Homicidal zombie markets reconsidered

Baruch received old media brickbats for his bloggy frettings last year about the impact and meaning of QE2. At the time, while understanding why people thought it was necessary, he worried that we were opening a can of worms which were going to wriggle off in all sorts of undesirable directions. He wrote:

in his darker moments that Baruch thinks a very good analogy for where we are right now is Pet Sematary. The people who buried their cat (and later their son) in the Indian burial ground to bring it back to life got something which looked ostensibly like a cat, but was so only on the outside. On the inside their little puddy tat  was really an undead homicidal zombie cat, as became clear through its increasingly odd behaviour. Unintended consequences followed (mayhem, murder, horror, the Wendigo — all that Stephen King stuff).

The Bernank is like the guy who buried his cat, but in this case instead of a resuscitated cat he wanted his rally back, a healthy stock market and the wealth effect that would bring. I worry we have got something else.

Pointing to potentially horrible unknown unknowns tends to capture the imagination much less than pointing to the definitely unpleasant known knowns of an imminent economic slowdown. The QE2ers’ argument at its core was the eternal and seductive call that Something Must Be Done. No less than James Suroweicki at the New Yorker picked up Baruch’s idea of the “undead homicidal zombie market”, tautology and all, and lumping me in with the Tea Partiers, House Republicans and the other dead-end no-brained foes of QE, labelled us  “hysterical”. Baruch loves the New Yorker, but knowing their editorial stance and lack of track record when it comes to advising macro funds and governments, Baruch concluded their love of QE was less a well-thought-out economic analysis, and more a gleeful response to finding their political foes against an idea that felt “right”, Colbert-like, in their gut. In his response, (Felix also had a good one) Baruch bemoaned the politicisation of monetary policy by anyone. This hasn’t got any better — having an (admittedly Texan) presidential candidate threatening the Chairman of the Federal Reserve with a tarrin’ and a featherin’ if he buys any more bonds doesn’t seem conducive to a mature conversation on the subject.

So, was Baruch right? Or were the Suroweickians? An interesting thought experiment would be to think of where we would be without that second round of easing. With the benefit of hindsight I’m inclined to think we would have been better off right now had we not done QE2. Why? Continue reading

Quid custodiet ipsos custardes?

Baruch periodically, at times of market stress, records his macro thoughts and impressions, more as an aide memoire for himself than anything else. It’s good to come back later to see what I thought at a particular moment.

This might be the occasion to have another go at it.

Contra the more sanguine amongst us, Baruch is more worried about the macro than he has been for a while. At times before he has always had a sense of why the bears can be wrong, be it China consumer growth,  a housing-financed consumer boom, Quantitative Queasing, a new product cycle in technology – even if he hasn’t actually believed it himself, he can see how others could, and frankly that’s all it takes sometimes. This time around the bulls’ cupboard seems a bit bare, and this monumental debt-deleveraging thesis the perma bears have been clarting on about all this time seems, frankly, to be one of the best explanations around to explain what’s going to happen to us all.

In fact the ONLY problem with the bear thesis here is that it seems too easy, too based on an analogue of 2008, in my mind, to be probable. Not that the analogue is unconvincing. Like now, the summer of 2008 was also a time of signs and portents outside the action in debt markets (now sovereign, then subprime), if you were watching closely. High multiple stocks and semiconductor companies and their suppliers were quietly blowing up. Baruch’s stocks started giving way later in the summer slow season (which is where we are now) subsequently rallied briefly, then totally collapsed with the rest of the market in September and October post Lehman.

In Baruch’s experience history is a bad guide; there’s always something different the next time around. Ask the French about the Maginot Line. This crisis will likely be better or worse than the last one, in different ways.

So anyway, this is Baruch’s current internal dialogue:

  • OMFG we are so screwed! It’s just like 2008 again. I’m going to stick my head in the oven, even if it’s electric. It’s like all those newsletter writers say, we’re groaning under the weight of a massive debt burden which will take a generation of low, no or negative growth to get rid of. You seen Tracy Alloway’s AAA rated debt chart?! This isn’t the banks going under, it’s the people who bail out the banks, and once they’re gone the banks will go anyway. It’s an order of magnitude worse.
  • Chill baby. One word: Policy Response. We’re used to this now, and we know how it ends. No one’s dumb enough to let Lehmans happen again on their watch. The Single Market and the Euro are not just the most important economic policy initiative of Europe’s governments, they’re also the most important part of their national security and foreign policies. They’re not going to let that go without a fight. The ECB is there to defend the Euro, and when that’s finally under threat they’re going to step up, or they won’t have jobs. And ultimately, Bernanke’s got our backs — after a decent pause we can have another dose of QE, and I have to say I enjoyed the last one a lot!
  • Wise up, dude. Fiscal is blown up. S&P and the Tea Baggers, whatever they’re called,  seen to that. Don’t expect the Germans to get their wallets out any time soon either, they’re probably enjoying themselves too much, lecturing Southerners about Teutonic probity, and selling Euro-denominated Mercedes Benzes to Chinese people who can’t believe how cheap these things have become. Monetary’s all we got, Trichet’s heart isn’t in it and the operative clause with Bernanke is “decent pause”. The only thing scarier than not having QE3 in this environment is getting QE3 straight after QE2! What would that say about the state of the economy? Homicidal Zombie market eating your brains. Another good word would be “Money Illusion”, no? Bernanke’s got to wait, maybe until Q1 next year if he’s going to be in time for Obama’s re-election. And sufficient damage can be done within that “decent pause” to make last week seem par for the course. As TRB Josh puts it ,”think 1938, not 2008.”
  • What’s wrong with you? You LIKE being miserable? You’re like one of those dinner party bores, oh so wise about how terrible the state of the world is, so wise he kept his portfolio in cash after selling out in January 2009. Last week is just normal seasonality, admittedly a bit spicier than usual, but exactly what you expect in the summer after the Q2 results. And each time there’s some flipping moaning Minnie going on with your “oh we’re all doomed”. We’re down not even 10% from an 11-year peak – 11 year! — in the NASDAQ, and you’re saying that was it, it’s over? You got no basis for that yet. Important parts of the world are growing great, consumer spend in the US doesn’t seem too bad so far either – you seen Mastercard’s result the other day? – and so what, some spreads widened? When the US was going to get downgraded on Friday everyone went and BOUGHT 10 year Treasuries! You have to rethink your definition of a crisis; you’re traumatised, jumping at shadows. Nothing really bad has happened yet!
  • Oh man, are you complacent. When they bought them they were freaking out that there was going to be a recession. The fact they had to buy bonds that they know are going to be downgraded shows how screwed we are!
  • You’re an idiot. Go over-intellectualise and wallow in misfortune. Me, I’m getting me some stocks.

Anyway, that’s as far as Baruch can go. Where are you at?

No Second Chances

Baruch has been reading Asymco, a fascinating techie site he was put onto by Jean-Louis Gassé at Monday Note, and those interested in tech investing should really have a look at it. You can now see the site popping up on more generalist econo-investing sites like AR. Anyway, introductions over; there was something Asymco’s proprietor Horace Dedieu wrote earlier this month that made Baruch sit up and think.  “The post-PC era,” he wrote, ” will be a multi-platform era,

The thesis that one dominant platform wins the mobile “war” is naive.  . . Developers already understand this. Platform vendors know this. It’s time to unlearn the lessons of the PC era.

Evidence for this? Microsoft Windows Mobile platform apps are growing at a percentage growth rate that is faster than WM users grow, who collectively make up so little of the pie of smartphone users that the slice representing them would be mostly invisible. It’s not getting any better. WM activation rates are 1/28 of that of Android smartphones. The platform is continuing to lose share with subscribers yet, strangely, still seems to be gaining relative share in apps.

What appears responsible for this is the previously unheard-of ease of transferring apps from one platform to another, software tools such as Microsoft’s that allow the rapid creation of new apps and their adaptation for different operating systems, and an economic system that is set up to make writing software for mobile applications a “cottage industry” with a thousand points of light, rather than an industrial enterprise with 2 or 3 dominant players. The marginal cost of creating apps and sharing them between platforms seems to be very low indeed.  So why not make or adapt apps for Windows Mobile? You never know, it might come back. Mango, the new version which will be Nokia v.2’s adopted OS, might be the Apple or Android killer Microsoft hopes it will be.

If the ability to run the largest number of apps determines success then, far from being a returns to scale market like the one for PCs, the implication is that the market for smartphone platforms will be fluid, with nothing written in stone. There will be room for their relative shares to ebb and flow, variously dominating, fading and coming back repurposed for the new new thing in mobile computing: on this reading, it will be something like the game console market today, where 3 viable platforms survive.

What this means in its most practical sense is that there is hope for the platforms falling behind now, such as HP’s WebOS, RIM, and for OEMs like Nokia, for whom Mango is the only game in town. The implications for stocks are major. The option value in RIMM and Nokia would be much much higher than current share prices imply. This would make a lot of people who are short these stocks very unhappy.*

Comfortingly for them, however, there are equally compelling arguments that mobile computing will end up more like the PC industry than anything else. Firstly I suspect that, contra Horace, the profusion of WM apps has more to do with the sponsorship of Microsoft and its deep pockets than a sudden developer interest in championing losing platforms.  Secondly, its not just developers who decide who wins; operators remain in the mix. Their atavistc promotions and subsidy policies can also determine which platform sells. Don’t forget, moreover, that O/Ses are free! Android makes it so you can’t underprice zero to gain market share for your new platform. That helps to freeze things in place and mitigate against fluidity.

But most of all, the apps game remains secondary to the real goal of platform competition. The aim of the game, the whole schlemiel, remains to sell hardware, not software. Apple’s app store revenue is negligible in comparison to their hardware revenues, and will be for some time to come, at least until Apple finds a way to persuade people to buy higher ASP apps. Frequent purchase of 90c apps won’t move the needle against a $600-$900 hardware sale, even if everyone buys Angry Birds (and they probably already have). Until the dynamics of the mobile computing market stop being hardware heavy,  platforms are still vulnerable to hardware death spirals of the sort we’re seeing in RIMM and Nokia right now, where scale returns and operational leverage go into reverse

Don’t think either that just because is easier to write apps for a platform it is going to make it break out. The fact is that if all apps were available on all platforms rather than freeing up competition it would be likely to freeze the status quo in hardware into place. What killer app can Microsoft’s Mango offer me that I can’t get on my iPhone? What could possibly make me change my Android phone? A more functional OS? Better hardware at a cheaper price? Possibly. More likely that in the absence of anything significantly better than what I have currently I won’t change at all. Ecosystems are grabbing territory now that it will be hard to dislodge them from.

The dream of a fluid ecosystem for mobile computing is nice, especially for software developers tired of being the bitches of the hardware dudes. But it looks far off still. Mobile looks subject to the same laws that have governed tech markets throughout  history. That law is: no second chances. Value investing in consumer or enterprise tech very very rarely works. This is the key message for those who read Baruch’s last post and have fired their retail brokers and dumped their index funds, and who may be tempted to go off any buy RIMM at a 5x PE (don’t let me stop you, but do let me help you think before you do it)**. The graveyard of history is littered with those names that didn’t come back. For those that did, such as IBM, and indeed Apple, we forget just how low the low point was, and how wrenching it was to do the right thing so as to eventually re-emerge.

* you may think that this group of people includes Baruch. You may think that if you wish. But I couldn’t possibly comment.

** as I have said before, if you take anything you read on a blog written by an anonymous author as actionable investment advice, you may not be too bright. I can do nothing for you.

Embracing heresy

So very like Spinoza himself, who locked himself up with Aristotle and Maimonides before coming out with his great works, Baruch has been consulting ancient texts; in this case, the books of Peter Lynch, especially the all time classic One up on Wall Street. Lynch of course was and is famous for his advice to his readers to invest directly in single stocks, to “buy and hold”, in the parlance. This is now a heretical doctrine, but Baruch thinks its time has come. Or rather, come again.

So let’s say it: I think the best thing for moderate net worth retail investors to consider right now is to take their retirement account back into their own hands. I think people should start to do some research with the aim of buying 3 to 5 single stocks, maybe just as an experiment. And if the experience is good, they can do it, and they gain expertise, they should make single stocks a big chunk, say 1/3 or more, of their retirement account in the next 10 years.

Not many people in the econoblogosphere and beyond will tell you that this is a good thing to do, not least because in many cases it is them and their ilk you have been outsourcing it to all these years.* Even those who don’t have an axe to grind  will likely be mildly horrified by such advice. Take Felix; a couple months ago he wrote:

we don’t want . . . a world where most companies are owned by a small group of global plutocrats, living off the labor of the rest of us. Much better that as many Americans as possible share in the prosperity of the country as a whole by being able to invest in the stock market.

Right on, Felix! And of course, the best way of guaranteeing this is surely by having Americans (why only Americans?) invest directly in stocks!

Well actually no. Felix hurries to reassure us in his very next line

I’m not saying that individual investors should go out and start picking individual stocks.

Felix is clearly aware where his train of thought is leading, and is keen to retain his position as a prominent econo-blogger who is taken seriously. Telling people to pick individual stocks, however, is clearly the path to ridicule.

For a more concrete list of conventional wisdom on the main reasons not to own stocks look no further than this post by James Altucher, which is misconceived on so many levels it is hard to know where to start, but makes up for this by at least being entertaining.

Let us pity the mid size retail investor — the ones with enough capital that it matters, but not enough to get access to pre IPO Facebook stock.  They are the battery hens of the financial service industry, on the receiving end of the least bespoke and the most exploitative service available. These guys get a lot of advice, much of it worthless, and all of it conflicting; they are the key demographic for most of the for-money blogs, newsmedia, and the Old Man newsletters (as Josh at TRB puts it so well). If you are one of this accursed, confounded and confused group, a forgiveable reaction is to put your fate in the hands of a retail broker at e.g. Merrill Lynch or UBS. Knowing your luck, you’ll end up in a range of very reasonable sounding knock-in/knock out structured products you barely understand. They’ll have you picking up the nickels in front of the steamrollers that catch up with us every 5 to 10 years, charging a hidden 2% load for the privilege of eventually blowing you up.

The gift of Peter Lynch, if you play your cards right, if you make the right mental breakthroughs, is that you can leave all the babble behind. With practice and dedication, and a supreme act of will, you can tune it out and make it irrelevant. The main reason very few people will urge you to do this is that there is not a lot of money in it for them and you may stop reading their blog. Taking charge of one’s own investment future, if you can, is simply much more rational than handing it over to the mishmash of conflicting incentives that is the financial services industry. It’s not unthinkable; it’s the logical thing to do!

Continue reading

The stockmarket is still where it’s at

Baruch is more pleased than he can say to see his pal Felix get a spot on the NYT’s op ed page. But I wish he had written about bonds, or art or something else. He knows I don’t like it when he is rude about stocks.

Felix uses the occasion of the takeover of the NYSE by Deutsche Börse to claim the US stockmarket has become somehow “irrelevant”. Far from being the “bedrock” of American capitalism, he writes, instead

the stock market is becoming little more than a place for speculators and algorithms to compete over who can trade his way to the most money. . . a noisy sideshow that churns out increasingly meager returns.

Well.

Excuse me, but when any stockmarket not been full of speculators trying to outdo each other? Algobots are new, to be sure, but they don’t change the market’s essential nature, other than giving bad or unlucky traders another mealy mouthed excuse as to why they lost money. I think the great traders of stockmarket history, Jesse Livermore, Bernard Baruch and our own George Soros would be amused to be thought of as something other than speculators.

Yes, sometimes stocks can go up when economic growth is only so-so; the link between the two is indirect. Eventually they correlate, but the period when they don’t mesh can be pretty long. Increasingly though, as companies globalise, they reflect global economic growth. And you all have to get used to the fact that the US economy isn’t as relevant as it once was.

Sure, it might be that the number of listed companies has fallen. Baruch hasn’t counted. But so what if there are fewer? Is that bad? I would imagine that after a period of prolonged weakness, such as we have come through, when IPOs were hard and bankruptcies and mergers common, the number of listed entities would fall. It’s a bit like speciation in biology; every now and then we get Cambrian-like explosions, and periods of higher extinction levels. Let’s not draw conclusions from low samples. And anecdotally it is simply not true that there are no IPOs out there, and no small IPOs. Baruch has been positively plagued with them in the past 12 months, from second rate brokers pushing illiquid crap I wouldn’t go near with my worst enemy’s money, to once in a lifetime opportunities the Goldmans and Morgans have to beat the investors off with sticks. There was a great one the other day, and Baruch would love to tell you about it. But he won’t.

Where Felix is right is when he says that there are lots of interesting companies out there who don’t want to go public; its a complete pain, having to explain yourself to people like me. There are certain things about how investors think, their collective expectations, the behaviours they force companies into, that make Baruch’s toes curl. But there is one very important reason for going public which still proves, ultimately, irresistible to entrepreneurs, and it is this: it’s the only way to pay yourself and your people stock options. It is still the easiest way of making a lot of people very rich, and keeping them rich.

And ultimately whether Facebook goes public or not won’t change the central importance of stockmarkets. They are still the cockpit where it all happens, where the key society-shaping corporate entities of our time, such as Apple and Google, keep score against each other and their competitors. The power of a massive market cap doesn’t necessarily get used in all-stock M&A or when it raises money; it is a latent power, it is potential financial energy, which you don’t want to waste. You typically don’t want to use your equity to raise money as it dilutes you. But your stockmarket valuation sure as hell counts when and if someone wants to buy you.

Does the stockmarket allocate capital as efficiently as it used to? I have no idea, but frankly if you think you know better than the stockmarket how to allocate capital in a complex economy, I suggest you get back in your time machine and return to the 1970s to see how well that worked out last time.

I think far from being irrelevant, stocks are the asset class of the future; we had the years where bonds ruled in the noughties, and it ended badly. The Asian countries which are leading global growth now are debt averse, and their main focus is on their own equity markets which are getting almost as important, and just as liquid and vibrant, as the NYSE, with world leading companies like TSMC, Samsung, and Infosys trading billions of dollars on their local exchanges every day. Meantime, this is Baruch’s advice: stop worrying, and go buy an actively-managed mutual fund or go research a selection of stocks in spaces you know about, with the aim of holding them for a few years. Make sure that at least some of them are listed in a different country (but you can still buy the ADRs). Try not to listen to brokers. Keep reading Felix’s blog, though.

The market as an analysis-free zone

Baruch has noted a curious thing about this results season, dear readers. Sell side analysts seem to have stopped doing as much research as they used to. I think it’s because, in the light of the SEC’s insider-trading investigation and a lack of certainty between what constitutes legitimate insight and illegal information, they are keeping a low profile. If it continues it could give great power to some of the market’s worst actors, and create a lot more single-stock volatility. Already this earnings season there seemed to be a lot more violent moves in stocks than usual. Hopefully Baruch is imagining it, and if he isn’t, let’s hope it is temporary.

It was most obvious when F5 blew up in late January. The print was merely in line, and the guidance, sin of sins, was weak. FFIV opened down 20% and stayed down. This sort of move off a quarter can happen in tech, and is not at all uncommon. What was vaguely unusual, however, was  the extent of the surprise: there was no warning. The company had made no hints it had seen any weakness, and none of the analysts covering it had done the usual checks with their sources. Worse, no-one really knew what everyone else was expecting. There were no “whisper” numbers out there. Frightened of being accused of insider trading , no one had done the work. Continue reading

Forget Twitter and Facebook; this is a satellite TV revolution

Baruch, today’s lesson: The internet and mobile telephony are not robust technologies when it comes to withstanding state intervention. States can and do pull the plug on them when they sense an existential threat. China turned off the Internet in restless  Xinjiang for 9 months in 2009-2010, and Iran and other countries turn off sms and mobile internet use when it suits them. Today, Egypt’s authorities tried to dampen a popular uprising by shutting down both its Internet and mobile telephony.

This is sobering, but points the way to how such draconian measures can be circumvented by those intent on accessing independent news: By not relying at all on terrestrial infrastructure such as cell towers and Internet cabling, falling back instead on direct satellite communications.

By necessity, this set-up reverts to a broadcast/receiver relationship, with international broadcasters like the BBC and Al Jazeera able to invest in satellite video phones as a back-up in case authorities turn off other means of broadcasting live. The Egyptian people, meanwhile, have ubiquitous access to satellite television — as anyone who’s been to Cairo can attest after just a brief glance across the rooftops:

Satellite dishes on Cairo rooftops.

There is no way to restrict the reception of such broadcasting — there is no way for Mubarak to prevent Egyptians from watching satellite broadcasts of Al Jazeera short of turning off the electricity. This fall-back on satellite reception is not something widely available in all countries. In China, for example, it is cable television that is ubiquitous, a terrestrial mode of communication, that can and is blacked out at will by the Chinese authorities — most recently whenever CNN broadcast news of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize.

While I am sure that much of Egypt’s older cohorts are glued to their televisions tonight, I wonder if turning off the Internet and mobile telephony earlier today didn’t have an effect opposite to what Mubarak’s regime intended: Egypt’s urban youth, suddenly without their main means of diversion or entertainment, had only the streets to go to. For once, there was no Twitter or Facebook or YouTube to distract them. All that was left to do was to go out and vent their rage.