors who are surprised, yes SHOCKED, that it's gonna cost Spain more to recapitalize its banks than the government's previous official estimates? They actually needed Moody's to tell them to sell. Anyway, the more havoc elsewhere in the world, the better the US looks in comparison.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Kind of Sell-Off is This?

So is this the Middle-East-is-having-trouble-working-out-some-democracy-issues sell-off? Or the NAR-has-been-overestimating-home-sales + home-prices-are-still-falling + interest-rates-going-higher sell-off? Or OMG-the-Fed-is-going-to-stop-buying-the-market-in-June sell-off? Perhaps the-market-has-gone-straight-up-for-2000-points, maybe-wise-to-take-a-breather sell-off? In any event, if you were starting to wonder when on earth would've been a good day to finally initiate your short in Netflix? You should've done it on Friday.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Budget and Zynga

The White House put out its budgetary needs for the 2011 fiscal year. Projections call for a $1.65 trillion deficit, which doesn't surprise me much. This is what happens when you spend like crazy, don't raise taxes, and finance it all buy selling yourself debt. The good news is that the White House is terrible at projections, so maybe, just maybe, it's overestimated the big black hole we're in and we still have some shot of getting out before the rioting begins.

Speaking of crazy amounts of money, the valuation explosion in social networking sites continues unabated. Zynga is wooing potential investors in an attempt to raise $250 million in new funding, which would value the three-year-old start-up at between $7 to $9 billion. Way back in April, the company was only valued at around $4 billion. But then, Facebook was a puny start-up with a mere $20 billion valuation. Whether any of these valuations fulfill investor's expectations is anybody's guess, at least until somebody goes public and we get some financials and see some real trading Gotta take advantage of the ability to raise gobs of money without having to reveal financials. But venture capitalists are certainly itching to cash out after many years of lackluster returns in the industry. Employees too want their cars, jewels, and houses. It's hard to keep a lid on that so we're gonna see some awesome IPO action.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Fannie, Freddie and Facebook

The administration has unveiled its proposal to wind down the mortgage market, I mean Fannie and Freddie, over the course of some very long and ambiguous time frame. I haven't read the white paper myself, but having read the WSJ's summary, it's abundantly clear that a few pesky details have not been addressed. Such as, who's going to buy the trillions of dollars worth of mortgages that will need to be originated in order to keep the housing market from collapsing? Or, how will the average American be able to afford to buy a house at current prices, when interest rates sky-rocket on mortgages because there is no federal subsidy anymore? Stuff like that. All minor.

Moving on to way more interesting and exciting news. According to Reuters, Facebook is mulling a $1 billion employee share sale that would value the company at $60 billion. This is not to be confused with the $1.5 billion share sale it did a month ago that valued the company at $50 billion. I'm not blaming the folks at Facebook for wanting to cash out a bit. Most 25 year old geeky programmers could really use a porsche and a 10,000 sq ft bachelor pad to get chicks at 25. But if the company is really going to tack on $10 billion in market cap per month, you might as well wait for the IPO, which is only a year away. Otherwise, you're gonna make it look like you really think your company's stock is overvalued and you've got to get out RIGHT NOW before it craters.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Good News For Housing, For Real

The WSJ reports today that home affordability has returned to pre-bubble levels in many US markets in the past year. Having prices return to a point where the average person can actually buy one is far better for the economy than any bailout, tax break or zero interest rate. It didn't stop our politicians and friends at the Fed from attempting to artificially inflate prices to keep this dreaded reality from occurring, by offering free money mostly to those who didn't need or deserve it. For there are many folks out there who were prudent, bought what they could afford, had bad timing, are underwater now, can't refi, and have had to watch the parade of hand-outs pass them by. It'd be like the government refunding everybody who bought pets.com stock on margin in 2000 at the highs, without giving a penny to those who bought Enron in their retirement accounts, even though Enron was a fraud and pets.com was just a really dumb business idea. Both of them pumped by Wall Street, of course. But back to housing...

The ratio of home prices to annual income had fallen to 1.6 by last September, below the historical average of 1.9 from 1989-2003 and down from the peak of 2.3 in late 2005. Great news for those who: a.) have a job b.) need a house and don't already own one and c.) can get a mortgage. In the bad news department, there are still: a.) lots of unemployed folks out there b.) people who bought at the highs who are underwater and might walk away if prices continue to decline, and c.) mortgage rates are marching higher.

Fannie and Freddie have been the mortgage market since all of our friendly neighborhood non-conforming specialists, ahem, got out of that market rather quickly in 2007-2008. The White House is planning to release its plans for the two mortgage behemoths on Friday. Although somebody leaked to the WSJ that the administration wants to phase out the housing-finance giants, it seems impossible to imagine. They are 90% of the market. We're talking trillions of dollars. Are banks really going to originate and hold on to all those mortgages? Cause nobody is going to buy them without government guarantees. Especially not after the CDO fiasco of 2007. We'll see what the government has to say, and then the market is just going to do what it wants to do.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

China Raises Rates, US Yawns

Last I checked, our fearless Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke, was busying himself with ZIRP + QE + QE2, oblivious to all signs of brewing inflation or bubbles. I mean, who cares about spiking food prices? And oil prices. And copper prices. Or the return of covenant-lite bonds? Or money pouring into emerging markets? Or record bonuses at US banks? None of these things have anything to do with US monetary policy. Because buying trillions in Treasuries and mortgages directly from broker dealers at any price is the best and most direct way to bring the unemployment rate down from over 9% to 5%. And it's not liable to leak out and cause distortions in other markets. Right. So that's working really well so far.

Anyhoo, at least the Chinese are paying attention. China raised its interest rates for the third time since mid-October. Admittedly, China's growth rates are a tad higher than ours and the chance of getting runaway inflation is more likely when your economy is experiencing explosive growth of 10%, rather than the anemic 3% or so we're getting in the US. Nevertheless, global markets actually respond to this kind of thing. Oil, copper, and emerging-market stocks fell across the board in response to China's interest rate move. Please make of note of that, Mr. Bernanke.

Monday, February 7, 2011

AOL Buys Huffington Post for How Much?

Nothing can revive the Rip Van Winkle of bloggers (yours truly) faster than the news of a $315 million purchase price for a blog. Mostly a blog aggregator at that. Sure, AOL's $315 million announcement to acquire the Huffington Post would be a much bigger deal if it weren't AOL doing the math on the financials, but still, pretty big news for aspiring bloggers everywhere. AOL has a history of pumped up acquisitions that wind up being worse investments than even the doubters initially imagined. Nevertheless, Tim Armstrong, AOL's fearless Chairman and CEO, has maintained his enthusiasm that maybe, just maybe, someday, one of these deals is going to turn into something other than a really nice tax write-off. "When people think about Google for search and Amazon for commerce, I think they're going to end up thinking about AOL for content" the FT quoth Mr. Armstrong. Ah, content. That's what he's going for. Identifying AOL with content. Instead of say, really slow dialup internet service, chat rooms, and enormously expensive acquisitions, which is what AOL is currently associated with. In any event, this time, for obvious reasons, I hope Mr. Armstrong hits the big time.