Category Archives: Competitive Analysis

Hedge Fund Analyst Quiz–NG $3 The New Normal

Your boss runs into your office and slaps this report onto your desk: Don‘t Bet Against Innovation_Sub-$3 Is the New Normal

After reading the report and using your knowledge of how capital cycles work, what would you say to your boss about using the information in that report for investing?  IF you wanted to make an outstanding investment, then how might the report help you?   The video below might give you a hint.  Remember that the JP Morgan report goes to thousands of portfolio managers and analysts, so how can YOU use the information to have an edge? Or can you? Comments needed in order to keep your hedge fnd job.

Good luck!

 

An Industry in Disruption, AUTOS. Notes from a Capital Junkie. Tit-for-Tat Analysis

 

Sergio Marchionne Has Seen the Auto Industry’s Future: He’s Not Interested

By Sviatoslav Rosov, PhD, CFA

Read an excellent analysis of the auto industry: SM_Fire_investor_presentation

Sergio Marchionne often raises eyebrows.

This time, the Fiat Chrysler CEO went a step further than usual by declaring that the latest plan for the company is essentially a one-way bet on cheap gas. Production of compact cars will end to free up production capacity for high-margin, low-mileage Jeeps and RAM trucks.

This, combined with Fiat’s more or less complete lack of a fuel economy or electrification strategy beyond buying emissions credits from other manufacturers “foolish” enough to produce electric and hybrid “compliance cars,” is quickly making Marchionne, if not an industry joke, then certainly yesterday’s man.

At least, that is what people are saying. I have an alternate hypothesis.
The Auto Industry Is Not Heading to a Good Place (The author, in my opinion, has the correct thesis.  Ride sharing, Uber, Tesla, more complex electronics mean less demand and more investment to run in place).

 

 
Fiat vs. Ford above

Fiat (FCAU) has done slightly better than GM and much better than Ford (F).  However, the auto industry is in a bad place that will worsen.

The context is frightening. Global fuel economy and emissions regulations are becoming so strict that it is possible to meet them only with partial or full electrification of the automobile. And the existing automobile production system, based primarily on stamping sheet metal and amortizing heartbreaking development costs and capital expenditures over millions of units, is incredibly capital inefficient.

What’s more, the industry’s move towards electric vehicles represents a significant challenge to the traditional strategic landscape an automaker faces. An electric vehicle has drastically fewer moving parts than an internal combustion vehicle and is, by design, far more modular, meaning that barriers to new entrants are significantly lower.

Electric vehicles are also far more uniform in their driving dynamics, because there is little scope for refining an electric motor with one moving part. Swathes of engineering and marketing investments become irrelevant. And both ride-sharing enterprises and developments in automation seem increasingly likely to grow beyond niche markets into something properly disruptive to the car ownership business model.

Marchionne Knows This

Last year, Marchionne presented a uniquely critical slide deck about the way the auto industry destroys capital. His argument was that, unless the industry consolidates and stops duplicating engineering costs (e.g., every car manufacturer has its own separately developed but fundamentally identical 2.0L 4-cylinder petrol engine), then the market will eventually force its hand, having gotten sick of miserly returns on billions in investments.

The industry response to this slide deck was more or less complete agreement, with the caveat that competitors would not have to outlast the market so much as merely outlast Fiat Chrysler. Marchionne then pursued an odd and ultimately unsuccessful merger with GM’s Mary Barra, who confidently rejected Fiat Chrysler’s plan, noting, “We are merging with ourselves.” (This presumably referred to GM’s decades-long quest to bring rationality to its stable of brands.)
GM is not only merging with itself, it is also “disrupting” itself — as evidenced by their recently announced Chevy Bolt long-range, affordable electric car. The company claimed the Bolt was designed to be the perfect car for ride-sharing apps. Just before launching the Bolt, GM announced a $500 million investment into Lyft, the main competitor to Uber.

This no doubt surprised competitors who have been making efforts to disabuse markets and investors of the notion that they would become mere providers of hardware to ride-sharing companies like Uber or autonomous car suppliers like Google. Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Daimler, remarked “We do not plan to become the Foxconn of Apple.”

Manufacturers Are Going to Have to Invest

In fact, the bosses of Daimler, BMW, and Audi went looking behind the couch for some spare change to buy joint ownership of Nokia’s (remember them?) mapping service HERE, and did so primarily to stop their rival bidder – Uber – from buying it. High-resolution maps are crucial to autonomous cars; Uber’s CEO has said that, if Tesla can make good on their promise of a long-range, autonomous electric car, he would buy “all” of them.

The Germans are thus investing billions into electric vehicles made out of carbon fiber that pilot themselves using super-high resolution maps, all the while fighting back against Apple and Google’s requests for access to their cars’ infotainment systems. Their global leadership of the auto industry will have to be pried from their cold, dead hands.

Meanwhile, all the difficult bits of the Chevy Bolt (“custom-built” for Lyft, remember) are built in large part by Korea’s LG. One wonders why Lyft (or Uber) would not simply buy the next model directly from LG? I guess even if there is no Foxconn for cars yet, there may be soon. Remember, electric cars are far more modular than internal combustion cars.
Marchionne Says “No Thanks”

Or, if not him, then certainly the Agnelli family. A sort of Italian royalty who control Fiat Chrysler (and Marchionne) via their ownership of the Exor holding company, the Agnellis have been showing signs that they are tiring of the endless drama surrounding Fiat and the auto industry in general. They bought a stake in The Economist in 2015 in a move towards media, but the recent de-conglomeration of Fiat has been noticeable in other ways.

First, in 2013, Fiat’s industrial division was de-merged and combined with CNH Global (maker of tractors under the Case IH and New Holland brands) into a separate company, CNH Industrial. Most recently, Ferrari, the jewel in the Fiat Chrysler stable of brands, was floated in New York.

Speaking of Ferrari, Marchionne took advantage of a recent dip in the fortunes of Ferrari’s eponymous Formula 1 team to unceremoniously eject Luca di Montezemolo as president and chairman of Ferrari and replace him with . . . himself. It should be noted that di Montezemolo was appointed by Gianni Agnelli himself after the death of the founder, Enzo Ferrari, and is a bona fide business superstar in Italy. Marchionne has been playing an increasingly active part in the politics of Formula 1 recently, something that will no doubt continue to make for a less stressful (but still stimulating) retirement when Marchionne puts on his famous blue sweater for the last time in 2018.

But for now, Marchionne has seen the future. Large subcontractors will produce partially or fully autonomous electric vehicles, with the sole differences between them being brand value and design. The car makers that survive may well simply produce cars for Google (Ford recently signed an agreement along these lines), Apple, or Uber. Some, like BMW or Mercedes-Benz, may survive because of their brand and design qualities. Fiat Chrysler does not have this.

Marchionne doesn’t care about expensive gas or electric vehicles because his plan is simple:

Sell the profitable Jeep/RAM brands to another conglomerate that does not compete in these segments (for example, Hyundai KIA).
Sell the unprofitable Fiat to anyone who will take it. Perhaps synergies in the lucrative European light commercial vehicle segment will attract another European maker, such as PSA Peugeot Citroën, whose CEO, Carlos Tavares, has ambitions that were thwarted at his previous employer, Renault.
Sell Alfa Romeo and Maserati to someone who could use a strong brand. Perhaps Volkswagen will finally get hold of its prized Italian trophy if they can sort out their global legal woes.

Retire to play with his giant Formula 1 Scalextric set.
Marchionne has been mocked for his firms’ strategy, which has been attributed to hubris. But perhaps he is the one seeing clearest of all.
Is the best way to deal with disruption simply to step out of the way?
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Tit-for-Tat Competitive Analysis

Question: Who wins when–in a perfectly competitive market–competitors fight each other?    Prize awarded for best answer.

Is This Time Different? Expanding Your Circle of Competence

May 8, 2017This Time is Not Different, Because This Time is Always Different

John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
All rights reserved and actively enforced.

Reprint Policy

“History repeats – the argument for abandoning prevailing valuation methods regularly emerges late in a bull market, and typically survives until about the second down-leg (or sufficiently hard first leg) of a bear. Such arguments have included the ‘investment company’ and ‘stock scarcity’ arguments in the late 20’s, the ‘technology’ and ‘conglomerate’ arguments in the late 60’s, the nifty-fifty ‘good stocks always go up’ argument in the early 70’s, the ‘globalization’ and ‘leveraged buyout’ arguments in 1987 (and curiously, again today), and the ‘tech revolution’ and ‘knowledge-based economy’ arguments in the late 1990’s. Speculative investors regularly create ‘new era’ arguments and valuation metrics to justify their speculation.”

John P. Hussman, Ph.D., New Economy or Unfinished Cycle?, June 18, 2007. The S&P 500 would peak just 2% higher in October of that year, followed by a collapse of more than -55%.

“Old ways of valuing stocks are outdated. A technological revolution has created opportunities for continued low inflation, expanding profits and rising productivity. Thanks to these factors, the United States may be able to enjoy an extended period of expanding stock prices. Jumping out now would leave you poorer than you might become if you have some faith.”

– Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1999. While it’s tempting to counter that the S&P 500 would rise by more than 12% to its peak 10 months later, it’s easily forgotten that the entire gain was wiped out in the 3 weeks that followed, moving on to a 50% loss for the S&P 500 and an 83% loss for the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100..

“Stock prices returned to record levels yesterday, building on the rally that began in late trading on Wednesday… ‘It’s all real buying’ [said the head of index futures at Shearson Lehman Brothers], ‘The excitement here is unbelievable. It’s steaming.’ The continuing surge in American stock prices has produced a spate of theories. [The] chief economist of Kemper Financial Services Inc. in Chicago argued in a report that, contrary to common opinion, American equities may not be significantly overpriced. For one thing, [he] said, ‘The market may be discounting a far-larger rise in future corporate earnings than most investors realize is possible, [and foreign investment] may be altering the traditional valuation parameters used to determine share-price multiples.’ He added, ‘It is quite possible that we have entered a new era for share price evaluation.’”

– The New York Times, August 21, 1987 (the S&P advanced by less than 1% over the next 3 sessions, and then crashed)

“The failure of the general market to decline during the past year despite its obvious vulnerability, as well as the emergence of new investment characteristics, has caused investors to believe that the U.S. has entered a new investment era to which the old guidelines no longer apply. Many have now come to believe that market risk is no longer a realistic consideration, while the risk of being underinvested or in cash and missing opportunities exceeds any other.”

– Barron’s Magazine, February 3, 1969. The bear market that had already quietly started in late-1968 would take stocks down by more than one-third over the next 18 months, and the S&P 500 Index would stand below its 1968 peak even 14 years later.

“The ‘new-era’ doctrine – that ‘good’ stocks (or ‘blue chips’) were sound investments regardless of how high the price paid for them — was at bottom only a means for rationalizing under the title of ‘investment’ the well-nigh universal capitulation to the gambling fever.”

– Benjamin Graham & David Dodd, Security Analysis, 1934, following the 1929-1932 collapse

“The recent collapse is the climax, but not the end, of an exceptionally long, extensive and violent period of inflation in security prices and national, even world-wide, speculative fever. This is the longest period of practically uninterrupted rise in security prices in our history… The psychological illusion upon which it is based, though not essentially new, has been stronger and more widespread than has ever been the case in this country in the past. This illusion is summed up in the phrase ‘the new era.’ The phrase itself is not new. Every period of speculation rediscovers it.”

– Business Week, November 1929. The market collapse would ultimately exceed -80%.

See http://hussmanfunds.com/wmc/wmc170508.htm

Referred to: This time seems very very different Grantham

This time is not different, because this time is always different.

Throwing in the towel

When a boxer is taking a beating, to avoid further punishment, a towel is sometimes thrown from the corner as a token of defeat. Yet even after the towel is thrown, a judicious referee has the right to toss the towel back into the corner and allow the fight to continue.

For decades, Jeremy Grantham, a value investor whom I respect tremendously, has championed the idea, recognized by legendary value investors like Ben Graham, that current profits are a poor measure of long-term cash flows, and that it is essential to adjust earnings-based valuation measures for the position of profit margins relative to their norms. In Grantham’s words, “Profit margins are probably the most mean-reverting series in finance, and if profit margins do not mean-revert, then something has gone badly wrong with capitalism.”

He learned this lesson early on, during the collapse that followed the go-go years of the late-1960’s. Grantham once described his epiphany: “I got wiped out personally in 1968, which was the last really crazy, silly stock market before the Internet era… I became a great reader of history books. I was shocked and horrified to discover that I had just learned a lesson that was freely available all the way back to the South Sea Bubble.”

In recent weeks, Grantham has essentially thrown in the towel, suggesting “this time is decently different”:

“Stock prices are held up by abnormal profit margins, which in turn are produced mainly by lower real rates, the benefits of which are not competed away because of increased monopoly power… In conclusion, there are two important things to carry in your mind: First, the market now and in the past acts as if it believes the current higher levels of profitability are permanent; and second, a regular bear market of 15% to 20% can always occur for any one of many reasons. What I am interested in here is quite different: a more or less permanent move back to, or at least close to, the pre-1997 trends of profitability, interest rates, and pricing. And for that it seems likely that we will have a longer wait than any value manager would like (including me).”

I’ve received a flurry of requests for my views on Grantham’s shift.

My simple response is to very respectfully toss Grantham’s towel back into the corner.

Here’s why.

First, Grantham argues that much of the benefit to margins is driven by lower real interest rates. The problem here is two-fold. One is that the relationship between real interest rates and corporate profit margins is extremely tenuous in market cycles across history. Second, the fact is that debt of U.S. corporations as a ratio to revenues is more than double its historical median, leaving total interest costs, relative to corporate revenues, no lower than the post-war norm.

The last three months of 1999 were just about the sickest thing I’d ever seen. It was an orgy, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to buy a stock that was up $10m, hoping it would go up $15, even though it was overvalued by $100. But by choosing to sit out most of the ramp, determined to wait for the inevitable implosion, I was the Greatest Fool of All, as those around me made mind-numbing profits as, day after day. YHOO, AMZN and CGMI would gap $10 a day, immune to gravity as the Nazz, aka NASDAQ, ripped right past 3000 and didn’t even blink rocketing past 4,000. At the end of the year, the Nazz was up 83 percent, a far cry from the 5 to 7 percent stocks had returned historically. People were too busy celebrating and shouting “It’s different this time.” to realize such an adjustment was unsustainable.  It is like a guy who averages five home runs a year suddenly hitting fifty. Something is not right in Mudville. —Confessions of a Wall Street Insider: A Cautionary Tale of Rats, Feds, And Banksters by Michael Kimelman

 

Expanding your circle of competence-Platforms and Networks

Note what Prof. Greenwald says about Amazon and Apple.   If Apple is JUST a product company then I would agree, but what if Apple has network effects with its music and iPods for example?

http://csinvesting.org/2016/09/15/amazon-is-disappearing-says-prof-greenwald-of-columbia-gbs/

https://www.gurufocus.com/news/204202/professor-greenwald-thinks-apple-can-go-sonys-or-nokias-way

Don’t take expert opinion without heavily salted skepticism.    What do YOU think?

SHORTING the FANGS: http://www.businessinsider.com/fang-stocks-have-cost-short-sellers-this-year-2017-5   How do you value a company with almost $0 (zero) marginal costs?

We will delve deeper in the next post.

 

PS: info@Santangels.com   to sign up for value investing info.

 

Edison Schools CS on Econ. of Scale, Part II

http://csinvesting.org/2017/04/13/hedge-fund-quiz-economies-of-scale/ for the last post on this case study.  Note excellent comments by readers.

Readers provide excellent analysis

The twenty-minute time limit was to force you to concentrate on the key issue: Does this company have economies of scale?   Because of it doesn’t, then growth will NOT help profitability.  In fact, growth with losses financed by debt can be financially lethal.

Part of improving as an investor is avoiding the disasters as this company turned out to be. Bad Management_Has Avenues Mastermind Chris Whittle Learned His Lesson and Failure in For Profit Education are two articles that chronicle the investor and management failures in the For-Profit-Education Sector.

The goal of this case study is to practice:

Our 10-K reading skills and our analysis of competitive advantage.   Despite how CRITICAL it is for an investor/management to determine and distinguish competitive advantages, structural advantages are often confused with outcomes or efficiency.

Competitive advantage

Competitive advantage refers to something specific–a structural barrier that prevents competitors from simply replicating the results of a successful business.  It should not be surprising that the terms competitive advantage and barriers to entry are interchangeable.

Without barriers to entry, a business cannot long enjoy an advantage over competitors that will quickly do the obvious—enter. This process of new entry will hurt not only relative performance but also absolute performance, as competition for customers dampens revenues, and competition for resources raised costs.

FIRST MOVER ADVANTAGE

First, it is NOT a competitive advantage.   But here is an example of having a first mover advantage.   You and I are in a duel.  We walk ten paces away from each other then turn and shoot the other.  After three paces, you turn around and shoot me in the back–now THAT is a first mover advantage.

Scale not size matters

It is industry structure determines which categories are most likely to manifest themselves and in what form.

Size doesn’t matter, but scale does. Scale is a relative concept, not an absolute one. The benefit it bestows are relative to peers within the relevant competitive set.

Look at WD 40_VL the company has a competitive advantage in PRODUCT SPACE.   WD-40 is the ubiquitous oil/lubricant that people keep in their tool-box/shelf/or under the sink.  They own 90% of the lubricant market.   However, they also di-worsify their free cash flow into hand soap and motor-cycle products.   Now the stock is over-priced in my opinion. If management could sell off its non-competitive products, and then become a tontine (use free-cash flow to buy in all shares)–investors would flourish.

Having 2% of a 10 billion dollar market or $100 million in sales is probably not as profitable as having sales of 40% of a 200 million dollar market or $80 million in sales.

Scale matters most when fixed costs matter most relative to the business’s overall cost structure. With large fixed costs, the operator serving the most customers will have a significant advantage due to its ability to spread those costs over more unit sales. If the costs of a business were entirely variable and increased proportionally as it grew, there would no advantage to scale.   The extent of the advantage is determined by how relatively important fixed costs are how relatively large the business is compared to the next competitor. Second, much of what is thought of as traditional fixed costs in school management—admin, school relations and lobbying, and even curriculum development—has a significant variable component.

Curriculum requires local customization. The two primary sources of fixed-cost scale in education generally are content development on the one hand and sales and marketing on the other.

Reading the 10-K

We jump to page 27: Selected financial data and see rising sales financed by issuing shares and debt.  Yet costs are not declining as a percentage of sales.  Ebitda is declining per student.  1999 revenues of $133 million almost triple to $376 million in 2001 yet operating cash flows decline from negative $17.6 to negative $29.3.

Remember the little red school house?   Edison Schools has to provide services in a regional area.   If they can develop density (or clustering as management mentions on page 16 under competitive strengths) in particular regions, then perhaps this company needs more time to show progress?  To determine their success in implementing a “clustering strategy, the next pages to peruse are pages 13-15 where you can see where Edison is operating schools.  Take a large state like Colorado. Edison has two schools in Denver and three in Colorado Springs.   Washington, DC, a huge metro area, only has eight schools and on and on.   Management will not be able to leverage their admin, curriculum and development cost over such a widely dispersed area.

Imagine running a carting/garbage pick-up service where you have 5 customers in Eastern Connecticut, seven in New Jersey, 4 in Texas, you would go broke just driving to the different customers. You would lack customer density in your routes, so your costs would be too high.

PASS!   Then if the analyst had more time, he/she could look at management.  He or she would uncover the ugly history of Chris Whittle.   No mention of that in the Credit Suisse analyst 50-page report.

Studying competitive advantages like economies of scale, customer captivity, network effects, low-cost producer will pay-off.   Practice reading case studies of success and failure will help you hone your skills.

Note companies in the educational sector with advantages: Bright Horizons_VL and Grand Canyon LOPE

One of the best books I have found on studying competitive analysis is

Strategic_Logic (Strategic Logic link will be down in 36 hours, so join the Deep-Value Group by following the links http://csinvesting.org/2015/01/14/deep-value-group-at-google/ and ask for a copy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsvnvV3wDgc Greenwald of Columbia Business School discusses local advantages.

The trilogy of books, Competitive Demystified, The Curse of the Mogul, and Class Clowns will also provide more depth to your studies:


 

 

 

Indexing Madness or An Indexing Bubble

A must see discussion of today’s index investing distortions

http://horizonkinetics.com/market-commentary/4th-quarter-2016-commentary/   What will turn the tide for active investors. Or read commentary : Q4-2016-Commentary_Final

https://vimeo.com/209940152/f2154e4d3d Grant’s Conference Presentation

Kinetics_Market_Opportunities_11.02.2016

Q2 2016 Commentary FINAL (See section on ETFs vs. Individual Stocks)

Articles of interest:

A Great Learning Site

Fantastic sources of information here:  http://facpub.stjohns.edu/~moyr/videoonyoutube.htm

A good microcap investor to study: http://otcadventures.com/

If you enjoy learning about management (founders beat bureacrats every time) and business–especially one of the greatest franchises of all time–then this movie is for you:

Case Study of a 100 Bagger: Middleby

m-aurelius

midd-chart

https://microcapclub.com/2016/05/middleby-corporation-midd-case-study-intelligent-fanatic-led-100-bagger/

How many lessons can you pull out of this case study?

Also, a must read on finding fanatics: https://microcapclub.com/2016/01/how-to-find-intelligent-fanatic-ceos-early/

More studies: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoOEE8GI-Ko

SEARCH STRATEGY: Look off the beaten path (Joel Greenblatt)

https://youtu.be/sYJaF86zY0E

 

Greenwald: The Death of Manufacturing; Deep Value Investing in Juniors

Prof. Greenwald on competitive advantage, the shift to services and why profit margins are so high and may remain so.



Most recent interview of Prof. Greenwald

You should think through Prof. Greenwald’s thoughts. Regarding investing, it is the art of the specific, so don’t let the the above macro talk affect your investing too much. I do agree that service companies develop competitive advantage through either product economices of scale or regional economies of scale.

Ajit Jain: 32_KeyInfluencers_AjitJain

DEEP VALUE INVESTOR IN THE JUNIOR GOLD MINERS

https://jayant.liberty.me/   His Blog

Bhandari-High Risk High Reward in Junior Mining Companies

Game on or con on: Fraud in Junior Mining Equities:  http://insider.kitco.com/GyBhN/mining-equities/  or having fun with your money. The key is the lack of quality deposits!

Let me know what YOU think.

 

Valeant Case Study in Progress

wisdom

There is an ongoing battle over Valeant’s (VRX) valuation and business model between short-sellers and investors.   This opportunity allows us to improve our analysis skills and understanding of business models.  Also, how will Sequoia, an owner of over 20% of Valeant’s equity, handle their portfolio?

My first question is whether Valeant is a franchise with durable competitive advantages or a roll-up of commodity products dressed-up in a fancy industry (Pharma)?   We should use this case to learn how experienced analysts present their opposing views.

First: What’s not to like?  Valeant has rapid growth with huge profit margins? Of course, the PERFECT investment is a company that has high returns on capital and can constantly redeploy its capital at the same high returns.  The classic case would be the early (pre-2000) history of Wal-Mart (WMT) as the high returns generated from its stores could be redeployed into new stores on the borders of their regions which had economies of scale in administration, advertising, and management costs per unit of sales.  WMT did not have, for example, advantages in gross margins, but net profit margins. See WMT_50 Year SRC Chart.

What would be the source of Valeant’s high returns and competitive advantages?

Sequoia (a well-known value fund with an excellent long-term record) saw strong competitive advantages.  See their recent investor transcript:

Sequoia-Fund-Transcript-2015-August  Note the date of the transcript and the questions regarding Valeant concerning Philador and Sequoia’s 20% concentration.

Other investors (Charlie Munger, Citron) disagreed:

April 2, 2015 from www.fool.com

…..Recently, during a shareholders meeting for the Daily Journal Corporation, a newspaper where he serves as Chairman, Munger had this to say about Valeant Pharmaceuticals Intl Inc. (TSX:VRX)(NYSE:VRX): “Valeant is like ITT and Harold Geneen come back to life, only the guy is worse this time.”

What exactly does Munger mean by this?

A little history lesson

Who exactly was Harold Geneen? And what did he do at ITT that’s so infamous?

Geneen took over ITT Corp in 1959 when it was still mostly a telegraph and telephone company. After being blocked by the FCC in an attempt to buy the ABC television network in 1963, Geneen decided to diversify away from the company’s traditional business and completed more than 300 acquisitions during the decade in areas such as hotels, insurance, for-profit education, and the company that made Wonder Bread.

Geneen used cheap debt to finance these acquisitions, which later proved to be the company’s downfall. After Geneen’s retirement as CEO in 1977, subsequent CEOs spent much of the next two decades paying off the debt by selling most of Geneen’s acquisitions.

Is Valeant really comparable?

On the surface, Valeant looks like it could be pretty comparable to ITT. Since merging with Biovail in 2010, Valeant has made more than 30 different acquisitions, most of which were paid for with debt or by issuing shares.

Since the end of 2010, Valeant’s debt has skyrocketed from US$3.6 billion to US$15.3 billion. Shares outstanding have also gone up considerably from 196 million to 335 million. It’s obvious that Munger is onto something.

But on the other hand, I’m not sure Valeant is anywhere close to being as bad as ITT was. For one thing, all of the company’s acquisitions are at least in the same sector. ITT was buying up hotels and car dealerships, while Valeant is buying up pharmaceutical companies. Valeant’s efforts scale up a whole lot better than ITT’s ever did.

There’s also a bit of hypocrisy coming from Munger on this issue. Munger is actively involved in a company that does pretty much the same thing as ITT did back in the 1960s. Sure, Berkshire doesn’t use much debt or engage in hostile takeovers, but Berkshire and ITT have more in common than Munger is willing to admit. Both attempted to dominate the business world using a roll-up acquisition strategy; Buffett and Munger were just a little more patient with their plan.

But just because Munger exaggerates how bad Valeant’s acquisition spree has been doesn’t mean the stock is necessarily a buy at these levels. The company had earnings of just $2.67 per share in 2014, putting the stock at a P/E ratio of nearly 100 times. Yes, earnings are expected to grow substantially in 2015, but the outlook is simple. For the stock to continue performing, the company must continue to make acquisitions.

After making more than 30 acquisitions in just a few years, it’s hard to keep finding deals that will not only be big enough to make a difference, but will also prove to be good long-term buys. There’s so much pressure on management to keep buying that a serious misstep could be coming. If that happens, this hyped stock could head down in a hurry.

Although I don’t buy Munger’s alarmist concerns about Valeant, I agree with him on one thing. The stock just isn’t attractive at current levels.

A potential acquisition target, Allergan, Inc., points out its worries over Valeant’s business model. investor-presentation-may-27-2014-1 on VRX

Citron, a short-seller, attacks with a report: Valeant-Part-II-final-b. Valeant is another “Enron.”  Use the search box on this blog and type in Enron and follow links to review that case.  Enron never showed the profit margins that Valeant is currently showing.   NEVER take another person’s statement on faith.  Check it out for yourself. 

Valeant today (October 26th, 2015) counters Citron and answers investors’ concerns with 10-26-15-Investor-presentation-Final4 Valeant and video presentation:  http://ir.valeant.com/investor-relations/Presentations/default.aspxeep.

Ok, so what is Valeant worth?   Can you make such an assessment?  How do you think Mr. Market will weigh-in?   If you owned a 20% stake in Valeant, how would you manage the position?   What are the main issues to focus on?

This may be too difficult to analyze for many of us but we have  or will have many documents and reports to provide insights.  Remember that there are two sides to every narrative. Can we move closer to reality or the “truth”?

Note www.whalewisdom.com and type in VRX.   What type of investor owns Valeant?   Will momentum investors stick and stay?

Your comments welcome.

Sign up for Whitney Tilson’s emails on investing.  Worth a look: leilajt2+investing@gmail.com

Among Analysts, A Herd Mentality Prevails

Goldman

By Lance Ignon (Investors’ Business Daily, 1998)

Today’s equity analysts are better educated (CFAs, MBAs, CPAs) better informed and command more computer muscle than ever.  What they lack, critics say, is courage.

Instead of leading clients to investment ideas, many analysts follow the crowed, churning out duplicative research reports that become part of a cacophony of timid group-speak.

“Too many analysts think alike; too few are willing to risk being wrong by taking a gusty, controversial stand,” according to a widely circulated report last month from market strategist Byron Wien at Morgan Stanley & Co.

Wien’s sentiments were echoed in interviews with other market strategists, mutual fund managers, research directors and analysts themselves.

Such complaints are not new, but they come at a time when research departments are slowly rebuilding their ranks following layoffs several years ago. These new analysts will be of little use, however, if they fall in with the herd and fail to produce ground-breaking research.

Critics say both analysts themselves and the incentives that drive the brokerage business are to blame for the group-think.

In a job where performance is measured every trading day by eights of a point, many analysts find security in mimicking their peers. If they are wrong, at least they don’t stand out. Yet, analysts’ opinions are most valuable when they are not only correct but also are in the minority.

If you’re always with the consensus, you probably won’t make much money, but you won’t get fired,” Wien said in an interview with Investor’s business Daily.

Stefan D. Abrams, managing director at Trust Co. of the West, argues that brokerage firms put too much emphasis on the morning call, when analysts announce their latest recommendations to their firm‘s brokers.

The practice may generate lots of trading commissions, but it also leads to a confusing fragmentation of information.

“Analysts are basically not doing the job of helping investors develop conviction in the long-term prospects for companies.” Abrams said.

“They’re too preoccupied with the morning call so they can spout some information that may not be that important. It’s a tidbit of information. Analysts are in the tidbit business.”

The very nature of the brokerage business also stunts the effectiveness of research.

CLIENTS’ INTEREST

An analysts’ purpose, after all, is to come up with winning investment ideas that will prompt their institutional clients to trade stocks through their firm’s brokers and generate commissions. But many of these clients are interested only in larger, more liquid stocks, so analysts tend to concentrate on these types of companies.

Often, “an analysts picks up a stock simply to attract trading calls, “ said Jonathan C. Schooler, a mutual fund manager for AIM Advisors Inc. in Houston.

The result is that dozens of analysts end up covering the same behemoth company. For example American Telephone and Telegraph Co. and NationsBank, the most widely covered U.S. companies , are followed by 59 analysts each. According to Nelson Publications Inc.

The 25 most widely watched U.S. companies have an average 52 analysts each.

By virtue of their size and number of shareholders, these companies deserve wide coverage. But each additional research report adds less value if, as is often the case, it resembles the reports it succeeded.

Moreover, this kind of duplicative effort leaves analysts less time to ferret out tomorrow’s AT&T or Microsoft Corp.

Of course, there are analysts who make a point of discovering companies early in their growth cycles and who are not afraid to cut their own path.

Oppenheimer & Co.’s Cecelia Brancato started following Cisco Systems Inc. in the summer of 1990. It has since increased 2,344%.

OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET

Brancato said she knew about Cisco even before its market debut, and recognized the potential for both the company and the entire computer networking industry. This gave her the conviction to ignore the periodic negative rumours that would temporarily weaken the stock.

“Typically, I am on the other side of the Street, whether it be on my opinion or my earnings estimates,” she said. “More often than not.”

ORIGINAL RESEARCH

Wien and others suggest, however, that analysts would build more credibility by conducting original research and developing maverick opinions that help clients make money.

Meantime, many institutional investors will continue to do their own research, they say, because too much of the information from Wall Street is stale.

“I throw those things out,” Art Bonnel (PM of MIM Stock Appreciation Fund) said, referring to most research reports. By the time it gets to me, everyone knows about it.”

—-

Coal Stocks Under Stress
Bus

Coal in a battle of “survival of the fittest,” Citigroup says

May 27 2015, 14:56 ET | By: Carl Surran, SA News Editor
  • A day after Credit Suisse warned that coal miners such as Arch Coal (NYSE:ACI) and Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE:ANR) were in “dire straits,” Citigroup analysts say it will be “survival of the fittest” for the world’s coal miners.
  • While Citi believes current coal prices are below sustainable long-run levels, it does not expect a return to prices anywhere near the levels seen a few years ago; the firm cuts its long-run thermal coal price forecast to $80/ton from $90 and its met coal price forecast to $125/ton from $170.
  • The firm sees China and India as the largest sources of downside risk to its long-run forecasts, particularly for met coal, where China could re-emerge as a net exporter.

The above “research” copy-cats an amazing insight of the obvious as coal company, ACI, declines from $78 to 49 cents:

ACI

 

Ask yourself what was the purpose of stating the obvious after the fact? The analyst should produce original work such as what has the market already discounted today? What about an industry-map showing production costs and sales per ton for each type of coal and where mines are located relative to domestic and export markets?  What are the dynamics affecting the market and what can change?  How much supply needs to be reduced? Who will and won’t benefit from consolidation? Do the companies have different management than the CEO’s and Boards of Directors who took on debt to make acquisitions at the top of the market in 2011? What drove management’s actions.  Can companies work together to merge and rationalize supply and return to profitability.

Reporting the obvious to mimic a competitor seems silly. What do YOU think?

A reader suggests a sub-group (off of the Deep-Value group at Google Groups) be formed to learn and study different concepts. I certainly encourage the idea. Let me know how I can help.

How Crazy is This?

What Chicago’s Fiscal Emergency says about the Quality of Credit Analysis in the Municipal Bond Market

Because it demands large-scale paradigm destruction and major shifts in the problems and techniques of normal science, the emergence of new theories is generally preceded by a period of pronounced professional insecurity. As one might expect, that insecurity is generated by the persistent failure of the puzzles of normal science to come out as they should. Failure of existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones.

— Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

On May 12th, Moody’s Investors Service fired the shot heard around the world. The credit rating agency downgraded the City of Chicago and bonds issued by related tax districts to speculative (“junk”) status.

In a sense, Moody’s was only validating the bond market’s opinion of the city’s creditworthiness — the bonds had already been trading at junk levels for several months. This should have been a straightforward event for the chattering class to process intellectually. Rating actions tend to lag the market rather than lead it.

Oddly, however, Moody’s downgrade sparked a debate over whether Moody’s was being “fair” to Chicago. And with Chicago attempting to convert a portion of its variable rate debt to a fixed rate tomorrow, this debate has received considerable amounts of publicity. How could Moody’s cut the city to junk when the other rating agencies rate the city so much higher? (That has obviously never happened before in an era of ratings shopping and superdowngrades.) Wouldn’t having a diverse economy and large tax base cancel out the costs associated with machine politics? (It’s not like this is Chicago’s third fiscal crisis in the past century.)

This was probably the first instance in the history of the capital markets that a rating agency was accused of having too radical an attitude toward risk. How did we get here, folks?

A period of pronounced professional insecurity

Since the financial crisis, municipal bond market participants have been particularly defensive about the level of credit risk in the market as a whole. Commentary on any financially challenged issuer is reliably qualified with “the municipal market defies generalizations,” “these issuers are outliers,” or “remember that, historically, municipal defaults are small relative to corporate bonds.” But the parade of apologies for an issuer with Chicago’s level of financial dysfunction should signal that things have gone too far.

These observations began as a legitimate response to Meredith Whitney’s extremism. Whitney was never going to be correct — the amount of local defaults she predicted exceeded the amount of local government debt outstanding. It was mathematically impossible. It is still mathematically impossible. The financial media that turned her claims into clickbait have moved on to sensationalizing other sectors.

Five years later, however, many municipal market participants remain locked in an unproductive dialogue with an irrelevant personality. Consequently, they are now blind to the fact that what they are saying is no longer true. The market has more financially challenged issuers than can be counted on one hand. These governments are not outliers. They are a class, with similar characteristics and a universe of risks that differentiate them from other borrowers. And they are not small borrowers. It is a more meaningful trend that bondholders are receiving pennies on the dollar in court than it is that defaults remain rare.

There is a conversation to be had about how politics influences the perception of financial commitments and whether bond structures can further evolve to protect bondholders. If the general obligation pledge — absent a statutory lien, which few states have — lacks teeth in court, why isn’t it obsolete? Why is this bond structure still the foundation for credit analysis? Does the general obligation pledge allow governments to over-commit themselves financially in certain political contexts? I would submit to you that this is absolutely the case with Chicago.

None of these issues will be substantively explored so long as market participants remain in “move along, nothing to see here” mode. These are the first fiscal crises where pensions have been a factor at all. In previous fiscal crises, capital markets creditors had the luxury of control. That is no longer a given.

So municipal credit analysis has a lot of growing up to do. Essentially half the market was insured several years ago. As Kuhn noted regarding paradigm shifts in science, there will probably be “a period of pronounced professional insecurity” in the municipal market until new approaches emerge. Until then, there will be a lot of failures.

I will explain my own philosophy regarding financially challenged issuers at the end of this essay.

Rating divergence is actually the status quo — that’s not the story here

Shawn O’Leary at Nuveen Asset Management points out that this divergence is nothing new in Chicago’s Rating Split: Is Moody’s Out of Step?:

Before looking at rating divergence specific to Chicago, it’s helpful to look at the long-term trend of rating divergence between Moody’s Investors Service and Standard and Poor’s. In our opinion, the ratings of the two rating companies have been largely incongruous for several years …

While S&P upgraded 1.01 municipal ratings for each Moody’s upgrade from 2002 through 2007, that ratio ballooned to a whopping 6.66 S&P upgrades for each Moody’s upgrade from 2008 to 2014. And, as noted by the unemployment rate at the time, S&P’s drastic spike in the pace of upgrades occurred at the height of the Great Recession and continued through 2014. This was long after the recession’s effect on municipal finances became apparent to most market participants. While Moody’s pace of upgrades slowed in response to the recession, S&P behaved as though the recession never happened.

We believe this broader context is important to understanding how S&P could rate Chicago’s general obligation pledge at A+ (now A-) while Moody’s rates the same pledge at Ba1. Specific to Chicago, however, we find that not only has the market long treated Chicago’s debt as being at a speculative credit quality — but that it is also well-founded given the credit fundamentals.

Moreover, it is worth noting that the credit rating agencies have published rating methodologies. S&P’s US Local Government General Obligation Ratings Methodology and Assumptions (September 12, 2013 — stashed behind their paywall) includes overriding factors for liquidity and structural imbalance that the rating agency has long decided to ignore for Chicago. Those factors would have put a junk-level ceiling on Chicago’s ratings. In other words, S&P is arbitrarily holding Chicago to different standards than the other local governments the agency rates. And it is obvious why.

What financial risks does Chicago pose to investors?

Let’s examine Chicago’s credit profile and you can decide whether or not the city’s bonds are speculative investments.

Unfunded pension liabilities

The magnitude of Chicago’s unfunded pension liabilities receives considerable attention, and rightfully so. From Nuveen:

Chicago’s combined annual debt and pension costs are substantially higher than any [of the ten largest US cities] when these obligations are indexed to total governmental revenue. Chicago’s fiscal 2015 debt service and annual pension costs account for 44.8% of fiscal 2013 governmental revenue. San Jose is the next closest city at 27.8%. The nine cities other than Chicago averaged 22.4% of revenue.

Last Thursday’s Bloomberg Municipal Market Brief also provided some good comparisons (refer to the StoryChart):

The next 10 years will be the most difficult for Chicago, as current statutes require the city to increase contributions to its four pension plans by 135 percent in 2016, and 8 percent annually through 2021, according to Moody’s. Pension payments will rise 3 percent, on average, through 2026 and around 2 percent through 2032 …

The median per capita aggregate unfunded actuarial accrued pension liability for the largest US cities and Puerto Rico is $3,350. The City of Chicago’s is $7,149.

Most municipal market analysts assume that the city will address its unfunded pension liabilities and relatively high debt burden by increasing residents’ property taxes by nearly 50%.

Chicago officials have been unwilling to raise property taxes for at least a decade. Offering documents indicate that this attitude continues. The city iscurrently in negotiations with its police and fire unions to postpone transitioning from a system of arbitrary contributions to actuarial contributions (i.e., contributions that reflect the true cost of benefits).

If officials lack the political will to raise taxes when their bonds are trading at 300 basis points (3%) over the AAA benchmark, will there ever be a resolution short of insolvency? This is a material risk that should not be shrugged off.

Borrowing money in order to borrow money

Bloomberg also notes that Chicago has the second-highest general obligation debt per capita among US cities at $3,047, following New York City at $5,500.

According to offering documents (available here), the city won’t be able to afford to make debt service payments on its outstanding bonds from available funds until 2019. The city has been borrowing money on a long-term basis to make debt service payments since before the financial crisis:

Since 2007, proceeds from general obligation bonds in the range of $90 million to $170 million per year have been used to make the city’s general obligation debt service. The city expects to use approximately $220 million of proceeds of long-term general obligation bonds to fund general obligation debt service in levy year 2015 for debt service paid in 2016. The city currently plans to eliminate the use of general obligation bonds to pay general obligation debt service by 2019.

As I described at length in my earlier essay, How Chicago Has Used Financial Engineering to Paper Over its Massive Budget Gap, the city has also been using long-term debt to: (1) finance everyday expenses and maintenance; (2) finance judgments and settlements, including police brutality cases and retroactive wage increases and pension contributions for unionized employees; (3) restructure the city’s existing debt to extend the the maturities on its bonds far out into the future, in order to avoid having to pay the debt as it was coming due; and (4) provide slush funds for the city’s 50 aldermen to undertake projects in their respective areas (i.e., pork).

State and local governments typically only issue bonds to finance the construction of capital projects — buildings and infrastructure with long useful lives that will benefit residents for generations. Chicago has incurred literally billions of dollars of debt where residents have nothing to show for it.

Excessive reliance on short-term debt

Besides a sharp loss in population (as what happened in Detroit), excessive reliance on short-term debt is a solid indicator of financial stress. Chicago has essentially used its credit lines as permanent source of funding in the sense that they are usually carrying a large balance and have frequently been utilized for non-capital expenditures. The city recently expanded its short-term borrowing program to $1 billion. For the sake of comparison, the city’s general fund operating budget is in the neighborhood of $3.3 billion.

Forbearance agreements

Apparently the irony of assigning an investment grade rating to an issuer that is already in forbearance — i.e., its lenders and counterparties have conditionally agreed to delay declaring events of default and exercising their rights and remedies —has been lost on the rating agencies, let alone an issuer that has $2.2 billion worth of forbearance agreements for variable rate debt, short-term credit facilities, and interest rate swap agreements. Chicago’s offering documents contain six pages of triggered events of default. It would be understandable if the city simply needed to replace a deal participant, but having to take it all out at (presumably) much higher interest cost in short order?

Absent these forbearance agreements, that $2.2 billion would become due immediately. The city usually has less than $1 billion of liquidity. The municipal bond market has not seen a liquidity problem of this magnitude for a local government borrower since the financial crisis. And S&P calls this situation “short-term interference.”

Although a portion of these products will be addressed by the city’s offering this week, Chicago’s lenders and counterparties have imposed some strict conditions on the remaining amount. The agreements are for a short period of time and if the city’s credit continues to deteriorate, the standstill agreements will end and the remaining amount will come due.

A large and diverse tax base, but…

Many of the analysts arguing that Chicago should still be considered investment grade cite the city’s large and diverse tax base. Chicago is a transportation hub and home to a number of major corporations.

The city’s population has been declining in recent years and only grew by 82 residents last year. That is not a typo. According to the Chicago Tribune:

Chicago’s population grew by only 82 residents last year, giving it the dubious distinction of being the slowest-growing city among the top 10 US cities with one million or more residents.

With a population of 2,722,389 residents as of July 1, 2014, Chicago still easily holds its place as the nation’s third-largest city … But cities on both sides of it are gaining.

New York maintained its ranking as the nation’s largest city, gaining 52,700 residents last year, for a gain of 0.6 percent that pushed its population to 8,491,079. Los Angeles added 30,924 residents, up 0.8 percent and bringing its population to 3,928,864.

Sun Belt cities with more than 1 million residents — places like Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix — all continued to see dramatic gains in new residents …

“The boom of Chicago in the 1990s was due to immigration,” said Rob Paral, a Chicago-based demographer who advises nonprofits and community groups. “You take away the catalyst of immigration, and you see what we have. They’re going to different parts of the country, and there much less immigration to the US than there was decades ago.

“Texas, as an example, has been a magnet for a lot of lower-paying jobs and has the benefit of lower housing costs. If you’re making $15 an hour, the difference between making it where a house costs $100,000 and $300,000 is great.”

This last point brings us to property taxes. Some have also pointed out that Chicago has the lowest effective tax rate in Cook County, which means the city can withstand a large tax increase. This is true. According to Bloomberg, Chicago’s effective tax rate on residential property is 1.8% versus Harvey’s 8.9%. On commercial property, Chicago is not the lowest, but its 4.9% effective tax rate is much lower than Harvey’s 15.1%.

Discussing the level of property taxes in absolute terms fails to capture residents’ calculus in deciding on where to live, however. Just because Chicago has a lower tax rate does not mean residents will stay in the city if or when tax rates are increased significantly. In other areas, higher taxes will translate into more government services, better schools, and so on. In Chicago, they will be used to offset the costs associated with meaningless debt and unfunded pensions from a decade of fiscal mismanagement. That’s a huge difference and something to take into account.

The city has few assets left to sell

Chicago has already blown through the reserves it established from the Skyway and lease of its parking meters. It could try to hawk Midway Airport, but that has already failed three times.

The city’s other tax districts have their own problems

The Chicago Board of Education is also heavily indebted and its recent downgrade likewise triggered events of default. These will force the school system to pay penalty interest rates ranging from 9% to 13.5% and make swap termination payments. The board has significant unfunded pension liabilities and a $1 billion deficit.

Bonds are legally and likely politically subordinated to pension benefits

Perhaps the greatest irony of the debate over Moody’s downgrade is the other municipal bond market news it obscured. Last week, with a 6-t0–1 vote, the San Bernardino city council approved a plan of adjustment that would keep pension beneficiaries whole and basically wipe out bondholders. San Bernardino would be the third in a series of bankrupt municipalities to do so.

Some rulings in federal bankruptcy cases suggest that Chapter 9 could potentially be used to adjust pension liabilities. For that to happen, however, the municipality would have to want to adjust its pension liabilities. So far, when capital markets creditors have gone toe-to-toe with pension beneficiaries in court, they have walked away with massive haircuts.

Why is this happening? I see two (largely ignored) things driving outcomes in municipal bankruptcy cases where pensions are involved. The first is that courts neglect to situate claims in larger public policy contexts. Perhaps this is because some of the judges and law firms involved have mostly corporate restructuring experience and do not fully understand how public policy works. Perhaps it is just impossible the way Chapter 9 was drafted. Whatever the reason, the vocabulary of sacrifice in Chapter 9 cases has become quite mangled. The second is that Chapter 9 provides subtle opportunities for political rebalancing in regions where machine politics prevails. Let’s discuss these in turn.

The treatment of other post-employment benefits (i.e. health care) has been a land mine for capital markets creditors in Chapter 9 cases, whether they realize it or not. Bankruptcy judges have agreed with the municipalities that pension beneficiaries are “making sacrifices” when a plan of adjustment strips them of their health care benefits but leaves their income benefits intact.

It has become something of a farce that the courts fail to recognize and quantify the other forms of government assistance available to retirees in determining the scope of their sacrifices. In a post-Affordable Care Act world, a municipality shedding OPEBs is not an economic sacrifice — it is tantamount to transferring those commitments from local taxpayers to state and federal taxpayers. It does seem like a sacrifice from a contract perspective, however, which allows locals to say, “See what we gave up? Now it is your turn.”

This is sufficient logic for capital markets creditors to receive haircuts, which then provide the resources required for the city to honor its pension commitments. To the extent that there are future Chapter 9 cases, expect OPEBs to be the starting point for crafting a plan of adjustment going forward. It’s just too easy.

If one looks at these insolvencies from the standpoint of local politics, it is not difficult to see how capital markets creditors can end up in the crossfire between different interest groups. Market observers tend to talk about organized labor as if it were a unified whole. In reality, large city governments can have dozens of labor groups with different perspectives and connections. This can be a very big deal with respect to pension politics. Cities can have several different pension plans depending on employees’ affiliations with funded levels that vary according to influence. Pension contributions are appropriations and appropriations are political.

If a municipality can keep its income benefits whole by making a token sacrifice that “frees up” funds that would have otherwise gone to investors, then policymakers can realign the political interests of all of these groups. They are all finally back on equal footing with respect to what they are due from the government. This keeps the machine working like a machine. Considering that governments can wander down this path (and in Detroit’s case, with open contempt for its investors) and still have some borrowing options, it is not surprising that Chapter 9 cases remain tethered to local politics.

That’s a bit of a digression, but it is still instructive with respect to Chicago. Chicago bondholders could potentially be subjected to the same destructive politics, but they would be in a worse situation legally if the city’s credit continued to deteriorate. Chicago is not eligible to file for Chapter 9, which means bondholders would have seek remedies in state courts with resistance from all of the other stakeholders (who are local). The Illinois Supreme Court has elegantly subordinated their claims to pensions through its interpretation of the state constitution and has expressed indifference about the financial impact. Absent Chapter 9, there isn’t even the possibility of sharing resources.

Regardless of what one thinks about ratings divergence, the divergence between the rating agencies and market participants with skin in the game makes perfect sense. Bondholders have been repeatedly hosed for giving municipalities the benefit of the doubt in these circumstances.

How I regard financially challenged governments

Chicago’s fiscal emergency is the confluence of two distinct, but related, problems: (1) the city has made extraordinarily bad decisions for over a decade about how to manage its resources; and (2) the city has made extraordinarily bad decisions for over a decade about which financial products to use in borrowing money. Both the city and its school system used excessive amounts of short-term debt, variable rate debt, and interest rate swaps. They have also waited until it is too late (expensive) to transition their debt portfolio to a more sustainable structure.

Ester Fuchs points out in Mayors and Money: Fiscal Policy in New York and Chicago, a classic text on fiscal crises, that municipalities can “afford” (i.e., financially survive) decades of mismanagement as long as the municipality can service its debt. While I agree with this observation (cynical as it is), I believe financial innovation has introduced some notable twists.

A municipality can “afford” either protracted fiscal mismanagement or an unconventional debt structure. Municipalities that are dealing with both, however, tend to be screwed. As its credit deteriorates, resources that would have cushioned the municipality against mismanagement are instead diverted to resolving broken debt structures (until they aren’t).

In Chicago’s case, the city is going to have to learn how to function without most of the gimmicks that have helped it through the last decade. Many market observers underestimate how difficult that will be, even with steep tax increases. They also seem to believe city officials are capable of becoming intellectually honest overnight.

Chicago is hardly exploring new territory here. All of the recent insolvencies in the municipal bond market have combined protracted fiscal mismanagement with a reliance on innovative financial products (e.g., interest rate swaps and pension obligation bonds). This epiphany continues to elude many market participants, especially those who believe credit analysis is as simple as financial ratios.

Perhaps Chicago will successfully navigate through this storm, but it is insane to disregard the risk involved.