Sunday, October 12, 2008

The analyst and his forecasts

The analysts are a shameless lot.

Their forecasts have been proved wrong time and again, still they don’t hold back. Wonder who pays them to dish out muck!

Goldman Sachs? Its analysts earlier predicted crude will touch $200 a barrel. It slid to $80 levels. Thank the consumers that lowered their demands. Now they guess it to touch $50 a barrel. Should we be scared it will climb back to $100 plus…?

The crooks beat me by a wide margin

It takes a lot to build a reputation. To ruin it, takes not more than a few split seconds or just some fast spreading SMS rumors. ICICI bank realized it lately when some small town sub-broker (bent on shorting ICICI stock) viralled mass SMS saying the bank is in trouble.

Result – stock price plummeted (Friday it fell by 27%) and depositors withdrew their funds. What began as a trickle in some remote Tamilnadu town soon spread across the country catching the bank unawares.

The bank management did everything possible – it’s CEO gave repeated assurances, got even FM and RBI / SEBI to make public statements in support of its inherent strength, stuck notices on ATM counters - to arrest the damage. But it seems the drain of deposits and goodwill has been massive, or so it seems after the seriousness of purpose with which it is going after the offenders – that includes a Tirupur sub-broker of Motilal Oswal and a mass SMS portal and a free research site (with disabled stock tip links)!

Talk of Web 2.0 empowerment! Like guns, the crooks use it first… Email? Spammers run amok. Bulk SMS? It’s the fiefdom of hole-in-the-wall operators and pranksters. Now a small town sub-broker giving India’s second largest bank a run for its money - quite literally! Wish I could do something positive – say, build my business – by unleashing its power. But that I’ve found is not as easy. The crooks beat me by a wide margin! All that I could manage was to reduce my exposure to ICICI bank. May be silly. But, they say only the paranoid survive. Who is not afraid…?

Friday, October 10, 2008

A bailout for everyone?

Bailout – seems to be the latest trend. After Wall Street banks lined up before the US Fed, it’s the turn of India’s private carriers before the Ministry of Finance.

They want the government to bail them out by -
- Offering Interest-free loan with a “bullet” (one-time) repayment after three years
- Bringing ATF under ‘declared goods’ for uniform sales tax
- Reduction or withdrawal of duty on spare parts for aircraft maintenance
- Scrapping customs and central excise on ATF
- 50% reduction in airport landing, route and terminal navigation charges for 24 months
- Freeze on further increases in airport service charges
Vijay Mallya (Kingfisher Airlines) has an interesting aside “The government has not moved at all. It seems it wants everybody in this country to travel by train because the airlines are bleeding heavily”.

Imagine Vijay Mallya in Punjab mail…!!!

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Heading into anti-bubble?

I think we are getting into some kind of an anti-bubble.

In a bubble, prices become disconnected from values because purchasers believe that, whatever the fundamentals, they will soon be able to sell what they have bought at a higher price. The bubble must burst eventually because the supply of new people willing to buy at ever higher prices will be exhausted, and generally bursts sooner than that because people come to realize this.

In the opposite of a bubble, prices become disconnected from values because sellers believe that, whatever the fundamentals, they will soon be able to buy what they have sold at a lower price. The anti-bubble must also eventually collapse because the supply of new people willing to sell at ever lower prices will be exhausted.

And then there are some that chooses to live in denial. And there are others that believe otherwise. Where do you think we’re headed?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Bailout bill passed; now comes the hardest part

Yes. Getting the $700 billion mother of all bailout up and running.

From what it seems like Hank Paulson and his crack team (filled with ex-investment bankers, attorneys and accountants) has its priorities cut out. It will have to decide which assets to go after first, and who to buy them from. Congress has given Treasury wide discretion to decide what assets to target. Although most of the funding is likely to go toward buying up mortgage-backed securities and whole home loans still held on the books of the lenders who originated them, Treasury can also buy up construction loans, home equity loans, or even credit-card debt or car loans if it decides that is necessary.

Does that mean Treasury is likely to start out buying from banks, in an effort to shake the credit markets back into shape – biggest banks first, in that order? If so, whether to go after widely held MBS or exotic one-of-the-kind stuff…? Whoever Treasury buys from initially, the biggest issue is one of pricing the assets since market for these securities has dried up, making it hard to figure out what any of them are worth amid fears that the underlying mortgages have gone sour faster than expected. If they price it too low, banks won’t attend the auctions. If they price it too high, the government will be taking too much load. The task will be somewhat simpler when Treasury buys assets from firms that have already marked down the value of their assets to current fire-sale prices. Anyways, the initial success of the plan should have a multiplier effect in helping bolster other banks, even if they don't take part in the auctions. By purchasing assets similar to those that other institutions hold, Treasury would essentially establish a new market price, which the nonparticipating banks could use to improve their balance sheets. That might also reassure other investors enough that they start buying as well.

The irony is, Paulson will not be able to find asset managers to run this that don't already have distressed assets on their own books; there's no one else to do it. Hiring people to fix the very problem they helped create will be an issue. For that matter even Hank Paulson is an ex-Goldman Sachs alumnus – a part of the problem in a way. Conflict of interest or not, success of the program could hoist Hank Paulson a big hero, may be win him a candidature for next Presidency. Failure would mean a return to economic dark ages - not just for America, if the downward drift of global markets (post passage of the bailout bill) is anything to go by!

Friday, October 03, 2008

Parsing the crisis

T.T.Rammohan squeals in Business Standard

On risk management and quality of leveraged assets

“The top investment banks have vanished as a class [not] because they were highly leveraged: In financial institutions, leverage or the ratio of debt to total assets, can be misleading as a measure of financial risk. The management of asset risks is equally important. A financial institution can be highly leveraged but if its assets are of high quality or are highly diversified, the institution is not exposed to high risk….

Investment banks may have had a leverage of more than 20:1 but some high-profile banks in Europe today have even higher leverage. What counts is leverage after adjusting for the risks of various assets. The European banks in question would not be allowed to operate if their leverage was not in conformity with regulatory norms. ….The trouble with the investment banks was not so much leverage as poor asset quality and heavy dependence on short-term funds.”

On short selling

“Short-sellers were right on Lehman, so short-selling should not be banned: Yes, short-sellers were right in sensing that Lehman had more problems than it had disclosed. But, in times of crises, it makes sense to ban short-selling because a fall in share prices sets off a vicious spiral that pushes an institution quickly into bankruptcy. A fall in the value of equity causes leverage to rise, which causes the debt rating to fall. This, in turn, prompts demands for higher collateral, which forces distress sale of assets, which erodes equity value. Before you could say ‘Hank Paulson’, the firm is gone. In financial crises, as in times of war, the normal rules of information must stand suspended and this applies to price discovery [enabled] by short-sellers.”

Splendid. Wonder how well K.V.Kamath’s defense goes down with people!

Foreclosure of FCCBs?

Remember FCCB frenzy of 2003-07 period? Almost every public listed company went ahead and borrowed in foreign currency egged on by the cheap (Yen carry) debt available then. When mixed with the rising stock markets back in India, the convertible bond was simply irresistible as a funding option for financing acquisitions and new ambitious projects. The option looked so alluring given the bubble valuations that most companies got. Let me put this in perspective with one example.

Take for instance Subex Ltd. This was known as Subex systems before, a micro cap company that was into developing software for telecom fraud management / revenue assurance (billing) solutions. The company was doing fairly well when the market frenzy drove its stock price up from Rs.150 to Rs.850 levels. But then the inevitable happened and it was bitten by the M&A bug. Acquisitions by Subex include the fraud management assets and technology of Mantas in March 2006, Lightbridge in August 2004 and Alcatel in July 2004. Along came street smart merchant bankers that peddled GDR / FCCB routes and Subex never looked back. Then it bought out UK based Azure solutions in April 2006 at a phenomenal price of over $140 million and its balance sheet was by now stretched way too thin.

The promoters recognized the fortune and smartly began to cash out. Now they hold just 9% of the company. Majority shares are with FII, GDR custodians and general public including body corporates. Now the FCCB is coming home to roost. FCCB outstandings are currently about Rs.846 crore and conversion hurdle is far away at Rs.897 per share, whereas its stock is currently languishing at Rs.82. So the investors are certain to press redemption in which case the company’s net debt will rise to Rs.1057 crore. Peg that against revenues of about Rs.178 crores and a net loss of Rs.78 crores for trailing four quarters. [EPS is –Rs.22]

Can this company with a negative earnings Rs.22 per share repay a debt of Rs.1057 crore? Of course, we know worst cases have turned around. I can think of ESSAR STEEL that defaulted in its FRN obligations back in the 90’s. The first of its kind to get that ignominy. But that was a steel company that collapsed under the weight of industry downturn. Not because of overstretching its balance sheet for adventurous acquisitions. So when the industry turned around and its realizations got better, the company came back into black and with a few calculated forays into Oil, Shipping and Telecom – it became a trailblazer in the Indian stock market history.

Subex is not alone. The list is long – Aurobindo Pharma, Hotel Leela, HCC, Bajaj Hindustan, Ranbaxy… so it goes. Never forget the fundamentals. Go for a forex loan only if your earnings in the same or a stronger currency is enough to cover the projected outgo in constant currency terms. Better still, have the proceeds deployed in tangible assets that can be liquidated without jeopardizing the solvency status of the company. Acquisitions can wait.